Reflections from a Tableau Conference Newbie

The 2018 Tableau Conference (#TC18) in New Orleans, earlier this week, was my first conference and wow what an incredible experience!! As a first-time conference goer, my aim was to avoid being overwhelmed, as many had mentioned on Twitter that it can be quite the overwhelming experience for newbies. Pre-conference blog posts from the likes of Sarah Bartlett, Curtis Harris and Mark Bradbourne were very helpful in giving me an idea of what to pack, how to plan and as far as my mission, the main goal was to keep it simple and not try to do everything. Heading into #TC18, in addition to attending some sessions that would have a direct impact in my day to day work, I had two basic objectives; 1) meet as many of the amazing people, who have inspired me throughout my journey, as possible 2) establish a plan of attack to begin improving my technical skills in Tableau. Having a chance to reflect a bit on my flight home, it feels like I did a decent job of accomplishing these goals, but definitely left room for improvement. Below, I’d like to share some thoughts on these objectives, what I learned and what I could have done differently.

OBJECTIVE #1: Meet Amazing People

Heading into #TC18, I had a good idea of the people I wanted to meet in person, whether it was to simply introduce myself or pick their brain and/or thank them for their incredible work and for being an inspiration to me. I mean let’s be honest, this list could have included hundreds and hundreds of people in the community, but again, in an attempt to not become overwhelmed, I decided to focus on a smaller group of folks. Did I meet all of these amazing people? Unfortunately not, but I learned from my missteps.

Time flies when you’re having fun. I arrived in New Orleans late Sunday morning and was scheduled to fly home Thursday morning. So, four days sure seemed like a long time, but it went by in a flash. The New Orleans Convention Center is an enormous facility and with 17,000+ people roaming its halls, I learned that if I wanted to meet somebody, I needed to just go say hi!! Was it awkward? Sure, some moments were more awkward than others and at times I was really nervous, but keep this in mind…you may not get a second opportunity to make the connection, so if you see somebody you’d like to meet, don’t hesitate and go say hello. I met a lot of people this week, but could have met so many more had I understood the urgency of making the connection the first time it presented itself.

What could I have done differently?

  • Attend all sessions 15-20 minutes early to ensure a seat in the first two rows, as well as time to chat with others prior to the session
  • Leave a few gaps in my schedule. Since this was my first conference, I sort of felt obligated to have a session on my schedule at all times. However, given the fact that many sessions are recorded, some of my time could have been better spent hanging out in the Data Village, specifically around the Tableau Zen Master lounge and Tableau Ambassadors area.
  • Hang around after sessions and introduce myself to the speaker(s). I did this a few times and was able to meet some amazing people who have been a big inspiration to me, but wish I would have done more of this earlier in the conference.

OBJECTIVE #2: A Plan to Improve Technical Skills

I was fairly certain one session would help me in this area, more than anything else I could have tried cramming into my schedule; #WorkoutWednesday. I attended this fantastic, hands-on session by Luke Stanke and Ann Jackson and guess what? I forgot my freaking computer at the hotel!!! An idiotic move no doubt, but in reality I still got out of the session what I set out for; confirmation that #WorkoutWednesday is indeed the single best resource to begin improving my technical skills within Tableau. I happened to run into Luke a day before the session and expressed to him that I had intentions of getting involved in #WorkoutWednesday, but to this point had been scared off, because I felt my skills were not strong enough. What he (and Sean Miller during an earlier discussion) ensured me, Ann Jackson only reiterated after the session on Wednesday, when I was fortunate enough to chat with her. Ann said that nothing else has helped her improve her technical skills in Tableau more than #WorkoutWednesday.

What would I have done differently?

  • As they say, better late than never, so it is time to get involved as soon as possible. There are only so many hours in the day for personal Tableau time and while I really enjoy spending time designing dashboards, participating in #MakeoverMonday and building fun vizzes with my own sports related data sets, the best thing for my development is going to be to roll up the sleeves and get involved in #WorkoutWednesday. While #WorkoutWednesday should have been a 2018 goal, getting involved will sit right at the top of my list of goals to accomplish prior to #TC19.

Now that #TC18 has come to an end, there will be plenty of sessions to watch online, but there will also be many new friendships to look forward to for years to come and I simply cannot express how thankful I am for that!! On Sunday around 4:00 pm, I walked into the New Orleans Convention Center, excited to be part of the Tableau Community and thrilled to be attending my first Tableau Conference…On Thursday morning, around 11:00 am, I boarded my flight home completely blown away by how truly amazing this community is and inspired to do whatever it takes to become a better member of it.

