CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, FCIPS, I.S.P., ITCP, MVP, DF/NPA, CNP
Respected Author and Expert on Information Delivery and Business Intelligence and Enterprise Reporting Products
This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Neil Fitzgerald.
Neil Fitzgerald has more than nine years experience working with information delivery, business intelligence, and enterprise reporting products. He has combined this experience with his Bachelor of Computer Science degree from Queen’s University of Kingston, Canada, and his MBA from the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, to help provide information solutions to Fortune 500 companies across North America. Neil is currently based in New York City and helps Large and Small clients alike to understand the potential of Business Intelligence through the Crystal suite of products.
His latest book credit, “Special Edition using Crystal Reports 10” – is a guide to using the Business Objects’ Crystal suite of products (Crystal Reports, Crystal Enterprise and Crystal Analysis) and includes content creation, collection, and analysis of information and distribution through currently available means. His previous publications and contributions have included “Teach Yourself Crystal Reports in 24 hours” and “Special Edition, Using Crystal Enterprise 8.5”.
Q: Neil, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us.
A: My pleasure.
Q: Give us a life history, what triggered your interest in computers, and describe your career and the decisions made to reach your current position.
A: I have been involved with computers in some shape or form since my Father purchased a Personal Computer back in the mid to late 80s. I was remember being impressed at that time with the breadth and power of applications available including Lotus 1-2-3, dbase III, DOS and of course Flight Simulator and other games. From that nascent interest and leading up to my selection of computer science as my undergraduate focus at Queen’s university, I developed the idea that the computer industry was one in which I might be able to make an interesting living. Since graduation and with a 2 year hiatus for my MBA, I have been working with information in some shape or form ever since.
Q: You have been working in the area of information delivery and business intelligence for over eight years, please share your three most surprising experiences.
A: 1)) Speed of BI product evolution – In the 6+ years I have worked with Business Objects (previously Crystal Decisions) and through almost 4 versions of the product suite, it is impressive to me how fast the product development teams both at Business Objects and in greater market react to their client’s evolving requirements. Recent developments in enterprise scalability and performance management functionality provide testimony to these ongoing developments.
2) Client’s use of custom Business Intelligence systems for competitive advantage – Despite the rapid evolution of the products just mentioned, I have also recognized that many large firms look to use the “off the shelf” BI products as leaping point for building their own custom BI solutions. There are a few top notch value-add consulting firms (some referenced at usingcrystal.com that make their revenue by integrating open BI software like Crystal Enterprise into other enterprise software like Application Servers, custom security systems, personalization engines, auditing mechanisms and/or archiving utilities.
3) Diversity of BI tools; Lack of Standards – Although there is definitely an ongoing consolidation in the business intelligence marketplace (See recent merger of #2 and #3 players, Crystal Decisions and Business Objects – and also of Hyperion and Brio), most large clients still have not moved to a complete enterprise standard. This bodes well for consultants who make their play on the right tools and products and can offer value-add migration services.
Q: Can you share a humorous story with us?
A: 1) Having worked with sales teams as part of my pre-sales consulting role in the last few years, I have definitely come across some interesting characters and situations. A couple of the most notable situations involve different Sales Managers at different times. The first used to regularly nod off during client meetings and the second actually used to make personnel recommendations to our clients as an attempt to further his negotiations. Needless to say, neither of these characters stayed very long with our company but it goes to show that working in sales definitely provides regular comic relief and/or disbelief.
Q: Can you give us four real-world case studies, where the Crystal suite of products has provided effective solutions?
A: Case1: Several world-leading Financial Services’ Firms handle their massive nightly batch reporting requirements (e.g. 100,000 nightly reports) using Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise and distribute those in Crystal Reports, Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Excel formats.
Case 2: Other Financial Services firms use the Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise .NET and Java SDKs to provide portfolio analysis and reporting to tens of thousands of individual and institutional investors through custom built portals and applications with custom developed interfaces and value-add features.
Case 3: Thousands of Application Developers embed Crystal Reports functionality in their custom homegrown applications and distribute access to them to their clients. As their applications become increasingly successful, they upgrade the reporting engine back-end from the Crystal Report’s components to the Crystal Enterprise servers and provide additional functionality as appropriate – user scheduling, user personalization, ad hoc reporting, row and column level security, auditing and archiving.
Case 4: Small Business Owners use Crystal Reports as a Data Query and Analysis tools against their sales, orders, customer and financial databases to help them run their business effectively.
