Guess Which One Grows Your Career (or Company) More? (Hint: It’s the One on the Right)
(But Individual Excellence is a Prerequisite for Org-Wide Impact)
“Cuz we need a little, Con-tro-versy…”
Last week’s post on learning DAX before learning M mostly met with positive reviews, but also drew some fire. A few staunch M supporters showed up and voiced their disagreement – including the one and only Ken Puls. Now I know from experience not to mess with Ken… OK OK, I confess… messing with Ken is a barrel of monkeys actually. Put it on your bucket list. That said, I have immense respect for his skills and perspective, and only enjoy messing with him out of friendship. He’s an amazing human being and learns more things in a year than I could ever squeeze into my leaky head over a lifetime.
But I still firmly believe in what I said. I’m not here to offer apologies – only clarification and justification. There very much IS an olive branch in all of this, but again, that comes merely from clarification.
First clarification: I love love LOVE Power Query and M! They are a godsend! I never said what some people thought I was saying, which was “meh, you can ignore/neglect that part of the platform.” Nope, you absolutely benefit tremendously from both.
The minor tension from last week raised a MASSIVELY important point, one that transcends any technical debate and puts things in their proper perspective. So I’m grateful for the opportunity that the misunderstanding provides us. Let’s begin with…
What’s the Max Benefit of Automating Your Job?
At first this sounds like an incredibly abstract question. I mean, how can you put a dollar figure on massive gains in personal efficiency? Sounds impossible, right?
But I’ve got a card up my sleeve: how much is your salary? It’s not terribly outlandish to say that the best you could EVER do, in terms of speeding up the tasks in your workday, is to completely make yourself redundant.
And the market has already put a dollar value on THAT, right? It’s called your salary. No, it’s not a perfect number, not at all. Many of you reading this are criminally underpaid in some very real sense, for instance. But this is what the market is saying today, and that’s a very real quantity. Furthermore it’s not like it’s really possible to automate 100% of your duties using ANY of the tools available today (thankfully!), so it’s somewhat “gracious” to set the max at 100% of salary.
The folks applying for our Principal Consultant role lately have ranged in current salary from a definitely-criminal $40k on the low end to a damn-near-executive $160k on the high end.
So let’s continue with the “gracious” theme and go with the high end: $160k per year is a serviceable maximum ROI for “making my current job run faster.”
You might be thinking, at this point, that I’m still not being Gracious Enough. It’s possible, after all, for a single hyper-efficient individual to suddenly replace MULTIPLE other individuals right? Setting aside the distasteful notion of those lost jobs for a moment, I still think my $160k figure isn’t that bad, given that it’s 100% of an entire individual on the high end of the range. But fine, if you want to multiply it by 3 and make it $480k, I don’t think that necessarily undermines any of the points I want to make. I’m in the business of adding more zeroes to the productivity multiplier, not linear multiplications.
What Does that Have to Do With DAX and M?
At first, nothing. Both DAX* and M, in the early going, are BOTH very much “speed up my current workflow” kind of things. And that’s perfectly natural – what you’re currently doing is ALWAYS the best place to start, the best place to learn.
(* Remember, when I say “DAX,” I use that as shorthand for “DAX and Modeling,” where “Modeling” is best described as “figuring out how many tables you should have, what they should look like, and how they are related).
And that “improve what I’m currently doing” lens is why M/Power Query steals the show in the earliest demos – it’s easier to see how it’s going to change your life, because it automates/accelerates a larger percentage of what Excel Pros have traditionally done.
Hold this thought for a moment while I introduce something else…
Raining Money: The 100 Million Dollar Workbook!
This is a real thing, it belongs to one of our clients, and we helped them build it. To call it a “workbook” is a bit of an insult of course, because it’s a modern marvel – an industrial-strength DAX model with a suite of complementary scorecards as a frontend. But all built in Excel. (Power Pivot, specifically).
And this model has provably returned about $25M a year to the bottom line for this client. As in, profit. Not revenue. Pure sweet earnings. This workbook is visible on their quarterly earnings reports to Wall Street.
And this wonder of the modern world is well into its fourth year of service now, bringing its lifetime “winnings” into the $100 Million range. No lie. This happened, and continues to happen. This “workbook” is a tireless machine that makes it rain money.
Let’s do some math: $25M per year vs. $160k per year is… 150x.
In other words, the ROI of this project went FAR beyond any amount of “accelerating what we already did.” It was, instead, a MASSIVE dose of “doing something we’ve NEVER done before.”
“What We’ve Never Done Before” (WWNDB) Has Practically-Limitless ROI
This may sound like a cheap verbal trick, but I sincerely think it is a weighty truth that everyone should internalize. The workbook above, which now in some sense runs the show at this large client, had no predecessor whatsoever (its “forerunners” were a scattered collection of hundreds of distinct reports, each of which was just burying readers in borderline-raw data). For an even bigger example, consider that Instagram started as a hybrid of Foursquare and Mafia Wars before deciding to go “all-in” on their most popular feature, photo sharing. The blank canvas has no ceiling, if you permit me to mash-up some metaphors, and both of these success stories are rooted in a combination of analytics and courage.
