Between the problem domain and the solution domain

In a recent post I mused about problem domains and solution domains, how they’re context-dependent, and how interesting things tend to happen at the intersection of a problem domain and a solution domain.

In this post I’m going to talk more about that intersection, and I’m going to start by putting it into a personal context: my job. For the past[1] few years I’ve been a member of the Power BI customer advisory team (Power BI CAT) at Microsoft. After spending almost a decade as a PM shipping data products and services, moving out of a feature role was strange, but I quickly realized this was the perfect place for me to work, and to shine, mainly because I was literally livin’ on the edge[2]… between the problem domain and the solution domain.

Early in 2021, we realized that the CAT team had grown significantly enough during the pandemic that we should organize a virtual “offsite” meeting for the team. There were more and more team members who had never met each other[4], and we wanted to invest in a sense of shared purpose and team identity.

To this end, some of the more tenured members of the team put together an agenda to cover the most important topics. I built a single slide to show “this is who we are, and this is what we do” to share my perspective and spark conversation. This is that slide:

The Power BI CAT team recognizes that the customer is the authoritative expert on the problem domain. They live it day in and day out, and their reality working with Power BI is their lived truth. We can work to understand it, and we can work to make their experience better, but they’re the experts. They get the final say.

We also recognize that the Power BI product team is the authoritative expert on the solution domain. The product team ultimately decides what features and capabilities to ship, how to scope them, and how to prioritize them[5]. They also decide the implementation of each feature – the product team writes the code, which is about as authoritative a perspective as you can get.

The CAT team stands in the middle, with one foot planted firmly in the problem domain and another firmly in the solution domain. This is a key reason why we’re able to be so impactful with such a relatively small number of team members. Although we are not the authoritative experts on either side[6], we are well-informed participants with a deep understanding of both sides. Customers often have a meaningful understanding of the solution domain and product team members typically have a meaningful understanding of the problem domain; the CAT team’s position gives us a unique perspective and advantage.

One of our team’s core function is to “build better customers.” Please keep in mind this is my personal phrases, not anything official, but I believe it effectively describes what we do. The CAT team works with some of the biggest customers in the world – enterprise customers who are pushing the limits of what Power BI and the Azure data platform do. Sometimes these customers need help, because no one has previously done what they’re trying to do. With our team’s expertise and our deep connections with the product team we can help them achieve their goals to be successful today – and as part of the same engagements we help the product team improve Power BI so that the next time a big customer is trying to do that same difficult thing, they don’t need to ask for help.

A key aspect of this function is scale. If we work with one customer to help one customer, we’ve missed a vital opportunity. To increase our team’s impact we’re continually looking for opportunities to work with one customer and help every customer. This scaling might take the form of community engagement via blogs or YouTube, or Microsoft Learn courses on commonly-needed topics like DAX and effective report design, or the Power BI guidance documentation or the Power BI Adoption Roadmap…. the list goes on and on. The team culture encourages members to ask themselves “does it scale” and to look for ways to make the answer be “yes” as often as possible.

The team’s other core function is to “build better product.” As we help customers in our ongoing engagements we’re learning from them, and we take what we learn back to the product team in a variety of structured and unstructured ways. One of my favorite books, The Customer-Driven Playbook[7]describes this process as “sensemaking”:

Sensemaking is a process that ensures we organize the data we collect, identify patterns and meaningful insights, and refine them into a story that compels others to action.

I absolutely love this quote, because for me it elegantly captures the core of what I try to do every day. Members of the CAT team are typically technical professional with significant personal experience, and we bring that to our jobs. What we don’t bring is an agenda. We’re careful in our work with the product team to curate what we learn from customers, and to represent both the “what” and the “why” of their goals and challenges, with the goal to compel the product team to take action to address the customers’ needs[8].

(yawn)

If you’ve made it this far, you may be asking what this has to do with you. Why should you care what’s going on behind the scenes at Microsoft, even if you use Power BI?

You should care because the role of the Power BI CAT team – standing with one foot planted firmly in the problem domain and another firmly in the solution domain – is a success pattern that you can and should generalize in your efforts to build a data culture. Your center of excellence fulfils role similar to that of the CAT team, sitting between the internal customers who are trying to use data to solve business problems and the teams responsible for building and maintaining data systems and tools in your organization.

The details will be different, because the details are always different – but the pattern can be applied wherever there is a group of people with solutions that are relevant for different groups of people with problems.

