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Business intelligence and data warehousing tips from a two-year-old

TDWI spring conference attendees said the format and unusual keynote were welcome approaches to the increasingly complex business intelligence and data warehousing industry.

BOSTON -- A two-year-old can offer interesting insights for approaching complex business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing projects, according to the opening keynote speaker at the spring TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute) conference.

Childlike questions like "Why?" can go a long way toward determining requirements for a BI or data warehousing project, said Steve Hoberman, a Westfield, N.J.-based author, trainer and data modeling consultant, who was the opening speaker at the conference. Hoberman's keynote referenced a variety of unexpected sources, including his children, favorite books and the standard "who, what, where, why, when, how" questions. Simple techniques, such as asking why, can be especially revealing in BI and data warehousing projects, he explained.

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"Most of us in this room are probably working on projects that are doing things that no one has ever done before -- that integrate data, that try to create something big -- and that really requires asking the 'why' question a lot," Hoberman said. "It's a very powerful technique. Why is this the way it is? Why do we need a 50-page report? Why is somebody asking for this?"

This return-to-childhood theme seemed to set the tone for the day, which included multi-hour educational sessions, and for many attendees, heading back to school for certified BI professional (CBIP) exams.

It was a welcome approach for at least one of over 600 people that attended the Renton, Wash.-based educational and research organization's quarterly conference.

"I thought the keynote was enlightening and a more natural perspective on what we do," said Gretchen Peckham, of Denver-based GMP Consulting, which specializes in data warehousing and data dictionaries.

Peckham attended the conference primarily to take three of the CBIP exams. She's striking out on her own as a consultant and said the CBIP is an important certification to have when approaching potential clients. Learning more about the latest industry trends is also on her agenda, so in addition to cramming for her exams, she'll be attending conference sessions. All of the sessions at this conference are either half- or full-day sessions -- a format that many data warehouse professionals like Peckham said they appreciate.

"The courses you take here are equal to a college-level course. The other conferences I go to are more introductory courses," Peckham said.

These in-depth sessions are a key trait of these conferences, according to David Wells, director of education with TDWI.

"Most conferences, you get 60- to 90-minute talking heads," Wells said. "Ninety minutes isn't long enough to get deep into any topic."

But picking timely conference topics can be a challenge, given the fast speed of BI innovations and long planning time required for events, he explained.

Wells said that hot topics at this conference include searchable BI, pervasive BI, BI for small and midsized businesses (thanks in part to Microsoft's recent announcements), data visualization, operational BI and BI governance. Some topics remain popular, he said, such as the challenges of IT/business alignment and data quality management. He also sees an industry shift occurring as companies consider "next-generation BI," which he describes as BI designed and developed for -- and by -- a younger generation of technology users.

"We have a generation coming up whose concept of how you interact with a computer comes from gaming. Their concept of how to interact with information is totally different than where my generation comes from," Wells said. "I think that generation will become the lead developers inside companies building BI systems -- and the whole face of BI will change so that it is more dynamic."

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