Data Viz Thoughts .|: Candra McRae Interview & Vinodh Kumar has our #VOTW

A Tableau-centric weekly blog about the viz making process, #datafam member interviews, Viz of the Week & entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).

This week we feature an enlightening and candid interview with founder and CEO of Lumodis, Candra McRae (@ItsCandraM) and I chat with Vinodh Kumar (@VinodhDataArt) as he submitted an meaningful and insightful viz for #IronQuest!

Feature Interview

Candra was one of the 1st voices heard in Twitterverse tackling something with depth. She is strong, full of passion, has an incredible career journey featuring her powerful analytic mind. It was my honor for her to share some of that with me in this interview.

Adam Mico (AM): It appears you earned a bachelor’s in Economics and a master’s in International Affairs. When in school, what was your dream job and how did that change once began your career?

Candra McRae (CM): My dream job was in undergrad was to be a non-clandestine service analyst for the CIA (1) and then senior year completely changed course and wanted to become a professor because I thought I loved teaching and spending all day in libraries and having debates over theory.

My direction completely changed because I wasn’t sure I would have the type of impact on real-world problems that I wanted, and I don’t think being in the ivory tower satisfied my need to be in the mix. So, I took the off-ramp for a Master’s and a life in the private sector, which has scratched the need to solve real problems without the pressure to publish peer-reviewed articles and scrounge around for research grants.

AM: When did you discover your inner data geek and how was that demon 1st exercised?

CM: I’ve been a geek my entire life — my parents somehow convinced me that it was cooler to be the captain of the debate and chess teams (I was) than it was to dominate in sports. Libraries were my refuge, books were my drug of choice.

My love affair with data didn’t really until my first job where I used data and applied stats to prove points that others had simply just opined on. My command and confidence toward data and optimization modeling allowed me in rooms and conversations that helped me skip the mundane elements of an entry-level position. It was a rush to not only figure out why something was happening, but in the same breath provide a prescriptive remedy that could save real time and money.

AM: According to your Tableau resume, I noticed your Myers-Briggs is INTJ. (2) I hover between INTJ and ISTJ — Are you happy as an INTJ and how do you feel it has helped you in your endeavors?

CM: I LOVE being an INTJ — according to some sources, less than 1% of women are INTJs. I wear being a logical, complex problem solver that can leverage innovation, imagination, and ambition to help design real solutions with pride. I find that some of the INTJ qualities of being a jack-of-all-trades has allowed me to excel in the professional arenas that I have chosen — despite not having any formal training in those areas (self-taught SQL, Python, financial modeling, and advanced stats). I just believe that anything can be mastered if you’re willing to break down the fundamentals and put a little sweat equity into it. Additionally, having INTJ qualities allows me to get to root causes more quickly and in a process oriented way (I use A3 methodology), act decisively, and the open-mindedness necessary to allow my team members the creative license to do what’s necessary to move the ball forward.

On the flip side, I wish INTJs had more natural acceptance of feelings and things that aren’t so logical. I’ve really had to work at this because I’ve learned that emotional considerations are sometimes as much or more important than the stuff right in front of your face. Early on in my career, this was probably the biggest Achilles heel for me because I was dismissive of feelings and treated those that had a bent towards them as inconvenient and annoying elements that slowed down the march to the goal. Now, I realize that incorporating those factors drives higher buy-in, allows people to feel heard, and can produce better solutions in the long-run.

AM: I saw a couple of your public speaking videos and I loved them quite a bit — one is Avoid the Blank Stare — when did you start public speaking and what are some tips you can share to help others approach their public-speaking fears?

CM: I started public speaking (beyond the competitions I did while on the debate team in HS) when I was a Student Ambassador at the University of Washington — where I was trying to increase awareness of the university admissions and financial aid processes to underrepresented communities (e.g., minority and first-generation).

Speaking to high school students who really didn’t want to be there made me keenly aware that you have to:

  • Get in and out (don’t belabor unimportant points and don’t keep talking just to hear yourself talk — shorter, but impactful talks > longer talks where half the room is asleep or stepped out)
  • Be authentic (inject yourself into the story and don’t pretend to be a person that’s never made mistakes — it’s not relatable or believable)
  • Don’t suck. Practice, practice, practice. There’s a time to wing it and there’s a time to make sure words come out as coherently and natural as possible.
  • Ask someone that isn’t in your arena (e.g., friend, spouse, kids are actually sometimes the best) to listen to see if they got the gist of what you’re talking about. If they didn’t, assume your audience won’t — revise the talk.
  • Extend grace to yourself. You’ll flub a talk or 5. Learn from them and step on to the stage again. As much public speaking as I do, there was one time I was giving an introduction of a new team member on stage in front of 600 people. Everything was going fine, and then for whatever reason I lost my rhythm and where I was at in my introduction, and I legit spaced on that person’s name, the reporting relationship to me, and more. It was HORRIBLE — luckily someone on-stage gave me some comedic relief to break the moment. I ended up laughing at the flub and myself in the moment, and it became a living comedy sketch for my team for the next year or so. This epic fail didn’t stop me from speaking at local analytics conferences, the 2018 Tableau Conference, and more. S*** happens — have a laugh, learn, and get over it!

