Don’t be a Bridge, Instead be a Lock

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time pondering my role in the world of data.  There’s this common phrase that we as data visualization and data analytics (BI) professionals hear all the time (and that I am guilty of saying):

“I serve as the bridge between business and IT.”

Well – I’m here to say it’s time to move on.  Why?  Because the bridge analogy is incomplete.  And because it doesn’t accurately represent the way in which we function in this critical role.  At first glance the bridge analogy seams reasonable.  A connector, something that joins two disparate things.  In a very physical way it connects two things that otherwise have an impasse between them.  The business is an island.  IT is an island.  Only a bridge can connect them.  But is this really true?

Instead of considering the two as separate entities that must be connected, what if we rethought it to be bodies of water at different levels?  They touch each other, they are one.  They are the same type of thing.  The only difference is that they are at different levels, so something like a boat can’t easily go between them.  Is this not what is really happening.  “The business” and “IT” are all really one large organization – not two separate, foreign entities.

This is where the role of being the Lock comes in.  A lock is the mechanism by which watercraft are raised or lowered between waterways.  And to a large extent it is a better analogy to our roles in data.  We must adapt to the different levels of business and IT.  And more importantly it is our responsibility to form that function – and to get the boat (more specifically “the data”) through from one canal to the other.

Even exploring what Wikipedia says about a lock – it fits better.

“Locks are used to make a river more easily navigable, or to allow a canal to cross land that is not level. ”

“Larger locks allow for a more direct route to be taken” [paraphrased]

Is this not how we function in our daily roles?  How fitting is it to say this:

“My role is to make your data more easily navigable.  My goal is to allow data to flow through on your level.  I’m here to allow a more direct route between you and your data.”

It feels right.  I’m there to help you navigate your data through both IT and business waters.  And it is my privilege and honor to facilitate this.  Let’s drop the bridge analogy and move toward a new paradigm – the world where we are locks, adjusting our levels to fit the needs of both sides.

Boost Your Professional Skills via Games

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were looking for opportunities to get more strategic, focus on communication skills, improve your ability to collaborate, or just stretch your capacity to think critically?  Well I have the answer for you: pick up gaming.

Let’s pause for a second and provide some background: I was born the same year the NES was released in North America – so my entire childhood was littered with video games.  I speak quite often about how much video gaming has influenced my life.  I find them to be one of the best ways to unleash creativity, have a universe where failure is safe, and there is always an opportunity for growth and challenge.

With all that context you may think this post is about video games and how they can assist with growing out the aforementioned skills.  And that’s where I’ll add a little bit of intrigue: this post is actually dedicated to tabletop games.

For the past two years I’ve picked up an awesome hobby – tabletop gaming.  Not your traditional Monopoly or Game of Life – but games centered around strategy and cooperation.  I’ve taken to playing them with friends, family, and colleagues as a way to connect and learn.  And along the way I’ve come across a few of my favorites that serve as great growth tools.

Do I have you intrigued?  Hopefully!  Now on to a list of recommendations.  And the best part?  All but one of these can be played with 2 players.  I often play games with my husband as a way to switch off my brain from the hum of everyday life and into the deep and rich problems and mechanics that arise during game play.

First up – Jaipur

Jaipur is only a 2 player game that centers around trading and selling goods.  The main mechanics here are knowing when to sell, when to hold, and how to manipulate the market.  There are camel cards that get put in place that when returned cause new goods to appear.

Why you should play: It is a great way to understand value at a particular moment in time.  From being first to market, to waiting until you have several of a specific good to sell, to driving changes in the market by forcing your opponent’s hand.  It helps unlock the necessity to anticipate next steps.  It shows how you can have control over certain aspects (say all the camels to prevent variety in the market), but how that may put you at a disadvantage when trying to sell goods.

It’s a great game that is played in a max of 3 rounds and probably 30 minutes.  The variety and novelty of what happens makes this a fun to repeat game.

Hanabi

Hanabi is a collaborative game that plays anywhere from 2 to 5 people.  The basic premise is that you and your friends are absentminded fireworks makers and have mixed up all the fireworks (numeric sets 1 to 5 of 5 different colors).  Similar to Indian Poker you have a number of cards (3 or 4) facing away from you.  That is to say – you don’t know your hand, but your friends do.  Through a series of sharing information and discarding/drawing cards everyone is trying to put down cards in order from 1 to 5 for particular colors.  If you play a card too soon then the fireworks could go off early and there’s only so much information to share before the start of the fireworks show.

