Welcome to the November episode of “What’s Good?”
It is with great pleasure to invite Sean onto the blog this month. I want to open the blog by wishing Sean well in his new role having been promoted to Director at Evolytics. What a fun and exciting time.
Sean is a tableau visionary, ambassador and TUG lead. You’ll often see his contributions and leading of WoW challenges & the DataPlusMusic initiative. In today’s blog you’ll get a flavour of how to both, set and solve, those challenges.
CJ: Sean, great to have you be a part of the series. My blog questions tend to originate from a similar starting question. How did your data viz journey begin and How did it grow with Tableau over time?
S: Thank you so much for having me CJ! I’m excited to be here. My data viz journey started way back in the summer of 2013 when I had the chance to be an intern. During my internship, I was tasked with many business analysis projects. At this time, Excel was still king. I was creating massively complex workbooks with a sheet full of dozens of pivot tables which would then be used to create pivot charts with a dozen slicers…you know the drill, right, lol. From there, I was approached with the opportunity to take one of two Tableau licenses my team was purchasing. And from there, it just took off. I remember my trainer, Jeff James a fellow #datadev ambassador, actually had a section in the training PowerPoint to highlight how special the community was and where to find all the resources. And this was early 2015 when there weren’t all these hashtags we have to today. #MakeoverMonday didn’t even exist yet – but the community was JUST as engaging, welcoming, innovative and genuine. I immediately jumped in and never looked back. Since then I’ve had a reciprocal with the community. They continuously provide inspiration and I try my best to pay it forward
CJ: One project in the last few years you got involved in was helping set the workout Wednesday challenges, but it sounds like you have been completing them since back in 2017. What drove that early interest in this particular community challenge? How has it shaped your own personal skills over the years?
S: There is so much I could say about Workout Wednesday and the impact it’s had on my journey. I think it was a matter of perfect timing of where I was at in my progression in learning Tableau and the primary audience for Workout Wednesday. From its inception and to this day, #WOW is geared towards individuals who would consider themselves at the intermediate level of proficiency.
So after a year of participating in the first year of #MakeoverMonday, I was ready to take my skills to the next level. I’ve never really considered myself that much of a designer, not that I can’t but it just takes more effort. But what I love was the technical side of the challenges is the puzzle. That’s what #WOW challenges are, nothing more than a puzzle in Tableau, right? Think about it, when you set out to do a tabletop puzzle, the first thing is you dump all the pieces out – that’s you reading through the requirements. Then you put the box top in front of you so you see what you’re trying to put together – that’s the final challenge dashboard. Third, you’re going to put all the edges together. This is where you break down a challenge into the pieces you know – you recognize (chart type, filters, parameters, actions, etc). Then you’re ready to fill in the missing pieces, these are the technical pieces that you’re not quite familiar with. And that’s where the learning happens.
I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today without #WOW – more than any other community initiative. Out of the hundreds of challenges there is likely something from each one that I’ve lifted and taken to my “office” work. The thing about #WOW challenges is that we don’t intend for the challenges to be “replace data source” This isn’t scope work, lol! We want people to learn something they can back to their stakeholders and #WOW them 😉
CJ: I’ve always personally wondered, what behind-the-scenes work goes into setting the challenges? What factors do you have to consider? Are there any obstacles to making it replicable? What considerations do you give to the target audience?
S: The inspiration for challenges from all over the community, our work and the mad science labs of our own minds. One thing that we’re constantly reminding ourselves is that what might take us an hour to complete will take our target audience 3-5 hours. So we really strive to keep our challenges short, less than 5 calculations. And something that we’ve tried to do over the past several years to focus on one aspect, tip, function or technique with each challenge. Another thing we’re also always thinking about is using different data sources – we’ve done so much with Superstore (who hasn’t, right?)
CJ: As someone that so heavily focuses on technical skills that can transfer directly to work related problem solving. What aspect of Tableau do you find users find most challenging? Are there particular challenges that you see get constantly revisited because of it?
S: Table Calculations, without a doubt. Everytime we survey the community about what they want more of – table calculations are the clear leader. Which is really interesting because we all, at a surface level, understand what table calculations however, the biggest challenge of table calculations is figuring out the scope and direction, right? And if the table calculations aren’t happening in a crosstab it makes it that much more difficult. And then you have the craziness of nested table calcs…oof.
Another thing we see of requests for is mapping challenges. And this too makes because very few of us have data with geospatial elements. Plus I think they are so intrinsic about creating a beautiful and insightful map. Plus all the love that mapping has received in the past 3-5 years has been really amazing and is, to me, the key differentiator for Tableau.
CJ: Something I greatly appreciate about your work is the variety of mediums that you present. You often create video cuts as well as blogs. Is there a particular reasoning behind this? Is it to accommodate a multitude of learners?
S: That’s an interesting question and I think it comes down to what I learned in college. I was on a path to teach middle school science & math (kids aged 12-15) and one of the things they teach teachers is to differentiate your lessons. Some learners do better with hands-on activities while others are readers and others are copycats. Some learners will immediately catch on while others will need the repetitive sessions to really grasp a topic. As Tableau users, we are all still learning and these same principles still apply. So that’s why I’m blogging, presenting and video recording. So that I can reach and meet my learners at their level. Lately, I’ve really taken to video recording on my YouTube channel. Part of that interest is that it’s quicker for me to get an idea out there. There is a lot more setup that goes into a blog post. From grabbing all the screenshots to outlining to drafting/editing and publishing – it’s a lot. For me, I can open up Tableau, turn on my webcam and talk through my process. Then I can splice everything together in post-production. It’s an easier process for me…and I genuinely enjoy it.
