Raw Data By P3 Adaptive
Yoda Chong and the Treehouse of Wonder, w/ Donald Farmer
Principal, Treehive StrategyListen Now:
Donald Farmer is a data artist and Jedi of sorts. His BI wisdom is unmatched and he shares this knowledge as we cover his early interest in computers (and the power that they gave the user), the history of PowerPivot from one of the former “faces of Microsoft BI”, and so much more! It’s so very easy to respect this venerable figure of the data world. Here’s Donald’s website, Treehive Strategy
References in this episode:
- 3:45 – Donald has had the data itch for a very long time and discovered power at an early age. It’s a heck of an origin story!
- 11:15- The guys share some Donald Farmer stories, Tom’s Donald inspired epiphany, and the Data Mining Add-In
- 20:00 – The history of Project Gemini AKA Power Pivot, the death of ProClarity, and the importance of tools of choice
- 39:45 – Data Artistry, some great Bill Gates stories, remote working
- 58:45 – The Community of purpose, and Power BI’s features vs the competition, and the Treehive
Rob Collie (00:00:00): Hello, friends. Today, we welcome Donald Farmer. I had the pleasure of working with Donald way back when, during the earliest days of Power Pivot, and even greater pleasure, the greater honor of calling him an old friend. In the world of data, you're just not going to find someone warmer, more sincere, funnier, or dare I say, wiser, than Donald Farmer. He's also pretty humble, so he probably wouldn't like me saying those things about him. But tough, I'm recording his intro on my own. As is customary with our guests, Donald's got a very interesting backstory path from then to now, but I would dare say his backstory would take the Pepsi challenge with anyone's.
Rob Collie (00:00:39): We had a really free-flowing conversation. Didn't really set a lot of agenda for this one. And I think it played out really well. We just got into some really interesting corners, some really funny vignettes, and of course, pearls of wisdom. That's what Donald's here for. We talk about his brief involuntary stint as Power Pivot Yoda, his more than passing resemblance Tommy Chong, and also how his willingness to blend his creative talents, artistic side with this world of data really inspired me and gave me the confidence to lean into my own voice, which has been incredibly important to me over the last decade. He's a great person. It was a great conversation. I hope you enjoy it. So let's get into it.
Announcer (00:01:20): Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?
Announcer (00:01:24): This is the Raw Data by P3 Adaptive Podcast, with your host, Rob Collie, and your cohost, Thomas Larock. Find out what the experts at P3 Adaptive can do for your business, just go to p3adaptive.com. Raw Data by P3 Adaptive is data with the human element.
Rob Collie (00:01:47): Welcome to the show, Donald Farmer. How are you, old friend?
Donald Farmer (00:01:51): I am great, thanks. Thank you for having me.
Rob Collie (00:01:53): We invented this podcast so that we could have you on, and we played it cool for a while. We didn't want to just go rushing right in and have you be right out of the gate, but this is our reason.
Donald Farmer (00:02:04): No pressure then.
Rob Collie (00:02:06): No pressure at all. Yeah. Just be yourself.
Donald Farmer (00:02:08): Well, I'm delighted to be here, really. It's great.
Rob Collie (00:02:11): Well, we're going to have fun. So I thought we'd start here. We've had some very interesting people on this show who have careers in data. We've had some very, very, very interesting backgrounds, some very interesting origin stories. We've had horse trainers, we've had NFL quarterbacks, we've had marine biologists. I think you're also in contention. One of your former lives puts you on this map. I'm fishing for it. What am I fishing for?
Donald Farmer (00:02:39): I'm not even sure what you're fishing for, because I've done so much in my so-called career, but I've worked in fish farming, I've worked in archeology. I met my wife when we were working for an archeological excavation unit. What else have I done?
Rob Collie (00:02:51): It was the archeology that I was fishing for, but I hadn't thought about fish farming as I was fishing. Was it medieval archeology?
Donald Farmer (00:02:59): It was. I was particularly interested in medieval cities and the growth of medieval cities.
Rob Collie (00:03:04): Not to be too specific. That is so awesome. So, which was first, the fish farming or the medieval archeology?
Donald Farmer (00:03:14): Oh, the medieval archeology. The fish farming was a kind of site thing. I can tell you a little bit about that. It is interesting, but the study of history, archeology, and languages were really important to me. That was really where I started, and drifted into doing all sorts of things, creating applications for the study of archeology, creating applications, databases for managing archeological sites, things like that. And then we lived very remotely in Scotland. The nearest house was about two miles from us, the nearest town was 15 miles from us. And so we lived fairly remotely, and there's a relatively limited amount of things going on out there. There's some forestry, there's some farming, and there was a fish farm.
Donald Farmer (00:03:54): And so I ended up helping them with their computer systems. And then from there, I ended up developing a business doing fairly complex data analysis for fish farming.
Rob Collie (00:04:02): That sounds very believable, the sound of authenticity. And somewhere in there though, there is evolutionary step change, where you first encountered data software. Do you have any idea where that was? Where did you first get that itch?
Donald Farmer (00:04:18): Oh, so that's actually been there all along. We had computers in the house very, very early. So when I was eight or nine, which would be in the '70s, we had a computer in our house because my father was an electronics designer for British Telecom, which was the national telecom company. He designed the first digital exchanges for example.
Rob Collie (00:04:37): Oh my gosh.
Donald Farmer (00:04:38): So he was really into this, and we had computers in the house pretty early and really clunky hex programming that we had to learn in order to do the basic thing. The real breakthrough for me was when I was probably about 11 or 12 and we got our first computer that I could actually play with. And I remember the first experience that I had there, which was a program, the Sieve of Eratosthenes, calculates all the prime numbers. And I calculated all the prime numbers up to a million, and it just seemed incredible. Then a couple of extra lines of code up to 10 million, up to 100 million. It was just so exciting.
Donald Farmer (00:05:16): And it was tremendously exciting for me. And I had this feeling, this experience of power that was really remarkable. To come back to my father, he also had a big old car because as an engineer, he fiddled with everything. We this huge, big old car. And one day, he had to change a tire or something, so he let me use a hydraulic jack to pump up the car, to lift the car. And there I was, this little kid like nine or 10 with a hydraulic jack. And with one hand, I was lifting this like two-ton old British limousine. An amazing feeling. I just felt so powerful, I felt like Superman.
Donald Farmer (00:05:46): I had exactly the same feeling. First time I was able to program a computer. I just have this power, it was like an intellectual power. And then I immediately started doing things like I started writing applications to handle my book collection and my collection of wild flowers and things like that, so all the things I wanted to do. And of course, I was data programming, I didn't know it. And then I had this tremendous breakthrough, which was, I was using arrays, I didn't know about databases, so I was using arrays and matrices in order to store data in a grid format.
Donald Farmer (00:06:19): And then I realized that a cell of the array could contain the address of our cell in another array. It could contain a variable. Well, you guys know this, but at the age of 12 or 13, that's an incredible insight to have. I don't mean that I was genius, I don't mean that, it's a very powerful insight to have, it changes your life. At that point, when I discovered that you could navigate, you could manage, you could make all these incredible connections. That's when data really took off for me. And so all through my career, what I've always been looking for is that feeling again of, "Wow, that's incredible."
Rob Collie (00:06:58): That leverage. I'm laughing here. So Luke and I, Luke, the producer here, we were computer partners in computer class in middle school. So around that same age 12, we were experiencing the tremendous feeling of power of Apple II low resolution graphics, simulating someone sneezing and a droplet of slim flying across the screen. That didn't have the same feeling of power. Here you are at the same age, but an earlier point in the world calculating primes, cataloging your book and wildflower collection. We were little boys at a computer, there was nothing going on that was remotely serious.
Rob Collie (00:07:41): I didn't know about pointers or arrays of pointers, hell, I'm not sure I've ever programmed an array of pointers, but I didn't even know that their existence until college. So yeah, you're right, it was there for you from the very beginning. Holy cow.
Donald Farmer (00:07:55): Yeah. That was just tremendously exciting. Now, that actually has an important pattern then in my so-called career, because I never thought of computer science as something that I wanted to study. I never have formally studied computer science. To me, it was always a means to an end, it was always something else. So I just felt it was just this tremendous power that I had and that I enjoyed, but I wanted to use it for something. So I've never really been very interested in computers in themselves or computer science in itself.
Donald Farmer (00:08:27): Right now, for example, I can tell you that I'm running a Mac. I have no idea what processor's in it, I have no idea how big the hard disk is or the memory or look at that. None of that matters to me compared to, what can I do with it? Sometimes you have to know things in order to do things better, but I'm actually really not interested in the science of computation and computer science in its own right.
