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Coffee Talk

Welcome to the latest PowerPivotPro Coffee Talk, where members of the community discuss various topics related to Power BI, Power Pivot, and Analytics/BI in general. These conversations take place during the week on a Slack channel and are then lightly edited for publication. In this installment of our Coffee Talk series, we’ll be chatting with:  David Harshany, Kevin Jones, and Lee Gerbi. Let’s introduce everyone.

David Harshany, Principal Consultant here at PowerPivotPro.  David’s background includes a formal education in Marine Biology and Zoology.  Towards the end of last century, he started programming image analysis software and creating custom databases.  He has owned his own business for the past 17 years and has been involved in everything from maintaining Exchange Servers to removing viruses to programming home control systems.  After joining the PowerPivotPro team he realized how much fun BI can be and has since collaborated with some of the best in the industry.  He has focused most of his time developing robust data models and BI reports for customers, primarily in the financial services industry.

Lee Gerbi,  Currently the Director of Business Intelligence at Tobii Dynavox.  They design and manufacture devices for children and adults who cannot speak using their voice.  His analytical experience began in a marketing role over eight years ago.  His BI experience has its roots in Excel and Access, then ‘dug deeper’ into T-SQL and MDS/MDX.  Tobii Dynavox started its Business Intelligence function five years ago. and were early adopters of PowerBI.  They had a data mart feeding dashboards for their global business and engineering users a short time after the first Microsoft Data Insight Summit.

I have had the pleasure of working with David Harshany of PowerPivotPro and Kevin Jones of EctoBox. I love the site. Rob Collie’s examples and info and other contributors’ input are a valuable resource.  Just last week I was on PowerPivotPro looking for ideas on how best to create multiple ranking scenarios using DAX.   We use the ‘thin report’ here a lot now.  We connect our data to a cube for analysis in Excel, leaving the data on the server.  This allows our ‘pivot pros’ to slice and dice, and refresh quickly, while keeping the workbook about a 10th in size.  I learned that from David and PPP.  A real game changer for us.

Kevin Jones, Founder at Ectobox, Kevin has built a thriving technology consulting business which focuses on building IoT, BI, and line-of-business solutions to help manufacturing and construction companies operate more effectively and gain competitive advantage. Over 20 years ago Kevin started in accounting on the CPA track and soon moved over to writing software applications. He has worked in software ever since, building Ectobox as a progressive company with a great culture for employees and clients alike.

 

djharshany
has joined #coffeetalk_ectobox

 

leeg
has joined #coffeetalk_ectobox

 

leeg
Hello, world.

 

kevinjones
has joined #coffeetalk_ectobox

 

djharshany
I’m moderating today, which simply means during the editing process I insert my name anywhere praise is given.

 

djharshany
Everyone good to go?

 

kevinjones
Praise be to David.

 

djharshany
Lee, don’t be afraid to agree with Kevin there.

 

djharshany
Lee, if you’re here, we’ll go ahead and begin.

 

kevinjones
Bueller?

 

leeg
Hi.

 

djharshany
We might have lost Lee.
Well, that concludes our session.

 

leeg
I am here.

 

kevinjones
Yay!

 

leeg
I dialed into the GoToMeeting, but I think it is looking for someone to open the call.

 

kevinjones
Should we be in GoToMeeting also?

 

kevinjones
Thought this was Slack only?

 

djharshany
Nope, Slack only.

 

leeg
OK.

 

djharshany
Welcome to everyone for joining our Coffee Talk today. I’m David Harshany, a principal consultant at PowerPivotPro. I’m joined by Kevin Jones of Ectobox and Lee Gerbi of Tobii Dynavox.

 

djharshany
Kevin, go ahead first and introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what Ectobox does. Then Lee can jump in and tell us about himself and Tobii Dynavox.

 

kevinjones
Good afternoon! I’m the owner of Ectobox. We are a custom software product development company focusing a lot of our efforts on manufacturing companies.  We provide software and BI solutions. Our clientele is principally small to mid-sized manufacturers and some large-scale manufacturers.