Feeling Thankful

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With the way this past Wednesday started, I couldn’t have imagined it would turn into such a special day for me. Only after several snooze buttons did I finally drag myself out of bed to begin the day…my wife and daughter both still sound asleep after a late night run to the ER, which saw us return home at 1:30am, after finding out our daughter had double ear infections and pneumonia. Poor little girl. So, as my wife stayed home with her for the day, off to work I went. It was just a typical Wednesday until sometime after lunch when I decided to find out what was happening on Twitter and…HOLY SHIT!! To my absolute delight, I had been selected as a Tableau Public Featured Author!! The feeling was amazing…I was thrilled!!

So, now nearly a week has passed and I’ve had some time to process this first big Tableau/Data Viz achievement. Since deciding, nearly eight months ago that it was time to join the Tableau community and begin leveraging Tableau Public to build an online portfolio, I’ve been inspired by countless people, vizzes, tweets, blog posts, videos, etc. At this point, I feel it’s necessary to share some of these inspirations with those who may have begun their journey a little later than me. So, the following post is a recap of my last seven and a half months, pointing out key moments along the way. It is quite aggressive with the links, but that is intentional, so that every important piece of inspiration is just a click away.

Springtime – Getting Started

On April 26th, 2017 the Twitter account @JtothaVizzo was created. This would serve as the main way in which I would stay connected to the community. My first goal after creating the account was to find and follow the most influential people in the community, so I could begin learning from the best. Tableau Zen Masters and Tableau Ambassadors were top priority. A day later, this tweet by Andy Cotgreave led me to the mentioned blog post by Mark Edwards, where he discussed the importance of building a Tableau Public portfolio in order to develop your skills and become involved in the community. After reading Mark’s post I came across one from Eva MurraySo you want a job as a Tableau Developer? Umm, yes please!! Eva is wonderful and her post is loaded with great advice for anyone interested in landing that first job…or next job for that matter, using Tableau.

My next stop would be #MakeoverMonday led by Eva and Andy Kriebel and on May 1st, I submitted my first #MakeoverMonday viz. Today, I consider #MakeoverMonday the single biggest factor contributing to my growth. And if you’ve regularly read my blog, you know I haven’t participated every week since joining. Even in the weeks when I’ve failed to participate, I’ve learned through studying the work of others and reading feedback via Twitter. Including #MMVizReview in your Twitter submission also offers a fantastic opportunity to get feedback directly from Andy and Eva, via their weekly webinar. Also on May 1st, having heard a lot about the book in recent months, I ordered The Big Book of Dashboards. If you haven’t, ORDER IT NOW, as it is worth every penny!!

Summer Months – Text, Hurdles and Football

On July 5th, I read a great blog post from Pooja Gandi called Let’s talk about text! In the post, Pooja shared a handful of neat text box tricks that she uses in almost all of her vizzes. I had always admired the beauty of Pooja’s work, so needless to say, when she shared this post, I was thrilled!! After failing to find a data set I felt comfortable with for the second 2017 #IronViz feeder contest, on August 6th, I entered my first #IronViz submission, as part of the third feeder contest. For me, entering the contest meant clearing a big mental hurdle and you can read more about that here. I was feeling very confident following my #IronViz submission and the positive feedback I received, so when Sean Miller tweeted out on August 14th, that he wanted to start a Tableau Community Fantasy Football league, I was all in. I felt it could be a great opportunity to make some connections and have a little fun all at the same time. THE data LEAGUE features some pretty amazing people!! But, we won’t get into how my team has performed…

Fall is Here – Blogging, Goals and TCTUG

After at least a month or two of kicking around the idea of starting a blog, unsure whether or not the timing was right, on September 19th I decided to just do it. That night, I chose my platform, purchased my domain, picked the theme, design and all that good stuff, and also published my very first Data Viz blog post. Jeff’s DataViz Journey was born and I had officially cleared another major hurdle!!

Having goals is very important. Writing them down is even more important. Until October 23rd, I had been terrible at getting my goals out of my head and onto paper. On the Subject of #VizGoals by Mark Edwards helped me turn the corner, get them written down and start focusing on them. The very next day, I went out and bought a notebook, where my goals and many other viz related things (blog post ideas, viz ideas, viz sketches, etc.) now reside. On October 25th, I read Learning Tableau by Jeffrey Shaffer. Please read this as well!! Jeffrey’s post has a ton of information for those looking to get started in the Tableau Community. Blogs, Social Media, Tableau User Groups, Videos, Books, Trainings…you name it, it is likely in here!!

