First impressions: SQL Server 2017 Administration Inside Out

I recently had the pleasure of reading SQL Server 2017 Administration Inside Out by William Assaf, Randolph West, Sven Aelterman, and Mindy Curnutt. I love this book. While I haven’t finished reading it yet, I wanted to post my first impressions. I’ll update this post once I’ve finished the book.

I recommend this book for accidental DBAs, junior DBAs, and senior DBA’s with a sense of impostor syndrome. I would NOT recommend it for people with no experience with SQL Server or for senior DBAs looking for a deep dive. This books aims at breadth not depth.

To emphasize that point, take a look at the table of contents below:

  1. Getting started with SQL Server tools
  2. Introducing database server components
  3. Designing and implementing a database infrastructure
  4. Provisioning databases
  5. Provisioning Azure SQL Database
  6. Administering security and permissions
  7. Securing the server and it’s data
  8. Understanding and designing tables
  9. Performance tuning SQL Server
  10. Understanding and designing indexes
  11. Developing, deploying and managing data recovery
  12. Implementing high availability and disaster recovery
  13. Managing and monitoring SQL Server
  14. Automating SQL Server administration

That is, without a doubt, a lot to get through. Each chapter could easily be its own book. Instead, I see this as a book to fill in the gaps. The text is perfectly suited for that middle level of complexity, where you have heard of a concept, but it doesn’t click yet. This book made things click for me.

As an example, let’s take look at chapter 2. In this chapter they run through the core components of a computer: memory, CPU, storage and networking. They are fundamental concepts for any IT worker. How easy would it be to say “Everyone should know this.” Despite how basic these concepts are, the authors neither condescend nor assume prior knowledge.

For example, when there are complex concepts such as RAID or NUMA, they take the time to explain what these things mean, why they are important and why are DBA would care. Reading these sections, I felt a sense of gratitude because use when people talk about these concepts, I never quite get it. Reading this book, I felt like I “got it”.

So, you may be wondering why I wouldn’t recommend this book for people without SQL Server experience. First, It’s big. It’s over 704 pages long. Second, the book is very good at filling in the gaps of an existing mental model. It would need more detail and information if you were starting out with almost no mental model, such as a college student.

Regarding tone, the book is quite technical and detailed at times. For example, it explains each and every column in components of the Activity Monitor. That being said, the authors do try to inject a bit of humor here and there. They also aren’t afraid to call out worst practices, such as running Database Tuning Advisor in production. I appreciate a book that a little bit opinionated.

One last comment on the book: I appreciate that it is a book about modern database administration. It acknowledges the realities of Azure and PowerShell, two tools required for any dba moving forward.

So, is this book worth buying? I would say yes, with some conditions. First, there is no question regarding the quality of the content. It is well written and the authors are experts in their field. The first condition is to make sure you are actually going to read it. It’s a long book and adds more value as a whole, not as individual chapters.

Second is a matter of your skill level. If you are looking to fill in gaps in your knowledge of SQL Server overall, you will fall in love with this book. If you are either very junior or very senior, you will feel quite frustrated. This is very much a “Goldilocks” book: not too deep, not too light, just right.

Lessons learned from being self-employed, 3 months in

Back in September, I quit my job to work for myself. While I don’t have any regrets, I’ve certainly been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve been thinking about what this job means for me and where I’m going next. Being self-employed has been full of surprises. This recent comic by Alex Norris sums things up well:

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So what have I learned  so far?

You are soft, squishy and frail

I quit my job for a number of reasons. Partly because I felt like I was stagnating and busy supporting legacy applications. Partly because I was feeling stressed out and overworked. My weight has been steadily increasing for the past year as well as my A1C. It was time for something to change.

I mention this because trying to jump from one stressful situation to another can compound issues. Changing jobs is one source of stress. Working for yourself is another source of stress. Working from home for the first time is another source of stress. When you add these all up, the biggest hurdle I’ve run into is acknowledging my own limitations. When you work for yourself, self-care and self-management become the most important skills you can have.

I’ve never been good about acknowledging my own needs. I hate the phrase “self-care”. To me it evokes images of decadent bath soaps and floral scented candles. But a lot of it comes down to sacrificing the immediate for the prudent. Exercising, sleeping, taking breaks, eating health, etc. It involves being humble enough to acknowledge that having needs doesn’t make you weak. It involves acknowledging that you are soft, squishy and frail.

The consequences of not taking care of yourself are amplified when you are self-employed. When you have a normal job, you have to get dressed and go to work, whether you feel like it or not. In contrast, if you have a bad day working from home, you might feel demotivated and get less done the next day, and so on and so on. When you work for yourself, all the guard rails come off.

When I first made the switch, I found myself going into a depressive episode. My third course wasn’t paying out yet, I didn’t know if I would find work, and I was in a difficult contract negotiation with a potential client. Things are going much better now, but the specter still looms as the days get shorter here in Pittsburgh.

