Entries in Career (8)


Getting Started with a Career in BI

imageIt’s unbelievable how often I get asked about where to begin with a career in Business Intelligence (BI).  So, here’s my thoughts on it.  If anyone has additional thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Are You a Fit for BI?

First, what is it about BI that appeals to you?  I think that’s really important to know yourself well enough to feel confident whether or not this it’s a good fit for you personally.  The following strikes me as important attributes:

  • Desire to solve problems
  • Willingness to understand business needs (and I mean really understand, really “get it” beyond a superficial level)
  • Ability to interact really well with both technical people and business people
  • Capable of learning quickly, and almost constantly considering the technologies are always evolving
  • Natural aptitude for learning “technical stuff”

Notice that it’s really only the last bullet where I mention “technical stuff.”  In BI technical skills are very important, but the soft skills are easily just as important.  How technical you want to go is really up to you.  Wayne Eckerson calls us Purple People and I think it’s true.  In the world of BI we vary from predominantly business users to quasi-technical folks to extremely skilled technical IT people.

Choosing an Entry Point Position for Getting Exposed to BI

I believe the entry point to doing BI work is lower (i.e., easier) than many other IT jobs out there.  The types of jobs I’ve seen most often as an entry point to BI are:

  • Report Writer.  The appeal of starting off as a report writer is that you will learn some querying, such as SQL and MDX, as well as other important things like change control, deployment, and probably even some performance tuning skills.  You’ll also get exposed to some data modeling principles as you work with the underlying data sources.  It’s also quite likely you’ll interact with the ETL team and/or Cube development team (for instance, you wouldn’t want to derive a new measure in 18 reports – you’d want to ask the downstream team if it’s possible to centralize it).
  • Data Analyst.  This term is used a lot and can mean a lot of things.  I’m thinking a role like this would usually be a business-oriented power user that does a lot of Self-Service reporting, data modeling, and data analysis.  This type of person would probably have opportunities to interact with the Corporate BI team quite a bit if they choose to.  This is basically what we usually think of when we throw around the term “power user.”
  • Business Analyst.  I always say that a good BA is hard to find!  To me this is a quasi-technical, quasi-business role.  If you are in a role like this, collecting requirements for BI and analytics type of projects, you would get exposed to all of the concepts.  You would be exposed to the business need, as well as helping to scope and define rules for the data model, ETL, Cube, and Reports.  You would probably work with a project manager to properly define and manage scope (always a huge challenge with BI work!) as well as prioritizing planned enhancements and change requests.  Basically this role could give a good end-to-end experience.

To Specialize or Generalize?

Figuring out if you want to focus on doing BI work as a business user (i.e., those analysts who do Power Pivot models and reporting are doing Self-Service BI) or evolve your skills to become a Corporate BI developer job is a decision you might find yourself considering at some point.  If you do decide to pursue a BI developer job, you’ll also want to give some thought to specializing or not.

Depth vs. breadth is a constant challenge for me personally – both are important.  Some people feel more comfortable specializing and therefore having much deeper knowledge in their area.  Sub-specialties for BI professionals could include:

  • Data Modeling and Data Warehousing
  • ETL and Data Integration
  • OLAP Models Semantic layer
  • Reporting, Dashboards, and Presentation Layer
  • Master Data Management
  • Metadata Management
  • Predictive Analytics and Data Mining
  • Big Data and Streaming Data
  • Mobile Delivery
  • System Architecture

Whatever you choose, if you don’t have a broad background or a grasp of the big picture, please try to start with the basics.  Understand what a good data model is, how data warehousing works, what all the components are.  You might read that data scientists are the hot new thing, or that big data is catching on, but I can’t imagine that starting with these more advanced niches would work for very many people (unless you’re a statistician).

To Focus on a Platform?

I have focused on Microsoft BI for the last several years.  Before that I did some work with Cognos, a bit of WebFocus, and a sprinkle of Hyperion and a couple others I don’t even remember anymore.  There’s so much to continually learn with the Microsoft BI platform that I am personally very happy with focusing on the Microsoft platform.

You’ll want to give some consideration to platform choice, especially if you’re starting an endeavor to ramp up skills.  For a lot of people I think this might happen just due to what you are exposed to in the workplace and that’s ok (that’s how it happened for me).  You might refer to the Gartner Magic Quadrant to get some familiarity with various BI software vendors.  The leaders in the top right will generally have more market share, thus more jobs available.

Suggestions for Getting Started

Here’s some thoughts regarding ramping up your skills.  These are not ordered in any particular way.  Which items make sense for you depends very much on your entry point and your particular focus.

