What data to use? Simple is better

When I first started teaching Power BI, I used a basic Excel file, the Northwind dataset. I liked working with it because:

a) Excel was familiar,

b) it was easy to share with students,

c) the data was simple.

For a while, I felt bad for using this uber-simple dataset. Lots of customers wanted me to use their data when teaching them introductory Power BI. The first time I did use a customer’s data, it was a cross between a train wreck and a cluster fluster. Literally. Here are several problems with using the customer’s data for training (particularly beginners):

  1. The students will quickly become distracted by their numbers. You won’t hold their attention.
  2. You may not be able to access their data easily or readily.
  3. Their data may be confidentiality, and you may incur liability by having access to it.
  4. You will not be able to answer questions because you don’t know/understand their data and data model.

As a trainer, it is very demoralizing to stand in front of people and say, over and over again, “well, I don’t know” or “let’s try it”. It gets old and your students lose their faith quickly. Because they don’t understand Power BI, they can’t discern the differences between the product (and your technical expertise in it) and the meta questions they are asking (which you have no expertise in).

When you use a simple Excel file, you remove a couple of distractors.

  1. Your students will know and have used Excel, so they won’t have any questions about the data source.
  2. You can review the Excel file with them before you get started, so they can see, for themselves, what the source data looks like. This removes any mystery about the data.
  3. You can compare some basic principles in Power BI to steps you can take in Excel. (You have to be careful with this because these comparisons can be overworked, but they can be a good starting point. It’s also a confidence boost for your students, because you can remind them that they already understand how to do complex things in Excel.)

The downside of using a simple Excel file, with very simple data, is that the simplicity can be misleading. Your students may object: “We mostly get our data from databases. Why aren’t you teaching us using that method?” Your answer could be along the lines of “Well, yes I could, but this is easier.” And it is easier, for all the reasons listed above. But it’s far better to say “I don’t want the students to focus on the data. I want them to be able to concentrate all of their attention on the new Power BI skills I am teaching.”

Another upside of using the same dataset consistently is that you can hone your training material, as you figure out how to better teach concepts and skills. I make it a point to regularly review my intro training PBIX file to see if there is anything I can improve upon based on what I have learned recently.

Do not be afraid to use your own datasets. You will be less likely to be flustered by questions you can’t answer. You will be able to continuously improve your training materials which will result in a better experience for your students.

Photo Credit: Christin Hume on Unsplash

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