What we’ve been doing traditionally, in both the traditional Excel and traditional BI worlds, is nothing to brag about. Most of our reporting and analysis output has been, traditionally-speaking, designed by the path of least resistance – as opposed to defined by careful and creative thinking about what truly matters. The president of one of our clients/partners’ told us last week, “people tend to measure what they can easily count, as opposed to what they SHOULD measure,” and I just about leapt out of my chair screaming “YES! PRECISELY!”
Leverage is Everything. It’s Being Bigger than Just You.
You wanna know why Data is so “Hot” these days? It’s because of Leverage. Data is hot precisely because proper application of data can impact the behavior and productivity of MANY people simultaneously. You can’t typically save or make millions of incremental dollars as an individual, but it’s “easy” to do if you can magnify benefits across dozens of other people – or hundreds, or even thousands (as is the case with the $100M workbook).
In fact, it’s worth considering that the $100M Workbook actually offers only modest benefit! On a per-person basis, on a single day, you wouldn’t even notice the difference. But multiply that modest, say, 3% benefit across tens of thousands of people and 365 days… and you get $25M per year. When you have the power of Leverage, you don’t even have to find something “big,” like the Instagram “pivot” from one mission to another, to get something BIG.
We are all, everyone reading this, INCREDIBY FORTUNATE to be working in data, because of its somewhat-unique capacity for leverage. So many jobs, whether white- or blue-collar, are essentially cogs in the machine, and the top-end benefits they provide are limited to the “just you” size. But WE have hit the jackpot. WE have a job that is “unfairly” capable of leverage. It just fell into our laps. But then, the mind-numbing dosages of VLOOKUP (in the traditional Excel world) and endless documentation and miscommunication of requirements (in the traditional BI world) deflected us off into a relatively un-ambitious mindset.
Data has ALWAYS had the advantage of Leverage, but the traditional methodologies and tools brought tremendous friction and inertia to the table. They wore us down – in terms of time, money, and psychic energy. They “chokepointed” our potential. They enforced a terribly-linear culture of thinking. In short, the traditional tools took the potential 100x or even 1,000x leverage possibilities of Data and tamped them down to about 10x – still good! But so much less than what we COULD do.
Well guess what? No more chokepoint. Whatever you want to call it – Power BI, Power Pivot, Modern Excel – the next-generation toolset from Microsoft gives us those extra zeroes of potential.
Why DAX is “Better Than” M
Note the quotation marks in that heading, because the next section is more conciliatory, but there IS something very important to bring home here.
If you MADE me choose one or the other, I’d definitely choose DAX, because I think it offers us the virtually-unlimited twin powers of WWNDB and Leverage. In fact, I don’t think that, I know that – I (and my companies) have been blowing people’s doors off with this new toolset since 2010. We didn’t even get Power Query until what, 2014? Fully half the lifetime of this revolution pre-dates M. Even the $100M Workbook predates M! Heck, until Power Update came along, you couldn’t even schedule refreshes of models that relied on M, which almost by definition “funneled” M usage down the “just for me” path – and to this day, Microsoft still hasn’t finally released a server that natively runs M.
I just don’t think it’s nearly as easy to explore/exploit WWNDB or Leverage via the M path. Not impossible, because there are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule. And to be clear, I think most of the exceptions will be in the WWNDB category, not the Leverage category.
And that was kinda my whole point in last week’s article – Power Query dramatically captures the attention of new converts to Modern Excel precisely because of how well it fits and improves What We’ve Already Been Doing, as Individuals. This is a Good Thing! No caveats needed. I just don’t want anyone to become so distracted with it that we miss the Big Wins of WWNDB and Leverage.
How M/Power Query Fits into the “Big Wins”
This is What We Can Do With “Just” DAX and Modeling
The picture above illustrates how a single individual (you, or a member of your team) can achieve wins MUCH bigger than just them. And it’s my experience-powered belief that you cannot get a Win of that size without leveraging DAX and Modeling.
But what if you THEN take that single individual’s newfound powers of WWNDB and Leverage, provided by DAX and Modeling, and now make THAT person more efficient? “Holy Additional Multiplier, Batman!”
If Our DAX Modeler Superhero “Levels Up” with the Efficiency Gains of Power Query / M… Look Out!
Yeah, if you take THAT person, and make THEM more efficient, WOW, you can do EVEN MORE of the amazing, transformational, WWNB-and-Leverage style work.
Which we can all agree… is a Very Good Thing. One of my favorite personal sayings is “the length of a rectangle is not more ‘responsible’ for the area of the rectangle than the width.” Double either one, and you double the area. But that’s essentially my point in a nutshell – you can 100x with DAX and modeling, AND you can double with M. If you had to choose one, choose 100x. But we don’t have to choose. Adding Power Query and M to your org-wide-impact powers, even if it’s “just” 2x or 3x, delivers JUST AS MUCH, or more, incremental Big Win as the original 100x.
We can have our flagons full of mead and drink them too, as Lothar once said.