This is a great game to learn about collaboration and communication.  When you’re sharing information you give either color or numeric information to someone about their hand.  This can be interpreted several different ways and it’s up to the entire team to communicate effectively and adjust to interpretation style.  It also forces you to make choices.  My husband and I recently played and got dealt a bunch of single-high value cards that couldn’t be played until the end.  We had to concede as a team that those targets weren’t realistic to go after and were the only way we could end up having a decent fireworks display.

Lost Cities

This is another exclusively two player game.  This is also a set building game where you’re going on exploration missions to different natural wonders.  Your goal is to fill out sets in numeric order (1 to 10) by color.  There’s a baseline cost to going on a mission, so you’ll have to be wise about going off on a mission.  There are also cards you can play (before the numbers) that let you double, triple, or quadruple your wager on successfully going on the exploration.  You and your opponent take turns drawing from a pool of known cards or from a deck.  Several tactics can unfold here.  You can build into a color early, or completely change paths once you see what the other person is discarding.  It’s also a juggling act to decide how much to wager to end up making money.

Bohnanza

This one plays well with a widespread number of players.  The key mechanic here is that you’re a bean farmer with 2 fields to plant beans.  The order in which you receive cards is crucial and can’t be changed.  It’s up to you to work together with your fellow farmers at the bean market to not uproot your fields too early and ruin a good harvest.  This is a rapid fire trading game where getting on someone’s good side is critical and you’ll immediately see the downfall of holding on to cards for the “perfect deal.”  But of course you have to balance out your friendliness with the knowledge that if you share too many high value beans the other farmers may win.  There’s always action on the table and you have to voice your offer quickly to remain part of the conversation.

The Grizzled

The Grizzled is a somewhat melancholy game centered around World War I.  You’re on a squad and trying to successfully fulfill missions before all morale is lost.  You’ll do this by dodging too many threats and offering support to your team.  You’ll even make speeches to encourage your comrades.  This game offers lots of opportunities to understand when and how to be a team player to keep morale high and everyone successful.  The theme is a bit morose, but adds context to the intention behind each player’s actions.

The Resistance

Sadly this requires a minimum of 5 people to play, but is totally worth it.  As the box mentions it is a game of deduction and deception.  You’ll be dealt a secret role and are either fighting for victory or sabotage.  I played this one with 8 other colleagues recently and pure awesomeness was the result.  You’ll get the chance to pick teams for missions, vote on how much you trust each other, and ultimately fight for success or defeat.  You will get insight into crowd politics and how individuals handle situations of mistrust and lack of information.  My recent 9 player game divulged into using a white board to help with deductions!

Next time you’re in need of beefing up your soft skills or detaching from work and want to do it in a productive and fun manner – consider tabletop gaming.  Whether you’re looking for team building exercises or safe environments to test how people work together – tabletop games offer it all.  And in particular – collaborative tabletop games.  With most games there’s always an element of putting yourself first, but you will really start to understand how individuals like to contribute to team mechanics.

The Importance of Certification

I’ve long been a huge advocate of certification in technical fields.  I think it is a great way to actively communicate and demonstrate the skill level you have in a particular area.  Even further in my mind it represents the ability to set a foundation to build off of with others.

I personally started my Tableau certification journey last year (more like 18 to 20 months ago).  I was becoming much more heavily involved in my local Tableau user group and felt that I needed a way to benchmark or assess my skills.  I knew I had much more to contribute to my local community and I thought that going through the certification journey and sharing that with the TUG would be beneficial.

So I started by getting ready for the Desktop Qualified Exam.  Independently I went through all the existing documentation and searched for knowledge nuggets that would set me on the right path.  I took the stance of developing out all of my own knowledge gaining to a format that could be digested by a larger audience.  I walked through all of the practice exam questions and did an analysis of the different certification levels to the user group at least 3 times.

