A New Project: Frontline Analytics

Last week I loaded up a U-Haul trailer and moved back to my home north of Boston to start my own data and analytics consulting firm, Frontline Analytics. I’d been thinking about this for a long time but only in the past 6-8 months did I begin taking substantive steps toward making it a reality. Overall I enjoyed my experience at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and will miss former TCS and client colleagues from my recent Power BI/SSAS project but I’m also very excited for this new journey.

 UHaul Trailerboston_mbta_290412

 

 

 

 

The new firm will offer research and advisory, solution design, and development services focused on Microsoft Business Intelligence and Power BI tools and services. Details of these services and the company will soon be added to the company site. At a high level, research and advisory will consist of in-depth analysis of MSBI and Power BI tools and services, solution design patterns as well as advisory support to BI/IT organizations. Solution design will involve the logical architecture and design blueprints and documents supporting BI and analytics projects. Development will entail physical implementation, testing, and deployment support.

Research & Advisory

ResearchAnalysis of existing SSAS and Power BI data models

Performance monitoring, tuning and troubleshooting

MSBI and Power BI Skill Assessments

Guidance on latest tools, design patterns and considerations

Targeted Studies, Test Results, and Proof of Concepts

Solution Design

Ray-Robson_Chess

Logical and physical design of Power BI and SSAS Tabular models

ETL Design and Source-to-Target Mapping

Processing Automation Design

Dashboard and Report Design with Power BI and SSRS

Custom Security and Role-Specific Requirements

Solution Development

piano_player

Advanced DAX metric and query development

T-SQL Query/Procedure and SSIS Package development

Advanced R Statistics and M (Power Query) development

Powershell and TMSL Processing Scripts

 

The Practical and the Ideal

With any major career decision like this you have to analyze many factors (‘dimensions’) and to my mind these can generally be aggregated into questions of pragmatism and idealism or more simply ‘what you can do’ and ‘what you want to do’. It’s of course easy to want or desire an unrealistic outcome. Likewise, I’ve known many professionals that almost exclusively focus on the security and stability (the practical) of the current state with little outward concern for ideals. I believe my decision and the new consulting firm represents both practical and ideal factors and that variables on each side of this equation complement one another.

The Practical:

  • SQL Server 2016 is a major release, not an incremental update, and this will lead to greater demand for MSBI skills and services
  • Power BI is already a leading BI & Analytics platform and its increased adoption and integration with other MSBI and Azure services will lead to demand for this knowledge
  • There’s a significant gap between what the latest tools are capable of and how they can best be utilized to current understandings – this is true even within leading MSBI focused partner firms. For example, many MSBI professionals are still relatively new to DAX and SSAS Tabular and many others are only beginning to learn Power BI architecture and solution design and deployment issues.
  • The downside risk of my decision is limited as my startup and operating costs are very low. In the event I don’t acquire or maintain clients or projects I don’t have loans or bills or employees (yet) or a family (yet) to be concerned with.  
  • I studied business in college including an MBA in finance and my father owned a small business so although I’ll surely learn and make a few mistakes I’m comfortable with business concepts.

The Ideal:

  • I believe that modern, powerful analytical capabilities should be available broadly in organizations and that Power BI and other Azure and MSBI products which uniquely facilitate this empowerment are doing a good thing.
  • I’ve studied philosophy informally for over 10 years and owning a firm provides the opportunity to fully embed and apply the ideas I’ve concluded to be true. Details of this are far outside the scope of this blog post but the pursuit of knowledge, an acceptance of objective reality, rational self-interest and individualism are all major components.  
  • By owning a company my energy can largely be allocated to what I’m passionate about. I can exclusively choose projects/engagements on terms that are rewarding and can simply decline any project I’m not interested in.
  • Not that I haven’t asked for and received help from others but, as far back as I can remember, I’ve far more often been asked to give away my time and efforts to others – often with no reward or even a word of appreciation. I’ve also been consistently asked to ‘slow down’ to be more like others, accept the status quo, and generally not think for myself. I’ve almost always went along with it, opting to a choose a better, later time to assert my independence. That time is now.

