A few days ago, I wrote about feeling like I was in the Tableau “Data Zone” and the confidence this has given me when working with a wide array of data. I really didn’t think anyone would read the post, but for some reason I was wrong. Every time I write something that seems to me to be unlikely to be of interest to others, it gets more attention than I expect. If I could only figure out how to use Tableau to predict this phenomenon, I’d have another blog post to write!
In general, I have a certain trepidation writing this blog because there are so many highly skilled people working with Tableau that I feel any contributions I can make to the Tableau knowledge base will be trivial compared to the work of others. In particular, before hitting the publish button last week for the data zone article, I feared that the story might just be interpreted as words with no meaning. I just wanted to express what has happened to me as I have learned to use Tableau software over time. As I was writing the story, there were a few examples from my life that I could have used to explain what I was feeling, but I didn’t include them because the story would have gotten too long.
Today is a new day and I feel like writing about a few of those examples of people working in the “zone” to give an additional perspective of what it feels like for me to be working with Tableau software. It is very late at night, my wife keeps telling me to come to bed, but I’ve got to get these thoughts out of my head before they are gone for good. I also want to take the time to recognize other people that have either knowingly or unknowingly helped me improve my Tableau skills through their selfless work in the Tableau community. Their contributions collectively have brought me a lot of inspiration and have allowed me to do the things that I can now do.
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The First Time I Saw Someone in the Zone
I grew up in Chicago as a multi-sports fan. I was very lucky to be able to watch Walter Payton play football for the Bears for all of his career. In 1980 or so, I got to see Walter Payton play basketball at my high school in a demonstration game against our teachers. Although Walter was only 5 foot 10 inches tall, I vividly remember a play where he stole the ball, sprinted down court, and jammed the basketball so easily that it looked like he had just jumped down from the ceiling. I never knew that someone could jump that high! It has been reported that he had a 41 inch vertical leap, but I think he had a secret jet pack strapped to his back. One of his trademark plays was when he leaped high above all the blockers in front of him to score touchdowns. He was able to defy gravity (go to 3:00 in video) and it was a pleasure to watch him play with such great passion. Walter was always in the zone when he played football. There were many reasons why his teammates named him “Sweetness”. The man was a legend and he worked very hard to be great in the game.
The Second Time I Saw Someone in the Zone
I was doubly lucky to be in Chicago when Michael Jordan was drafted by the Bulls. For the first two or three seasons, before the Bulls became a formidable team, I was lucky enough to get to watch Michael play at the Chicago Stadium when many seats were still empty. His competitiveness, athleticism, and charisma were a sight to behold. The man was another legend, and he played in the zone for many years. His exploits are well-documented but I remember thinking about his skills when I watched him play. People are not necessarily born with his full complements of skills. A lot of practice went into making him what he turned out to be. The same could be said of Walter Payton since he worked harder during the off-season than nearly everyone else. Walter’s off-season hill training regime is still emulated by players wanting to be great.
The Third Time I Recognized a Zoner
I worked with a man named Dudley Benton early in my career. When you talk about mathematical and programming talent, Dudley is in a class by himself relative to everyone I have ever worked with. Brilliance is the only term that comes close to describing what he was able to do by programming a computer. His codes were years ahead of their time and the efficiency, accuracy, and robustness of his programs were astounding. Although I was a professional programmer capable of producing some highly sophisticated mathematical codes, when I tried to read Dudley’s codes it was like reading another language. The man was, and still is, a genius. Dudley lived in the programming zone.
The Tableau Data Zoners
There are a bunch of people that deserve to be written about because they do some remarkable things with Tableau Software. Unfortunately I only have direct experience with a few of these brilliant teachers, so if you are not mentioned below, it isn’t because you don’t deserve to be. These people have the passion, insight, and experience to help drive the future of the software. In particular, I have to mention a few people that have helped me learn new techniques and to understand how Tableau works. I really appreciate all the help I have received from everyone listed below, even if you didn’t realize you were helping me! That is one of the cool things about blogs and social media in general. You take a risk by producing and publishing your stuff, but every once in a while it turns out for the good because you have helped someone and have managed to spread your knowledge around.
First off, there is Joe Mako. Joe has helped literally hundreds or even thousands of people solve their Tableau issues. Joe is one of the most remarkable, giving people I have ever had the opportunity to talk with. Joe is always willing to talk to you and help you resolve your problems. I do not believe that Joe was born with a copy of the Tableau source code permanently etched in the neural network of his brain because in our early days of using Tableau, there were some questions that I posed to Joe that he couldn’t answer at the time! He has worked his tail off to gain the skills and insights that he shares with us. He may have invented his own language to describe how Tableau works, with words like data densification, data scaffolding, domain padding, domain completion, range awareness, and effective, relative, and advanced compute using. He has reverse-engineered parts of the code by trial-and-error so that he knows what Tableau will do before it actually happens. Watching him work is a spectacle as he is very calculating and makes his moves like he is in a grand master playing in a timed chess match. The “show-me” button doesn’t exist for Joe. He doesn’t let Tableau tell him what to plot, he tells the software what he wants to plot. It is a different way of working and when you are watching it unfold before you on a computer screen from 2500 miles away, you realize the command that he has over the software. Additionally, if your brain works at 800 gigahertz, Joe’s brain will be working at twice that frequency. You know you have met your match when the first question Joe asks you about an example is: “What is your compute using?”, and you pause, think about it for a minute and answer: “my brain?”, “my computer?”, and finally, “I give up, I have no idea!”. This man is a Tableau Legend and he lives and breathes in the Tableau Data Zone.
