Interview with Kamal Hathi of Microsoft, plus “AMA!”


Director of Product Management, Microsoft BI

(At left: the many faces of Kamal Hathi:  1 – “Seriously, we have to do formal headshots?”, 2 – Explaining, 3 – Explaining, and… 4 – Explaining. Today, I ask him to Explain some things, and he happily obliges.)

Yeah folks, this is a rare treat. Kamal’s title can be taken at face value – he’s right there at the top of the MS BI org, reporting directly to the VP of BI. Like Ron Burgundy, he is Kinda a Big Deal.  (But me saying that will make him uncomfortable. Ha ha! Nothing he can do about it in this medium!).

Even though I used to work with many of the leaders in BI at Microsoft, it’s not often I get this sort of chance. Everyone’s just so busy – them AND me – so it’s nice every now and then when we get an excuse to talk. Most recently, Kamal was the ultimate approver of MS’s decision to sponsor the ad in the back of our 2nd edition book, and, at the suggestion of the one and only Chris Finlan, we leveraged that as an interview opp as well.  Here goes.

The more things change… the more it’s still DAX

ROB:  a lot has changed since Project Gemini – the original codename of the Power Pivot project – kicked off back in what, 2007?

KAMAL:  Yes and no. The product and the team have matured immensely. Power BI is a complete and attractive product that does so much more than Power Pivot. At the same time it is still the same “soul” of the product at the core. Highly customer centric, solving the problems that our customers have been asking for. In some senses Power BI 2.0 is a return to the approach we had with Power Pivot, moving fast, listening to the user base and delivering a very functional product that is super easy to acquire and get started with.

ROB: You kinda “stole” my second question, which was, what ALSO strikes me is how much is still the SAME – the Power Pivot / Tabular engine, and the DAX language, remain at the heart of things.  It’s amazing to me how COMPLETE that engine is.  Any thoughts on why that original vision has proven to be so robust?

KAMAL:  Yes, a lot IS still the same. The goal of empowering users, the deep desire that the team has to stay in touch with our users and certainly a lot of the technology. We were well ahead of the market in many ways with Vertipaq and Power Pivot with a wicked fast and highly scalable in-memory engine, a business user oriented expression language and a self-service approach.

ROB:  Yeah, let’s focus in on that “business user oriented expression language.”  Kamal, DAX is amazing.  AMAZING!  Every day I marvel at its completeness, and that people like ME (and other Excel people) can learn the same language that is already becoming the language of choice for the long-time MS BI celebrities like Chris Webb, Marco Russo, and Alberto Ferrari.  As a hard-core software critic, I’m telling you that DAX belongs in the Software Hall of Fame.  I often say that DAX’s robustness owes to it being one of the rare cases where a long-running product team got to “re-imagine” itself and sand off rough edges, without sacrificing the power of the original. 

So, how?  How did the team navigate that?  Yes, I was around for part of that effort but wasn’t aware, at the time, that something truly special was happening.  I honestly think there is something profound here that all software teams could learn, but I haven’t distilled it out yet.

going with “user first” instead of “tech first” is in my opinion the magic sauce here.

KAMAL:  DAX is an outcome of our learnings from MDX. (***Note from Rob:  MDX was Microsoft’s “apex predator” formula language for BI before DAX. I was not smart enough to be able to learn it – despite many good teachers trying).

We used to talk about the “steep second step”, of working with MDX. Getting started is easy but to do anything really meaningful requires a lot of work. We also wanted to really speak to the Excel users and so looked closely at Excel’s existing languages and what users did with these. Ultimately it boiled down to being “true to the medium”, Power Pivot is all about the Excel users and so too is DAX. So much so that we deliberately use the same function signatures where possible and extend existing semantics whenever possible.

Rob, you of all people know how we closely worked with the Excel team and had folks like you with Excel in their DNA come over and work on Power Pivot.  As trite as it sounds, DAX was developed with a specific user in mind and going with the “user first” instead of tech first is in my opinion the magic sauce here.

Ah yes, let’s talk about Excel…

ROB:  It seems to me that you folks have kinda come full circle on Excel – “all in” on the Excel versions for the first few years, obviously.  Then I perceived a bit of a “backing away” from Excel, a bit, but only briefly, in the earliest phases of PBI Desktop.  And now, with Excel Services in, and PBI Desktop able to import Excel Power Pivot models, and Excel 2016 Power Pivot receiving so many improvements, I think MS is striking a nice balance.  What’s your reaction to that narrative?

KAMAL:  “Nice balance” is exactly what we are after. Excel is an amazing product, it is rich, yet approachable, with a consistent and easily understood interface. We want Excel to be really good at being a spreadsheet and remain true to its roots and core experience. Power BI is a great complement to Excel and a focused BI tool that inter-operates really well with Excel. We still have a few wrinkles to iron out here, but that is what we are shooting for.

ROB:  Yes indeed, Excel is a spreadsheet!  But all of the Excel people reading THIS interview, however, view it as the best BI tool in the world, rather than through the traditional “spreadsheet” lens. 

