underscored data course
CNN  — 

Microsoft has some seriously powerful tools for data management, and they’re not as scary as they might seem. We learned this ourselves during our hands-on with the Complete Big Data & Power BI Bundle. Statistics students, business hopefuls and personal finance enthusiasts, this one’s for you.

The bundle, priced at $39.99 on store.cnn.com, aims to familiarize you with some of the biggest players in the Microsoft arsenal of database management, namely Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel and Power BI. Over five courses, or about 30 hours of content, you’ll be taken through the ins and outs of these programs via practical projects and frequent exercises. Your instructors are Deborah Ashby, a certified IT trainer, and Alan Murray, an Excel instructor and consultant. Together, they divulge and demystify the fundamentals of each program, both simple and complex.

If we’ve piqued your interest, keep reading for a look into our hands-on experience.

Here’s how these courses work

The courses in this bundle range from the very simple to the very advanced. Overall, it’s structured for people who want to get serious about data management and visualization, including those who want to manage their personal finances or track their small-business budget. As such, you don’t have to be a beginner to gain a ton of valuable experience from this course. But if you’re just starting out, the introductory lessons will give you a great foothold in your program of choice.

There’s so much to love about these courses. For one thing, each comes with files you can use to follow along with the instructor or practice techniques. For example, the Microsoft Access course comes with a corresponding file for just about every lesson. And throughout every course are exercises you can try out in said files. On top of that, the instructors do a great job of putting program functions into understandable terms, even if they’re very complex. This is in large part because you’ll be working on realistic financial and statistical projects.

And once you’ve purchased this bundle, it’s yours for life. You can access it 24/7 on just about any device that can connect to the internet, be it a mobile device or computer.

Database management with Microsoft Access


There are two Access courses in this bundle: a course for beginners and a more advanced one. Both include files you can download to follow along, check that you’re on the right track and perform exercises. And both are led by Deborah Ashby.

During the first, our instructor, Ashby — who goes by Deb in the course — opens with an overview of what we’re about to cover. She emphasizes following along in order, which we’d also recommend. There’s a fair bit of jargon in the later lessons. The early lessons consist of the absolute basics, such as exploring the user interface and creating files for the first time. (Ultimately, we’ll be designing a database for international vacation and tour destinations.)

Soon, we dive into creating the basic building blocks of a database, like tables, fields and forms. Later, we’re introduced to vital functions like queries and expressions as well as reports for summarizing and presenting data. Every step of the way, Deb keeps us on track with realistic examples and succinct explanations.

The more advanced course follows the same pattern, except we work on a number of samples instead of our vacation database. We go over a host of functions from macros and events to more advanced forms and queries. Here, Deb even delves into coding Visual Basic for Applications, the very language Access runs on.

Every step of the way, our instructor doesn’t just teach the steps, she explains them conceptually, providing examples along the way. Understanding how a function works and why it’s useful went a long way in our learning. Along with frequent exercises to test our knowledge and a set of files to follow along, it’s clear she’s been trained to teach the content.

Powerful techniques and tools with Microsoft Excel


Don’t fear the word “advanced” in the first Microsoft Excel lesson. After some introduction and a course synopsis, Deb starts things nice and easy with basic functions. These include things like sums and averages as well as how to access a bank of all the possible functions you can use in Excel.

She continues to cover more and more complex functions, from date and time to logic (think “if” and “or” statements) to statistics. There’s even a whole section on personal finance and calculating interest. Of course, you can follow along with the included files to see these functions firsthand and practice with them too.

The final sections of the Excel course primarily cover tables, data analysis and data presentation. Overall, Deb focuses on techniques for concentrating your data into an understandable format and analyzing it. She makes easy work of understanding these vital Excel assets. Likewise, she covers a variety of charts and graphs to present your data. By the end of the course, you should be ready to start graphing data of your own.

The next lesson involving Excel is taught by Alan Murray. He aims to illuminate some powerful features that are built into Excel: Power Query and Power Pivot. Both are great for working with huge datasets, with built-in tools that would otherwise have to be painstakingly written as formulas or otherwise set up. Plus, Alan covers DAX, the language of Power Pivot that is also loaded with formulas that make quick work of big tasks.

Like Deborah, Alan not only walks us through every technique but helps us understand how they are helping us. He dedicates a video lesson to simply explaining what each feature is and why one would use it. With this foundation in place, he goes on to explore the basics of these features.

At the beginning of these lessons, he helps us understand the purposes of buttons, settings and important minutiae of the interface that we would have otherwise overlooked. Only once this understanding is established do we learn, say, common Power Query transformations or how to create Relationships in Power Pivot.

Overall, the lessons in both Excel courses truly build a strong foundation in one’s understanding. These instructors are interested in fostering expertise, not just rigid knowledge of specific commands and functions. And the included files and exercises certainly help you test your knowledge and keep up with what the instructors are teaching.

User-friendly business intelligence with Power BI

Like the beginners Access course, this Power BI course is for the absolute novice. Taught by Alan Murray, we’re first shown how to install the program and given a tour of the user interface. Only after this, and some summary of Power BI’s most common uses, do we dive into the nitty-gritty.

Alan structures the course logically, beginning with importing data, then organizing and calculating and, finally, designing and visualizing reports. He even integrates elements of Power Query, Power Pivot and DAX. As usual, this course is well organized, emphasizing understanding of both the steps and the reasons for them. In the end, Alan walks us through calculating and creating reports on revenue and financial data of a fictional company.

One of our favorite parts of this course is the section on adding visualizations to your report. Alan covers graphics from simple summary cards to bar graphs, maps and matrices. In each lesson, he makes it clear why these graphs and techniques are useful and when you should employ them. And he does so in the concrete context of a business finance project.

Bottom line

This course really blew us away — it’s just so practical and approachable. And, along with excellent instructors and exercises, it doesn’t take long for the lessons to stick.

Jump into the Complete Big Data & Power BI Bundle ($39.99; store.cnn.com) to get the most out of Microsoft’s data management tools.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.