No More Apologies: Excel is the World’s Best Data Tool, Period.

June 16, 2015

Post by Rob Collie

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NASA JPL is Using Modern Excel to Perform Financial Analysis On Their
Space Projects, Because Modern Excel is the Best.
(That’s me with Opportunity’s “sister” during a training engagement this Spring)

Too Hot for the Official Excel Blog!

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This Post Was Originally Written for the Official MS Excel Blog But Never Went Live
(Their PR Censors Deleted 70% of it and wanted big changes to the rest, so I’m posting here instead)

A couple months ago I was asked if I’d like to do a post for the official Excel.  Heck YES, I said.  (Duh).

And then I realized, I couldn’t let such an opportunity go to waste.  I had to Go Big with this one.  Roll the dice.  Use it as a chance to change the entire conversation around Excel – in ways that Microsoft itself SHOULD be doing, but hasn’t.

So many products now use “we’re better than Excel” as their entire marketing campaign.  I’m swarmed by these ads on Facebook.  And none of these other products are better.  In fact, none of them are even close to being AS good as Excel, much less better.

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A New Take on “Data Quality?”

June 2, 2015

Post by Rob Collie

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Bad Data DOES Lead to Bad Results.  But Good Data Can STILL Lead to Bad Results.

Garbage in, Garbage out.  We’re all familiar with this.  If you’re being given junky source data, it’s going to be hard to perform ANY meaningful analysis or reporting on said data until the quality of the inputs is addressed.

The term “Data Quality” has come to mean precisely that – the quality of your inputs.

But at my recent PASS BA presentation on the Bottom Line, I was talking at length about how we often generate poor outputs – our reports and dashboards often leave much to be desired, because we ourselves, the producers of the work, need to be better.

It’s one of my most-emphasized themes:  we’ve been given this amazing new toolset (Power Pivot and the rest of the Power BI stack).  We shouldn’t just use it to produce the same stuff we produced for decades (even though we can do so much faster and more efficiently than before).

We should strive for more meaningful metrics for instance – metrics that remove noise and produce a clearer picture than the age-old default of “raw dollars.” 

A product may be generating more dollars than last year for instance, but that could be misleading.  Is it generating more profit (it may also be more expensive for us to acquire this year)?  Is it generating more profit per store (we may have increased the number of stores that sell it)?  Per day (maybe it was introduced in May of last year, but this year it’s been available since Jan 1)? 

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Our Road Ahead

May 5, 2015

Post by Rob Collie

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If you believe in redemption
I’m calling to you from another dimension

-The Flobots

Turn the Corner, Press the Accelerator

This post will have a definite “personal” flavor to it, but also a strong professional flavor – of what you should expect from us over the coming year.  Personal and Professional are ALWAYS closely intertwined, and I’m less squeamish about blurring that line in 2015 than in 2009, when we started this journey.  Running my own business has taught me this, but really, it was always true.  I was just less aware of it when I worked at Microsoft.  Now matter how you slice it, it’s our lives.

A few days ago, I resolved a long-running personal matter.  It’s… done.  Just looking at those two words – “it’s done’’ – wow, I’m still letting the new reality settle in.  It’s going to take awhile perhaps.  But we’re going to move forward aggressively now.  A new lease on everything.  And we’re not going to waste it.

Lemony Snicket’s Series of UnFortunate Events

steering wheel

And I can’t help but ask myself
How much I let the fear
Take the wheel and steer

-Incubus

 

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Interview with Chris Finlan of Microsoft

March 3, 2015

Post by Rob Collie

A Kindred Spirit Revealed!

Rob Collie of PowerPivotPro and Chris Finlan of Microsoft

Me and Chris Last Week at the Microsoft Offices in D.C.
(Their Electronic Signs Are Awkwardly Truthful.)

For about a year I have been working closely with a Microsoft employee named Chris Finlan, the BI TSP for Microsoft’s Mid Atlantic Sales District.  Loosely translated, that means that when it comes to Business Intelligence, he’s the “go to” resource for all of the Enterprise sales teams in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.

