Farmer a Fairy Godmother of Business Intelligence Solutions
June 18, 2010
Once upon a time there was Donald Farmer, a business intelligence program manager, who loved doing imaginative things with technology and showing customers that with PowerPivot they can use common programs like Excel to produce uncommon results.

Editor's note: This is the final installment in Ten Behind Office 2010, a series about employees behind some of the new and updated features in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

REDMOND, Wash. — June 18, 2010 — The day Donald Farmer flew onto the stage wearing fairy wings and carrying a magic wand, his status as a keynote speaker approached rock star proportions.

Donald Farmer of the Business Intelligence management team talks about how the new PowerPivot feature in Excel 2010 brings vast analytical power to millions of business users.

Farmer donned the fairy godmother outfit at the 2008 Professional Association for the SQL Server (PASS) conference. As he did, Ted Kummert – who was then the corporate vice president of Data and Storage Platform Division – read a fairy tale about one of SQL Server 2008’s most popular features: PowerPivot.

Recalls Farmer, a principal program manager of the SQL Server Business Intelligence management team: “We’ve never done that sort of thing at Microsoft before, and it was my way of trying to say I want to be a bit more creative about what we do and I also want to communicate with customers in different ways.”

Farmer has worked on all sorts of business intelligence products within SQL Server. He’s also one of the people responsible for PowerPivot, the supercharged Excel 2010 and SharePoint add-in.

PowerPivot is a tool that enables business users to analyze and share large volumes of data, while using familiar programs such as Microsoft Excel.

A native Scotsman, Farmer has worked at jobs ranging from fish farmer to desktop publisher. The common denominator in all of his professional pursuits has been data and analytics. Although he enjoys the technical aspects of working in business intelligence, he tries to wear his technical skills “as lightly as possible so I can focus on business problems and business issues.”

“I enjoy the technology, don’t get me wrong,” Farmer says. “But I always want to – what’s that phrase? Keep your eyes on the prize? The prize for me is solving real-world business problems, not creating technology for its own sake. I’m interested in what you can do with it. I see it as an intellectual engine that will enable you to do things you could never do before.”

Farmer took some time from solving those problems to answer a few questions for Microsoft News Center.

News Center: What can PowerPivot do for people?

Farmer: Today’s business users are limited to what they can do with business intelligence because they have a great reliance on highly skilled teams driven by IT departments, typically. This limits the business users’ flexibility. But business users do have a lot of skills and tools like Excel, for example, where they know how to do some analytics. PowerPivot enables them to use those skills in Excel, because it’s an Excel add-in, to develop their own analytics solutions which are actually of very similar quality to what IT would build for them. We call this managed self-service. You build it yourself, but you’re still within the insight and oversight of the IT department.

News Center: What are some cool applications you’ve seen users come up with using PowerPivot?

Farmer: I think my favorite application was something done by one of our launch partners, Mediterranean Shipping Co. S.A. They’re a freight company, and they move containers all around the world on these huge container ships. They wanted to be able to analyze their data about the goods and ships moving around the world in the context of public information; for example, data that’s published by U.S. Customs. They’d spent three months working on it, without much success. With PowerPivot they were able to do it in three hours, and do it themselves without having to go through an IT department to ask for the additional skills or additional resources. That’s kind of the power of PowerPivot – if a business user knows what they want to do, they can do it very, very easily.

News Center: What is it about PowerPivot that makes this possible in three hours instead of three months?

Farmer: Well, there’re two things that I think are really important. One is the technology behind the tool. We have this business intelligence engine that is tremendously powerful. You can get into Excel and bring hundreds of millions of rows of data. Previously Excel was limited to, say, 1 million rows of data. Excel understands relationships between data, and you can do hookups and complex calculations. On the other hand, it’s just Excel, so a business user can sit down and literally in a couple of hours playing with it they will be doing things they were never able to do before. It’s a combination of familiarity and really advanced technology behind it that gives it power and flexibility.

We were really fortunate with the team that developed PowerPivot. For 10 years, Analysis Services had been building market-leading traditional BI tools, so they really understood the technical challenges and requirements. But they are also the most customer-focused team I have ever met. Many of the team members are stars to the community – and not just the team leaders, but developers, testers and junior PMs. This deep community connection, combined with technical skill, really helped us to get this right first time.

News Center: Do you ever use PowerPivot for anything fun?

Farmer: I know some people that use it to analyze football scores, but I’m not that into sports. I have been analyzing land transactions in 16th-century Scotland using PowerPivot as a way of understanding changes in patterns of behavior after drought and famine in the 16th and 17th centuries.

News Center: How is there room for all of this in your brain?

Farmer: Um, it kind of spills out from time to time into random conversations.

News Center: What else do you like to do when you’re not working?

Farmer: Am I ever not working? When I’m not working I’m thinking about work. [Laughs.] Not really. When I’m not working, I do a lot of work in my garden. I have a big, wild garden which we use as a little miniature nature reserve in Woodinville, so I love that. I work with my wife on art projects, and I do a lot of photography. I travel a lot for work so I get a lot of opportunity to take photographs. And I read a lot.

News Center: Are you originally from Scotland? When did you move to Redmond?

Donald Farmer, a principal program manager of the SQL Server Business Intelligence management team.
Donald Farmer, a principal program manager of the SQL Server Business Intelligence management team.
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Farmer: We moved here in 2001, and I’d lived in Scotland apart from short times all my life. It was a big move for us to come here. My wife had never been to America until she got the one-way ticket when I got the job at Microsoft, so that was kind of dramatic for us. We were very much part of the Scottish culture and background.

News Center: Did you experience any culture shock when you got here?

Farmer: The biggest was the first time we went to the supermarket and they asked us paper or plastic and we thought that was how they wanted us to pay. We were standing there with credit cards and dollars saying, “What do we do?” And there are lots of small things, like try to buy a kettle in America – it’s almost impossible.

I also miss history and archeology, which were my great passions. That’s something we don’t really get here. I miss the castles, and I miss the symbolic standing stones that were so much a part of our life when we were there.

News Center: What do you like about working at Microsoft?

Farmer: I’m in one of the world’s largest companies in one of its fastest growing areas with tens and thousands of customers and I still feel like I’m working at a startup. I love that energy. I still come in in the morning thinking, “How am I going to change the world?” It’s pretty cool to have that.

News Center: What kind of work environment do you do best in?

Farmer: I need an environment where I can be flexible. There are days that I just need to sit at my desk and be extremely intense on what I’m doing. There’re other days that I just need to be able to get up and go for a walk and look at the art – Microsoft has got a wonderful, large collection. If I need to see people, I need to be able to wander around the corridors and talk to smart people, and if I want to be on my own, I need to be able to close the door.

Microsoft is really unique for giving you that environment. It’s one of the great things about working here – you can work the way you need to work to be successful.

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