An Interview with Zak Geis (A Tableau Data Dev Ambassador, Tableau CoE Leader, & 3x VOTD Recipient)

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: I’ve known of Zak Geis (Twitter | Tableau Public | LinkedIn | Site) for going on two years. Before meeting him with many others in Cincinatti before the awful pandemic hit, he was a quiet community amplifier who created incredible visualizations. In Cincy, I realized what an awesome and funny guy Zak is (but also noticed his incredible ability to multitask). I was so happy he was announced as an ambassador the same class Priya and I were. Since then, he has committed even more of his time and energy to elevate our community with a stream of incredible initiatives that are all geared to help people out and give back. We are fortunate to have such a humble and talented person looking for more incredible ways teach, engage and lift our collective spirits.

Adam Mico (AM): Your entire professional career has been analytics-focused and after a couple of shorter work stints, you landed at JP Morgan Chase rapidly climbing from Business Intelligence Lead to VP, Software Engineering. Your prior position as a Software Engineer was as a key member of JP Morgan Chase’s Tableau Center of Excellence (CoE). When you became a member, was the CoE a work-in-progress, and what did you learn about working on their CoE that you did not realize before you became a member?

Zak Geis (ZG): First off, thanks Adam and Priya for including me! I’m really excited to be part of your interview series. So a little bit about my time at the firm. My first role was as a member of a business team focused on delivering dashboard and analytics products to a large user base. From there, my manager at the time (Steve Hittle — LinkedIn) and I moved into IT and realized that there was a need for more organization and support for Tableau at the company. That leads us to create the Tableau Center of Excellence. Two years ago, I took the reigns of the team and the rest is history!

What didn’t I know before the CoE? Pretty much everything! This has been one of the most challenging yet fulfilling teams I could ever imagine. Every day comes with its own challenges, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

AM: In that role, what is your normal day-to-day and how many people are you required to support?

ZG: My role is all about enabling Tableau at scale within the company. We’re all over the place. We host the infrastructure for Tableau Server. We package the Desktop software for the developers and analysts across the firm. We build and provide training. We market the product and host events, like Tableau User Groups and Tableau Days. We build automation and engineer applications to help with user experiences. If it has to do with Tableau at Chase, my team is involved. All of that said, every day is different.

As for users that we support, we’re now up to 120 thousand users. My team consists of 10 rock stars and we support all of those people!

AM: As a VP of Software Engineering, do you still participate as much in hands-on work, and do you continue to focus on Tableau? What have been the key changes in the past year-plus since taking that role?

ZG: It’s definitely a mixed-bag anymore. Moving into leadership, I spend a lot more time on the phone, talking to people across the company and finding ways to help them. It’s definitely still all about Tableau, but actually, doing things in Tableau? Not so much anymore.

The big change since moving into this role is the focus on the big picture. My goals surround the overall strategy of Tableau at the firm, solving the biggest issues and making changes that support the company at large.

Luckily, I have a great team that does all the real work. As I always tell them, I’m just there to take the credit. 😊

Priya Padham (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?

ZG: So I can say when I was younger I never thought I’d end up in the field of data visualization. However, there were a few happy circumstances that led me to it and I’m very thankful it happened. Earlier in my career, I did some random software engineering and reporting work for another company. That then evolved into a need for deeper analytics and the team that I was on reviewed some different products and they ended up settling on Tableau. They asked for a volunteer to learn the tool and build the dashboards and I raised my hand. That decision led to an amazing career, awesome experiences, and lifelong connections.

From there, I was hooked. I seen the dedication of the community behind the product, the insane capabilities of the tool and just kept looking for new ways to expand my knowledge of it. This led to my participation in local Tableau User groups where I met Steve, who brought me on to Chase!

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

ZG: Becoming part of the datafam community was something I wanted to do from very early in my Tableau career, however, I put it off for many years. I watched from the outside and focused on my personal and career growth.

Eventually, after Tableau Conference 2018, I decided to take the plunge. During that conference, I met several people, listened to some great content, and came away with the inspiration to finally join the community. I jumped in on Twitter, to connect with people I’d been watching, and never looked back.

For new people, I would focus on just taking the leap. Do you have people you want to talk to? Just reach out. Interested in participating in a certain initiative? Just do it. There is no better time than today to get more engaged with the community.

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

ZG: Hands down, it’s the people. The people of our community don’t just make the datafam, they make Tableau. No tool has a community like ours. Everyone is helpful. Everyone truly wants others to succeed. I’ve met some of my closest friends because of this community — they’re the most giving, amazing group of people that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. That holds especially true for the two of you.