AM: In less than a decade from your master’s degree, you moved up from a financial analyst at Home Depot to Executive Director of Analytics and Insights @ Ramsey Solutions. How did you approach your career progression and what advice can you share to people starting out?

CM: Honestly, the big thing that propelled me was that I wasn’t afraid to ask for what I wanted (both title and money) and I was confident in myself to succeed in any role I put on my radar (even if I didn’t have every checkbox checked on qualifications). I truly believe closed mouths don’t get fed — so let people know what your ambitions are (many people will help you along the way) and excel so much that any doubt on whether you’re worth it or can do it gets laid to rest.

Throughout my career, I was willing to learn what I needed to learn to master my field — which was some combination of long hours, living outside of my comfort zone, some tears (because getting stuck sucks and can feel hopeless at times), and taking advantage of any training dollar made available to me. I didn’t make excuses — if I had to carry an entire project on my back to get it across the finish line successfully I would. I wasn’t afraid of getting my hands dirty — despite the leadership titles, I still had the execution skills to do the work…so if the team was in the ditch, I was able to help drive something to completion — not just provide moral support. Finally, I’m outspoken and not afraid of breaking rules/tradition when it makes sense — the adage of “well behaved women seldom make history” was true for me. I wasn’t afraid to challenge opinions at all levels of the organization (sometimes, it got me trouble — most times, it got me heard and respected in noisy rooms), try something new, and fight battles I thought were necessary (e.g., giving data analysts access to the databases/sources).

AM: At any point during your career progression, did you encounter ‘impostor syndrome’ (3) and how did you work through that?

CM: Absolutely. There was a time that I didn’t see in myself what others saw in me. Internally, I was plagued with internal doubt on whether I had enough technical skills (hence the obsessive need to learn more and more), doubt on whether people acknowledged me as a leader of a technical discipline given nontraditional background, whether I belonged in the room and sharing decision tables with people that I admired.

I’m not sure if I worked through it so much as I find ways to manage it so that it doesn’t stop me from stepping into light that I’ve worked my tail off to create. Whenever those feelings of inadequacies pop up, I try to ground myself in the idea that EVERYONE has something they are not great at (so pretending my gap is so unique is BS), I know the seats that I’ve sat in professionally were earned (through sweat, tears, and sacrifice) — so being lucky couldn’t have been it. I’m also upfront about what I don’t know — so I don’t have to feel like I’m hiding anything and it has helped me be more open to asking for help without the shame of thinking ‘these people think I already know how to do this.’ Finally, I found a kick butt mentor that would basically kick me in the teeth when I confided about my doubts that were rooted in BS — it helped me distinguish between real and imagined gaps, so that I could focus on what really mattered.

It appears much of your progression came from taking a new opportunity with a different employer. Many people like to stay with one employer and move up from within. In general, what are the benefits of looking outside rather than inside?

For me, the benefits of looking outside is two-fold. Sometimes there’s just a pure lack of opportunity to utilize the skills that you have and to do the kind of work that you want to do. To prevent skill atrophy, you have to be at a place that will allow you to utilize your skills and grow. The next reason is that I found that major salary increases on the outside (25–40%) — internally, those kind of discussions usually land in more conservative ranges (5–15%). Now, I’ve been able to secure a 26% salary increase on an internal promotion, but I’ve rarely seen those kind of jumps with peers (it’s just a tougher mountain to climb).

AM: You started Lumodis in 2018 after having a consistent rise in analytics and analytics management. What made you decide to leave that safety net a consistent salary and work?

CM: I wanted more flexibility on the types of things I worked on and wanted to see if I could truly swim out there in open water. Plus, I want to be able to ‘do’ the work AND be strategic. I found that as I got deeper into management, the time to ‘do’ the work decreased and I had to do stuff on the side just to make sure I didn’t lose the skills that made me an in-demand analytics professional in the first place.

With my husband out of residency and starting to practice, I felt like I had a better financial safety net to risk it all and bet on myself without the fear of abject poverty and homelessness. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but the safety nets of a consistent salary were tough to walk away from…especially when you finally get to what you’ve been aiming at for so long (young executive in analytics with a growing team that had as much license within a corporate context to do what I wanted).

AM: Starting your own business can be scary with many unforeseen challenges. What did you not know when you began your business that you know now, but wish you knew when you started?

