Beginner’s guide to becoming a Business Intelligence Expert

What makes someone a Business Intelligence expert? Is it about depth of knowledge or maybe recognition? Who decides what knowledge a Business Intelligence expert should have? How do you become a Business Intelligence expert? I think there are no simple answers to these questions, but if you want to become an expert on Microsoft Business Intelligence I hope this article will be helpful.

Learning

“It ain’t what people don’t know that hurts them it’s what they know that ain’t so” -commonly attributed to Mark Twain

I view learning as a process in three phases

  1. The unawareness phase – For example: “There’s a red lamp lit on the instrument panel of my car but I just ignore it.”
  2. The awareness phase – where you are aware of your own limited knowledge of the topic. For example: “The oil-level low lamp is lit on the instrument panel but I don’t know how to refill. I need to find out how to do that or get help from someone who knows.”
  3. The knowledge phase – For example: “The oil-level low lamp is lit so I will have to buy some oil at next stop and refill.”

These phases can also be illustrated as in the picture below.

I agree with Mark Twain (or whoever came up with that statement) that it is the things we falsely believe we know that causes the biggest mistakes, cost and lost time also within Business Intelligence. Sometimes the worst mistakes don’t show up until years after we made them. Who pays for these mistakes? Usually the customer – whether it’s an external or internal customer.

The first step, I would say, into becoming a Business Intelligence Expert is to reduce the red zone (“what we falsely believe we know”) and increase the yellow zone (“what we are aware we don’t know”). The problem is that the red zone is by nature invisible to us. So what should we do?

  • Visit conferences. Even if you remember only a few percent of what was said on a conference, you at least have picked up the topics on your radar. Some really good eye-openers on Microsoft Business Intelligence are PASS Summit, SQLRally, SQLBits, Microsoft TechEd, Microsoft BI Conference and Microsoft PDC. Also local conferences can be very good.
  • Read newsletters. SQLServerCentral has an excellent daily newsletter. TDWI also has great newsletters that are platform independent, giving you a glimpse what is happening outside the Microsoft BI world.
  • Read blogs. Learn from the Experts to become one. There are many good Microsoft BI blogs at www.sqlblog.com. PASS maintains a blog directory which is probably the most comprehensible available. You can browse it for your favorite experts.
  • Follow discussion forums. The MSDN Forums have been very active for years. The last trend is that more and more people are using LinkedIn groups such as the Microsoft Business Intelligence group there with over 30000 members.
  • Attend webinars. PASS has a virtual BI/Datawarehousing chapter that has great free webinars.
  • Attend user group meetings. In Sweden we have a very active SQL Server user group where we get regular visits from database and Business Intelligence Experts. You can find a directory of user groups at PASS, although they don’t cover every group. The value of attending user groups is not only learning things. It is as much about networking and learning about your local market. For instance I cannot avoid noticing which consultants participate at our user group meetings in Sweden. As a customer I would never hire any of those that never participate since I know they really aren’t interested in their job.

“The time is always right to do what is right” – Martin Luther King Jr

Now you may think this all sounds great – if you only had time. Think again – it’s like physical exercise really. If you completely skipped all physical exercise, would that give you more work time and spare time? Probably not. Yet there are many people who do no physical activities at all. Start small and you will be highly rewarded. It’s the same with Business Intelligence. If you don’t visit any conferences, read any blogs or newsletters, participate at any user group meetings or visit any forums at all you will be highly rewarded if you start spending a little time on that. If it’s even impossible to spend an hour a week, consider changing job.

It is increasingly important for your career to participate in forums, LinkedIn groups and user groups. Why? Because customers, colleagues and employers more than ever check you up on Social Media and search engines. Services like 123people quickly gives an overview of you. If you claim to be anything but a rookie, there should be visible proof on the web.

Let’s go back to the comparison with physical exercise. It’s obvious that if you want to be an athlete you need to spend much time on physical training. It’s the same if you want to become a Business Intelligence expert – you need to spend much time on conferences, reading newsletters and blogs, visiting user group meetings, etc. But I’d say you also need work experience. It’s the combination that makes you an expert.

  • If you only visit conferences and read things that other’s have done, you will not really know how to do things in practice. People with impressive titles writing high level documents with little practical use (“paperware”) are not experts. Most of the Business Intelligence knowledge lies in the details.
  • On the other hand there is a huge difference between having 10 years of work experience or 1 year of work experience that you have repeated 10 times. It’s what you have done during the years rather than how many years that counts. If you just “work” you probably have not had enough time to learn new things.