AM: In 2020, you became a Tableau Ambassador for the new DataDev Ambassador program. Did you have expectations going in as far as what that role would entail and how have you made it your own?

ZG: It was so exciting to be selected for the DataDev Ambassador group and I couldn’t pick a better cohort to be part of. I expected that I’d get to work with some awesome people on some awesome API stuff, and I was right! I really have wanted to focus mostly on new users of the APIs and to try to make them feel more accessible to newbies. I don’t feel that I’ve done enough here, but I’ve got some stuff brewing in this area that I’m eager to get out there.

AM: Besides getting great swag, the DataDev cohort is a bit of a mystery. Can you give us a little peek behind the curtain and share some cool things your assemblage is working on?

ZG: The Datadev ambassador group isn’t doing a ton of public stuff right now, but you’re going to see much more in the near future, especially as we get closer to the Tableau Datadev Day in May.

It’s going to be a really great mixture of all the things you would want from datadev: a day full of presentations, a hackathon, announcements and so much more. It’s also great for those people that don’t know much about the program and the initiative but want to learn more about how to extend Tableau with its extensibility and API set. I encourage everyone to register for the event here: Tableau’s DataDev Day.

Outside of that, there are tons of things going on — we have DataDev Bingo happening now, which is a challenge set for those interested in learning more. Many of us are blogging about the APIs including my fellow ambassadors: Anya Prosvetova (Twitter | Site) & Andre de Vries (Twitter | Site). And we’re talking directly with the developers at Tableau to help provide feedback based on our experiences and check things out as they are being worked on.

It’s an awesome group of people and I’m excited for the upcoming stuff mentioned above.

AM: For the past several months, you have been sharing a ton of incredible #TableauDesignTips which have rightly received a ton of engagement. What prompted you to work on those tips and what are your takeaways from the community’s application of them?

ZG: I’ve been a member of the community for a while and I’ve been looking for a way to kind of step aside and do some unique things that haven’t been done a lot in the past. I think that, although there have been some people that have focused on design tips, they’ve been few and far between.

I started #TableauDesignTips — which is a mixture of inspiration from various sites and applications, combined with my thoughts and ideas — and turned that into tangible things you can do in Tableau. The feedback and reception on it have been beyond my expectations, which keeps me wanting to publish more and more — which I’ll do, once I have a bit more time!

If anyone is interested in checking the tips out, I’ve compiled my Tableau Design Tips Catalogue dashboard, which you can find here:

AM: In March, you launched “Data Theories” blog and its 1st post focused on the #TableauDesignTip initiative. What can we look forward to for future blog entries? Will it be focused on design tips, or do you have other plans for the blog?

ZG: Yes! I’m so excited to finally have my website out. Just a little bit of background there. It’s something that I’ve tried to do and have gone back and forth so many times before I finally released the site. I actually even purchased two different domains over the years before this one, started them up and made some progress, and just kind of abandoned them.

For this one, I pushed harder to get it out there. I put a ton of effort into the design, the domain, and the first blog post and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally out there. Everyone has been incredibly supportive. I can’t thank everyone enough for all of the kind words, the support, and for helping me to get the word out and promote the site.

As for what’s to come, you can expect a little bit of everything. Whether that be more of the design tips, things about Tableau Server, a bit of DataDev, and everything in between. I’m also planning to expand from Tableau to other things, including other BI platforms and general data-focused content. I’ve been a bit wrapped up elsewhere, but I do plan to release my next post in the next few weeks.

AM: You have a diverse portfolio that covers business dashboards, data art, and fun gamey tools. What was the most difficult viz you worked on visible publicly and why?

ZG: That one is easy — my NBA Shots viz. That one took soooooo much time. I wrote the scripts that pulled the data from the NBA stats API, then I cleaned it up further with Alteryx, and built the viz. And that viz was tough — nothing defaulted, everything was custom. I put tons of hours into the formatting, the functionality, and the logic itself.

Saying all of that though, it’s definitely my favorite. It came together really nicely and I’m very proud of how it ended up. It’s even lead to some really unreal conversations, including some people that work in the NBA! You can find the viz here:

AM: Recently, you and Michelle Frayman (Twitter | Tableau Public) launched another incredible initiative #vizofficehours. Please explain how that came about, its impact and how can someone get involved?

ZG: 100%. This is something I am really proud of. Michelle and I happened to be chatting about how there aren’t many opportunities for people to get quick, easy feedback on their visualizations. We decided to go ahead and put something together, and it’s worked really well.

