Webcast: Patterns for adopting dataflows in Power BI

I haven’t been posting a lot about dataflows in recent months, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. On Wednesday September 23rd, I’ll be sharing some of that love via a free webcast hosted by the Istanbul Power BI user group[1]. You can sign up here.

In this webcast I’ll be presenting practices for successfully incorporating dataflows into Power BI applications, based on my experience working with enterprise Power BI customers. If you’re interested in common patterns for success, common challenges to avoid, and answers to the most frequently asked dataflows questions, please sign up today.

This webcast won’t cover dataflows basics, so if you’re new to dataflows in Power BI or just need a refresher, please watch this tutorial before joining!


[1] In case it needs to be said, yes, the session will be delivered in English.

Thoughts on effective communication

Early in my career I worked with an incredible network engineer. This was back when networking was a bigger part of my job, and I learned a lot from him[1]. But he was not an effective communicator. Any time we were in a meeting and he was presenting a topic I cared about, I needed to stand up, get closer to the front of the room, and focus exclusively on what he was saying, forcing myself to pay attention.

Because he just shared facts.

Page after page, slide after slide, minute after agonizing hour of facts.

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This was before I knew about the value of asking questions, so I took the burden on myself, because I cared. Most people who could have gotten value from his expertise simply tuned out, or fell asleep[2].

Although this colleague of days gone by will always stand out as the exemplar of ineffective communication, I still see people every day who communicate by sharing facts without context, and without taking their audience into consideration.

Here are a bunch of things that I know and now you know them too!

Yeah, nah. When communication is simply a dump of facts, an opportunity is lost.

If you find yourself falling into this pattern of communication, please pause and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What is my goal for communicating with this audience?
  3. What does my audience care about in general – what motivates them?
  4. Why will my audience care about what I am telling them?
  5. How will my communication motivate my audience to take action to meet my goal?

Or, as a colleague summed it up nicely in a chat:

“Target audience and value proposition. FFS.”[3]

You may be looking at these questions and thinking “that sounds like a lot of work.” I’d like to respond to that excellent-but-false thought in two ways.

First, asking yourself these questions is simply a habit to develop. It will take a little time at the beginning, but over time it becomes second nature.[4]

Second, choosing to not ask yourself these questions is like choosing the low bidder when picking a home improvement contractor. You save a little up-front, but you end up needing to re-do the work more quickly, and no one is ever happy with the results.

These questions apply to any form of communication – email, presentations and conference talks, personal  conversations, you name it.

For lower-risk, lower-value communication like a chat with a coworker you might ask yourself these questions during a conversation, as a safety check to help you keep on track. For a high-risk, high-value communication like a business review or product pitch or large presentation, you might ask yourself these questions many times over weeks or months as you define and refine the narrative you want to drive.

For the past year or so, my great-grandboss was an amazing leader named Lorraine. One of the things I loved about working with Lorraine was how she structured large-audience emails. Any time she sent out a newsletter or other message that would reach hundreds of people, she consistently included these sections at the top of the mail:

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  1. Big bold header so you know instantly what you’re looking at
  2. tl;dr section so you can read in 2 or 3 sentences the most important things in the mail
  3. Read this if section so you know if you’re the target audience for the mail

Every time I see one of these emails I am impressed. Lorraine is a communication wizard, guru, ninja, and I am in awe of her effortless-seeming skills.[5]

But… these effortless results probably come from years of mindful practice. As with any skill, you only get the results if you put in the effort. Why not start today?

P.S. While this post was written and waiting to be published, someone mentioned to me the Minto Pyramid Principle. I’d heard of it before, but I never actually knew what it was called, and now that I do know I’ve done some additional reading on it. The Minto Pyramid Principle is a communication tool that take a similar approach to the “know your audience” approach I’ve presented above. Unlike my random blog post, the Minto Pyramid Principle has stood the test of time – it’s been around since the 70s, and there are lots of different resources including books and articles out there to support it with training and information. You should check it out too.


