Better BI

Chris Gerrard – Exploring the world of Better Business Intelligence

What it takes to be a BI professional.

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Someone recently posted this question as a LinkedIn discussion topic here, if you’re on LinkedIn:

Hi everyone! i want to become a business analyist and want to enter into the business intelligence.
can anybody guide which steps should i take + which useful resources should i study to well achieve my targets?

Since I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of questions recently, I thought I’d post my response here, with some elaborations;

these will be inset and in blue, like this.

Martyn’s right, Business Intelligence is a profession. Like engineering, medicine, architecture, science, or being a lawyer/solicitor/barrister. As such it takes a very substantial investment of time, the expenditure of a lot of effort, and mastering a broad body of knowledge.

There’s no easy path, no certification in this or that technology, no checklist of tasks that announces: “Here is a BI professional.”

I am, admittedly, biased.

I confess: it bothers me that BI is becoming seen as the ‘hot’ area and is attracting amateurs, poseurs, carpetbaggers, charlatans, and other bad actors who are concerned with using BI as a vehicle to enrich themselves rather than as a way to help people understand their business through achieving information and insights from their data.
see: Psst – Wanna Buy a Dashboard?
and: How Big BI Fails To Deliver Business Value

I’ve had classical training in the theory and practice of programming and data processing; have been active in everything from the evolution of programming languages, and data processing spanning pre-relational databases through data warehousing, and now the post-DW, post-SQL world.

My programming and data processing started with courses in FORTRAN and COBOL programming at the University of Guelph, in Canada, in 1974-75, where my first “BI” project was analyzing bird banding data under the direction of my professor, Antonio Salvadori. I earned my undergraduate degree in Business Administration, majoring in Computer Information Systems, from Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia in 1985, following which I spent almost a decade working for Information Builders, Inc., first as a FOCUS consultant delivering innovative, highly responsive and adaptive reporting systems for our clients, then as a product manager developing and delivering PC and Unix FOCUS versions.

I’m not young, have been programming since the days when you had to be properly trained before they let you near a computer.
I’ve also never been satisfied with the status quo; my entire career has been spent trying to find and use better ways to do what’s possible.

I have an MBA, earned in 2007, augmenting my BBA, and have worked on and led dozens and dozens of strategic business-enabling applications, from operational line–of-business apps to top-level strategic analytics systems providing the top KPIs to executive management. For the past five years I’ve been concentrating on employing the innovations enabled by the recent emergence of direct-contact, minimal-friction, high productivity data analysis technologies and tools in the pursuit of improving the velocity and quality, and lowering the barriers and cost, of the delivery of critical business information and insights to the people who need them.

I’ve kept up with the advances as they occur.
And suffered through the backwards movements as they’ve gained dominance.

My complaint, and again I believe I agree with Martyn, is that too many people look at BI and think “Gee, that seems popular. What minimum set of claims to I need to be able to make to get someone to pay me to do that?”

This attitude reflects and has been created by the dominant paradigm that software development in general, and BI particularly, are industrial production processes that are perfectly well conducted by masses of minimally skilled technical people who frequently possess only the most rudimentary single-version single-product skills “certification-level knob-twiddling skills (below)”.

The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post, but this mechanistic, industrial model is of particularly pernicious effect in BI.

Back to the original question. You cannot become a business analysts without making a commitment to becoming someone who lives to understand how business works, what it needs to know and do, and acquire the required variety of abilities, knowledge, and skills. Beyond that, you cannot, let me repeat that-CANNOT-be a BI professional without being a business analyst who also understands the nature and practice of analyzing data to explore it, identify patterns and anomalies, and design and implement the various media that communicate the information and insights achieved from the data; then, and only then, must you understand the technology used to implement the automated systems that are the machinery of delivering the information to the human people who need it.

Mastering BI is hard. It’s particularly hard for IT people, largely because they ARE IT people.

Of course, it’s possible to become a top-notch data warehouse builder without understanding the business context, or anything beyond the DW boundaries. BI needs these people just as architects need plumbers and surgeons need nurses. The same holds for ETL developers.

IT has a place in BI. It’s how we get things done. However, it’s not the point.

And BI platform technicians hold a special place in the BI world. I’ve worked with many, many people with certification-level knob-twiddling skills in BO, Cognos, and other platforms who are unable to grasp the basic principles of analytic information design, even of basic application user interface design, and who produce mountains of terrible analytics that fall far short of effectively communicating useful information to real human people.

This holds particularly true for remote teams who are thrown together because they can “work” BO or Cognos. There are stories to be told, but they’re best kept for dark stormy nights.

If you’re looking for a wage-earning job, by all means learn one of the technologies. Learn an ETL tool. Learn Inmon, or Kimball, preferably both. Learn Oracle, SQL Server, SQL or one of it’s dialects. Learn Business Objects, Cognos, MicroStrategy, or another platform. We need plenty of people who can do that stuff.

But please, if you do, identify yourself as someone with those skills. It’s only fair. After all, the person who shows up in the ambulance to take you to the hospital isn’t likely to tell you: “It’s OK, you’re going to be fine. I’m a Doctor”

When I was a teenage boy I met one of my friend’s Father for he first time. He was a well know and highly respected doctor. Upon meeting him I said: “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Dockerill.”

To which he replied: “My FATHER was MISTER Dockerill. I’m DOCTOR Dockerill.”

As I said, I’m biased.

I’m a BI professional.

Oh, one last thing. If I’m leading a BI project and you say to me “I’ll load that data into SQL.” when you mean “I’ll load that data into SQL Server.” I’m going to have a very poor opinion of your abilities. (and the same goes for using text message spelling like “u” for “you”)

The point here being: if you don’t make a distinction between a programming language and a commercial database product, I’m not likely to trust you to make distinctions between business concepts, considerations, and concerns in an area that’s outside your area of supposed competence.

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Written by Chris Gerrard

December 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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