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Quick Wins and Quick Losses

April 27th, 2010
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I have been wondering of late – what a “Quick Win” implies and means. From my experience with BI projects, very often because of fairly uneducated target consumers and fierce competition, companies deliver quick and dirty solutions, hoping to attract attention and then sell more services. This practice is often referred to as a “Quick Win”. Of course, the actual intention is not bad, but when poorly executed it firstly wastes clients’ money and time and then also discourages them from pursuing a BI solution any further. In the case of a failure another term – a “Quick Loss” is more appropriate but never used.

 So, what determines the outcome?

 1. Scope

 Managing the scope is absolutely essential in a Quick Win scenario. We must convince the client that all the advanced functionality can be safely pushed back to the next full-blown release when we would have the time and money to build it properly. If we extend our Quick Win to build Dynamic Dimension Security, partition our cube, clean up the data, build dimension managing capabilities (MDS comes to mind), etc. we will most likely fail or at least jeopardise our chances of success. In this first crucial phase we need to concentrate on the core – building simple and robust system. Instead of having the usual scope creep, we should actually try to push for the opposite – scope cuts. Of course, this has to be carefully balanced with the actual need as cutting too much will leave us with an unusable result.

 2. Quality

 In my opinion, if we deliver a poor quality solution it will fail and no attempts to resuscitate it later would have any decent chance of success. So, when we are scoping out our project we must make sure we have time to build it well. Shortcuts would quite likely make us scrap it altogether at a later point of time and then rebuild it properly. Also, if we build an OLAP solution which is slow and buggy, we would hardly be able to convince our client that the next phase of the project will be any better.

 3. Analysis and Design

 Yes, it is a Quick Win and yes, it is a BI solution, but even these (contrary to some opinions) do need analysis and design. Spending a bit of time with the business users, the source system and with the server engineers can greatly improve the development experience. Without a design phase, it is hard to maintain a strict scope and attain high quality. A brief design document helps with remembering why we have done something the way we have and decoupling us (as developers) from the solution.

 4. Task Management

 I am not a project manager. However, when alone on a small project I find it very useful to track my progress and objectives by building a basic spreadsheet showing Tasks, Description, Time Allocated, etc. This way I can easily comprehend and explain how my development is going, and ask for more time before I hit a deadline if required. Also, a task sheet helps me to switch between tasks, or allocate them to other developers.

 5. Managing Client Expectations

 I have heard this phrase many times before, and it has usually been misused. Managing client expectations does not actually mean lying to the clients, neither it means promising too much. In my opinion, managing client expectations means exactly what it sounds like – don’t make your client too excited with what you cannot deliver and make them expect exactly what you can. It is good to keep the clients happy and optimistic for the future, but making them enthusiastic and then crushing their enthusiasm with a dud solution is unprofessional.

 This issue has been haunting me for a while. I have definitely not exhausted the topic and I am sure that many developers can add to this list their own thoughts, but I just hope I can spare some trouble or offer some hints for the less experienced readers of this blog.

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Obtaining Microsoft BI Certification

February 24th, 2010

I have been a little busy recently with getting certified with Microsoft. I am quite happy to announce I have passed both 70-448 and 70-452 exams in the last couple of weeks without reading a single page of preparation material. Now I am MCP, MCTS and MCITP in SQL Server 2008 BI.

I have always wondered how important and relevant these certificates are. The common opinion around the industry professionals seems to be that experience is what really counts and certifications are for people without experience who are trying to get into the profession. I did it the other way and I am not sorry the least bit for it. An overview of my experience in regards to the two certifications:

MCTS: Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Business Intelligence Development and Maintenance
Exam: 70-448 Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Business Intelligence Development and Maintenance

I passed this one with 857 (out of 1000). Since it was my first attempt at certification I did go through a few sample questions from a prep book based on MeasureUp, and a friend also flicked my way some really poor quality Braindumps, which contained some quite poor terminology and a fair bit of nonsense. On the MeasureUp tests I scored between 65-85%, so I decided to get a Free Second Shot voucher from Prometric and just go with no further preparation. As expected, my Data Mining skills did not quite cover the expectations and I had a few glitches around SSIS maintenance, but as expected I got more than 90% on all the development components and around 80% on all the administration/maintenance ones. After all I am a developer and I am not that experienced with administering BI solutions. So in general, my impression was that the test can be passed without much preparation from fairly inexperienced developers, who read some preparation materials.