Rob Collie (00:08:50): I think that's the way to be. That was one of my fields of study in college and it didn't change my life really. I still wasn't going out of my way to write arrays of pointers or anything like that, there was just nothing to do with it. I think you and I both agree 100% on the role of technology, you should not strive to be a technologist, you should strive to be someone who solves problems and knows when and how to deploy technology. Yeah, the tech is never the star of any story.
Donald Farmer (00:09:21): It is for some people. Some people get really into it. We probably couldn't do our jobs unless there were those people who are really into it doing their jobs.
Rob Collie (00:09:29): That's true.
Donald Farmer (00:09:30): So I think there's room for everyone. Think of it in terms of building a team, the team has to include people who, in a sense, don't care about the technology but care about the problem. And if you have people who don't care about the problem and care about the technology, well, you need to find a role for them, but you have to be pretty careful in managing that role. Otherwise, you end up with the engineering led software, the danger of boys with toys, the technology becomes its own excitement.
Rob Collie (00:09:57): That's the thing that I've been steering away from now for more than a decade, because I did experience exactly that, especially in my early days at Microsoft. There were often entire teams organized around tech for tech's sake. And so it requires an enthusiasm for technology in many, many instances to get something done. And in fact, I have enthusiasm for certain technologies, the ones that I've found that are really effective. It's more just like a strategic mindset to adopt, is that technology is a means to an end rather than an end in its own, which should be obvious, but in some cases isn't.
Donald Farmer (00:10:32): Well, everyone, to be effective, needs a sense of purpose. And there are of course different purposes. My purpose is always, what problems can I solve? But more interestingly for me, I think, how can I do things differently? I guess I'm always a contrarian. I'm not that much interested in doing things better, so much as I'm interested in doing things differently in order to get a better result. Incremental improvements aren't super interesting to me. I'm a radical, I want to burn the house down and build it again. I'm not a version two guy of anything.
Rob Collie (00:11:00): I'm a fan of that mindset. I don't know if you know that about me, that burn the house down is... Or at least the houses that deserved burning, but not every house. That's a perfectly good house over there.
Donald Farmer (00:11:12): And make sure you're not in it when you do it.
Rob Collie (00:11:14): Yeah, that's right. So do you know Tom. Have the two of you crossed paths before?
Donald Farmer (00:11:20): Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. And it's been a while of course, because nobody's seeing anybody on the circuit nowadays, so it's been a while since we caught up. But absolutely, I know Tom.
Thomas LaRock (00:11:29): In the time waiting for you to join today, Donald and I got caught up, and I shared my earliest memories. He was at a past summit sitting on the floor, teaching people how to use, I think he said it was the data analysis add-in for Excel. Was that it, or?
Donald Farmer (00:11:44): Yeah, the data mining data mining add-in.
Thomas LaRock (00:11:46): Data mining data mining add-in for Excel, which was revolutionary at the time. Of course you know, Rob, how exciting this was. But he had about 20 people gathered around while he sat on the floor doing an impromptu demo to make sure people understood. But the other memory I have is when he dressed in costume to get on stage at the past summit as part of the keynote, and he was tweeting to us from backstage. So this had to be 2008-
Donald Farmer (00:12:15): Sounds about right.
Thomas LaRock (00:12:16): And I'm like, "I can't believe I'm tweeting to the person behind the stage at the keynote right now." And then I remember I went and I chatted with you and Buck Woody for you in the speaker room. Anyway, I'm starstruck. I was like, "Oh my God, It's Donald Farmer. I get to talk with Donald Farmer." And he never once mentioned you, Rob.
Rob Collie (00:12:34): I know, I know. I used to do that to Donald at conferences. If I'd pass him in the hallway, I would immediately put on my fanboy voice, "Oh my God, it's Donald Farmer. It's Donald Farmer," running towards him.
Thomas LaRock (00:12:46): Here, fans of the podcast won't be able to see this, but there's this book, and I showed Don earlier, it's called Competing on Analytics, and it's from 2007. And I asked Don for some advice, like, "Hey, what should I do to get started in this weird world of data analytics?" Because I was a guy that was only focused on that little database engine. And he said, "Yeah, go buy that book, Competing on Analytics, start there." And so I did immediately, and my eyes were just... Of course I'm not computer science guy, I'm a math degree, I have a master's in mathematics, actually.
Thomas LaRock (00:13:20): So when I saw that data and math was basically being combined, it really hit home for me. I'm like, "Oh, I get it now." When I was getting my degree, the only thing you thought you might do with math was become an actuary, which is also data and math. But when I started seeing it getting applied in what this book was talking about and I saw it happening in sports industries as well and taking off, that's when I got excited. And actually, that's right about when Rob came into my life.
Donald Farmer (00:13:49): Well, that book Competing on Analytics by Thomas Davenport, one of the things I really liked about that at the time, and I still like about it now is it's not a technical book, but it's not only a business book either. It takes you one step beyond saying, "Here are the business environment that you're working in, here are the business issues that you might come across, and here are ways to address that analytically. And here's why it's better to address it analytically." I think Thomas Davenport is a great thinker in terms of business, but I like the way he lays out the path to success, which is so different.
Donald Farmer (00:14:21): You've got a degree in mathematics, and yeah, at one time, your only option, if you like, would be to an actuary. Actuaries were data scientists, actuaries still are data scientists. They were data scientists before the term. And they were always data scientists that were operational engineers who specialized in optimizations who were doing data science. There's still a lot we can learn from them, especially from... I look at people developing all sorts of fancy neural net algorithms, and I sometimes sit back, I say, "You could solve that problem quicker, more easily and more reliably with simulated annealing or some such analysis from the 1970s or '80s." And sometimes, again, it's this tendency to get caught up in technology for its own sake.
Rob Collie (00:15:05): Yeah, the hot new hammer.
Donald Farmer (00:15:06): Exactly.
Rob Collie (00:15:07): Let's go back to the data mining add-in.
Donald Farmer (00:15:08): Yeah, gosh.
Thomas LaRock (00:15:10): Before we get too far off track, I do want to know your origin story, the two of you. So I'm hoping, does the data mining path get us there?
Rob Collie (00:15:18): I think that almost gets us there. It gets us passing in the night, which is a weird thing.
Donald Farmer (00:15:23): Yeah, it does. And actually, I think it does get as there more directly than even you might know, Rob. So data mining add-in, there was a great data mining team at Microsoft. And they were really, I would say along with Oracle, they were the first people to really embed predictive analytics inside the database as a platform. And so there was a team led by ZhaoHui Tang and Jamie MacLennan, they took algorithms that had come out of Microsoft Research and brought them directly into the OLAP engine, in fact, into the OLAP framework. And so people were able to do real predictive analytics and data mining within the database.
Donald Farmer (00:15:56): That was great, but it didn't really help bring that into the hands of business users because you had to be deep into the language and the architecture of the OLAP engine in order to use them. So they had this great idea of, "Well, why don't we surface this through an Excel add-in and make it simple to use and find a way of showing the results or various ways of visualizing the results from predictive analytics that would make it easy to understand, or at least simple to understand?" And so that was the data mining add-in. There was a couple of things about that. You spend all this time building this beautiful interface, and it really was very effective as one-click, two-click data mining add-in that to my mind could actually have changed the world of business analysis if we'd had the support to do it.
Donald Farmer (00:16:40): And then it turns out that, what are we allowed to call this? We have to call it the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Data Mining Add-ins For Microsoft Office System 2007, or something. You ended up with this name, which was literally 200 characters long because that's the branding guidelines. I do can call it something like quick side or something like that, which would have been much more impact. Very often, I was trying to give presentations where I literally couldn't fit the name of the product into the 200 characters of the presentation title. So it was frustrating, but it was a great product. A lot of fun.
Donald Farmer (00:17:17): And when I presented it, your story, Thomas, it's actually really true. People would come out up to the conference, want to see so much more, I'd have to sit down in the corridor and demonstrate it again and show people how to use it. What's relevant for that to my meeting with Rob ultimately is the Excel part because that really opened the eyes of a lot of people to what you could do in Excel in terms of interface, in terms of usability, in terms of simplicity and the fact that rather than making a data mining product which brought users to data mining, we did it the other way around, we built a data mining product that took data mining to the user and met the user where they lived and worked, which is in Excel.
Donald Farmer (00:17:59): And that really started to transform our thinking within the SQL Server team about, how do we enable business analytics? Rather than building a special tool, rather than requiring users to discover rise and come to us, why don't we go to them and enable business analytics where they already live and work, and that's the Excel environment? And at that point, Rob can pick up that side of the story because this was where you got super-involved.
Rob Collie (00:18:26): That's right. The part where I had mentioned that I think we passed in the night was that I had a couple of meetings when I still worked on Excel with, I believe Bogdan and Jamie, a series of meetings, actually. I don't remember you being in them.
Donald Farmer (00:18:43): I would not have been in those, no. At that time, I was probably still deep inside integration services.
