The Blind Men and the Data Elephant

Are you familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant?

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Would you have known this was an elephant, just from this picture?

Sometimes it seems to me that the world of business intelligence – and self-service business intelligence in particular – is made up of blind men feeling their way around a elephant made up of technology and people, each of them feeling something different but none of them able to effectively communicate to the others what they are experiencing.

This blog post was inspired by this email, sent by a technical job recruiter:

Data leader recruiter email
What does this email tell you about the role and the company?

More specifically this blog post was inspired by a tweet[1] from Power BI consultant Jeff Weir, in which he shared this recruiter’s email:

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In this conversation Jeff and I each took the role of a blind man, with this data analytics manager position playing the elephant. Jeff and I each reached very different conclusions.

Jeff may have[2] concluded that Power BI as a tool wasn’t ready for the job, or that that this company wasn’t fully committed to doing what it takes to build a successful data culture, including the right training for their Power BI creators and consumers.

I reached a different conclusion, and I the more I read and re-read the recruiter’s email the more I believed that my initial conclusion is correct: this is an organization that is stepping back from solutions to ensure that they’re focused on the right problems. This is an organization that already has tactics, but is willing to admit that those tactics aren’t getting them where they need to go without the right strategy. This is an organization that seems ready to make significant, substantive change.

Why did I reach this conclusion?

The first sentence: “Ultimately Power BI while being a tool they are currently using it is not the only tool they will consider.”[3]

Wow. As an organization they are avoiding the sunk cost fallacy and explicitly stating they’re open to change, even though that change is likely to be disruptive and expensive. Switching BI tools is hard, and it is not a change that is taken lightly. The leaders at this organization are willing to take that hit and make that change, and they’re taking the steps to find the right leader to help them make it… if that leader decides the change is necessary.

The second sentence, with my emphasis added: “Here they are really looking for someone with some strong technical ability, but more so strong leadership and strategy skills.[3]

Wow!  The recruiter is explicitly calling out the organization’s priorities: they need a strategic leader. They need someone to help them define the strategy, and to lead them in its execution. Yes, they need someone with the technical chops to help carry out

The third sentence: “there will be an element of helping there and mentoring the staff members currently in the team.”

Maybe not exactly wow on this one, but it’s clear that the organization knows that they need to build the skills of their current BI team, and they want someone able to help. Something missing here that I would prefer to see[4] is additional information about the size and skill levels of the team today, and what other learning resources the organization makes available.

The third sentence, again: “it is more about getting a grip on the current landscape of the data and what can be done with it, setting a vision and a strategy aligned with product development and then going from there…”

WOW! This sounds like an organization that knows their current path isn’t leading them to success. It sounds like an organization that acknowledges its challenges and is proactively looking for a strategic solution to root causes, not just a band-aid.

But… it also sounds like an organization that needs a Chief Data Officer, not just an Insights and Data Analytics Manager, and based on Jeff’s Twitter comment it sounds like they’re not willing to pay a competitive rate for the less senior position, much less the more senior one. They seem to want parts of a data culture, but don’t  appear willing to invest in what it will actually take to make it a reality

I was originally planning to structure this post around the theme of 1 Corinthians 13:11, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that describing a technical solutions focus as being “childish ways” that you then grow out of really didn’t match up with what I was trying to say.[5] Although to be fair, this post has traveled far afield from what I intended when I started writing, and I’m honestly not certain I ended up making a particularly strong point despite all the words.

Maybe if I’d had more time I could have just said “different people see different things in shared situations because of differences in context, experience, and priorities, and it’s important to take multiple perspectives into consideration when making important decisions.” Maybe not. Brevity has never been my forte.


[1] Please feel encouraged to read the whole thread, as it went in a few different directions that this post doesn’t touch on directly. I also did explicitly ask Jeff’s permission to reference the conversation and image in a blog post… although I doubt either one of us expect it to arrive quite as late as it did.

[2] I qualify my summary of Jeff’s conclusion because I’m only working with the information available to me in the Twitter conversation, and I do not know that this is a complete or accurate summary. I suspect it is at least accurate, but only Jeff can say for sure.

[3] Please pause for a moment to reflect on how difficult it was to type in that sentence without editing it for clarity and grammar.