On the face of it, that may sound like “well of COURSE you two work closely together – he sells MS BI, and you teach/help people to use it.”  But there are a LOT of technologies in the MS BI stack, and we (at PowerPivotPro) are specialists in the New Wave – not just the newer technologies like Power Pivot and Power BI, but also in the way that the tools are positioned, evangelized, and sold.

Even though we’re 100% aligned with Microsoft’s direction, it takes time for habits to change – both for large companies AND the software sales teams who work with them.  Neither is particularly incented to take risks – the consequences of a failed experiment are high.  So, it’s natural that not everyone has rushed to embrace the New Wave as the total paradigm shift that it is.

The traditional Microsoft BI sales strategy can be loosely characterized as “top down” (pitch/sell the software to the people who write big checks) whereas I think Power Pivot is often better pitched bottom-up (prove its value to a single department or group of users, and the checks come later).  Neither is an “incorrect” approach of course, and they are not mutually exclusive.  In particular, I’ve long believed that “bottom-up” messaging can be an effective part of a “top-down” engagement.

But changes to the script require a LOT of confidence.  The “game” just isn’t set up to reward experimentation.  So ultimately, it often requires someone who’s wired a bit differently.

Rob's Face When he Got Chris's EmailIn my world at least, that person first “surfaced” in an email I received about a year ago.  Chris just dropped me a note and said “hey I’ve been adapting some of the messaging on your website for use with customers, and it’s been working.  Can we have a phone call at some point?”

And at that moment I scrambled for the phone.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Chris and I talk probably three times a week, cooperate on multiple customer engagements, ran classes in Philly (last year) and DC (last week), hatched Insight Center (more on this below), and generally just pester the hell out of each other all week long.

On to the Interview!

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The Only “Requirements Doc” You Will Ever Need

January 20, 2015

Post by Rob Collie

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One of Our Clients Sent This to us Before a Consult.  It is Perfection.

The Dysfunctional Myth of “Requirements Discovery”

A traditional BI project typically starts with “requirements discovery.”  This is where YOU, the business, get to spend multiple days, weeks, or even months teaching someone else (a BI consultant or internal BI pro) about your business.

There are MULTIPLE problems with this traditional methodology:

  1. YOU are the teacher (teaching about your biz), but YOU are paying.  Seems backwards yes?  Money usually flows in the opposite direction of knowledge transfer.  But not in BI.
  2. YOUR time is a MASSIVE hidden cost.  In addition to the fees you may be paying, don’t forget that YOUR time is being consumed in the process.  If we were going to put an “honest” cost on a BI project, the time consumed by Business personnel should be included.  (And that’s a lot more than your salaries – there’s opportunity cost to the business as well since you aren’t doing OTHER things).
  3. When the dust settles on “discovery,” the BI Pro STILL does not understand.  Oh, everyone PRETENDS that “discovery” is over, but really, it’s just begun.  In a few weeks, when the first “results” come in from the BI Pro, you will then, ahem, discover that there were tremendous misunderstandings.

This dysfunction is the root of BI failure.  Projects that never end.  Projects that end, but under-deliver.  And also…  projects that never even start.  If you’ve ever said “we can’t afford BI,” you were both simultaneously correct AND unknowingly reacting to this dynamic.

This dysfunction is NOT your fault, NOR is it the BI Pro’s fault.  You see, we’re terribly ineffective at communication, us humans – both on the “send” side AND the “receive” side.  No exceptions.

Requirements Discovery Works MUCH Better on Planet VulcanThe people involved are FINE.  It’s the methodology that’s broken.  I don’t have a single critical word for the PEOPLE involved in such projects.  We’d need to be Vulcans, equipped with the Mind Meld power, to make this approach work well.

So WHY did a bad methodology gain acceptance in the first place?  Because the software vendors did this TO the world.  Perpetrated it ON the world.  They built software that REQUIRED this sort of methodology.  All of the big players share historical blame here – Microsoft, IBM, Cognos, Business Objects, Microstrategy.  All of them.  Let’s shine a light on them.

Our Villain:  The Ivory Tower “Arrogance” of Past BI Software

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Power BI as Google Docs Antidote

January 13, 2015

 
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“Help ME (Power BI)…  Help YOU (Office).”

