Journey to PowerPivotPro: Narayana Windenberger

Journey To PowerPivotPro Banner Journey to PowerPivotPro: Narayana Windenberger

When was the last time you had an interview with the president of the company and he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt while you were decked out in a suit?

Swing back to June 2017, and that was me with Rob Collie. I was on vacation in New York City, in a friend’s apartment wearing a suit I had just purchased the day before, having a Skype interview for Principal Consultant. They say “dress to impress” but when you hear “did you wear that suit just for this?” boy do you know you’re off.

I’ve been working with the talented group of consultants at P3 since August 2017. I feel fortunate to have experienced everything that this job entails whether it is working with the wide range of organizations, constantly learning and staying up to date on the newest technologies and trends, or just the satisfaction of solving a problem for a client.

So how did I get here?

I like to compare my journey to P3 with the process of baking a cake.

Collecting the ingredients and setting the “mise en place”

I think the three ingredients for being a BI consultant are:

  1. IT/programming skills
  2. A love of numbers
  3. An understanding of business principles

When I was growing up, I was naturally attracted to computers and technology. My first computer book as a kid was the manual to my mom’s Apple PowerBook 190c laptop, which had a scorching 66mhz processor, 8MB RAM, and a 500MB hard drive. I read it cover to cover many times and quickly learned every feature of the computer. My next computer books were on HTML and Javascript, and after that, I was hooked on programming my computer to do things for me.

By the time I entered high school, a local youth center had received a grant to offer free tech classes to students, and I enrolled in a Cisco networking class. Now I can remember two things clearly from that period:

  1. Waking up at 6 am to do two hours of lab work by telnet-ing into a Cisco router from my home (after having done my school homework the night before)
  2. Learning to drive (since I was so short for my age at the time, I had to use a booster pillow to see above the steering wheel comfortably)

I studied and practiced diligently for several months, and at the end of the course, all the students took the official CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) exam, which I passed! So here I was at age 14 with a Cisco certification under my belt. Being at the beginning of my high school career I didn’t have a chance to put my skills into practice and my knowledge quickly deteriorated, but I was happy with my achievement nonetheless.

Parallel to my love of technology was my interest in math and numbers. I enjoyed all my math classes in high school, partook in mathlete competitions (I know, I was a nerd), and scored quite well on standardized tests. I loved the precision of mathematics and how you could use numbers to reconcile any discrepancy.

Finally, there was my budding interest in business. During high school, I started repairing computers to earn some extra cash. After one particular job, as a tip for my services, the client gave me an old Mac laptop that needed a new motherboard. Not knowing where to get a replacement part, I went online and looked up where to buy the component and how to replace it. After a few google searches, I realized that people sold computer parts on eBay, and instead of trying to fix the laptop, I decided to tear it down and sell the working parts individually. I was happily surprised when I realized I had converted a “worthless” laptop into $ 223, and I became hooked on business and economics.

When I entered college, I was torn between choosing computer science and business. In the end, I went down the business track because I had recently learned about trading stocks and enjoyed following financial markets. I completed an undergrad business degree and then aimed for an MBA which culminated in a six-month internship, where I worked for the CEO of a 100,000-acre large-scale organic farm based in Ukraine. My boss, a former McKinsey consultant, told me that I couldn’t graduate from an MBA program without being an expert in all that is Excel. Given that my job was to help her prepare financial models, reconcile budgets, and create investor presentations, she gave me a deep dive into Pivot Tables, VLOOKUPs and all the other wonderful features of traditional Excel.

And with those three ingredients (an interest in tech, love of numbers, and a formal training in business management), I was a newly minted, wet-behind-the-ears MBA grad.

Mixing the ingredients

As everyone knows, there’s a big difference between theoretical knowledge and real work experience. The next phase of my journey was mixing all the ingredients in the sauce of experience, letting them meld and combine in preparation for baking.

I started off as a financial/operational analyst working for a non-profit and quickly honed my Excel skills. After that, I began working at a food certification company called FoodChain ID, the largest provider of Non-GMO certification in the US. Here I jumped into various analyst roles including software business analysis (developing application specs with the IT team) and QA testing. Thanks to my Excel skills, I was often called upon to generate reports for the company. I enjoyed creating reports but continually ran into communication delays with the IT department. At one point during one of my frequent sit-down sessions with a programmer to clarify the errors in the raw data he had provided, I watched him update the SQL query and thought “that doesn’t look so hard.” He gave me a few pointers and then I spent the next couple months learning the language myself.

Cutting out the IT middleman proved to accelerate the rate of report creation substantially. I quickly became responsible for all analytics for the management team, including operational performance reporting metrics, quality control reports highlighting bad data, or invoicing roll-up reports for accounting. I loved the work because it required me to understand the business logic, write SQL scripts, VBA macros, and other code, and to enjoy the numbers. I eventually became the Business Intelligence manager at the company and created several automated, interactive, Excel-based dashboards that we published for staff via our SharePoint intranet.