Working from home is utterly lonely

I’m naturally an introvert. If you and I have a conversation, it’s like a little taxi meter starts running. I may deeply, deeply enjoy the conversation and find it incredibly exciting, but it still taxes my energy levels. Small talk even more so. Imagine that every time someone chatted about the weather, you had to pay the same price as a Lyft ride to go 4 blocks. That’s how I feel about small talk.

That being said, we are still social creatures, and even introverts need human interaction. Especially so when you need to think through new situations, new problems. One of the things I realized attending PASS Summit is that I need social interaction to thrive. So now I spend a lot more time on Twitter and am part of a peer group of authors. I work down at the library whenever I have the chance.

Your brain is dumb and thinks you are are work

Working whenever you want is a terrible, terrible idea. While you, intelligent person, may understand the idea of working whenever you want, your brain is dumb and now thinks you are at work all the time. On top of that, now you have to make the regular decision “Do I want to work or take a nap?”. Set regular office hours and stick to them.

In addition to that, if possible get a separate office space. I have a separate room, but right now I use the same laptop for everything. Eventually I’ll buy a computer just for work. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to use my PS4 more and get out of the office when I’m not working.

It is important to make as many dividing lines between home space and work space as you can. Same for delineating leisure time and work time. If you don’t, it all becomes a blur and you feel this vague dissatisfaction.

You will work too much, too little and for long periods of time

Never underestimate the power of social norms and peer pressure. At a normal job, you are much more likely come and work for the normal set of hours. But when you work at home, it’s really easy to work a 6 hour day. It’s also easy kick yourself for doing this, and work on the weekends to try to compensate.

Some weeks you might work 30 hours and some weeks you might work 50. Here’s a recent 50 hour week.

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This “flexibility” is at times convenient, but in the long run it isn’t wise. Because your success depends entirely on you, there is the temptation is there to work more and more. This is especially true when you are just trying to get things going. Again, setting office hours and sticking to them is important.

Another issue I’m running into now, is that I no longer have a good reason to take breaks. At my old job, I’d get up, walk around, get a drink, chat with coworkers. Because I was doing a lot of task switching, it was easy to find good times to take breaks.

Now, I’m working much larger chunks which means I have to force myself to take breaks. Currently I’m forcing myself to follow the pomodoro method, taking 5 minute breaks every half-hour whether I feel like it or not. This has helped me focus more and has made work less of a blur.

This goes back to the self-care and self-management thing. I feel utterly silly forcing myself to take breaks and walk around. Like some child that needs to be reminded, “Okay, now get up and stretch!”. But productivity isn’t a natural state of affairs, at least it isn’t for me. And if I want to be successful in my new job, I’m going to need to keep my ego in check.

Time is money and money takes time

When you start to work for yourself, you are going to think about money. A lot. And if you don’t, it’ll make you think about it. I’ve overdrafted on my bank account 3 times now, and each time I feel like an idiot. It’s not that we don’t have the money. The problem is we have 4 different bank accounts that need consolidated.

This was never a problem before. First we always had enough savings to cover any expenses. Second, I had a paycheck coming in every 2 weeks. Now that I work for myself, the expenses still go out monthly, but income doesn’t come in every 2 weeks.

Every dollar is a hustle and a hassle

The first reason you starting thinking about money more is because it’s no longer guaranteed.  I underestimated how convenient it was to have money coming in on a regular basis. It was so much easier to budget for the household and plan expenses. Now I have to bust out excel and do cashflow planning. You’ll notice how jagged the big spikes are.

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That downward trend will keep happening regardless of what I do. But those spikes up only happen if I make them happen. It feels very much like this Sisyphean task of pushing our savings boulder up the hill and then it rolls back down.

People take forever to pay you

Not only do you have to think about doing work to get money, but you have to think about when it will come in.  $2,000 today can be worth a lot more than $4,000 in six months. On the one end of the extreme, I have a customer that prepays me for 40 hour blocks of work at a 20% discount.

At the other end of the extreme, my courses pay out quarterly plus net 30. This means for the course I released in mid-October I won’t see any royalties until late January. When you are worrying about paying the bills today, this is a nightmare. But the courses are lucrative over the long term, so I need to make sure I keep making courses.

Another factor is unexpected delays. Delays with agreeing to a contract. Delays with agreeing to the scope. Delays with the customer changing their mind on a piece of work. You can never count on a future piece of income until the check is signed and in the mail.

The distance between action and result gets longer

When you work a 9-to-5 kind of job. You put in a certain number of hours every week and get paid a certain number of dollars every two weeks. Even if you are a salaried employee, the distance between inputs and outputs is pretty straightforward. When you are freelance, everything gets murky.

First, a lot of the work that I do has long term deadlines. If am making a course, I will work on that course for 4-6 months and not see any money until it is completed. If I’m writing a paid article, the cycle is shorter but there is still a delay.

Now, for customers that I bill time and material, it’s a lot simpler in theory. But the sales cycle to get that customer is still a numbers game. Everything in the sales cycle is like buying little tiny lottery tickets with your time and energy. You have no idea which one will pay off, so you buy a lot of lottery tickets.