Rob Collie (00:18:48): That's right. And so I got to participate in the design of that add-in. Looking back, those meetings were as much about getting office buy-in as they were about getting office input, which is obviously very clever and basically just me. I was a lead program manager at the time and my team was all very, very busy with their individual projects. I had also been reaching this conclusion that I was like, as a lead, at that time, I had no direct responsibilities, I wasn't doing any of this stuff that I used to enjoy, which was actually designing software. So when this thing came along, Jamie and Bogdan showed up and said, "Hey, we'd like some help designing this add-in." And I was like, "Oh, yeah, Okay. I'll take that. That'll be my thing to do for a couple of months and stay interested."
Rob Collie (00:19:33): We called one of the buttons, Key Factors. And I remember that was my idea. That's something that came to me, was to call it Key Factors. And I was very proud of it at the time. And now later on, we see it in Power BI called Key Influencers. I'm like, "Oh, damn it, that's so much better. That's such a better name." We were close to working together there, but shortly thereafter is when I disappeared over into the services side of the house, the Bing and MSN. And it was like about a year later year and a half later that project Gemini, Power Pivot, the Excel plan came knocking. And that's when we really started to get to know each other. I ended up going over there and reporting to Donald on Project Gemini.
Donald Farmer (00:20:15): Right. I got involved in Gemini at a really interesting time because it had been incubated by Thierry D'hers, who led the client side of the incubation, the great work there. And he'd had just a great experience of building business applications within analysis services, within the Office team earlier in his career at Hyperion. So he'd done some really interesting work. He had a great understanding of business analysis at a depth that was really remarkable. He understood all the calculations that people would have to do. And there were other parts of the incubation that were also very important. We had Cristian Petculescu developing the Vertipaq Engine, which has become a really important part of the BI infrastructure, Dave Wickert, doing all that crazy work that had to happen to integrate the management and administration side of Gemini into SharePoint, which was a thankless task.
Rob Collie (00:21:04): Indeed, indeed.
Donald Farmer (00:21:05): What a nightmare that was. And then there was the client side, which was just a lot of fun. And we had DAX, we should talk about DAX at some point as well, of course, close to your heart. But I took over the Gemini team at that point and I just really, really enjoy that process. I guess Gemini gave me part of that sense that I'd had before as a kid. Look at the power of God, I don't just do a million rows in Excel, I can do tens, hundreds of millions of rows in Excel. And that was tremendously exciting. If you remember the demo, we used to have the Moovly at demo, which was the movie database, which was 50 million, I think it was. And that was really intense. That was quite exciting.
Rob Collie (00:21:44): To back up, Gemini was the code name for what became Power Pivot part. We'll make that 100% clear to the listeners. And yeah, I still tell people to this day, the Vertipaq Engine and DAX and all of that, is the only time in my entire career at Microsoft that I felt like I was witnessing science fiction. It was just insane what that engine could do. We almost didn't believe it. And I agree with you, it's like that moment of cosmic leverage and that really hasn't worn off.
Donald Farmer (00:22:16): Sure. I know the feeling.
Rob Collie (00:22:18): Every time I go and load several gigabytes of text dump into a Power BI file and I look at the resulting file and it's like 50 megabytes and it only eats about 100 megabytes of Ram, I'm just jiggling. I'm just like, "This is crazy."
Donald Farmer (00:22:34): This actually caused me a real problem, a huge problem once. I was in Israel, visiting Microsoft in Israel and doing some presentations about Power Pivot, that was our Gemini as it was still in that stage. And I was demonstrating to the Microsoft Israel team, but also to a lot of our customers. And as you know, a lot of the Gemini team were Israeli originally. They came from an acquisition. So I'm in Israel, I'm doing this presentation and I have to come home and I get to the airport and the flight was leaving at about two or three o'clock in the morning. And I don't know if you've ever been to Israel. Have you ever flown there?
Rob Collie (00:23:04): Yeah. I have, one time.
Donald Farmer (00:23:05): So you've been through the airport?
Rob Collie (00:23:06): Yes.
Donald Farmer (00:23:06): They take security somewhat seriously.
Rob Collie (00:23:09): Yes, they do.
Donald Farmer (00:23:10): Really seriously, including the fact that if you've got a laptop, they will ask you to boot it up to make sure it's actually working, that its interior is working. They'll even ask you to click in a couple of files and open them to prove that it's working. Of course, what file does the security officer ask me to open? The Moovly Excel file sitting on my desktop, which is 50 million rows of data. It takes about five minutes to load at that point because we were still in beta. And of course, I then have to explain, but it's just an Excel file. Yes, but it's got 50 million rows of data. No, it can't possibly have 50 million rows. Meanwhile, my flight is leaving and I'm waiting for this damn [inaudible 00:23:50] to boot up.
Rob Collie (00:23:51): Yeah. That's the kind of security that you encounter in that airport.
Donald Farmer (00:23:55): I think they knew they were talking about.
Rob Collie (00:24:00): You are interacting at that moment with the best and brightest.
Donald Farmer (00:24:05): Yes. Not some poor soul and minimum wage.
Rob Collie (00:24:08): It feels like our version of the Ivy League about to be road scholar type people are interviewing you at that airport?
Donald Farmer (00:24:17): Right. Psychologically profiling you as well.
Rob Collie (00:24:21): And they're like, "Bullshit, Excel only holds a million rows. And you know what, that's only in the most recent versions, it was 64K just a moment ago." They're going to know their shit.
Donald Farmer (00:24:32): Yeah, exactly. And the security is really serious unlike a lot of countries. I remember going and getting on a plane once in Sea–Tac or going through security at Sea–Tac, the guy in front of me had a gun in his bag, and it set off the alarms and everybody is, "Gun, gun, gun." And there was security running around. And then he gave it back to him and told him to check it. He just tried to put a gun on the plane in his hand and you are telling him to check. This is not A1 security people.
Rob Collie (00:24:59): No, no. It is really jarring flying back from there and landing in the United States. It's literally like your very next interaction with humanity is JFK. And you're just like, "Oh, things are just so dumb here in comparison."
Donald Farmer (00:25:15): Well, yeah. And it's that tone of seriousness and the fact that they take it seriously. And to be fair also, many things the application of technology and the fact that they hire great people, it's actually a good example of how something that's very routine in our lives can actually become a specialty if you focus on it intensely enough, plus we have drifted.
Rob Collie (00:25:36): Oh, that's the whole point. That's the whole point is to drift. We were talking about almost an organizational epiphany on the SQL side that we can bring the tools to the users. A lot of things in SQL up until that point didn't even have an interface with their own at all. They were just essentially an API like analysis services on its own. All it was was it's API.
Donald Farmer (00:26:01): Right. If you want it to do anything with it. There was this very interesting third-party browser, which had been built specially for browsing analysis services. The fact that at first it was the only engine you could connect to as your analysis services engine was built by some guy out of Stanford and he called it Tableau or something. I don't know whatever happened to that.
Rob Collie (00:26:19): Oh yeah, yeah. So it was just a little throwaway tool.
Donald Farmer (00:26:23): Oh my God.
Rob Collie (00:26:26): I thought we were setting up for a ProClarity joke or something, like going acquire the number one front end for your flagship data platform and then kill it.
Donald Farmer (00:26:36): Well, yeah. This is really interesting. We did kill ProClarity and we killed a number of products that we're actually very promising by making one huge mistake, which was, we assumed that standardization of the interface was critical to simplicity and ease of use. So we had a ton of interesting applications that ended up getting thrown into this SharePoint environment. So we had data quality services, which ended up in SharePoint, hosted by the Office team and a SharePoint environment. We had master data services, which ended up plugged into the same SharePoint environment.
Donald Farmer (00:27:16): SharePoint is very limited in its user experience. So all sorts of radio buttons and check boxes and endless forms that you had to fill out in those applications to do anything. And one of the things that we totally missed was the importance, and this is something I just talk about all the time though, so I'm going to rant, is the importance of a tool of choice. That is, it's one thing to deliver capabilities to someone, but it's another thing to have them have a tool of choice. I want to use this, not just I want to solve this business problem and here's a platform which does it, but this is something I want to use.
Donald Farmer (00:27:53): Tableau did an amazing job, Christian at Tableau did an amazing job of building a tool of choice that people wanted to use. They identified themselves as Tableau users and they became what they would call them, Zen Masters or whatever. But to them, that was then part of their definition of their career, I'm a Tableau expert, I'm Tableau person. And that's a tool of choice. And Microsoft for many years was in the wilderness of pushing out standardization, "We already own your platform, so we're going to integrate everything into that platform." But Gemini was this big breakthrough, it was one thing that really happened that people could then adopt that and say, "This is our tool of choice to use." And that was a breakthrough for Microsoft, I think.