IMG_0420 - Large

11 comments

  1. Good luck Brett!
    I am thinking about the same decision even if, here in Italy, I think the SMBs are not yet ready to understand/invest in “modern BI” solutions.
    But I am sure it’s the future and it’s what I am passionate about.
    Hopefully MSBI will keep momentum.

    Best,
    Roberto

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  2. Hi Brett, have been really appreciating your blog for the last few months. Thank you for sharing this – I’ve literally been pondering this consulting model for sometime now but with respect to a niche industry I know well, where I discovered PowerPivot in 2011, and where I know the prospective business resides, agriculture. Specializing would be more logical in my case considering I don’t have as much (broad) experence as you, essentially where I can hit the ground running – I hear Rob Collie in my head “its all about the data model”.

    Curious, do you have clients lined up? May be a dumb question but how will you “solicit” or seek clients (or if you already have them “additional business”)? Are features and/or application demonstrations part of the mix?

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    1. Hi Vinnie,

      Thanks for your nice note. I’ve tried to improve the quality and relevance of these posts to current BI issues/trends and will continue to post here about once every 3-4 weeks as mentioned on the new company site (technical blog).

      You raise an excellent question – “How specialized should or can you be?” Generally greater specialization allows you to offer deeper expertise and innovative ideas/solutions but also limits the addressable market and the scope of your engagements with clients. You incur greater risk by tying your business to a very specific niche and/or industry (agriculture) so in my view you’d want to be very confident in this opportunity and plan to add on additional skills/services. In my experience companies value the broader perspective even if they use their own or other resources for certain services.

      To your question on acquiring business I’d recommend ‘Getting Started in Consulting’ by Alan Weiss and specifically chapters 4-5 on marketing. In summary you establish an attraction to your services through a variety of mediums and activities (ie website, networking, referrals, etc). Yes, some level of demonstration will be part of the mix though this will be more targeted and limited than common pre-sales consulting engagements. Clients want to ‘see’ that you understand their issue and have an ability/tools to solve it. Additionally multiple development iterations/cycles with user feedback is an effective delivery method for BI apps.

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      1. Brett, thank you kindly for your reply and insight – mentions are all thought provoking. The specialization/addressable market variable is a good point. Interesting about value on broader prospective – I can see this especially concerning the dizzying landscape of tools and solutions and the viable adoption/compatibility to an enterprises current data ecosystem. Alan Weiss resource – I will definitely follow up on this.

        Regarding level of demonstration and consulting engagements – would you mean intermittent interactions with the client during more of an agile approach to their relative solution(s) development?

        On last query – and this is prompted after listening to Brent Ozar’s recent “guide to level 500 career internals” presentation via the recent 24 HOP. How much (% wise) of your current-previous professional roles pertained to your now consulting niche? Of course I ask for professional development and a reality check.

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      2. Hi Vinnie,
        Glad the feedback was useful and thanks for the reference to Brent Ozar’s presentation – great info there regardless of the career path you choose. To your first question there’s some level of demonstration associated with each of the four services being offered and yes, particularly with Power BI solution design and development engagements, prototypes and examples would be used in an agile and iterative methodology as these tools lend themselves well to this. The main distinction I see is between using a demo to advise of relevant capabilities, apprising of a project’s status or design consideration, or soliciting greater feedback versus giving a demo for the sake of the technology or to market your skills or other services. In some rare cases a client or higher level stakeholders may actually want to just understand a technology or implicitly observe your skills/knowledge as a pure POC/pre-sales activity with no immediate business demand/value and in other cases a client may, also implicitly, be looking for justification for going ahead with a certain technology or architecture decision. You have to sense and understand the different and sometimes conflicting priorities and who and what is the ultimate judge of success/value or failure on a project – much of this never gets written into project documents. For my Research & Advisory service I’d be glad to walk through and explain with supporting documents each of the primary Power BI components or all the new features of SSAS Tabular 2016 if a client clearly wants this but as a general rule I try to tie all my work to the specific problem being solved or value being created, now or in the future. If you can’t easily associate what you’re saying or demonstrating to a client’s needs then it’s probably good to keep this material out of meetings or at least in the appendix as FYI material.

