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If someone were to venture into the BI world, what would be a logical starting place?

  • Joe Oates, Chuck Kelley, Clay Rehm, Les Barbusinski
  • June 04 2003, 1:00am EDT


If someone were to venture into the BI world (say some one with 10 years of experience in the IT field on legacy systems) what would be a logical starting place? I am not looking for quick solutions to shift career but to looking for in-demand BI technology to invest the next few months and make a shift. Thanks.


Les Barbusinski’s Answer: Before you venture into the BI world, you’ll likely need to update your skills in other areas first. For example, if by legacy systems you mean mainframe systems, you’ll need to first come up to speed on such things as client/server concepts, n-tier architectures, graphic user interfaces, distributed databases, object-oriented programming, etc. Some good books on these subjects include the following:

  • Client/Server Computing for Technical Professionals by Johnson M. Hart.
  • GUI Design Essentials by Susan Weinschenk.
  • Principles of Distributed Database Systems by M. Tamer Ozsu.
  • Concepts of Object-Oriented Programming by David N. Smith

Also, if you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to become skilled at using two or more relational databases: a UNIX-based RDBMS such as Oracle, DB2 or Teradata and Microsoft SQL Server. The latter is sometimes used for data warehouses, but more often than not is used as the meta data repository for ETL and BI tools (hence, the need for expertise in SQL Server). In either case, knowing how to write efficient SQL queries is a critical skill for a BI practitioner.

Next, since BI tools operate almost exclusively in the Internet/intranet environment, you’ll need to become proficient in Web technologies such as HTML, XML, Web server configurations (e.g,. IIS, Apache, Oracle, etc.) and either the Java or Microsoft ASP Web programming environments. Eventually, you’ll also have to know something about Web portals and Web services (either the J2EE or Microsoft .Net standard). Knowledge of Web technologies is critical to BI professionals because of the need to a) customize BI reports, alerts and Web sites and b) integrate BI applications with in-house Web portals. Books on Web technology are too numerous to mention here.

Finally, you’ll need to come up to speed on data warehousing concepts. You’ll need to understand the different DW data architectures (e.g., ODS, star schemas, hypercubes, etc.), know the difference between MOLAP and ROLAP tools, understand the fundamentals of multidimensional analysis, meta data concepts, data quality concepts, methodologies and project management concepts, etc. This knowledge can be acquired from a variety of sources such as the combined works of Bill Inmon, Ralph Kimball, Larry English, Sid Adelman and others. In addition, The Data Warehouse Institute offers many fine courses in data warehousing fundamentals, and the DM Review Web site offers a bountiful resource portal and many useful white papers.

Once you’ve mastered all these foundation skills, you’ll be ready to select a BI tool to specialize in. The choices are numerous, but – since you’re in this for the money – you should limit your choice to those tools that offer you a marketable career path (i.e., a stable vendor with an in-demand product line that has a steep learning curve or other "barriers to entry"). Any of the major BI vendors – such as Business Objects, Hyperion, MicroStrategy or SAS – would be a good choice. However, you should be aware that demand for skills in a specific tool suite varies by geographic area (i.e., some vendors have a larger installed base in the West, others in the Northeast, and so on). Good luck.

Chuck Kelley’s Answer: I would like to answer this question a different way. I think you should determine what it is that you want to do and are good at and then search the BI technology for something that provides for those requirements. For example, let us say that the hottest thing in BI Technology is the user interface development. Personally, I dislike, with passion, doing user interface work. Should I learn everything about user interface development because it is hot or should I find something I am good at? I think you should find that which you are good at. That should be your logical starting point.

Joe Oates’ Answer: Personally, I would get training and certification for either ETL tool(s) such as Informatica and/or Ascential, or BI presentation tool(s) such as Business Objects, Cognos or MicroStrategy.

My reasoning is that the skills for these tools are the closest to the kind of skills most IT people have. Most have experience in conversions and reporting systems and, from what I have seen, they translate well.

Unless you have experience in enterprise modeling and database design, I would steer clear of trying to do the design for anything beyond a fairly simple data mart. The rules for designing an industrial strength enterprise data warehouse database are completely different than most IT developers have experienced.

Clay Rehm’s Answer: This depends on your interest level. For example, do you like working with data, reporting, working with people? Are you interested in development, analysis, both? How much of both? You may want to consider where your interests are. There are areas that require project managers, business/systems analysts, designers, developers, testers or combinations of thereof.

There are so many areas you specialize in or know a little about many areas:

  • Project management
  • Business/systems analyst
  • Data analysis – using tools such as Rational or ERwin
  • DBA, RDBMS – IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Sybase, NCR, etc.
  • ETL – such as Informatica, Data Junction, Ascential, etc.
  • Reporting – Business Objects, MicroStrategy, Brio, Crystal Reporting, etc
  • Web development

In addition, certification is a way to get up to speed on a specific technology or discipline. Certification forces you to study on the points that you need to hit the ground running. Good luck!

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