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{December 14, 2010}   T-SQL Tuesday #13 – Make Nice with the Business

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday asks the following question:  What issues have you had in interacting with the business to get your job done?   First, much thanks to Steve Jones (Blog | Twitter) for hosting this month’s event. 

As the old joke goes, this job would be great if it weren’t for the users.  (insert rimshot here) Seriously folks, my job title has “Business” in it, so I’d better be able to figure out what the user is asking for.  Being a BI Consultant is one part developer, one part psychologist, one part archaeologist, and two parts translator.  If the user asks for a report, that’s great.  Actually, that’s more than I often get.  Sometimes I get vague, conflicting requests.  Sometimes I get requests that just confuse me. 

Take my Top Five Favorite requests from end users: 

5) “There’s this report that John used to produce in 1997.  It was great.  It took him 12 days to put it together, but it had everything I needed.  I want that, only sooner.”

It’s a shame that John checked himself into a mental facility in 1999 and is now spending his days creating lovely landscape paintings with non-toxic watercolor paint and taking meds on a rigorous schedule.  It’s also a shame that no one can remember what the report looked like, only that it was really good. 

4) “I want to slice and dice the data however I want.”

Not bad.  At least they’re referring to being able to filter the data in some way.  The scary part of this request:  “However I want”.  Do you want to slice the data by what color shirt you were wearing on that day?  Let’s narrow this down a bit. 

3) “I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” 

–Sobbing–  You’ll know it when you see it?  Okay.  Okay… let’s extend that deadline. 

2) “The data should be sexy.” 

Sexy?  Let’s define sexy.  I think beautifully-structured, properly normalized, and well-performing data is sexy.  Is this what you meant?  No?  Wow, I thought we were on the same page here. 

And my all time favorite user request….

1) “I want it to be like an iPhone.  You know, an Apple feel to it.”

What, you want the data to wear a black turtleneck?  You want to be able to swipe and pinch the data? 

Users, I love you.  You keep my mortgage paid and my kids in shoes.  Truly, if it weren’t for you, I’d be out of a job.  But, sometimes, you make for good happy hour stories. 

Just this past week, I ran into a situation that BI Consultant nightmares are made of.  Let me set the stage: 

I’ve been at a new client for about 3 weeks.  Let’s just say I’m not exactly the resident expert yet.  It’s a very large client, with a very challenging data environment.  It’s the beginning of the month, which means that end-of-month and some quarterly reports are due.  Most of these processes have not been automated yet.  Read:  We’re copying query results into Excel and e-mailing them.  The one guy who is the resident expert is on vacation.  I get an e-mail asking for a report that I’ve never seen before. 

I take a deep breath, gather myself, and respond, “Yes, I’ll get that to you.” 

I make a quick phone call to the guy who’s on vacation, get a bit of info, and create the queries to run the report.  I slap that data into Excel, e-mail it out, pay myself on the back, and go home.  Everything looks great from my end. 

Next morning, 7:24 AM, an e-mail is delivered to my inbox.  To paraphrase, it said, “I don’t trust these numbers.  There’s a huge variance in the 3Q numbers that we can’t explain.  I have a meeting at 9:30 about these results, and I’d like to definitively say whether they’re correct.” 

Crap.  I’m not even through my first cup of coffee yet.  I top off my coffee, and begin my investigation.  This is the archaeologist part of my job.  On the surface is a report that isn’t making sense to the business.  My job is to dig backwards until I either come up with an explanation or prove that the data is correct.  No easy task, considering that I honestly don’t know where much of this data is sourced from. 

Step 1:  Verify Your Own Work - First, I opened up the query I ran to produce the report.  Key point here.  I saved it.  I save everything.  My first move was to verify syntax.  Did I do something stupid like join a table to itself or create a funky WHERE condition?  Did I accidentally paste something into Excel improperly?  (Tangent:  This is why automation is a Good Thing.  Eliminates human error.)  Nope, All quiet on the Western Front. 

Step 2:  Verify the Data Load - This data was sourced from a report database that is populated via an SSIS package.  Luckily, the guy who wrote the package sits a few rows over from me.  I check in with him, and he confirms that nothing has changed since the last load.  I ask for the source files anyway so that I have some outlets for additional research. 

