November 23, 2016

Unplugged: What I learned about people and technology while writing QViewer

This post is not about BI technology or vendors or data analysis. "Unplugged" is a new kind of articles in this blog. It's my personal observations with a bit of philosophical contemplation, if you will. Today I'm writing about what I've learned while developing and selling QViewer -- a side project started as a "quick and dirty" tool for personal use which then became an interesting business experiment that taught me a few new things about people and technology:

You can make and sell things as your side project. It's doable. I remember that somewhat awkward feeling when I received first ever payment for software that I made myself. It was very unusual. I had experience of selling enterprise software with a 6-digit price tag, but that was someone else's business. Getting your own first sale in a $50 range was no less exciting if not more.

People in general are good. Once you start selling software you interact with people all over the world. And it turns out that people are generally good around the globe. I was surprised how many very grateful and positive people there is. Probably it's the most unexpected and gratifying outcome of the whole project.

Some people cheat with licenses. Despite the fact that the cheapest QViewer license costs less than a dinner for two, and, unlike the dinner, is acquired forever -- they still cheat. I understand it's a part of the human nature -- feeling frustration and pity when someone steals from you and at the same time enjoying the benefits of stealing from someone else even if it's just pocket money. People are complicated animals. So I'm not saying anything about the people that cheat. I'm deeply content that the majority is honest. The humanity definitely has a chance to survive :)

Some people are strange. No need to deal with them. After all, doing business is a two-way street. I remember one person demanded a sales presentation, a webex demonstration and sending him a detailed commercial proposal for QViewer because he and "his guys" wanted to evaluate whether it's worth spending couple hundred dollars. I replied that I'm ready to answer any specific questions, and offered to try the free QViewer to get an idea about the product. I've never heard from him again.

95% of technical support time is spent on 5% of customers. Some people are just like that -- they don't read instructions, forget things, don't check spam folders before complaining that their key didn't arrive, can't figure out what instance of QViewer they're launching, etc. It's OK, they just need more help. After all, adults are just grown up kids.

User recommendations is the best advertisement. So far I've spent exactly $0 for advertising QViewer. Yet, it's quite popular, mostly because of user recommendations. For me it was a good example of what it looks like when you made something useful. If people recommend it to each other -- you're on the right path.

1 out 10 orders never paid. Spontaneous decisions, no problem.

Payment reminders work. Sometimes, your invoice sent to a customer may be buried in his/her email box under a pile of unread messages. Sending a friendly reminder once might help. Just once, that's enough for those who are really looking to buy.

Even small side projects can be extremely good for career opportunities. Needless to say, mentioning QViewer in my CV helped me tremendously in finding new employers (when I looked for them). I would argue that the salary increase it enabled has earned me more than selling QViewer licenses alone.

Developer tools are amazing nowadays. I wrote my first program in 1986. It was in BASIC on a military-grade DEC-type computer. In 90s I wrote programs in C++, Pascal and Assembly. Between 1998 and 2011 I didn't write a single line of code (except some Excel macros). Boy, how things have changed since then. When I started writing QViewer in 2012 I was totally fascinated with the capabilities of Visual Studio and C#. Later I fell in love with F# but that's a different story. And thanks God we have StackOverflow. Writing software has never been easier.

Obfuscate and protect your software. Sooner or later someone will try to disassemble your software for a purpose that might be disappointing for you. There is no absolute protection, but raising the barrier can significantly complicate the task. Once I interviewed a developer for EasyMorph. Trying to impress me, the guy told me that he also wrote a QVD viewer. However, after not answering a few questions about the QVD format he quickly admitted that he just disassembled and repacked some components of QViewer. I learned a lesson that day.

Writing and selling software changed my perception of the software industry. I understood what it takes to create it. I stopped using any pirated programs. Now I use only licensed software, even if it's rather expensive (I'm looking at you, Microsoft), and I always donate when a program is available for free but donations are accepted.

November 21, 2016

A simple join test that many fail

From time to time I happen to interview BI developers and I noticed that many of them don't understand how joins work. Probably, because most of the time they used to work with normalized data in transactional systems where primary keys always exist and defined by database design. In order to do figure out if the candidate has basic understanding of joins I ask him/her to answer the question below (without executing any actual query):

Hint: the correct answer is not 4. If you're unsure whether your answer is correct see this short video where both tables are joined using EasyMorph:, or check our this SQLFiddle:!9/60011/11/0

Not understanding joins sooner or later leads to uncontrolled data duplication in cases where joined tables are denormalized, which is a frequent cause of miscalculations in analytical applications.

UPDATE: Added a link to SQLFiddle (kudos to Devon Guerro).

November 15, 2016

Now we know where Tableau is heading. Where is Qlik going?

During the recent conference Tableau has unveiled its three-year roadmap. Briefly, it includes:
  • High-performance in-memory engine based on Hyper (in the timeframe that I predicted earlier)
  • Enhanced data preparation capabilities (Project Maestro)
  • Built-in data governance
  • Pro-active automatically designed visualizations
  • Tableau Server for Linux
The most interesting are the first two. Once implemented, they will significantly reduce the gap with Qlik in terms of performance and versatility. I wouldn't expect the first version of Tabeau's in-memory engine to be as performant and scalable as Qlik's QIX (let's not dismiss almost 20 years of tuning and optimizations), however I would predict that for small and medium deployments performance will not be an issue. Even if we assume that QIX would still be 2-3 times faster than Tableau Hyper -- performance won't be a decision-critical factor anymore.

Project Maestro is another inevitable move from Tableau people who now realize that self-service data analysis requires self-service data transformation. Tableau is still reluctant building a fully-featured ETL for business users like EasyMorph, however once Project Maestro is implemented the advantage of having built-in ETL capabilities in Qlik would be diminished (but not dismissed).

Now, when Tableau has clear advantage on the data visualization side and stops being a fancy add-on to databases but becomes more and more a self-contained analytical platform, the question is -- where is Qlik going?

QlikView is not actively developed anymore. All the recent developments on the Qlik Sense side in 90% cases are focused on expanding API capabilities, while its data visualization capabilities remain frugal. Honestly, I don't understand this development logic. I would understand it, if Qlik's product strategy assumed heavy reliance on 3rd party tools for decent data visualization and analysis. However so far I struggle to see any high-quality 3rd party tools built on top of Qlik Sense API that can amend the built-in visualizations. Qlik Market might have a few interesting extensions, but they're typically very specialized. Qlik Branch lacks high-quality extensions and is full of no longer supported experimental projects. Qlik itself doesn't promote any 3rd party tools and its product roadmap is yet to be seen.

So where is Qlik going?