CM: Everything. Honestly, this is probably the most humbling experience because you realize that you really didn’t know as much as you thought you knew. I wish I would have known business development — it’s great to be amazing at what you do, but if you’re not great at finding or pitching clients — you’ll starve. I wish I would have known that while it’s tempting to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ to secure that contract, you have to be true to why you started the business in the first place…to work on the type of work that you want to work on, not just the stuff you’re good at. When you’re essentially a solo-preneur, you’re running a relay race and handing the baton to yourself. I wish I would have known that being there’s a line between being helpful and giving away the service — find that line otherwise you could be in trouble. I’ve done more pro bono consulting that I care to admit, but I don’t regret it though.

AM: You have been the CEO of Lumodis over 1.5 years, what are some of your favorite challenges faced and rewards earned since you began owning your business?

CM: Favorite thing, which was the hardest thing — conquering the business development fear. I’m not afraid to make the case of “Why Me” as much as I used to. Most potential clients could care less about who you’ve worked for in the past and all of the technical skills you’ve acquired — they want to know ‘how can you help my business be better than it is without you?’ I still don’t do cold calling/emailing and most of my business is through referrals, so I clearly have some work to do in this area, but it’s been rewarding to see how I’ve overcome that fear.

AM: You are a black woman in thriving in tech. Being a woman in this field is challenging enough, but being one of color adds many layers of challenges. What were some of the issues you experienced and how did you rise above those complications?

CM:

  • The assumption that I’m not technical in conversations and people being genuinely surprised that I am, in fact, technical — despite having more technical depth than the person suggesting a tech-lite discussion. I assume these are projections mixed in with a little unconscious bias
  • People being surprised that I’m well-spoken as if there was some expectation that a woman with a master’s degree and a lifelong affinity for books would somehow jump start a conversation using urban vernacular or something inarticulate.
  • Maintaining individual agency. Being careful that people don’t view me as the representative for all black people or racial minorities. When I answer questions, I stress the fact that people of color are not monoliths, so when I opine on something — I’m opining as an individual, not as the voice for any group. I do so because America is still very much socially segregated, and I may be the only true exposure a person has to black culture — so I don’t want to speak for an entire culture.
  • Bringing my whole self to work. Early on in my career, I used to leave bits of myself outside of the office to make myself more relatable to dominant culture that controlled the gateways of my career. Some examples include: straightening my hair, code switching in the language I used, the clothes that I wore, the music I talked about, everything. I thought similarity led to relatability, which reduced the ‘otherness’ that could harm my career prospects. This gets exhausting after awhile, so I stopped and brought my authentic self to work (big curly hair, earrings of my choice, and relaxed). I did this to be an example for anyone that was looking at me that you can rise and be yourself. If being yourself hurt you, you were in the wrong place.
  • People in conversation suggesting that I didn’t earn my seat at the table — that it was some sort of gift from the diversity fairy not because I was willing to outwork and outlearn the people around me. This one is particularly troubling to me because it dismisses all of the sacrifices I’ve made to get what I have because THEY have hang-ups about seeing a woman of color in places they determined I shouldn’t be (based on assumptions of inferiority). This typically results in men having to slide my credentials and accomplishments across the figurative table so they know exactly who I am — something I absolutely hate having to do because it shouldn’t matter.

AM: Speaking of diversity, we are partners in the #datafam — a community of people seeking to uplift each other while celebrating the tool (Tableau) that helped many of us progress in our careers. In my eyes, people of European and Asian ancestry have great representation in our family, with increasingly stronger female voices, but pretty much everyone else has a seat at a different table far from the center of the room — how can we get people sit together without looking patronizing?

CM: That’s a million dollar question and not one that is unique to the #datafam.

  • In our slice of the world, I think openly talking about diversity or the lack thereof to drive awareness because it’s easy to get in our bubbles where we don’t see the missing voices. I think those missing voices also need to be a part of the solution by becoming more vocal even when you don’t want to be. Honestly, as a black person, I hate being the first person to bring up an obvious lapse in diversity (e.g., when none of the 60 or so Tableau Ambassadors were black and then a black woman was appointed after there was a Twitter dust-up) because I don’t want to be accused of playing any sort of ‘race card’ — but diversity and inclusion is something that will make us ALL better, so calling out things that don’t contribute to the strength and growth of the community is part of my responsibility as a member of the #datafam.
  • Being aware of your unconscious bias — I saw something like this going around in the #datafam late last year when people were using a tool to figure out that there wasn’t a proportionate representation of women in their Twitter following.
  • My personal action is to become more active to raise visibility and to highlight voices that generally converse within the confines of DMs vs. open forums

The responsibility is on everyone though to make our table a little bit longer — those that don’t feel comfortable need to articulate why and be a part of the change to this culture. Those that feel included need to create space for those conversations without the defensiveness.