Reviving the “Open Letter to MS” Tradition

In the past, I’ve written some things aimed at my former Microsoft colleagues.  Places where I think their strategy could benefit from adjustment.  Generally speaking, those posts have been about how the “BI teams” at MS should better leverage their Excel advantage.  Given recent developments, I think those messages are more important than ever.

But today, I am reversing that lens, and talking instead about how the Power BI suite of tools is a tremendous gift to the Office team.  Aha!  Bet you didn’t expect THIS dramatic turning of the tables from Rob “Excel is Everything” Collie, DID YOU??  Gotta stay on your toes around here.

You Don’t Have “Users.”  You Have “Producers” and “Consumers!”

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I think the word “user” is responsible for a lot of strategic damage.  It lumps everyone into one big, convenient bucket – hiding some crucial, underlying dynamics.

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Black/White Decisions in a Greyscale World

December 2, 2014

Post by Rob Collie

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     JACK RYAN:  “…with them in the same place, the odds of coincidence are
     dropping fast. Still, there’s no way I can be… absolutely certain.”

     ADMIRAL GREER:  “Excuse me, Jack.  Tell me one thing in life that IS
     absolutely certain.  What I need to hear is your best guess, and I think
     I’ve heard it.  Haven’t I?”

Belatedly Reviving a Thanksgiving Tradition

In past years I occasionally took Thanksgiving Week as an opportunity to write some more “thoughtful” things, such as The Cult of the Right Thing.

This year, I would like to share something more “on topic” than any of the previous ones, while still very much fitting the theme of thoughtful/reflective.

An Exchange in “Patriot Games” Captures It

The conversation pictured above, between Jack Ryan and Admiral Greer, was pretty much lost on me the first time I saw Patriot Games in 1992.  It’s a relatively “bland” exchange.  No emotion, no drama, no action.

But in subsequent viewings, that brief little clip etched itself in my brain.  It captures something CRUCIAL about being a human being, regardless of what you do for a living.  But for those of us in data-driven professions, I think it’s even MORE relevant.

WHY is it so crucial?  Well, let’s start with Left Brain and Right Brain…

Left and Right Brain:  A Powerful Alliance

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Visualization Layers in Perspective: The Last Mile

November 18, 2014

Post by Rob Collie

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The Models We Build in Power Pivot are the Prime Movers.  Visualization is “Just” Where the Information (Output of the Model) Meets the Humans.

A Comment Plucked Straight from My Brain!

Avi’s post last week was deliberately thought-provoking (and to some, perhaps outright provoking, heh heh).  It drew a lot of views, shares, tweets, and comments.

My favorite comment, by far, was this one by Andrew.  Here’s a slightly condensed version of it:

“Five years from now, I envision a time when awesome visualization tools and incredible and beautiful charts are common and very cheap. Everyone will have those and they will be easy to make. What will still be rare is what Power Pivot does and the role that it plays along with Power Query. The real action is in prepping data and turning it into information that can be visualized… not the actual visualizations. Unfortunately, so many get lost amid a sea of pretty bars on maps and dynamic spider webs…

It’s the model stupid! It’s the ease of crunching numbers and aggregating millions of rows on the fly! It’s the simplicity of turning trash data into sparkling clean information and not having to go through red tape clogged and extremely expensive departments to do it – do it yourself!…

Hear hear, Andrew!  Salute!  We park our cars in the same garage, as the movie producer said to Christian Slater in True Romance.  As I’ve said before, even the phrase “let’s look at the data” sets us up for failure.

Visualization:  NOT Unimportant.  Just Easier to Replace!

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Just Like Light Bulbs:  Crucial, But MUCH Easier to Replace than the Wiring.

In short, my observations today come down to these three things:

  1. RVOE:  Replacement Value Over Excel.  Excel is essentially free, and is incredibly under-rated as a viz tool.  If you measure any Viz tool’s true value through this lens, it’s much harder to justify the price of most of them.
  2. It’s Relatively Easy for Software Firms to Build a Viz Tool.  Compared to modeling and calc engines like Power Pivot, at least.  And Power Pivot is the best such engine on the market.  So, I think it’s sensible to start with Power Pivot as your core “commitment,” and then pick your viz layer – there are many available, and many more to come as time goes on.
  3. Don’t buy a “full stack” Analytics Tool Just Because of its Viz capabilities.  This is kinda the corrolary to #2, but it also helps us understand why certain “Viz” tools are so stinking expensive.
  4. My parting thoughts on the ways in which Viz tools ARE important. 

