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.

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.


March & April Combined Book Binge

Time for another recount of the content I’ve been consuming.  I missed my March post, so I figured it would be fine to do a combined effort.

First up:

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin

In my last post I mentioned that I got a recommendation to tune in to Seth and got the opportunity to hear him firsthand on Design Matters.  Well, here’s the first full Seth book I’ve consumed and it didn’t disappoint.  If I had to describe what this book contains – I would say that it is a near manifesto for the modern artist.  The world is run by industrialists and the artist is trying to break through.

I appreciate how Seth frames the concept of an artist – he unpacks the term and invites or ENCOURAGES everyone to identify as such.  Being an artist means being emotionally invested, showing up, giving a shit.  That giving a shit, caring, connecting is ALL there is.  That you succeed in the world by connecting, by sharing your art.  These concepts and ideals resonate deeply with me.  He also explains how vulnerable and gutting it can be to live as an artist – something I’ve felt and experienced several times.

During the course of listening to this book I was on site with a client.  We got to a certain point, agreed on the direction and visualizations, then shared them with the broader team.  The broader team came heavy with design suggestions – most notable the green/red discussion came in to play.  I welcome these challenges and as an artist and communicator it is my responsibility to share my process, listen to feedback, and collaborate to find a solution.  That definitely occurred throughout the process, but honestly caused me to lose my balance for a moment.

As I reflected on what happened – I was drawn to this idea that as a designer I try to have ultimate empathy for the end user.  And furthermore the amount of care given to the end user is never fully realized by the casual interactor.  A melancholy realization, but one that should not be neglected or forgotten.

Moving on to the next book:

Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

This one landed in my lap because it was available while perusing through library books.

A quick read that talks about how to succeed in business.  It takes an extreme focus on being married to a vision and committing to it.  The authors focus on getting work done.  Sticking to a position and seeing it through.  I very much appreciated that they were PROUD of decisions they made for their products and company.  Active decisions NOT to do something can be more liberating and make someone more successful than being everything to everyone.

Last up was this guy:

Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte

A continuation of reading through all the Tufte books.  I am being lazy by saying “more of the same.”  Or “what I’ve come to expect.”  These are lazy terms, but they encapsulate what Tufte writes about: understanding visual displays of information.  Analyzing at a deep level the good, bad, and ugly of displays to get to the heart of how we can communicate through visuals.

I particularly loved some of the amazing train time tables displayed.  This concept of using lines to represent timing of different routes was amazing to see.  And the way color is explored and leveraged is on another level.  I highly recommend this one if the thought of verbalizing your witnessing of Tufte’s strong tongue-in-cheek style sounds entertaining.  I know for me it was.

Book Binge – January Edition

It’s time for another edition of book binge – a random category of blog posts devised (and now only on its second iteration) where I walk through the different books I’ve read and purchased this month.

First – a personal breakthrough!  I have always been an avid reader, but admittedly become lazy in recent years.  Instead of reading at least one book a month, I was going on small reading sprees of 2 or 3 books every four or five months.  After the success of my December reads, I figured I would keep things going and try to substitute books as entertainment whenever possible.

Here are a few books I read in January:

The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo

I picked this one up because it is quintessential to the world of data journalism and data visualization.  I also thought it would be great to get into the head of one of the instructors of a MOOC I’m taking.  Plus who can resist the draw of the slope chart on the cover?

I loved this one.  I like Alberto’s writing style.  It is rooted in logic and his use of text spacing and bold as emphasis is heavy on impact.  I appreciate that he says data visualization has to first be functional, but reminds us that it has to be seen to matter.  It’s also interesting to read the interviews/profiles in the end of the book of journalists.  This is an excellent way for me to shift my perspective and paradigm.  I come from the analysis/mathematical side of things – these folks are there to communicate stories of data.  A great read that is broken up in such a way that it is easy to digest.

Next book was The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte

Obviously a classic read for anyone in the data visualization world by the “father” of modern information graphics.  I must admit I picked up all 4 of Tufte’s books in December, and couldn’t get my brain wrapped around them.  I was flipping through the pages to get a sense for how the information was contained and felt a little intimidated.  That intimidation was all in my head.  Once I began reading – the flow of information made perfect sense.

I appreciate Tufte’s voice and axiom type approach to information graphics.  Yes – there are times when it is snarky and absurd, but it is also full of purpose.  He walks through information graphics history, spotlighting many of the greats and lamenting the lack of recent progression (or more of a recession) in the art.

I have two favorites in this one: how he communicates small multiples and sparklines.  The verbiage used to describe the impact (and amount of information) small multiples can convey is poetic (and I don’t really like poetry).  His work on developing and demonstrating sparklines is truly illuminating.  There were times where I had dreams of putting together some of the high “data-ink” low “chartjunk” visuals that he described.  And his epilogue makes me forgive all the snarkyness.  The first in a series that I am ecstatic to continue to read.

The last book I’ll highlight this month was a short read – a Christmas present from a friend.

Together is Better by Simon Sinek

I’m very familiar with Simon – mostly because of his famous TED talk on starting with why. I’ve read his book on the subject as well. So I was delighted to be handed this tiny gem.  Written in hybrid format of children’s book and inspirational quote book – this is a good one to flip through if you’re in need of a quiet moment.  Simon calls himself a self professed optimist at the end, and that’s definitely how I left the book feeling.

It aims at sparking the inner fire we all have – and the most powerful moment: Simon saying that you don’t have to invent a new idea and then follow it.  It is perfectly acceptable to commit to someone else’s vision and follow them.  It frees you completely from the world of “special,” new, and different that entrepreneurial and ambitious types (myself) get hung up on.  You don’t have to make up an original idea – just find something that resonates deeply with you and latch on.  That is just as powerful as being a visionary.

The other part of this book devotes a significant amount of snippet takes on leadership.  A friendly reminder of what leadership looks like.  Leadership is not management.

I’ve got more books on the way and will be back in a month with three new reads to share.

How do you add value through data analytics?

I recently read this article that really ignited a lot of thoughts that often swirl around in my mind.  If you were to ask me what my drive is, it’s making data-informed, data-driven decisions.  My mechanism for this is through data visualization.  More broadly than that, it is communicating complex ideas in a visual manner.  Often when you take an idea and paint it into a picture people can connect more deeply to it and it becomes the catalyst for change.

All that being said – I’ve encountered a sobering problem.  Those on the more “analytical” side of the industry sometimes fail to see the value in the communication aspect of data analytics.  They’ve become mired down by the concept that knowing statistical programming languages, database theory, and structured query language are the most important aspects of the process.  While I don’t discount the significance of these tools (and the ability to utilize them correctly), I can’t be completely on board with it.

We’ve all sat in a meeting that is born out of one idea: how do we get better.  We don’t get better by writing the most clever and efficient SQL query.  We get better by talking through and really understanding what it IS we’re trying to measure.  When we say X what do we mean?  How do we define X.  Defining X is the hard part – pulling it out of the database, not as difficult.  If you can get really good at definitions, it becomes intuitive when you start trying to incorporate it into your business initiatives.

As we continue to evolve in the business world, I highly encourage those from both ends of the spectrum to try and meet somewhere in the middle.  We have an unbelievable amount of technical tools at our disposal, yet quite often you step into a business who is still trying to figure out HOW to measure the most basic of metrics.  Let’s stop and consider how this happened and work on achieving excellence and improvement through the marriage of business and technical acumen – with artistry and creativity thrown in there for good measure.