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From DBA to Data Analyst: My Story

Cross-posted from the PASS Blog
By Denise McInerney

There is a lot changing in the data professional’s world these days. More data is being produced and stored. More enterprises are trying to use that data to improve their products and services and understand their customers better. More data platforms and tools seem to be crowding the market. For a traditional DBA, this can be a confusing and even unsettling time. It’s also a time that offers great opportunity for career growth. I speak from personal experience.

We sometimes talk about the “accidental DBA” – the person who finds herself suddenly responsible for managing the database because she has some other technical skills. Although it was not accidental, six months ago I was unexpectedly offered a chance to transition out of my DBA role and become a data analyst. I have since come to view this offer as a gift, though at the time I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Throughout my DBA career, I’ve received tremendous support from my PASS friends and colleagues, and they were the first ones I turned to for counsel about this new situation. Everyone was encouraging, and I received two pieces of valuable advice: First, leverage what I already know about data, and second, work to understand the business’ needs.

Harnessing the power of data to solve business problems is really the heart of the job. The challenge is figuring out how to do that. PASS had been the source of much of my technical training as a DBA, so I naturally started there to begin my business intelligence education. Once again, Virtual Chapter webinars, local chapter meetings, and SQLSaturdays have been invaluable.

I work in a large company where we are fortunate to have some very talented data scientists and analysts. These colleagues have been generous with their time and advice. I also took a statistics class through Coursera, where I got a refresher in statistics and an introduction to the R programming language.

And that’s not the end of the free resources available to someone wanting to acquire new skills. There are many knowledgeable business intelligence and analytics professionals who teach through their blogs. Every day, I can learn something new from one of these experts.

Sometimes we plan our next career move, and sometimes it just happens. Either way, a database professional who follows industry developments and acquires new skills will be better prepared when change comes. Take the opportunity to learn something about the changing data landscape by attending an upcoming Business Intelligence, Business Analytics, or Big Data Virtual Chapter meeting. And if you are moving into this new world of data, consider attending the PASS Business Analytics Conference in April where you can meet and learn from those who are already on that road.

It’s been said that “the only thing constant is change.” That’s never been truer for the data professional than it is today. But if you are someone who loves data and grasps its potential, you are in the right place at the right time.
 

Business Analytics and PASS: Yes, Please!

Excerpt cross-posted from Mark V SQL
By Mark Vaillancourt

Over the past few years, I have been truly amazed at the power of business analytics. I know that part of that is due to my increased exposure to it through client projects. But it seems clear to me that the understanding of what analytics brings to the table has grown as well. One example of the rising prominence of analytics is the fact that IBM is paying out marketing dollars on prime-time commercials about it. From my perspective, that is neither insignificant nor a coincidence.

More and more companies are realizing their data isn’t some static asset that they should just stick onto disks like people used to hide money under their mattresses. It has value far beyond just keeping accounts up-to-date or being able to show many customers bought Jiffy Pop last week. That is information. And that is certainly important. But analytics takes us to another level entirely.

A client recently told me that his company has gotten really good at measuring operational metrics. Data can help you do that. But analytics can help you determine if you are measuring the rights ones in the first place. Suppose your company can tell the efficiency of Process XYZ with amazing precision, and managers all over the company spend a lot of time, both in and out of the office, worrying about how it will fluctuate. Quality business analytics could help you show them how much of an impact Process XYZ actually has on company success. You may end up lowering the company’s overall healthcare costs by preventing a few ulcers.

I am actually just finishing an SSAS 2012 Tabular Model for the client above in the next couple weeks. It is the first business analytics project in his company. It is just a Proof of Concept, and it is not yet complete, but he keeps telling me how valuable it has already been. It is allowing him to correlate data points he never could before. While it is a short project, and the team is just me and a part time PM, I am trying to keep it in the Agile vein and releasing new versions to him every few days or so with new fields, new measures, etc. Within about 5 minutes after I made the very first release, he told me that he had been able to prove a theory about what was causing a particular business pain, a pain that went up to the highest levels of his company. My point with this is that analytics can often help us see things from different angles or perspectives that are otherwise impossible.

I just can’t wait to get this into the hands of more people in the company. Then we will really see what, I think, is the greatest benefit that business analytics provides: Questions. You read that right. Not answers. Questions. Answers are great, and analytics can provide those. But questions are the gems. Truly successful business analytics will lead you to the questions you didn’t know to ask.