To start with is marketing. Marketing is the act of realizing that most people, by default, have no idea who you are and don’t care. I spend an hour every week writing my newsletter. What’s the dollar value on that? No idea. When will it pay off? Maybe years down the road. Every newsletter issue is a tiny, tiny lottery ticket.

Once people know you exists, you have to deal with the sales process. First you have to talk with people that might be interested in your services, a.k.a. leads. Then you narrow them down to people who are actually interested in your services, a.k.a qualified leads. Finally, you have to scope the project, submit a proposal, and hope it gets accepted. Once you do the work, you go back and hope they have more work for you.

This cycle can take weeks or even months. Tiny, tiny lottery tickets. So much of sales and working for yourself is playing the marshmallow game. Do you eat one marshmallow now, or do you wait and hope for two later?

Your skillset and your job role get blurry

When I initially made the switch to freelance, I thought I was going to become a fulltime course author. As I picked up consulting work to help pay the bills, I’m realizing that a blend probably makes more sense. So I would use course authoring to provide a stable base of income and use consulting to stay sharp.

Off-brand consultants

If you are going to do consulting, you have to deal with another piece of marketing called branding. If marketing is making sure people know you exist, branding is deciding what you want to be known for. I’ve written before that people pay for specialization. This is doubly so in consulting. A recent customer told me, “If I’m going to pay you, I need to make sure you know more than my team.”

This has two consequences. First, is that any work you do that’s off-brand is time you could be spending going deeper on what you want to be known for. For example, I’m doing Xamarin development for my old employer. This helps pay the bills today, but is taking away from Power BI work I could be doing to grow my expertise.

The second consequence is that your training plan becomes more forward looking. In my prior job, my learning was heavily driven by my immediate tasks. At times this lead to a learning plan that was a mile wide and an inch deep. Now, my learning is driven by where I want to go as a person, as a business, and as a brand. For me that means learning more about SSAS, data modelling, and good report design. Not C#, not Docker, not PowerShell, not Kubernetes.

Don’t get me wrong, those are all exciting and powerful technologies that are going to be extremely important over the next 5 years. But as a consultant, the benefit of specializing is much higher than normal. Once you are established, then you can start to branch out more.

Learning soft skills is hard

But wait, it’s not so clean cut. We were only talking about technical skills. But when you work for yourself, there are an array of soft skills you need to learn. The first are business skills: reading contracts, marketing, sales, accounting. There are a ton of things you just never had to deal with as a regular employee.

The other set of soft-skills are what you normally think of: writing, communication, time management, etc.These become more important when you work for yourself. So much of consulting is being able to build relationships and communicate clearly. So much of working from home is being able to manage your time and your focus.

Summary

Like I said, I don’t regret the decision to work for myself. It gave me a soft landing from my last job and is giving me the time to think about what I want my career to look like. But it is a lot of new things to learn and is, at times, overwhelming. Right now I don’t know if this is something I’ll be doing for the next decade, or it is more of a gap year. We’ll see!

New Power BI skill assessment on Pluralsight

I’m quite excited to announce the new Power BI skills assessment on Pluralsight is in beta. This assessment is the result of me spending dozens of hours writing questions and some wonderful peer review by Gilbert Quevauvillie. Please do me a favor and take it. It will take 15 minutes and we need your help to calibrate it.

I’ve received feedback that some of the questions are a bit weird and not really core Power BI skills. For example, there are questions about R syntax, deploying to SharePoint, etc. That’s by design. The assessment is self-calibrating as people take it. Once it goes live, those harder, oddball questions will only show up when you’ve correctly answered the easier core questions.

The reason we need your help is we need to know which questions are easy, which questions are hard, which questions are correlated, which questions are too guessable. I appreciate everyone’s help in getting the assessment to be ready to go live.

Why is Power BI Free?

Something that some people search for is the question “Why is Power BI Free?”. Power BI is free because it benefits Microsoft to have an easy on-ramp to Power BI and to attract as large an audience as possible. It is in their financial interest.

If you are wondering what the catch is, the catch is that the free version of Power BI has very limited sharing capabilities, among other features.

In this post, I’m going to cover some reasons why Microsoft would make Power BI free. But before we can elaborate on all of that, we need to clarify what we mean by “free”. Read my post from last week for more details.

So why is it free?

So why would it behoove Microsoft to provide a limited free version of Power BI? Some ideas come to mind:

  • People can learn for free. This is important since Microsoft is aiming for a broader audience instead of a deeper one. The main target audience for Power BI is the everyday business user, not BI developers.
  • People are skeptical. It can be hard to convince a business to make a large investment in a BI product. By having a free version, a small group of people can do a pilot project without spending any money.
  • Razors-and-blades sales model. Companies will often sell products at a loss or give them away for free, if there is a paid compliment needed to take advantage of that product. Think about how cheap printers are, but how expensive ink is, for example.
  • SaaS is where they make their money. Related to the previous item, Microsoft makes a lot of their money these days from subscriptions. It used to be that they primarily sold software as standalone packages. But in the last few years, they are making more and more money from  Saas like Office 365, or cloud computing like Azure. Power BI fits neatly into that space.
  • Free dashboards are good marketing. Some people will make really cool and innovative dashboards and then share them publicly. This doesn’t detract from Microsoft’s business model at all. Free users are free marketing.