CJ: In addition I love your choice to do live streams of some of the WorkoutWednesdays. As someone that has tried to approach them blind myself on team calls, It can be quite nerve-racking. Why do you personally choose to do this through a stream? What do you think people learn from those moments of the ‘unknown’?
S: Thank you for those kind words. So let me tell you a story – when I joined the #WOW team back in 2020. They had decided to make a concerted effort to record the solutions which I was 100% behind. So I get my first challenge out there and I go to make my first video. Now, all the coaches had decided to keep our videos under 20 minutes. So I do my video and edit down as much as possible; dead time, filler words, all that – and my video was still 45 MINUTES long! Lol! I did a few more videos like this before I just decided to do it all live. So the reason I “started” doing the live streams was time-saving productivity.
But then some amazing happened after a few live streams – people started talking about how much they get out of watching other people viz. And that makes total sense given how popular Andy Kriebel’s “Watch Me Viz” series is. And one thing that I feel like is really showing people is how to troubleshoot.
To be completely honest with you CJ, there is a lot of “perfection” in our community, right? We share our final creation and it will be shared, liked, we’ll blog about our creative process and the technical functions for the bespoke charts. Which is all really great and pushes us all forward but what about what happens in between? What about all the times those technical functions did work and working through those #TableauBrokeAndMadeArt moments? I love those moments because that’s where our target audience spends most of their time.
And that’s what I’m trying to provide with my live streams for the community is to normalize failure. It’s a failure in the traditional sense though as long as it’s a failure that leads to learning it’s all gravy, baby!
CJ: When we recently caught up, what stood out to me was how much you valued the notion of learning and self-development. What advice would you give to those that want to progress technically in their own workplace and how to best to facilitate this?
S: Join #WorkoutWednesday in whatever capacity you are comfortable with. Join any of the community initiatives, really. I’m a big believer in not learning for a stakeholder, learn for yourself and be ready when the stakeholder asks. The Tableau community allows you every opportunity to do that. I’d love to talk to and welcome as many new members to the #DataFam but I recognize the social thing is not everyone’s thing and that’s okay. Just get out there and learn.
CJ: #DataPlusMusic is an initiative that you kicked off at the end of last year. No doubt it has resulted in some fantastic visuals. What was the reason you started it? What is it about the blend of data and music that brings you joy? How does this compare to some of the other community projects you’re engaged in?
S: My first dataset I ever created was an excel sheet of my music CD collection…in 1995. At that time I had over 300 CDs and i decided to catalog them all. I used it rearrange them every 6 months or so. So, clearly I’ve been a music fan for a long time. And then now in the age of streaming we have technology to do all that for us! And when you look back at all the #MakeoverMondays and all the #IronViz qualifiers, some of the most impressive and creative vizzes have been music related. So I knew that I wanted to do something with music on a regular basis.
I’ve beens so impressed thus far is what the community has put together so far! We’ve got some great stuff planned for the rest of the year too, so keep an eye out.
CJ: I am always fascinated by the creativity of some individuals’ music visuals, but always wonder what a good starting point is. What resources in the community would you recommend? Are there any data API’s you could give a brief introduction to? Is there any work in the community that you think has showcased music data particularly well?
S: The starting point for your first music viz is to think about what you love listening to right now and look for the data angle. If nothing else, the Spotify Web API is an excellent start at simply visualize the musical attributes of a handful of great songs. In fact, if you check out my github site, I have a several python scripts that are “plug and play” to get you started. If you are listening to your music on the web (who isn’t, these days), then I highly recommend checking out connecting your streaming service to last.fm which will automatically record every song you listen to on the web. You can then use that to visualize how and when you listen to music. And if you looking for assistance with any of that, then please reach out to me!
Some of my favorite examples of amazing music vizzes are:
I love what Andy Cotgreave did back in the day with this listening habits
One of favorite music deep dives came from Chris Luv & Rob Radburn taking a look at the long-running NOW! That’s What I Call Music catalog.
Peter Gilkes did an amazing recap of his listening history WAY back in 2016 that has still stuck with me.
CJ: What part does music play in your life outside of work? How else do you like to unwind?
S: I love sharing music with my kids. We recently went to see Weird Al as a family and it was amazing. They had a total blast and we play Weird Al at home all the time. Additionally, I love to cook, my wife, Rachel, and I both do. So we’re always looking for new recipes to try. One of my favorite non-tech activities is anything outside, working in the yard, going on a bike ride, walking the dog, if it’s outside I’m loving it.
I am grateful to be able to host this guest interview with Sean. What stood out to me was his commitment to learning but also helping others learn through the variety of channels and mediums he posts in. I love that he recognises there are different ways to absorb content. I particularly loved the puzzle metaphor Sean used earlier in convo.
The one thing I will carry forward is Sean’s sentiment around there is a lot of “perfection” in our community. We often see the “pretty bit”. (I know that phrase may rustles a few feathers) but in terms of development it is often the stuff that doesn’t reach tableau public where most of our learnings happen. Where you try something knew and essentially break things. That is the space of learning that we should all cherish!
If you’d like to follow Sean, be sure to check out his site, public page, youtube as well as give him a follow on Twitter.