Last month I had a chance to work with MVP Chris Wagner, an analytics architect who leads a data enablement and community team at Rockwell Automation. As part of a presentation that he and I delivered for Rockwell’s BI community, Chris presented this slide:

He stole my slide! And I could not be happier to see it.

Chris recognized that my mental model for the Power BI CAT team aligned closely with his mental model for how technical community works at Rockwell… and as they say, plagiarism is the highest form of flattery.  If your job or your team has you standing on the border between the problem domain and the solution domain, you should feel free to steal my slide too.


[1] Checks watch… oh my goodness it’s been almost four years. Anyway…

[2] Eat your heart out[3], Aerosmith.

[3] Also apparently Dio.

[4] I’m pretty sure the team has nearly doubled in size since then, so maybe it’s time to have another offsite. I wish we could do this in person again. Please get vaccinated if you’re able to get vaccinated, so you will be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.

[5] If you’re interested in somewhat dated but still wonderful and relevant insights into how the Power BI product team makes these decisions, please watch this 2019 presentation from Will Thompson.

[6] I’m always skeptical when someone describes himself as an “expert” on anything other than their own lived experiences, because the more I learn about a subject the more I realize how little my knowledge encompasses the subject as a whole.

[7] You should read this book. If you’ve already read it, you should probably read it again because you’ll learning something new each time you do.

[8] Although no modern cloud service or commercial software product will every be “done” I believe there is strong evidence to say that we’ve been pretty successful so far. Over the past few years I’ve had scores of customers tell me that “we know that if something we need isn’t in Power BI today, it will be there next month, or six months from now.” The real credit for this earned trust goes to the product team, but it feels pretty nice to be part of that story.

Problem Domain, Solution Domain

I’ve been thinking about problem domains and solution domains a lot lately. I’ve posted on this topic before, but the more I think about it, the more I think I should explore it more. Starting now.

Image of interlocking puzzle piece hearts from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/puzzle-heart-love-two-hearts-1721619/
When the right problems meet the right solutions, it can be magical

Let’s begin by defining our terms.[1]

A problem domain is a subject area where people work.

If you’re a business intelligence or data professional, the problem domains of interest are often a business function like finance, supply chain or HR. The problem domain experts[2] are typically people who are work in one of these fields, and who might come to you looking for solutions, or for help building solutions.

A solution domain is also a subject area where people work.

If you’re a business intelligence or data professional, the solution domains of interest are often some combination of data visualization, data modeling, data transformation, and so on. They may also be DAX, Power Query, Power BI, or another specific set of tools and technologies.  The solution domain experts[3] are typically people who build data and BI applications and systems to solve problems in other problem domains.

On the other hand, if you’re a member of the Power BI product team[4], the solution domain you’re working in is commercial software development – and the problem domain of interest is building, deploying, monitoring, and/or administering Power BI solutions. Everything is relative, and whether a given subject area is a problem domain or a solution domain is a function of the context in which it is being evaluated.

Let’s pause to let that sink in for a minute. None of the information above is particularly new, and it may not seem profound at first glance, but these two terms are some of the most foundational concepts of building a data culture.

A successful and mature data culture is the product of the right people doing the right things with the right data as part of the right processes.[5] This means that a successful and mature data culture involves solution domain experts and problem domain experts having healthy partnerships and mutual respect… which is also a foundational concept that sounds simple until you look at it more closely.

If you think about the traditional relationship between business and IT, “partnership” probably isn’t the first word that leaps to mind. All too often this relationship is characterized by conflict and a lack of mutual respect that is in part a function of misaligned priorities. Like many entrenched conflicts it is also partly a function of history and  the mistrust produced by historical wrongs – actual or perceived.

Most interesting things – interesting conversations, interesting projects, interesting jobs and careers – exist at the intersection of the problem domain and the solution domain. Interesting things happen at the edges where one thing ends and another thing begins. This is where complexity is found, because multiple domains are involved and making sense requires experts in each domain.

Unfortunately this is also where things tend to go wrong. Too often things fall into the cracks between the problem domain and the solution domain. Experts in one domain don’t value the other part of the picture, or they don’t see it as their job, or they assume that someone else will figure that part out… or maybe it’s none of these things, and they just lack the vocabulary and the context to close that gap.

Please take a moment to think honestly and critically about the problem domains and solution domains in which you operate, and your relationships with the folks in other domains with whom you interact. This is all I have for today, and although I don’t know exactly where I’m going down this path, I know I’m not done – and I know a little introspection can go a long way.


