Dashboard Design using Microsoft Connect item data for SQL Server Denali

I am presenting at the SQLPass ’24Hop’ ‘Women in Technology‘ event on March 15th 2011. The topic is Dashboard Design and Practice using SSRS, and this blog is focused on a small part of the overall SQLPass presentation. Here, I will talk about some of the design around a dashboard which displays information about the Microsoft Connect cases focused on SQL Server Denali. Before I dive in, this dashboard was produced  as a team effort between myself, who did the data visualisation, and Nic Cain and Aaron Nelson, who bravely got me the data, sanitised it, and served it up for consumption by the dashboard, and also Rob Farley, who helped put us in touch with one another. So I wanted to say ‘Thank you’ to the guys for their help, and if you like it, then please tweet them up to say ‘Thank You’ too 🙂 You’ll find them at Aaron Nelson (Twitter),  Nic Cain (Twitter) and Rob Farley (Twitter). 

Before we begin, here is the dashboard:


Well, what is a dashboard? At first, it simply looks like a set of reports nailed together on a page  However, this misses an important point about dashboards, which is that they give the viewer something which is ‘over and above’ the individual reports give to the data consumer. A dashboard can mean different things to different people. There are a number of different types of dashboard, which are listed here:

Strategic Dashboard – overview of how well the business is performing
Faceted Analytical Display – multi-chart analytical display (Stephen Few’s terminology) This will be discussed in more depth next.
Monitoring Dashboard – this displays reactionary information for review only; this data is often short-term, perhaps a day old or less.

Each dashboard type has got the following elements in common:

  • Dashboards are intended to provide ‘actionability’ in addition to insight; to help the data consumer, to have insight into the presented data.  
  • The reports on the page support a ‘theme’, which is the fundamental business question which is answered by the dashboard.  In other words, what is it that the business need to know, and what is it that they need to act upon? 
  • Further, the dashboard should rest on a fundamental data model, which has data that is common to all of the reports; the reports should not be completely disparate. If this occurs, then the data’s message may become diluted as distractions are added.  
In order to explore the idea of the Faceted Analytical Display, I have used data from Microsoft Connect items, which are focused on SQL Server Denali. This dashboard shows us different perspectives on the numbers, types and statuses of Connect items opened for SQL Server Denali.  In order to understand more, it is possible to select relevant years on the right hand side, in order to show how the data has changed over time.  If you click on the image below, it will take you to the Tableau Public website so that you can have a play for yourself!

Thus, this dashboard type is, in Stephen Few’s terminology, a “faceted analytical display”. Few defines this as a set of interactive charts (primarily graphs and tables) that simultaneously reside on a single screen, each of which presents a somewhat different view of a common dataset, and is used to analyse that information. I recommend that you head over to his site in order to read more about the definitional issues around dashboard, along with practical advice regarding their construction. 

This dashboard isn’t a straightforward ‘Monitoring’ dashboard, because it does allow some analysis. It is also possible to ‘brush’ the data, which means that it is possible to highlight some bars and dashboard elements at the expense of other elements.  There are other considerations in the creation of the dashboard:

Colour – I used a colour-blind palette, so there are no reds or greens. Orange and blue are ‘safe’ perceptually distinct colours. At the foot of the dashboard, the same colours were assigned to Connect call status. So, ‘Fixed’ has the same colour for both ‘Closed’ and ‘Resolved’ connect calls, as this is the same for the other status types.

Bar charts – for representing quantity and for the purposes of reading left-to-right, and for facilitating comparison within dashboard elements. 

Continuous data – the number of Connect items opened at any point is given as a continuous line chart. This line chart is interesting, since it shows that the number of Connect items has increased dramatically since the start of 2011. It’s great that everyone is getting involved by raising Connect items!

I will be interested in your feedback; please leave a comment below!
Jen x

SQLPass 24 hour Women In Technology hop; Why I’ve submitted a session

I’ve decided to submit to the SQLPass 24 hours of women SQL Pass event in March next year.  This was actually a tougher decision, so I thought it might be worth sharing.