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Power BI and Tableau: Best Friends Forever

November 13, 2014

By Avichal Singh [Twitter]

Yes, you heard me right. I hear a lot of talk about “Power BI versus Tableau” – some discussion even makes it sound like the next fight airing on pay per view. But I believe they go great together.
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A dream you have, will come true

(courtesy Fortune Cookie MessageSmile).

Sooner or later there are going to be legions of Power Pivot developers – yes I call them developers; these are our Excel Superheroes charged up on Power Pivot. No longer creating workbooks, these are BI applications in all respects. The pace is hard to predict, but revolution is coming. Already in my short stint at PowerPivotPro I have been heartened to work with folks from California to Germany who are discovering Power Pivot and it’s amazing powers (Can we make this a drinking game, every time I use the word ‘power’, everyone downs a shotSmile). If you are still sitting on the Excel fence, sign up for our next Webinar and Cross the Gap from Excel to Power Pivot.

Back to Tableau…

Power BI can power Tableau

Tableau is a great tool. I can only claim a 101 level familiarity, but I have seen enough to know that it is a very promising tool. At it’s heart Tableau is and will be a data visualization company. Which is terrific, it is better to do one thing and do it well (Sigh! MicrosoftDisappointed smile)

Although at one point Tableau had filled gaps in data collection, modeling and shaping; by now Power BI toolset (Power Pivot and Power Query specifically) have done that and more! The biggest overlap still, is with Power View (and it’s upcoming cousin Power BI Dashboard).

But I say, if Office can play well with Dropbox, in spite of Onedrive…
Power Pivot and Power Query can play great with Tableau, in spite of Power View.

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Excel to Power Pivot: Cross the Gap, Change the World

October 21, 2014

by Avichal Singh

Oh boy! What an intro…thanks Rob. “A better me than me”…now I would need to live up to that. Let’s get to work.

Change the World

What happened to ‘Cross the Gap’ you say. Well, that’s covered later. This is more important, plus we are never about doing things in the expected order (e.g. we like building BI faucets before plumbing Smile).

#1 challenge with Power Pivot is awareness. You can generalize that for Power BI, although each component of Power BI also has it’s unique challenges (e.g. Power Query).

#1 road block in spreading awareness is Power Pivot availability.

  • Excel 2010: Power Pivot is a free add-in
  • Excel 2013/Office 365: you need to be a maze runner Smile (see illustration below)

    Either the whole world should downgrade back to Excel 2010 or we can beseech Microsoft to do something about Excel 2013/Office 365. I tossed a coin and the latter won out. So here it is folks:

    Change.org Free Power Pivot!

    CALL TO ACTION: Sign yourself and recruit others to support the Change.org Petition to Microsoft to “Free Power Pivot!”. Make Power Pivot freely available in Office 2013, Office 365 (and beyond)

    Check it out, sign the petition, ask your friends, neighbors, heck even call your Grandparents.

    One clarification though, the request to Microsoft is
    – To make it “freely available
    – and not necessarily “free”, as in a free handout
     

    If you need more inspiration, read

  • Bill Jelen (Mr Excel)’s lament

  • Comments on the original post: “Hey, Who Moved My (PowerPivot 2013) Cheese?”

  • Scott’s comment on the petition says it all “Amazing product, amazingly hard to getRead the rest of this entry »

  • Reinventing an Industry: Welcome Avi Singh!

    October 16, 2014

    Post by Rob Collie

    Our Merry Band Has Found Its Luke Skywalker

    GENERAL MADINE:  “General Solo, is your Strike Team Ready?”
    SOLO:  “We’re making huge strides.  The Death Star is Toast.”

    Avi Singh Joins PowerPivotPro Full-Time!

    Avi SinghFile under “Coup, Major.”  Folks, this is a CRAZY cool moment for us at PowerPivotPro.  We like to think of ourselves as the Rebel Alliance of Data, and seriously, we feel like we’ve found our Luke Skywalker.

