On the surface, Power BI is an easy tool to use and learn. However, it can quickly become complicated and much of what determines how easy or difficult it is to use will largely be out of your control. We’ll explain the different parts of the system along with considerations that will impact how easy it is for you to learn and start getting value out of this highly versatile tool.
When building Power BI reports there are two major components you will need to learn and each one comes with its own unique set of challenges.
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Understanding the Two Sides of Power BI
The first one is the most obvious, but arguably the easiest to learn. It’s the charts, graphs, and visualizations that people see when opening the report to view data presented in an intuitive and explorable way. The second, is the data modeling and data transformation that happens behind the scenes.
These two parts of Power BI are highly related in that you can’t have visuals that are easy to interact with and present accurate information without a clean and organized data model.
What is a Power BI Data Model?
A Power BI data model is a structured format that typically combines data from various sources, transform that data, and create relationships between different datasets. Modeling serves as the blueprint that defines how different tables, columns, and relationships interact with each other, allowing you to perform analysis and generate reports effectively.
If you’re familiar with the Excel world, you can think of this as the part of taking multiple reports, blending them together into a single table so you can report on them with a pivot table, or use SUMIFS and VLOOKUPS to bring it into a formatted summary.
The components of data models include:
- Tables – The locations where your data lives, often this could be Excel, SQL Databases and online services.
- Columns – Individual fields such as Product ID, Product Name, Product Description.
- Relationships – Defining the commonality between datasets. For example, a sales table may include quantity sold, and product ID sold while the Product Table contains Product ID and Product Description.
A very simple Power BI data model looks like this:
Most data models at larger organizations have dozens of tables across different data sources and schemas.
What Makes Data Modeling Difficult?
The difficulty of data modeling is that many data sources and combinations of data sources are unique to each organization. Even companies that use SAP or Oracle Financials may find that there are a number of tables unique to their implementation that are combined with reports from different sets of accounting or CRM software.
Because of the unique nature of incoming data, it takes experience to understand the best way to transform it to get it into a workable shape and blend together into a single dataset that you can build visuals and reports on. This is the single biggest reason why you can’t just download a Power BI template for financial statements or other common KPIs and plug it into your existing data.
Are Visualizations and Reporting Difficult to Learn?
Adding and setting up visuals in Power BI is easy. Creating beautiful data driven stories is hard. Re-creating Excel based reports isn’t too bad. Making reports that are highly curated and look great takes a significant amount of time to learn and has more in common with graphic design and being an artist than it does traditional business intelligence and design skills required to put together Excel based reports.
The following video gives some insights of simple things you can do to make reports and dashboards look more professional that aren’t that hard to implement. Sometimes simple things make a big difference.
The difficulty of learning design principles will largely depend on how far you want to go with it. The basics are fairly straightforward but people can also take it many levels beyond getting the job done and turn reports into a work of art.
Power BI DAX Formulas and Advanced Features
Part of the Power BI dashboard and report building process revolves around creating custom calculations and KPI’s. Most people will agree that DAX (Data Analysis Expressions) the formula language used in Power BI is one of the most difficult parts of the platform to learn.
We semi-agree with this point of view. There are entire books dedicated to learning and mastering DAX that include topics such as naming variables, nesting formulas, optimizing query execution, and using code to do amazing things that would otherwise be impossible.
However, similar to Excel you can get really far by utilizing a handful of formulas in creative ways. In Excel you will often use VLOOKUP and SUMIF. In Power BI, some of the most common formulas are SUM, FILTER, and CALCULATE.
By focusing on the 20% of functionality that lets you accomplish 80% of your tasks, the learning curve for DAX isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be. Microsoft also includes features like Quick Measures which are drag and drop templates to create common formulas, and AI tools like Power BI Copilot will even write formulas for you.
How Easy Power BI is to Learn Varies by Person
The biggest factor that will influence how easy Power BI is to learn is the past experience of the person learning it. Some people naturally gravitate towards computer formulas, programming, and utilizing software to their full potential. Others are happy to stick with what works to get their job done.
A curious mind combined with a level of familiarity with data concepts, such as querying databases, putting things in tables, primary keys, connecting to different datasets, or even working in Excel, Adobe Illustrator or other graphic design tools will lessen the learning curve.
If you’ve worked in tools like AWS QuickSight, Google Looker, or Tableau the learning curve will be pretty minimal and may of the features available in Power BI could be a welcome change.
Advanced Power BI Users Pick a Specialization
When we talk about expert and advanced level Power BI users people tend to fall into a few different buckets. It’s nearly impossible to become an expert in all things Power BI because every advanced user has to know about a lot of related topics.
Here are some examples:
- Power BI Designers – Experts in data visualization, graphics design packages and visual layouts.
- Power BI Data Modelers – Experts in data engineering, query writing, and query optimization
- Power BI Developers – Experts in writing complex DAX formulas, API connections, and coding custom visuals
As you can see these are just three examples where people can choose to concentrate on different aspects of Power BI and outside of the data visualization world it would be very uncommon for a Graphic Designer to have overlapping job duties with a Software Developer.
The great part of business intelligence and data visualization is that it gives you the opportunity to do both, but most people will naturally skew their interest in one direction or the other.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Power BI?
The length of time it takes to learn Power BI largely depends on your personal experience coming into the platform, how tech savvy you are, and how advanced you want to be. Some people can pickup the main concepts within a day by attending a Microsoft Dashboard in a Day course, it can take others weeks or months if they have a heavy workload in their day job or working with data doesn’t come intuitively to them.
It’s also one thing to have an understanding of how to use Power BI vs becoming a Power BI expert with a depth of knowledge on advanced topics like DAX, custom visualization development and data governance.
Is Power BI Easy to Learn?
In a word, yes. Power BI is easy to learn. In reality, it depends. The basic functionality can be learned in a few days. Intermediate to advanced level topics can take weeks, months or even years to fully master. Because of the variability in datasets, data modeling, and story telling with data it takes a lot of experience to know when to apply a technique to a certain problem. Experience is knowing which button to push when, and goes beyond knowing what each button does when pressed.
Training courses and books can help shorten the period of time it takes to learn Power BI and give you a base of knowledge about the platform, but you’ll only gain experience over an extended period of time to truly understand the why behind different techniques and when to apply them.
Should You Learn Power BI?
If you’re considering learning Power BI and are interested enough to read articles like this one we recommend giving it a try. You can download Power BI Desktop for free and find some introduction videos on YouTube or sign up for a Microsoft class to get started.
Learning Power BI takes time and effort. The only way you will know if you’re interested enough to invest the time in learning Power BI is by giving it a try.
Like learning anything, there’s a level of effort you’ll have to put in and if it’s not something that you’re interested in then it’s going to be more difficult. Power BI, Business Intelligence, and Data Analytics aren’t for everybody and that’s okay.
Power BI is an easy platform to get started with and learn the basics. Like any other skill It takes an investment of time and exposure to different problems to build experience required to become a more advanced user. How advanced of a skillset you need will depend on your businesses’ needs. Being proficient to the level of combining a few spreadsheets together and building a simple report is easy, but building data models blending dozens of tables and working with custom APIs is hard.
To have a better understanding of how hard it is to learn Power BI, talk to people within your organization to understand their requirements. If you’re considering Power BI as a new career path, check out websites like Indeed or LinkedIn in the US to determine what job duties and skillsets are required to become a full time Power BI developer.