Self Service Is Cheap?

As I am sure that you are all aware, PowerPivot is the best thing to hit Excel since PED. Although I am not a big data cruncher, I have been playing with PowerPivot; to keep abreast of an important technology; it plays into one of my primary interests of Business Intelligence; and partly to seek out further opportunities.

Although I have been scouring the blogs and dedicated websites, I do like to have a book as a reference point, and so I was very pleased to get a review copy of PowerPivot for the Data Analyst: Microsoft Excel 2010, by Bill Jelen.

Bill Jelen is well known in the Excel community; he is the founder of MrExcel which is probably the most active Excel forum on the web; and is a prolific author and Excel presenter. It is good having an Excel PowerPivot book from someone whose primary focus is Excel, too many (including MS) see Excel as a presentation layer for SQL Server and SharePoint, and fail to acknowledge Excel’s capability and potential. Bill is unlikely to make that mistake.

Bill has a flowing writing style, and reading the book it is easy to imagine him at the front of a room giving one of his Excel presentations. Having access to Rob Collie, who has worked for Microsoft in this technology, was a lucky break for Bill, someone who could check his facts and feed him other ideas.

The book isn’t quite up to its subject in my view. It looks as though it was rushed to market to ride the launch hype, and suffers for that, with errors and what I see as less than relevant content; this feels like padding to me. There are basic typographical errors (the worst is when a trick to get month names to list in month name order is attributed to Colin Banfield, but his name is incorrectly spelt).

Too much of the content appears as if it has been lifted from some of Bill’s many other books. Much of the book is spent on ancillary topics in my view; there is more on standard pivot table usage than is required, such as the PivotTable trick that has impressed some. I have known the trick for some years, and whilst I acknowledge that it is a good trick, I have never found a use for it other than demonstrating it in conferences and training sessions, but most importantly, I cannot see the relevance to this book.

There is a section on basic DAX functions which covers 30 pages. Whilst these functions might be available within DAX, they are the same as the Excel functions and really did not need covering in depth here. I would have preferred more on DAX usage. There is a chapter on DAX measures, which is a good start, but after saying that a whole book could be written about Time Intelligence functions, we get a mere 10 pages. DAX is a real key feature that boosts PowerPivot, and can make them so much more powerful than standard PivotTables.

PowerPivot for the Data Analyst: Microsoft Excel 2010 is very easy to read, and whilst Bill is clearly a PowerPivot fan, he is not blind to some of its foibles and failures, and presents a good section on the pros and cons of PowerPivot.

Overall, as I mentioned, this book looks and feels rushed to me. Although it is quite a good start, I would not recommend it to anyone other than a novice Excel/PowerPivot user. It may be useful for someone that needs to gain a basic understanding of PowerPivot, but I feel there must be a better book out there, or on the production line. I notice that Marco Russo and Alberto Ferrari have recently released an Excel PowerPivot book, perhaps they would like to send me a copy to review?.

One other comment, not aimed specifically at this book, but at this market generally. In an age where we are all using GUI based software, and colour is used extensively within applications to help navigation and usage, publishers should not be printing the pictures in black and white, effectiveness is lost by the lack of colour.

11 thoughts on “Self Service Is Cheap?

  1. Although spelled is an accepted pp of spell, so is spelt (Webster). Spelled is very old English, sounds clumsy, and the language has moved on. So spelt is perfectly acceptable, in fact I would venture the norm, at least in English as spoken in England.

    Now, if you had pulled me up my order, saying I should have said ‘… but his name is spelt incorrectly’, I might have agreed.

  2. Bob,

    By now we all should now that the first books on a new technology are rushed trough as they have a strong desire to hit the market first.

    I have a Safari Books Online subscription and believe or not but I use it to select printed books I would like to have in my hand.

    Kind regards,

  3. That may be so Dennis, but if so it is a shame. Bill may have a better PowerPivot book in him if only he had waited, used the product some more before releasing it. Instead, for me, the book is destined for to gather dust on the shelf.

    As I mentioned, Marco Russo has a PowerPivot book, but Marco is primarily a SQL Server guy, so although I have yet to see it, I imagine that his book will be loooking at it from the SQL Server, SSAS perspective.

