Book Reviews – “Power Pivot Alchemy” & “Dashboarding and Reporting with Power Pivot and Excel”

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There are two relatively new books on the market from Holy Macro! Books.  The first thing that I’ll point out is that this small publishing company is actually owned by one of the authors, which should tell you something about the ambition and caliber of the guys who are writing them.  I have several Power Pivot, DAX and dashboard design books on my shelves.  I’m very impressed with both of these books and they’ve made a valuable addition to my library.  Rather than a cursory introduction or restatement of product documentation, they both address real business problems and are based on a body of customer problems and field experience.  Now, I have to admit that I’m a little biased.  I know Rob Collie and Kasper de Jonge quite well from conferences and community involvement.  I’ve also met Bill a few times and know of his reputation in the industry as a tried and true Excel guru with an extensive library of books and training content.  Rob started his career at Microsoft on the Excel product team and the group that developed the Power Pivot technology.  He’s now a consultant and trainer, a Microsoft MVP and an active member of the online community.  Kasper’s background is the polar opposite of Rob’s; he started in the industry, doing consulting and project work and now works for Microsoft on the SQL Server Analysis team responsible for the ongoing development of this technology.  I didn’t realize this until reading their bios on the Rob’s PowerPivotPro site but Kasper actually filled the position at Microsoft vacated by Rob and from my perspective, that was a good transition and a continued partnership of experts who continue to give back to the community.  Kasper is also well-known in the industry for his online present, conference presentations and ongoing support of the MVP and professional community.  As far as I’m concerned, these two books could be bound together into a single volume that would be a comprehensive guide to Power Pivot design, problem solving and best practices.

In the past two years, I’ve spent a great deal of my consulting time developing SSAS Tabular models for clients.  I’ve also done a bit of work in Power Pivot but not nearly as much as the IT-centered version of the xVelocity in-memory aggregation engine from Microsoft.  So, why am I reviewing books about Power Pivot and not SSAS Tabular?  That’s simple: SSAS Tabular is the IT Pro extension of the Power Pivot foundation.  Last year, I reviewed Rob Collie’s book “DAX Formulas for PowerPivot: A Simple Guide to the Excel Revolution” and it just blew me away.  As a learning tool, I found the book to be golden for getting my head around all the basics of DAX even though the focus was on applying it to Power Pivot in Excel rather that Analysis Services.  This book is in the same relaxed, conversational voice that he is known for.

I have to admit that at first DAX was a big brick wall for me.  I’ve taught myself a lot of different languages and tools in my career just by being stubborn and persistent.  When I started using DAX I got the basics but more challenging problems were just insurmountable.  I hounded the known experts; Marco, Alberto, Chris, Darren, Rob and others who were gracious and patient but it took time for that light to turn on and to finally “get it”, or at least to get most of the important concepts.  If you’re like me, you’ll work on a problem obsessively, lose sleep, try to approach it from different angles and keep hacking at it until the answer comes.  Something I’ve learned the hard way about DAX is that it’s just not something you figure out on your own unless you’ve seen the solution demonstrated or solved similar problems before.

Three weeks ago, I started reading “Power Pivot Alchemy” which is also a book centered on using the Power Pivot Excel add-in.  This time, Rob teamed with Bill Jelen (aka “MrExcel”) who is very well-known in the Excel community for his teaching tools and books on just about every facet of Excel.  Rob and Bill are a good team which comes through the pages as two very experienced experts giving very qualified advice about solving pertinent problems rather than a typical “how to” or reference book.  The book is written in the same casual voice with a lot of personality and humor leading the narrative.  This is an excellent book for the moderate to advanced skilled Excel Analyst who needs to create advanced formulas and pivot tables with strong emphasis on best practices and targeted solutions.

I recently picked up Kasper’s book (take a breath before reading the title), “Dashboarding and Reporting with Power Pivot and Excel: How to Design and Create a Financial Dashboard with PowerPivot – End to End”, and I’m finding it to provide very targeted guidance about the best ways to design models, write formulas and reporting and create dashboarding solutions with all of the new integrated features in Excel and Power BI.  I think that Microsoft has generally done a good job of talking to their users and building products that solve real problems but there is a bit of Kool Aid drinking that goes on in Redmond.  This is especially true among the vast majority of Microsoft employees who spend all of their time on campus writing code and imagining how customers might use their products. In this book, the author demonstrates a perspective based on his community involvement and direct support of Microsoft and partner customers.  I know this because Kasper and I have actually worked together to solve some specific customer problems and his assistance as an advocate from the product team has been invaluable.  The techniques described in this book are concise and very real-world, ranging from beginner to advanced level without wasting the reader’s time with lengthy explanations.

Someone recently mentioned that I’ve only given positive book reviews on my blog.  I suppose I’m not much of a critic and frankly I just don’t have time to review bad books – and I’ve read – or started to read – several.  Occasionally someone I know or work with in the community will ask me to review a book and if I’m not impressed, I’ll respectfully decline.  The only thing even remotely critical I can say about the format of these books is that some of the graphics seem a bit oversized.  It makes me feel like I’m reading the large print edition of the book.  Granted, this is a very visual topic and I’d rather have oversized graphics than not enough. 

I’m giving both of these books four-and-a-half stars out of five.

Paul Turley

Paul Turley

Microsoft Data Platform MVP, Principal Consultant for 3Cloud Solutions Specializing in Business Intelligence, SQL Server solutions, Power BI, Analysis Services & Reporting Services.

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