[1] 20+ years later I am still reminded regularly that 90% of communication failures are caused by problems in the physical layer. Please do not throw sausage pizza away.

[2] Yes, literally fell asleep in work meetings. It was a running joke.

[3] Full disclosure: I added the FFS, not him. But it fits.

[4] Think back to when you were first learning the Farfalla di Ferro, and how you needed to think about every cut, every step, and every transition – and how today you could do it with your eyes closed.

[5] Lorraine is no longer in my reporting chain after a recent re-org, and you can be certain that I sent her a “thank you” message during the transition period. Some things are too awesome to not acknowledge explicitly.

Grandfather, tell me a story!

Are you delivering a technical presentation? Don’t tell me about capabilities.

Don’t tell me about products, or features, or tools.

Tell me a story that I can relate to[1].

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I promise this photo is very relevant to every technical presentation

Tell me a story about someone who struggled, and tell the story in a way that I can relate to the struggling character. When you tell me a story, you immediately have my attention, because my human brain is optimized for learning from stories[2].

Tell me a story about a problem, and the pain that problem has caused. The pain makes it real.

Now tell me about the solution. You already have my attention, and my emotional engagement. It’s time to take advantage of this fact.

Tell me about how your products, features, tools, and capabilities were used to solve the problem, and to eliminate the pain.

Why did the person choose a specific tool or feature? How did she use that capability, and what impact did it make? How did the person’s life change and improve because of the actions she took?

When you tell me a story instead of telling me about features, you probably won’t get to mention every feature you want. That’s OK.

If you tell me a story you might only be able to mention 5 or 10 features instead of the 50 or 100 features you wanted to mention. That’s OK, because I’ll remember the impact those few features made, and I’ll know how they can help me.

If you’d talked about all of the features, I probably would not have remembered any of them – unless I already had my own story and could connect the dots myself.

It’s the story that makes the message stick. I wish every technical presenter remembered this. Maybe I should tell them a story…


[1] No, no, not one of those – a real story!

[2] A quick search will yield many results that highlight the value and importance of stories for learning. This blog post presents an excellent summary.

 

Customer Stories sessions from MBAS 2019

In addition to many excellent technical sessions, last week’s Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) event also included a series of “Customer Stories” sessions that may be even more valuable.

My recent “Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?” post has gotten more buzz than any of my recent technical posts. Some of this might be due to the awesome use of swords[1] and the inclusion of a presentation recording and slides, but some is also largely due to how it presents guidance for successfully implementing managed self-service BI at the scale needed by a global enterprise.

Well, if you liked that post, you’re going to love these session recordings from MBAS. These “Customer Stories” sessions are hosted by the Power BI CAT team’s leader Marc Reguera, and are presented by key technical and business stakeholders from Power BI customers around the world. Unlike my presentation that focused on general patterns and success factors, these presentations each tell a real-world story about a specific enterprise-scale Power BI implementation.

Why should you care about these customer stories? I think Sun Tzu summed it up best[2]:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Understanding how to use technology and features is a tactical necessity, but unless you have a strategic plan for using them, it’s very likely you won’t succeed in the long term. And just as any military leader will study past battles, today’s technical leaders can get great value from those who have gone before them.

If you’re part of your organization’s Power BI team, add these sessions to your schedule. You’ll thank me later.


[1] Just humor me here, please.

[2] I was also considering going with the Julius Caesar’s famous quote about his empire-wide adoption of Power BI, “Veni, vidi, vizi,” but I think the Sun Tzu quote works a little better. Do you agree?

Power BI dataflows and CDM Sessions from MBAS 2019

Last week Microsoft held its annual Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) event in Atlanta. This two-day technical conference covers the whole Business Applications platform – including Dynamics, PowerApps, and Flow – and not just Power BI, but there was a ton of great Power BI content to be had. Now that the event is over, the session recordings and resources are available to everyone.

