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James Serra's Blog

James is currently a Senior Business Intelligence Architect/Developer and has over 20 years of IT experience. James started his career as a software developer, then became a DBA 12 years ago, and for the last five years he has been working extensively with Business Intelligence using the SQL Server BI stack (SSAS, SSRS, and SSIS). James has been at times a permanent employee, consultant, contractor, and owner of his own business. All these experiences along with continuous learning has helped James to develop many successful data warehouse and BI projects. James has earned the MCITP Business Developer 2008, MCITP Database Administrator 2008, and MCITP Database Developer 2008, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Engineering. His blog is at .

DBA’s, want to earn the big bucks? Learn BI

While there are many DBA’s who do business intelligence, or BI, I believe there are even more who do not.  After all, there is enough tasks for DBA’s to keep them plenty busy without dealing with BI.  But if you want to earn more money, have more job opportunities, and, at least for me, do something more challenging and rewarding, read on:

So what is BI?

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I usually respond with “Business Intelligence Developer”.  I then get a blank stare.  I tell them my quick description of BI: “Gathering of data from multiple sources to present it in a way that allows executives to make better business decisions”.  Most people get that without having to bore them with the particulars.

The particulars of BI usually involve building a data warehouse by pulling data using a tool like SSIS from data sources such as ERP (i.e. SAP), HRMS (i.e. PeopleSoft), CRM (i.e. Microsoft Dynamics CRM), various Excel spreadsheets, and a multitude of other databases.  From that data warehouse, a tool is used like SSAS to build a “cube” (a set of related measures and dimensions that is used to analyze data).  Basically using a cube allows you to analyze the data in a fraction of the time compared to going directly against the data warehouse.  You then create dashboards, scorecards, and reports for the user to view (using a tool like PerformancePoint), or have them use a tool like Excel to browse the cube on their own and do ad-hoc analysis or create their own reports.  In the numerous BI projects I have been on, building the data warehouse (or numerous data marts) takes most of the time, usually 75% of the total hours on the project.

Behind the scenes, dealing strictly with Microsoft platforms, what technologies are involved with BI?  Some people will say “Yea, I know BI, I do SSRS reports”.  Well, SSRS is only one sliver of BI.  Other tools such as SSIS, SSRS, PerformancePoint, PowerPivot, Excel, Report Builder, ProClarity, and technologies such as data warehouse, data mart, MDM, and predictive analytics are all part of BI, but the one deciding factor is they all interact with cubes which are built using SSAS and OLAP (again, talking only about Microsoft platforms, as there are some robust decision-making systems that rely on SQL and OLAP-like structures that are not actually OLAP like MicroStrategy or OBIEE).

Analytics, the process of obtaining an optimal decision based on existing data, is the cornerstone of BI.  While reporting is important, analytics is what allows you to quickly slice and dice the data and use KPI’s to make better business decisions.  Analytics is where BI shines and where you get the most value.  So I think at a minimum, to be truly involved with BI in the Microsoft world you have to be using their Analytics tool, SSAS.

What makes BI so great?

First off, it has a tremendous return on investment (ROI).  One of my projects dealt with spend analytics, and the resulting scorecard, which gave executives at the company a way to analyze data that they never had before, saved the company 1% the first year.  Big deal, 1% you say?  Well, the company spends $200 million per year.  So they saved $2 million, with estimates they might be able to save up to 10% ($20 million a year).  Makes it easy to justify paying a high hourly rate to a consultant or a high salary for a full-timer.

Every survey I have seen and every prediction from an industry analyst says that the BI market is very hot right now and will continue to be one of the hottest technologies.  And I completely agree based on the hourly rate I am making and the continuous calls and emails I get from recruiters who tell me how hard it is to not only to find BI developers, but find one’s who are very good communicators (a necessity in BI since you meet with a lot of users, usually VP’s and up).

And it’s a great feeling to develop a dashboard, present it to the user, and have them say “Wow, that is amazing.  This will save me a ton of time and the company a ton of money!”.  Usually not the same response you get when you tell them you finished rebuilding the heavily fragmented indexes :-)

I also like it because it involves a lot of interaction with people, especially higher-ups (CFO’s, CIO’s, President, etc) because these are usually very high visibility projects.  Early in my career I was a “coder”, and enjoyed just sitting behind my desk the whole day.  But as I got older I enjoyed moving out from my desk more and more, and now enjoy working with users each day to build something together.

It also takes a lot of creativity, because you will usually start with nothing more than vague requirements from the users, and must have the vision to provide the best solution.

How do I move up in my DBA career?

DBA career paths are more and more leading into an even better paying career in business intelligence.  After all, if you have been a DBA for a while, unless you want to get into management, there are very few options for advancement – your career growth is limited.  Hence another reason for learning BI.

It’s not easy, as it takes a lot of learning and a lot of experience to be good at it.  It’s especially difficult going from a transactional (OLTP) to an analytical (OLAP) mindset.  But because it’s not easy, the barrier to entry is high, and hence the pay is high.  It’s not required that you be a DBA before getting in the BI field, but it’s a huge help and gives you a big advantage over others who don’t have the DBA background, since BI and databases go hand-in-hand.

Bottom line is BI is a very hot, high-growth area that can earn a high salary if you specialize in it.  It takes a lot of learning and experience to be good at it, but it is certainly well worth it.

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