 

kevinjones
A lot of our focus is what does the “business” need to achieve, and how can we help them there with technology and action-oriented data.

 

leeg
Tobii Dynavox designs devices and software for people who cannot speak. Children diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and Autism. Adults who have had a stroke or ALS. Our devices help them to communicate with the world and to help them to control their environment.

 

djharshany
So Kevin, how did we all end up working together?

 

kevinjones
We did some work for another area of Tobii Dynavox. At the same time, I went to the 2016 MS Data Insights conference, sat down at a table for lunch, and ended up meeting three great guys that worked at Tobii Dynavox that I didn’t know, including Lee.

 

kevinjones
So we started chatting, stayed in touch, then Lee reached out for some help and…end of story

 

leeg
It was one of those “it’s a small world moments” We sat at that table in a huge room, and Kevin saw our name tags and said “Tobii Dynavox” we are working with you guys in Pittsburgh.

 

djharshany
It seems that’s how it happens more often than not.
Lee, tell me about where you were before we all partnered and where you stand today.

 

kevinjones
Pretty crazy

 

leeg
We had built a global data mart. It grabs it’s order and invoice data from two ERP systems (Dynamics and VISMA – which is Swedish) also harmonizes iTunes app downloads and a bunch of different data streams where we sell our products. It was taking a life of its own. I contacted Kevin, told him we could use some expertise. He and Lorna took a look, and we started talking about some foundation-stuff that our BI team needed to build to get a handle on our mart. It worked great. PowerUpdate, customer BI interview process. It changed everything for us. Got us on top of our work.

 

kevinjones
Lee, how have you extended that work? Is the CEO (c-suite) using the new stuff you’ve built in Power BI? Or are you still using Power Pivot?

 

leeg
We have segmented our user base. We have PowerBI dashboards hooked up for our Quick Hit users. Managers who need instant facts to get a read on day-to-day. We have PowerPivot POWER Users who love the Thin Report, as on PowerPivotPro site. For those people, I have PowerUpdate grabbing data from our old 2008 R2 server, and it builds the SSAS Db. I connect to the cube which leaves the data on the server. Our PowerPivot PowerUsers love it. Super small file size. I have a lot of DAX measures built in so they can slice and dice the data. The BI team and I just completed the dashboard course on OkViz which is excellent.  We are now building version 3 of our company PowerBI Dashboards.

 

djharshany
Which BI tool (SSAS, Power BI, Power Pivot, Power Query, etc.) did you find made the most difference in helping you to succeed?

 

kevinjones
What kind of impact has it had on the day to day operations and the biz as a whole?

 

leeg
BI Tools: PowerUpdate was a game changer. I met with my counterpart in Sweden. He bought it and is setting it up. SSAS is great via PowerBI EnterpriseGateway for our BI created company dashboards. I hack a lot of SQL, so I should be using Power Query more than I do. I have to say I am in PowerPivot the most. Pull the data from the SQL query. Then use PowerUpdate to create the SSAS DB and send a VERY small workbook out to my key decision maker.

 

leeg
Day to day operations…impact has been unreal. We can now see some very fine detail on order patterns. Stuff we thought we knew but did not. PowerBI’s visuals on the MSOFT store are excellent and getting better. I can see us moving from reporting from the rear-view mirror (data mining) into predictive analytics soon. That will be the next big step for us.

 

djharshany
That is incredible. A true success story in the BI world.

 

leeg
AI is interesting…TensorFlow and R (Microsoft’s version) are very exciting to me.

 

leeg
Jedi Knight stuff there.

 

kevinjones
You are no longer a young Padawan.

 

leeg
If you saw how big my beard is now…you’d call me Chewy.

 

kevinjones
LOL

 

kevinjones
Lee, if you don’t mind me asking, from your perspective what was Ectobox’s and David’s role in helping you guys along?