Overall, Power BI is free because so much of the real value comes from the enterprise collaboration and sharing. You can make beautiful visuals with a lot of tools, but few compare to the IT Governance story that Microsoft has.

Is Power BI free?

Power BI Desktop, the authoring tool, is completely free to use. Users can also create free accounts on the Power BI service, with a number of restrictions. In short, Power BI  is free to get started, but if you want to do any serious professional work you are going to have to pay for a license.

Some pieces of Power BI are free and some aren’t. Parts that are available for free:

  • Power BI Desktop
  • Power BI Service (with limitations)
  • Power BI Mobile

Parts that are not available for free:

  • Enterprise sharing and collaboration
  • Power BI Report Server
  • Power BI Premium

Which parts are actually free?

Power BI Desktop

First there is the report authoring tool, known as Power BI Desktop. This tooling is completely free to use.

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(PBIX file credit of Microsoft. Available here.)

You will have to either create an account or deal with some mild nagging about signing up for a mailing list. You can disable that nagging with a registry change.

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While Power BI Desktop is a great authoring tool, it is a terrible collaboration tool. If you were to live entirely in PBI Desktop, you’d have to pass around PBIX files which is incredibly clunky.

In my opinion, if you are going to look at using an on-premises, self-service tool you are better off using Excel. You still get a lot of the same capabilities with Power Query and Power Pivot, but inside of a tool people understand, and a tool Office 365 can render online.

Power BI Service

The Power BI Service, think powerbi.com, allows for free users. These free users can create reports and upload them, but with a significant number of limitations. The biggest is you only have one way of sharing content to others. Specifically with Publish to Web, which essentially makes your entire report free to the public.

You also only have one way of privately consuming other people’s reports, and that’s if someone places content in Power BI Premium. Otherwise, other users can’t share their reports directly with you. Power BI Free users are truly and island to themselves.

One other thing worth nothing is that you can’t sign up with a personal email. David Eldersveld has a good blog post on the issue. As of this writing, the uservoice request to change this has 2,800 votes.

See here for some more limitations of the free version of Power BI.

Power BI Mobile

Power BI Mobile is a way to consume Power BI Reports on Apple, Android and Windows mobile devices. Here is a picture of Power BI Mobile on my phone.

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Which parts aren’t free?

Enterprise sharing and collaboration

Power BI is, by design, a collaboration tool. It is designed for people to publish and share their reports. If you want to take advantage of content curation using app workspaces, you’ll need to pony up and pay for a Power BI pro license.

If you are doing any real work with Power BI, you are going need to pay for a license for yourself as well as any report consumers.

Power BI Report Server

In addition to Power BI Pro, there is Power BI Report Server, which is the on-premises solution for hosting Power BI Reports. If you decide to go with Power BI Report server instead of making use of the Power BI Service, then you are going to need to pay for SQL Server Enterprise as well as Software Assurance. Alternatively you could pay for Power BI Premium.

Power BI Premium

Power BI premium is an alternate licensing model where you are licensing the content instead of the users. Once you have 500 or more users, it starts to make sense. Until then, the $5,000 per month is pretty pricey.  It has other benefits as well, such as paginated reports and incremental refresh.

Summary

Some parts of Power BI is Free, but once you want to share with others, use more advanced features, or alternate deployment options, you are going to have to start paying.

How I deal with depression

Content warning: depression, suicide

Matthew Roche recently blogged about his struggles with mental illness. I applaud his courage, because it’s easy to worry what people will think about you. More recently, a member of the SQL Community took her life, and frankly the thought scares the shit out of me. It scares me, because some day that could be me. In fact, it’s been a recent point of discussion with me and my wife.

I write this post because I hope that if you are struggling with these feelings, you will get help. Please do something, because there are people that love you and would be devastated if you left this world. Here is what depression looks like and what I do to stave it off.

What is depression?

The English language does us a disservice in that the word for what is a crippling mental illness is the same word we use casually for being bummed out or sad. And while there is a spectrum, with things such as dysthymia or anhedonia (lack of pleasure), depression is often accompanied with what are called cognitive distortions.

If you think “I’m a failure”, that is a cognitive distortion, that is just factually wrong. You may have failed at a thing, but we are multifaceted, changing people. Depression is a matter of being disconnected with the reality at hand.

So what does the difference look like? We all get sad sometimes. Sadness is a good thing, grief is a good thing. These are healthy responses to difficulties in life. Victor Frankl, when writing about being in a concentration camp wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” . To never feel sadness or grief would be abnormal.

Here is a picture of what healthy grief looks like:

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Depression is very different. It is an auto-immune disorder of the mind. It is very commonly accompanied with negative thoughts that are pervasive, persistent and pessimistic. Common themes are feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and suicidal ideation.