Rob Collie (00:28:35): That tool of choice, something that you actually love. And I've heard the story, I have no idea if it's true, but it seems like it's believable that Steve Jobs put the switch on the back of the Apple II so that in order to turn it on, kids with short arms had to lean forward and essentially hug the Apple II turn it on and off. It doesn't even really matter whether that's true or not, that story still illustrates the point. And we did, we hugged our Apple IIs before we programmed them to have phlegm flying across the screen.
Donald Farmer (00:29:10): Well, one of the things that Apple have always done, which is really great is they've never oversimplified everything. They have had a design philosophy, which is based around simplicity, but they've never oversimplified. In fact, if anything, they require you to put some effort in. There's a point at which... I love this idea of the iPod. We had iPods, we had phones, I had an iPod, I later had a Zune, which I enjoyed actually, but I had an iPod, I had a phone, I could travel anywhere in the world and make phone calls. I had music with me wherever I went. I had two chargers, I had two cables, I had headphones. It was a mess in some ways, but I had these devices.
Donald Farmer (00:29:47): And then what was super interesting about what Apple did was they used to even meet this joke when they launched the iPhone. They made a joke in the first keynote that what they were actually going to do is just create an iPod that could make phone calls and they had a dial on the front of it. They had this old telephone dial on the front of an iPod, which they actually patented that as well. I think perhaps deliberately leading people astray. And they made a joke of that, but what the actually launched was the iPhone, which didn't just solve the problem of I've got two devices, it was beautiful and it was expensive, and it didn't work very well as a phone, did other great things.
Donald Farmer (00:30:21): And had all sorts of things in the user experience, which were completely unnecessary, the little map pointer, which animated and wobbled as it landed, there was all sorts of stuff there. And the touch keyboard, the people were very skeptical of that, how could you possibly type into thing I'm using this touch keyboard on the class? They not only did he make all that work, but that's actually a lot more effort than they had to do to solve the problem of having too many devices. The actually took you on a journey, into a new place that is a different environment altogether and requires a commitment, financial and a commitment of usage from you as a user.
Donald Farmer (00:30:59): So rather than dumbing it down and let's just solve the problem, they actually created a new world that they would take you on this journey into the new world. That seems to me super interesting. When I look at what we did with Power Pivot ultimately, and then with Power BI, we actually took people into a new world. We expected to learn new things. It was actually quite demanding in some ways although it was a simple product, it was still demanding, you had to learn DAX, you had to learn some new concepts. But that in itself gave you a commitment, you now had a sense of a practice that you had adopted in order to use that product.
Donald Farmer (00:31:35): That's much more satisfying ultimately to a user than just simply solving a problem. If all we done was extend Excel to be able to handle 500 million rows, that wouldn't have been interesting, not nearly as much as taking people into a new world.
Rob Collie (00:31:51): There's a parallel there to what fraternities do to their recruits. You beat them as a group and just abuse them for some number of times and then they value being a member of the fraternity even more than what they would otherwise because that's what forges the bond.
Donald Farmer (00:32:08): That explains so much about your specifications, but I can go with this.
Rob Collie (00:32:12): Hey, I was never in a fraternity, but I hear that's how it works.
Donald Farmer (00:32:16): People have told you.
Rob Collie (00:32:18): Yeah. My friends would come back and go, "Oh man, they made us drink a gallon of milk and then do setups and so we threw up." I'm like, "Oh, that sounds great."
Donald Farmer (00:32:28): So you weren't just taking people into this new world as you put it because that almost to me implied that you had this group of users that you were then dragging... When Gemini became a Power Pivot, it opened up the door for people like me. So you didn't just take people, you cast even the wider net and you dragged people along into a much better future. I cannot imagine a world where you didn't have Power Pivot or PivotTables. All the time, I'm talking to my wife and she's working with real estate data and I'll look out and go, "Oh, we'll just make a PivotTable." And she's working saying Google Sheets or something that, but it's everywhere.
Donald Farmer (00:33:07): I'm doing Python, they're like, "Oh, so we'll just make a PivotTable of that data frame." They're everywhere. And I can remember a time when they didn't exist in my life and now I can't imagine going back to that. PivotTables are a great example of a data structure, an interface, a user interface that we're very, very familiar with, but we're so familiar with it that we overlook the power of them. When they first came out and VisiCalc or Lotus 1, 2, 3, that was just a tremendous breakthrough, the ability to do that work. And if you remember at the beginning of the Gemini process, the Power Pivot process, we actually defined our potential user as somebody who understood PivotTables and used VLOOKUP or HLOOKUP.
Donald Farmer (00:33:49): And if you did those two things, then you were potentially a Gemini user. I thought that was fun. But one of the odd things about our users, I don't know if you remember that our business intelligence users hated Gemini at first. You brought in the MVPs, we brought in people Chris Webb, who now works at Microsoft. I remember Chris saying, "This is terrible. This is a terrible product because you're killing our careers. Our whole career is based on consulting with people who need our help in order to do these complex scenarios. And now you've made it so simple that they won't need us anymore. And you're undercutting your partner base by making everything so simple."
Donald Farmer (00:34:26): And then either luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it about a year later, Chris came back and said, "Actually, it's not so simple after all, we're going to be okay." But it reminds me of that because Microsoft in some ways, I think a general story about Microsoft back at that time, we had great understanding of user experience in certain areas, but we had a relatively poor understanding of how user experience and the daily life of our users came together. And I think ProClarity is a great example of that, just bringing on board the capabilities wasn't enough to sustain the product because ultimately the product died because we'd forgotten that is not just about what you can do, it's about how you do it and the daily life of the user.
Donald Farmer (00:35:12): ProClarity users were rightly furious with us for missing that aspect of it. That we'd actually implemented all the features and lost all the soul of the product. Is that fair? Am I being super hash?
Rob Collie (00:35:25): I think that's completely fair. And I'm not even sure that we implemented all the features. The first move after an acquisition like that used to be, "This was the playbook," was announced that is not going to ship again, there's no new versions of it coming out. So you burned your ships in the harbor to commit the team to integration, because you know that if you leave that door open, you're just going to keep shipping that product separately forever and it'll never get integrated. So some executive will draw a line in the sand and say, "No, it's not going to ship anymore."
Rob Collie (00:35:58): Well, then all the regular software engineering practices kick in and we say, "Okay, so how do we fit this into our existing products? And the answer of course is, "Not very well." And it's integration, especially if you go back to that point in time at Microsoft, even if everyone's head was on completely straight and everyone was onsite in a way that was just not the case back then, and even much, much less so then than now. I don't think we could have pulled it off. How would you bring something like that experience you're talking about of ProClarity, the life of a ProClarity user, how would you keep that alive inside something Excel while at the same time, not turning Excel into the tourist trap of billboards that are all garishly colored.
Rob Collie (00:36:51): Bill and I talked about it is, why are these amazing things in Excel still hidden? And it's because you can't turn Excel into the tourist trap.
Donald Farmer (00:37:00): By Bill you mean Bill Baker or Bill Gates?
Rob Collie (00:37:04): No. Bill Jelen.
Donald Farmer (00:37:05): Oh, Bill Jelen. Okay. Right. Another great-
Rob Collie (00:37:07): MrExcel. He's slot somewhere in that Pantheon?
Donald Farmer (00:37:10): That's a great example.
Rob Collie (00:37:12): And so that was always one of the tensions for us on the Excel team was that we'd be working on something new and exciting. And of course, I would want it to be pulsating in the interfacing, click me, click me. And as a steward of the overall product, you can't do that because next thing you know, the entire screen is posting.
Donald Farmer (00:37:30): Well, that's why I was asking about Bill Baker or Bill Gates because Bill Baker who ran the SQL BI team used to say that what we have to avoid is the Fisher-Price user interface, the big yellow button.
Rob Collie (00:37:40): I actually like Fisher-Price interface.
Donald Farmer (00:37:43): That also explains a lot about your specifications back in the day.
Rob Collie (00:37:49): Hey, it was a simpler time.
Donald Farmer (00:37:51): No, I think it's a really important point. When we were not developing Power Pivot, but actually marketing Power Pivot, one of the big breakthroughs that we had there, which ultimately led to me coming on in costume at the past conference, but one of the breakthroughs we had, there was Daniel Yu who currently runs marketing for Azure sign ups at Microsoft. Daniel Yu and I were sitting down, how do we explain the value proposition of this to a business user who doesn't know anything about it? It's one thing talking to an analysis services user, is one thing talking to Excel MVPs who get this, but what about the business user? What sells it to them?
Donald Farmer (00:38:27): And in order to find a message, we actually built a little story, which was the story of a day in the life of the user, literally from what do they do when he get up? What do they do on the way to the office? What they do when you come into the office. And then what does that story look with, or without Power Pivot? And that really gave us a breakthrough because we started to realize that Power Pivot fitted into their daily life, into their working life in a way that was actually distinctly different from Excel, but still complimentary to it, that this wasn't just something that rolled into the Excel world. And equally, it wasn't something that took the place of BI.