[1] These are my personal definitions that I’m making up as I write this post. You’ll find other definitions if you’re willing to go looking, and although those definitions will align broadly with these, they will have different emphasis and context and nuance because they’re not mine.

[2] The subject matter experts in a given problem domain.

[3] The subject matter experts in a given solution domain.

[4] Or another team building commercial tools for data and analytics.

[5] And the state in which these things are the norm and the exception.

Tabular Editor and “Desktop Hardening”

Back in June[1] the guys in cubes at Guy in a Cube were joined by Daniel Otykier and Marco Russo for a live stream on YouTube. Daniel is the creator of Tabular Editor, a powerful tool for developing Analysis Services Tabular data models and Power BI datasets. Marco is one of the Italian Data Models[2] behind SQLBI.com, and is a recognized expert on tabular development and DAX.

This special live stream was a Q&A session with Daniel and Marco about the then-new announcement of Tabular Editor 3, an improved and expanded paid version of what had previously been a free, community-supported too. I watched the stream to learn what the excitement was all about, and to see if there were any off-topic questions[3] I could answer in the chat.

Quite a few questions came up where the term “desktop hardening” was part of answer. Questions like this one:

I strongly encourage you to watch the live stream replay for the questions and discussion. Daniel does an excellent job of describing how Tabular Editor uses Microsoft’s Tabular Object Model library to modify tabular data models, and some of the complexities of what’s allowed or not allowed depending on where a given tabular model is located – and I’m not going to attempt to replicate his wisdom here.

What I am going to do here is talk a little about “desktop hardening,” which is a term I’ve heard hundreds of times in meetings and work conversations[5], but which I discovered is practically undefined and unmentioned on the public internet. The only place where I could find this term used in context was in this reply from Power BI PM Christian Wade… and if you don’t already know what “desktop hardening” is, seeing it used in context here isn’t going to help too much.

Here is my definition of desktop hardening:

Desktop hardening is the internal shorthand used by members of the Power BI product team to describe a broad set of ongoing investments to expose the full contents of the Power BI Desktop PBIX file format as a supported public API.

There are a few things worth picking apart in this definition. Let’s start with “public API,” and let’s start by clarifying I don’t mean “REST API” or “.NET SDK” or anything of the sort. In this post I’m using the broadest possible definition of the term API, which to me is “a set of functionality that can be accessed programmatically.” More on this below.

As this excellent post from API Academy highlights, a public or “open” API “is an interface that has been designed to be easily accessible by the wider population of… developers” and that “opening an interface to external developers can significantly add to the management and security challenges associated with publishing APIs. For example, with many third-party client apps active in the field, it can be very challenging to ensure that interface updates do not break application functionality.”

Conversely, “Private APIs can significantly reduce the development time and resources needed to… build new systems that maximize productivity and create customer-facing apps that extend market reach and add value to existing offerings.”

In my experience, a private API can be updated with minimal or moderate effort. By definition it’s only being called by developers in your organization, so if you need to make a change you let them know and they update their client code[6]. On the other hand, updating a public API is very complicated and very costly, especially when there are legal and/or regulatory requirements that need to be met. When updating a public API you need to worry about a thousand different things, from documentation to backward compatibility. These considerations make every aspect of maintaining the API slower, more complicated, and more costly. Forever.

Now that we’ve looked at the “public API” part of the definition, let’s also look at the “Power BI Desktop PBIX file format” part.

The Power BI Desktop authoring tool uses the PBIX file format, which is implemented similar to the Open XML format introduced in Office 2007. Each PBIX file is basically a Zip archive that contains a set of folders and XML and JSON files. Each PBIX file contains the tabular data model, reports, Power Query mashups, and related metadata for the a Power BI solution. MVP Gilbert Quevauvilliers of FourMoo explored the contents of the PBIX format if you’re interested in taking a closer look.

Now let’s look at the “ongoing investments to expose the full contents” part of the definition.

As of today, only a limited number of operations on the tabular data model in a PBIX file are supported for write operations. These operations were exposed as part of the Power BI team’s addition of external tools support to Power BI Desktop, and are documented as part of the docs for external tools.

