April 2013

Q&A with Rob Collie: Is Microsoft Excel the Next Great Business Intelligence Tool?

Steve Finn

By: Michael Koploy and Rob Collie

Microsoft Excel has become an essential tool for the modern worker, and each successive release has provided more efficient ways for users to crunch their data. In Excel 2013, part of its latest Office suite upgrade, Microsoft has placed increased emphasis on business intelligence (BI) functionality.

Is Microsoft positioning Excel to be a more significant player in the BI applications space? Or, are these new BI features just a natural evolution of the product? To discuss this, I caught up with Rob Collie, former CTO of Pivotstream and founding engineer and leader of the PowerPivot Excel team at Microsoft. Rob’s also been a valuable contributor to the Excel community through his blog, PowerPivotPro, where he frequently posts his own how-tos, as well as tips from other Excel pros.

Rob has also ventured into publishing with his first book, DAX Formulas for PowerPivot Pros. He’s already working on his next resource, which you can actually contribute to by voting on its name here—though I don’t see how “50 Shades of PowerPivot” wouldn’t sell well on the name alone.

For Rob’s thoughts on what’s new and what’s next for Excel BI, read on.

Q: What’s the most important BI functionality upgrade in Microsoft Excel 2013?
The biggest improvement, by far, is the inclusion of PowerPivot “in the box.” The two previous releases of PowerPivot themselves were already such a dramatic expansion of Excel’s powers that it’s difficult for Microsoft to “top” them by merely adding new features. Inclusion in the box, however (as opposed to a separate download like before), is already accelerating awareness and adoption in the Excel community.

Unlike programmers, BI specialists and other IT pros, the Excel audience doesn’t congregate at conferences, and they don’t closely monitor what Microsoft is saying about the next version of their toolset. Overwhelmingly, the way they learn about new Excel capabilities is by inspecting the latest version once it lands on their desktop. PowerPivot has effectively been hidden from this audience until now.

Using PowerPivotPro traffic as a guide, I’ve seen the PowerPivot audience double in size every year since 2009. But I’d still estimate that less than 1 percent of the eventual PowerPivot target audience has been exposed to the product as of today. The inclusion of PowerPivot in 2013 is a major inflection point.

Q: What does the inclusion of features like PowerPivot and Power View say about Microsoft’s vision of self-service BI? Is this a move to turn every Office user into a data analyst?
No, I don’t think Microsoft means to turn every Office user into an analyst. That wouldn’t be possible no matter how hard they tried. The vast majority of the world doesn’t want anything to do with data! They want the data “problem” to go away. They want data turned into digestible insight, and they want someone else to do it.

At Microsoft, we used to estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of Excel users were “in the business” of creating insights for their colleagues—these are the Excel report authors, the Excel pros. So if you think of those “formula and pivot” gurus as programmers for a moment, they outnumber all BI, SQL, Java and .NET professionals combined. They are the largest population of programmers in the world.

In other words, the notion of “self-service BI” is hardly new. The only thing new is the name. The vast majority of data processing, analysis and reporting in the world already takes place in Excel. What Microsoft is doing is upgrading that audience’s toolset, and bringing it closer to the capabilities enjoyed by BI pros.

Q: Why should users upgrade to Office 2013?
I no longer view Excel as “complete” without PowerPivot, so even upgrading to 2010 yields tremendous benefit. But in 2013, specifically, Power View is certainly an attention-getter. Bing map charts. Animated bubble charts. Card view visualizations that display images alongside numeric data. Those are very visceral new capabilities that can make Excel pros very popular with their colleagues.

Another thing worth emphasizing: The server products in the 2010 and 2013 families mean that organizations don’t have to broadly upgrade every desktop in order to gain the benefits. If the Excel report authors get the new tools installed on their desktop and they have access to a PowerPivot/Excel SharePoint server, they can then publish their reports directly to the server. Those reports are then consumed in the browser, rather than in Excel itself.

I’ve seen many companies upgrading just a select few desktops—the ones where their Excel authors work—long in advance of the broader “every desktop” upgrade. And then they use the server as the publishing/distribution mechanism. The server yields a lot of other benefits too, such as hands-free, scheduled data refresh and enhanced protection of sensitive data.

Q: What has been the impact of the Office Apps Store so far?The programmability enhancements in 2013 are game changers. You can’t have a compelling store without a compelling programmability platform, and by all appearances, this time they have that. A credible, modern framework that runs symmetrically on desktop and server is the Holy Grail—something that we were dreaming about more than 10 years ago when I still worked on the Excel team. Apps for Office, formerly codenamed Agave, has my attention in a big way.

Q: What’s your vision for Excel users in five or 10 years? How will they better be able to analyze data and impact their businesses?
I see the Excel report authors’ role and perception within their organizations changing quite a bit. Today, sadly, the ability to put together a great XLSX file is perceived as about the same as just another Office document. Excel reports are applications, not content. Their close association with the other Office apps “drags down” their perception, however, and makes everyone think they are just content.

But when you move the consumption and distribution of Excel onto the Web, that linkage is finally broken. The perception of Excel authors can start drifting toward “data application developers.” In parallel, PowerPivot (and the server) combine to drain about 90 percent of the manual grunt-work out of Excel, freeing the Excel pros to think in much more proactive ways, and to produce richer insights.

Lastly, PowerPivot and the server provide a strong incentive for the Excel pros to work closely with their brethren in IT—the people who own and manage the data sources. The clichéd conflicts between “the business” and IT actually have a resolution now, and that involves the Excel pros as ambassadors of a sort. Everywhere I’ve seen PowerPivot adopted, I’ve seen that cooperative vibe emerge organically.

It all adds up to a very different career arc for Excel users, and one that I am excited to help champion. And it’s actually here today, not 5 to 10 years out, for the more forward-thinking organizations. Every organization isn’t going to change overnight, but it’s no longer for lack of tools.

Michael Koploy is a Managing Editor at SoftwareAdvice.com and can be reached at michael@softwareadvice.com. Rob Collie runs PowerPivotPro and can be reached at rob@powerpivotpro.com.