PASS Business Analytics Conference – an Excel view

Chris Webb recently posted his thoughts on the first PASS Business Analytics Conference. Chris is a SQL Server MVP, but one of the first that I recall who acknowledged that Excel is the business’ choice, even for BI/BA. I am coming at BI and BA more from the other direction, but as I also attended this conference, I thought it would be worthwhile presenting my views on it.

I have to say how surprised I was at the number of paying customers that the conference managed to draw in. Myself and some colleagues have held many UK Excel conferences in the past, although we have found it very difficult to provide an event that doesn’t lose money. In the UK at least, people who use Excel seem very unwilling to spend their hard-earned money to attend such an event, even one that will provide good insights that they can deploy in their daily life. Similarly, corporations seem reticent to support their people by sending them to such events. There seems to be a view that everybody knows Excel, and it is easy to use. When we held free events, they were very well attended, but we can only fund such events from our own pockets a limited number of times, and we have difficulty convincing sponsors to support us (even Microsoft no longer offer us the room facilities that we have enjoyed on two previous occasions). I can think of a few reasons that the PASS conference managed to draw in so many paying customers:-

  • it was held in the USA, and Americans seem far more willing to fund this sort of learning activity than we do in in Europe
  • it was big, there was enough content to satisfy most needs – unlike our conference which have offered few choices
  • it was organised by PASS which gave it a credibility that individuals and corporations are more prepared to buy in to.

It was good to see so many people at the event, and even more interesting that the people weren’t the usual mix of SQL Server people that you typically see at PASS meetings, there were a lot of business people that use data and wanted to get the insights that such a conference can bring.

The Microsoft keynote was fun if you like comedy double acts, but as it largely centred around PowerView, and the public preview of project codename “GeoFlow” for Excel 2013 (sic!), two products that have been out in one form or another for some time, it was hardly ground breaking. I thought they could have given more (some) exposure to Data Explorer, but I guess Data Explorer is too dull for Microsoft marketing, it just works well, it doesn’t have bling and visual distraction to obscure data. There was no mention that I caught of any Microsoft developments in mobile BI, but I will leave others to rail on that topic.

I was largely disappointed by the content. I acknowledge that I wasn’t there primarily to learn, more to be part of the event and to try and gain some insights that I can take forward to our conferences, but it would have been good to have got more out of it. Too much of it was far too basic in my opinion, but I also felt that the organisers did not give enough emphasis to Excel and some of the Excel experts out there.

I have been saying for many years that I believe that Excel is the single most important tool in the BI/BA world, and as such I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to see so few of the big names in the Excel world. Rob Collie was there (I know he is a SQL Server MVP, but he is an Excel evangelist of the first order), but where were the Excel guys who munch data in their sleep, who have taken Excel charting and visualisations to new heights, who know how to write VBA? I would have thought that inviting some of these big names, such as Jon Peltier, Mike Alexander, Debra Dalgleish, Jorge Camoes to name but a few - these people are top-notch and would have added substantial value in my view.

I was glad that I went, it was very well organised, and I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Levitt’s keynote. I caught my first presentation by Marco Russo, someone who has similar views on data modelling in self-service BI. I did not know of Faisal Mohamood, a member of Microsoft’s Data Explorer team, before this conference, but I will be watching out for his postings in future. Whilst I did not personally get much out of his session, it was good to see the eyes lighting up with so many of the audience when they saw what Data explorer can do for them.

It was good to meet  so many people with similar interests, but it would take a far better programme for me to attend again, or maybe a UK based event. I must add that I didn’t have to pay for my conference fee, but my travel and accommodation were out of my own pocket and I would need more justification to do this a second time.

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