Chapter 1: Overview of Power BI and the PL-300 Exam
First off, welcome to this study guide.
There are many reasons why you may have gotten this book. You may be required by work to get certified in Power BI. You may be looking for a new job or career advancement and realize that technical certifications provide a great means to demonstrate technical mastery. You may just want to learn more about Power BI and realize that a study guide would, by necessity, provide an overview of the entire landscape of Power BI.
In this chapter, we'll be covering the following topics:
- A brief overview of Power BI
- Why get certified?
- PL-300 Analyzing Data with Power BI
A brief overview of Power BI
The BI in Power BI stands for business intelligence. Business intelligence is a field of technology that concerns itself with everything from reporting to using math to predict the future. You may have heard it referred to by some other names, such as data mining or analytics.
Whatever name it is called in your organization, the goal of business intelligence is to distill the massive volume of data gathered and generated by modern businesses into actionable intelligence.
Basing your plans on data-driven decision making will allow you a deeper understanding of not only what you are doing but why. Data-guessing decision making or, worse, we've always done it this way decision making will become anathema to your data culture.
The reason for this is that your competitors will start driving their business decisions based on data analytics. Their businesses will become more intelligent, see market opportunities and trends before you do, and respond to customer needs, wants, and desires faster than you.
Microsoft defines business intelligence this way (https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/what-is-business-intelligence/):
Business intelligence (BI) helps organizations analyze historical and current data, so they can quickly uncover actionable insights for making strategic decisions. Business intelligence tools make this possible by processing large data sets across multiple sources and presenting findings in visual formats that are easy to understand and share.
The key to this is that business intelligence must provide a business with "actionable insights." Which customer segment should we spend our marketing dollars on? What trucks will be off the road next month for scheduled maintenance? How many hours has that pump been running since we put it into production? Who has signed up to bring cupcakes to the bake sale? These questions and many more are answered every hour of every day by businesses and governments around the world.
Power BI for business intelligence
Power BI is Microsoft's premier enterprise data visualization tool for modern businesses. Power BI is also Microsoft's reporting tool for "citizen developers." Power BI is easy enough to use that anyone with a familiarity with Microsoft Excel should be able to understand and use it. Power BI is also powerful enough that it is the primary reporting tool for some of the largest companies in the world.
Power BI allows users to create interactive reports that lead to actionable intelligence for business decision making. Although Power BI is usually thought of as a reporting tool, it's also a complete business intelligence solution. It can, and often is, the entry point for businesses that need to start making data-driven decisions. For some businesses, Power BI provides all the business intelligence they will ever need.
As you will find in this book, Power BI is a collection of services, applications, connectors, and software. These things all work together to turn your data into actionable insights by turning that data into interactive, immersive reports and dashboards. To do these things, Power BI requires data.
Data is at the heart of Power BI. But there is a huge problem in modern businesses…
Data is everywhere. One of the biggest challenges in modern businesses is trying to get an end-to-end view of what is happening now or what has happened in the past. Many businesses have data in disparate locations. Data is spread out, some of it on-premises and some in the cloud. Companies try to keep important data in large relational databases but many times, crucial information is contained in Excel spreadsheets or in a SharePoint document library.
It is often very difficult for modern business users to see a complete picture of what is happening across the entire enterprise.
Power BI provides an overall, holistic view of all data within your business, providing that single pane of glass that shows what is happening everywhere within the business. With Power BI, you can see dashboards and reports that display rich, interactive visualizations and KPIs from data that can be residing both on-premises and in the cloud.
It has been said that data is the new gold. Data is the new oil. Businesses value their data estates as much as their manufacturing equipment or supply chains. Your data is a valuable asset.
As businesses learn to use their data, they also learn the importance of having that data. But data is only useful if it can be turned into actions.
For example, Cerner is a global healthcare technology company. They track more than 80 million patient visits every year. Cerner uses Power BI to help streamline the healthcare process, providing valuable insights in seconds instead of the weeks it used to take.
It's not just used in healthcare. The world of retail is being transformed by access to real-time information. T-Mobile uses Power BI to grant front-line workers access to analytical data so they can do their jobs better. Managers and associates can see activations, scorecards, and traffic numbers as they are generated. This allows managers to immediately allocate resources where needed and associates to see whether they are meeting their goals.