In November, somewhere around a two-year hiatus, I once again attended a Twin Cities Tableau User Group Meeting. If you have a TUG in your area, I highly recommend attending, if you can work it into your schedule. I happened to be off the day of the November TCTUG meeting and things fell nicely into place, so I attended. My goal is to attend future meetings as frequently as possible. Yours should be too.

It was very rewarding to see Paul McHale’s November 16th blog post Learning from the Tableau Community in which he thanked me for providing him with the inspiration to share his work. In his post, Paul said he related very strongly to my blog post, ‘Overcoming the Fear to Share.’ It was great to see my blog have a positive impact on someone else in the community. That’s what it’s all about!! On November 24th, the day after Thanksgiving, I felt extra thankful, as Simon Beaumont mentioned me in a #TableauFF tweet. Simon, thank you again for the mention, it is greatly appreciated!! For quite awhile, I had been seeing #TableauFF on Friday’s, but never really understood what it meant until recently. For those who are unaware, it stands for Tableau Follow Friday and is a hashtag used (on Friday’s) as an opportunity to find and welcome new members of the community.

Winter – A Great Start

Alicia Bembenek’s December 3rd blog post, Who Else Wants to Up Their Blog Game? really hit home with me. My blog was closing in on being three-months old and although I did have six posts and counting, there was something I didn’t have…ANY SORT OF SET PLAN!! With a list of potential topics, a plan on when to write will be essential if I’m to be successful.

And on December 6th, Tableau Public recognized me as one of ten new Featured Authors and for that I am extremely thankful!! Congratulations to the nine other Tableau Public Featured Authors as well, I am honored to be a part of this great group!!

Thank you for taking the time to read, my hope is that you’re able to take some information and inspiration out of this post and apply it to your own Data Viz Journey!!

Overcoming the Fear to Share

In this week’s #MakeoverMonday blog review, Andy Kriebel had just one lesson: Don’t Be Afraid to Share Your Work. He said that during #MakeoverMonday live from #TC17, he heard a lot of #MakeoverMonday participants say that they are intimidated to share their work to Tableau Public and Twitter. Well, for those of you who feel that way, I get it…I’ve been in your shoes. There are a lot of ultra-talented folks in the community who regularly submit the type of work you and I could only dream of putting together. Well, guess what? Dream and dream BIG, because overcoming our fear is the first step to joining those ultra-talented folks!! Here’s my journey to overcoming the fear to share.

Early Tableau Public Work

As I shared in my first blog post, I had been using Tableau at work, for a little over a year before I learned about Tableau Public. Looking back, while things haven’t unfolded particularly quickly by any means, I still feel that moment in February of 2016 was groundbreaking for me. Tableau Public allowed me to practice using the tool with data sets (mostly sports related) that were of great interest to me. So, from March-June of 2016, I created a total of seven vizzes and boy was I proud of them!! I couldn’t look at them enough. But one part was still missing…sure I was publishing my work, but who was looking at it besides me? It was easy to publish it when there was virtually no audience. Fast forward several months after some time away from the tool (we’ll explain why at a later date) and enter Twitter.

Data Viz Twitter Account

In April of 2017, yes A FULL YEAR AND TWO MONTHS after first hearing about Tableau Public and its community, I finally decided it was time to get serious about joining this community. First off, DON’T BE LIKE ME!! Don’t wait around…don’t be afraid and don’t put it off!! Just join the community and start getting involved, you will be happy you didn’t wait!! Ok, so anyway, I created a new Twitter account, @JtothaVizzo. This was intended to be used for Data Viz purposes only…no following ESPN, no ProFootballTalk, no Bill Simmons, no other distractions period. The sole purpose of the account would be to follow the community, learn about Tableau/Data Viz, share my work and eventually become more involved. So, for the next few months I mostly sat back and observed, while sharing about a dozen vizzes. Although my posts weren’t receiving much feedback or attention, I was practicing Tableau and could feel improvement with each passing week, especially since getting involved in #MakeoverMonday, on May 1. In May and June, I submitted several vizzes and continued looking on, in awe, of the talent participating in #MakeoverMonday. As the breathtaking work rolled in week after week, there was one thing I knew for sure…at some point, I wanted to be able to produce the quality of work I was seeing!! Throughout the month of July, my work began getting a bit of feedback and I was feeling more confident in myself. Then came August and #IronViz Silver Screen.

#IronViz Submission = Fear!!