 

leeg
The real game changer for our data mart that helped us to see the bigger picture. EctoBox and PowerPivotPro (you and David) had us think deeply about our current process. Once we better understood how we were interacting with our user base, then you showed us the tools. It all fit together, and it was like ONE MONTH. Super fast results. I can’t say enough about how quickly we can now produce analytics. PowerUpdate cut a TON of time off of the design process. So much easier than scheduling jobs in SQL and processing from one server to an SSAS server. It is unreal how great it is, and I did not know about it until talking with Yinz.

 

leeg
Yinz = Pittsburgh for all of you.

 

kevinjones
Oh, that’s right. We also helped with establishing some good software/database development practices as well, right?

 

leeg
Oh yeah. That was the foundation stuff that we needed. Better BI process and we moved development work to a new server.

 

kevinjones
David, what was your part in the scheme of things?

 

djharshany
I scheduled GoToMeetings.

 

leeg
Um. You are being a bit modest.

 

kevinjones
Indeed.

 

leeg
There is a 6-foot tall Swedish guy who is now building an SSAS BI environment and using PowerUpdate. So take that David.

 

kevinjones
LOL, nice!

 

leeg
His name is Tommy, and he loves this stuff too

 

kevinjones
I remember we started with looking at the whole setup, assessing loads on SQL Server, looking at the data and st procs, etc. pulling data from various data sources, and the logic in the st procs…

 

djharshany
Awesome!
We can’t overlook that Lee had an excellent foundation in the skills necessary to accomplish what he and Dynavox have accomplished. I’m a big advocate for training and self-study. You can have all of the tools in the box, and they’re no good without expertise.

 

kevinjones
Yes, no doubt. He was/is all over this stuff. Went to Data Insights conference, very big on learning

 

kevinjones
Kudos to you, Lee!

 

leeg
Ahhh thanks, guys.  It’s like Babe Ruth telling me I had a good at-bat.

 

leeg
Or maybe Elvis saying he liked my song. I listened to Rob Collie’s podcast recently, and he explained PowerPivot like discovering fire. Totally get how he feels about it. What an INCREDIBLE tool that is…

 

kevinjones
And we’re the arsonists to help spread the word???

 

djharshany
I feel my primary role was stepping back and looking at the overall infrastructure and helping to lay out a plan. I think too often that is where people get stuck is they just don’t know how to tie it all together.

 

kevinjones
Lee, can you speak a little more specifically about some ways this work and the work you’re doing has helped the company? Without getting into the confidential stuff of course…

 

kevinjones
Maybe some example of how a piece of data helped bring to light a specific issue, the decision that was made based on that new information, and the $$ impact of the decision given the new info?

 

leeg
Agreed. BI can be daunting at times. Often we are working with managers who know what they want..but not how they want to see it. Taking a little time upfront to help visualize how they will interact and what their strengths are is important. Our company president is a PowerPivot power user. I know the excel workbook is his game now. I was producing dashboards, and he was sort of interested. After working with you guys, he now jams on a thick workbook and when on the road…his thin one. Awesome.

 

kevinjones
When the people at the top of a company “get it” and are even “using it”…that is the key

 

leeg
True on that.

 

kevinjones
Then you are developing a data-oriented culture in the company. Incredibly powerful!

 

leeg
It feels great. Really.

 

kevinjones
David, where would you like to take the conversation from here?

 

djharshany
We can clearly see now where things can go and how valuable these tools and processes are when a company buys into it, like TD
Changing gears:

 

djharshany

What I’ve found over the years is, the rapid improvement of the BI Stack (Power Pivot, Power Query, Power BI, SSAS) has not only allowed me to offer better solutions to my existing clients, it has also allowed me to capture new clients where they didn’t exist before.

Kevin, how has Power BI changed your business and the offering to your existing clients?
Also, have you found it has helped you gain traction in verticals not previously accessible?

 

kevinjones
Interesting question, on how Power BI has changed our business.