MCITP: Business Intelligence Developer 2008
Exam: 70-452 PRO Designing a Business Intelligence Infrastructure Using Microsoft SQL Server 2008

This one was harder, but I passed it with 92% with doing one sample test of 30ish questions before the attempt. I had another Prometric Free Second Shot voucher, so I was not stressing if I would pass or fail. The test had double the amount of questions than the MCTS one and it took me a fir while to go through all of them. Again – Data Mining was my weakest part (less than 50% right), while I managed to score 100% on SSRS, SSAS and “Designing the BI Architecture” part. SSIS was almost perfect too. Now, if a fairly inexpreienced developer passes MCTS, this test will definitely cause a lot more headaches. The questions are much more practical and much higher degree of relevant experience would be required to pass (or much more reading).

In general, both of the tests are not easy and I do believe that if one can pass them without preparation (from experience), he is quite prepared to tackle the design, implementation and administration of Microsoft BI solutions. The Free Second Shot vouchers are also great for eliminating stress to some degree. However, on the not-so-good side, the tests can be passed with no experience and because the questions do follow a certain pattern and do not allow for much freedom in choosing the correct answer (short answer ones could be better), I think that there is a moderate chance of inexperienced and not that knowledgeable people to study, pass and then immediately forget the subject matter.

Still, I have no idea how much my career will benefit from these certifications, however I did get a few PDF certificates signed by Steven A. Ballmer to wave at sutiable occasions :)

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An Open-Source Approach to Business Intelligence

February 2nd, 2010
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Since Microsoft discontinued PerfromacePoint Planning, it is slightly unclear what is their strategy in this field. I have made a few suggestions in the past, some of which:

  • Stored-Procedure write-back from Excel
  • SSAS write-back from Excel
  • Better support for dimensional and measure group write-back

Whether, when and how these may get implemented is an open question. I firmly believe that we should continue learning from any possible source – including our competitors. This is why I am quite interested in any possibility to extend my knowledge in the BI space regardless of who is presenting the ideas and solutions.

Being lucky as I am, I received an open invite to the PALO Australia Roadshow 2010, presented by a company I recently posted about – Naked Data. In a brief, what you can expect from PALO and the presentation is:

  • In-memory MOLAP
  • Rule-based forecasting and planning
  • Some sci-fi GPU parallel processing
  • Integration with Excel (PALO formulas and Pivot tables)
  • .NET API
  • Free breakfast

I will be there trying to get some ideas for my future forecasting and planning implementations. Seats are limited, so make sure you register soon!

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

December 21st, 2009

I now have 40 articles on this blog, around 183 subscribers and approximately 1500-1600 visits a month. It’s been a very pleasant and rewarding casual occupation to write about the world of Microsoft Business Intelligence.

As my professional commitment for the new year I can promise that I will continue writing about new and interesting things I find while playing with SQL Server and the other great products which Microsoft puts on the market.

Also, recently I have started visiting the MSDN SQL Server forums and I will continue doing so in the next year. I would encourage everyone who reads this blog to start sharing their knowledge and helping new developers there – the technologies Microsoft offers are only as good as the people who implement them – us. Working together builds us as professionals and in the end makes our lives easier.

Many thanks to Nick Barclay for encouraging me to start this blog at the first place. Also, a big THANK YOU to Paul Hales, who even though hard to convince to start writing himself, has taught me quite a few things over the last couple of years and has always been the fiercest Microsoft advocate imaginable.

To Paul and Nick, to everyone who I have had the pleasure to work closely with (Tamzyn Bielecka, Mark Dasco, Maxim Yefremov, Sue Hourigan, Chris Mentor, Edmund Harvey and many others) and to all bloggers and readers – have a really MERRY Christmas and a very HAPPY New Year!!!

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A new BI company

September 22nd, 2009
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Just a quick one – recently I learned that three former colleagues of mine had formed a new BI company in Australia – Naked Data. What makes it slightly different is that it is based on an open-source platform; and what makes this venture interesting for me is the people who are involved. All of them are exceptional professionals and I believe that if anyone can make it it is them.

I am curious!

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