[4] Yes, I understand that this is an excerpt from one email that shows only the most narrow slice into what is likely a complex environment, and that it is not realistic to expect every aspect of that complexity to be included in three sentences – no matter how long that final sentence might be.

[5] Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts on Twitter about the wisdom of using a Bible verse in a technical blog post.

Power BI, PowerPoint, and the importance of shared goals

Do you ever get the feeling that you you’re participating in a completely different conversation than the person you’re talking to?

Maybe you are.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
An actual photograph of Matthew’s brain most of the time.

Back in December[1], Power BI MVP Lars Schreiber shared this tweet:

I’ll bet that was a difficult conversation.

Although I wasn’t in the room with Lars and his client, I’ve been in similar rooms having similar conversations on many occasions where it gradually became obvious that my understanding of the meeting’s goals were not shared by the other participants.

Without a shared understanding of goals and priorities, collaboration quickly breaks down.

Without a shared understanding of goals and priorities, activity are falsely equated with progress – for how can you make progress without a chosen destination?[3]

Without a shared understanding of goals and priorities at the beginning, much of what is done will need to be undone and/or redone once the disconnect is identified and rectified. Often it’s not just a matter of going back to the start – it’s worse. The parties that argued against the project[4] the first time will be empowered and emboldened by any delays and false starts, and the greater the impact of the misunderstanding, the more difficult it will be to get things back on track.

In my experience the best thing to do in situations like this is to immediately step back, stop focusing on implementing a solution to a problem, and focus instead on clearly defining the problem that needs to be solved. Once you know not everyone is working on the same thing, ask the questions no one thought to ask before, or which were asked without the right people involved.

The best case scenario is that everyone can quickly get aligned on common goals and priorities – the disconnect was a bump, not a crash.

Even in the worst case scenario, it’s better to ask the hard questions and to avoid pressure to “just keep working” before your strategic goals are reestablished and validated. The sunk cost fallacy will work against you, but it’s important to remember that it is a fallacy.

If you’re six months into a year-long project, it’s hard to admit that you might need to throw away two or three months worth of work, and end up coming in over schedule and over budget. That’s hard, but it’s better than delivering something no one needs at the end of the year having consumed the entire schedule and the entire budget with nothing useful to show for it.

Going back to that tweet, I have every reason to assume that Lars and his client were successful. Even though Power BI and PowerPoint are very different tools, there are many use cases where either one could be applied to great effect… and at the risk of Abraham Maslow rolling over in his grave, if the only tool you have is PowerPoint, every problem starts to look like a presentation.

I suspect that Lars used this shocking statement as an opportunity to start a new conversation, and to explore the problems his client was using PowerPoint to solve. The next time you find yourself in a similar situation… maybe you will too.


[1] Which is also when I started this post. Life has been busy forever.[2]

[2] I added the previous footnote over a year before I added this one. Life has indeed been busy forever.

[3] This makes me think of one my favorite Sun Tzu quotes.

[4] Or other type of effort, but in my experience it’s usually a project.

Thoughts on community

This post is mainly a story about how community has affected my career, and how it might affect yours as well. The post has been sitting in my drafts for a few months waiting for inspiration to strike. That inspiration came in this recent[0] data culture video where I talked about communities of practice inside enterprise organizations, and the ways that positive behaviors can be promoted and encouraged for these internal communities of practice – because the same patterns often apply to public communities as well.

So let’s talk about community.

No, not that Community. Technical community. Community like this:

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I started off my tech career as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) in 1996. I spent much of the next decade as a trainer, mentor, and consultant, but even though I was learning and growing year after year, the pace of that growth felt slow. I quickly became a medium-size fish in a tiny pond[1] and that was pretty much that. My career growth was limited in part by the company I chose to keep.

To be fair, there was an online[3] MCT community where I would often lurk and occasionally post, but I never took real advantage of it. I didn’t feel confident enough to post often, and for some reason traveling to a conference or other in-person MCT event just didn’t feel like something that was available to me – this was something that other people did, not something I could do.[4]

In late 2004 I started thinking about getting back to more training after a few years focusing on software development and consulting. I decided that the upcoming SQL Server 2005 release would be a great opportunity for making this change. Microsoft had made available to MCTs the preview versions of two “What’s new in SQL Server 2005” courses – one for developers and one for admins – and I was going to get certified to teach these courses as soon as they were available to offer. I’d been working with SQL Server since version 6.5, and much of my consulting work included developing solutions on SQL Server 2000, so this was a logical direction that matched my experience, skills, and interest.

