When I was a Sophomore in college, I got a job doing tape backups at a food ingredients company. The developers there maintained a stack of paginated reports for the managers in the corner offices. At the time, I thought it was very sad to know coding and end up working on reports all the time. Flash forward to today. I am implementing Power BI at a nonprofit in Kansas City (opinions are my own). How did this happen?
In college I ditched computer science for a BA and MA in English, and after college I found myself in a series of sales jobs. In one of these jobs, I took over administration of Salesforce, which was my gateway drug into the joys of custom reporting. Working as a salesperson made me see the value of reporting for business.
Eventually, I found myself in a job where I was re-creating three pivot tables every week from a table with too many VLOOKUPS and too many rows. Power Pivot in Excel saved me so much time (and oh so many Excel crashes). In the last two weeks of my contract, I bought the P3 video class and learned the fundamentals of data modeling and DAX.
Working with P3
Next, I started working for P3 as a principal consultant. This was an awesome and intense experience which caused me to really learn DAX on another level. I did incredible things in two-hour increments. While I loved working for Rob Collie and working with other consultants, I didn’t want to travel a whole lot. And, since discovering the Microsoft ‘power tools,’ my ideal job was helping a small organization implement Power BI.
In September 2017, I got an opportunity with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which serves donors nationally as Greater Horizons (Opinions are my own!). The Community Foundation is a nonprofit organization that helps families and companies build their charitable legacies through donor-advised funds and other giving vehicles.
Power (Query) to the People!
In my first six months, I learned as much about Power Query as I had learned about DAX at P3. Why? Because my manager saw the opportunity to give employees greater access to all kinds of data locked in disparate systems. Power Query is a great tool for connecting to (almost) anything and for beating that data into shape. We’ve empowered accountants and others on the IT team to use Power Query for their own purposes. And, We’ve automated tedious tasks to free up staff for more interesting work.
Wrangling with the Data Warehouse
We built a data warehouse to shift the burden of reporting out of transactional systems and into Power BI. This was a totally new experience for me. I learned about surrogate keys, slowly changing dimensions, and other data warehouse concepts. I also taught the guy who built the data warehouse a few business-friendly terms, like lookup table and transaction table. I’ve built reports that wrangle this data warehouse data into forms that business users can easily use.
Threading the Needle
What’s it like to implement Power BI? Let me start with an example. A while back, I volunteered with a youth group in a program that included teaching practical skills to teenagers. A fellow volunteer decided to teach the students how to sew a button. He planned, rehearsed, and had an image of what that would look like. Instead, he discovered that most of the session was spent teaching the teens how to thread a needle. This is what Chip and Dan Heath call The Curse of Knowledge : “once we know something […] we find it hard to imagine not knowing it.”
Operational Data and Reports for Excel
A tremendous amount of the initial stage of implementing Power BI has involved getting operational data into the hands of staff, and this includes tables with many columns for exporting into Excel. Don’t get me wrong: there’s LOADS of value in these wins. And, these are the building blocks for answering strategic questions including: correlation, forecasting, predictive analytics. I’ve been working on these solutions along the way, and keeping them in mind while building the base solutions.
We’ve been hiring people, building out our team. More people are using the reports every day. And more people are learning to use the Microsoft “power tools” – which is my personal metric for success. Along the way, we’ve been developing our agile governance, and we’re in a good position for unlocking insights about our organization. I’m especially excited by the opportunity for staff to connect to a basic model for creating reports with their own visualizations, and I have some people using analyze in Excel. As we continue, I hope to keep blogging about things that I learn along the way.
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