Why I spent > $2000 to attend the PASS Business Analytics Conference
…and was it worth it?
Aside from the fact that I’m an independent consultant – which by definition means I no longer have a company shelling out the cheddar to send me to events like this – I’d like to discuss the reasons why I decided to spend over $2k of my own money to attend the PASS Business Analytics Conference last week in San Jose, CA.
Lets face it, for most IT-folks, networking can be uncomfortable…especially when you’re first starting out. Throw in the fact that there’s no immediate return on the investment of time, money, and general awkwardness of stepping outside your comfort zone – it’s really no surprise that some folks simply avoid the hassle altogether. However, as an independent consultant, maintaining a network of peers and potential clients is an absolute must. And attending conferences like PASS Business Analytics is a great way to meet these folks, talk shop, and build relationships.
The ROI comes in 2 forms: landing work and extending your network of peers. The first one is obvious…work = pay = return on investment of time/money to attend these types of events…so I’m not going to waste time with the details. The other form, however, is a bit more interesting and not completely obvious at first.
Having an extended network of peers who specialize in complimentary technologies is awesome. Grant Fritchey (b | t) has written about this in the past (here) and the logic is that this extended network of peers will make you (in Grant’s words) “better and faster at solving the tough problems, not because you’re smarter, but because you have contacts that have already solved that problem (which, actually, means you are smarter) and you can go to them for the solution.”
The first time I read Grant’s post I was skeptical to say the least. Surely I can get the same benefit by simply asking questions to the online communities of MSDN and StackOverflow forums or even twitter (via hashtags like #SQLHelp, #SSASHelp)? However, after actually being on both sides of this fence (giver and taker), I’m a firm believer in the logic. There’s no substitute for being able to reach out to another professional who’s already done something you’re trying to do and bounce ideas around…forums and hash tags simply can’t compete. So when I go to work for a client, not only do they have my full attention and expertise, but they also have limited access to my extended network of peers.
It should be no surprise to anyone in consulting that keeping your skills sharp is crucial for staying employed. That pretty much goes for any job, but it becomes really important for consultants who specialize.
For example, despite doing a lot of work in the rest of the stack (e.g. SSIS, SSRS, DW development) over the years, my primary specialty is SSAS and that is where I spend the majority of my time working and learning. But I still need to stay sharp with the rest of the stack because there’s always a bit of overlap (e.g. tuning SSAS may require changes to DW which may require changes to ETL).
And yes, it’s true that attending a conference is not the only way to learn about new features in the rest of the stack (outside your specialization)…however, I’ve found it to one of the most effective. There’s just something to be said for hearing about real world use cases, seeing live demos, and having the opportunity to ask specific questions and receive immediate answers from professionals who specialize in these other technologies and areas of the stack.
In the realm of Microsoft BI as well as analytics in general, keeping a finger on the pulse of technological paradigm shifts has never been more important. With the huge bet that Microsoft is placing on Power BI and self-service as well as the relentless push of Hadoop and BigData/NoSQL solutions being touted as the LDO (like duh obviously) path forward for analytics solutions of the future, there is a lot of concern and uncertainty for BI pros who have spent years mastering their craft. It all boils down to the question of “how much longer will your current skills/specialty be relevant?”
Unfortunately, there’s no magic 8-ball. But a conference like PASS BAC is a great place to have these kinds of conversations with others in the industry and start to formulate your own ideas about the future and then think about how you’re going to adapt!
The major trends I see coming down the pipeline are:
- Power BI
- Predictive Analytics
These are certainly not new…but its now clear (at least to me) that they can no longer be ignored and it’s time to start adapting. So just like Microsoft’s big bet on Power BI, I will be making a fairly big bet of my own. In the coming days I’ll be spending some time working out a road map for shifting my focus to the area of statistics, data mining, and predictive analytics. I still expect my bread and butter to remain firmly rooted in the semantic layer (e.g. SSAS multidimensional and tabular) with the occasional bit of DW and ETL architecture. But once I finish building a decent foundation in statistics (it’s embarrassing all the math I’ve forgotten since college) and machine learning algorithms, I plan to pursue projects which include an element of predictive analytics.
Was it worth it?
While it’s definitely too soon to tell with absolute certainty, I’m feeling very confident that dipping into my own pocket to the tune of just over $2k will be one of the wisest investments I make in my career this year. I met a ton of folks, saw a lot of really cool stuff, and am very happy and extremely excited with where our industry looks to be heading. The future is bright for us data geeks!