Today if a given operation isn’t on that list, it’s not supported for use by any client other than Power BI Desktop. If you edit another part of a PBIX, directly it might be OK, but it might not – your edit might make the PBIX unable to be opened by Power BI desktop. And even if a given operation might work today, it might not work tomorrow. That’s how private APIs work – the API owner can make changes at any time, and any client application or process that relies on the unsupported private API may be broken.

I should also point out that the scope of desktop hardening isn’t limited to external tools like tabular Editor. It also includes:

  • The ability for Power BI Desktop to accept dataset definitions that include features that currently cannot be built in Desktop, such as Partitions and DetailRows.
  • The ability to download a dataset defined or modified using the XML endpoint in the Power BI service as a PBIX file or PBIT template.
  • The ability for Power BI Desktop to accept dataset definitions that are produced as part of a git workflow or similar process where a developer might programmatically “merge” changes from multiple branches.[7]

The Power BI team has a goal to provide a public API for everything in the PBIX file (that’s what “desktop hardening” means, remember?) but it’s a long-term goal. You can keep an eye on the public roadmap at https://aka.ms/PBIReleasePlan, but I expect the full vision of desktop hardening to be delivered incrementally over time, rather than in one big release. Desktop hardening isn’t a feature – it’s a bunch of related features and non-feature investments. Because of the ongoing implications of having a public API, it’s important to do things right, and the complexity of this effort cannot be overstated.

That brings us to the final part of the definition I want to explore: the term “desktop hardening” is an “internal shorthand” used by the product team. This isn’t a term that is ever likely to show up in official Microsoft documentation, but it’s become part of the team vocabulary, and has unfortunately leaked into public community conversations as well… sort of like an unsupported API.

I hope that the next time you hear someone talking about desktop hardening you’ll have a better idea of what this term means, and I hope that the next time you hear someone asking about it you can direct them to this post.


[1] Back in June when I started writing this post, which might give you an idea of how my 2021 has been going.

[2] Think about it. “Marco” and “Alberto” have become mononyms not unlike “Fabio”. Also, they’re all Italian, they’re all absolutely beautiful people, and their names always come up when you’re talking about modeling. Seriously, I’m right and you know that I’m right.

[3] Guy in a Cube live streams are usually more “ask me anything” Q&A sessions rather than focused on a specific topic, and there are always more questions than there’s time for answers. Adam and Patrick were kind enough[4] to make me a moderator of their channel, so I do what I can to help out.

[4] Foolish enough.

[5] This is where I add the standard disclaimer that although I am a Microsoft employee and a member of the Power BI CAT team, this is my personal blog and all information here is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or any of my cats, etc., etc.

[6] Somewhere an engineering manager is screaming and/or crying as they read this. Updating private APIs can indeed be complicated and costly – just not when compared with updating a public API of similar scope and complexity. When you’re building, shipping, and maintaining software that is used by millions of people around the world, nothing is actually simple.

[7] Thanks a million to the engineering manager who took time out of his busy day to provide constructive criticism on an earlier draft version of this post, and to let me know that he felt my definition was too constrained, and that my examples were too sparse. This list of additional examples is based on his feedback – thank you, Akshai!

Please help make Microsoft Teams more accessible

If you’re in a rush, please skip reading the post and instead vote on these two Microsoft Teams feedback items:

  1. “Please stop blinking” – requesting an option to disable the near-constant blinking of the taskbar button for the Windows app for Teams
  2. “Request User-Level Option to Disable GIF Autoplay” – this one is pretty self-explanatory

Thank you for your votes and comments!

Now on with the post…

I’ve blogged previously about the importance of diversity, including the importance of having a diverse team when building software. I’ve even posted about  specific accessibility challenges with the collaboration tool many of use every day – Microsoft Teams.

And in this context, I am requesting your help.

Last week I shared this quick Twitter poll, and over the course of a day I learned that my challenges with Teams’ default behavior – turning the taskbar button orange and blinking every time there’s activity in the app – are not just mine. Nearly 100 people responded to the poll, and over two thirds of them identified this behavior as a challenge for them as well[1].

For me, this constant flashing is like having someone scream at me all day along. If I’m having a challenging anxiety day, it’s even worse. Judging from the replies on Twitter, I’m not alone in this regard either. And because more and more functionality is being delivered via Teams, it’s not like we can simply close the app to make the blinking stop.

I’ve discovered an undocumented and unsupported hack that appears to solve this problem for some users, but it doesn’t appear to work for everyone. Also, it’s an awful hack that’s about as user-friendly as watching YouTube on your Peloton bike…

If this behavior is a problem for you, please take a few moments to vote up on this feedback item, and to add a personal comment as well. The Teams product team needs to hear from their users to understand what’s important, and this is apparently were they’re listening.