  • Work vs. Formal Education.  Decide if you value work experience or formal education more, or what feels best to you.  There are BI programs available (such as CPCC’s Reach IT program here in Charlotte).  Or, you might feel like getting a “foot in the door” type of job suits you more.
  • Certifications.  The value of certifications is constantly debated.  I think they are immensely valuable for learning the basic concepts, and for getting introduced to a breadth of material that you may not deal with normally.  For Microsoft BI professionals, you would take this certification path to focus on BI.  There is also a certification from TDWI that is platform-agnostic.
  • Build a Solution.  There’s nothing better than real hands-on experience.  Create a virtual machine that has all of the software you need and build a solution.  Evaluation software is free.  Developer editions of SQL Server are very inexpensive.  Codeplex has many starter solutions and sample databases.  Public datasets are becoming easier and easier to find.  All you need is the initiative to go build something that you could use to demonstrate your skills to a potential employer.
  • Read the Kimball books.  The Kimball Group methodology is used significantly at many, many organizations.  Bill Inmon is also very influential in this space.
  • Attend Events.  In the Microsoft community, we are very lucky to have lots of opportunities to learn.  Many of them are free.  There are local user groups, virtual user groups, SQL Saturday events.
  • Talk to People.  Talking to people in the industry could help give you perspective and help you decide what your focus should be.  Heck, it might even help you get a job.
  • Volunteer.  Perhaps a really small organization or a nonprofit would be willing to let you learn as you build something for them.

What did I forget to mention?  Have other suggestions?  Please leave me a comment…

Good luck with your decision! 



Time for a Change

I have joined BlueGranite, a Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing firm.  BlueGranite has an excellent reputation, and has a ton of interesting projects for a BI developer like me to grow my skills.  As a Microsoft NSI Partner (National Systems Integrator), BlueGranite delivers enterprise BI and self-service BI solutions, in addition to predictive analytics, cloud and hybrid BI, big data, strategy, architecture, and training.  If you’re not familiar with BlueGranite, you might want to check out their blog which has some great information, and MSBI Academy which is a terrific library of free instructional videos.

Just a few words about my former employer, Intellinet.  They are a great firm with not only smart people, but good-hearted people.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to a potential customer or employee.  They’ve been very good to me and I will miss them.  To accomplish what I want career-wise, I’ve decided that a BI-centric firm is a better fit for me than a generalist firm.

My husband has started joking that he’s going to claim he doesn’t remember where I work anymore.  I told him that since I’ve kept the same darned husband for 20 years now, I’ve got to change up something else once in a while.  How could he possibly argue with that logic?  

Am really looking forward to my fun change ahead!



Me? A SQL Server MVP? That’s What They Tell Me!

imageI am delighted to announce that Microsoft has granted me (me?!?) the MVP Award.  The official description of this award:  “Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals are exceptional technical community leaders worldwide who actively share their high quality real world expertise with others.”  The Microsoft MVP public site is at:

As the week has progressed since the announcement, finding the words to express my feelings about it is becoming harder rather than easier – there are so many people in the community doing great things! Not sure how I made the cut, but I’m looking forward to learning from all the other MVPs and Microsoft folks I’ll be exposed to, and continuing to contribute BI content to the community.

Many times I’ve said the Microsoft user community is very different from others. The extent to which information is freely shared is astounding. We should all greatly appreciate the ability to fire up our search engine and find advice which saves us time and teaches us something. So many people invest time and effort to make that happen.  There are blogs, user groups, books, SQL Saturdays, webinars, Twitter, forums – with many great friendships made along the way.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how much our work lives depend on being fearless. What I mean by that – technology changes all the time, business methods vary, best practices evolve, we change, and the people around us change and grow. Many times we find ourselves doing something unfamiliar. The more experience I gain, the less I fear the unknown and the more confidence I have that we as a team can “figure it out.” The sheer volume of information that’s available to us in the Microsoft community to improve our skills makes “figuring it out” faster, easier, and with less risk for poor decisions.

imageNow I don’t want to pull a Sally Field moment here, but there’s a few people I want to call out. A heartfelt thanks goes to Rafael Salas who submitted an MVP nomination on my behalf.  Wayne Snyder was instrumental in giving me the confidence to start blogging.  My good friends Javier Guillén and Jason Thomas – these guys are always willing to review a draft, exchange ideas, or just go for a beer – they make me smarter by association.  My employer, Intellinet, has been extremely good to me - the level of support and encouragement I’ve received from Leo Furlong and everyone at Intellinet has been amazing.  Finally, my husband Bob is my rock.  That says it all.