If you work in a company that has data, then you work in a company that is likely to benefit from business analytics. We, as a global community, are producing and consuming ever increasing volumes of data and at increasing speeds. Analytics is no flash in the pan; it is here to stay, and the appetite for it will only get larger. The sooner you start learning about it, the better. The PASS Business Analytics Conference is an excellent place to start. You can register here. Your career is worth the investment. Who knows? Maybe you could end up leading your company (and yourself) into an era of better insight and success than ever before.

Note: Join Mark and co-presenter Doug Lane at the PASS BA Conference for Hailing Frequencies: Analysis Services Terms and Concepts – a Star Trek-themed introduction to the terminology and ideas important for business analytics projects using SQL Server Analysis Services.

Musings on a BI Career: Past and Future

Excerpt cross-posted from DataInspirations.com
by Stacia Misner

I wasn’t going to do it. The whole recap of the year just retired. The goal-setting of the year just arrived. But I did find myself having to plan a few things – plan for customer visits and activities, plan travel for upcoming events, plan time to prepare content for those events, and so on. And as I thought about those plans, I couldn’t help but ponder where I’ve been and where I’m going, and thus this post was born. …

Accidental Business Intelligence? Not Really
I always think of my career in BI as accidental, although taking a longer view I realize that it really wasn’t. In February 2011, I told my story to Andy Leonard (blog | twitter) as part of his SQLPeople series of interviews. There are some karmic aspects to that story that I would never put in print, but I’d be happy to tell you in person someday if you ask nicely.

In that story, I mention working with Lotus Notes. In the late 1990s, I had this feeling that using technology as a knowledge management tool was an attainable goal and put a lot of energy into learning how that should happen. But then I got deflected into business intelligence, which turned into a fascinating and rewarding career. But all along, I had this nagging feeling that BI was just part of the story. I wasn’t satisfied with just delivering on reporting and analysis. As important as that is, I believed additional transformation in the way we work with data and with each other was necessary in order for BI to fulfill its promise.

Collaborative BI
I’ll admit that in the beginning, I wasn’t very impressed with SharePoint – I believe it was SharePoint 2003 when I was first introduced to it. I had been working with Lotus Notes long before that time and felt that it could run circles around that release of SharePoint. Full disclosure – I haven’t looked back at Lotus Notes since I left it, so I have no idea of its capabilities today. But starting with SharePoint 2007, I started thinking beyond the traditional dashboard compilation of scorecards and reports. I was thinking about unstructured data to support the structured and would mention it in my presentations and classes. Then with SharePoint 2010, I started thinking about the collaborative and social aspects and started putting these pieces together with ideas that I had been nurturing since the late 1990s. And so, a presentation was born for a webinar, a few SQLSaturdays, and continues to evolve as I gear up for the PASS Business Analytics Conference in April 2013. Because an hour presentation only sets the stage for some of my ideas, I have set up a Collaborative BI resource page that will grow as I commit these ideas to writing.

Big Data
Meanwhile, the buzz around Big Data became louder in 2012. Now I’ve been around a few years, and I’ve seen buzz come and go. I had plenty to keep myself busy meanwhile during 2012 and just watched and waited to see what would happen. And then things started to get interesting. So much so that it’s time to start talking about it. Consequently, I am working on presentations on this topic throughout the year (keep an eye on Upcoming Events for online and in-person events), including a session at the PASS Business Analytics Conference on Power View and Hadoop in collaboration with Joey D’Antoni (blog | twitter). And that’s just the beginning. I plan to add another resource page for my thoughts on BI and Big Data. Watch for more blog posts and presentations.

When I think back to my “accidental” discovery of BI and the ideas we were throwing around at the time, I realize we were a bit ahead of our time. What we needed at that company to achieve those big ideas was Big Data – we just didn’t call it that then. We started on a much smaller scale and focused on data warehousing and reporting and analysis tools, and we were barely ready for that then. I work with customers today who are still barely ready for that.

Data Science
But now in the era of Big Data and data science, I start thinking about those big ideas again and how much more attainable they are today, 14 years after I started down this path. The BI world is poised for the biggest change I’ve seen in my career. While I cannot share the specifics of what we were thinking about in my R&D days, I can try to explain how I see the difference between BI as we traditionally think of it and where data science can take us.

