Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tablets and BI....

.....or BI and tablets.  In this case, BI stands for business intelligence.     So let's put on our thinking caps and get to work.

One of the more recent presentation layers the past few years has been the tablet device.  For better or worse, until recently "tablet" meant iPad in most circumstances.   Nothing to dis Android, but iPad  seems to have a higher corporate acceptance from my experience. 

In my many projects, I haven't yet had too many requests for tablet presentations.   I know business users who are starting to request them although I remain surprised that in 2012 printed reports are still in wide usage!   (I used to talk with a few coworkers in 2000 about how nice it would be to have mobile information).   Thinking that I was missing the boat as I didn't own a tablet device, in March I purchased a iPad "3" to see what this BI tablet thing was all about.

What I found is that tablets pose potential, especially for mobile users.   I stopped in AT&T this week to purchase my Nokia Lumia 920, and all the sales reps used iPads to process orders.   Not really BI, but one could see the logical extension of usage.   There are also some great Apple apps (Roam BI, anyone?) that show promise.    The best business case I can think of is someone who needs information but not tethered to a desk, and someone who doesn't use a smartphone capable of displaying said information.     This is the perfect tablet BI user.

Another observation I have is that business users love Excel.   Well duh, you say?   I've seen users dump perfectly readable information from Cognos reports into a CSV file to import into Excel to manipulate the same data.    I believe a lot has to do with familiarity - but to date it shows a large weakness in the tablet market being able to natively display Excel data.   My thoughts are that the inability of the iPad to render correctly basic or complex Excel spreadsheets has limited the usage of the tablet as a BI consumption device thus far.

But now there is a great device on the market, the Windows 8 tablets which cure this problem.    A review of the Surface is coming soon, and how I expect the Surface to change the nature of the BI presentation layer. 

Monday, October 03, 2011

SQL Saturday - 3 Years Later

Last week I attended the SQL Saturday event in Orlando, the site of the original event in November 2007. I'll not forget that one because Andy scheduled me to be the last speaker of the day and in the back of my truck was all my hunting gear ready for a departure to north Florida after the event for a good couple days of deer hunting. My two sessions that day were two of the best I've done, which makes up for the very poor showing on the next day's deer hunting.

The idea for SQL Saturday originally grew out of the code camps. Florida was one of the first states to implement code camps as early as 2005 statewide. The code camps were great and us SQL guys had to settle for having a SQL leaning track at the code camps. I thoroughly enjoyed spending 2006 and 2007 traveling around the state to speak at these events, and I occasionally still do. Brian Knight, Joe Healy, and myself had discussions about putting on a 'data camp' as early as summer 2006 and I even called around to a few hotels to inquire about a meeting room to run the event in October 2006. Well, alas, talk is all it was and in the meantime Andy W. and crew came up the wonderful idea of SQL Saturday and the rest is history. I quickly gathered a group together in Tampa by teaming up with the wonderful and community oriented Pam Shaw and we ran SQL Saturday #2 in Tampa in February 2008. It was a fun event, tiring, and a little stressful, but the first few events led us to where the event is today. Matter of fact, I just signed up to speak at SQL Saturday #100.

There has been some discussion from event organizers wondering if this "code camp" thing is just a fad, and I can thoroughly say that it's not. It's really taken on a life of it's own and now there are code camps, SQL Saturday, Bar camps, Azure Camp, and soon to be Windows Phone camps. As camps split into more specialized areas there are some attendance drops but it also brings out new people who are interested in that particular technology. Techies always enjoy the free or low cost events to network and learn or relearn something, and the post parties certainly don't hurt either.

If you haven't been to one of these events yet, I encourage you to find out when the next one is coming to a city near you, or even better, get a group together and host one yourself. Information on SQL Saturday can be obtained by clicking here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Data Models and Their Importance

Just this week I had a discussion with a client who is looking to hire a data modeler. We spoke about his project, the number of facts and dimensions, and what he was looking for in a data modeler. I felt compelled to add the following analogy:

"A data model is like the foundation of a house. Without a strong foundation, no amount of work or rework on the remainder will be correct, and it will frustrate you to failure, so get the foundation right the first time."

Unfortunately I know this all too well. I have been part of a few projects on the ETL side that had poor data models, either models that weren't completely thought through or models that weren't designed for the end solution. A data modeler needs to work very closely with the business/functional analysts to understand the data that will be stored in the model, and develop an enterprise model that can be easily maintained and expanded.

First, let's look at a typical data model. For this example, I'll use the star methodology. This is a simple fact table that contains surrogate keys that point to attributes in the dimensions. If you need to, review the difference between facts and dimensions here.