Meanwhile, my Key2 Consulting compadre, Josh Robinson (Blog), is doing something really cool to help me out… He pulls the data into Excel and fires up PowerPivot.  Using the graphing functionality he’s got with the tool, he can point out anomalies in the data by different dimensions to try to narrow down exactly where we’re seeing the suspect data.  I was writing manual PIVOT statements in T-SQL, which was much less efficient than what he was doing.  Lesson Learned:  PowerPivot ain’t just for end-users.  It’s a great diagnostic tool. 

Step 3:  Verify the Source Files - I take a look at the source files.  Ha!  There!  The source data has the same disparity that the business users are complaining about.  This is good news.  This is a lead.  Now, I just have to find out who created these files. 

Step 4:  Find the Source File Owner - I make some calls, do some checking, and voila!  I have a name and a phone number.  It’s a very large company, so he’s halfway across the country, but I’ll still be able to get in touch with him. 

Step 5:  Contact Source File Owner - I call the guy who creates the source file.  He doesn’t know me from Eve.  After the requisite introductions, I ask about the change in the data.  He responds, “Oh yeah, we changed the way we’re pulling this piece of data.  You should see a huge increase in the number of gizmos from this month to that month.”  I thank him profusely, and move on. 

Step 6:  Wrap it all up – I make a courtesy call to the woman who is probably drumming her fingers on the table waiting for the data.  Then, I write up an e-mail with our findings, and I send it out to anyone who might care.

Wait, you thought we were done?  No, we’re not done.  Let’s back up a bit.  Yes, we explained the questionable data.  But a good archaeologist knows to dig just a little bit more.  I ask the business users, “Hey, so that source data changed, and the change was applied to this month but not that month.  Are we okay with that?”  This lead to another round of conversations.  Ultimately, we decided to keep the data as-is and note the reason for the change.  The point is, if you want to try to make friends with your business users, you answer the questions they have, and then try to think of the ones they haven’t asked yet.  They’ll love you for it.



Great post and loved seeing the path you took to solve a real-world business issue. Gotta love when changes are made down the pipeline without notice. Nice job!



Audrey Hammonds
Audrey Hammonds says:

Jorge,

Glad you enjoyed it. You make a good point… the guy I’m backfilling for here made a prophetic comment: “This job is 25% technical, and 75% relationship building.” Huge companies are notorious for their spotty communication chains. One of the things I have to do is make sure that everyone that touches the data knows (and likes) me. That way, when they do something, they think to shoot me an email or pick up the phone. Soft skills are so important in an environment like this.



Bill says:

wow – a perfect portrayal of being a data-”person” at a large company outside the tech-sector. disparate data sources, bolt-on datasets evolving from a 1990′s excel spreadsheet, upstream changes w/ zero communication to downstream users…

you’re advice at the end is insightful (imo) – will definitely try and use that as a means for cultivating relationships with the biz users. ty /Bill



Audrey Hammonds
Audrey Hammonds says:

Bill, Thanks for reading the post! I’m glad that you feel like you got something out of it. It’s why I love events like T-SQL Tuesday… It gives us all a chance to learn from each others’ trials and tribulations.



Julie Smith

I’m wearing a black turtleneck right this very second,”crushing” your (data) head.



Gary Mazzone says:

I call number 3 (I’ll know it when I see it) the Bring me a Rock theory of developement.

I bring the rock the user says It’s a rock but not quite the rock I want bring me a different rock.



Audrey Hammonds
Audrey Hammonds says:

Gary! Love it! I’ll be using that phrase as well from now on. Thanks for coming out to the site and checking out the post.



Bek says:

Ah yes, digging to find worms – the story of my life!

I’ll say that your simple mentioning of PowerPivot certainly piqued my interest. I’ve never heard of it but have added it to my list of things to check out. As part of our custom billing system, Accounting is constantly asking me “why has so and so’s invoice’s totals changed,” and I’m stuck digging through line items and user service change records to try and find root cause. And I’m always happy to add another shovel to dig with. Thanks!



Audrey Hammonds
Audrey Hammonds says:

Hey Bek, thanks for coming back to the site. Check this out… My co-worker, Matt Wolner just wrote a Beginner’s Guide to PowerPivot blog post. He sent it to me this morning to look at, and it might be a good starting point for you. That’s stars-aligning serendipity for you right there. Hope it’s helpful! http://key2consulting.com/Blogs/2010/12/17/step-by-step-powerpivot-using-excel-data/

–Audrey



[...] Audrey Hammons has a top 5 list. These are the top five things the business has asked for. It’s a funny list. [...]



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