Here is a picture of what depression feels like:

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If you are uncertain if you are depressed, take this depression checklist. It’ll take 5 minutes and may reveal something you are uncomfortable admitting. I took it just took it now, you and today I am a 14 out of 100, or mild depression. There have been days when it’s been in the mid 30’s, or moderate depression.

Open Source Mental Health performed a survey of 1570 people in technology.  Of those who answered the questions, 78% indicated they had a mental illness and around 70% of those indicated that they had a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar. We work in a field that often requires us to be on call or can make stressful demands on our lives. It’s more common than you might think.

It needs treated

I have a disease that requires daily treatment and medicine. My body doesn’t produce the chemicals I need. If I don’t treat it on a regular basis and monitor myself, someday I might die. That disease is called diabetes.

That’s right, I take insulin because my body stopped producing it years ago. I don’t think of myself of weak or less than because my body doesn’t work the way it should. Depression is often the same. Something has gone wrong in the brain. It could be a chemical imbalance, traumatic childhood events, or just a naturally lower set point for mood.

Whatever the cause, it still needs treated. It can be hard to admit and feel like a failing. I’m a guy, and I hate, hate, hate feeling like a burden to anyone. I hate asking for help. So much so, that when I was diagnosed with diabetes in the hospital, I told my now wife that I’d understand if she broke up with me. She just about slapped me. Boy was I dumb.

Get help. Please.

How I treat depression

Here are the ways I treat my depression:

Medication. Every single day, I take 10mg of Lexapro. I avoided it for a long time, I’ve heard horror stories about psych meds. I tried everything else, but eventually I decided I needed to take medicine.

The first month was hell and it takes 6 weeks to kick in. I had dry mouth and wanted to crawl out of my skin. After that my body acclimated, and the bleaker side of depression went away. I didn’t feels as dark and lethargic and hopeless. I still had negative thoughts and burnout, but I didn’t feel hopeless anymore. Many people have to try multiple medications to find one that works for them.

Exercise. The second most effective thing I’ve found to treat my depression is exercise, especially cardio exercise. I have to exercise every day, even if I’m sick. If I go a week without getting exercise, I start to get a resumption of symptoms. Exercise is as important as any of my other medications.

Sleep. Sleep is massively critical to good mental health. Sometimes I track my negative thoughts using a tally counter. A bad night’s sleep can double the number of negative thoughts I have in a given day. You wouldn’t give a SQL server 4 gigs of ram, why would you give your brain 4 hours of sleep and expect it to function properly.

Light. I hate the winters in Pittsburgh. It’s dark when you leave for work and it’s dark when you come home. I feel my symptoms most severely during the winter time. To deal with that I have lights everywhere. I have light alarm clocks, I have blue therapy lights to blast 1000 lux at my eyes and wake me up. I’ve even put hue lights in my room so my whole room lights up in the morning. The most effective thing is to just go outside, however.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. One of the most effective therapies is Cognitive Behavior Therapy. In short it identifies that it’s not just events that cause our emotional reactions, but also our beliefs about them. If you partner, come home late you could happy or sad depending on your beliefs.

CBT can be learned from books and I’ve found it to be effective. It feels a lot like having to catch your negative thoughts and then do a complex algebra problem, but I’ve gotten much better at labeling my automatic negative thoughts.

Meditation. Something new I’m trying is meditation. Those negative thoughts, or ruminations, can be hard to catch sometimes. They are like little mosquito bites. Independently, very small. But if you have 150 mosquito bites in a day, they add up. Meditation helps me catch myself and implement the CBT. I use the 10% Happier app and recommend the audio book. It’s fantastic and totally secular, if that’s your preference.

Biofeedback. Sometimes I count my negative thoughts with a physical tally counter. I think this week it was something like 30 -> 26 -> 22 -> 6 -> 7 -> 5 . I’ve had days where is was between 100 and 200. That’s a negative thought every few minutes.

I found that when I actually count them, I make more of an effort to catch myself and think healthier thoughts. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure” I think “I feel embarrassed.” Instead of thinking, “I hate myself”, I think “I feel scared and socially anxious.”

Social interaction. Depression is an isolating disease and IT can be an isolating job. Social interaction get’s us out of our heads and can be a source of support. Even just being at the library and near people can be helpful.

Talk therapy. While I’m not currently in therapy, I was for a while. I found it useful to be in a non-judgmental environment and have someone else I could bounce things off of.

Summary

While I have been in no way cured, there are a number of things I do to treat myself. There are a multitude of options you can take and a plethora of resources out there. Some of them may not work, but many of them are worth trying.

Power BI Learning Path – Free and Paid Resources

This week’s TSQL Tuesday challenge is on learning something other than SQL. I’ve written before about how to keep up with technology. When you are starting out with a technology, it’s just plain hard to get a lay of the land.

So I thought I’d put together a learning path for Power BI, a technology that changes literally every month. This is a bit of challenge because there are so many moving parts when it comes to Power BI. So let’s break down those moving parts into different categories.

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So, when I think about Power BI, I like to think about the flow of data. First we have the Data prep piece with Power Query, where we clean up dirty data. Next we model the data with DAX. I’ve written before about the difference between Power Query and DAX. They are like peanut butter and jelly and compliment each other well.

