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Just Don't Call Our Minds Simple, OK?

“Don’t you, forget about me.”

-Excel Pros Everywhere

From the beginning I’ve been talking about three different kinds of PowerPivot professionals:  Excel pros, SharePoint pros, and Database pros, and how they will all need to cooperate in order to get the most out of the system.

As far as I can tell, though, the majority of visitors to this site are from the Database camp (I lump Business Intelligence pros into this bucket).  Not surprising perhaps, since PowerPivot is a product of the SQL team at MS, and marketed heavily at conferences that db pros attend.

But for every db pro in an organization, there may be more than 100 Excel pros.  So, I think it’s clear that the PowerPivot message (and messaging) have a long way to go yet (it WAS just released, after all).

John Constant is one of the Excel pros who are “early to the party,” and has been sifting through all of the available PowerPivot materials for many months now, both the official MS stuff and the community offerings.

He raises some very valid points, things that I lose sight of at times.  It’s SO much simpler to grab a sample db from the SQL team and use it for blog examples for instance.  Even the Great Football Project starts with such a data source.

But I firmly believe that an organization’s success with PowerPivot rests in part on very competent training for the Excel pros…  and part of “competent” is “tailored to the Excel pro’s existing knowledge and viewpoints.”  In fact, I’d be out providing that kind of training this month if it weren’t for being very busy, the good kind of busy, applying PowerPivot for Pivotstream’s customers.

Without further preamble, I give you the words of John Constant:

PowerPivot vs the Excel Power user

Many moons ago, I can’t even remember where, I saw a comment…  Microsoft is coming out with a new business intelligence service… code named .. Gemini.  I was intrigued.  I had recently been tasked of coming up with some sort of data table /system  / process / spreadsheet / Excel voodoo to help put our business (and the competition) in perspective.  Hmm… a new tool you say.  So I delved into any links or articles I could find.  I saw the Donald Farmer video of Gemini sorting through millions of rows of video rentals – updating the charts/tables on the fly and .. sigh.. it was like love at first site.  I signed up for the beta at the first opportunity – archaic business software be damned! .  I was fortunate enough back in early fall 2009 to get my initial private beta Office 2010 release.  I was having a field day with the sparklines and the soon to be essential slicers, waiting with baited breath for the initial Gemini release.

The Microsoft talk was great.  It COULD be a standalone product.  It was meant for Excel power users and for IT and Data Administrators and Managers and so much more… but I’ve heard the talk before.  Don’t even get me started on the failings of Mappoint….   But low and behold – Gemini, with a few hiccups worked.  Sure if you linked in or brought in new data, it may corrupt all your work and you would have to start from scratch, but it’s beta.  Silly, silly beta.  It will grow up.  Sure there’s a new language that looks something like native excel formulas and there’s stuff that you take for granted working with Excel pivot data that you can’t do with Gemini… but it’s beta.. silly silly beta. It’s still growing.. be patient.  Help is on the way.  And help arrived.  There’s PowerPivotPro and PowerPivot.com  and Kasper and a host of other dedicated people who truly believe in the product.  And they do things to help build the community like having SQL workshops and handing out lovely diagrams as a prize.

Errr… whoa..  hold on.  Did I mention the initial Microsoft talk?  Did I mention how Power users could use this product to help themselves and their company.  I understand the importance of SQL.  I understand the concept of Cubes; I’ve heard of OLAP (once or twice) but .. did you see that picture?!!  That’s a prize?!  Are you trying to scare away users?!   Let’s go back to Powerpivot.com, the ‘home’ of powerpivot (the grown up name of Gemini).   What’s that first video – the first public introduction of Powerpivot?  It shows a poweruser and PowerPivot for Excel.    Sure, it mentions Sharepoint but the debate continues – who is PowerPivot for? What about the power user?   – the grunts in the field who want to make the most of this product?  I know (reading some postings) there isn’t a large target population, but for some reason I feel like a Who in Whoville.. “We’re here!  We’re Here…. WE’RE HERE!!!!”  And what do I see …  honourable intentions of many esteemed PowerPivot bloggers aimed at….  SQL, OLAP, Business Intelligence users, like speaking to the already converted.