To make a long story slightly less long – and because I’ve shared some of the details while this post was sitting in my drafts – that focus on SQL Server 2005 was my jumping off point to become an active member of the MCT and SQL Server communities. I was still doing many of the same things I’d been doing all along, but now I was doing them where more people could benefit, and where more people could see me doing what I did. And people noticed.

People noticed that I knew what I was talking about on technical topics, but mainly people noticed that I engaged in a constructive and helpful manner. That I gave more than I took.[5]

And this brings us to the concept of visibility from that earlier blog post, and the opportunity that comes from being seen kicking ass – being seen doing the great work you do every day. For me, being actively engaged in the MCT community led to my first job at Microsoft. People who knew me because of my community involvement let me know that there was a job I should apply for, and they put a referral into the internal HR systems to make it more likely I would get called for an interview[6], and the rest is history.

For you, being actively engaged in your community – whether it’s the Power BI community or something else – will likely mean something very similar. The details will be different because the context is different, but adding your voice to the communities you frequent is how you let the community know who you are and what you do.

When you answer questions – and when you ask them too – other members of the community will begin to understand what you do, and how you work. When you write a blog post or record a video, more people will begin to understand how you think, and how you communicate. They’ll learn from you, and they’ll learn about you.

This is good.

As more people learn about who you are and what you do, and as more people begin to see and value your contributions, they’ll start thinking about how awesome it would be if you could contribute more directly to their projects and products. For me this meant being asked more frequently to teach SQL Server and SSIS classes, and an increased volume of inquiries about consulting availability.[7] I had more opportunities for more interesting and better paying work because of my engagement with the community, and it changed my life for the better in many ways.

For you it will look different because the context is different, but you can follow the same pattern. Your contributions to the community organically become your resume[8], your marketing web site, your demo reel. Potential employers and potential clients[9] will have a more complete picture of how you work than a job interview can provide, and that can make all the difference.

Implied in this pattern is the positive nature of your community contributions. If you’re a bully or a gatekeeper or engage in other types of abusive behavior… people notice that too. This can become its own opportunity for improvement, because if you’re more mindful about presenting the side of you that you want people to see, the more likely you are to become that better version of yourself.[10]

Engaging with the community changed my life. It can change yours too.


Interesting side note on timing: I joined Twitter ten years ago this month.

At that time I had just accepted a position on the SQL Server Integration Services  (SSIS) product team, and had asked one of my new colleagues where the SSIS community was centered, and he pointed me there. The rest sort of took care of itself…


[0] Referring to this data culture video as “recent” gives you some insight into how long this post languished in draft form after the introduction was written.

[1] This is kind of like saying “big fish in a small pond” but self-aware enough to realize I’ve never been a large fish on any scale.[2]

[2] I am so sorry, and yet not sorry at all.

[3] Two words: Usenet newsgroups.

[4] I’ve thought about this a lot in the intervening years, and believe that the root cause was probably a combination of my rural, poor, opportunity-sparse upbringing, and my mental health challenges, but I doubt I’ll ever know for sure.

[5] I’m generalizing here, and making some big assumptions based on the available evidence. This is what I think people noticed based on the way that they reacted, but only a handful said so. Of course, they typically said so when offering me work…

[6] This is something I have done a few times over the years myself, and there’s no better feeling than knowing I played some small part in helping Microsoft attract new talent, and in helping a member of the community achieve their career goals.

[7] For me it also meant that I roughly doubled my billing rate over the course of 18 months. I had so many inquiries that I was turning down almost all of them because I didn’t have the bandwidth to say yes, and decided to take advantage of the laws of supply and demand.

[8] This 2016-era post from MVP Brent Ozar presents a much more prescriptive approach to this theme.

[9] And potential employees as well, in the fullness of time.

[10] And let’s be honest – if you’re an insufferable asshole who refuses to change, participating in a community is a great way to let people know, so they can know that you’re someone they should avoid hiring, interviewing, or contracting. This is also good.