BI helps us understand what happened or what is happening now, using established processes and tools. Although BI can scale quite dramatically, scale introduces some complexities that in some ways limits the types of reporting and analysis that we can do. Data mining is often included in a discussion of BI technologies, but its use has not been very prevalent in my client base. Data mining can not only be used to explore data to help us understand what happened, but can also be used to predict what might happen. And this is where we see data science come into play now. Data science can help us look forward and to predict an outcome or a correlation. It incorporates many techniques that are common to data mining, but it can go beyond those techniques as well. We can work with larger data sets than ever before because we can store data more cheaply than ever before and we have better tools for dealing with these larger data sets using commodity hardware.

Is the Data Warehouse Dead?
No, I don’t think so. At least not completely. There’s still a place for operational and mission-critical information that’s been consolidated, cleansed, and corporately-sanctioned as truth. I don’t really care what we call that information source – a data warehouse, a data mart, whatever. We need access to that type of information because that’s how we decide what to do today to achieve our goals, respond to specific problems, or show the board (or the world) how we’re doing as a business. The new potential with Big Data and data science is the opportunity to explore data in ways never before possible. We don’t know what the opportunity or business value in that data might be until we examine it in new ways or combine it with other types of data – data that was captured by others and shared publicly is just one example. Creativity is key. But like traditional BI, in my mind, it’s all useless unless we can DO something with that information. And of course, we need to share and collaborate!

What do you think? Is BI as we know it going to die or thrive in this brave new world of big data? I look forward to delving more into these topics more in future posts. I hope you do, too!
 

The Future of PASS

Cross-posted from the PASS Blog
By Adam Jorgensen

PASS just wrapped up its first Board meeting of the year and, as the minutes* will show, we passionately discussed the future of PASS. We must continue to service and grow our existing community but also recognize the need to meet the changing demands of insight-driven organizations. Our challenges are similar to those your firm or customers are experiencing. PASS needs more data, better ways to analyze it, and a renewed focus on solving business questions instead of focusing directly on tools.

Chris Webb’s recent editorial  touched on this need for change. I agree with Chris’ position that organizations are driving toward more and more analytic insight. This insight goes beyond system performance, beyond report speed, and even what kind of charts or graphs to use. Today’s companies must explore their data in new ways, use more of it to model better decisions, and do it faster and more nimbly than ever before. They don’t care how it happens so it’s up to us to figure it out. What an exciting opportunity for all of us to tackle this challenge together.

I feel blessed to work in an industry with so many strong players and vendor solutions that embrace the Microsoft Data Platform—giving us a strong lineage for the types of self-service solutions our companies and clients are looking for. The upcoming Business Analytics Conference focuses on these types of solutions. We’ve got sessions for the power analyst, BI practitioner, Excel guru, data scientist and anyone who is involved in solving these types of challenges for their executives. I know Chris said he is coming to the conference, and I’m looking forward to seeing him there. Those of us in the business intelligence field have long wished for this type of knowledge sharing to help bridge the gap between building these solutions and achieving viral adoption— with the goal of having our organizations use these analytic-based solutions to their fullest potential.

My challenge to you: explore the tools in this new area. We’ve got our Big Data and Business Analytics Virtual Chapters set up to start the transition and a top notch line of speakers for this inaugural event! I have carefully reviewed the program for the Business Analytics Conference and am very excited. It’s been a long time since we had more than a new cool feature to be excited about in the data platform space. These new tools, techniques and cross platform solutions are the kind of things a database person’s dreams are made of! I can’t wait to see you there. Stay up to date on the latest by following @sqlpass and @passbac.

* Board meeting minutes will be available at the end of February.

 

MICROSOFT’S KAMAL HATHI AND AMIR NETZ TO KEYNOTE DAY 1 OF THE PASS BA CONFERENCE

Kamal Hathi, Director of Program Management for BI, and Technical Fellow Amir Netz will deliver a joint keynote on Day 1 of the PASS Business Analytics Conference. Join these top minds in the Business Analytics space as they share insights on the development, design and delivery of Business Intelligence and Big Data technologies, including PowerPivot, Power View, SharePoint, and SQL Server Reporting and Analysis Services.

A founding member of Microsoft’s Business Intelligence platform Kamal Hathi has served in a variety of engineering management roles in various product groups and is responsible for the overall strategy for BI technologies.

A leading world expert in BI and Business Analytics technology and a Chief Designer of SQL Server, Amir Netz is focused on the democratization of BI through end-user self-service enablement using Microsoft Office, SharePoint and SQL Server.