First, a bit about me. I used to study Computing Science at the Université Pierre Marie Curie in Paris, which had a 50% split between men and women across the board, and the UNIX sysadmin was female. At university here in Scotland, however, the situation was completely different.  In the Computing Science department, there were four women in my class, and one dropped out; leaving three girls across the whole undergraduate and postgraduate courses.  Then came work: w

orking firstly with Cisco Contact Centre products and SQL Server, I was the only girl working next to 60 male consultants, and probably the only heavily-pregnant woman waddling her way around at a Cisco engineers event ever.

So now you know how I got here, doing BI with Microsoft SQL Server and, if I’m very lucky, Tableau too.  Now,

I never do any ‘girl’ IT events. I have never done a ‘Women in Technology‘ event, or attended a girl geek dinner

The reasons for this are as follows: 

I don’t want to make a ‘thing’ of being a girl, and want to me known for the skills I bring to the table. Being a girl in IT has upsides and downsides, for sure, like most things.

I don’t expect being a girl to give me any advantages.  I personally dislike being picked for things because of the lack of technical women. I want to get picked because of my skills, simple as that. A few weeks ago, I dropped out of recruitment processes because the recruiting company have started on about ‘positive discrimination’. The reason for this is simple: it means that I doubt myself getting the job in the first place. I often suspect some HR director needed more women to tick a box or meet a KPI. If I doubt myself, then my potential colleagues are definitely going to do the same thing. So it’s like a vicious circle, since it means I don’t engage.

As an aside I really don’t mind men swearing in front of me. Really. If you normally curse, go ahead. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable in my presence. I’m Scottish and probably heard most of it before. So, if you want to surprise me, you’ve got to get really creative. 

I don’t expect being a girl to disadvantage me, either. And occasionally it does. As a consultant, customers occasionally would tell my boss that they didn’t want a female techie onsite because I would ‘disturb the equilibrium of an all-male environment’. This has happened to me a few times, without the customer having met me, and discounted my CV without even looking at it. Fortunately, my boss at the time simply said that he would not engage with any companies who adopted that attitude, putting the project at risk. As far as I’m aware, he always won the argument, but it took a lot of courage for him to do that. If you are reading this – and you know who you are – I am immensely grateful for your faith in me.

I can list other disadvantages. I’ve had men refuse to shake my hand on the grounds that I’m a woman who could be ‘ritually unclean’. Other stuff includes more overtly sexual stuff. For example, been asked to sort computers with spicy images all over it. Sat silently working whilst the guys next door are loudly admiring some fruity images that a red top British tabloid newspaper wouldn’t dare publish. Finding a golf score card rating my various physical attributes, or lack of, probably topped the list.  I’ve learned to live with it and it doesn’t bother me any more, although it used to. Like the swearing, I’ve heard most of it before.

I’ve had my work sabotaged and deleted because the individual involved didn’t like reporting to a senior woman; fortunately my customer caught him doing it and it was resolved. Then, the pressure was on me to prove myself, which I did. If you are reading this – and you know who you are – I forgive you. I have grace enough for us both.

If you think that women shouldn’t be in IT, that’s fine; everyone is entitled to an opinion. I do occasionally get comments like this directed to my blog. It may not necessarily mean that I will publish the comment. I work hard to write my blog, and I was hoping that people would read the content rather than get distracted from it. 