Secondly, there is a man in Maine named Jonathan Drummey. This dude is meticulous, insightful, and is masterful at documenting his techniques. Where he finds the time to do what he has done is unbelievable to me. He has pushed the limits of Tableau with some outlandish examples that blow my mind. I find myself constantly going back to some of his earlier blog posts to see if I can finally understand what the heck he was actually talking about. He is a master of invention and I have learned a ton from him. I can only imagine how he uses Tableau on his real job! He and Joe help so many people that they should be paid a handsome salary from the Tableau community bank.
Not so long ago, Jonathan had another guy show up on his blog as a “guest blogger”. His name is Noah Salvaterra. This guy is Einstein in disguise. There is no picture of him except for a tea kettle. I cannot believe the stuff that he is doing in Tableau, so one day I decided to call Joe Mako to ask him if he had ever heard of this guy. I ask Joe: “Is Noah Salvaterra a real person or is he just Jonathan’s Alter-Ego?”. Joe assures me that Noah is a real person and that he helped train Noah in the methods of Tableau. Figures. Enough said. With Jonathan and Joe’s help, Noah has gone from a Tableau newbie into the Tableau stratosphere in one season. It is obvious that he has an enormous amount of talent and Noah’s blog posts will live in infamy. His recent spinning globe/earthquake data visualization is tremendous (hey, I’m a geologist and I love this type of data!). One day Tableau might catch up to Noah, although I’m not sure that it will happen anytime soon.
For several years, I kept noticing that I really liked the stuff this guy named Andy Kriebel was writing. Sometimes things just click with you and Andy’s contributions are pragmatic and they make sense to me. It might be that Andy does a lot with sports dashboards and those insights are appealing to me. He was also the first to show me some other cool technologies like Vizify. I always thought Andy worked for Tableau because he was fully Tableau compliant, he fully bought into Tableau. I was surprised when I realized that he worked for Facebook because he is such a Tableau master.
Similar to Andy, there is this gal named Jen Underwood down in Florida that is just prolific across a wide platform of tools and technologies. She is like a machine. I cannot recount how many mornings I was reading her blog as I rode my stationary bike trainer this past winter. She blasts out so much timely material that you have to have a part-time job following her blog just to keep up with her.
Allan Walker’s mapping extension work in Tableau this year has been outstanding and is really pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Allan is always very helpful and quick to response to requests for help. He is my best buddy that I have never met. Along with Allan, Craig Bloodsworth has been instrumental in helping me with the Alteryx and Tableau combined experience. Craig is also very quick to lend a hand when needed.
Although Jeffery Shaffer’s website home page is intentionally one of the simplest looking pages in web history, don’t be fooled because there is some great content on his site. His Tableau skills are outstanding, as evidenced by his recent win in the Tableau quantified self viz contest.
There are a bunch of really cool people that write excellent blogs and do great things in Tableau. Each day I try to catch what everyone is doing but it isn’t always possible. When I think about the people that I want to follow the list is extensive and includes a bunch of UK guys (Andy Cotgreave, Russel Christopher, Matt Francis, and many others), the artists Kelly Martin, Anya A’Hearn, and Jewel Loree, Mark Jackson, Ramon Martinez, Dan Murray and a bunch of Interworks staff, Francois Ajenstat, Ben Jones, Dustin Smith and numerous other Tableau staff, Peter Gilks, Dan Montgomery and Joshua Milligan… The amount of material being produced and the innovations being developed on a daily basis are awesome and I’m glad that I can see this work unfolding in real time! The future is bright for Tableau and for all of us that use it to make sense of this crazy world.
I think it would be great if someone could put together a visual history of Tableau development by showing what was possible in the software over time. The presentation could be one dashboard per year that represents the best use of Tableau at the time the dashboard was created. I think we would all be astounded to see how far Tableau software, and we as users of the software, have come over the past few years.
If you don’t like reading, you can listen to me read this article by clicking the audio player below.
Update Two Months Later
I didn’t plan on writing anything else about being in the “Tableau Data Zone”. However, circumstances occurred which were too striking for me to ignore, so I wrote the final part of this series. Click here to read the post titled “The Conclusion of the #Tableau Data Zone”.