What’s Good? Tutorials & Blogging With Kevin Flerlage. (December)

Welcome to the Final edition in 2021 of “What’s Good?”

Hi all, 

A warm greeting to the final “What’s Good?” blog for 2021. What a journey this year has been – the community I have been welcomed into, and also have the delight of welcoming others into is unmatched.

Onto the blog today…How do I introduce a man that has so much love, respect and accolades in the community? I certainly can’t do it justice!

I am DELIGHTED to finish season 1 with the perfect guest to mark the occasion, Kevin Flerlage. Kevin is a Zen Master, Public Ambassador, TUG co-lead and co-hosts one of the most used Tableau content websites globally. Kevin joins to reminisce on his own journey and look back at the impact he’s made through tutorials, blogs, presentations and dashboarding.

You can find Kevin on Tableau, Twitter and his co-authored blog with Ken, at the FlerlageTwins.

CJ: Your journey started in Feb 2018, and you shot to Zen Master by 2020. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into data visualisation?

K: Like so many, I spent years and years using Excel for analytics. Most of what I did was just with the numbers (often employing highlight tables).  I did some level of data visualization as well.  I did the normal 3D pie charts that come standard in Excel, lots of bar charts that were categorically colored and everything was heavily cluttered.  But I just did what Excel defaulted to.  I mean, I made it look fairly nice, but it was still sloppy.  

I knew about Ken using Tableau and in January 2018, he became a Zen Master.  At the same time, I started thinking about my future outside of the role I was in at the time.  I started looking for other analytics positions within my company and every one I looked at listed Tableau as a required skill set.  So although Ken had told me about Tableau months and months prior, I decided to hit him up for some training and advice.

I loved it, seemed to have a talent for it, and did it far too much in my spare time…until the point where my wife had to call me out on it.  It became my hobby and I just loved doing it (and still do).  Who would have thought a software could be so fun?

CJ: I loved your history of Tableau’s Iron Viz entry. It secured your fifth Top 10 entry. It was awesome to read about the different entrants by year. What is your fondest IronViz memory?

K: I am, perhaps, the biggest fan of Iron Viz ever!  I absolutely love the process, love competing, love watching what others put out, love picking my own top ten and love predicting the finalists (This year, I predicted Sam and Pradeep as 1 & 2 with Lisa as number 4.  Congratulations to all three of them for crushing it and for Lisa taking home the trophy!)  I remember every feeder distinctly and each has lots of fond memories.  

But if I were to pick one, it would definitely be my first feeder.  I had been using Tableau for a couple of months and decided to compete knowing there would be no chance of me winning.  I waited intently for the topic to be announced.  That topic was literature!  Nooooooooo!  I really don’t read much…honestly, I never read anything outside of blog posts and emails.  This was not a good fit for me.  But, there are a lot of books that were made into movies, right?  I did some google searches for books made into movies and saw a striking image of the Lorax.  I’d seen the movie with my kids a number of times and it instantly hit me: tell the story of deforestation through the view of the Lorax.  

I remember spending just about every waking minute on this viz.  I bet I spent 40 hours on it.  It was so much fun.  When I was done, I sent it to my brother to review it.  His response… “oh crap, this could win”.  I was really excited by those words, but that excitement quickly turned to terror.  I was in no position to be on that stage.  And in fact, that workbook contained zero calculated fields.  I did 100% of the calculations in Excel.  

In the end, I landed in 3rd behind Mike Cisneros and finalist, Ludovic Tavernier (The Letter E).  As you mentioned, I have five top ten finishes out of six entries.  This was my best finish ever and certainly my fondest memory. 

CJ: To carry on the idea of Tableau history. What are some of your favourite vizzes ever? 

K: It’s interesting that you asked that.  This is a conversation that Ken and I have all the time…probably a couple dozen times.  Recently we had the same conversation and just decided to pick our top ten ever and talk about them on video.  You can check that out on our website.

Snippet from Adam McCann’s Beatle Viz

That said, I think my favorite Tableau Public vizzes aren’t just amazing vizzes, but they hit me at a special time.  For example, I recall seeing Adam McCann’s Beatles Analysis when I first started using Tableau.  I was so amazed that you could do that in the software…plus the Beatles are my favorite band.  So that one really stuck with me. 

When developing my top ten list, I struggled.  There were 15 or so that could have easily landed in my top ten.  One of those is from Wendy Shijia where she did the “curves on a map” technique that eventually led to a guest blog post on our site.  I remember looking at that in the airport and just being blown away. This technique ended up being used in dozens (if not hundreds) of Tableau Public vizzes including Christian Felix’s Iron Viz winner

Another one that just missed my top ten was “A Brief History of Modern Music” by one of my absolute favorite Tableau author/artists, Kasia Gasiewska-Holc.  This is just beautifully done from top to bottom.