Don’t believe me?  Read your forums, your FAQ’s.  How are the samples set up?  Well you have FactInventory, FactSales, DimDate, DimThis, Dimthat – Dim Witted!   These examples and their structures aren’t what the normal excel user uses – or understands.  I’ve got Sales, I’ve got product, I’ve got territories, I’ve got stuff labeled poorly because they’ve been set up by someone who knew some programming about a decade ago… in other words, I have real word – DIM-LESS – data and structure.  It’s taken a few brick walls but I’ve hit my head enough times that the examples are sinking in but what about all those people that the ‘talk’ is supposed to reach?  Those who really have no experience with SQL or know of Cubes or data structure tables?  What about those people who can’t even consider getting Sharepoint because they are with a small business that doesn’t have the resources (financial or otherwise?).

I know why Microsoft is “selling” PowerPivot. I don’t fault them for that and I know the majority of users will have IT, Data Admin backgrounds, who will be setting up PivotViewers, and templates and services logs- all those lovely bells and whistles and the examples that will cater to those who deal with FactTables and DimData.  And then there were the Excel power users…  seeing a potentially great product aimed at the institutions, the data centres, the IT gods…   sigh…. 

I do not fault the Farmer’s the Collie’s, the Jonge’s, the Russo’s and the many many other dedicated PowerPivot supporters in the world – I thank them for all their hard work.  PowerPivot is a great product with great potential for many people, but just remember the little guy in the equation, the ones that someone deemed somewhere should have access to this power.  Bring it down a level from time to time… walk the walk and talk our talk and remember the Who’s… “we’re here!  We’re HERE… WE’RE HERE!!!”.

Powerpivot user – johncon aka Mongo41 on Twitter

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. Hmm great blog post! My take on PowerPivot is the same as yours, only i have a BI Pro perspective. The thing i do to come up material to blog about is to take real world problems and questions i get every day in my normal BI Pro job and solve those with PowerPivot in my “free” time and blog about that. I have to think about how I can do something about it.

    A question for you, do you think the regular Excel power user reads the forums/ blogs? Most Excel users i talk to in a business are kinda old school, they use books and trainings and never go online to find answers. Isn’t that the gap we are facing?

    The one thing that MS might take in account that the Excel users outnumber the BI pro’s big time, so finding a way to make PowerPivot more easy and accessible to them might be very profitable .. because they want SharePoint 2010 as well

    1. An Excel user that doesn’t use forums/blogs to solve problems isn’t a power user. Google is the best Excel manual around.

      1. I believe you are correct, but are you seeing PowerPivot in the usual Excel haunts yet?

        And most forum/google usage is of the form “I have this specific problem how do I solve it,” for which the 10+ years of built up content contains not a whiff of PowerPivot.

        This is kinda what I mean by “recruitment” below. If PowerPivot were merely baked into Excel 2010, the game would be very different. Already.

        -rob

  2. Yep … you nailed it!

    I have talked to various players in the PowerPivot power-structure about the need to sell PP to Spreadsheet users moreso than to BI devs. Frankly the BI people seem to have found PP (largely thax to its SQL pedigree I suppose) but there has to be a push to the broader spreadsheet community.

    I for one am talking to every spreadsheeter I work with or bump into about PP and therefore the value of O2010 in general (I’m also a big fan of Access Services). Of course it could be an uphill climb but I can see that a little “Evangelizing” about PowerPivot will go a long way.

    I also think though that MS has to have a “story” about PowerPivot for the spreadsheeter both on-line and especially in their Field Staff who are knocking on doors and running seminars. This is a great SharePoint story and a great “Cloud” story as well if they’re looking for REAL things people can d with the new stuff they’re selling.

    So articles like this are a BIG start and thanx John and Rob for posting this…

    Dick

  3. Hi,
    Have you visited: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/bi/ff604673.aspx?
    This site is aimed at the Information Worker/ Excel User. At least, that’s my intention 🙂 I would love any suggestions and feedback from Excel users. There’s a Feedback button at the bottom — when adding your comments, put my name in there somewhere to ensure that the feedback will be routed quickly.

    There are 6 more intro videos waiting to go live and more planned. And the TechNet wiki has a ton of great content as well (http://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/powerpivot-overview.aspx)

    Michele
    I agree that the ‘Dim’ and ‘dbo’ prefixes are confusing and we had planned on removing them but ran out of time.

  4. As an Excel power user I don’t think I quite agree with the ideas of the post.

    PowerPivot starts as a more capable PivotTable. The percentage of people who use even the basic PivotTables to their full capabilities is already fairly small. I don’t think you can call yourself a power user unless you are comfortable with creating at least basic PivotTables.

    If a power user has developed PivotTable solutions and had to address common PivotTable limitations, they have already entered an area that requires at least a basic understanding of data structures and BI concepts including dimensions and facts even if it’s not in the same language.

