An Interview with Alexander Varlamov (A Tableau Zen Master and Public Ambassador)

A weekly blog about the ‘data viz’-making process, #datafam / data analytics member interviews, & entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).

Feature Interview

Mico’s Intro: Alexander (Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public | Blog) has been a #DataFam visualization superstar well before I joined. One of the 1st things that struck me about him, besides his mind-blowing work, is his humility and support of our community. It wasn’t until I researched his background for this interview I learned he had a Ph.D. He continues to inspire and pursue the endless possibilities Tableau has to offer. It is my honor to chat with him (with Priya) about his career, influences, and a bit of his data visualization process.

Adam Mico (AM): In 2006, you earned a Ph.D. in physics and 2017 earned a Master’s Degree in Innovation Management; you currently work as a Lead BI Developer for Playrix. What role does your education have in your role as a BI Developer?

Alexander Varlamov (AV): I started my career teaching at the university and working in a laboratory conducting experiments with crystals. In the early 2000s, our team was engaged in spectroscopy and processed the results of experiments in math programs as Matlab, Mathematica, and Origin Lab. We built charts, diagrams, that is, we were engaged in data visualization, although no one called it ‘data visualization’ back then.

In 2017, I started to learn management, marketing, and finance because I was working as a chief engineer in IT and felt a huge lack of knowledge in these areas. In the learning process, we studied finance and worked with Excel, but I did not like how long and difficult it is to solve some problems (although there were other tools available). Working in an IT company with various databases, we used an open-source BI tool, so it was strange for me to go back to Excel in data analysis (although this is a good tool for its range of tasks). Therefore, I began to independently study in parallel with the Tableau and PowerBI and do financial tasks in them and also started to implement these tools at work. So education in physics and math plus education in management naturally played a big role in my transition to BI, and I am glad that it moved naturally and organically.

AM: In your day-day work, approx what % of the time is working on Tableau and how does that work differ from the work in your public profile?

AV: At work, I’m a Tableau guy who is responsible for all aspects regarding Tableau except server administration. Having a talented team we create data sources on the server, making dashboards or do something for Tableau as data preparation, implementing external services, writing scripts for Tableau, and also make decisions on the BI architecture. I directly use Tableau for approximately 70% of my working time.

The visualization I create for Tableau Public and the Tableau community, I primarily focus on creativity and experimentation with data and visualization (and it’s purely a relaxing and enjoyable process). In Tableau Public, I create visualizations that I never do at work, and I do it for fun and learning. But I must say that in the process of working with Tableau Public I study in the community, and I use a lot of tricks I’ve applied in my daily work.

Priya Padham (PP): What is your usual process when building a viz (drawings on paper, wireframes, trial and error, etc)?

AV: Doing something for Tableau Public, I seldomly draw on paper and but instead use either Tableau or other tools like Python or Excel. Tableau is a really cool tool where you can start visualizing data right away. In fact, the basic sketch for any viz that I’m going to make it in my head, and I just transfer it to Tableau (after having prepared the data). Here, I must say that the initial sketch in my head and the final visualization are usually very different — sometimes even the concepts of visualizations change.

This happens in the process of creating a visualization when you can play with the data and visualize it differently — the search and iteration processes give me the greatest pleasure. During this exploration, additional ideas ‘pop up’ that I want to implement. I remember those ideas, and in fact, I have a queue of tasks for about six months in advance, from which I can choose the most interesting tasks for implementation in future projects.

PP: Where do you get your dataviz inspiration/ideas from?

AV: I skim Reddit, Pinterest and find some interesting articles and blogs. The Tableau community is the greatest inspiration for me. My favorite blog about Tableau is Ken (Twitter | Tableau Public) and Kevin’s (Twitter | Tableau Public) Flerlage blog.

Starting my Tableau journey, I was inspired by a lot of great people: Mike Cisneros (Twitter | Blog) was my icon in aesthetics and storytelling; Filippo Mastroianni (Twitter | Tableau Public) — in data journalism; Ken Flerlage for his math vizzes.

In the last year, Tableau’s community has been collecting tons of very talented and inspirational people. Wendy Shijia (Twitter | Tableau Public) creates brilliant vizzes technically and aesthetically, I also enjoy CJ Mayes (Twitter | Tableau Public) and Robert Janezic’s (Twitter | Tableau Public) experiments with visualizations, also I follow Nick Gerend (Twitter | Tableau Public) who creates another universe in Tableau.

PP: What was your most difficult viz and which viz are you most proud of (please explain why for each)?

AV: My most difficult and a viz I most proud is ‘Japanese Architectural Heritage’. I found the inspiration of the viz in the community, where Takafumi Shukuya (Twitter | Tableau Public) gave me an idea to draw traditional Japanese architecture. I’ve been creating the viz for 1.5 months and this is the longest time to create a visualization I’ve ever created. During this month and a half, I came up with a new approach for working with 3D models, using the .obj format instead of the .stl format. The use of this approach made it possible to draw 3D models not only with triangles but also with polygons of different shapes — this significantly improved the final 3D picture while also improving the performance… since the number of marks decreased. I should say that the initial approach of working with 3D in Tableau was suggested by Noah Salvaterra (Twitter | Site) and Datablick’s team. Allan Walker (Twitter) kindly shared the full history of 3D development in the Tableau community with me.

Making the viz… I dove into 3D tools (like Blender, Meshlab, Sketchup) and Python algorithms. I read a lot about the history of Japan to find the most significant and beautiful architectural buildings. Not everything that was done was included in the final visualization but I significantly expanded my knowledge working with new tools for me and made a blog post about creating 3D with Tableau.

