An Interview with Ghafar Shah (Most Growth Vizzie Award Winner, Tableau Public Featured Author, 2020 & Blogger)
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).
Adam’s Note: Besides being a data viz influencer, blogger, earning a VOTD, Vizzie Award, and Tableau Public Featured Author nod in 2020, Ghafar Shah (Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public | Blog) is a very humble, helpful, and community-focused person in our datafam. We’re very excited to share his ascending dataviz journey with you.
Priya Padham (PP) & Adam Mico (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?
Ghafar Shah (GS): It was kind of a slow-building interest for me. I actually never thought of entering the data analytics and visualization space. The first time I ever experienced seeing data and analytics were at our local Tableau User Group. At the time, I had begun my first internship as a software developer at Comcast. Josh Tapley (Tableau Public | Twitter), who runs our Philly Tableau User Group invited me to attend a meetup nearby. I was really looking for something different career-wise because coding eight-hours a day was not as fun as I imagined. I really wanted to mix up the kind of work that I did since coding all-day felt too consistent. It was at this user group meetup when I saw how fascinating Tableau is and what it can do. I was immensely shocked and amazed by the beautiful data visualizations folks were sharing. On top of that, it was so awesome to see how a story was easily and beautifully communicated on a Tableau dashboard. I have never seen anything like it. That is when I started to get interested in data visualization and wanted my next gig to be in analytics.
AM: What was your 1st data job and how did that challenge any of your preconceptions of data and its approach? More specifically, what did you learn that’s not taught in school?
GS: I got my first gig as an analytics intern with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) team at Comcast. In this internship, I used Tableau and SQL. I absolutely loved it. I used to think that I would be staring at Excel spreadsheets all day. As a data analyst, I actually spent more time creating dashboards and experimenting with new designs. After a year of working with the DE&I analytics team, I was converted full-time and stayed on with the group for two more years. During this time, I learned a lot about the corporate world and how a big organization like Comcast leverages data for exploratory and explanatory analysis. These experiences really helped me become a better storyteller and presenter in front of senior leadership.
AM: You work for Comcast/NBC Universal as a Senior Analyst. Approximately what % of the time is working in Tableau. Working professional with data visualization, what are some of the most underrated skills needed to be effective in that capacity?
GS: I actually started my new role as a Senior Analyst with the Local Media Development (LMD) group less than two months ago. During this short period of time, I have had a lot of fun on the new team and am learning so much from my colleagues. I am just so grateful to be working on the best team at Comcast and having an incredibly supportive leadership. We recently rolled out a Tableau reporting infrastructure and I have spent a 100% of my time using Tableau and Tableau Prep. I even picked up coding a bit using Python for some of my Tableau Prep flows.
I feel like some of the most underrated skills you need to be effective in a data viz role is having a natural curiosity to experiment with new designs and storytelling while understanding the larger scope of the data.
We are going to get a ton of data to work with and most often it is up to the data analyst to make strategic decisions on what we want our users to get out of the dashboards. Of course, we have all the business requirements, but I feel like I go by my intuition or our gut feeling when building out reports. I still give the users exactly what they want but I test out new designs and do some further exploratory analysis to find additional insights. I then share these new insights with users because I think it will be helpful. It is almost like a trial-and-error kind of phase, but it is so worth it. You get to learn more about the data in your organization while stretching your design and storytelling muscles. Overall, we have the creativity to build stories outside the scope of requirements and it is exciting to see where it goes from there.
AM: You are known in our dataviz world as an ace designer. What are three tips on design you can provide or what are three things you learned about dataviz design through trial and error?
GS: I hope it is alright if I secretly pass in a fourth tip. (1) I really try to focus on color, font, size, and alignment throughout my vizzes. I know it sounds easy, but it took me so long to get good at using these elements effectively on my dashboards. It was through a ton of trial and error that I eventually figured out my color and dashboard style. If you glance at my portfolio, you will notice a lot of my vizzes having dark backgrounds and vivid colors. For anyone starting out in the community, explore the color and font choices that are out there because they play a huge part in your overall dashboard design.
PP: What prompted you to join the analytics (social media) community & what are your tips for people starting in the community?
