Tag Archives: PASS BA Conference

PASS BA Chicago

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.

shirt_to_iron

Happy Bushwhacking!

This afternoon I read a thought-provoking article by Andy Warren (@SQLAndy), on the place of the PASS BA Conference within the greater PASS organization. In it, Mr. Warren questions whether the conference is a good idea for PASS, whom it intends to serve, and how it will be judged for success. Tough questions, but fair, and thoughtful.

NB: though I have benefited greatly from his contributions to SQLServerCentral.com, and feel as though I ‘know’ him in that sense, I don’t feel comfortable calling him Andy. :)

Among his many good points, Mr. Warren articulates the conundrum that the PASS board faces: the responsibility to grow in order to remain relevant in the support of its members, without alienating them by tacking in the wrong direction. Though I agree with Mr. Warren in his call for more transparency from PASS, their challenge seems to be less about transparency and more about prescience: how to illuminate a path they’ve never been down.

The emerging technologies behind BI/BA are new to us all, and it would seem that PASS as an organization faces the same opportunities and challenges that database professionals do – an industry opportunity/demand for a new technology, and a natural curiosity feeding the urge to grow in that direction, but no lamp to light the way.

Reading the article got me thinking about my own career path. My introduction to database technology came via a CRM software called GoldMine that used Microsoft SQL Server at the back-end (SQL Server 7, at the time). I started as a sales consultant, and then trainer, then in-house tech support, and finally on-site technical implementation specialist. After an extended hiatus to teach and travel in Asia, I cut out the middle-man and dove headlong into SQL Server. I have been working exclusively with SQL Server for the past 7 years, picking up an MCTS certification, and some departmental management responsibilities along the way. Each transition in my career has been in response to a combination of opportunities from outside forces (the job market, namely), and natural curiosity on my part. Each of those transitions has demanded time spent bushwhacking a new path.

My most recent bit of bushwhacking involved diving into SQL Server Analysis Services, which I did in response to that familiar combination of influences: curiosity and opportunity. A major project at work seemed to be screaming for an OLAP solution, and yet I lacked any real experience in that domain. So at the 2012 PASS Summit- I completely immersed myself in it. The experience was a mixed bag similar to other times where I’ve stretched to learn: frustrating, exhilarating, and exhausting, but ultimately: nourishing (read about it here). I’ve realized that those are the stimulants that I thrive of off, and I think many other IT professionals do as well.

After my OLAP Sprint at the PASS Summit last November, I registered for the PASS BA Conference, not because I knew that it was the right move, or that it would deliver exactly what I needed to continue along my path, but because I was curious, and BI/BA seems to have great opportunities and momentum right now.

If PASS is meant to represent us database professionals – as a sort of macrocosm or amalgam of each of us – maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that their growth feels similar to mine: imperfect, for sure, but nourishing, and filled with curiosity and opportunity. Happy Bushwhacking!