People who are graduating from pivots and VLOOKUP are *not* spreadsheet users in the traditional “it’s a better calculator” sense.  So for us, the phrase “let Excel be a spreadsheet” makes us a bit uneasy. Let me say it differently:  I have fallen in LOVE with Power BI Desktop.  Love it. And the phrase you used, “complement to Excel,” is EXACTLY how I see it – as a complement to Excel Power Pivot, an extension and magnifier.  So, serious question:  deep down inside, have you come around to truly viewing PBI that way, or are you still adjusting to that phrase?

it makes a lot of sense to provide a companion application from Microsoft and design it to be a real companion and not a competitor the way other products  try to be.

KAMAL:  Well, we actually went back and forth on the relationship between the Desktop and Excel. Should we have another add-in (something we obviously have a lot of experience with) or a standalone app ? Ultimately it became clear that many users were using other products alongside Excel. Pretty much every Tableau or Qlik user also is an Excel user. So it makes a lot of sense to provide that companion application from Microsoft and design it to be a real companion and not a competitor the way other products  try to be. Which is what we have done. 

With all this said and as we continue to deliver capabilities that make the interoperability with Excel tighter and more natural, I am getting more comfortable with the role that the Desktop plays wrt Excel and I think users will as well.

ROB:  Our book is definitely “aimed” at the Excel crowd (even though 2nd edition now incorporates the Desktop), so we are thrilled to have the Power BI team advertising with us.  I guess you see Power Pivot as a bridge to Power BI, just like we do?  Cuz otherwise, ya know, waste of money to advertise in our book, heh heh.

Power Pivot (and Excel as a frontend, too) is a great authoring environment for Power BI.

KAMAL:  Yes, Power Pivot (and Excel as a frontend, too) is a great authoring environment for Power BI. All the way from the simplest lists to the most complex data models. What you create in Excel is easily distributed via and consumed in Power BI. Power BI can amplify the insights from Excel.

ROB:  OK, “rude” question:  it’s still amazing to me how few “Excel people” have even heard of Power Pivot or Power BI.  I estimate maybe 1% of that audience is aware, today, that this amazing “gift” exists.  Whose “job” is it, at MS, to fix that – the SQL team or the Office team?

KAMAL:  To be clear we are one team here, with some organizational nuances. We are a BI focused team and we are working together to make sure that we have a cohesive and user centric product. You will see much clearer and broader messaging coming from us, so that everyone will have the joy of experiencing this “gift”.

ROB:  Oh man, that makes my spidey-sense tingle.  ‘Organizational nuances” – I’m going to steal that joke.  When I hear “we all own it,” I insta-translate that into “no one owns it,” and it’s gonna keep dropping between the outfielders, so to speak.  To be fair, I know the SQL and Excel teams are communicating better than ever these days, so I’m not doubting that part.  It’s whether this is even acknowledged as a real problem, an URGENT problem, that I’m still left wondering about.

KAMAL:  One of the things that has changed over the past year or so is that the “Engineering team” has evolved to being a true “Product team.”

In the past we had a very technology oriented approach and built some really awesome technologies (as you were witness to with Vertipaq and Power Pivot when you were here) and then a bunch of different teams across Microsoft took that technology and “got it to market”. Now the focus of the folks who develop the product, is the full product, from end-to-end. A complete view of everything that makes the user successful with the product. This means the technology, the web site, the documentation, the community, samples and yes the messaging.  Essentially we now start with the user first and not tech first.

In particular, I personally am responsible for making sure that we have a big and growing community of users, who love our products and this obviously starts with awareness of all that can be achieved with our products.

So, yes we have learned that the old ways didn’t quite work when it comes to deeply reaching users and we have changed how we operate.

ROB:  Sounds encouraging.  I’ll be watching closely for sure, but you already knew that.

OK, this question is self-serving but I can’t resist sneaking it in here:  how often do the BI software teams at MS read

KAMAL:  I visit your site almost daily. Not because of you, though 🙂 . You say all sorts of stuff that I have actually learned to tune out!

But all the users who visit your site and the great comments that they leave, make it really interesting.

Your books also are good resources for new people who join the team and I see these a lot at work.  Even I have one, that I crack open from time to time as I work on demos etc.

ROB:  Wow, that last part rocks!  I want a picture of you prepping for a demo, reading one of the books.  (Then we can add the Reading face to the four-square collage at the top of this post, naturally.)

“I’m Kamal Hathi.  Ask Me Anything.”

ROB:  It’s a bit unfair that I’ve gotten to ask all the questions, so let’s change that.  You’re still up for a Reddit-style “open microphone” experience where our readers can bounce questions off of you?

KAMAL:  Absolutely.  Let’s do it.

ROB:  Thanks Kamal! 

OK folks, fire it up in the comments.  Questions, feedback, praise, criticism, whatever, but remember, always be polite to our guests, even when we have “tough love” to share with them, because we want them to listen, to like us, and to come back.

Also:  Kamal is a pretty busy guy so I’m not sure for how long he will be able to answer.  I’ll close comments on this post whenever he needs to cry uncle.

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