Donald Farmer (00:39:05): They still sat down first thing in the morning when they're in their office and looked at their reports, for example, and we're not going to take the place of your reports and your dashboards, but we are going to take the place of what do you do once you find something in the report that you need to take action on, or once you notice something in the dashboard and now you're in Power Pivot world. And that was a real breakthrough for us, and it came from this idea of modeling the daily life of a user.
Rob Collie (00:39:28): You're speaking of the silent film that you made, right?
Donald Farmer (00:39:30): Oh, you're right, we made these little films. They were cool.
Rob Collie (00:39:33): What was that called?
Donald Farmer (00:39:34): Oh, I can't remember. We made a few of them.
Rob Collie (00:39:37): It's like The trouble With Data or something that?
Donald Farmer (00:39:39): That's right, The trouble With Data. And there was few, we made a little brought voice over it, so I'm sure they're still out there on YouTube.
Thomas LaRock (00:39:45): I need to see these.
Rob Collie (00:39:46): Yeah. This was eye opening for me. I think by the time this was out there, I think I had already left Redmond and it really got my attention. Seeing you do certain things, opened a door for me, which is that you can bring an artistic side to this data world. I'm not an artist. There's nothing I can do, I can't draw, I can't compose music. I can see things in my head. And you putting together this silent film, this spoof of a silent film that paralleled a day in the life of a business user of a business analyst, really lodged in my brain. So like a lot of the things that I've done since then like with stick figures and all this stuff, it were in large part inspired by having seen it executed so well.
Rob Collie (00:40:35): And knowing that you didn't make those film segments, that you spliced together, I'm like, "Oh, I can do that. I can do that sort of composition." In a funny way, have you ever heard the C language, the C programming language was invented so that they could write the Unix operating system? Seems really bizarre. Like, wait a second, don't you need an operating system to run the language on? Anyway. So in a way, it's kind of like the Gemini experience, the Power Pivot experience. In a number of ways, I participated in building a set of tools that allowed me to become a different version of me. I kind of stepped through a door.
Rob Collie (00:41:12): It's not just the technical capabilities of like DAX and data modeling and all that, which was a crucial, crucial, crucial component, but also the inspiration of seeing things like, I think it was called the trouble with data. I hadn't really thought about that until you just walked right past it. And I'm really deeply appreciative of you having done that. It's had a profound impact on me.
Donald Farmer (00:41:31): Well, thank you. That's actually great to hear. And I think the work you've done since then, now that you mentioned it, I think you have brought that. You might not think of yourself as an artist, but you do bring a lot of creativity. The thing that we did at Microsoft that was always effective in some ways, although we didn't always execute well on it, was we had the resources to go out and do things that would be difficult to do in another business. And that included experimentation, taking some risks on that. And the leadership were more than capable of taking that on.
Donald Farmer (00:42:03): But the other thing was, we also had big purpose. I remember perhaps when I interviewed at Microsoft being told that the Excel has 500 million users. What does an interface look like for 500 million users as opposed to the target market of a few thousand users for another desktop application? And thinking in that scale and thinking that big picture is really important. Rob, when you were at Microsoft, did you ever have to present to Gates in one of his business reviews and things?
Rob Collie (00:42:30): One time.
Donald Farmer (00:42:31): One time. Never again?
Rob Collie (00:42:33): One time only. It was brutal.
Donald Farmer (00:42:37): It was brutal. Gosh, I once had to do a one-on-one with Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie so I guess a one on two. Actually no, because Caroline Chao came with me, so it's two and two. Gosh, that was nerve wracking.
Rob Collie (00:42:48): You're like, "Okay, look, you set the pick, I'll roll."
Donald Farmer (00:42:51): Exactly. But the fascinating thing about Bill Gates, and it's still fascinating, still, when I see them talking and maybe in meetings where he's presenting or something, he still has the same quality. You know the rabbit and duck picture, you can see the rabbit, you can see the duck? Nobody can see both at the same time, you have to switch between the two, see a rabbit, now you see a duck depending on your perspective or your focus. Bill had this huge image, this huge efficient of what computing can do, what computing can do for individuals, what it can do for businesses, what it can do for the world and society in general.
Donald Farmer (00:43:29): This enormous vision, which was greater than any of us could really take in. And that was his capability. But he could also focus tremendously on, why is that button on the left rather than the right? But he could also do both of these things at the same time. He could keep these focuses in mind at the same time. And so presenting, say something like Gemini to him, you never knew which Bill is going to show up, you never knew if the question that comes next is going to be about the impact of this on society and the world and the future of education, or if it's going to be, why is that not called key influencers rather than key factors? That's the dumbest thing I've ever seen.
Donald Farmer (00:44:09): And you never knew which one you're going to get, which made talking with Bill very, very difficult and a real challenge. But it was fascinating. You learn so much from it. This ability to see the big picture and the detailed picture at the same time.
Rob Collie (00:44:23): My experience of that was that the detailed picture had a 50-50 mix. 50% of the time when you dive into the details, you did learn something, and the other 50% of the time, you dive into the details and you'd feel like it's just because he couldn't help it. It was a derailer which could derailed the whole conversation. Our BI review with him, we lost... This was one I wasn't invited to, because of my poor performance at the first one we'd done. The second one devolved for like 15 minutes about how in one of the completely graphically designed, it was like done in Photoshop mockups, someone had used a pie chart to represent years.
Rob Collie (00:45:03): And he was saying, "Listen, anyone that would do years on a pie chart," he was basically saying, "Shouldn't be working here."
Donald Farmer (00:45:11): I've got to agree with him.
Rob Collie (00:45:16): Yes, yes. But also looking back years later, I'm like, "Bill, this was a culture that you created. Hiring the computer scientists, the people who could solve these brain teasers or these academic riddles without ever having been polluted by the real world." Of course, as a 25-year-old, I wouldn't have known any better either. I would've drawn a pie chart and I would've just slapped years on. I wouldn't have ever thought twice about that. I can also understand the stupidity of it, but sympathize completely with the mindset that would do it.
Donald Farmer (00:45:48): For sure. But that's actually not a derailment in a sense for Bill, that is part of that.
Rob Collie (00:45:53): I agree.
Donald Farmer (00:45:54): The detail and the big picture are a part of the same thing. It's fascinating. It was always a complex process, because I say you never really knew who was going to turn up. He'd have been perfectly capable of overlooking that and going on to some completely different topic, which could have been even greater in scope. It was always difficult to bring your story to him because he always brought his story, and that's a real challenge. But the guy was amazing. A tremendous privilege to have any time to work with him at all.
Rob Collie (00:46:22): Yeah, I concur. It's completely not what I expected. I remember being struck by just like, I think this goes hand in hand with what you're saying, is he had a tremendous recall of basically everything.
Donald Farmer (00:46:34): Yeah, that's true.
Rob Collie (00:46:37): The data structures that he uses to record things about the world, he has this like lossless storage and the ability to index into any particular thing no matter how detailed.
Donald Farmer (00:46:50): His brain is an array of pointers.
Rob Collie (00:46:52): Yeah, that's right. It wouldn't surprise me if he remembered what shirt I was wearing that day that he chewed me out. That would be completely believable 20 years later.
Donald Farmer (00:47:02): Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's that connectivity, which a lot of people find difficult, the fact that everything is connected for him. The really creative people have that, and we don't all have it in the same degree. But he has that extraordinary connectivity. And the most interesting people I've worked with have it in all sorts of ways, they're able to make those connections. And then they're also able to make sense of new connections and to create connections. You'll remember, Rob, when I was at Microsoft and I was your manager, whenever I wanted to do a one-on-one or whenever you wanted to do a one-on-one, I always wanted to go for a walk. I always wanted to walk into campus walk, walk around the trails around Microsoft.
Donald Farmer (00:47:37): And one of the reasons I always enjoyed doing it is not just because I like getting out, but because your conversation always go somewhere else when you're walking. And there's two dynamics to it. One is that you can't be face to face with someone when you're walking unless you walk into each other. You have a lot of contact, you have a lot of ability to read the other person, but you're not constantly focused on their micro expressions and how they're feeling, responding to you, whatever. But the other thing is that new things happen when you walk, a squirrel runs across in front of you, you see something, a beautiful flower, that you need to describe. You see some crazy building work going on in campus and you need to talk about that.
Donald Farmer (00:48:18): And it takes you off subject, but it also provides you with a whole new set of connections that you wouldn't have if you just sat down in the office and speaking to each other. And I noticed this just so much now that we're all connecting online, that we just don't have that extra input. Our conversations, not this one, but our conversations... Because we haven't spoken for some time, this is a great conversation. But very often, my weekly conversations with people or my daily conversations with people just the same old, same old, because there's no new stimulus into that conversation except what has happened in the business since the last time we spoke, which gets old for pretty quickly.