Thank you!


[1] This is a pretty vague interpretation of the poll results, so I’ve included the Twitter poll so you can keep me honest.

 

Rebranding Data Governance

To successfully implement managed self-service business intelligence at any non-trivial scale, you need data governance. To build and nurture a successful data culture, data governance is an essential part of the success.

Despite this fact, and despite the obvious value that data governance can provide, data governance has a bad reputation. Many people – likely including the leaders you need to be your ally if you’re working to build a data culture in your organization – have had negative experiences with data governance in the past, and now react negatively when the topic of data governance is raised.

They now treat data governance as a four-letter word.

Stakeholders’ past experiences can make your job much more difficult as you attempt to work with them to enable managed self-service within an organization. Governance is what they need. Governance is what you want to help them achieve. When you say “governance” you’re thinking about erecting guardrails rather than roadblocks, about making it easier for people to do the right things when working with the right data… but that’s not what they hear.

The label shouldn’t really matter – but it does.

Data governance, and building a data culture in general, is as much about people as it is about processes and technology, and that means effective communication is key. Effective communication requires a shared vocabulary, and a shared understanding of the meaning of key words.

It may be time to think about rebranding. Not unlike how a corporation with a reputation for all the wrong things might change its name in an effort to leave all those negative connotations behind without really changing its ways, maybe we need to rebrand data governance… at least some of the time.

My idea when starting to write this post was to propose “Data Culture Enablement” as the more friendly label, but as I was searching around for related content[1], I found that Dan Sutherland of EY proposed something simpler: Data Enablement.

Dan’s post is coming at things from a different angle, but it’s clear he has a similar goal in mind: “emphasiz[ing] empowerment, innovation and instant business value consumption.”

While I was searching, I found a few more interesting articles out there – they’re all well worth your time to read if you’ve made it this far:

Finally, in an interview with Data Quality Pro, data governance coach Nicola Askham emphasized the positive aspects of data governance:

People think governance is about somebody with a big stick but it’s not. It’s about getting people to communicate and talk about their data and being in a position to ask for what they need with their data. The people on the other end need to understand they have a responsibility to meet that requirement if possible.

But when asked explicitly about coming up with a new term, she replied “For a while, I toyed with the idea of starting a campaign to re-name it but I didn’t think it was worth adding to the confusion surrounding the term by coming up with another title.”

She’s probably right.

But because of the negative connotations that the term “data governance” carries today, we should all exercise care when we use it. We should be careful to ensure that the meaning we’re trying to convey is clearly received – regardless of the terms we’re using.

That feels like an ending, but I’m not done. I want to close with story.

Five years ago I was working on a data governance product, and as part of that work I talked with lots of customers and with Microsoft customer-facing employees. In those conversations I frequently heard people say things to the effect of “don’t use the ‘G word’ when you’re meeting with this leader – if you say ‘governance’ he’s going to stop listening and the meeting will end.” This didn’t happen in every conversation, but it happened in many.

Last month I hosted a multi-day NDA event with senior technical and business stakeholders responsible for adopting and implementing Power BI and Azure Synapse at some of the biggest companies in the world. The event was focused on Power BI and Synapse, but the customer representatives kept bringing up the importance of data governance in session after session, and conversation after conversation[3]. It was like night and day compared to the conversations I had when I was trying to get people to care about governance.

Has the world changed that much, or am I just talking to different people now?

I think it’s probably a bit of both. The world has definitely changed – more and more organizations are recognizing the value and importance of data and are increasingly treating data as an asset that needs to be managed and curated. But these days I also engage mostly with organizations that are atypically mature, and are further along on their data culture journey than most. With this selection bias, it’s probably not surprising that I’m having a different experience.

I’ll close with a question and a thought: Who are you talking to about data governance?

Before you begin any data governance conversation, do your best to have a clear understanding of your audience and your goals in communicating with them. No matter what terms you use, it will make all the difference.


[1] I’m always terrified that I will post something that someone else has already posted. On more than one occasion I’ve completed and published a new post, only to find out that I had written the same thing months or years earlier on this blog. Sigh.

[2] I’m pretty sure I’ve referenced this post before. It’s good enough to reference again. You should read it again.

[3] Thankfully we had also included some key folks from the Azure Purview team as well.