Kamal and Amir join a speaker line up of over 60 Microsoft and industry experts alongside award-winning economist and Day 2 Keynote Dr. Steven Levitt. Register today to reserve your opportunity to hear from the best in the industry!

Business Intelligence and Power View: A Subtle Change or an Inflection Point?

Cross-posted from Jen Stirrup's Business Intelligence Blog
By Jen Stirrup

Can organisations be brave enough to use their data to get along the “inflection point”? If so, how can they do it? Can Power View help?

Andrew Grove wrote a book Only the Paranoid Survive, which discusses how Intel survived change after change in the computing industry. Grove had a very interesting idea: Businesses are affected by six forces, both internal and external:

  • Existing competition
  • Complementary businesses
  • Customers
  • Potential customers
  • Possibility of alternative ways of achieving the same end
  • Suppliers

Grove proposed that if these forces stayed equivalent, the company will steer a steady course. However, what happens if any of the forces increase or decrease in terms of their pressure? Can this change turn into an inflection point?

An inflection point is illustrated at left, courtesy of Wolfram Mathworld. In other words, the inflection point is where the curvature of a line goes from negative to positive. Translated into business terms, this can be considered as part of a maturity process, whereby the immature company goes through a turbulent “adolescence,” to reach maturity.

If you've been part of this process, you'll recognise the signs - team members who do not like change, for example, and are resistant to new ideas. Perhaps you see that your organisation is offering new products and services from the business perspective, but IT is simply not keeping up with the changes foisted on them. That's when silly mistakes can happen - for example, server failure since everybody was too busy trying to paste over the cracks but didn't look at the fundamental issues because they were chasing their tails.

From a business intelligence perspective, I think it can be important to understand that business intelligence problems can actually be change management problems; they have to be understood as exposing less visible failures in the system. In other words, it isn't the SSRS report that's wrong; it's the failure of the processes that produce the report in the first place, so it no longer answers the business question. Essentially, the business has changed but isn't served any longer by the supporting players.

How does the enterprise get upwards and onwards? There are whole books written on this issue, but one way to look at it is to move people away from “gut feel” towards data-based analysis. This can be extremely hard to do. For some people, they will simply never listen to what the data is showing them. Perhaps they may even recognise that they aren't producing the “supporting act” data in the first place to move the business forward.

One way to engage people in data is to give them access to it, and Power View in Excel 2013 is an accessible way of doing just that. There is a lot of value in letting people “see” the answers for themselves. There is danger too; they will soon see the “failures” in the data – where it is poor, wrong, or just plain missing.

It's an adventure with data. It's up to the organisations themselves to see if they can be brave enough to use their data to get along the inflection point. It might just be a subtle change for them; or it could open up the opportunity to allow people to see their data.
Power View is more than just pretty pictures because it can really mean engagement with the data, and encourage exploration to an Excel-oriented audience who didn't have the opportunity to visualise and play with their data in this way before.

Don't be fooled because it is in Excel – it can help your business users to ask new questions of their data. It's a change of thinking about data, putting it into the hands of business users who can change the organisation. Perhaps they will help organisations to move along the inflection point towards maturity.

That's the real power of Power View.

Note: Learn more about Jen's upcoming sessions on Power View and Mobile BI at the PASS Business Analytics Conference.
 

Why Attend? Check Out Our Full Program and This Letter to Your Boss

We’re excited to announce the full program for the PASS Business Analytics Conference, with over 60 sessions by top Microsoft and community experts on the hottest topics around data discovery, data exploration and visualization, predictive analytics, content management and architecture, collaboration, information strategies, and more.

From learning best practices and developing new connections with peers and experts to walking away with a deeper and broader understanding of Microsoft’s collaborative BA platform – Excel, SharePoint, Azure, Hadoop, Parallel Data Warehouse, and SQL Server – check out the top reasons you need to attend the BA Conference. Need help convincing your boss? To help you get buy-in from your manager, we’ve put together a letter you can customize with the top reasons your business will benefit from your attendance.

And remember that you can save $200 when you register by Friday, Jan. 25.

To all those who’ve already registered, thanks for your support and let’s make some noise! Spread the news and let your colleagues know you’ll be attending the analytics event of the year. Show off the conference attendee badge, Twibbon, signature, and banners on your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages and on your emails, blogs, and websites. And we’ll see you in Chicago!
 