Donald Farmer (00:48:55): And I can't wait for the time that I have walking conversations with people. I've had one of the companies I advise, the lady I'm working with, she came up from Portland in order to have a socially distant walk with me. So we were walking along the trail here, eight feet apart, yelling at each other because she knew we had to have a conversation while we were walking rather than sitting on Zoom when we just had the same old conversation.
Thomas LaRock (00:49:19): You mean yelling because you were eight feet apart and not because you were angry with each other?
Donald Farmer (00:49:23): Right, because we were eight feet apart. Yeah.
Thomas LaRock (00:49:24): Yeah, okay. Because you basically just described every walk I have with my wife, but that's fine.
Rob Collie (00:49:30): Don, did I ever tell you about when I had a walking treadmill desk?
Donald Farmer (00:49:34): I know you had one. I could hear it in the background sometimes when you called me.
Rob Collie (00:49:38): Yeah. The idea was to get skinny while working. That didn't happen. That low intensity exercise, I just would replace the calories. Whatever calories I burned walking those eight miles that day, I would just re-eat them and nothing changed. But I did find, even just walking on a treadmill desk by myself, that I focused in a different way, just the movement. So in addition to everything thing that you're saying, there's also, I'd like to add one more benefit, which is that just physically moving-
Donald Farmer (00:50:07): It's that slight stimulation of the heartbeat and increase of oxygen.
Rob Collie (00:50:09): Yeah. And for whatever reason, I don't struggle with this as much as I used to. But for a while there, like for a good decade of my life, I would sit down in a chair to work, my ADD or whatever would immediately have me opening a browser window and like navigating to the ESPN homepage without even knowing that I'd done it. It was like this craving of stimulation. And for whatever reason, when I was walking, I was scratching that itch. That part of me, that fidgety part of me had something to do, and that was walk. And then my brain could actually go a lot more focused work. I missed the treadmill desk because of that.
Rob Collie (00:50:47): Eventually, the treadmill desk broke and I never bothered to replace it. It didn't have its magical redefining shape properties on my body that I was hoping for. But I do miss the focus, the clarity, the calm that it brought, even though I'm just walking in place, in a corner of a room. Maybe we should all get walking treadmills and conduct our meetings that way. It would be like a control. And then every now and then, we could just like release a squirrel in the room.
Donald Farmer (00:51:15): Well, it's going to be fascinating over the next year, probably two years, as we start to look back on this very strange pandemic year that we've had to see what working practices were effective and which weren't, and then which ones we want to carry forward. I hear a lot of people saying they don't want to go back to the office, I hear other people saying that they're to go back to the office, and it's going to be fascinating just over the next year to see how that plays out.
Rob Collie (00:51:41): Yeah. Once it's a choice, once it becomes optional, whether for the individual or the company as a policy, that's when you're going to find out for real. Right now, it's all what-if.
Donald Farmer (00:51:54): Well, I'll tell you, I speak to quite a few startups and smaller companies. And the managers of those companies were often telling me that they really miss having people in the office. I speak to the employees and they're not actually missing it so much. But what people seem to miss, or they say that they miss when they talk about, I wish we could all be in the office together is, "Oh, we miss the creativity, we miss the interaction." And then I speak to other teams and they say, "Actually, we don't miss that all. We're doing fine without all that. Thanks very much."
Donald Farmer (00:52:21): And I've done some analysis of it, not just making it up, I've done some analysis of it for one company in particular, and we did some surveys. And it turns out that, of course, the manager in some ways is right, that there is a missing creativity and connection, but it's their inability to scale the conversations. They'd walk around the corridors, they'd see somebody at the water bottle and they'd have a conversation about it, they'd stand having coffee. They're not organizing a meeting, they're not scheduling that, they're not sitting down with the person. In fact, it might be a very casual conversation in which they can give a pointer, "Well, maybe you should think about it this way. Maybe you should think about it that way."
Donald Farmer (00:52:58): It's the very light touch interaction. And to them as managers, that's a critical part of their world, not sitting down having regularly scheduled conversations, but the light touch interaction that enables them to, as they see it, scale their interactivity and creativity across an entire team, which you can't do when you're all sitting on a Zoom meeting. On the other hand, it turns out that a lot of the developers, especially, are actually very happy not to have the manager giving their ad hoc direction, because they see that as randomizing and distracting.
Donald Farmer (00:53:30): So from the manager's point of view, it's, "Oh, I'm so creative, I can have these light touch points and that's me adding value." And to the developers, that's, "Oh my God, that guy's going on about years on the pie chart again, just let me get on wiTh mu job."
Rob Collie (00:53:43): You were there for no-meeting Wednesdays, right?
Donald Farmer (00:53:45): Oh, no-meeting Wednesdays. Yeah, that was a great day for meetings.
Rob Collie (00:53:46): Yeah, that was great. And you remember me calling it snarkly no-decision Wednesdays? Again, it's pros and cons. The developers loved it, but I always felt like as a program manager that I might as well not even come in that day.
Donald Farmer (00:54:01): Yeah. Nothing to do.
Rob Collie (00:54:03): We couldn't do anything without the people.
Donald Farmer (00:54:05): Well, I don't know if you were there at a point where I gave some of my team pedometers. Did I give you a pedometer?
Rob Collie (00:54:11): I never got a pedometer. I demand a pedometer.
Donald Farmer (00:54:12): Well, I'll send you one. No, the idea was that program managers shouldn't be in their office. If you're in your office, you're not doing your job. You need to be out there talking to people.
Rob Collie (00:54:20): Yeah. Just blows my mind that there are program managers that can work today remotely ignoring the pandemic. The program management position has now become somewhat remote friendly at Microsoft. I struggled with the phone, I really relied on being able to go and talk to someone face to face.
Donald Farmer (00:54:41): Absolutely. Yeah.
Rob Collie (00:54:44): It would've been crippling for me to have had that taken away. And so it made sense to me that when I moved away from Redmond, that I wasn't going to be doing that job anymore. I look back now and, again, I go, "Oh, there are a lot of people doing that job remotely now, I wonder how that works."
Donald Farmer (00:54:57): I can't remember exactly what it was, what the issue was, but there was some issue in specification that had a dependency on another team. And at that time, we were in Building 35 and the other team, SQL Server core team was in 34, and they were not supporting us. And we got these emails from their program manager saying, "We're not going to do this feature. We're not going to do that feature." And we really wanted this feature in order to enable our own work. And the program manager who was reporting to me, she was kind of, "I don't know what to do about this. They keep blowing me off. I keep raising it in meetings, they don't do anything."
Donald Farmer (00:55:30): And I said, "Well, let's just go talk to them." "Well, I don't have a meeting arranged, I'll set something up." "No, let's just go and camp out in their office." So we walked across to the building at, across to 34, down into the basement, sat in the office. The guy wasn't there, waited for him to come back. He came back in, and we said, "So here's what we need and here's what you're not giving us." And what I'd said to my program manager was, "It's going to be much more difficult for him face to face, sitting office to say, 'No, you'll not get it. We're not doing that.'" And I was so disappointed and I said, "Okay, well, we're going to push for this. We're going to keep pushing for it."
Donald Farmer (00:56:06): We came back, went back to our offices. I clearly had lost all credibility as a manager and as a reader of human beings. And so the next morning in ship room, guess what? They'd implemented the feature overnight and done it. It was kind of funny. It was very revealing that, yeah, he still was able to say no, but actually, deep down, he understood our need at that point because we'd seen face to face. It was kind of funny.
Rob Collie (00:56:32): I mentioned earlier that you were in many ways, the inspiration for some of the more creative efforts that came later in my career, but you also killed one.
Donald Farmer (00:56:41): Oh no.
Rob Collie (00:56:42): You killed Power Pivot Yoda.
Donald Farmer (00:56:43): Power Pivot Yoda. Wait, what?
Rob Collie (00:56:48): Yeah. Power Pivot Yoda was going to have a bright future.
Donald Farmer (00:56:51): Is this like a Clippy thing?
Rob Collie (00:56:53): No, Power Pivot Yoda was a Twitter account. That was a photo morph of Yoda and Donald. It was really kind of amazing. It was like one of those one in a million things. Donald was the face of Power Pivot, he was the community voice at Microsoft for all of this stuff at the time. It was a funny little joke. And then like three months later is when Donald left for Qlik and like, "Well, I can't use Donald's likeness as Power Pivot Yoda anymore." And so that was the end of one of my creations. But you miss 100% of the photo morphs you don't make.
Thomas LaRock (00:57:27): I don't understand why we can't just do that now.
