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Business Intelligence Skills

The Great BI Debate: Tableau or Power BI?

7 min readView all articles
By Chris Dutton
Oct 5, 2021

If there's one thing every analytics or BI professional loves to talk about, it's tools.

Like truck enthusiasts arguing Chevy vs. Ford, you'll often find data scientists and business intelligence pros fiercely defending their favorite tech.

In the BI world, it often comes down to the two biggest players in the game: Power BI & Tableau.

Take one look at Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Analytics & Business Intelligence Platforms, and it's easy to see why Power BI and Tableau command so much attention:

2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant Power BI Tableau

These platforms are in a league of their own in terms of product, strategic vision and ability to execute.

Both are designed to support the entire self-service BI workflow, from prep to presentation. Both are excellent options for complex ETL, data blending, custom calculations, data visualization, and more. Both offer pricing suitable for casual users to large enterprises, and both add serious clout to an analyst's resume.

Before we go any further, let me be clear that the objective of this post is NOT to drill into product features, debate specific strengths and weaknesses, or declare a "winner".

If that's what you're looking for, there are thousands of posts written for that specific purpose, including articles straight from Tableau and Microsoft.

Instead, let's stop treating this like a binary, "A or B" decision.

Power BI and Tableau are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, there are many more similarities than differences between them, and learning BOTH might be the smartest career move you'll ever make.

At Maven, we believe in the importance of focusing on SKILLS, rather than tools.

If you want to become a great analyst, you need to be able to evolve and adapt as the landscape changes. This means diversifying your tools, exploring beyond your comfort zone, and building a powerful, tool-agnostic skill set (ETL, database design, data visualization, etc.).

So instead of sensationalizing this as some sort of head-to-head "battle", I've decided to invite our lead Power BI and Tableau instructors -- Aaron Parry and Dustin Cabral -- to answer a few questions and share their thoughts and experiences using (and teaching) these tools in the real world.

Hopefully these insights will help to guide and inspire your own learning journey!

INTRODUCTION: Who are these guys?

Aaron Parry (AP) is a professional analytics consultant and Power BI expert, with 10+ years in BI and marketing analytics. He's an instructor and coach for aspiring analysts, and has deep experience helping companies develop and implement full-stack BI solutions. Along with BI and analytics, Aaron is passionate about triathlons, outdoor adventures, and spending time with his wife and two kids.

Dustin Cabral (DC) is a professional Tableau developer and data visualization consultant specializing in analytics and BI. He's a featured Tableau author and currently leads the world's largest Tableau User Group. When he isn't working, he's hanging out with his two sons Cal (5) and Finn (1.5), and his wife Becca.

QUESTION #1: When did you start using Power BI/Tableau, and why?

AP: I actually started my career in marketing analytics, building reports and dashboards with Tableau and Tableau Server back in 2014. At the time, I was using SQL to transform and load data into a MySQL database, connecting to those tables, and using Tableau to do some basic joins. As my role expanded, I was looking for a different approach to solve some of the mounting challenges that came with managing and modeling a larger volume of data. I started working with Power BI in early 2016, and immediately fell in love with the feature set.

DC: I started using Tableau about 5 years ago when I was on the merchandising analytics team at Staples Inc. I was a pretty seasoned analyst who used Excel, PowerPoint, SQL Server, and Think-Cell (a ppt add-in that BCG consultants showed us). After complaining for a few years to my wife Becca about the manual reporting I was doing, she recommended Tableau (She used it over at Bose where she was a market analyst). I was blown away by Tableau’s ability to automate and create stunning visuals and haven’t looked back since! If you're interested in the longer story, you can read about it here.

QUESTION #2: What do you think are some of Power BI/Tableau's biggest strengths? What gets you fired up?

AP: Data models, DAX & Power BI Service. One of the main reasons why I started using Power BI is because of its data modeling capabilities. I love that I can ingest raw data from any source, load it to the data model, and create relationships to build out my schema. For me, this has been an invaluable feature over the past 5+ years. As for DAX, it's a fairly simple language to learn but quickly becomes pretty complex - and my inner data geek loves it. DAX is one feature of Power BI that I continue to learn and dig deeper into every day.

Lastly, Power BI Service. It’s how you share and distribute your work with coworkers, colleagues, friends, family, or your pet. Earlier in my career, part of my role included setting up, maintaining, and administering Tableau Server, which was awesome because it provided an opportunity to learn about a totally different (and new to me) set of tools. But as my role evolved, I’ve really liked using a managed service to share and distribute my reports and dashboards.

DC: I’d say Tableau’s has 3 huge strengths:

  1. Accessibility: If you can use Excel, you can use Tableau. The platform is very easy to transition to and is especially friendly for those non-coders of the world (including me).
  2. Layers, Filters & Visuals: The ways that I can cut, manipulate, and visualize data inside a Tableau dashboard is limited only by my imagination – its amazing!
  3. Community: I’ve seen first-hand that the Tableau Community is absolutely one of its biggest strengths, being co-lead of the Boston Tableau User Group. Between the online forums, user groups, the Tableau Conference – you always have someone to help you along your Tableau journey.

QUESTION #3: If you could magically add one new feature or capability to Power BI/Tableau, what would it be?

AP: Similar to Tableau, Power BI does a great job with monthly updates and new feature releases. Some of the feature updates I’d like to see are calculation groups in Power BI Desktop and AI tools made available for Pro users in Service.

DC: Tableau does a great job adding functionality in each of their releases, but I’d say my #1 ask would be SPELLCHECK. I have to police myself relentlessly on that one.

QUESTION #4: What's the coolest or most unusual thing you've built in Power BI/Tableau?

AP: I love projects that allow me to leverage different skill sets. I recently worked on a project where I set up a remote server, installed a gateway to support automated refresh, built a database, and designed a front-end dashboard. For me, it was one project where I was able to use many different technical skills I’d learned over the past years to provide a single, cohesive reporting solution.

DC: HA! I should probably just give a link to my Tableau Public, its full of weird stuff like my Pub Crawler Dashboard (super useful at TC16 in Austin TX) or my Diaper & Bottle Tracking dashboards for my kids. One of my favorites is my National Exoneration dashboard, which was inspired by "Making a Murderer" and is hosted on the National Exoneration website!

FINAL QUESTION: What one piece of advice would you give to someone learning these tools for the first time?

AP: Play, explore, and learn. I’ve found that the best way to learn something is by asking questions, trying to build solutions, failing, and trying again and again and again. I love understanding how things work and think that curiosity and approach to learning is a great recipe for anyone learning Power BI for the first time.

DC: I’d say to learn the tool using something that is important to you – either for work or at home. Make a dashboard about your kids, your finances, or take a project that you normally do in excel/ppt at work and move it over to Tableau. The key is for your first project to engage you so you can see it through and realize the power of the tool!

And that's a wrap! Huge thank you to Aaron and Dustin for taking the time to share their thoughts and experiences.

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Chris Dutton

Chris is an EdTech entrepreneur and best-selling Data Analytics instructor. As Founder and Chief Product Officer at Maven Analytics, his work has been featured by USA Today, Business Insider, Entrepreneur and the New York Times, reaching more than 1,000,000 students around the world.

Chris is an EdTech entrepreneur and best-selling Data Analytics instructor. As Founder and Chief Product Officer at Maven Analytics, his work has been featured by USA Today, Business Insider, Entrepreneur and the New York Times, reaching more than 1,000,000 students around the world.

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