CJ: My journey like many others started with some of your brilliant templates. I think my favourite when I started was your curvy bump chart. Can you remember your first tutorial? What made you start wanting to create templates? (Link)

K: My first tutorial was actually a guest blog post on KenFlerlage.com.  Ken was a Zen Master before I even started using Tableau and his site was well established.  About a month after I started using Tableau, I got my first VOTD. The portion that got a ton of attention was the filled water bottles showing regional access to clean water (note that over time, this viz has taken on some weird rendering issues).  I received lots of comments about that chart, which was something I had seen Simon Beaumont do in the past.  So Ken asked me to write it as a guest blog on his site.

In regards to templates, I really picked this up from Ken.  He had previously created several sankey templates, a radar chart template, a sunburst, and several others.  The truth is, this stuff is complicated.  Curvy lines require data densification and complicated table calcs…it’s not easy stuff.  So by creating templates, this allows other users (and myself) to quickly reproduce these charts.  And although they all use Excel as their data source, this can be easily swapped out for an actual table or Custom SQL.  In fact, I built my first ever sankey chart at work to show flow of accounts and I used his template by swapping out his spreadsheet for Custom SQL.  Truth is, I’ve NEVER created a sankey diagram on my own without his template, not once.  And to be honest, I’ve only created a “curvy bump chart” from scratch one time – ever since, I’ve used my own template.  So yeah, the reason for creating templates, eliminate a pile of work for myself and others.

CJ: What template has been your favourite to create? Why?

K: Ken is really the “template guy”.  He’s done so many and you see them everywhere.  I’d say 90% of the time I see a Sankey on Tableau Public, it comes from one of Ken’s templates.  So for me, that’s probably easy…the curvy bump chart is my favorite that I created…just because I’ve created so few.  

That said, Ken and I actually collaborated on one of our most recent templates, the equal width sankey template.  Truth is, Ken did 99% of the work on that, I just came up with one key idea.  Check out the blog for more information. It’s an interesting read and definitely my favorite template on our site.

CJ: Bit of a cheeky question. What’s the most popular blog/tutorial on the Flerlage Twins site? What do you think made it so popular?

K: How about this…I’ll give you the top 3.  But before I do, I should say that Ken kicks my butt when it comes to website views.  He owns 6 of our top 10 and 4 of our top 5.

  1. 20 Uses for Tableau Level of Detail Calculations (LODs)
  2. The Key to Dynamic Parameters & Some Good Use Cases
  3. Datafam Colors: A Tableau Color Palette Crowdsourcing Project

I should note that number 1 (LODs) has nearly twice as many views as number 2 (dynamic parameters). 

CJ: Your website has all kinds of content ranging from tips to building complicated charts to simple design techniques and advice.  What are the blog posts that you share with people the most often; which might you like if they were “required reading” for all Tableau users?

I love this question…and it’s an easy one.  There are four blog posts that I recommend constantly, two from Ken and two from me. 

  1. Mastering Tableau by Ken.  This blog post lays out a perfect plan on how to start using Tableau and how to continue to improve your skills.  I recommend it to new users constantly.  It’s probably my most recommended blog post. 
  2. Why & How to Connect with the Tableau Community by me.  This talks about how and why it is important to connect to the community.  It discusses Twitter, user groups, Tableau Public, community projects, mentors and so much more.  Community has been the key to my growth and I hope others read this, engage, and grow like I did. 
  3. 20 Uses for Tableau Level of Detail Calculations (LODs) by Ken.  As you just read, this is our most popular blog post on the website. People tend to struggle with LODs and this is just an amazing resource.
  4. Simple Steps for Better Design by me.  This started off as a “pet peeves of dataviz” blog post.  It ended up as 26 different ways to improve design in Tableau (but can absolutely be applied to the wider dataviz community).  When I say design, I am referring to a lot of different things, but the major focus is on best practices.  I’ve sent this to hundreds of people and have presented on the topic at least a dozen times (with another one this month).  It’s a great resource for new and intermediate users.

CJ: I’ve personally struggled sometimes when it comes to the user testing side of creating new ideas for the community. Do you have a list of tips to consider?

K: To use technical terms “test the cr*p out of it”.  In my opinion, it’s not a lot different from a business dashboard. I test them myself and have colleagues test them. I try to do crazy stuff in order to break them. And in the final blog post, I always ask people to let me know if they encounter any issues.  

CJ: Your follow-along blogs are so eloquently written. What are important factors to note when putting together a run-through?  

K: Easy, jokes.  Jokes are the key!

Honestly, its a great question.  Truth is, I’m a horrible reader.  I never enjoyed reading and do not do it for fun (although I do enjoy reading a good Tableau blog post).  However, I think my writing has benefited from that.  I try to make very complicated content easy to read, understand, and implement.  I also understand that inadvertently skipping a step in a technical blog post would ultimately lead readers to unsuccessful outcomes. 