Q: Provide an overview of your latest book, “Special Edition, Using Crystal Reports 10”. What makes this book so valuable and why would you recommend it as a necessary addition to one’s reference library?
A: Special Edition Using Crystal Reports is a reference guide designed to provide hands-on experience with the latest release of the product suite. The latest version of the Crystal Reporting Suite, delivers vast enhancements that drive upgrades from licensees who'll seek a reference to help them migrate. The book provides unique and valuable real-world perspectives on implementations and practical usage tips on the Crystal Reports product and extended Crystal and Business Objects product families (Crystal Enterprise and Crystal Analysis) and supporting SDKs (Java and .NET/COM).
The book includes content, tutorials and samples for reporting within the Microsoft Visual Studio.NET environment, against the SAP Business Information Warehouse and all standard relational and OLAP databases, XML, javabeans, web logs, COM objects and .NET assemblies. New content on report distribution, and integration into the secured managed reporting solution known as Crystal Enterprise 10, is also now included in this definitive user guide.
Q: Please provide some tips from the book.
A: 1) Broad Data Source Connectivity. While people may be exaggerating when they suggest that Crystal Reports can report off everything except smoke signals, it can report off and add value to a broad variety of data sources many people don’t think about. In addition to all the major relational databases, it can also report off Excel, Access, free-form SQL, Web logs, many OLAP cubes, XML, Java classes, Web Services and .NET/COM objects.
2) Performance Optimization. In the most recent versions of the product (10 and above), Crystal Reports provides a breakdown of report performance estimates to enable you to optimize report generation and SQL performance.
3) SQL Commands. The current version of Crystal Reports enables report designers to specify free-form SQL that can be passed into the selected database for optimal performance and increased flexibility. This enables developers and report designers to optimize their SQL in an external Profiling or Planning tool and then using that optimized SQL as a data source input for Crystal Reports.
4) SQL Expressions versus Formulas:
[Note: Reference Usingcrystal.com web site for updated list of tips and samples]
A: Introduction to a publisher through a colleague and a mutual interest in getting the word out on the world’s de facto reporting standard.
Q: List the best resources for technology and business professionals.
A: Here are some of my favorites:
1) Magazine - Business 2.0
Q: What future books can we expect from you?
A: A Crystal Reports book based on the new Business Objects’ version XI product stack which is based primarily on the classic Crystal Enterprise product line should be released shortly after the version 11 product is released early in 2005. After that, we will have to see what the market and the publisher are interested in and where I have expertise to share – perhaps a guide to evaluating Business Intelligence vendors and tools.
Q: What do you consider to be the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: 1) BI Standardization for larger companies. A thorough evaluation matrix should be created with the potential use of a BI consultant who can evaluate both your business and IT requirements and current status. Using interviews, surveys, determining the different types of costs and your specific requirements will enable your organization to make a decision that will optimally fit your group.
2) Custom implementation emphasizing personalization, custom UIs and differentiated application functionality to enable competitive advantage for BI clients – and their clients. Increasingly, firms are moving towards the use of custom BI applications to provide differentiation from their competition and I recommend finding and leveraging experts who have completed such implementations to expedite the process and minimize costs.
3) The pushing of BI functionality towards operational employees. Business Intelligence is not just for the executive suite and analyst communities anymore. Increasing numbers of an organization’s employees, customers and suppliers are accessing corporate information through web-based extranets/intranets and/or through wireless devices. This information democratization is an opportunity for potential BI clients and consultants.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: IBM Laptop with Windows XP; Desktop running SUSE Linux; WiFi network at home
Q: What drives you to do what you do?
A: Challenging work opportunities, interesting technical and business oriented colleagues and exposure to world-leading business intelligence technology.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Considering my background in business intelligence, I would likely ask questions that would enable the readers to understand how they might be able to get involved in business intelligence and what tools/products they might consider for existing projects:
Q1: As a developer, could I use Crystal Reports alone to design and distribute reports within my custom java or .net applications? Where would I use Crystal Enterprise?
Q2: As a technical professional interested in Business Intelligence (BI), what are the different ways to get involved from a career perspective?
Q: Neil, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.
A: Again, my pleasure and make sure to check out two web sites: www.usingcrystal.com for updated tips and real-world examples on Crystal Reports and related products; and businessobjects.com/products/dev_zone/ for a free 30 day evaluation copy of Crystal Reports.