MBAS 2019 Banner

There’s a dedicated page on the Power BI community site with all of the sessions, but I wanted to call out a few sessions on dataflows and the Common Data Model that readers of this blog should probably watch[1].

Power BI dataflows sessions

Microsoft Power BI: Democratizing self-service data prep with dataflows

This session is something of a “deep technical introduction” to dataflows in Power BI. If you’re already familiar with dataflows a lot of this will be a repeat, but there are some gems as well.

Microsoft Power BI: Enterprise-grade BI with Power BI dataflows

This session is probably my favorite dataflows session from any conference. This is a deep dive into the dataflows architecture, including the brand-new-in-preview compute engine for performance and scale.

Common Data Model sessions

As you know, Power BI dataflows build on CDM and CDM folders. As you probably know, CDM isn’t just about Power BI – it’s a major area of investment across Azure data services as well. The session lineup at MBAS reflected this importance with three dedicated CDM sessions.

Common Data Model: All you need to know

This ironically-named session[2] provides a comprehensive overview of CDM. It’s not really everything you need, but it’s the right place to begin if you’re new to CDM and want to the big-picture view.

Microsoft Power BI: Common Data Model and Azure Data Services

This session covers how CDM and CDM folders are used in Power BI and Azure data services. If you’ve been following dataflows and CDM closely over the past six months much of this session might be review, but it’s an excellent “deep overview” nonetheless.

Microsoft Power BI: Advanced concepts in the Common Data Model

This session is probably the single best resource on CDM available today. The presenters are the key technical team behind CDM, and goes into details and concepts that aren’t available in any other presentation I’ve found. I’ve been following CDM pretty closely for the past year or more, and I learned a lot from this session. You probably will too.

Once you’re done watching these sessions, remember that there’s a huge library of technical sessions you can watch on-demand. Also some less-technical sessions.


[1] I have a list of a dozen or more sessions that I want to watch, and only a few of them are dataflows-centric. If you look through the catalog you’ll likely find some unexpected gems.

[2] If this is all you need to know, why do we have these other two sessions?

[3] Including Jeff Bernhardt, the architect behind CDM. Jeff doesn’t have the rock star reputation he deserves, but he’s been instrumental in the design and implementation of many of the products and services on which I’ve built my career. Any time Jeff is talking, I make a point to listen closely.

Is self-service business intelligence a two-edged sword?

I post about Power BI dataflows a lot, but that’s mainly because I love them. My background in data preparation and ETL, combined with dataflows’ general awesomeness makes them a natural fit for my blog. This means that people often think of me as “the dataflows guy” even though dataflows are actually a small part of my role on the Power BI CAT team. Most of what I do at work is help large enterprise customers successfully adopt Power BI, and to help make Power BI a better tool for their scenarios[1].

As part of my ongoing conversations with senior stakeholders from these large global companies, I’ve noticed an interesting trend emerging: customers describing self-service BI as a two-edged sword. This trend is interesting for two main reasons:

  1. It’s a work conversation involving swords
  2. Someone other than me is bringing swords into the work conversation[2]

As someone who has extensive experience with both self-service BI and with two-edged swords, I found myself thinking about these comments more and more – and the more I reflected, the more I believed this simile holds up, but not necessarily in the way you might suspect.

This week in London I delivered a new presentation for the London Power BI User Group – Lessons from the Enterprise: Managed Self-Service BI at Global Scale. In this hour-long presentation I explored the relationship between self-service BI and two-edged swords, and encouraged my audience to consider the following points[4]:

  • The two sharp edges of a sword each serve distinct and complementary purposes.
  • A competent swordsperson knows how and when to use each, and how to use them effectively in combination.
  • Having two sharp edges is only dangerous to the wielder if they are ignorant of their tool.
  • A BI tool like Power BI, which can be used for both “pro” IT-driven BI and self-service business-driven BI has the same characteristics, and to use it successfully at scale an organization needs to understand its capabilities and know how to use both “edges” effectively in combination.