 

djharshany
And that can include Power Pivot too.

 

kevinjones
We started a long time ago as a custom software product creation business. We are one of many companies that create software products that help create or capture data and help companies derive some value from IT.

 

kevinjones
But I always felt that power was limited. Creating reports with Crystal Reports (at the time), SSRS, and other basic tabular reporting tools were good…but I recognize now I was unconsciously feeling something was missing.

 

kevinjones
With Power Pivot and then Power BI, it’s a new world

 

kevinjones
There are/were other companies with interesting analysis tools (even Microsoft with tools for data warehouses, etc.). but the learning curve was MASSIVE

 

kevinjones
Then nice visualization tools. But the Microsoft products seem to have had a fascinating play by starting with an add-on in Excel, then using that reach to give those users immense power.

 

kevinjones
Then taking it further to the service (Power BI).

 

kevinjones
Data for every person rather than the data elite.

 

kevinjones
Getting back to reality…we have now for a little while been offering BI solutions, data analysis solutions to companies like Lee’s.

 

kevinjones
We’re having conversations now with a manufacturing company that wants to improve their processes in the engineering department. They get a lot of requests for changes to drawings, have to track them, and want the process to be more efficient because they’re growing.

 

kevinjones
We’ll start with a solid basic data model in Power Pivot, do some quickly Rob-Collie-like quick reports and analysis, and following the 80/20 rule get some massive value out of the top 20% most important findings

 

kevinjones
They’ll then improve their business processes, get much better, and we’ll later implement more robust reporting for ongoing use by the whole team, possibly with Power BI. Dashboards for users in specific areas.

 

kevinjones
Part of the focus will be getting the users up to speed on using Power Pivot and then Power BI, and they’ll take it over…learn and use on their own. They’re brilliant people.

 

kevinjones
Then the data culture will hopefully flourish there and to other departments. A growing company like that needs to know what’s going on now to get better, and what’s going to happen in the future to anticipate. The data is in the company, and they’re simply not able to pull it out and use it.

 

djharshany
I think that is the key, take it in steps. So many try to accomplish everything at once and then they never truly complete anything.

 

kevinjones
And offering these solutions is quite literally, fun!

 

kevinjones
Yep, no doubt.

 

kevinjones
That’s what Lee did.

 

leeg
Thanks, Elvis Ruth.

 

kevinjones
He, his team, those above him in the org realized “let’s start small and simple, let’s try this out, if it works, let’s kick it up a notch.”

 

kevinjones
LOL

 

kevinjones
While we’ve been chatting here, I’ve been reviewing the Project Assessment doc from our project with Lee and gang. One of the keys, reflecting back on that was, again…step-by-step.

 

djharshany
And it is truly fun. I’ve said often, I’ve been in IT for over 20 years, and I’ve never had fun as I have with the current set of tools. To be fair though, I started out managing Exchange Server, so there was nowhere to go but up.

 

leeg
Right on. I had a VP who inherited a new dept recently. He was learning their process. It was cool to be able to map the process in Visio then use OkViz’s Synoptic Panel by biding the results to the visual. It was a recent favorite project of mine. Too much fun there.

 

leeg
Just saying.

 

djharshany
Kevin, do you find it daunting keeping up with all of the latest BI offerings, updates to existing tools, etc.? How do you handle staying current as a business?

 

kevinjones
Is this a “planted” question?

 

kevinjones
Of course, we follow Rob and gang, including you, for latest updates, latest thinking, outside perspective.

 

kevinjones
Yes, it is a daunting task to keep up. But if this is our focus, and it is a big part of what we do now, we have to keep up.

 

kevinjones
I have a guy who works on my car, and he’s a specialist, he keeps up with the latest, so I don’t.

 

kevinjones
So we do the same here.

 

kevinjones
But for this biz, you have to have a love of learning, and we have that. Sounds a little salesy but it’s true.

 

djharshany
Is the priority getting better at your existing skill set or branching out to new technologies?