By the time the third and final #IronViz 2017 feeder contest came around, I had 28 vizzes on my Tableau Public profile. Although most of them had not garnered much attention, some of my more recent ones had. Were people starting to learn who I was? If so, did they like my work or think it was lousy? If I competed in #IronViz, would people expect anything from me and who would judge it?? These thoughts were scary. I mean, this would be my first ever viz that was going to be officially judged. What if the judges think my entry is the worst one in the competition? Enter…fear!! Determined to overcome the fear and submit my first #IronViz entry, I now had another issue to deal with. What would my entry be about? The category was Silver Screen, far from a strong suit of mine. If my eyes were on a TV, it was typically one of four or five things; sports, whatever toddler show my daughter was watching before daycare in the morning, The Real Housewives of whatever city my wife was watching, HGTV, or Family Guy. Ok, so my options were limited. Would the community enjoy an #IronViz about Sid the Science Kid, Mother Goose Club or Word Party? Uh, yeah probably not. So, after some careful thought, I landed on The Simpsons. It was my favorite show as a kid and honestly I couldn’t believe it was still on the air, after all these years. Having not seen an episode in at least a decade, I was curious to see if the show was still performing well. The goal for my viz was to answer that question, while trying some cool stuff in the process.

The Fear Disappears

I remember finishing my viz, filling out the #IronViz form and then sitting there staring at the button I would click to submit it. I was scared…flat out scared. Although I felt my viz was decent work and pretty cool, it was so easy for the doubt to creep back into my mind. I took a deep breath and then remembered something. I had been so excited to be a part of this #IronViz contest, so why was I afraid now? I told myself, “screw it, what’s the worst that can happen?” I clicked the button. There was no going back now, my first ever #IronViz submission was out there. I added a post to Twitter and then steered clear of Twitter for awhile, occupying myself with whatever game was on that night. An hour or so later, I checked my Twitter feed and to my relief, saw great feedback of my viz. People liked it, I was ecstatic!! From that point on, the fear has been absent.

If I can do it, you can do it. Whether it’s #MakeoverMonday, #IronViz, or any other viz you’ve created with your own data set, listen to Andy’s great advice and Don’t Be Afraid To Share Your Work. Like me, you’ll be glad you shared it!! Oh and as if you need another reminder, DON’T WAIT A FULL YEAR AND TWO MONTHS to become involved in the Tableau community, like I did!!

The Message That Changed it All

February 6, 2016…this date marks the most important day in my data viz journey. With a little over one-year of Tableau experience under my belt, one thing was certain. I loved the tool!! It made my job much more fun, while making it far easier to do and allowing for plenty of creativity along the way. I was working as part of a demand planning team (of two) that was tasked with transitioning the business unit I worked in, from one that had digested data in spreadsheet form for decades to one that would now leverage the power of data visualization. So, throughout that first year using Tableau, I purchased a couple of books on Amazon.com, watched training videos, and even attended a few Tableau User Group meetings in Minneapolis to learn as much as I could about the tool. And then, after several searches on LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, you name it, I had an idea.

“What if I find somebody who’s really good with Tableau and send them a message asking what steps they took to get to where they are today?” I know, such an amazing, out of the box idea!! But, it scared the hell out of me…what if the person I chose didn’t reply or worse yet, replied, but was unwilling to help me? What would I possibly do then? Could I ever recover from something so horrific? On the afternoon of February 6, 2016 I sent my LinkedIn message to Ryan Sleeper, whom I had identified as the ideal person to contact. Not only were Ryan’s Tableau accomplishments unmatched, but he was also a huge sports fan like myself. So, I figured if nothing else we could chat about how his Kansas City Royals consistently beat the tar out of my Minnesota Twins!! I’m pretty sure my heart stopped momentarily when I clicked the send button, but thankfully my wait was not a long one. Before noon the following day, I had a message from Ryan. A message that would change everything, opening up a Tableau world I had not yet discovered!!

In his message, Ryan wrote about how he would practice using Tableau in his free time, with data of interest to him. He also shared this link of his top five tips to learning Tableau. At the time, I had no idea how important that link would be. #5. Follow the Tableau Community and #1. Tableau Public have been game changers for me, as I haven’t yet taken a training. I have Ryan Sleeper to thank for introducing me to Tableau Public and to the Tableau Community (at least through Twitter). Now to just meet all of these wonderful people in person…unfortunately, TC17 isn’t going to happen for me, but I’m optimistic TC18 will!! Since setting up a Tableau Public profile and joining the Tableau Community through Twitter, I have learned more about Tableau and Data Visualization than I could have ever imagined and I still feel like the surface is just being scratched.

So, if you happen to be reading this today and find yourself in a similar situation to what I was in back in February of 2016, just go ahead and send that message!! The community is full of wonderful people eager to help you and there’s no reason to be hesitant or scared…just click send!!