Free Power BI Intro Training From Microsoft

As anyone who is familiar with my series on building a data culture knows, training is an absolutely vital success factor for a community of practice. This isn’t limited to developers, administrators, and content creators – you need to empower every user for your data culture to truly thrive.

Although Microsoft has long offered a variety of training resources such as the “in a day” courses[1], until now these offerings were focused on more technical personas and topics, not on the business users who are consuming reports and dashboards.

Guess what this blog post is about.

That’s right! Starting this month any Power BI user can sign up for free online introductory training delivered by Microsoft instructors.

These are synchronous online classes with expert instructors who guide Power BI consumers through some of the most common and most important parts of the Power BI experience. Classes are scheduled for multiple days and multiple times of the day[2], and I expect more to be scheduled on an ongoing basis. Click the link above for the current schedule.

But it gets even better!

If you’re working for an organization with lots of Power BI users[3], Microsoft offers “closed classes” on your schedule, for your users. I don’t have a link to share for this one, but your Microsoft account team wants to help get you started. Talk to your customer success account manager (CSAM) or another member of your account team, and ask about the Microsoft Store Events training for Power BI.

Why wait? Sign up for a course or talk to your account team today!


[1] Take a look here for a list of courses including Dashboard in a Day, Administrator in a Day, Developer in a Day, and other training courses that sadly do not include the phrase “in a day” in their names.

[2] There’s even one course being delivered as I type this post!

[3] We’ve been making this training available for enterprise customers for the past few months, and have already reached tens of thousands of learners while receiving great feedback along the way.

Never underestimate the voice of the customer

Most of what I do in my day job involves listening.

A sculpture of men with ears pressed to a brick wall - Image by Couleur from Pixabay
It’s better to put your ear up to the wall than it is to bang your head against it.

Specifically, I spend a lot of time listening to people who use Power BI[1] talk about why they use it, how they use it, and where they struggle along the way. I ask a few questions to get them started, and then I ask a few follow-up questions to help them along as they tell their story – but mainly I listen.

I listen, and then I use what I hear to help make Power BI a better tool for these people and their organizations’ needs.

I listen for patterns and trends, and for a signal to emerge from the noise of hundreds of conversations. When it does, I make sure that the right decision-makers and leaders hear it and understand it, so they can take it into account as they decide where to invest and how to prioritize those investments.[2]

I listen with an informed ear. I spent almost 15 years building software and data solutions, so I understand a lot of the technical and organizational challenges these people face. I spent the next decade or so building data products and services as a program manager at Microsoft, so I understand a lot of the challenges involved in prioritizing and building product features. And perhaps most importantly, I am genuinely interested in listening to and learning from the people with whom I talk. I truly want to hear their stories.

Of course there’s only one of me, and I can’t spend my whole workday listening to people tell their stories… so I’ve helped build a team to listen[3], and it’s making a difference. The next time you see an announcement about new capabilities in Power BI that will improve the lives of large enterprise customers, odds are this team had a hand in making those capabilities a reality.

Why am I telling you all this? This is my personal blog, and I’m not looking for a job, so who cares, right?

You care.

You care because this type of listening is a thing that you can do to make better software. You can do this whether you’re building commercial software or if you’re part of a BI team that needs to build solutions for larger user populations.[4]

You care because letting the people who use your software – or the people you want to use your software – talk about what what’s important to them… will let you know what’s important to them. And if you’re really listening, you can use what you learn to make better decisions and deliver better products and features.

If you’re genuinely interested in the people who use the software you build, you should consider giving this approach a try.


[1] These people tend to be the business and IT owners of Power BI in large enterprise organizations, but they can be just about anyone involved in implementing, adopting, using, or supporting Power BI.

[2] If you’re interested in learning more about the Power BI product team’s planning process, I cannot recommend highly enough this 2019 presentation from Will Thompson.

[3] As part of building that team we all read and/or re-read Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez. If you have not yet read this awesome book, there’s no time like the present.

[4] I honestly don’t know if this type of rigor is appropriate at a smaller scale, because I haven’t done it and haven’t personally seen it done. I suspect that it would be very valuable, but also suspect that there may be lighter-weight options that would provide a better return on investment.