CJ: Some of your more recent tutorials on, axis’, tile containers, workbook design and BAN’s have helped elevate companies dashboards to the next level. Would you say this is where most of your interest lies?

K: I recently had a related discussion with Zach Bowders’ on his podcast Data + Love.  He commented that analysis is easier than design. I personally think that analysis is easier than design on average for the type of people that end up in this job.  We all know that we have a wide range of skill sets and degrees in the dataviz community.  One of the best in the world, Jeff Shaffer, has a degree in music.  Iron Viz 2019 cowinner, Josh Smith, has a degree in poetry.  But I once read (I believe it was in the Dataviz Society’s annual report) that the top two degrees of dataviz practitioners are computer science and mathematics (note that Ken has a computer science degree and I have a mathematics degree).  I don’t have data to support it, but my inclination is that people with those degrees tend to be more skilled in analysis than they are at design.

With that said, if you look back at my history of writing blogs, I’ve spent a lot of time on technical topics.  Over time, I’ve started to see what I noted above, a lot of people in the community seem to struggle with design. Every time I share something related to design, people go nuts over it. So yes, as of late, I’ve focused a lot on writing about simple ways for better design. I’ve also intentionally kept most of that focused on better design within the tool, not in other tools (I completely support using other tools, but I think the average user just wants to make things look better within Tableau).  

If you watch our session at TC21, the goal was simple: take a “rough” dashboard and make it better.  That included some technical tips and tricks, but most of it was focused on making the dashboard more legible and more aesthetically pleasing. 

CJ: Has there been any charts that you’ve seen in the broader data visualisation design community that you’ve been itching to try re-create in Tableau?

I am constantly on the search for things I’ve never seen done in Tableau.  There isn’t anything on my list currently, but if anybody has any suggestions, I’d love to know about it!

CJ: To some it would seem you’ve checked off every accolade there could be from early VOTDS, to Ambassador to Zen. Is there anything else on the bucket list achievement wise you’re working towards?

Catch up to Andy Kriebel as the most favorited author on Tableau Public???  Just joking – he’s uncatchable and deserves that top spot.  

I am blessed to have been successful.  I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also been surrounded by great people like Ken, Jeff Shaffer, and brilliant colleagues like Ethan Hahn and Dinushki De Livera. I consider myself incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed.

As far as accolades, it’s always wonderful to be recognized and I am grateful for Tableau’s recognition programs like Ambassador and Zen Master.  Truth is, I love this stuff.  It’s my hobby.  It’s great fun.  But I like helping people even more. This is why Ken and I publish a blog post on our site nearly every week.  We don’t advertise on the site and we have not profited a single nickel on it. But when someone you help gets a VOTD or becomes an ambassador, well, that’s the profit, that’s the award. 

CJ: You and Ken publish a blog post pretty much every single week and you each publish dozens of Tableau Public vizzes each year.  What drives you to continue to put out so much content?

Hey, it’s like you read my mind.  We both love Tableau and we both love helping others.  Since I was in my early 20’s working a job, I always thought that there should be more to life than just working a job and making money.  I often considered getting into ministry or a non-profit so that I could help others.  Truth is, I think I’ve found my calling. Writing blog posts, creating vizzes, and doing presentations is great fun, but it also has the potential to help a lot of people grow in their skills and their careers.  For me, that is motivation to keep pushing out content.

CJ: Last year, you started a thread asking what were some of the communities favourite vizzes from the last year. I’d like to ask you the same – what has impressed you in 2021?

K:  Ha ha, great question!  As I mentioned, Ken and I recently chose our favorite Tableau Public vizzes ever.  When we did this, we laid out four important ground rules.  

1) We couldn’t pick any of our own vizzes.  (I mean, who would do something like that???)  

2) We would allow ourselves to include one of the other twin’s vizzes IF WE WISH, but there was zero obligation to do so.  

3) We were only allowed to pick a maximum of two vizzes from any single author.  We called this the “Adam McCann Rule”.  

4) We had to pick our annual favorites each year moving forward, starting in 2021.

So, CJ…people will just have to wait until early 2022 to see what we loved in 2021! Spoiler-Alert, a Pradeep Kumar viz will be on the list.

CJ Round-up:

How awesome has it been hearing Kevins journey and content history to date? There are a few FlerlageTwins blogs outlined in the mini interview that I always revisit. Kevins ability to do design within the tool itself as oppose to leveraging external tools is simply sublime.

I really enjoy it when things come somewhat full circle. Kevin undoubtedly helped me in my early journey with his shout-outs, the opportunity of a guest blog and useful tutorials. In fact my first ever VOTD came from using his bump chart tutorial. We then collaborated to hack the tutorial into a sports bracket template.

Funny to think about the amount of VOTD’s that have been inspired by his impact over the years. I’m sure many others have a similar story.

“When someone you help gets a VOTD or becomes an ambassador, well… that’s the award.”

LOGGING OFF,

CJ

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