Kasper and Rob in The Big Easy



-Rob’s feet, knees, brain, and liver

Hi folks.  On my way back from the MS BI Conference (and TechEd) in New Orleans.  Had a great time, almost too much to report.  Here’s a sample:

    1. Met Kasper and Denny for the first time!
    2. Met a bunch of other PowerPivot community members like Vidas Matelis, Marco Russo, Stacia Misner, and Andrew Brust…  a bunch of SQL celebrities, like BrentO, SQLRockstar, and BuckWoody…  and a fascinating individual named Jimmy who Kasper and I hope to introduce to all of you soon.
    3. Presented a session on Best Practices for PowerPivot (with Dave Wickert) where they literally turned away as many people as they let in – we were all seated, room packed, people standing in the back, and doors closed 15 minutes before scheduled start…  so we just went ahead and started 15 minutes early.  Never had an experience like that, ever.  Even Denny Lee was locked out.
    4. Had several private meetings with members of the PowerPivot team, learned a bunch of things (some of which I can share, some I can’t, but everything bodes well for us)
    5. Talked with dozens of attendees, got their thoughts on PowerPivot, answered questions on PowerPivot, and staffed Microsoft’s PowerPivot booth on three different days.

So, from all of that, what did I learn?  Here ya go, as compressed as I can get it:

IT attitudes toward Excel are shifting dramatically

Excel Rebellion Circa 1977

“The more you tighten your grip against Excel, the more data will slip through your fingers.”

6-7 years ago when I attended BI conferences, Excel was widely regarded as the enemy, and there were even sessions titled things like “how to get your users out of Excel.”  The prevailing sentiment was that a responsible BI practitioner had a duty to replace Excel with dedicated BI tools like Cognos or Business Objects.

There has been nothing short of a seismic shift since then.  I’d like to think that has something to do with our efforts in Excel 2007 to legitimize Excel as a BI tool, but honestly, I think it’s just that the realization has sunk in…  no one is ever getting rid of Excel.  Furthermore I think it’s more than just capitulation – at this point most people realize that getting rid of Excel would be a bad idea even if it were possible.

Some favorite quotes from IT/BI pros:

“Fact is I get most of my best analytics ideas from my Excel users’ workbooks”
”We’ve been decriminalizing the use of ad hoc Excel”
”Data just wants to be free, data will find a way”
”Rob I am really impressed with your jumpshot, you could play near the highest levels in Holland were you in shape.”

(OK that last one was from Kasper – I felt obligated to include that since he kinda beat me in four out of five games and I need to save face.)

I very much think it’s time to revisit a few of my favorites posts on this topic, so if you have started reading recently, I encourage you to check out:

Microsoft Unveils New Programming Language XL#
Putting the “Intelligence” in “Business Intelligence,” Part 1
Putting the “Intelligence” in “Business Intelligence,” Pt 2
Putting the “Intelligence” in “Business Intelligence,” Pt 3

PowerPivot is arriving at precisely the right moment.  BI and IT pros are embracing it EXTREMELY eagerly.  Much more than we dared hope back when I worked on the engineering team in Redmond, and more than they realize even now I believe.  They are prepared to cooperate with their Excel users in order to bring about a more efficient data culture.  Which brings me to the next point…

PowerPivot does NOT need viral adoption!

novirus_sticker-p217678350895040539qjcl_400 Are you listening, PowerPivot team?  I’m going to keep standing up on every soapbox and hilltop I can find, screaming as loud as I can, that PowerPivot does NOT require grass roots adoption in order to be broadly adopted at a record pace!  That perceived need for bottom-up adoption lingers within the team from the early days, and it will be a shame, both for Microsoft and for the rest of us, if they continue to think that way.

Why?  For one, they will build the wrong feature set going forward if viral adoption is still a goal.  Originally for example, data cleaning features were intended to be included in v1.  The thinking here was that the Excel users could not remotely rely on IT to help them, or to provide them the right kinds of data, or even the right kinds of access.  That simply is NOT turning out to be true.

And if the team spends a ton of time building features that aren’t needed, it will subtract from the quality of the other features we get, and/or replace other features altogether.

Second, the marketing message is noisy today.  This dual “top-down through IT and bottom up through Excel user empowerment” message is not being well absorbed by the MS field.  By far, the Excel component is easier for the MS field to understand and repeat.  So it gets a lot more air time than the top-down message.  And as a result, an IT team that otherwise would have been enthusiastically receptive to the first message only get exposed to the “Excel gone wild” message and recoil from it.

This truly is a case of subtraction by addition and should be avoided 🙂

PowerPivot was the Buzz of the BI Conference

Even Wears the Right Color I expected PowerPivot to grab an outsized share of attention at the conference, but multiple people pointed out to me that it basically took over.  People from other companies stopped by at the PowerPivot booth to find out was going on, because everyone coming to their booth was asking things like “how does this integrate with PowerPivot?”

And the Microsoft messaging mirrored that.  PowerPivot dominated the BI keynote on Tuesday – we were all kinda surprised to basically only see PowerPivot demos for 90 minutes (seriously, the other MS BI teams had to be a little irritated by that.  You can watch the keynote [link removed due to 404] here and see what I mean, and maybe see us smiling ear to ear in the first row).  It dominated the overall session count.  It showed up in sessions that weren’t about PowerPivot.

Kasper looked at me at one point and said “I really like the names of our websites.”  To which I replied, “I really like what we’ve been studying and practicing for the last nine months.”  OK for me it’s been several years.  Take THAT Kasper! 🙂

Kasper’s stuck on a plane for the next 24 hours and can’t fight back.  Muhaha.  OK, final observation for part one…

PowerPivot is evolving into a “Gateway Drug” in SQL11

That’s right, PowerPivot leads to stronger tools.  If you watched the keynote demos above, you saw something that’s pretty exciting once it sets in.  Remember that the Analysis Services product has existed for over ten years as a toolset that people like me weren’t able to use.  You could learn the query language MDX, but when I discovered that even a simple IF() statement required a PhD, I decided to do other things with my time.

PowerPivot, by contrast, is the kind of canvas on which I can paint.  Keep in mind, however, that PowerPivot is really TWO things:  1) It’s a toolset where someone like me can build models, applications, and reports   and 2) It’s the Vertipaq engine, the thing that makes monstrous compression and performance possible.

In theory, I guess, the PowerPivot toolset – the Excel addin, the DAX language, the integration with SharePoint – was possible without the Vertipaq engine.  Probably would have been too slow and unwieldy to gain much traction, but possible

The real question though was what Microsoft was going to do about the traditional Analysis Services product.  The existing AS product did NOT get equipped with Vertipaq in the 2008 R2 release, so in many ways the BI pros have been quite jealous of us 🙂  It was obvious that Vertipaq was going to find its way into AS proper in a future release, but it was not clear what the resulting product would look like.

OK, here ya go:  It’s gonna look like PowerPivot.  With an even larger data capacity.  And lots of features that we don’t currently have.  With no SharePoint dependency and no requirement that you embed the models in Excel files.

And ok, to make it look industrial strength, they’re gonna put it in Visual Studio.  But that’s a minor detail to me, more cosmetic than anything.  I’m told it will support DAX, and generally use all the same sorts of Excel-user-friendly UI gestures that we are used to, as if the Excel addin were dropped into the Visual Studio frame.  No requirement that we change to MDX and other concepts in order to “upsize” into the more powerful future version.

Best news of the conference.