Now, if you are a SQL expert, you may not need to worry about Power Query or DAX much. Maybe you do a lot of the work in SQL. But either way, once your data is modeled, you need to visualize it in some way. You need to learn how to create your reports with Power BI Desktop. Once your report is created, you then need to publish it.

Finally, there is what I would call the IT Ops side of Power BI. You have to install an on-premises data Gateway to access local data. You need to license your users. You need to lock down security. All of these things might be outside of what a normal BI developer has to deal with, but are still important pieces. However, unlike the data flow model we talked about, the ops pieces happens at all of the stages of development and deployment.

With that overview in place, let’s get on to the individual sections and the learning paths as a whole.

Getting started with Power BI

When it comes to getting started with Power BI, I have two recommendations. First get your hands dirty, and secondly buy a book. Power BI is in many ways an amalgamation of disparate technologies. It took me a long time to to understand it and it didn’t really click until I took the edX course and did actual labs.

The reason I say to buy a book is this is a technology that is hard to learn piecemeal. When you are starting out you are much better off having a curated tour of things.

Free resources

  • Check out Adam Saxton’s getting started video.
  • Search Youtube for Dashboard in an Hour. This is a standardized presentation that will show you the basics in under an hour.
  • Follow the guided learning. This will walk you through bite sized tasks with Power BI.
  • Take the edX course. It has actual labs where you have to work with data inside of Power BI.
  • Check out the Introducing Microsoft Power BI book from Microsoft Press. It’s a bit dated at this point, but it’s free and is a great start.
  • Check out the Power BI: Rookie to Rockstar book from Reza Rad (b|t). The last update was July 2017, but it’s also very comprehensive and good.

Paid resources

  • Stacia Misner Varga (b|t) has a solid course on Pluralsight. It’s worth a watch.
  • Consider reading the Applied Power BI by Teo Lachev (b|t). It’s a real deep dive which is great, but can be a lot to take in if you are just getting started. A neat feature is that it’s organized by job role.

Learning Power Query and M

When it comes to self-service data preparation, Power Query is THE tool. The way I describe it is as a macro language for manual data manipulations. If you can pay someone minimum wage to do it in Excel, you can automate it in Power Query. Again, check out this post for the differences between Power Query and DAX.

Free Resources

  • Start with the guided learning. This quickly covers the basics
  • Reza Rad has a solid getting started post on Power Query that you can follow along with.
  • Matt Masson has a phenomenal deep dive video on the Power Query formula language, a.k.a M, from a year ago. It really helps elucidate the guiding principals of Power Query and M.
  • Blogs to check out:
    • Imke Feldmann (b|t) regularly has complex functions and interesting transformations on her blog.
    • Ken Puls (b|t) focuses on Excel and along with that, Power Query.
    • Gil Raviv (b|t) often has neat examples of things you can do with Power BI and Power Query.
    • Chris Webb (b|t) regularly dives into the innards of Power Query and what you can do with it.

Paid Resources

  • Ben Howard (b|t) has a Pluralsight course on Power Query. It’s a bit introductory, but great if you are just getting started.
  • Gil Raviv recently (October 2018) released a book on Power Query. What I really like about this book is it has more of a progression style instead of a cookbook kind of feel.
  • Ken Puls and Miguel Escobar (b|t) also have a book on Power query that has a cookbook feel. I found it helpful in learning Power Query, but it’s heavily aimed at excel users.
  • Finally, Chris Webb also has a book on Power Query. He goes into a lot of detail with it. However, the 2014 publish date means it’s starting to get a bit old.

Learning DAX

I always say that DAX is good at two things: aggregating and filtering. You aren’t doing those two things, then DAX is the wrong tool for you. DAX provides a way for you to encapsulate quirky business logic into your data model, so that end users doing have to worry about edge cases and such.

Free Resources

  • Read the DAX Basics article from Microsoft
  • Check out the guided learning on DAX
  • Learn the difference between Calculated columns and Measures in DAX. They can be confusing.
  • Make sure you understand the basics with SUM, CALCULATE and FILTER
  • Understand Row and Filter contexts. They are critical for advanced work in DAX
  • Blogs to check out
    • Matt Allington (b|t) has a blog with Excel right in the name but also writes about all the different parts of Power BI Desktop.
    • Rob Collie (b|t) has a voice all his own. read his blog to learn about DAX and PowerPivot without taking yourself too seriously.
    • Alberto Ferrari (b|t) and Marco Russo (b|t) are THE experts on DAX. Read their blog. Also see their site DAX.guide.
    • Avi Singh (b|t) regularly posts videos on Power BI and will often take live questions.

Paid Resources

Power BI Visuals

The piece of Power BI that is most prominent are they visuals. While it’s incredibly easy to get started, I find this area to be the most difficult. If you are heavily experience in reporting this shouldn’t be too difficult to learn.

Free resources

Paid resources

  • A really interesting book is The Big Book of Dashboards. While it doesn’t mention Power BI, it covers all the ways to highlight data and what really makes a dashboard.

