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SQL to Sigma – 5 Tips for Getting Started

So, you’re a spreadsheet lover contemplating Sigma for your data analytics needs. You’ve come to the right place! Sigma provides users in marketing, finance, and sales with a variety of benefits other BI tools and traditional spreadsheets (e.g. Excel and Google Sheets) simply can’t, namely:

  1. True self-service: Independently track the metrics you need and respond to fluctuations in real-time, without having to know code or wait for someone else.
  2. Fast insights: Process billions of rows of data from across dozens of sources in seconds. Then drill into as much detail as you need in just a few clicks.
  3. Reuse and repurpose: Build reports once in Sigma, and the data automatically updates. You can share, duplicate, and repurpose analyses without worrying about disturbing others’ work.

Sounds amazing, right? If you’re wondering how to get started, you’re not alone. We’ve worked with leading companies like E.W. Scripps, Volta Charging, and Clover Networks to help them take advantage of Sigma’s intuitive spreadsheet-like interface.

To help you make the transition, here are 5 key differences between Sigma and the traditional spreadsheet, why they matter, and how they work. Let’s dig in!

1. Your Data Is Always Live and Up-to-date

One of the many problems with exporting data to a traditional spreadsheet is that it’s out-of-date the second you create it, causing two problems:

  1. Teams are left working with different, siloed data sets — some more recent than others.
  2. Teams must manually recreate or update any recurring or frequently requested reports, or risk making critical decisions based on stale and likely inaccurate insights

In contrast, Sigma pulls live data directly from your company’s cloud data warehouse, which serves as the single source of truth for your business. Data from dozens of sources is automatically updated and reflected in Sigma in real-time, so you can rest assured that you’re always making decisions based on accurate, up-to-the-minute insights.

Better yet, reports can be built just once and automatically stay updated, allowing teams to reclaim hours of valuable time every month. Teams can share these reports with colleagues to duplicate or repurpose analysis without worrying about version control or disturbing others’ work.

2. Columns Keep Your Calculations Accurate

On the surface, Sigma worksheets resemble the classic spreadsheet you’ve been using for most of your life –– but looks can be deceiving.

In traditional spreadsheets, you work in cells, but in Sigma, you work in columns. All commands are applied to an entire column using other columns as inputs. This ensures that calculations made in each column are applied to every row –– even when new data is added or updated –– which helps prevent common errors that result from working with large data sets.

Selection errors: a cautionary tale

The advantages of working in columns instead of cells may not be obvious, but trust us, it’s critical! Anyone can make a mistake when working with millions of cells.

In 2010, Harvard released a paper on the effect of debt on market growth to critical acclaim. The only problem? The data was incorrect due to a selection error – one of the most common spreadsheet errors. Instead of including all of the data in their calculations, the authors only had a fraction, leading to incorrect conclusions from their analysis.

This example is why Sigma calculations are performed on columns of data instead of individual cells, so you can work with large data sets worry-free!

Note: In Sigma, every cell in a column is defined by the same formula. To create a worksheet calculation, simply create a new column and enter the formula into the Formula Bar. That is why when you click on a cell, you see a formula and not a value.

Watch the video below to see how columns work in Sigma for yourself.

3. Groups and Levels Add a New Way to Look at Your Data

Levels and groups are two of the most powerful features in Sigma. Levels are hierarchies of organization within the worksheet and groups existing within the levels.

Levels and groups allow you to analyze rows of data based on a common characteristic, called a grouping key. The rows with the same value in the column used as a grouping key will be arranged in a group. Organizing data in this manner makes comparative analysis a breeze! For example, if you’re taking inventory for a large department store, you could group items together based on individual departments.

Traditional spreadsheets, on the other hand, are flat. While sorting data in flat systems is easy, the only way to create calculations based on that data’s subsets is to create a pivot table. Sigma gives you more power for in-depth analyses because it enables you to create more levels than pivot tables. This allows you to quickly calculate aggregates and learn more about your data with little to no effort. But no worries, you can still create pivot tables with Sigma if you wish!

See how levels and groups work below.

4. Your Favorite Spreadsheet Formulas Are Here to Stay

70% of business experts use Excel to analyze data, so Sigma is easy to learn for anyone familiar with spreadsheets. It even offers many of the same formulas and functions!

To create a calculation in Sigma, create a column and enter the formula into the Formula Bar just like a traditional spreadsheet. The formula is then applied to every row of data in that column and can be edited at anytime –– it’s that easy! Watch for yourself below.

5. Aggregates and Totals Give You a High Level View

Aggregate functions are special functions that summarize columns from lower levels. For example, they can be used to Sum all of the values of a column, or Count all of the values for each grouping of a column. As such, aggregates always refer to columns in a level lower than the result, meaning that the same aggregate will provide different results based on what level it is on.

Aggregate functions can also be used on with Totals: single cells that reflect the value of all of the data from the columns used in the formula. Totals are helpful any time you want to calculate a value based on all of the data in a worksheet –– they can even be referenced in formulas!

Total aggregation sum functions in Sigma

In practice, Totals can be used in cohort analyses like in the department store example above.

Sigma: The Familiarity of a Spreadsheet, Powered by the Cloud

Getting started with Sigma is easy because it empowers employees to freely interact with data and quickly generate insights by using an interface they know and love: the spreadsheet.