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Rick Aster: Professional SAS Programming Secrets


The History of Professional SAS Programming Secrets

Professional SAS Programming Secrets surprised the world when it first appeared. In 1991, few people were expecting a serious computer programming book on a programming language as “soft” as SAS. Certainly, no one was expecting a book that would settle, once and for all, the many long-running controversies among competing schools of thought about the way SAS really worked. Professional SAS Programming Secrets arrived with the simple but revolutionary idea that if you understood the hidden actions of SAS, you could see for yourself how each feature worked.

Before that could happen, though, this new book would have to survive controversies of its own. Dozens of publishers rejected it, one directly telling the authors, “We’re not going to be the first book publisher to do a book on SAS.” SAS Institute itself considered publishing Professional SAS Programming Secrets, only to pass on it, worrying that the book would be too hot to handle. The book’s eventual publishers at Windcrest (acquired by McGraw-Hill around the time of the book’s release) wanted to change the title, believing that the world wasn’t ready to see the words “professional” and “SAS” next to each other. The publishers’ reluctance was not entirely unreasonable. There were others who, as late as 1991, did not believe that it was proper to use the words “SAS” and “programming” together.

Indeed, the book was broadly resisted by SAS traditionalists. One reviewer complained that the book was “full of bugs” — certain that the demonstration programs could not possibly go with the output that was shown for them, and too offended by the “new” ideas in the book to actually try the programs to find out. The many complaints did not stop the book from becoming a phenomenon in the SAS world, and selling so many copies that other authors were inspired to write about SAS.

In the end, the public settled the questions about SAS, largely following the path that Professional SAS Programming Secrets had set out. As other books on SAS were released, books that followed its action-oriented, see-for-yourself approach were eagerly adopted by SAS users, and many of those books are still in use today. Initially, though, a larger number of SAS books were built on the superstitions and sweeping metaphors of the previous era of SAS, and those books were rejected by readers and quickly disappeared.

At the same time, the increasing role of SAS as “middleware” in software integration projects, along with the emerging fields of data warehousing and data mining, mandated this shift in the approach to SAS. The demanding programming tasks of these projects required the exact computer programmer’s mindset that Professional SAS Programming Secrets had first advocated for SAS work. In this way, Professional SAS Programming Secrets helped to define the SAS programming field.

The run of Professional SAS Programming Secrets itself, in its original form, lasted for nearly a decade. McGraw-Hill released a minor update in 1997, which ended up selling better than the first edition had, but could not be persuaded to go forward with a thorough revision of the book a year later, instead opting to let all its SAS titles go out of print. Ideas and techniques from Professional SAS Programming Secrets have appeared hundreds of times in articles and books, and many of them reappeared in 2002 in the immensely popular follow-up book Professional SAS Programming Shortcuts. Dozens of points that were first written down in Professional SAS Programming Secrets are now part of the official base SAS documentation. Perhaps even more telling, more than half of the techniques introduced in Professional SAS Programming Secrets in 1991 have been rendered obsolete by new statements, options, functions, informats, and formats that have been added to SAS in versions 6 though 9. With these advances, techniques that previously could be done by a skilled SAS programmer in 10 lines of code can now be done by any SAS programmer in one line.

The advances in SAS itself were the main reason that Professional SAS Programming Secrets had to be rewritten. The controversy that surrounded the original synthesis of professional, SAS, and programming may be forgotten now, but the idea is just as important today as it was then. In the 2010s, the world expects more from SAS programmers. Markup files, character set conversions, table design, and internationalization all fall within the SAS user’s domain now, and the 3rd edition of Professional SAS Programming Secrets (expected in September 2010) is extensively revised and updated to put these new subjects and many others within the reach of anyone who wants to work in SAS.