Donald Farmer (00:57:29): Well, do you know the irony of that? As I went to Qlik and one of the first things their marketing did was build an entire comic strip around Qlik Yoda, which was me as Qlik Yoda, which I suspect they got from Power Pivot Yoda. So your idea in a sense did live on-
Rob Collie (00:57:44): I didn't know that.
Donald Farmer (00:57:45): ... just in the service of a different business,
Rob Collie (00:57:47): I feel redeemed hearing that later. I probably would've been upset at the time, but now is a really good time to hear that. That's great. The other things, Tom, that happened back in that day is... Don is such a good sport, and is so well known and so loved, that he is just a really easy figure to have some fun with. And so I posted this photo gallery of like, "Is it Donald or is it Tommy Chong?"
Donald Farmer (00:58:12): I remember that. That was on camera.
Rob Collie (00:58:17): And it was really close. And it was so funny that someone else, about six months later wrote an article about Donald and used a Tommy Chong picture on accident. So you know where he got it.
Donald Farmer (00:58:30): That's great. Yeah, that was crazy.
Thomas LaRock (00:58:36): I want to ask something slightly off topic, but I'm going to ask anyway. I remember this event, I don't know who, I suspect it's the SQL Server marketing team. I don't know what it is, but I believe Donald, you hosted a wine pairing with SQL Server in some secret room like the back cave or something inside of Microsoft. I remember I was invited to fly to Redmond.
Donald Farmer (00:59:01): That's right.
Thomas LaRock (00:59:03): Was it for SQL Server 2008 R2? It had to be. There's this launch event for what is essentially, let's call it a mid-major release of SQL, and it's a wine pairing with Donald Farmer. So what was that room first of all? What's that secret room on campus?
Donald Farmer (00:59:23): That secret room was in the Executive Briefing Center and it was at the back of the Executive Briefing Center where they had a section, which was the Office of Tomorrow. And then at the back of that, it was a set that they'd created for the Home of Tomorrow. And that had actually gotten nowhere and they'd more or less abandoned it, but it was beautifully equipped as this lovely home with big screen televisions and couches and things out there. And that's where we held that event.
Thomas LaRock (00:59:51): Again, I was invited, but I couldn't make it. So I'm assuming because I was still working for a previous employer. And I remember photos from the event on social media where Donald was basically introducing one of the features in 2008 R2 and he was pairing it with a class of wine. Do I have this correct, sir?
Donald Farmer (01:00:12): You do. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And we had these funny things about IT and business working together like wine and cheese. It sounds really corny, but actually it is really corny. Of course, it was an excuse to have good wine and nice cheese, but it was also a way of getting people into a different minds set so they thought of this less as a set of features and more as the creation of a community of people who felt connected by a shared experience of this product. So that R2 launch, we had a group of people who felt very committed to each other and to us as a team. It was social engineering.
Thomas LaRock (01:00:49): Yeah. I am sorry I missed that, because as it was happening, I'm like, "Oh, well, they'll do it again next release and maybe I'll get to go to that one." It's never happened since. So it's been like 12 years and there has yet to be a decent SQL Server launch event with wine pairing. And I'm going to have to mention it to the folks, MVP Summits coming up. I think I'm going to have to put the bug in some of these ear about this because absolutely this should be happening and I should be invited. That's how I feel.
Donald Farmer (01:01:17): I'm a great believer in actually building community and in building that sense of shared purpose. And far too often, we actually present products to people as if they are passive receivers of our products rather than part of our shared creative community. When I joined Qlik, for example, Qlik at a really bad reputation for talking down to industry analysts and for regarding industry analysts as people who didn't really understand Qlik and didn't understand its unique value proposition. And therefore, we always mansplain to them about why we were so unique and different.
Donald Farmer (01:01:52): One of the things we did was at a tech event in Vegas, where there was a lot of analysts and influencers present, we did a little event that I set up and the marketing team were great in supporting this Lara Shackelford at the marketing team, did a great job of pulling it together. We actually held it in the art gallery of the Bellagio rather than the typical Vegas event we have in some kind of meeting room, no. Scott Humphrey, my friend, who's an amazing PR guy, we got the art gallery, we held it in the art gallery. We had the nibbles, we had the wine, we had the pairing and we didn't talk about the product, we talked about us.
Donald Farmer (01:02:28): We talked about why we were at Qlik, what we were doing, what we wanted to achieve. And we talked about that apart from a brief introduction, we talked about one-on-one with people rather than presenting to them. And what happened after that event was the analysts were our friends, literally. There were people at Qlik who had never sat down and had a meal or a drink with an analyst, and the whole experience then changed because they now became part, of course they weren't part of our community uniquely because they're industry analysts, they're objective, but we did have this sense that we're all part of a shared community of purpose, community of practice that I felt was really important.
Donald Farmer (01:03:05): And I think you're right, by the way, Thomas, I think Microsoft have lost a lot of that. They're still doing this thing where Microsoft is explaining their products to you rather than we are part of a shared community of purpose. To be fair, I've been doing a little work with the Azure signups team, where of course it's been really difficult in the last year because we can't have those events. We plan to have a great event in Woodville, pull people together and it was going to happen last year, and of course it couldn't. I think we need to do a lot more of that, of building, not a community in a sense of a support group, a community, isn't a support group.
Donald Farmer (01:03:39): You don't need to join a community, you're part of a community because that's who you are. I was brought up in a small village and you don't join a village, you're in a village because you were born there, because you live, because love them or hate them you're in a shared community with other people. You join a user group, you join a support group, you log onto a forum, but a community is much more organic than that, and you have to do a lot of work to build that. And I think be perfectly honest, I think Microsoft on the BI side, on the SQL Server side, on the Azure side to a certain extent lost that sense of shared community of purpose.
Rob Collie (01:04:12): Yeah. I was thinking about Tom, as you were saying, I need to get on it and let them know they need to do a wine event. I was thinking about things Donald had said earlier like the Lampoon version of this as Microsoft will say, "Oh right, yeah, we should do that again." So they'll analyze the ingredients of that event. So there was wine, there was cheese, and so they'll have like three different, "Okay, we need two whites and two reds," and they'll just take the first absolute vanilla versions of all of those, and you'll get a handful of cheeses and think that that's the same thing. That's the whole point is that it's not.
Donald Farmer (01:04:45): Well, nowadays you would just do it online and send everybody a coupon to go to Costco and that's the same thing.
Rob Collie (01:04:52): Yeah. And I'd come home with hot sauce or something?
Thomas LaRock (01:04:55): I think I have to agree with Donald, Microsoft may have lost a little bit of that community focused. What I will say is they continue to hire from their MVP community, which I think is somewhat brilliant because that's instant credibility with your best advocates, because now the people that you were sitting in that room with, now one of you, they're the principal program manager in charge of whatever. And it's really hard to look at somebody that was a friend and a colleague, you only assume good intentions. You know they're a good person, you know now they're doing good work over at Microsoft.
Thomas LaRock (01:05:35): And so I find that there's a nice, solid connection between people building the product and their advocates, their community of MVPs. But I think you're right in the sense that outside of that community, that's still fairly closed, that there hasn't been that outreach beyond that circle. I don't know how that's happened, but I'm just reflecting back on the past, say 15 to 20 years of my involvement in this community. And I think they have gotten away from that. I'm not sure why or how.
Donald Farmer (01:06:09): Well, I think it's partly to do with the success of the product. I'm going to make a suggestion here which they may well dislike, but I think it's true, is that earlier I was talking about the importance of tools of choice as opposed tools which are provisioned and Power BI is no longer a tool of choice. That's not entirely true because of course there are people who choose to use Power BI, but mostly it's just provision. It's provision by IT, it comes, I don't know, we're not allowed to use the word bundling in the Microsoft context, but it comes bundled with all fees or it becomes bundled with an Azure deal in some way.
Donald Farmer (01:06:41): Very few individuals sit down and say, "I want to use Power BI." There are some who do and they're great at it, don't get me wrong. But unlike the world of the newer tools, and I think Tableau again is a great example of a company that has always done a good job of this. People choose to use Tableau, people choose to use Power BI in anything like the same way.
Rob Collie (01:07:01): This jumps off the page to me in any interaction that I have with Microsoft these days is that they're doing such a good job selling the product at that top-down level. And I come at it from a completely different perspective, which is, the bottom-up adoption. I never had that phrase, tool of choice, but now I do. Excel is one of Microsoft's only tools of choice, it's an accidental tool of choice. The people who are good at Excel really love that product. They love it. There aren't many things like that at Microsoft. And Microsoft's inability so far to directly harness that audience that's already theirs and turn them into passionate Power BI developers still really bugs me, even as they've been really successful.
Rob Collie (01:07:48): Financially, the product is doing incredibly well. And look at the Magic Quadrant, look at how well it's being received by those analysts we talked about earlier, in some sense like on every metric that matters, they're doing incredibly well. But it is hard for me to connect with them on that bottom-up level because it doesn't really seem to be hurting them.
