Can Tableau really change your life?
Well, you hear a lot on Twitter and blogs about how Tableau has helped people to really see and understand their data, and changed people’s lives in moving from Excel treacle to worksheet and dashboards, fast iterations and rapid prototyping, all with claims around Tableau changing people’s lives, but actually, in those instances it really has enhanced them rather than changed them.
I want to share my journey below and explain how Tableau Software really has changed my life.
I am now 43 years of age and have been working for 26 of them (I know what you are thinking – he really doesn’t look that old), during which time I have had three pretty distinctive career fields –
- Business Intelligence
Now little did I know, when I started out pushing trolleys at the weekend in my local supermarket where that would take me and how I have always been seen as ‘the data guy’ without realising it throughout my career.
As I progressed through the rank and file, I can remember becoming the Manager with the accountability for the figures and communicating this to the wider team. No real tools were available then, so it was down to a 20ft long sheet of brown paper, segmented into each department and the key metrics, and using different coloured post it notes to indicate performance vs. plan with the figures annotated on the notes.
This eventually got me a position in head office as a Finance Analyst for our convenience stores. My role was to help ‘show the numbers’ and put context on what was going on. Our systems back then were very basic and green screen based. Text based data, hard to extract and do anything informative with.
I remember building a sales graph by department which took ages and I was really proud of , which would have looked like this
But as my manager pointed out, how can they really read this as it is too busy. This got me thinking about the way I visualise and how I can improve it – btw I also produced something like this and was extremely proud with myself that I found an online plug in that would let me label every element of the pie #puffschest
I started to research graphing best practices and improved my offering to the business, but not before destroying the rules of the ink to non data ink ratio making everything bold and black on the screen which I could!
The visualisation which really got my work on the radar, was an excel plug in which allowed me to build a treemap. I had seen one on a BBC science programme, and thought it was a great way to visualise a large amount of data on the screen – up until this point I had used bars and scrolled left to right !!!
Not earth shattering, but at the time quite forward thinking.
Fast forward a few years and I am an Accountant at easyJet looking after our Commercial and Network divisions. We were a sea of Excel tables and poor visualisations. I thought that it would be a good opportunity to bring back the treemap to visualise all 650 routes across 25 bases onto a single view. This time though, I didn’t want to use Excel but thought that there would be a better way.
A quick Google introduced me to two things – The words ‘Business Intelligence’ and a product by a company called HIVE which natively built treemaps. The definitions I read of Business intelligence resonated with what I had been trying to achieve throughout my career without realising it was a field in its own right.
The product by HIVE was interesting, it only built treemaps and was used by the US Army to look at inventory in the battlefield. It also had Dr Ben Schneiderman on its board of advisors, the man who invented the treemap.
Although the treemap was useful, through my research I discovered some other tools and eventually settled on using ……… Omniscope.
Omniscope was UK based, provided treemaps as well as a number of other chart types including network graphs and also had built in ETL functionality (something else I had to Google!).
My CFO was impressed with the demo I built and I was allowed to purchase 5 licenses and training for the team. The company we partnered with for this was called Atheon, run by Guy Cuthbert. Following the initial work, we looked at doing a larger piece of analysis and gave Atheon two years worth of our bookings data as well as a number of other data sets which we had not blended on before and asked what they could come up with.
When Guy presented back, he used Omniscope and introduced another tool called Tableau. Now I have to admit, when I first saw Tableau, I wasn’t impressed. It was version 7.0. It did not have treemaps. It did not have ETL capability. I needed a server to share the output? Sounded like a con to me.
So I plugged away with Omniscope and was working on a new product that easyJet was about to launch and was exploring with the data generated. The project was allocated seating. I used a custom background map to build this
And then used animation to show how the seat sales on the aircraft built up prior to departure.
We was introduced to a few new features coming in Tableau 8, primarily treemaps. We got a trial desktop licence (actually two) and a trial of server, which we couldn’t get IT to help with or support so we installed it on a desktop tower PC under the desk, shhhh. 😎
A colleague and myself built a few visualisations and we purchased a few desktop licences. He brought in a contractor for a few days who was skilled in Tableau to build things faster. She worked for a company called The Information Lab.
I remember having a conversation with our Tableau sales representative at the time about potentially purchasing another 15 desktop licences and I asked if we could be put in touch with other customers / airlines to share experiences and help with our business case and being told in no uncertain terms that if I buy the licences they will put me in touch, otherwise I am wasting their time!
I really was not feeling enamored with these Tableau folks.
However over the next week or so, something strange happened. I started to fall in love with Tableau. Compared with Omniscope it felt modern. It was fast. I could iterate and try and fail and try again. I had another conversation with Tom Brown, the founder of The Information Lab. he came in and we agreed to run a two day training course for our new users and we purchased the additional licences. I discovered his passion for Tableau and the Information Lab’s journey and was also impressed by his teams skill and ability to support us.