As you can imagine, there’s more to it than this, so you should probably watch the session recording.

ssbi and swords

If you’re interested in the slides, please download them here: London PUG – 2019-06-03 – Lessons from the Enterprise.

If you interested in the videos shown during the presentation, they’re included in the PowerPoint slides, and you can view them on YouTube here:

For those who are coming to the Microsoft Business Applications Summit next week, please consider joining the CAT team’s “Enterprise business intelligence with Power BI” full-day pre-conference session on Sunday. Much of the day will be deep technical content, but we’ll be wrapping up with a revised and refined version of this content, with a focus on building a center of excellence and a culture of data in your organization.

Update 2019-06-10: The slides from the MBAS pre-conference session can be found here: PRE08 – Enterprise business intelligence with Power BI – Building a CoE.

There is also a video of the final demo where Adam Saxton joined me to illustrate how business and IT can work together to effectively respond to unexpected challenges. If you ever wondered what trust looks like in a professional[5] environment, you definitely want to watch this video.

 


[1] This may be even more exciting for me than Power BI dataflows are, but it’s not as obvious how to share this in blog-sized pieces.

[2] Without this second point, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy. I have a tendency to bring up swords more often in work conversations than you might expect[3].

[3] And if you’ve been paying attention for very long, you’ll probably expect this to come up pretty often.

[4] Pun intended. Obviously.

[5] For a given value of “professional.”

Session resources: Power BI dataflows and Azure Data Lake integration

Last week I delivered two online sessions on the topic of integrating Power BI dataflows with an organizational Azure Data Lake Storage Gen2 storage account. I’ve blogged on this topic before (link | link | link | link) but sometimes a presentation and demo is worth a thousand words.

On April 30th I delivered a “Power BI dataflows 201 – beyond the basics” session for the PASS Business Intelligence Virtual Chapter. The session recording is online here, and you can download the slides here.

On May 4th I delivered a “Integrating Power BI and Azure Data Lake with dataflows and CDM Folders” session for the SQL Saturday community event in Stockholm, Sweden. I was originally planning to deliver the Stockholm session in person, but due to circumstances beyond my control[1] I ended up presenting remotely, which meant that I could more easily record the session. The session recording is online here, and you can download the slides here.

Each of these sessions covers much of the same material. The Stockholm presentation got off to a bit rocky start[2] but it gets smoother after the first few minutes.

Please feel free to use these slides for your own presentations if they’re useful. And please let me know if you have any questions!

Update: I delivered an updated version of this session on September 27, at the Power Platform World Tour in Vancouver, BC. There is no recording of this session, but the updated slides can be downloaded here.


[1] I forgot to book flights. Seriously, I thought I had booked flights in February when I committed to speaking, and by the time I realized that I had not booked them, they were way out of my budget. This was not my finest hour.

[2] The presentation was scheduled to start at 6:00 AM, so I got up at 4:00 and came into the office to review and prepare. Instead I spent the 90 minutes before the session start time fighting with PC issues and got everything working less than a minute before 6:00. I can’t remember ever coming in quite this hot…

My slides from SQL Saturday Victoria

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at SQL Saturday in Victoria, BC. I delivered an introductory session on Power BI dataflows, and included an unplanned impromptu musical[1] performance.

This week at the Microsoft MVP Summit in Redmond I have been talking to a lot of MVPs and I realized that I had yet to make any of my presentation resources available. The slide deck below (click on the image or the link below it) is my standard dataflows slide deck, with the SQL Saturday template applied.

Slide deck

SQLSatVictoria – Introduction to Power BI Dataflows

This deck includes more content than is appropriate for a single session, but it has resources that you can use if you want to present on dataflows at a conference or user group meeting. Please feel free to take what’s there and to use the parts that are valuable. Please also feel free to ping me on Twitter if you have any questions or feedback on the content or the content flow.

If you have any critical feedback to share related to my musical performance, please include a link to your Power BI themed sings as reference.


[1] For a given value of “musical”.