Donald Farmer (01:08:07): No, no, it doesn't. But you can see it in the product, and this is something that's super interesting to me. It does get reflected in the product because what I see in the product is there are features which have to my mind clearly been added almost as demo features. There are very lightweight, not particularly well thought through features. And in fact, very often I come back and talk to people a year later, question and answer is a great example, the natural language interface. How many people have actually been using that for two years and are still using it as a daily practice after two years?
Donald Farmer (01:08:38): It's not a long term feature that. It's not a product, not a feature that you use for two years. As soon as you've learned how to use it, you abandon it and you go straight to the data again. And there's a lot of features like that in Power BI that continually pop up. And what I find when I look at those features and when I start working with them is inconsistency of attention. There are some aspects of Power BI where clearly people are giving it long term focused attention on the quality of this feature. And there's other features, which just feel like they've been hacked together and pushed in order to check a box, "Oh, ThoughtSpot are doing this so we'll do that and compete against them."
Donald Farmer (01:09:18): "Oh, Tableau, I've got this, we've got that too." And that inconsistency of attention, I think, is actually long run potentially damaging. And the great success of Power BI is in some ways also its undoing because it's going to be just a default product, and at some point, because it's default, it'll no longer move the needle.
Rob Collie (01:09:40): Yeah. And when it's unenthusiastically adopted, it's adopted incorrectly.
Donald Farmer (01:09:47): A lot of that.
Rob Collie (01:09:48): And it doesn't work well. It gets a negative reputation amongst that workgroup because they watched those demos and everything was so easy, but they also completely miss that it is a world-beater. When properly utilized it is a world-beater of a tool that should have been charged ridiculous amounts of money for. But you're right, now it's just part of the E whatever, skew, and it's issued to you. And my conversation with Microsoft, for good reason, you can understand this, it's not a bad thing, their overwhelming concern is what the CIO thinks of the tool. And the thing that makes it truly great, the thing that makes it the tool of choice, that people get excited about has nothing to do with what the CIO thinks.
Rob Collie (01:10:38): You're right, it probably does long term, and it is, even medium term, short term. This is causing them trouble, adoption after the sale is now something that's a concern for them.
Donald Farmer (01:10:49): For sure. There's a lot of shelfware out there. We used to call it shelfware, I don't know what you call it when it's on the cloud.
Rob Collie (01:10:55): You might as well call it shelfware, it's a virtual shelf.
Donald Farmer (01:10:57): And what's super interesting, of course, is the CIO may well be adopting Power BI for all the right reasons, but the tools of choice in the organization are other tools of choice and are starting to have that impact.
Rob Collie (01:11:08): Yeah. What's TreeHive Strategy? What are you up to these days?
Donald Farmer (01:11:10): Well, TreeHive Strategy is just a cute name for my consulting practice. And what I primarily do nowadays is strategic advising to vendors, to investors, and to enterprises about data and analytics strategy. We have a simple mantra that any software company is a data company, no matter what you do. If you're a data company, you need to be an analytics company, otherwise your data's just sitting there and not taking action requires analysis. And if you're an analytics company, you probably need to be an advanced analytics company sooner than you imagine.
Donald Farmer (01:11:42): And therefore, what does that map look like to get from being a company that has data to being a company that actually is actively and innovatively using it? I have a lot of fun, I speak with a lot of investors, which is great, because I can go into their portfolio companies and then I start to deal with a whole lot of software vendors doing everything from manufacturing and retail, restaurant software, all sorts of things that I otherwise might not get to do. So I enjoy that, and I help vendors large and small from the largest vendors to small startups. And I work with enterprises ranging from manufacturing and robotics.
Donald Farmer (01:12:15): So I have a lot of fun and I'm lucky in the sense that I still have to work, but I can choose what I do, and that's a great pleasure.
Rob Collie (01:12:22): And just so people know, where is the name TreeHive come from?
Donald Farmer (01:12:26): Well, TreeHive comes from our treehouse. There's a great TV program. Well, I think it stopped now, but by Pete Nelson, who's a treehouse builder based in Fall City, which is about 15 miles from us. And he built a treehouse for us and it was on the TV program and my wife built a sketch of it. It looked like a beehive in a tree, and Pete Nelson came along and said, "Well, that's impossible, let's try it," which is a great attitude, and built it. And it's beautiful. If you search for beehive treehouse, you'll always certainly find it. It's a beautiful place. And that's my thinking space.
Donald Farmer (01:12:57): I retreat up there in the afternoon, no Wi-Fi up there, just the ability to sit there and be on my own and think. It's great to have a thinking space. So that's TreeHive Strategy.
Rob Collie (01:13:06): Yeah. I remember there not being Wi-Fi in the TreeHive, but I was wondering all these years later, if you broke it down and hooked it up.
Donald Farmer (01:13:14): No. Absolutely not, you've got to have somewhere that you can't get Wi-Fi.
Rob Collie (01:13:18): Yeah. The pictures online and the videos, they actually surprisingly do it justice. I've been in the TreeHive, I've made that pilgrimage and it's awesome. It is just so cool.
Donald Farmer (01:13:28): It is very beautiful, it's just a beautiful place and we're tremendously lucky to have it. And so it's become almost a defining feature of our work. My wife's an artist and a wonderful artist and I do my creative thing and it's become an inspiration for us in many ways.
Rob Collie (01:13:43): Do you still have the Goblin Hut?
Donald Farmer (01:13:45): We still have the Goblin Hut, which is a little octagonal building that we can go into and escape from as well. That's fun. We have an art studio. We have, what's called a House of Doors, which is a building made entirely out of doors, which is very interesting. And we have a little log cabin codding shade because our builder, our contractor is a log cabin builder and so he built us a porting shade, which is actually a log cabin. And we have all sorts of stuff and everything's painted as well. And that's the other thing, my wife's an artist so anything that's doesn't move gets painted.
Rob Collie (01:14:14): Back in the day, there was even one of your wife's works, put a picture of it on the blog, the Three Seconds of Now. That painting that was in your office at Microsoft for so long. I've always been captivated by that work.
Donald Farmer (01:14:26): Yeah. A big six-foot square painting.
Rob Collie (01:14:28): It makes an impression and it is, it's just called Now, right?
Donald Farmer (01:14:31): It's called Now, yeah. Well, there's this psychological thing that when we talk about the period of now, when you talk about something happening now, we're actually talking about a three-second period of time typically. In all the languages of the world, a line of poetry typically takes three seconds to say. So three seconds becomes this point at which a thought is focused. And if something takes more than three seconds, your mind drifts away from it. So I actually use it a lot. It's analytical, it's in our user experiences, in our thinking, we've got three seconds to hold someone's attention and have them move on to the next thing.
Rob Collie (01:15:04): Yeah. If you click a filter and the results paint within three seconds, your mind doesn't really wander. On the other side of that three-second boundary, you've become asynchronous, you're no longer engaged. And that was the point of that blog post all those years ago was to try to get your slicer click, refresh in your Power Pivot reports, three seconds or less. It's like the biological quanta for time.
Donald Farmer (01:15:28): It is, exactly. And of course, nowadays we expect the results to come back in millisecond, but the point being if you've actually overloaded the user with information so it takes some more than three seconds to take in all the data and information that you are showing them, you've still lost them. So even if your user interface is highly responsive, there's still three seconds of thinking and absorbing that you need to do.
Rob Collie (01:15:51): All right. I'm looking forward to getting back out and hanging out in the Goblin Hut or in the TreeHive. The House of Doors was under construction last time I was there. That's how long ago?
Donald Farmer (01:16:00): Wow. Guess what, that's all completed. Well, we need to get you out here, we need to get Thomas out here so we can do some wine tasting.
Rob Collie (01:16:05): That's right. And we'll do it right.
Donald Farmer (01:16:07): We'll do it right.
Thomas LaRock (01:16:08): And we'll discuss Tableau, I guess.
Donald Farmer (01:16:15): We can do that.
Thomas LaRock (01:16:15): I'm sorry, no, we won't discuss Tableau, we'll discuss why we wanted to work for Tableau or something.
Rob Collie (01:16:21): We'll discuss why the Microsoft SQL Server data mining tools for Office System 2000, whatever, pairs so well with this Kranti.
Donald Farmer (01:16:33): That's exciting.
Rob Collie (01:16:35): Well, Donald, thank you so much. I appreciate you coming down out of the TreeHive to where the Wi-Fi reaches to have a conversation with us.
Donald Farmer (01:16:42): It's been a tremendous pleasure. Thank you Rob and Tom.
Announcer (01:16:45): Thanks for listening to the Raw Data by P3 Adaptive Podcast. Let the experts at P3 Adaptive help your business. Just go to p3adaptive.com. Have a data day.
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