GS: When I started participating in MakeoverMonday, I did not even know an analytics community existed on Twitter. About three years ago, Chantilly Jaggernauth (Tableau Public | Twitter) and I worked together in the HR analytics space at Comcast. She had introduced me to Twitter and mentioned sharing my vizzes on social media. After sharing my first viz on Twitter, I started receiving some awesome feedback. This was a huge win for me because I got to learn more about design best practices from talented folks in the Tableau community. Later on, I realized that being a part of the community was more than just becoming a better designer.
The relationships I developed with members of the Tableau community has been the greatest win for me. It was through the friendship building process that I eventually became a better designer and an active member of the analytics community. My tip for anyone starting out in this space is to share your vizzes on Twitter and ask for feedback. Always remember to thank them for their time and support.
PP: What is your favorite thing about being part of the datafam community?
GS: I really love how incredibly supportive, kind, and helpful everyone in the Tableau community is with each other. I have made so many new friends in the community over the last two years, especially in 2020 and I cannot thank them all enough for their support, kindness, and friendship. I am fascinated by all of the work I see on Twitter and we can always learn from one another.
PP: What advice do you have for those considering participating in our community?
GS: When I started in the community, I participated in the MakeoverMonday data challenges every week. I honestly cannot stress enough how important and impactful this initiative has been on my professional career as a data analyst. (2) Not only did I improve my design and storytelling skills but developed friendships with so many talented members of the Tableau community.
I highly recommend joining the weekly MakeoverMonday data exercises. Do not overthink it. My first few vizzes were actually not great but I sometimes scroll through my Tableau Public portfolio to remind myself of the hard work, dedication, and considerable amount of time I had spent crafting my design skills. I must admit that it will be a slow-building process and you probably will not get as many followers or attention on Twitter. Just let it flow. Before you know it, your work will be inspiring so many others in the community. It actually took me two solid years to craft my own design skills and eventually become a Tableau Public Featured Author.
AM: For several months you have been a mentor with mentoring meetup — intended to help people grow with Tableau as a tool, design, and career. What have you learned from your experience as a mentor and what surprised you the most about being a mentor?
GS: I absolutely love being a mentor with mentoring meetup. I have never been a mentor before but this experience over the last few months has taught me so much. Not only has it reinforced my studies in Tableau and data visualization but also given me the opportunities to develop a friendship with my mentees. We are always helping each other with design ideas and providing feedback on each other’s work. I learned a ton from my mentees about visual design and analysis and it has been awesome seeing them progress in the Tableau community. What really surprised me about being a mentor was the passion, dedication, and hard-work my mentees put in to really build up their Tableau Public portfolio. It is one of the best things in life to see others rise while also being a part of their journeys. (3)
PP: Are there any specific future Tableau goals and plans or any vizzes currently working on?
GS: I have actually been thinking through my new viz! I have not started it just yet but hopefully, once I get the data it will be easy. The topic idea will be very similar to my past data visualization where I looked at the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air season and episode ratings. However, this time, I actually plan to write a Python script and web scrape all the season and episode ratings from the webpage instead of manually typing them out in Excel. I think it will be really cool to work on a data visualization project with some coding involved like my recent Indego bike sharing dashboard.
AM: You recently started a blog! What can we look forward to seeing in it?
GS: I am so happy that I finally started a blog. It has been on my to-do list for a very long time. So far, I only have two blogs up. The first write-up was about my 2020 Tableau Conference experience and the second one discussed the data collection and design thinking process on my Indego bike sharing analysis. In future blogs, I really look forward to focusing more on discussing my designs and sharing some of the dashboard tips that I hope will be helpful for the community.
AM: Speaking of your blog, your maiden article covered your immediate thoughts on ‘Biggest Growth’ Vizzie — an award celebrating the person in our community who improves greatly as a data visualizer or a viz advisor. The achievement is massive considering the growth of our community and the wealth of great data visualizers. What advice can you provide to those looking to improve their skills in data visualization?
GS: I never imagined receiving the ‘Biggest Growth’ Vizzie award. In fact, I didn’t know about the Vizzie Awards until 2020 when Kevin Flerlage (Tableau Public | Twitter) mentioned it to me and explained how folks are nominated by the Tableau community each year for different award categories. I still cannot believe I won the award and to this day I am incredibly grateful for the recognition.