I passed the Desktop Qualified Associate around April or May of 2016.  It was a great achievement – and I was able to add definition to what that exam means.  Having the Desktop Qualified Associate certification means that you are technically proficient in the features and functions of Tableau Desktop.  It means that you can answer thoughtful questions using built in features and that you have depth of understanding best practices or efficient ways to get to the results.  If I were to equate it to a different skill – I would say that it means you know how and when to use different tools in a toolbox.  What it doesn’t mean: that you are a masterful architect or that you can build a stunningly beautiful home.

To get to the next level of mastery and understanding, that means you’ll need the Certified Professional.  If you take a look at the specific components that are tested you’ll quickly realize that advanced technical skill is weighted less than storytelling or analysis.  The purpose of the Desktop Certified Professional is to demonstrate that you have a deep understanding of data visualization, using data visualization to tell a story, and how level two (or three or four) analytics or analysis are necessary to start answering deeper and more important (read as: higher impact) questions.

For me to work on preparation here – the exam prep guide was only the beginning.  It assists in the structural components of 1) knowing how many questions there will be 2) estimating time available to spend on each question 3) examples of analytical/presentation depth required to demonstrate proficiency 4) variety of question types.

Probably the most intriguing questions for me are those where you have to assess a particular visualization, give and justify a critique (and specifically how it relates to a described objective) and then provide an alternative solution (also justifying verbally the importance).  This skill is much different than knowing how to hammer a nail into a post.  It is defending why you chose to put a porch on the northeast corner of a home.  It’s a lot about feel.

I had such an awesome time taking the exam.  There are a lot of real world constraints that required me to distill down the most important components of each question.  It’s interesting because for most items there isn’t a single right answer.  There are definitely lots of wrong answers, but right is a spectrum that is somewhat dependent on your ability to communicate out the completeness of your point of view.

I’ve had the title of Tableau Desktop Certified Professional for just over a year now – so I can tell you with a decent amount of retrospective thought what it has done for me.  Just as I am able to describe the test and purpose it served in this blog post – I can do the same thing in all of my interactions.  It keeps me humble to knowing that the PURPOSE behind a visual display is more important than fancy widgets or cool tricks.  That to a large extent my role is to work through the semantics of a situation and get to the root of it.  The root of the question or questions, the heart of concern, the why behind the visualization.  And also the artistry (yes I use this word) behind what it takes to get there.  We have all felt the difference between a perfectly acceptable visualization and the right visualization.  The end user experiences something different.  I firmly believe that deeper understanding can be achieved by spending that extra thoughtfulness and approach to iteration.

So let’s now fast forward to the other certification path – the more recent one: Tableau Server.  What’s interesting is that because my strengths have been built out on the visualization end, I haven’t planted myself in an opportunity to understand the deeper technical components of Tableau Server.  I have always understood and had great depth of knowledge in Site Administration.  That is to say acknowledging and abiding by best practices for sharing, permissions, and managing content.  But – the part that I had not spent time on is creating a sustainable platform to have the vision continuously executed.

So to overcome that minor blind spot – I went on a mission to learn more, to shine light on the unknown.  You’ve seen that play out here on my blog – going on a self directed adventure to deploy a Server on Azure.  Nobody told me to do that – I was internally compelled.  (I should also mention I was honored to have a friend go on the journey with me!)

I’m probably rehashing at this point – but anytime you grow knowledge in a particular area (more specifically technical) it gives you such breadth and depth of vocabulary to be able to connect to other individuals.  You find that communication barriers that were preventing the success of a project are diminished because you now speak the same language.  As I write this I can hear Seth Godin saying that the more knowledge someone has in a particular subject area the more ABSTRACT their language is around it.  Which means that it is extremely difficult to communicate with that SME unless significant effort is taken on the part of both parties to bridge the gap.

So that’s what Tableau Server qualification has done for me.  It’s the first step on a journey to get to the point where I imagine the next level to Server Certified Professional is the act of execution.  It’s less knowledge and verbiage and more tactical.  Also likely there’s more ambiguity – not a right answer, rather a spectrum of right where you communicate your why.

As I wind down this post – I must shout to you “go get certified.”  Ignore the naysayers.  It’s easy to not do something, but you know what is hard?  Doing something.  Being tested.  And why is that?  Because you can fail.  Get over failure – push through that mindset.  The alternative is much more pleasant and unlocks all the potential the universe has to offer.