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!

ROB: At last we unmask the mysterious Collaborating Microsoftie.  How long ago did we first start talking?

CHRIS:  Sheesh – when was that?  I guess it was about a year ago when I first reached out.  Wish I’d done it sooner – been one of the best things I’ve done for my customers since I took this job.  This despite your horrific fashion sense – I mean, you make ME look stylish.  That should be impossible.

This is Not Actually Rob.ROB:  (How dare you disrespect the Robert Graham!)  I was pretty shocked when I saw your first mail.  What the heck motivated you to try a different approach – acknowledging Excel’s importance rather than sidelining it like most BI pros?

CHRIS:  Well, in my previous job, I was one of “your people” – a guy in “shadow IT” using Power Pivot and the Microsoft stack to make my internal customers happy.  I read your blog, and generally agreed with your perspective about how powerful this stuff was.

When you live it firsthand, and see yourself literally transforming how a large group of users do their jobs with tools like Power Pivot, guess what?  You just assume EVERYONE knows about this great stuff and is using it like you did.

When I (quickly) found out that wasn’t even close to the reality at many of the companies I visited, I decided it was best to use some of the same messaging that got me hooked.  I put my personal spin on it, and it really seemed to resonate.  I think that was one of the things I so enjoyed about our first phone call – the fact that you thought I did a better job making some of your points than you had, that was quite gratifying.

ROB:  I bet that was eye opening, like, “look at ALL the green fields HERE!” when you saw reality wasn’t matching your expectations.  And I like how you slipped in the part about me liking your versions better, but it’s the truth.  I particularly liked the way you were driving home the Export to Excel Button observation.  Classic, and worthy of telling some other time.

OK let’s cut to the good stuff.  How about you recap some of your big success stories, without disclosing any sensitive information of course.

CHRIS:  Let’s see – there was this one customer who I recommended your services to who now has about 10 years of financial data in a two billion row tabular model that you got up and running within two weeks.  And it’s running entirely in memory on a virtual machine that has all of 16GB of RAM.  The fact it started as a 500 million row model on a Surface Pro 3 that was then promoted to that size VM is just amazing – and this is no “Adventure Works” model, either.  Not even close – in fact, it was financial data straight from a corporate ERP system with dozens of tables, and some VERY complex logic that needed to be put in place.  And it made the customer very happy.  That was the first time I plugged you in somewhere, and it worked out as I expected/hoped.

ROB:  Just a typical day in DAX Land, seriously.  But I was struck by everyone’s reaction to that much data, in RAM, on a single VM.  By then that was kinda “old hat” to us, and it was energizing to see others reacting to it the way I did for the first six months.  A refresher on just how “science fiction” this stuff is.

Insight Center was one of our collaborative ideas.  But since the announcement of Power BI v2, how much do you think Insight Center is needed?

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CHRIS:  This is a tough one – there are certainly some scenarios where it still could make sense, but I’d argue those have certainly been reduced since the newest version of Power BI has been introduced.  I am more of a proponent of promoting a Power Pivot model to Analysis Services Tabular directly and using Excel as a thin client against that instance directly than you are, and when you combine what’s in (and what’s coming) Power BI v2 with that type of setup, for the vast majority of people they probably would get what they were hoping for in that type of scenario.

ROB: Yes I think Insight Center goes “on ice” for now – particularly the “SharePoint in Azure” part.  But it’s funny how good ideas work.  When we were planning Insight Center, the centerpiece was something I was calling the Refresh Agent – a piece of critical but yet to be built software.  Well, the agent is real now, it has a name, and it’s called Power Update.  I think it has an even BIGGER role to play today than it did with Insight Center.  What do you think?

CHRIS:  I think it’s a nifty little tool.  I’m even using it on an internal project right now.  You know me, I’m big on partner products and the role partners play in the Microsoft ecosystem.  I think it’s one of the greatest strengths we have, and any partner or product a partner produces that helps our customers maximize their Microsoft investment, it’s a win for everyone involved.

imageROB:  Let’s talk about what I call The Power Pivot Moment.  That moment when someone realizes what Power Pivot can actually DO, and your world is never the same.  We saw this quite a bit at the October class in Philly, and again last week in DC.  I’ve been seeing it for years now and it never gets old.  What does it look like from your vantage point as an evangelist on the inside?

CHRIS:  I’ve experienced it before, but it’s really remarkable to see the excitement this class generates amongst the participants.  This was something I was very conscious of – I wanted to make sure my customers got the opportunity to come to this class and see what this was doing for other folks in organizations just like theirs.  Watching the participants in the class, seeing them talking to each other at dinner about different ways not only Power Pivot can help their company, but also just how Microsoft can help them, that’s what it’s all about for me.  This is helping our district build a passionate community of users at our customers, both big and small, and that’s something I really wanted to do when I got in this role.  It’s not that surprising you were the right guy to help me do it, and I appreciate it.

ROB:  Very kind, thank you.  Then there’s that Second Moment.  When someone goes and creates a dashboard or analysis that simply BLOWS THE MIND of the rest of the biz.  It’s all over at that point.

CHRIS: It certainly is – my favorite story around this is we a customer who let us know recently they built a Power Pivot model and Excel dashboard in HALF A DAY that ended up killing a very expensive project using one of our competitor’s products.  That project had been going on five months.

ROB:  You’re experiencing that Second Moment right now for yourself, too, with one of the dashboards YOU created internally at Microsoft.

CHRIS:  Yeah, without going into too much detail, something I built in my spare time has quickly gained a LOT of traction as a potential alternative to one of our longstanding internal reporting implementations.  It’s not a done deal yet, but even the fact that “spare time” can produce something compelling enough to even START that conversation…  is amazing.  The old resource scales just aren’t required anymore.

One last thing I wanted to say – it’s also been fun, and it’s been a great partnership that I look forward to growing and helping all of our customers through it.  And hey, please feel free reach to Rob or me if you want to see how this stuff can help you – would love to hear from you and spread the virus wherever you are.

ROB:  Likewise, it’s been a blast for us too.  Feels really good when there’s critical mass of people who’ve seen the same things and can share those experiences with others.  Oh, you better provide your email address, otherwise how will your hordes of new fans reach you?

CHRIS:  Oh yeah, I’m sure it will be hordes.  I’m Christopher dot Finlan, and you know where I work.