Financial companies are usually at the forefront of modernization. It's not just the giants of finance that are adopting Power BI; Members 1st Credit Union is a small credit union located in rural Pennsylvania. Operating 56 small- to mid-sized branches meant that monthly reports took hundreds of employee hours to collate and analyze. By taking advantage of some of Power BI's data features, such as automated refreshes and drillthrough analysis, Members 1st was able to save more than 10,000 hours a year, which is huge for a small, rural financial institution. (Full disclosure, one of the authors banks at Members 1st.)
As you will see in upcoming chapters, not only can Power BI connect to many different data sources, but Power BI can also combine data sources. Power BI is designed from the ground up to allow a user to easily bring data from multiple sources together in one location. These connections allow you to see data from your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system mixed with data in an Excel spreadsheet and GitHub data.
You can bring together data from hundreds of sources and mix them together to discover new facts, new correlations, and new data points about your business.
Power BI as a solution
Power BI has two main versions: Power BI Desktop and the Power BI service.
Power BI Desktop
Power BI Desktop is a visual data exploration and interactive reporting tool, providing a free-form canvas for drag-and-drop exploration of your data, an extensive library of interactive visualizations, and an authoring experience for ease of report creation for the Power BI service. It produces interactive reports and data models.
Power BI Desktop is a free, downloadable Windows desktop application optimized for the Power BI service. Although it is a Microsoft Office application, sharing much of its user interface with products such as Excel and Word, it does not require or depend on Microsoft Office.
With Power BI Desktop, you get an application that specializes in delivering interactive visualizations for data analysis. With it, you can manipulate and consolidate multiple data sources into one report, allowing you to see data from disparate sources on one pane of glass.
The Power BI service, sometimes referred to as app.powerbi.com, allows you to create beautiful visualizations to tell compelling data stories. It's optimized to build rich, live dashboards that turn data into business insights.
With the Power BI service, you can securely share reports, dashboards, and Power BI apps with other people in your company, or even with trusted vendors and partners. This secure sharing is one of the biggest reasons for the popularity of Power BI.
The Power BI service also allows you to see your data on the go. With the Power BI mobile app, you can securely see your reports and dashboards from anywhere in the world.
So, with all of the benefits of Power BI in mind, let's consider the certification.
Why get certified?
Probably one of the biggest reasons to get certified in Power BI, or any technology really, is to demonstrate to your employer, or a future employer, that you understand and know what it does and how it works. Employers are often looking for people with knowledge and experience. Certification can let you easily demonstrate your knowledge.
Even if you are not looking for a new job, your PL-300 certification will demonstrate your Power BI knowledge to your boss, co-workers, and everyone who sees your LinkedIn profile.
Beyond just demonstrating technical knowledge, another key benefit is that you keep current with all the changes in Power BI. The process of gaining and keeping your PL-300 certification necessitates that you learn about Power BI.
Yes, that previous sentence said keeping your certification. Microsoft announced that starting December 15, 2020, you will have to renew your PL-300 certification every 2 years. We'll cover this more in the next section.
PL-300 Analyzing Data with Microsoft Power BI
The PL-300 Analyzing Data with Microsoft Power BI exam is a Microsoft role-based exam. Starting in 2019, Microsoft announced they were moving to a role-based model of exams and certifications.
Historically, Microsoft exams were centered around a single product, such as Windows Server or Exchange. Microsoft realigned their entire learning and certification process around the idea of roles. Currently, Microsoft has organized exams into 12 different roles. PL-300 is a test for the Data Analyst Associate track.
Because Microsoft wants to keep their certifications relevant and valuable, they target the questions of the exam to the level of the test. The PL-300 exam is targeted at an intermediate level. This means, as you will see in the Knowledge needed to pass section, this test covers a lot of ground.
Microsoft has been testing and certifying people for decades. Over that time, the tests have evolved and become much more complex. Microsoft exams are not just multiple-choice questions. During your exam, you will be presented with different types of questions, depending on what Microsoft considers the best way to make certain you know the answer.
Microsoft does not deduct points for wrong answers. Make certain to answer every question, even if you are uncertain.
PL-300 is about 55 questions long and you are given 3 hours to take the exam. Plan on it taking 3½ hours, as there will be some prep before the test. There is also an optional survey at the end.
You will have to score 700 out of a possible 1,000 points to pass the exam.
Types of questions
Some of the types of questions you might face include the following:
- Multiple choice – These types will more than likely make up much of the PL-300 exam.
- Best answer – Perhaps my least favorite is this type of question. Much like multiple choice, but with the possibility that more than one answer will work and only one of the answers is "best."