        To your last question, I’d say 70-80% of my recent BI roles apply to my new role with Frontline Analytics. I wouldn’t offer the specific services or provide the examples if I wasn’t confident and you can’t be confident without supporting knowledge and experience. The other 20-30% consist of new business responsibilities primarily as well as some technologies that are at least fairly new to everyone (e.g. TMSL, new SSRS-SSAS integration design scenarios, etc). This said, I think you have to get over the fear of not being a true guru at certain technologies or having certain gaps or weaknesses. There will always be something new to learn and there’s tremendous value in being able to apply multiple ‘good but not great’ skills to a project that would otherwise be handled by multiple specialized teams (expensive, slow) as well as just a raw ability to learn and retain new business and technical info quickly. It’s different for everyone (risk tolerance, what you value) but I think the main variables are if you’re comfortable with change, with uncertainty, and if you’re deeply committed to constantly learning and building your skills and brand.

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      3. Completely understand the distinction you cite and thank you for being so detailed. I’m a report developer on a consulting practice team for a cloud ERP solution and familiar with this approach with respect to discussing our propriety solutions or just explaining report differentiation. For the last 2.5 years I stopped working with PowerPivot and Tabular “at work” on a daily basis; SSRS is the MS technology I’m now exposed to “professionally”. Needless to say to stay up to date with all of the enhancements on the tabular data model/PowerBI/DAX operators I am constantly training/studying off-hours with a family. I get crossed between what the execution and features of such a (successful) consulting “business model” may comprise of and all the time I’m investing within various sandboxes (I see lots of demos and features).

        There’s a lot of wisdom in your latter mention, specialist v generalist (this is a bad one for me – I think I need the knowledge base as my mentors), getting over the fear (this is bad too), being comfortable with the change. I am very passionate about this niche and since my last role where a PowerPivot data model beat out an expensive DW/SharePointBI implementation I have not been able to drop the thought of a model such as yours the last 2.5 years. I believe in the Data Revolution here that Mr. Colle speaks of and also perplexed how many people/organizations aren’t familiar with the “new Excel”

        Thank you for your time Brett, this has been a very practical and insightful discussion and its really inspired me. Im happy for you and what your creating. Looking forward to up coming posts and updates.

        Vinnie
        Santa Barbara, CA

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  3. Its interesting reading Brett and it seems every Power Pivot user who has learned DAX in last 2-3 years think the same way as you wrote in your blog. I’m one among them though not able to jump into consulting but started training Power Query/Power Pivot/Power BI. Any thought or suggestion…

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    1. Thanks Naveen – your question seems to be related to Vinnie’s from a couple a weeks ago and I’d like to dedicate at least one upcoming weekly post to BI career paths and the choices we have to make. In Rob Collie’s Power Pivot and Power BI DAX book he says “With very little effort, an established Power Pivot pro can label herself a Business Intelligence Pro, even if she was just an Excel pro a couple years ago.” I greatly respect everything Rob has done for Excel and Power BI (his book is on the BI Book Reference page) but in this case, based on my experience and sense of the industry, I disagree. I believe significantly more skills and knowledge beyond DAX and Power BI tools and service are necessary to be a successful BI consultant or BI Pro within an organization. This issue is one of the main reasons I’ve had reviewing his book on my Topic Schedule for several weeks. There are several valid options for supplementing Power Query/Power Pivot/Power BI skills and I’ll try to go into details in 4-5 weeks following other planned posts.

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