Our simple model is a grocery store. It has a date, customer, employee, and product dimension. It has a Sales fact table that lists each transaction.

This is a simple model but it carries a lot of information. The data modeler should be thinking ahead as to which dimensions should be added in the future for a sales fact table. There should also be thought as to which fact measures could be added in the future.

I've worked with clients who would design the exact model above and attempt to capture every possible fact and dimensional attribute the first release. DON'T try this! Just capture the majority of the dimensions which are needed to create a usable report, design the metrics (facts), and implement. Dimensions and facts can be easily added later if the tables are designed right, and this allows the IT department to deliver something quickly and get the business vested in the success of the project.

The synopsis, if you have made it this far, is to focus on building a solid data model from the start, containing relevant dimensions and needed facts to get the dimensional model up and running. Never, never, and I'll repeat never shortchange on your data model to get something out the door quicker.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Windows Phone 7.5 - A Year in the Making

Readers will recall that last year I was excited about getting the Windows Phone 7.5. I even recall Nov 8, 2010 when the phone first went on sale - I awoke in a Marriott in downtown Durham, NC, and after a hectic day made a trip to the AT&T store, only to find that they were sold out of the Samsung Focus which I had decided on. Patience was painful but worthwhile, as a black Friday sale at the local Microsoft store yielded a free-after-contract LG Quantum. It's been a full 10 months since that fateful day and I'm no less pleased with Windows Phone.

Yesterday I was able to upgrade to Windows Phone 7.5. This is the first phone I've owned in almost 10 years that I am completely happy with. The hardware is great (LG), and the camera is excellent. Matter of fact, I don't carry a camera anymore as this one takes excellent pictures. The ability to sync with Zune keeps my podcasts up to date and the phone functions as a de-facto iPod. Except that its' better. I haven't really noticed much with Mango yet except that the colors are more vibrant and texts/emails have a different style to them.

For those who are contemplating a business device but want to stay in the Windows ecosystem, I highly encourage you to check out a WP7 device. I have been asked about it multiple times in my travels and try to spend a few seconds showing the device in a positive light. I am also asked quite a bit about my Amazon Kindle. Did I mention the WP7 apps, there are plenty of apps for many items but I still prefer to use a mobile browser when possible.

Suffice it to say that I'm incredibly excited about Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, and Windows Server 8. The combination O/S, phone, server, and tablet should be the perfect quad of devices. I'm not a Windows fanboy but it's hard to argue that any ecosystem is better in the dual, and often shared realms of business and pleasure.

I'd enjoy hearing any comments about the Windows Phone experiences you have.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is it 2011 or 2006?

It's been five years since I originally started this blog, so I decided it was time for a redesign. One of the plans is to move this over within the corporate webpage so the first task was to get the colors matched up. A second tasks was to "modify" the name. I elected to remove the quasi-curse word from the title, and while I believe "damn" is catchy and not overly offensive, the clientele is professional and it's important to retain the professional image.

One of my disappointments has been in the blog postings, mainly the quantity or lack thereof. It's just plain difficult to find the time to do a comprehensive writing, one that actually delivers value to the constituents. Well, here's my mea cupla. I'll try harder to write more often and also more quality postings. Business intelligence is such an interesting and dynamic field and there are many topics that I could write about which would deliver value to you, the readers.

If you have any comments about the new layout, please let me know.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Picking the right laptop

Another topic back on the laptops, and I hope this will be my last for a while. Earlier this year I decided to pick up a MacBook Air to use when traveling. It's the lightest full laptop on the market and the size is a dream. The problems began quickly - first, I had to spend sometime installing BootCamp and setting up Windows 7 on it with all my software, as most macOS programs are useless for what I do. The problem I had with the laptop was the glossy screen - after just 30 minutes of use, I couldn't see well the rest of the day with severe eye strain. After a couple weeks I put it in the closet and a quick Bing search revealed that the exact same problems had been noted by others as well. I let a friend borrow it a few weeks who didn't have any issues, so just guessing my eyes are a little sensitive and the Apple store said it's perfect, so I resold it and decided to move back to my second choice, a Lenovo ThinkPad.

I finally decided on a ThinkPad T420s. It's a full machine with a 14" screen, which is only 1 lb more than the MBA, with all the features of a laptop (DVD rom, removable battery, anti-glare screen, great screen resolution). Crucial provided me an additional 4GB of ram, so now I'm running a 8 GB ram machine that's a dream to carry and can natively run all the programs that I need. The Lenovo cost the same amount as the MBA so that's a double win. So to anyone who is contemplating a thin, light 14" laptop, I highly recommend checking out the Lenovo lineup.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Types of Data

This is a question I get asked quite a bit: "What are the different types of data that I can collect in my data warehouse?" Always an interesting topic, so I'll start by saying there are three basic types of data: empirical, anecdotal, and derived.