Administering Power BI

Power BI is much more than a reporting tool. It is a reporting infrastructure. This means at some point you may have to learn how to administer it as well.

Free resources

Paid resources

Keeping up with Power BI

One of the big challenges with Power BI is just keeping up. They release to new features each and every month. Here are a few resources to stay on top of things:

Going Deeper

Finally, you may want to go even deeper with things. Here are some final recommendations:

I’m starting a BI newsletter. 5 BI links every week.

I’ve written before about how to keep up with technology. In the post, I describe 3 currencies we can spend to extend out learning: time, focus and actual money. As you get older, you start to get less time and even less focus, but your pay rate goes up. So, every year it becomes more and more important to learn on curation to find just the good stuff.

As part of that I’m starting my own curated mailing list for BI links. Power BI changes on a monthly basis and it’s such a pain to keep up with it. This week is the 3rd week so far.

So what’s the catch? Well, I’ll also be including whatever things I’m up to at the bottom of each email. So if you don’t like me, maybe don’t sign up, hah. Here is this week’s weekly BI 5:

  1. David Eldersveld talks a bit about #MakeoverMonday. This sounds like a great community program and I always find making things pretty to be the hardest part.
  2. Wolfgang Strasser is keeping track of all the November updates for Power BI. I keep seeing memes about this from Microsoft employees, so I’m expecting something big to drop at Pass Summit.
  3. Ginger Grant continues her series on SSAS best practices. I love seeing posts about how to do things right instead of just how to do the basics. Great stuff.
  4. Chris Webb also continues his series on using Power Query with Microsoft Flow. The expanded use of Power Query fits neatly into my conspiracy theories about where Power BI is going. Also keep an eye out for announcements about data flows.
  5. Finally, If you are going to PASS Summit, check out the BI Power Hour. All learning will be accidental.

Sign up to the list today!

 

The many tentacles of Power BI; or, Microsoft’s not-so-secret plan to take over the world.

Three years ago, I started learning about Power BI and I thought, “Man, this is a really crappy replacement for SSRS.” Three years later, that’s still true, It’s a crappy replacement for SSRS. But that’s missing the point. Microsoft’s ambitions are MUCH, MUCH bigger than replacing SSRS.

Let’s review the many tentacles of Power BI; or, Microsoft’s not-so-secret plan to take over the world.

Tentacle 1 – SQL Server

It is unsurprising that Power BI is often compared to SSRS. If you come from a SQL background, there is a good chance that you need to report on the data in your database in some way. While there are a multitude of tools available to do so, often it’s easiest to go with whatever Microsoft recommends. You already paid for it, right?

For many years, that was SSRS. And for half a decade, between 2010 and 2016, not much changed with SSRS. Much like some of the plants at the Phipps conservatory, it wasn’t dead…just dormant.

“I’m Not Dead, I’m Dormant” T-Shirt

So what changed around 2016? A couple of things. First, Microsoft acquired Datazen which would later turn into SSRS mobile reports. Second, Microsoft rebuilt the SSRS rendering engine to take advantage of HTML 5. Third, there was a new kid on the block: Power BI.

If you come from the SQL world, this is all old hat by now. Microsoft is investing a lot of time and money into Power BI, so it’s tempting to think that Power BI is replacing SSRS, but it isn’t. If we look at the traditional BI pyramid, Power BI and SSRS occupy two totally different strata.

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SSRS is designed for things that need a page number on them. This is generally detail-heavy, pixel perfect kind of work. This kind of operational reporting is descriptive, it tells you facts, but doesn’t add a lot of spin. This is at the base of the pyramid

Once we have the business up and running, we can move from “is” to “ought”. What should we do? Where should we go? This kind of reporting is higher-level, less detail oriented. You are looking at the company as a whole or at multiple years of history. You may drill down deeper, but generally speaking someone else is sweating the small stuff. This kind of reporting is prescriptive and where we find Power BI.

Finally, once we are moving and we are moving in the right direction, we can be even more forward looking and make use of predictive analytics. What’s going to happen in the future? What can the data tell us? This is where tools like Azure Machine learning and R can start to help us.

Power BI and SSRS are aligning

Power BI and SSRS are aligning and getting closer. If Power BI was a drop-in replacement, I wouldn’t expect to see this. I would expect to see Microsoft heavily pushing one over the other and that’s it.

By contrast, look at SSAS tabular and multidimensional modes. Tabular is available in Azure Analysis Services and multidimensional mode isn’t. Yes, I know it’s on the roadmap but it’s definitely not a number one priority. Every time I hear about SSAS, people are talking about tabular mode. In economic terms, DAX and MDX are subsitute goods. Sales of one reduces sales of the other. Think Coke versus Pepsi.

Power BI and SSRS, on the other hand, are complimentary goods. Think peanut butter and jelly. Yes, they are both things you can put on your bread, but they go better together. Yes, I know that seems strange, but look at what’s going on.

Last year, they announced Power BI Report Server, which is basically SSRS server with Power BI rendering on top. This year they announced SSRS rendering in Power BI Premium. Now, whether you are on-premises or in the cloud you use Power BI and SSRS in the same place.

