I’m in Chicago this week, attending the inaugural PASS Business Analytics conference.
It’s been a great experience so far, so I’ll share some of my thoughts and experiences (in no particular order).
-1- Amir Netz (Technical Fellow at Microsoft) is easily the most engaging keynote speaker that I’ve seen. I’ve seen him speak several times, and his energy and enthusiasm are infectious every time. He makes Steve Ballmer – who I saw at a CRM conference in the late 90s – look like Bob Ross composing a mountain landscape. This morning was no different – full of energy and enthusiasm for BI.
During Amir’s Keynote, he shared a great story from his middle-school-aged son, regarding Business Intelligence. My wife is a middle school teacher, and she often comes home with hilarious excerpts of 14-year-old wisdom, so I appreciated the anecdote. Here it is:
Upon hearing that his father would be presenting in his school’s auditorium on the topic of Business Intelligence, Amir’s son did what any sensible kid that age would do – he tried to stop it. When asked why, his son replied with skepticism that such a dry topic would resonate with his classmates (and also drive down his social status). Pressed further, he replied of his schoolmates: “They know nothing of business, and their intelligence is suspect”. The room erupted with laughter as people immediately conjured to mind those to whom the description also applies.
Despite his son’s skepticism, Amir was able to compel the middle-schoolers with a dazzling BI presentation that had the kids wanting more. The takeaway from the anecdote, and from the Keynote in general, was that BI – especially self-service BI – can be fun, and fun can translate to creativity, engagement, and problem-solving.
-2- There is definitely more of a business focus here at the conference than at the PASS Summits that I have been to in the past. There are many sessions dedicated to the strategy, decision making, methodology, etc. involved in BI. These sessions refer to the technology for its strengths and weaknesses, but do not necessarily cover the technical engineering going on under the hood. More focus on the “why” rather than the “how”.
This seems to fit with the challenge that many organizations now face, with the plethora of BI tools available, both within the Microsoft product line (SQL Server, Office, SharePoint, etc), and beyond.
-3- The event is smaller. I read that there are about 900 attendees, and it definitely doesn’t feel like the great horde of geeks (myself included) that descends on Seattle at the PASS Summit each year. I haven’t yet decided if that’s a good thing or not. It just feels different.
-4- The PASS energy is alive and well here. PASS does such a wonderful job – through its board members and volunteers – of propagating a friendly and collaborative community environment. Although there is a newness to this conference that has some attendees moving around and socializing cautiously, you can feel PASS doing its utmost to make sure people engage with each other in the spirit of the PASS axioms: Connect, Share, Learn.
-5- People seem to be better dressed/groomed. Dress shirts are outnumbering t-shirts and wingtips are outnumbering sneakers. I’ve seen blazers, well-ironed slacks, and fewer scraggly, I’ve-been-up-all-night-coding facial hair. (See above, re: point #2 about this being more of a business conference.) I did see one guy wearing a “Save Water, Drink Beer” t-shirt, but he’s the edge case. This has caused me to have to do more ironing that I would have liked, but oh well.
-6- The weather – like in Seattle – is perfectly conducive to staying indoors and learning, writing code, networking, etc. Cool, overcast, rainy weather seems to be a prerequisite that the PASS committee uses when selecting venues. Accordingly, I have repeated my pattern of not seeing any sights, or spending more than 8 total minutes outside (I went to Wallgreens for shaving cream – see point #5 re: clothing and grooming). Would it kill them to have a PASS conference somewhere with some sun? I hear San Francisco is nice.
-7- Access to technical resources is outstanding. Last night, at the Exhibitor Welcome Reception, I walked-up to Lara at the Microsoft BI booth, who introduced me to Chuck, who introduced me to Kay, who spent 30 minutes with me reviewing authentication options for SSRS, SharePoint, and Excel over a hosted platform. Over beers, he diagrammed some options for me in PowerPoint (I know – weird – but it works), and even offered up his email for any follow-up questions. That whole experience would have been very expensive and very time-consuming through the regular channels. There is no SQL Server clinic, but there are several CAT engineers here, as well as many other experts to chat with over breakfast, lunch, or coffee. The people who I have chatted with have been candid about where they’ve had success, and where they’ve had problems, and I find it very helpful. There’s none of the arrogance and hubris that sometimes comes with discussing things in online forums – very refreshing.
-8- Big Data is… what everyone is talking about, but in a weird way. Definitions are vague (the best I’ve heard is “Volume, Velocity, and Variety”), not many people seem to be actually working with it in a meaningful way. There is a coolness factor to it that has everyone’s attention, though, despite the seeming lack of actual experience with it. Some of the conversations that I’ve overheard remind me of listening to my parents talk about “the internet” 10 years ago: the nomenclature is vague or incorrect, concepts are loose, and experience is limited, but they know it’s out there, and they know it’s cool.
I’ll sign off now – there’s a shirt at the bottom of my bag that needs ironing for tomorrow.