Fortunately, I think that most workplaces have ‘policies’ in place now around images in the workplace and so on, which they didn’t seem to do previously. I have noticed this change in the past few years, and it has made things easier for me.
So why do I keep going in IT?
  • The thing is that I love IT and that’s why I keep going. I love Business Intelligence, and Microsoft SQL Server has been my ‘home’ since 1998. With the advent of the new BI, things are coming closer to a tipping point where business users are really starting to get their hands on their own data. I want to be part of that world. 
  • The vast majority of blokes treat me as part of their team, or have done so in the past, have given me the best possible compliment; just taking me as I am, on the basis of what I can offer and knowing the my own personal limits as an individual (not as a girl). The previous examples of poor behaviour aren’t representative of everyone’s views, just a small minority.  For the majority of men I come across, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Why should a small number of people divert me away from something I love? 
  • I’ve been able to combine IT with looking after my son. As a freelancer, I can – and do – work late at night or early in the morning at home, when my child is asleep, so that the job gets delivered. It also means I can work from home on occasion rather than having someone else determine my location, which was why I don’t work directly for consultancy firms anymore (recruiters take note). Depending on the contract, I’ve also managed to sort out my hours so I can do pickup; if this isn’t possible, then I have military planning around childcare for after school care. My child is happy, and does very well at school, and is well-behaved. I couldn’t be a prouder Mummy. 
So, back to the topic: why have I submitted to do the 24 hop PASS event? As I said previously, it was a hard decision. I don’t want to make a thing of being a girl, and almost discounted myself on that it was an exclusive event. There’s a bit of me that is uncomfortable because it is women-only event, and there are men out there who could present much better than I can. It’s not a men/woman thing, there are just simply fantastic presenters out there – male and female. As I said previously, I prefer this to be about skills. I really hope that the SQLPass 24 hour hop event will be every bit as high quality as previous events. We can’t afford for this event to be seen to fail, or the small minority could use this to further their argument. Taking the long view, it’s down to us women to make it succeed. 

If I don’t at least try to showcase my skill set, then nobody will see my skills. If people can see what I can do, then perhaps they will see my skills and work for what I do, and the whole ‘girl’ thing will go away. There are plenty of women in SQL Server who are contribute a lot to the field, and who are way beyond being known  as a woman, but instead, are known deservedly as talented contributors to the field. Hopefully you will be able to hear some of them at the SQLPass event.

We shall see what happens. Perhaps I won’t get picked, but at least I can say that I tried. If I don’t try to show people what I can do, then that is almost validation for the people who think I can’t do it, simply because I won’t. 

Finally, I have some people to thank for their encouragement in putting my name forward. If it hadn’t been for their insights, I wouldn’t have done it. So, I’d like to thank Rob Farley for mentioning the idea in the first place. I’d also like to thank Mark Broadbent for sending me long essays explaining why SQLPass was a great event and that I should grab any opportunity possible to do it. 

So watch this space. I await your comments with interest; the good and the bad! If you would prefer to email me privately, that’s fine. It’s jenstirrup [at] gmail.com and I look forward to hearing from you.

Ada Lovelace Blog: In memory of those who didn’t make it

The Ada Lovelace day is designed to celebrate women’s achievements in science and technology. Amidst all of the celebrations, there should also be pause for those women who didn’t achieve their potential.
One woman whom I hugely admire is Sophie Scholl, a 21 year old Biology student, who was murdered by Nazis in February 1943. Although she is a legend in her native Germany, it’s not clear that she’s well known outside of Germany. By writing this blog, I hope that she will inspire you as well.
Based on her central Christian conscience, Sophie Scholl made her own peaceful protest against Nazi tyranny and the persecution of Jews. Sophie and her brother Hans were key members of a movement known as the ‘White Rose’, which distributed leaflets in Munich in 1943, which opposed the Nazi regime.
The Scholl family had experience of Gestapo attention in their life, due to punishments received by Hans during his membership of the Hitler Youth movement. Sophie would have been well aware of the risks that she was taking. Whilst distributing the sixth series of leaflets, Sophie was captured and questioned by the Gestapo. This peaceful protest led to Sophie’s conviction for treason against the Nazi state, and her subsequent execution by guillotine, at the age of 21.
Sophie is a heroine of the 20th century; her absolute conviction of her beliefs led her to action. Her faith led her to believe that ‘somebody… had to make a start’ against the Nazi regime.  And make a start she did. After her death, the Allied Forces received a smuggled copy of the sixth leaflet, and went on to drop millions of copies of the leaflet all over Germany.
The fact remains that such a young person, living in such a repressing regime as the Nazi regime, really made a difference to the world around her. This contribution wasn’t in science or technology, simply because she was executed before she had the chance to finish her studies. Sophie’s contribution is truly humbling, and her act of sacrifice is probably one of the most significant of the 20th Century.
Amongst all of the shame associated with Germany’s Nazi past, it is important not to forget her sacrifice. And I will leave the last word to Sophie: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”