Recognition

“Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.” – Abraham Lincoln

Previously, writing books was the way to become recognized as an expert. Not that anyone reads books anymore, but having your name there was a very strong signal. Now, blogs and tweets are not far behind books in recognition importance. You will find that if you write good enough, other’s who write about similar things will link, comment and retweet your messages. There are tools like Klout that can measure your influence on Twitter. Blogging is a more social thing than many non-bloggers believe. Being a social blogger and Twitter user is also rewarded by Google, which will give your pages higher ranking in the search results.

Writing articles for magazines and community websites like SQLServerCentral can certainly earn you recognition. You can expect thousands of readers and a little payment. Compared to blog posts you will have to spend more time on your articles to get the accepted by the editors but of course you want your name associated with high quality articles.

Public speaking is also a great way to earn recognition. There is a reason why rock stars do a live tour when they release a new album. Local user groups is a good place to start. Some conferences such as PASS Summit and SQLRally have public “call for speakers” where you can propose session abstracts. Microsoft TechEd and BI Conference has “call for speakers” that goes out by invitation to people who have a track record. None of the big conferences pay for ordinary sessions, although you can get paid for doing pre-conference sessions or post-conference sessions.

Competitions are a great way to stand out from the crowd. However it is hard to find Business Intelligence competitions. Most competitions, like for example Phil Factor’s SQL Speed Phreak Award, are focused on SQL Server development (which yet is a good skill to have as a Business Intelligence Expert). User groups sometimes organize competitions, like the SQLug.se Challenge which is a Swedish national championship for SQL Server developers. The best way to find out about competitions is through forums and newsletters.

Certifications are important, but recently the “certification premiums” in salarys for the mainstream certifications have dropped. Employers generally value on-the-job experience higher than certifications. However the best is to have both experience and certifications. If you goal is to become a Business Intelligence Expert, you should definitely take the SQL Server Business Intelligence MCITP certification. Much harder to achieve is the SSAS Maestro title or become a Microsoft Certified Master on SQL Server. To get a clue of what you need to know I suggest checking Vidas Matelis reading list for SSAS Maestro and Brent Ozar’s reading list for Microsoft Certified Master.

Microsoft MVP Logo

Another recognition is becoming a MVP – Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. Apart from the recognition it also gives you other advantages. You get invited to MVP only events and a free MSDN subscription. You get access to private newsgroups and have the opportunity to stay in close touch with the Microsoft product teams. This is very helpful for your continued career as an expert. The catch is that there is no way to become MVP, and continue being MVP, without really a lot of hard work. There are around 260 SQL Server MVPs in total worldwide and that number is probably not going to increase. The only way to become a MVP is to be nominated and personally reviewed by a Microsoft committee. The selection process is based on contribution to the user community during last 12 months such as

  • Answering questions in forums
  • Public speaking
  • Technical writing
  • Volunteering with large SQL Server organizations

The best chance of becoming MVP is probably to go for new products such as SQL Azure, Master Data Services, StreamInsight, etc. More information on the Microsoft MVP program is on their web site.

“Accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.” – George S Patton

Becoming a Business Intelligence Expert is a long term investment. Do not expect to be recognized immediately. You need to have a long term plan and maintain highest quality in everything you do. Also you will face failures like not beeing accepted as a conference speaker the first times or failing certification tests. However it is from the failures that we learn most.

Now go ahead and try! If you find this article helpful, want to add some additional resources or completely disagree with me, feel very welcome to comment it below.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Beginner’s guide to becoming a Business Intelligence Expert

  1. Pingback: Beginner's guide to becoming a Business Intelligence Expert | Join … « A Beginner's Guide To

  2. kamal

    This article gives you a wonderful insight about choosing your career line in terms of Business intelligence. Thank you Johan.

  3. Fr0zenFyr

    Well now…this article is a great source if inspiration, but i truly wonder that if a person is so ignorant to already have this basic knowledge, is he really worth the job of a BI expert?!! One doesn’t become an expert overnight, I struggled for years and spent several hours every week on seminars, conferences and webinars and regularly participated on boards and groups to become a BI Expert.

    The role of a BI Expert comes with the tag “The decisions are made by professionally trained executives after years of practice. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, WORKPLACE OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITHOUT THE KNOWLEDGE”. ;) Analyse before implementing any idea. Be prepared to take the risks.

    Cheers..!!
    -Fr0zenFyr(codename)

  4. Raj

    Realy very good insite about business intelligence expert

  5. Exciting article because as a confirmed Microsoft Business Intelligence Consultant, I’m in the way to pass certifications and really want to obtain recognition.
    I’m the creator of a french forum on BI, you don’t speak about animating a web community.
    Good article! Thanks.

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