Today I received a really nice plaque and certificate.  See the little 2013 disc on the left side of the MVP plaque?  If an MVP award is renewed the following year, the recipient receives another disc to slide onto the plaque.  Cool, huh?

Here’s to a great rest of 2013!



Reflecting on 2012

Here we go, another self-indulgent post just for me to measure how the year really went versus how I thought the year would go.

Evaluating 2012 Goals

A couple of great opportunities came up during 2012 that shifted my focus tremendously, including organizing a SQL Saturday in Charlotte, and forming a new user group called the Charlotte BI Group.  Along with a big client implementation and moving to a new house mid-year, my time to devote to my personal goals was seriously impacted.  The things that slipped, like certifications and an article, were very “me” focused; since they got swapped for SQL Community focused events, I think the change in course was more than ok!  Recapping my 2012 goals set a year ago:

  • Speak at 4-6 events <— Done!  Did 9 presentations at User Groups, SQL Rally, and the PASS Summit.  Yeah, that Summit!
  • Develop materials for 2 new presentation topics <— Done!  I developed one new presentation related to the Community, as well as materials related to Intellinet sales activity.
  • Post 36 high quality blog posts <— Close; got 33 published.
  • Publish 1 article <— Nope.  Didn’t hit this one.
  • Upgrade MCITP and MCTS certifications for SQL Server 2012 <— Nope.  Passed a couple of the beta exams, but I haven’t taken the upgrade exams yet.
  • Continue meeting people & learning how to be a helpful contributor to the SQL community <— Done!  I love meeting SQL Community people.
  • Keep a better balance between work, fun, and health <— Hmmm, could always do better here.

Goals for 2013

There’s no huge changes for 2013 considering I’m quite happy with the progression of my career at the moment.  Here’s what I’m planning for 2013:

  • Speak at 4-6 events, while improving on making presentations & demos more interactive and engaging for the audience
  • Post 36 high quality blog posts; at this point in time Self-Service BI and Agile BI are of great interest to me
  • Publish 1 article on a timely and relevant BI topic
  • MCSA certification in SQL Server 2012
  • MCSE certification in Business Intelligence
  • Build a virtual machine from the ground up which includes all the entire Microsoft BI toolset as well as SharePoint
  • Grow the Charlotte BI Group into a mature group with regular attendees who provide positive feedback
  • Learn to kayak
  • Learn to use a sewing machine
  • Teach my dog to be off-leash without risk

Don’t forget … Keep Getting Better Every Day! Here’s to a great 2013!



Reflecting on 2011

This is a self-indulgent post just for me.  This past year was pretty terrific, both professionally & personally.  2011 was my first full year of being involved blogging & presenting in the SQL Server community – there’s no stopping now!

Let’s see what I was thinking when I set 2011 goals in my Reflecting on 2010 entry:

Evaluating 2011 Goals

  • Speak at 2 events <— Nailed this one.  Spoke 7 times & loved every minute of it.
  • Post 50 high quality blog posts <— Got 40 posts in.  Life definitely got in the way here, but that’s ok.  On the weekends I didn’t blog, I thought about it & chose fun or a mental break instead.
  • Publish 2 articles <— Not quite; published 1 whitepaper.
  • Improve technical skills <— Well, of course another year of experience does that.  (Guilty of setting a non-measurable goal here, wasn’t I?)
  • Get involved with Twitter in a way that suits my style <— I love Twitter now, although I don’t usually check it during the business day.  I lean towards using it more to obtain & share links with good information.
  • Continue meeting people & learning how to be a helpful contributor to the SQL community  <— I met some cool people this year who inspire me; I can do more to be involved in the SQL Community.

Goals for 2012

My plan for 2012 is just to Keep On Keepin’ On (in the wise words of Joe Dirt).

  • Speak at 4-6 events
  • Develop materials for 2 new presentation topics
  • Post 36 high quality blog posts
  • Publish 1 article
  • Upgrade MCITP and MCTS certifications for SQL Server 2012
  • Continue meeting people & learning how to be a helpful contributor to the SQL community
  • Keep a better balance between work, fun, and health

The theme is:  Keep Getting Better Every Day.   Here’s to a great 2012!


Technology Consulting as an Employment Option

With this post comes a big change for me.  I have left Mariner, a Microsoft BI consulting firm located in Charlotte, NC.  Mariner is a terrific firm with smart & fun employees I'll miss very much.  I have joined Intellinet, a Microsoft-centric business consulting technology firm based in Atlanta, GA, with a growing branch in Charlotte, NC.  Intellinet has groups which handle business intelligence (my group!), application development, portals & collaboration, infrastructure, as well as project management & business analysis.  