Give it another year, and I bet the alignment is going to get even closer. I bet they will add Power Query as a data input for SSRS, just you wait and see.

Tentacle 2 – CRM, ERP, and business data

Microsoft wants your business data and it wants it badly. Last week I spoke at the Phoenix Power Summit, and I was really out of my element because it was all about business. It was basically 5 conferences in one, focusing mainly on all of the dynamics products (AX, NAV, Great Plains and Dynamics 365).

It was strange walking around the 250 vendors and 4,000 other attendees. Out of everyone there I only knew 2 people. And what those 4,000 people represented was something that I had never fully considered: standing there was Power BI’s core audience. It’s not me and it’s probably not you. It’s Chris in accounting. Let’s meet Chris.

Say hi to Chris

When I first learned about Power BI I was confused. Why did I need Power Query? Why did I need DAX? I already had all this stuff. I had T-SQL and SSIS. And the truth was, those tools weren’t for me, they were for Chris.

So much of this stuff clicked when I came up with the persona of Chris in accounting. This is the kind of person who is great at vlookups, okay at SQL and is stuff in the land of spreadmarts, flat files and Access databases. This person understands the business intricately and just wants to get things done. And many time, she has almost no IT support to get her job done, so she has to make do with the tools she has. For her, Power BI is a life saver.

And walking around me last week was 4000 Chris-es from accounting. This is going to be big.

Microsoft shoots across the bow of Salesforce

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Microsoft and Salesforce are direct competitors. Both were interested in buying Linkedin, and more recently Microsoft fired a warning shot to Salesforce.

At Ignite, Satya announced the open data initiative along with Adobe and SAP. Guess who isn’t in the picture? That’s right, it’s Salesforce.

Image result for ignite open data initiative

Part of that announcement was them talking about the Common Data Service. When I first heard about CDS months ago, I was again confused. It sounded like some weird semantic layer for the data in Dynamics CRM. Maybe useful if your data lives in Dynamics 365, otherwise who the heck cares.

Oooooh boy was I wrong. Microsoft is aiming for something much, much more ambitious than an awkward pseudo-database layer for people who don’t like SQL. They are aiming for a common shape for all of your business data. They want to want to create a lingua franca for all of your business data, no matter where it is. Especially if it’s hiding in Salesforce.

Now, do I expect them to succeed? I’m not sure. I’ve learned the hard way that every business is a unique snowflake, even two business in exact same industry. But if anyone can do it, Microsoft has a good shot. They’ve been buying up CRM / ERP solutions for decades.

Tentacle 3 – Data Science, Machine learning and Azure

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Phoenix SQL user group and listen to Matthew Roche talk about Power BI Dataflows. When I first heard about dataflows, like everything else in this space, I didn’t quite get it. It sound like Power Query, but for the Power BI Service directly? Weird.

The way Matthew described it made a lot of sense. Dataflows represent an intermediate layer for your data, much like a traditional data warehouse. This is after all of the boring ETL bits, but before all of the sexy BI semantic layer bits. This is, metaphorically, chopping all your broccoli and putting it into plastic bags. The end user still has to decide what the final product looks like.

And guess what shape they let you put your data into? That’s right, the common data service. Microsoft wants to act like as a clearing house for your data. They want to act as a middle man for all of your data sources and all of your data consumption.

Bigger ambitions

My favorite slide from Matt’s presentation is this one. (Courtesy of James Serra).

One weird thing about dataflows is that it’s saving the results to flat files in a data lake. Now, it was about this point that the DBA in me started freaking out. Why are we storing things in flat files? Flat file databases are older than I am!

(Sidenote: SQL Server 1.0 is about 6 months younger than I am.)

Well apparently, that’s standard fare for data lakes and how they scale. But the part that excites me is all the avenues that opens up. Because you can Bring Your Own Storage Account and gain access to all of that delicious data.

This is some seriously cool stuff.

Summary

Power BI remains a poor replacement for SSRS. But it’s a fine compliment to SSRS and is a growing way to report on the data living in you SQL Server.

For business users, especially Dynamics 365 users, it represents a way to get at and visualize their data. Power BI, PowerApps and Flow represent a huge step forward for business users, especially those stuck living in spreadsheets and access databases.

Finally, Microsoft wants to Power BI and the Common Data Service to be a central hub for all of your business data and analytics. This is going to expand into providing easy ways to take your business data and pipe it into Azure Machine Learning or Azure Databricks.

New Course: Deploying and Publishing Power BI Reports

My third Pluralsight course is out now, and it covers all the myriad ways of deploying Power BI:

  1. Manual sharing
  2. App workspaces
  3. Content packs
  4. Publish to web
  5. Office 365 embedding
  6. Power BI Premium
  7. Power BI Embedded

It can be overwhelming all the different ways of deploying Power BI, but in this course I walk you through the smallest, self-service options all the way to the large, scalable options.

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I recently quit my job so that I could make more courses, so if you like what I do, please go watch it. You are supporting my family by doing so!