The idea is this — do you have a data visualization that is any phase that you are interested in getting feedback on? All you have to do is sign up and join the session. We don’t require anything other than your attention and your interaction. The sessions are hosted on Wednesdays and alternate between 8 am EST and 4 pm EST each week.

So far, the sessions have been great. The attendees have turned around with some stellar updates to their vizzes and recently one was even selected as Viz of the Day!

If you have any questions or are looking to help join and give feedback, feel free to message either of us. We’re looking for any ways to make this as accessible and easy to join as possible.

Registration can be found here: bit.ly/vizoffice.

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

ZG: Unfortunately, I’ve always got an ever-growing list of things I want to publish, but it’s hard to find the time. I have a few larger projects in varying stages on voice actors, video game reviews, and sports, so hopefully, those will be out soon.

Outside of that, I’m working on my next set of #TableauDesignTips, planning posts for my website, and studying some new stuff, including visualization libraries like D3.

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?

ZG: This is always the toughest question, isn’t it? I’ll start by saying there are dozens of people, if not more, that inspire me constantly. For this, I’ll stick with my top handful.

  • Simon Beaumont (Twitter | Site) — Simon is a force. I’ve watched Simon grow from doing really awesome work to today, where he hits it out of the park with every viz. I honestly don’t know how he’s able to deliver at the level he does, with every viz.

Favorite Simon Viz: Rockets vs Spurs

  • Kevin Flerlage (Twitter | Site) — we all know and love Kevin as the great welcoming person he is, but he’s always a true badass with Tableau. He’s always pushing boundaries and doing really cool and innovative stuff.

Favorite Kevin Viz: Tornado

  • Judit Bekker (Twitter | Site)— Judit has one of the best design senses I’ve seen in the #datafam. Every viz she publishes is unique, but also shares her signature style. Each viz of hers is an instant favorite.

Favorite Judit Viz: Set My Mind on Fire

  • Robert Janezic (Twitter | Site)— this one might be cheating because Robert is on my team. But dang does he have talent. My only problem is, he doesn’t post enough. Robert, if you are reading this, we’re waiting!

Favorite Robert Viz: Ebb & Flow

  • Lindsey Poulter (Twitter | Site) & Hesham Eissa (Twitter | Site) — I’m combining these two as their recent efforts with D3.js has been amazing. I’m definitely eager to see more from these two.

Favorite Lindsey and Hesham Viz: Travel Restrictions

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

ZG: I’ve got a weird combo for this one — I listen to one of two things: heavy rock or classical/instrumental music. I used to be totally into rock and that was it, but about five years ago, I started to fall in love with classical music, especially piano. Regardless, I’m not too picky — so long as it’s not country!

AM: Please share a guilty pleasure or fun fact that many readers may not know about you?

ZG: I LOVE Video Games. Whenever I can get away from work, responsibility, and all those things, you’ll find me in front of a video game. In fact, I’m a huge collector — I’ve got several thousand games, just about every system ever made, and tons of random collectibles.

Right now, I’m on a Mario kick. I recently returned to some Mario games from the Wii era and I’m working on completing them. If anyone ever wants to chat video games, know that I’m always happy to do so.

Thanks again for having me! It’s been a blast!

Mico’s Odds and Ends

DataFam Remo Hangout 10 AM Chicago time on 4/17

Next Saturday, is our monthly datafam hangout. If you never attended, please complete this form to get your invite. It is a virtual cafe with 4 or 5 seats per table you can hop around in.

Chennai TUG on 4/14

Sarah Bartlett (Twitter | Site), Brian Moore (Twitter | Tableau Public), and I will be presenting at Chennai’s TUG relaunch. Please register here to catch us (virtually) live.

Tableau Live 2021

Hunter Hansen and I are having a fireside chat regarding Data + Diversity: Tableau and the Neurodivergent Community for Asia Pacific on 5/11/21 and the Americas on 5/18/21. There are so many great topics/speakers covering a wide array of interests. Please register here.

Binge Bite

The Serpent is a very disturbing crime thriller based on a true story of the horrific murder spree of Charles Sobhraj in the mid-70s in Bangkok. It’s redeemed based on the gripping drama, vintage sets, well-written scenes/dialogue, and top-rate acting.

Music Morsel

Sometimes I go down music rabbit holes looking for something indie, good, and hardly known. It confuses me sometimes why we have so much same-sounding and boring stuff when relatively new & dynamic dreamscape-y tunes with beautiful accompanying videos like River Jones’ “Strawberry Lit Moon” exist yet have less than 100 views/month.

#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