A Typical IT Consultant

We're generally folks who get bored easily. We crave challenge & variety of work, so instead of job hopping all the time, the world of consulting offers a lot of change.  At least I find this to be true for me.

What we don't think (well, most of us anyway) is that we're any better than the developers & administrators in the companies that we work for. Why do we get hired? Usually because a company doesn't have the expertise, time, or manpower in house - meaning we're just here to help. Hopefully we can bring ideas & experience to the project, with less risk & no long-term commitment to the customer.

Positives Within a Consulting Environment

  • Opportunity to learn a lot of skills (both technical & interpersonal)
  • Varying experiences with different projects, technologies, and clients
  • Exposure to repeatable processes and methodologies
  • Being around other talent (coworkers & clients) who are smart
  • Encouragement to obtain certifications
  • Support for speaking at events like user groups & conferences
  • Keeping up with new technologies
  • A continual focus on learning
  • Many occasions to meet people & develop relationships
  • Various career path options (such as:  technical, project management, business analyst, sales & business development, managerial, etc.) 

Potential Negatives Within a Consulting Environment

  • Time pressures, sometimes coupled with clients who have demanding expectations or deadlines
  • Demands for very extremely high quality work performed very quickly (I find this to be a good thing – but it does represent pressure)
  • Potential for a lot of travel (we need to be where the client is, right?)
  • Requirements to learn a new skill extremely fast (once a deal closes, you might be asked to get things rolling very quickly) 
  • Flexibility with assignments is required (for example, sometimes I need to fill in on project management or business analyst work in addition to BI development – sometimes you’ll be asked to perform tasks that aren’t your absolute favorite)

Things to Consider Before Starting a Consulting Job

Besides the obvious things like your job description, compensation & benefits, here’s a few other things to consider when evaluating an IT consulting job & firm:

  • What are the firm's expectations for your billable hours (referred to as utilization) per week? Does that expectation affect your compensation? Are the hours expected reasonable to you?
  • What is the firm’s typical billing model?  Does the firm typically charge per hour, or flat rate per project (both have different challenges).
  • Are professional development programs offered (and encouraged)?  How much investment is made routinely in training?
  • What is the chain of command above and below you (directly or indirectly)?
  • Do you get a sense the culture of the firm would be a fit for you?  Does each person you’ve met seem smart, friendly, supportive, and happy to work there?  Does it seem like an environment that will be conducive to personal & professional growth?
  • What specific technologies does the firm focus on?
  • Does the firm serve specific industries?
  • What equipment is provided (such as a laptop)?
  • Will you typically be devoted 100% to a single client, or often multiple clients?
  • In the eyes of the client, will you serve as staff augmentation (sometimes thought more of as a contractor by the client), or as a consultant?  Are your services being delivered through a project with deliverables?
  • What other personnel is available to back you up and/or provide additional expertise?  Will you work closely with others more experienced than you, who you can learn from?
  • Is bench time (when you're not assigned to a client engagement) paid?
  • Is there a typical lifecycle or duration for the type of projects you will work on?
  • What does a typical project team look like? Is it typically large or small? Will you personally have a lot of client interaction?  Do the teams often comprise both consulting team members & client team members?
  • How is project management typically handled? (Personally I think a good PM is invaluable.)
  • Are there established methodologies & repeatable processes in place?
  • What is the regional market served by the firm?  What are the expectations for travel?
  • Does the pipeline of future opportunities look promising?
  • Are specific certifications, or credentials, required or preferred?
  • Does the firm hire all levels of personnel starting at the junior level, or just experienced staff?
  • Will you typically work at the client site, at the office, or from home? What is the policy for working remotely?
  • What role will you be asked to play in the business development (sales) process?
  • Does the firm support community involvement, such as user groups & conferences?  Are there current employees who exhibit involvement & leadership in the local technical community?
  • Does the firm have a good reputation?

By no means is the above an exhaustive list; hopefully it gives you some things to think about. 

I really like consulting a lot because of the variety it offers.  As with anything, there’s ups and downs.  Sometimes the client really looks up to us, whereas sometimes we’re just “the vendor.”  There’s still politics & sticky situations on occasion, but I continually learn so much that the technology consulting industry is a really good fit for me.

Additional Information

Shannon Lowder (blog | twitter), a database engineer in Charlotte, has a terrific series of posts about Interview Questions.