At the same time, easyJet was embarking on its BI journey. My boss was in charge as it was deliberately a Finance led and not IT led initiative. I was asked to be full time on it and manage the project. We partnered with Deloitte to help us with this and I also spent time with Gartner, using their research to help up develop our Centre of Excellence, show us how to deliver self service BI and also to define what the Analyst of Tomorrow should look like.
Here is a Prezi which I presented at the internal Tableau Sales Kick Off in 2014. The audience looked like this –
Click on the image below to go into the Prezi
As you can see, we covered a lot more than just Tableau, developing a colour palette as well as visualisation standards and best practices, as well as what would be different for our analysts and how they will evolve in the future – all of which I will cover in a later blog post.
The team developed and we had nearly 80 desktop users, a 16 core server and thousands of users. Our CoE was regarded by peers and people in the know as being one of the best in the world.
Another area which helped with this was leading the London Tableau User Group alongside Paul Banoub and Nick Bignell. This increased my presence in the community as we often fill 150-200 seat venues with a similar number of people on our wait lists. We have hosted two #datapluswomen sessions, had industry renowned speakers as well as senior employees of Tableau themselves presenting, including Elissa Fink and Francois Ajenstat.
I use Twitter as my primary tool to learn new things in Tableau as well as the data visualisation sphere. This has also helped to increase my presence within the community.
At the turn of this year, the easyJet CoE was doing a great job and launching some fantastic new Tableau dashboards. We had some changes though. Our long term Head of BI had moved on and due to budget constraints was not directly replaced however our recently created Head of Data Science took over.
I had been thinking about a change of role around the same time. My daily commute took four hours, I had a very energetic (who doesn’t) two year old daughter, and these combined didn’t really go well together.
My CV was old, like six years old as I had not changed it or Linkedin since I joined easyJet, so I subtly made adjustments to it and put the word out to a few influential people in the BI community that I might be available for the right role, should it come up.
When adjusting my CV, I wanted to change it from a standard text document to something more vibrant and creative which could demonstrate some of the work my team and I had achieved.
I looked on CV sites for guidance and settled on hloom and specifically their creative and portfolio templates. Originally designed for photographers, I thought that would be perfect to showcase my Tableau work.
The next few months were a bit of a whirlwind to be honest. During this process there was only one role which I spotted online and actually applied for – this was with a leading technology company and I had two interviews which went really well, before they decided to withdraw the role due to a change of direction.
Through word of mouth and introductions from the BI community I had several discussions with companies about potential roles they either had, or wanted to create following our discussions and a standard presentation I give on the work that my team had done and how every company could benefit from this BI focus.
I even had a discussion with the retailer where my career began!
In the end, I had four firm offers for roles on the table, all from meetings and general chats and discussions. Not all of them had formal interviews. It was a very surreal process. One was from a prominent retailer, another from a property company, a third from an airline and a fourth from the Organisation I am now working for.
The roles were varied and at the time, newly created and unadvertised. I found that my reputation and previous work had gone a long way to convincing companies of the need to improve their BI offering, which my presentations and discussions only further cemented. The roles ranged from Centre of Excellent Manager, to Head of BI, to Head of Insights and Global Director of Business Intelligence.
During our conversations, I felt that even for the companies I turned down roles with, their BI journey’s would be enhanced as I offered suggestions and partnerships to help drive them forwards, which I know at least two have carried on with.
The role I took came about via a strange course, and originated with an email to Tableau from my predecessor, asking ‘can you put me in touch with someone in the London / UK market for sourcing a Tableau Rockstar that we could secure for a leadership position’
This found its way to Tom Brown with a little more detail and was forwarded to me. At the time, I was a long way down the road in discussions with one of the other companies, but the location and a few conversations about the journey and team convinced me this was the right role for me.
I was leaving a role and company I loved and jumping into an exciting unknown, however the role was fantastic and everything I had done before had led to the perfect timing of this becoming available.
I have now been here four months. Initially working hard creating a sense of teamwork as the team themselves are virtual, based across five Countries and six timezones.
The team is split across five distinct areas –
So can Tableau change your life? Absolutely. For me, it has been career changing, improved my salary and provided opportunities that I could only dream of when I started out pushing trolleys. I have made some great lifelong friends and really enjoy getting out of bed and going to work in the morning.
If you want to grow into a larger role or spread your wings, now is the time. Look at all the things you currently do in your role which you or your leadership sees as ‘business as usual’, and step back to think about how other companies would bite your arm off to implement them. Think about your Tableau and BI journey and where you are compared to most other companies.
To help yourself, work on your public profile. Write a blog. Present at conferences. Build a great supportive network. Become involved in your local user groups. Learn the tools. Articulate the best practices you are using without compromising proprietary information. Be innovative with your CV and confident in your abilities.
Over the next few years, more and more companies are going to be looking for people like you to build and delivery their BI propositions. Take a look at the skills gap the Data School is current filling, then realise Tableau really can change your life too.