PP: What prompted you to join the analytics (social media) community & what are your tips for people starting in the community?

AV: At work, I used some geo services, and once in February 2018 Mapbox launched a competition where competitors should post their work on Twitter, so I created my Twitter account publishing content for the contest. And the final result of the contest was my first article on Medium.

I knew about the #MakeoverMonday activity previously but never try to participate. I made my first submission in April 2018 called ‘Arctic Ice Extent’, received feedback, and remade it. I should mention that my barrier to participating in #MakeoverMonday was fear. This fear came from the fact that I was afraid that my visualizations would be scolded on and was afraid to write something wrong in English since English is not my native language. The warm feedback and the gentle process of viz review by Eva Murray and Andy Kriebel (plus the support of the Tableau community) helped me as a newbie — I was able to get rid of these fears, instill confidence and continue to develop in the field of data visualization.

I would recommend to people starting in the community: no fear, be yourself, practice and try to make do something new for yourself in each next visualization. So step by step you will significantly improve your data skills and it can drastically change your life.

PP & AM: What was it about data analytics and data visualization that piqued your passion and did it hit you right away or was it a slow-building interest?

AV: I like beautiful pictures that data visualization allows to achieve using any amount of data. Data can be displayed in different ways, but sometimes very unusual and beautiful pictures are obtained. As a child, I had a computer ZX Spectrum and my friends and I built various beautiful mathematical functions, then I began to like to visualize numbers. My passion now regarding data viz and data analysis is experimenting with data and creating something new and beautiful.

PP: What is your favorite thing about being part of the datafam community?

AV: Learning and sharing the knowledge is my favorite part, because in the process of learning that people move to new levels, improving their ability to work with data. This is what allows them to discover new horizons for themselves. It seems to me that our community is developing because everyone in it is both a student and a teacher at the same time.

I also want to note the Russian-speaking Tableau community, which is not so active in social networks (some social networks are blocked or slowed down in Russia) but rather uses messengers. In this data community, you can ask a question and quickly get an answer to it — that is, you can understand how to solve a problem in a few minutes, having received answers from other enthusiasts.

PP & AM: You were just named a 2021 Zen Master. Please explain how that feels and what being a Zen Master means to you?

AV: To be honest, I don’t understand yet what it means to be a Zen Master; I just continue to do what I did before (but it seems to me to be my responsibilities data community is much higher than before). I plan on sharing more knowledge, writing blog posts because I started my Tableau journey from reading the content of Zen Masters and learned a lot from them. So I hope some people will find my blog posts useful for learning and growth in the data field.

PP: Are there any specific future Tableau goals and plans or any vizzes currently working on?

AV: I have unfinished research in the field of ‘the optimal transport’, ‘vector fields’, and ‘bathymetric and elevation lines on a map’. For the last one I use the new geo multilayer feature in Tableau, so I suppose it’s a game-changer of spatial data. I’ve already done some vizzes on all three topics I mentioned, so there will be three blog posts.

AM & PP: Who are your ‘go-to’ people you always seek out in our community for vizpiration and what are your favorite vizzes of theirs?

AV: I cannot list all the people here, unfortunately — there are so many, but there are three creators who I look up periodically to see what they have done:

  • Wendy Shijia (info linked above) whose vizzes are a great combination of technical skills and design. I absolutely love everything that Wendy creates, and ‘Burj Khalifa’ is my favorite (see below).
  • Marc Reid (Twitter | Tableau Public) has a unique blog with detailed explanations of different techniques in Tableau. My favorite viz of his is ‘Museum of Modern Art Collection’ (see below).
  • Ivett Kovacs (Twitter | Tableau Public) produces very attractive and inspirational vizzes. My favorite viz of hers is ‘Celebrations Around The World’ (see below).

PP: What music do you enjoy listening to when vizzing?

AV: I prefer indy or old school rock. Usually, I listen to ‘Imagine Dragons’, ‘One Republic’, ‘Metallica’, ‘Scorpions’.

AM: Please share fun facts that many readers may not know about you?

AV:

  1. I graduated from music school, bayan (accordion class), sometimes I play it. (Mico’s Note: Here’s a video I saw on a cool bayan performance.)
  2. I do almost all visualizations at night (between 10 PM and 2 AM) and I come up with visualization ideas while taking a bath or running in the forest.

Mico’s Odds and Ends

  • On 3/15, Tableau published Allen Hillary’s (Twitter | Blog) interview of Hunter Hansen (Twitter | YouTube) and me on Neurodiversity and Data. It was a deeply personal reflection and encourage you to read and share to help get a little bit more of an understanding of the subject from two people on the autism spectrum (with a person who asks great questions). Check it out here.
  • On 3/20, we had our 2nd monthly #DataFam Remo Hangout. It was an incredibly fun gathering of 42 DataFam members. Here a pic of many of us… The next one is tentatively planned for 4/17 at 10 AM Chicago time!

Binge Bite

“Who Killed Malcolm X” is a fascinating docuseries covering the murder of Malcolm X, its lack of justice, as well as providing an intriguing biography while tearing apart the lax investigation and wrongful imprisonment of two people concerning Malcolm's murder.

Music Morsel

The Sleepy Jackson are an Aussie Alternative Rock outfit that had some underground success including this fun garage rock revival track from their debut album in 2003.

#DataVizThoughts Editing Team

Adam Mico

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public

Priya Padham

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public

Keyrus US’ Tableau Evangelist and Tableau Ambassador | Data Leadership Collaborative Advisory Board Member. | Views are my own | Co-Editor: Priya Padham