    DAX is where a lot of the limitations of simple PivotTables are solved. If a power user doesn’t understand lookups, sumproducts, or array formulas then DAX will be really difficult to learn.

    PowerPivot is a real BI tool. It’s powerful, and in a larger organization with a data warehouse designed by BI/database pros it removes some of the complexity from the Excel power user’s environment. The beauty of it is that it exists in the best ad hoc environment around. Realistically it requires about the same level of knowledge of BI concepts as any other end user data analysis tool.

  5. I have a few observations to share.

    1) I really don’t think even 1% of Excel Power Users have “come to the party” yet. The Excel 2010 requirement + “it’s an addin” means the uptake is slow. Those of you who are already here are rare IMO.

    2) Whereas at MS we expected bottom-up adoption (end users forcing IT into adopting PowerPivot), out in the wild I now believe that adoption will be heavily skewed to top-down – IT implementing it as a controlled framework and then introducing it to the Excel audience. And I think PowerPivot is developing into a HUGE hit already, with purely that top-down adoption – this is not what we expected a few years back. Now that I am “on the outside” I’m trying to convey this back to Redmond, with only limited success.

    3) I think PowerPivot can sneak up on you with its complexity. On day one it gives you large data volumes, multi-table data sources with simple relationships, slicer autolayout, and otherwise just acts like Excel, so it’s all goodness. But there is no big bright line separating that simple stuff from suddenly needing to understand filter context, the implications of separate tables vs. all-in-one, the time intelligence functions, FILTER(), etc.

    So those XL power users who are looking at all this and saying “simple” are either not exploring very much or uber-smart. I suspect Bill D is uber smart. Even the average top-notch PivotTable Maestro is going to need a lot of guidance on identifying the simple vs. complex, and avoiding mistakes that are not obvious.

    So as a community, I think our failings are largely in that last bucket (in terms of serving the XL pro). Then again, the other failing is that we are generally not REACHING the XL pro at all, at least not yet.

    Anyone have ideas on how to draw more Excel pros’ interest? As readership starts to trend more toward Excel users, I think we will all see a shift in the community’s “voice.” For now most of us are understandably skewing toward the db pros a bit too much. Good to remind us, but let’s get some recruiting done too.

    -rob

  6. Being an ‘Excel pro’ myself I’ve been following the PowerPivot developments for quite a while now. At my current job we’re on Excel 2007 and I don’t think Office 2010 will be available anytime soon so it will take a while before I’ll be able to actually use it. However I’m always trying to expand my Excel knowledge so I’m reading about it as much as I can. Quite often the material gets a bit too technical though like John says.

    What I’m missing are ‘real life’ business examples of PowerPivot workbooks and how they’re constructed. Maybe starting with the basics and then moving on to the more complex (DAX) stuff. My guess is that such examples will attract more Excel users.

    On a positive note a large IT training company in The Netherlands (that’s where I’m from) is organising PowerPivot seminars which are aimed at ‘Power-users in Excel, datamanagers, data-analysts and controllers’. I’ve attended the first one and I don’t think there were any BI professionals in the ‘crowd’.

    Bookstores need to be educated as well; I found Bill Jelen’s book on the Power Point shelf at a large bookstore…

    1. Hi m-b,

      That person would be me 🙂 I would like to meet you and chat about what we as bloggers can do to address the Excel Pro better.

      please send me a mail at kasper at powerpivotblog.nl

      Kasper

  7. Business demand is what will spur the universe of Excel power users/professionals into action. Since most businesses do not yet have Excel 2010, Sharepoint 2010 or even the current hardware on their desktops needed to implement PowerPivot solutions, self-training of these individuals will be slow to occur without demand for their services in this area. However, when demand does occur, I believe that it will be LARGE and large corporations might have a hard time dealing with a significant shortage of personnel having the required skill set needed for this “new” type of work.

    On a side note, the only reason why DAX might be considered complex is that the limited function set provided (although very powerful) forces workaround solutions to create formulas that already exist as Excel functions. I am sure that this issue will be dealt with in the next version of PowerPivot, but you would have thought that it would have been easy to automate Excel functions in PowerPivot since it sits on top of it.

    1. I agree.

      On the complexity of DAX in particular, I think some additional pre-packaged functions would indeed help quite a bit. RANK. MEDIAN.

      That said though, there are things you can do in DAX that you simply cannot do in traditional Excel formulas. It is precisely THAT power that finds me in the real brain-taxing situations. Oh, and the implications of doing something one way versus another, in terms of performance, take some learning as well.

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