Changing Times for Data Professionals

By Chris Webb

One thing that’s always surprised me in the 15 years I’ve worked in the business intelligence industry is how little I’ve been involved in the analysis of the data I’ve been working with. Maybe this was because some of the business users I’ve worked with haven’t been very interested in analysing the data themselves. I deliver a nicely formatted report with a table and a few charts on it. They see whether their sales are going up or down, they get a warm fuzzy feeling (if sales are going up) or some harsh words from their boss (if sales are going down), and that’s it.

I’ve never been happy with this state of affairs, though. Many companies have ignored the potential of the data they’ve captured. What’s more, I feel I’ve been missing out as well – left out of the rewarding process of digging through terabytes of data to unearth some previously unknown insight that could transform my customer’s business.

Fortunately, times are changing. All the recent discussion around “big data” and “data science” is enticing more companies to do something useful with all the data they’ve piled up. This, in turn, presents a challenge and an opportunity to business intelligence professionals like me. The challenge is that now in addition to ensuring that the numbers are correct and the reports are pretty, I also have to be able to help my customers understand their data. I need to know about data visualisation techniques and understand why pie charts are a bad idea and why 3D graphs aren’t cool or clever. I need to know about data mining, how to calculate a forecast using linear regression, and that correlation is not the same thing as causation.

I’ll never know as much about these things as a statistician or a quant on Wall Street, but that’s OK because they’ll never know as much about the systems delivering data to them as I will. But I will need to know enough to be able to talk intelligently to people in these roles – and to be able to provide guidance to my customers when they don’t have skilled data analysts on their staff. This, of course, provides the opportunity for me to become more closely involved with how the business is run and, therefore, more valuable to it.

It’s not just BI pros who will need to move with the times. DBAs, developers, and anyone else in IT who works with data will also be affected by these changes. Having the skills to manage data or move it from place to place won’t be enough in the future; we’re all going to have to work together to add value to our data by helping people understand it. If IT as a whole isn’t willing to contribute to these business goals, it risks being relegated to a non-core function or even outsourced.

All of this is why I’m going to the PASS Business Analytics Conference in Chicago this April. Business analytics is the next stage of evolution in getting the most value from the data we collect and manage, and I want my career to encompass that full life cycle. The BA Conference is a place where traditional BI pros like me and the analysts who work with the data that we deliver can come together and learn more about each other’s responsibilities and how we can all do our jobs better. I’m excited about the opportunity to learn new skills and grow professionally, and I hope you can join me in Chicago and on that continuing journey.

 

Dr. Steven Levitt Keynoting at the PASS BA Conference

We’re thrilled to announce that award-winning economist Dr. Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics and its sequel SuperFreakonomics, will be delivering the Day 2 keynote at the PASS Business Analytics Conference. 

 
Data tells important stories – a message Dr. Levitt has spread throughout the worlds of economics, business, and research. A tenured professor in the University of Chicago's economics department, Dr. Levitt received the American Economic Association’s prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, given to the country's best economist under 40.
 
When his Freakonomics – co-written with Stephen Dubner – hit the shelves in 2005, it became an instant cultural phenomenon, spending more than 2 years on The New York Times bestseller list and selling more than 4 million copies around the world in over 30 languages. 
 
We look forward to you joining us in Chicago April 10-12 as Dr. Levitt and other industry-leading business analytics experts share their passion for data. Space is limited, so register today to reserve your spot!
 

24 Hours of Free Business Analytics Webcasts Jan. 30

If you’re a business analytics professional, you don't want to miss our free 24 Hours of PASS: Business Analytics online event on January 30.

Beginning at 13:00 GMT (see the schedule in your time zone), some of the world’s top industry experts will take to the virtual stage to deliver a series of one-hour webcasts focused on data analytics and visualization, big data innovations and integration, information delivery, advanced analytics, and more.

This edition of 24 Hours of PASS will feature 12 hours of live business analytics webcasts, followed by 12 hours of on-demand replay. Thanks to our generous sponsors, there is no cost to attend the webcasts. All you need to do is register now for each session you want to view. 
 
Wherever you're located, we hope you can join us for 24 hours of business analytics best practices, expert tips, and demos delivered directly to your computer. Make sure you follow us on Twitter (@pass24HOP) for the latest updates, and we'll "see" you there.
 
 
  
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