While the reports I created in Excel delivered great insights that helped reduce our company’s operational backlog, I was running into the limits of traditional Excel: I couldn’t write Pivot Table calculations that were more complex than Sums or Averages (good luck trying to navigate the “Calculated Field” option!). I was running into size limits as my datasets grew larger than one million rows. I had to use COUNTIF hacks that slowed my reports to a crawl if I wanted something simple like a DistinctCount. In fact, Googling “Distinct count in Excel” was how I first learned about PowerPivot and P3 (Rob loves to joke that most people learn about PowerPivot when searching for DistinctCount). I was one of the millions of people who were running into the limits of self-service BI in traditional Excel.

With several years of real-world business experience under my belt, however, I was starting to see how all my interests and skills could come together in a way that was not only fun for me but provided huge value to companies. The ingredients were mixed, and unbeknownst to me, I would now have to let them bake before my next step would become clear.

Baking the cake

In 2015 I was nearing a point in my career where I had been fortunate enough to be exposed to a wide variety of business processes (IT software development, business operations, finance) and I loved it all. I wanted to specialize, but I couldn’t decide on what.

It was around this time that I decided to take a sabbatical. I moved to Europe and lived in the Netherlands for several months. I took time off from work to try new things, learn new skills and reflect on the way I could make the most impact in the world.

In addition to learning new languages (Dutch and PHP), I started investigating Power BI. After dabbling in it shortly, I was blown away by the interactive experience it offered and realized the ways in which I could totally revamp the reports I’d created in my previous position at FoodChain ID. What started as tinkering in Power BI led to diving head first into all things DAX. I reached out to my former company with a proposal to improve their reporting and re-engaged on a consultant basis. I also created a number of portfolio projects (for example, thanks to my interest in economics I was curious to understand the current US debt burden and learned that the US owes $ 3.70 in debt for every dollar of GDP, or $ 200,000+ per person) that were not only fun to work on but also proved to me that investing my full attention in Microsoft’s BI stack was the way to go.

Throughout the process of learning Power BI, I invariably came across the same website over and over again: The first video I saw was Rob’s explanation of the CALCULATE function. I loved how he broke down extremely complex topics such as the inner workings of the PowerPivot engine by using lots of analogies and metaphors, including references to the board game Othello and factory assembly lines. A thought started growing in the back of my mind – I would love to do data analytics every day, and P3 seems like the group of people that I’d love to work with! So in March 2017, when I saw an ad on P3’s site about growing its team, I finally took the plunge and applied.

I took the test that all consultants must pass to prove their prowess in DAX and the Microsoft BI stack. I can certainly second Reid’s experience. It was HARD, and it made my brain hurt and tempted me to throw in the towel, but in the end, I was able to solve the challenge.

Passing the test gave me the green light for a couple of rounds of interviews, bringing me full circle to where I started today’s story: on a Skype webcam, wearing a newly purchased suit and introducing myself to Rob Collie who was clad in a Pulp Fiction cat t-shirt.

Taking the cake out of the oven

Now was the time to take the cake out of the oven and see if my recipe for “Business Intelligence Consultant” had worked. Would I get the position? Well, as is evident from the fact that I’m writing on this blog and I’m featured on the About Us page, I did! Now, all that that was left was to taste the cake.

My first few weeks as a consultant were a whirlwind. Moving out of the comfort of my previous company that I knew so well into space where I would have to learn a new business every week took some getting used to. Being a consultant was hard but also rewarding! Clients come to us when they have problems that they’re unable to solve, so we’re getting the hardest work out there. But there was an upside to this: I quickly learned the patterns that exist between industries and companies, and realizing that I could successfully re-apply the solutions to these challenges made my confidence start to skyrocket.

Looking back, it has become clear to me that each ingredient in my journey, no matter how insignificant it appeared to be at the time, has mixed perfectly:

  • My tinkering as an adolescent drove my initial interest in technology and numbers
  • My formal education gave me a foundation in business concepts
  • My early career combined everything in the form of real-world experience

Today I’ve had a chance to put it all to the test as a consultant where I have to consider both the big picture and tactical details, practice strong communication skills, manage projects, employ my technical skills, and draw upon my business acumen.

I am extremely thankful for what my time at PowerPivotPro has offered me. I’ve had the honor to help a wide variety of companies gain insights into their businesses in ways they never previously imagined. I’ve had the chance to impart my knowledge by training classes ranging from total beginners in DAX up through advanced users. And all along the way, I’ve worked with amazing people who all share a love of data, analytics, and finding the truth in numbers. While I hope this is only the beginning of my journey to becoming a BI Expert, I can only feel grateful that so far I’ve been lucky enough to bake my cake and eat it too.

It takes a special kind of mindset to “bend” data (and software!) to the human will.  As this article demonstrates, we at PowerPivotPro can twist Power BI into a pretzel if that’s what an organization needs. (A robust, trustworthy, industrial-strength pretzel of course).

The data-oriented challenges facing your business require BOTH a nimble toolset like Power BI AND a nimble mindset to go with it. And as Val Kilmer / Doc Holladay once said, we’re your huckleberry.

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