    To my mind, the best books do not tell us how to use a product, that is usually pretty straightforward, but they tell us how to extract value from a product. For instance, the really good PowerPivot book that I envisage will show the business user how and why to use PowerPivot in conjunction with Excel, some clever things they will be able to do with it, and how they can incorporate it with other techniques (tables, dashboards, etc.). It would assume a basic understanding of the product, don’t waste time on explaining PowerPiviot basics or how to build pivot tables, and would build upon that. It would also cover SSAS, but not as a primry focus in my view, after all it is all about self-service BI.

  4. Bear in mind that PowerPivot initially was a baby for the SQL Server people at Redmont. That may explain why we see titles from individuals that come from this group.
    At present I read another book on the subject: “Practical PowerPivot & DAX Formulas for Excel 2010”. About half of the book is a presentation of PowerPivot and the remaining part cover DAX. The author, Art Tennick, has a similar background like Marco Russo so that book will also be a disappointed given Your request of content.

    In general I can agree with You and also what we may can expect from a guy within the Excel community. But I think it’s too soon to discuss the real value a tool like PowerPivot brings, except for the new fashion expressions like “Self Service BI”.

    Excel 2010 is still very new and it also takes time to establish best practices. It something that evolves over the time. I’m curious to see how popular the tool actually will be in the online Excel community.

    Kind regards.

  5. I think you are right Dennis, it is interesting times ahead.

    My view is that PowerPivot opens up a whole new vista for the business user in a way analogous to when VBA was added to Excel, but of course the big difference is that PowerPivot is NOT embedded, so the takeup may not be so great, and consequently the usage may not be as innovative.

    As I said elsewhere, I am confused by PowerPivot. On the one hand MS seem to be trying to push users into using the enterprise tools (SharePoint, SQL Server, etc.) and just use Excel as a presentation layer (keep IT happy), and then they release PowerPivot, which has the potential to extend spreadsheet hell.

    Watch this space as they say.

  6. Agreed, I find PowerPivot to be the greatest news with Excel 2010 together with the 64-bit version of Excel.

    Then we are, at least, two individuals who are confused. What we know is that PowerPivot is the successor to MS Query and that PowerPivot not only acquire data but also allow us to present the data in Excel. This is no news as we have done it before although it then required more hands on and coding.

    In other words, the managed Self-Service BI concept itself is no news for us. But it has been simplified and more easy to get there by using PowerPivot.

    As far as I can understand it exist an assumption that business users worked in the past with obsolete and disconnected data but with PowerPivot it will no longer be a problem. That’s why it’s claimed that both IT and the business people will be happy with Self-Services BI in Excel.

    So despite the fact that PowerPivot per se support the spreadsheet hell the hell will, at least, be less as the spreadsheets now will always include the newest data.

    I strongly believe that when the hype about Self-Services BI is gone it will be business as usual.

    Kind regards,

  7. For me Power pivot looked more of a file compression technology than BI. So instead of a pivot Cache, the data now travels with the file in a proprietary DB format- This is simply wrong.

    If the calulated field and item in a pivot could be expanded to include more complex formulas (if/sumproduct/match/index) and could refer to elements outside the pivot – like cell references/names etc. the DAX would not be necessary

    Also if the Query Editor could be upgraded to allow more complex joins (like in Access) then the Pivot table would become the “Power” Pivot.

  8. PowerPivot is not file compression, it uses data compression. Different things.

    Agreed, it is not BI, but then it does not claim to be anymore than SSAS does. It is a component that a user can deploy in order to provide BI. Different things.

    Don’t forget, PowerPivot can join from different data sources, so it is better than Access or Query in that.

    Presumably, it was easier, and made more sense to MS, to build a new tool rather than try and ‘improve’ legacy tools. I can sympathise with that.

  9. No one has commented here for a while, but it is important to point out that the Russo/Ferrari PowerPivot book is far superior to others on the market for learning to grok the DAX language.

  10. I agree David, but it is still far from perfect IMO. We need Marco and Alberto’s depth of knowledge delivered by an Excel savant.

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