    That’s Right:  Avichal (“Avi”) Singh has left Microsoft to become a full-time member of the team here at PowerPivotPro.  Microsoft’s loss is our gain, which is…  ALSO Microsoft’s gain, ultimately.  Because in this role, Avi is going to “light up” people and organizations all over the world.  As opposed to performing data miracles strictly within the internal Microsoft org, he’s going to be helping MANY OTHERS perform their OWN miracles.  With MS’s platform, of course, which is great for them.

    So hey Microsoft, please don’t be TOO upset with us for poaching him.  But really, we did nothing of the sort.  He um, kinda stalked US.  Let me explain.

    To Build A Different Kind of Firm, You Need a Different Kind of Person

    Avi Singh With Hand on Heart

    I had just finished a presentation at BA CON ‘14 in San Jose, California – a presentation I had opened with the theme of “I have the best job in the world – I work in data, and I get to spread HAPPY wherever I go.”  (Which is the truth, btw).

    Out in the hallway after the talk, I met Avi in person for the first time.  Like me at the time, you probably know Avi primarily through the excellent guest posts that he has penned from time to time. 

    The written word does not do justice to the “in person” version of this human.  He is one of the absolutely most sincere, genuine, and positive people I have ever met, and that was clear in the first two minutes.  (If I say he’s in the Donald Farmer Zone, I mean it as a compliment to both gentlemen).

    What followed was LITERALLY a “hand on heart” moment.  The very first thing Avi said to me, in reaction to the talk I’d just given, was to zero in on that “spreading HAPPY” theme.  He said something like “That’s so true, I’ve seen it!  And I feel it…  in my heart.”  And to emphasize that last part, he lightly bumped his fist to his heart.  That moment was so incredibly genuine, and conveyed several years’ worth of information in an instant:  this guy was special.

    You kinda had to be there to see why that was so impactful, so convincing to me, but if you get to meet Avi in person, you will see what I mean.  And I think you will ALSO see what I mean in the coming months, as you hear from him more often on this site and in other media.

    “Different” Kind of Firm?  “Reinventing” an Industry?

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    “I Know SQL Queries, So Why Do I Need Power Pivot?”

    September 30, 2014

    Post by Rob Collie

    because I am very familiar with databases and the ability to create custom SQL queries and data models using SQL Management Studio,  I struggle to see why I would need PowerPivot if I can do much of this heavy lifting using SMS.

    Got This Question the Other Day, and it is LONG Overdue That I Answer It

    Some of You Are Confused, Some Are Nodding

    Generally speaking, I think the people reading this fall into one of a few camps:

    1. People who are early in their Power Pivot journeys, and who also do NOT know SQL (most Excel Pros fall into this camp at some point, before hopefully moving into group #2 below).
    2. People who are pretty good at Power Pivot, but do NOT know SQL (I fall into this group).
    3. People who are good at BOTH Power Pivot and SQL (this is a blessed group).
    4. People who are good at SQL but still early in their Power Pivot awareness/knowledge.

    Group #4 is the “target audience” for today’s post, but it’s still relevant for groups 1-3, because we WILL get asked this same question from time to time, and it’s good for us to be able to answer.

    “I Started Out as a DBA…”

    SQL Queries as BI - More Common Than Really Any Other Method of "Official" BI

    For Many People and Organizations, THIS is Business Intelligence
    (And to a Certain Extent, This is Effective, So it Persists as a Workflow)

    Let’s say you began life a a DBA.  Which means you know SQL, of course, but writing SQL is not the only thing you do as a DBA.  You’re maintaining indexes, watching for bottlenecks, talking about I/O, number of spindles, TempDB…  all that good DBA stuff that I understand at a conceptual level but have never learned to actually DO.

    But one day, someone from the Business has a question.  They figure all the data required to answer it is “owned” by you, so they come to you with said question. 

    And hey, it turns out that you CAN write some SQL and answer the question!  Which is pretty damn helpful and makes everyone involved feel pretty good.  (Hey, we are all still fundamentally wired for cooperation after all).  It also makes you more relevant to the front-line business, and no longer “just a cost center” from the perspective of the company’s leaders, which is VERY good for your career.

     

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