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Reflecting on PASS Summit 2018

I was lucky enough to attend my first PASS Summit in Seattle last week (November 6-9, 2018), and I thought I would take some time to reflect upon the experience (and use this as my first real blog post here)

Background

PASS is the Professional Association for SQL Server.  The organization hosts a wide variety of events – local user group chapters, SQL Saturday events, and of course PASS Summit – a 3-day conference.   All of these pieces focus on the same things – SQL Server and anything related to the data platform.  While I’ve been to SQL Saturday 11 times, this is my first PASS Summit.  If you’ve been to SQL Saturday, PASS Summit is an amped-up version of that – the best of the best, with 3 days of sessions and a couple of exciting keynotes.  Microsoft likes to use these to make some of their big announcements, so that’s always fun too.

Themes

There was so much going on during the short time I was there, but there were definitely some common themes that came up.

The Challenges are not Technical

You wouldn’t think this would be one of the recurring themes of a event known for technical training, but it’s something that came up a few times, and really resonated with me.  Here are the real challenges:

  • What does the user need?  No, not “What does the user want”, or “How specifically do they think it should be done” – what do they need?  In general, a user can only ask for things they can imagine – so if they’ve not seen something that would be useful, they can’t ask for it.
  • Sometimes you get requirements, and they’re unreasonable.  Often times, you can work with your users to either make the requirements more reasonable, or break up the project into smaller pieces, delivering pieces as they are completed, and allowing the business to start getting value out of the work.  A 3 year data warehouse project doesn’t help anyone until it’s done – but if you can deliver 1 topic in 6 months, then start there.
  • Grids of data aren’t helpful to 80% of users.  Visualizing data in graphs and charts helps show the trends much better than a table of numbers – but I’ve worked with many folks who just want to see the number.  Sometimes you need to make different reports for different audiences – so that the accounting team can see the numbers they want, while the marketing folks can work more on the trending side of things.
  • Sometimes you need to work with the organization to completely change the culture, toward one of making data-driven decisions.

In the week since I’ve been at Summit, the phrase “The challenges are not technical” has come up more and more.  Don’t get me wrong – figuring out the technology is important, but you have to solve the culture/political/social issues as well before you can really make progress.

Microsoft Has Really Upped Its Game

When I started working in data almost 10 years ago now, Microsoft was moving very slowly.  The new features we saw weren’t really innovations – they were minor improvements (almost bug fixes).  In the last 3-5 years, the rate at which Microsoft has innovated has been phenomenal.  I often forget that Power BI is only 3 years old (although it’s built on technology that existed before it) – and in those 3 years, the tool has added a lot.  And there are new innovations nearly every month.  For the rest of the products, using Azure as a place to deliver new features before packaging them into the on-prem solutions has proven to be a great way for them to keep advancing.  In the 25 years of SQL Server, I would imagine the pace at which the tools are iterating today is many times faster than at any point in its history.

Cloud and Speed to Innovation

Speaking of Microsoft and using the cloud as a tool to help innovate faster than ever – they’re encouraging you to do the same.  I still remember the first time someone started debunking my thoughts about putting things in the cloud for a business.  The argument was that most companies are not in the business of operating a data center, but have one anyway.  Questions like “Are you physically protecting your data 24×7?  Do you really keep up on the maintenance of your cooling and fire systems?  Do you really want to keep spending your time and money on things that aren’t your core business?”  Then you can get into the cost proposition.  How long does it take for you to spin up a server, install the OS, install SQL Server on it (and dealing with acquiring hardware and licenses, etc.) – then compare that to the cost of adding an Azure SQL Database.  No server to maintain.  No patching.  No hardware upgrades when it wears out.  If having the data a short distance away isn’t a problem, it’s definitely something that should be considered – especially if you’re prototyping a solution or developing a proof of concept.

Power BI is Going Places!

There are SO MANY new features coming to Power BI in the coming weeks and months!  Dataflows could become a fundamentally different way of staging data for reporting – and making it available to other tools – without a database.  And it’s another example of Microsoft using their own technologies to enable themselves – the flows are built on Azure Databricks, and the data gets housed in Azure Data Lake Storage.  The long-term goal is automated machine learning – and they are taking steps toward that today.  I can’t wait to see what the next year has in store for Power BI!

The People!

You can’t talk about PASS Summit without talking about the people.  I’m pretty introverted, so I wasn’t sure how much of the people aspect I was going to dive into at Summit.  Then I learned there was a Game Night, and I immediately signed up for that.  I’m big into tabletop gaming, and that ended up being a really good networking opportunity for me – it’s easier to network when it’s in the context of a game, rather than “cold calling” someone at a lunch table or in a hallway.  And it was so much fun I went the second night too – I highly recommend it!  I was also able to get my Power BI questions answered by people on the Power BI team, so that’s a big plus too 🙂

Wrapping Up

Conferences are a really great way to learn a ton, meet a bunch of new people, and really see what’s going on in the industry.  Often we get stuck in our corner of it and forget to come up for air and look around – conferences help us do that.  And it seemed to be a perfect way to me to remember to start blogging again.  The community is really happy to share knowledge, and while I do that in my limited area, I forget to do it more broadly – and with as much as the community has helped me, I need to do my fair share to help the next person.  Here’s hoping this blog continues that.

 

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