The basic case for data warehousing starts with empirical data. This is data that is collected - Eg. "I sold 10 widgets this week". Most data warehouses are built off this type of data, because it's really a "fact", meaning that it's true. Not to be confused with dimensional modeling, as an address is also "empirical" in nature.

A second type of data is derived. This is data that is created from another type of data. An example of derived data is "I sold 10 widgets this week for $1 each, therefore my total sales are $10 for the week". Derivation is the only way to perform a computation to get a picture. Think of aggregations as derived data.

The third type of data, and one that is less common, is anecdotal. This is data that is oberserved or believed but without any scientific basis. Anecdotal data often has applications in business. Think of the example that a salesman is selling widgets to a retailer, which we shall call Mega-lo-mart, and the salesman knows through discussion with the Mega-lo-mart manager that they don't intend to buy widgets this year, anecdotal data would be the salesman's oberservation that "mega-lo-mart doesn't indend to buy widgets this year because they aren't selling well". There is no scientific evidence this is true, but think of the business case, where a salesman is wasting time trying to sell to someone who will not buy the widget. Thus, there is a case that anecdotal evidence could be used in a data warehouse application, as long as it's documented as such, to help drive decisions.

I find these data types fascinating, especially the anecdotal nature. Sometimes it's difficult to determine which data type is particular type of data is, based on the way it was collected. That's our jobs as architects (typically a data modeler) who would analyze the data, work with business users to determine the applicability of the data, and build a dimensional model that contains all three types of data to present as a business intelligence applicaiton.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Using Windows Tools to Maximize Productivity

One of the most important things for consultants to do is to maximize their time. Fortunately, there are a number of tools available to assist in this endeavor. I'm specifically focusing on Microsoft tools, namely Windows Phone and associated services to get more done in less time.

Smart phones have really taken off. Of course, some of us have been using "smart" phones long before Apple came along and took credit for inventing it.

Here's a list of three Windows tools that can be used to maximize productivity:

Windows Phone - Syncs with Hotmail, Hotmail calendar, and can use Outlook connector to sync with Outlook on a desktop. Use Zune software to sync up podcasts and music.

Windows SkyDrive - Upload your documents and photos to this secure online storage area, where they can be accessed from your WP or any internet-connected computer. This is a lifesaver when needing to access business documents on a client site or to edit using the WP.

Office Online - Last but not least, the ability to create, edit, and save Office documents on computers without the client software is huge. Office online doesn't have the full functionality of the client tools but it's enough for basic documents and has saved me more than once.

I hope you consider using these tools to become more productive. They are all available for low or no cost and provide high return on time.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Importance of Goals

Welcome to the first post of 2011. Ironically, or maybe not, I'm writing about goals today for software techies, and my first goal is to publish posts more frequently.

It is very easy to get into patters of life that just happen and people, like energy, tend to follow the past of least resistance. This is especially apparent in corporate America, where people get hired as employees, suffer through yearly reviews, get raises every now and then, but (often) fail to build a comprehensive goal list. In corporate speak, this is called a "career path". I prefer the term "Career plan", because the employee is the responsible party for developing and executing his/her own career plan. Especially in the era of corporate downsizing, one should not and cannot let their career path be dictated by a single company.

A career plan can be simple or detailed. It must be actionable. One plan might state "Advance to become Software Architect". This seems slightly lofty and possibly unreasonable, but with the right planning becomes a distinct possibility. Compare with the goal of "Advance to become Software Architect by presenting at a major conference, spending 5 hours a week networking with fellow architects, and publishing an article in a journal during the current year". The best case in this scenario is that you now have a plan and become a software architect and the worst case is that if you achieve all the goals you've set yourself up in a strong position to move into the role down the road.

I would imagine that if you are reading this blog you've probably been doing some networking or attended a tech event. These two facts alone will put you in the "creme de la creme" as they both show initiative in expanding your boundaries. But never rest on your laurels, continue moving forward and setting new goals as you retire achieved ones.

The best goals are SMART:
S - Specific (Get a MBA, Publish an article)
M - Measurable (Degree is conferred, article was published)
A - Actionable (Something that can actually be done)
R - Realistic (Something that you really can achieve in the time allotted)
T - Time driven (There is a time limitation in which to achieve the goal)

The fact is that the software development lifecycle is alive and well, and this relates to techies as well. It's a "grow, learn, and achieve" industry versus a "stagnate and die" one. In which group do you consider yourself? What is your SMART career plan for this year?






Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Windows Phone 7 has landed

Hello all, in my last post I spoke about wanting to get a Windows phone badly after suffering a year of Android. Suffering is a word I use lightly, it was never "that" bad, but after a year of app-centric software, I was really missing my WinMo phone. I even went so far as to get out my old HTC Touch Pro and carry it around a week to see if I could be comfortable with it, and sadly, while I loved the software, I did not like the phone itself so I chose to ride out the wait. Well, the wait is over.

Last week I picked up the LG Quantum. It's the only Windows Phone 7 device with a slider keyboard, reminicent of my PPC-6700. Matter of fact, it reminds me a lot of that good ol 6700 in form and function, and that's a good thing. So while I'll do a full review, let's first start by looking at my requirements for a Windows phone:
- Ability to sync with Outlook/Hotmail
- Ability to sync Calendar/Tasks
- Windows Media Player
- Decent internet browser

The WP7 platform does all of these except one. Tasks. Tasks are sorely missing from the O/S but I have faith that Microsoft is planning to add in this feature at some point. I've also learned to use the Zune software to sync the phone, and while I've never had a iPhone, it does seem like a knockoff in functionality ported from Apple.

The user interface is great and a welcome relief from the app buttons of Android. I find the entire phone and features to be a breath of fresh air that will only get better with time.

Some features I hope that MSFT includes in WP7:
- Tethering via bluetooth
- Tasks sync
- Additional SD Micro card storage
- Bing Maps with Navigation

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Windows Phone is coming, and I can't wait

In December of last year I wrote about my purchase of a Google Android device (HTC Hero) and how I felt Windows 6.5 was outdated and that Microsoft had missed the boat on the mobile software. Here's my partial mea-culpa: Microsoft did miss the boat for a while at least but it seems to be a good thing, and here's why. (So I was wrong - Windows Mobile 6.5 is still very relevant)

In the past I have owned three devices (all three made by HTC coincidentally) that ran Windows Mobile 5.0, 6.1, and 6.5, respectively. The common problem with these devices was lack of memory and seeming hardware issues. The first phone (PPC-6700) was my favorite of them, as it worked great until I dropped it (my bad) and then I started going through refurb hell with Sprint and upgraded. The second phone (Mogul) was better in all respects but a little dated in screen resolution, and the screen promptly developed large white spots that a quick Bing search revealed to be a common issue with overheating (phone design error) so the screen was unusable. I then was moved to a Touch Pro which worked fine but had a horrible form factor (thick on the depth and thin on the width) which made the screen very small and barely usable (form factor design flaw) along with horrible battery life (about 30-45 minutes of use per charge). After the issues with that phone I wrote off HTC devices and headed to the Sprint store, where a smooth talking sales guy suggested the HTC Hero with Android 1.6 (Cupcake). I figured I'd give it a shot based on the price ($69 w/contract) and was initially impressed. My honeymoon wore off quickly.

Android is an interesting beast and I've since used the factory upgrade to Android 2.1 and I'm no less pleased with it. Windows Mobile 5 was a better O/S with more features that I found lacking in Android. Android, following Apple's lead, is a siloed O/S where everything is driven by apps. This means information doesn't flow well between applications, and the base O/S has hardly no functionality at all. So for everything I want to do, I have to go online, find an app that does it (or not), and install it and hope that it works. Not my idea of good usability.

The biggest flaw is that there is no easy way to sync up outlook (that I've found) and keep contacts, mail, and tasks synced up. There is a download provided by google that runs on my PC to do this, but it's rickety and while it works, I still don't find the calendar app to be anything like what I had on Windows mobile.

I've been watching the news as Windows Phone 7 gets near and now I am very excited about a phone that has full Outlook sync, Windows Live, Bing maps, a good native browser, and the potential for apps if necessary. The only downside is that the phones are initially only available on GSM (not bad in the long run) but the models available by AT&T and T-Mobile haven't caught my eye like some I have seen overseas. Looks like I'll start watching ebay next week (Oct 20 release in Europe) to pick up one of the new phones unlocked. I'd even take Windows Mobile 6.5 on a good device over my current setup but looks like Microsoft might be showing up at the right time to make a decent dent in the smartphone market.