- Build list – These questions present you with a scenario, then a list of steps that can be used to solve the scenario. You drag the steps from one side of the screen to the other and place them in the correct order. Usually, not all of the presented steps are part of the solution. Do not worry if you have steps left over.
- Drag and drop – Much like the build list type, with drag and drop you will be presented with a scenario and a series of processes or technologies. You match the process or technology to an answer by dragging it from the list to where it matches. As with the build list, Microsoft often provides more answers than needed. You may see this in the DAX section, where you will have to drag DAX commands into the appropriate place in the script.
- Active screen – This type of question will present you with a scenario part of a user interface. You must complete actions to achieve the desired outcome as specified by the scenario. You may see this type of question during the administration part of the exam. You may be asked to make a selection in the Power BI admin user interface.
Knowledge needed to pass
Microsoft publishes a list of topics covered by the PL-300 exam, and what percentage of the overall grade each topic will be worth. As you are going through the list, you may notice that it tracks with the layout of this book. This was intentional. If Microsoft is going to provide us with an outline, we are more than pleased to use it.
Here is the current list of exam topics and what percentage of your overall grade they are worth:
- Prepare the Data (20-25%)
- Model the Data (25-30%)
- Visualize the Data (20-25%)
- Analyze the Data (10-15%)
- Deploy and Maintain Deliverables (10-15%)
You may notice from the table of contents that this book is broken down into sections that follow these topics in this order. That was intentional.
Microsoft has decided to make most of their role-based and specialty certifications valid for 2 years from the date of achievement. Six months before your certification expires, Microsoft will provide a link on your Certification Dashboard (https://aka.ms/CertDashboard) for you to take an assessment. Passing the assessment on Microsoft Learn is the only way to renew a certification. Renewing your certification will then become an annual requirement.
You will also receive an email telling you it's time to renew.
This process ensures that you, and everyone else with the PL-300 certification, is up to date with all the changes in Power BI. As Power BI can change radically within a year, this is a good thing. The fact that renewal is free is amazing.
The best part is that you can retake the renewal test as many times as you need. You must pass it before your certification expires, but you have 6 months, unlimited retakes, and access to the internet while taking the renewal.
If you do not pass your renewal assessment, then you must pay for and pass the PL-300 exam again.
Strategies to get a passing grade
So, now we know what's on the test, let's talk about how to prepare to take the test. If you search the internet, you will find many slightly different strategies for studying for and passing Microsoft certification exams:
- Set a date – The most important step is the first one. If you set a date, it allows you to work backward from that date to plan your studying. Some people even go as far as to purchase their test voucher for a date in the future, thus committing them to that data.
- Buy a nice study guide – Might I recommend this one?
- Get hands-on – Most of the test is centered around Power BI Desktop, a free-to-use application; no license is required. You can download Power BI Desktop from https://powerbi.com or, as I prefer to do, install it from the Microsoft Store. The Microsoft Store version will get the monthly updates automatically.
- Learn the technology – This study guide is great, but nothing is better than getting hands-on with the technology. Create reports for your work, for yourself, and for your friends.
- Learn the vocabulary – Knowing what things are called will help immensely with the test. Many times, you can eliminate one or two answers from a multiple-choice question just by knowing the terminology.
- Know what to expect (again, a nice study guide is a good idea) – Look at the table of contents for this book. Review the previous Knowledge needed to pass section. Make sure you have at least a passing familiarity with each subheading.
Do not stress out! Power BI is intuitive and fun. Plus, Microsoft does not put a record of failed attempts on your transcript.
In this chapter, we covered the basics of why Power BI is a great reporting tool. We also went over Microsoft certifications, what they are, why they're great, and what's on the one you will be studying for. We also reviewed the types of questions asked and the topics that will be covered in this exam.
In the next chapter, we will dive right into what will be on the exam. As with most reporting things, we start with data. Power BI is great at aggregating data from disparate sources. We will cover the connection to those sources and how to organize your data for better reporting.
- What does the "BI" in Power BI stand for?
- Business information
- Bidirectional information
- Business intelligence
- Big industry
- The Power BI service allows you to:
- Download software allowing you to explore data and create reports.
- Create spreadsheets that calculate values based on formulas.
- Author presentations using the slideshow concept.
- Share reports, dashboards, and apps with other users.
- How often must Microsoft certifications be renewed?
- Never, they last forever.
- Every 6 months.
- Every 2 years.
- Every 4 years.