AM: We all have guilty pleasures. I have too many to count. What is your guiltiest pleasure song, movie and/or TV Show?

CM: Oh, I’m ashamed to admit this. But, a guilty pleasure of mine is to watch the Real Housewives franchise. Something about glitz and glam lifestyles, scandals and drama over non-issues, and the mindlessness of it all keeps me coming back for more…maybe because it’s such a departure from my real life.

Viz of the Week

Credit: Vinodh Kumar — ‘Food Waste and Hunger’

Adam Mico (AM): I see you went with food waste & hunger for #IronQuest. What impact has hunger had on your life (either 1st hand or witnessing)?

Vinodh Kummar (VK): Hunger and poverty is more prevalent in India. We try to help the less fortunate people by all and possible but still you can see the number only keeps increasing. I studied in a school which runs a lot of social service activities and we volunteered a lot, so I have always seen hunger, poverty and homelessness in close quarters and have tried to help them. I really wish no one ever sleeps hungry in this world.

AM: Did you draw out your planned viz beforehand or work with the data to build something that inspired you. Please explain your process.

VK: I was working on a completely different concept for the #IronQuest and that is when the amazing entries about different kinds of food and the quantity of food being produced started rolling in. I came to know about a lot of unknown things and was overwhelmed looking at the amount of food being produced all over the world. On New Year’s Day, as usual, we went around donating food — it was shocking to see so many people were there looking for food donations. Before we crossed a few blocks, all our food packets were donated. The number of people actually increased compared to the previous year. This hit me real hard and made me think … ok so we produce so much food and still so many are hungry. What happens to all the food produced in this world?? I started analysing from this single question and so the viz started shaping up. Soon I found out a relationship between food waste and hunger and wanted to weave a story showing how reducing food waste can actually help solve hunger problem.

AM: What was the most surprising part of the data found and how did it surprise you?

VK: To be honest this effort surprised me with every stat I visualized. I started off by analysing which region wastes the most food and which region is the most food insecure. Then I delved into the concept of food waste and food loss; the most interesting metrics I found were how different food types gets wasted in different stages of food cycle across different regions. If only we take this great resource of data seriously, we can solve the food waste problem. And the most depressing part of the visualization was when I had to look into the dark side of hunger issues — stunting, wasting and undernourishment are so prevalent among children below 5 years of age. These stats were really shocking and depressing. It is quite evident that all these problems have root cause of not having enough food to eat.

AM: It was a very interesting approach to annotate a stacked bar with a map. What gave you that idea?

VK: I started with Africa but then I felt I should analyse the problem globally so I can create awareness. I divided the countries into regions like Latin America, Industrialized Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa etc. and showed on the map. The bar chart showed the metrics for these regions. But I felt there was some disconnect as the people who consume the viz might not know which region I am referring to with the bars. I decided to annotate the bar and connect it with the corresponding region thus it will be easy for anyone looking at the viz to know which region waste the most food and where hunger is more prevalent from a global view.

AM: You tend to use a lot of text to emphasize your visualizations with some vizzes. How does using text help elevate the visualization?

VK: I believe when used properly charts and text form a very powerful combo. It helps me to introduce the reader about what am trying to convey in the chart, it also helps me to explain in detail and reinforce some critical points. It also helps to set the reader on a clear path to understanding. I strongly believe ‘Words can change the world’.

Building this visualization made me take on a new resolution for 2020 and that is to never waste food — this also inspired me to work on more visualizations which has a social impact.

A few people after going through this viz told me they have never thought that the food they waste creates ripples across the world and has so much impact globally. They also added they are going to be more cautious about food waste from now on.

This gave me a great sense of satisfaction and eventually led to the restart of an impactful project along with Brian Moore and Jacqui Moore which we had actually planned a few months back. Keep an eye out for #TheSDGVizProject in the coming weeks!

My humble request to whoever is reading through this blog till the very end……..

Please do not waste food and make sure you help as many people as possible who are suffering from hunger.

Hunger is cruel and food waste is a terrible problem.

Binge Bite

Netflix just came out with an incredibly dark documentary covering a troubled and recently wealthy athlete who may have played a full season of football following a double homicide. It also does a pretty good job explaining some of the circumstances that could propelled his second identity.

Music Morsel

The Weeknd genre bends pop like nobody else in the industry. In ‘Blinding Lights’ he fuses synth pop, ethereal synth + light r&b with modern production to deliver a lively faux-retro earworm.

Footnotes

1. Wait… if she made the CIA, probably couldn’t share that… I’m sorry if I blew your cover, Candra.

2. Here is the INTJ personality profile which links to other personality profiles.

3. Check out this article from the Harvard Business Review on helping overcome ‘impostor syndrome’ — it also links to the original article that discusses it.

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