 

kevinjones
So staying current as a business…taking the learning, working with other experts (P3 for example), then applying it to ourselves, and applying it to our clients.

 

kevinjones
All the while I find it best to ask the business questions before the technical questions. That ensures we’re doing the right work…then we follow that with the right tech and the latest tech…but only as required.

 

kevinjones
Answer: getting better at existing skill set first, then branching into new tech.

 

kevinjones
You can’t branch into new if you don’t know the basics.

 

kevinjones
When you listen to a baseball game and an analyst is talking about some of the problems a team is having, or a manager interviewed after the game…you will so often hear them talk about getting back to the basics.

 

kevinjones
Get the basics down…solid data model, clean data, thoughtful measures, good setup for servers that can handle the load, etc. Then you can do the crazy fun stuff

 

djharshany
It’s why P3’s first training class is named Foundations!

 

kevinjones
Bada bing!

 

djharshany
To each of you, what do you see as the next up and coming star in the BI stack? To me, it is Power Apps. It will finally allow us to tie in quick, easy and portable data entry to our BI infrastructure.

 

djharshany
You first Lee. What do you think?

 

leeg
I agree. Power Apps will be the next mover like what Kevin was saying… they will shorten the learning curve. I am interested in how R or other more serious predictive capabilities will be added to the stack too. That is a little down the road. As data is democratized, it seems that people will want to move from looking back to looking forward. Right now predictive analytics takes a lot of time and effort. I see AI playing a role, Cortana, etc. and prediction becoming easier.

 

djharshany
I agree regarding R. Predictive analytics is still such a mystery to most.

 

kevinjones
We looked at Power Apps, including for a specific customer. It can be helpful and powerful. Ended up not using it yet because there were certain capabilities required by the customer that isn’t there yet in Power Apps. I expect they’re coming.

 

djharshany
Yes, I feel like Power Apps is where Power BI was two years ago.

 

kevinjones
What we’re looking forward to getting into is predictive analytics and Azure Machine Learning. Not doing “AI” because it’s sexy. Doing predictive because it’s useful and powerful

 

kevinjones
2017-08-25 19:22
We’re looking at situations where we’re going to create a condition monitoring application for physical machines around the US…IIOT

 

kevinjones
Seeing the data live from distributed systems is already mind-blowing, but then doing predictive analytics is…well…beyond mind-blowing.

 

leeg
“Alexa what will my orders be like next week”?

 

kevinjones
Taking the signals from a device, doing Fourier transformation to break it down into its parts, then know what’s happening to the machine, and then predict what’s happening down the road based on some machine learning? Talk about fun…That’s the kind of thing that is exciting.

 

djharshany
And only data geeks like us can appreciate.
Well, we’re coming to the end of our allotted time. It’s been an absolute blast talking (typing) with the two of you today.

 

leeg
Thanks for the invite, this was great!

 

kevinjones
Same here. Thank you so much!

 

djharshany
Thanks to both of you and I look forward to working with both of you again!

 

kevinjones
We will be working together again. I know that.

 

leeg
It will be good to work together again. I am looking forward to it. Kevin, as mentioned, first beer is on me. And I will order my beard one too.

 

djharshany
That’s a wrap. Bye, everyone.

 

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. UPDATE: (leeg) I had the opportunity to work with Ectobox again after this interview. Kevin and Tim B.there helped us to design a ‘robust’ development environment for one of our core data marts. They finished ahead of schedule and under budget. Two excellent projects in a row with them. I took a two-day class from Steph Locke (itsalocke.com) on R. Hung in there through most of day 1, day 2 was insane. Steph’s example for our class was amazing. Then she mentioned the model was built in a week and i fell off my chair. Looking at Level Up Advanced DAX from PPP for Q4 if still available. Our Thin models are humming along. Check out this site’s Thin Workbook series. If you have people who love to pivot and you have a tabular model and SSAS set-up, then this is an excellent solution.

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