For anyone looking to improve their skills in data visualization, I highly recommend participating in the weekly MakeoverMonday data challenges or working even working on passion projects. By passion projects, I mean finding data sets on topics you are passionate about and creating a viz off of that in Tableau. As an example, I love watching The Boys on Amazon Prime. It is a show about a corrupt group of superheroes in society. I watched every single episode and noted down the number of on-screen kills by superheroes. After manually collecting the data set, I built out a really cool Tableau dashboard using the TV show color palette and theme. Participating in the community projects and working on passion projects like The Boys allowed me to bring out the creative side of me I didn’t think I had. That is honestly how I became a better designer and storyteller. It just takes a lot of practice and time but eventually, you will be surprised by your progression.
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?
GS: There are so many folks that I look up to for inspiration. The newest members of the Tableau community have taught me different ways of designing dashboards like Josh Hughes (Tableau Public | Twitter). Josh has been sharing some really awesome modern style vizzes, in particular, his recent global warming Earth’s Heating up MakeoverMonday viz.
Judit Bekker (Tableau Public | Twitter), Steven Shoemaker (Tableau Public | Twitter), David Borczuk (Tableau Public | Twitter), Thi Ho (Tableau Public | Twitter), JR Copreros (Tableau Public | Twitter), Dzifa Amexo (Tableau Public | Twitter) and Priya Padham (Tableau Public | Twitter) are some of the community members that I always look up to for design and dashboard inspiration.
Each one of them has such a unique and incredible design style that I will instantly know it is their work. Judit’s vizzes are always stunning and one of my favorites is her Woody Allen film IMDB rating analysis. Steven has such a good taste in creating beautiful dashboards with simple charts like his recent movie theaters viz where he used only heat maps and bar charts. David is literally an artist — his long-form vizzes are remarkable and I specifically liked his dashboard on music sales and trends. I absolutely love seeing Thi’s fantastic work in the Viz for Social Good initiative and my favorite viz from her portfolio is the coffee world market and trade dashboard. JR’s work is always spot on and his recent viz in highlighting the city of Toronto’s diversity and income is extremely well done and so beautiful. Dzifa is always surprising us with her rockstar design skills and I actually want to call out a few vizzes from her portfolio that I really like such as Project Power, Operation Fistula Unmet Needs, and TIME magazine. Finally, Priya has been on fire since she joined Twitter. I am literally speechless by her awesome work and advanced progression in the Tableau community. I particularly love her Spotify Radio Head, Tom Brady, and A Study of Happiness vizzes. I know that was a long list of folks, but these talented individuals are not only designers that I look up to but also friends I have gotten to know in the Tableau community.
PP: What music do you enjoy listening to when vizzing?
GS: I must admit that I am a huge Taylor Swift fan. One of my favorite albums is reputation (2017). Imagine Dragons is my favorite band and I have been listening to them a lot lately. Two of my favorite Imagine Dragons albums are Origins (2018) and Evolve (2017). Sometimes, I even listen to some anime music from shows that I love watching such as Attack on Titan. If you are into anime like I am then definitely check out the season three opening and season four closing music of Attack of Titan. This is seriously the best anime show I have ever seen. (4)
AM: Please share a guilty pleasure or fun fact that many readers may not know about you?
You probably already knew it when I mentioned anime earlier, but I am quite a bit of an anime nerd. Some of my favorite anime shows that I love watching are Attack on Titan and Dragon Ball Super. The newest season of Attack on Titan was just released a few weeks ago and am so excited about it. I have been watching every Attack on Titan episode that airs over the weekend. If there was ever an anime convention nearby, I will definitely be there!
I’m catching up on old seasons of The Amazing Race to help cure some of my longing for missing travel during this endless pandemic. I’m on Season 5 and forgot how funny and awesome Charla and Mirna were. Pardon the pixels, but they truly made for some of the funniest and fun-strating moments on the show. Many of the seasons are available for free on Amazon Prime (if you have it).
I’m not afraid to admit I love my fair share of cheese [insert Wisconsin joke here]. This amazing live performance from 1978 combines the melty golden superpowers of Olivia Newton-John, ABBA, and Andy Gibb in one wholesome unearthed time capsule of well-aged cheddar.
1) Not a problem, Ghafar. 😁
2) Completely cosign on that one — Makeover Monday is probably the best initiative for exposure, access to feedback and learning opportunities.
3) Mentoring is truly something that you go in for selfless reasons, but come out gaining so much more inspiration, knowledge, and deep friendship that is invigorating. Reach out to me or anyone on our mentoring meetup team for more.
4) This would make for an awesomely disparate playlist.