Friday, March 12, 2010

The Damn Data is Going Away....but not yet

What a fun four years it has been. Last year I started a new push for the website (www.thedamndata.com) and installed forums and whitepapers but it became a full time job to keep the spam, porn, and Rx peddlers off the forums and I ended up shutting them down for a while. The best mistake I made was trying to check the website from my computer while connected into the client's network. It was an honest mistake but a valuable one. The dreaded words "Blocked" came from the proxy server. The browser had a message that it was inappropriate material for a work machine. I had been wondering why it was so difficult to get some more traffic to the site and it suddenly dawned on me that while the name is a little catchy, it's probably not appropriate from a corporate standpoint. I have a new name, a new website, and while this blog address will stay the same for now, you'll soon see the results of a rebranding for the blog and web portion.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Is Windows Mobile Relevant?

There is an interesting read on BetaNews about the Windows Mobile platform. Before I get flamed for being a Apple junkie, I'll say right now I do not have nor want an iPhone. The closed platform and interface do nothing for what I need.

My current cellphone has been trending downhill for the past few months. It's an HTC Touch Pro device with WM 6.1, and I hacked it to run WM6.5 that I downloaded at xda-developers. Those great hobbyists do a wonderful job at packaging roms which unlock the full value of phones. I've tried a few different roms but the "Energy rom" line was the most stable and best one I've seen.

Now I'm sure you're thinking "the phone worked fine until you hacked it". This is the opposite, the phone out of the box from Sprint was buggy, laggy, and was a fail at basic telephony. Not to mention the habit of draining the battery before lunchtime. By researching and installing a custom rom I was able to get another 6 months of use from the device, else I'm certain it would have ended smashed into a million pieces on a sidewalk somewhere.

This leads us to today - WM is coming out with WM 7 next year. This is supposed to be an awesome system. WM 6.5 excels where Apple fails. It's open development, lots of good resources but on the flip side a lot of the usage is wonky and seems 2003-ish. I cannot wait for a better system in a year from now when I need a smartphone today.

I purchased a HTC Hero last week running Android. Android is made by Google and is quickly gaining market share among smart devices. It didn't have a dedicated keyboard so I thought I would be bothered by the virtual keyboard, but so far it's not too bad. The phone works well and it seems that the flow and use of the software makes sense. It's much more user intuitive than the Microsoft platform as it exists today, but I'll wait for the newness to wear off before I comment on the overall package. If Microsoft is destined to have a presence in the mobile market, WM 7 must be a compelling "wow".

Sunday, December 06, 2009

14 Years and 1.2 Million Miles Later

Last night I had the great pleasure of flying on Southwest airlines into Kansas City. I haven't flown on Southwest much this year but when I had this opportunity I jumped on it. Boarding the flight was painless and I picked an aisle seat right over the wing to try and have a similar experience as before. We arrived at KC Airport at gate 31, and when I departed into the terminal, I had a strong feeling of deja-vu.

It was June 1995. I want to say it was the 8th day of the month, but I'm not sure. A family member had purchased me a ticket to fly from KC-Chicago on Southwest. I had never flown on a commercial aircraft before and was a little nervous. I won't state my age or give away too much information, but I'll say I was "young". I left my car at my uncle's home and they took me to the airport, I checked in my bag, and waited for the flight. At that time Southwest used those old plastic number cards, and I believe I had a 'B' card. The plane was this huge light brown thing, later I learned it was a 737-200. We boarded the flight through gate 31 and I found a seat right behind the wing on the left side of the aircraft. I recall that flight had some seats that faced to the back, and there was a very attractive blonde girl in one of those seats who ordered a beer on the flight. I'm sure I had a Coke. My first feeling was the massive acceleration on take off, and the rest of the flight was an awesome experience for a young boy.

One of the neat things about consulting and building a business is the opportunity to travel to distant locales. Some people enjoy traveling, some see it as part of the job, and some hate it. I understand all these perspectives. Last night as I recollected on my experience, I thought of the many airports I've visited since that day in June 1995. I thought of the planes I've flown on that would make a 737 look like a tiny toy. I thought about the many people I've met along the journey, both attractive ladies and nice guys. I then thought about what I know now vs. what I knew in 1995. It helped me to remember that the world is full of opportunities, that we all have a chance to make what we want, to live our dreams. I am living mine, talking, practicing, and helping companies become more efficient through the use of information technology and business intelligence. In June 1995 I was working at Walmart, thinking of how we (myself and the four other guys I worked with) could get bleach loaded onto shelves faster, work the stock faster, or sell more items through use of displays. Now I am thinking of how I can use IT to help a client complete financial audits. Wow, what a 14 years it's been. I'm certain that I will look back in another 14 years and saw that in 2009 I had no idea how great it would all become.