An Interview with CJ Mayes (2020 Tableau Public Featured & 2-Time VOTD Author)
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).
CJ Mayes Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public | Site
CJ has made an incredible impact on applying his creative and advanced use of Tableau and generous community support. 2020 was a fantastic year in pushing his skills to the next level and cannot wait for 2021 as he will begin his blog within a couple of days of the publishing of this interview. (1)
Adam Mico (AM): In 2018, you graduated from the University of Reading with a BSc in Economics and your last year you worked as a Student Brand Ambassador at Deloitte UK. Did you begin working in data visualization while you were in college, at Deloitte or later?
CJ: Thanks Adam, before addressing the question I just want to say a massive thank you to you and Priya. I love reading these blogs about other authors so it’s a delight that you asked me. I respect the amount of effort you both put into these while juggling all your other responsibilities and know how much the community is appreciative of them. (2)
University feels like a long time away now so it feels slightly odd being reminded that was less than 3 years ago. In truth, data visualisation, as to how I know it now, didn’t crop up too much. We’d get the odd graph in microeconomics and macroeconomics but nothing where we are talking interactive dashboards. Similarly, I didn’t really know too much around data engineering/analytics but I do remember back to a coding module we had to do on the gender wage gap; Quite interesting but astonishing at the same time. I think this is what I would call my first real experience of it.
Again, some modelling theory came through in the maths (my least favourite), econometrics and economics of sport (my favourite) modules we had to do. The sports module covered a range of things like outcome hypothesis, labour markets, betting markets and competitive balance. Honestly, I found it so interesting.
So in summary, there were definitely strong hints at data concepts, probably less so data visualisation, but really it was just then a case of how can these skills now is applied to the world of business. I wish I had my old laptop so I could dig a few of the projects out to re-read now.
The Deloitte gig was fun; it was good to be involved with a company that has a fantastic network reach and so many different opportunities, especially when trying to kick-start your career. The role comprised mainly of promoting opportunities at the firm through on campus-promotions, events and talks. I.e. being a social butterfly. Deloitte definitely has some unique selling points from its combination of size, work ethic and talent. I remember their coronavirus-tracking dashboard was one of the first to reach Tableau and it was so well put together, let alone the data prep that must have gone into it prior. To turn something around at that pace and quality is impressive. Anyway, that’s enough free promo for today.
Data visualisation really kicked off when at Lloyds Banking Group. I was fortunate enough to sit in a team that acts as a centre of excellence of data. (Modest I know) But it put me in the best position to learn the tools as quickly as possible, the culture of helping others, sharing ideas and teamwork at the company definitely helped — when you don’t know fully know what you’re walking into. Slowly some of the projects I worked on incorporating a more lengthy degree of Tableau. I know Power BI has a place in the bank too so quite eager to expand my toolset in the New Year to cover both.
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?
CJ: I think it has been a slow burner, in a good way. I’ve always had an interest but it hadn’t been tailored until now. For me, the passion now comes from the impact it has when we change processes and pass benefits onto our customer. Someone from our companies’ leadership team told me ‘no-one needs data’. He was right; ‘we need the insights from it’. I think I will remember that for the rest of my career. Sometimes we get so caught up in the technical aspect it’s hard to step back and think what is this for, how will it help and why are we creating it the way we are.
On the learning side, it was tough when I first started, much like anything. Once you get going though — it's great. The crossover of skillset now between ‘work’ and Tableau community ‘stuff’ is now to a point where one compliments the other so well. My current role is predominantly data architecture focused, building pipelines — lots of extract transform and load processes and writing SQL. That’s why it was great to join the community in March, to practice the visualisation aspects more. The passion for data viz has just skyrocketed since then to a point where I really need to get away from my Laptop more. I love seeing all the new tips, tricks and design concepts people share — the community really drives my passion. It’s not just the ability to practice in a free-space; it’s the feedback loop, the blogs, the community events, and the dedication of individuals to run monthly challenges.
It’s hard not to be passionate [in the Tableau community] when everyone else around you is.
AM: You currently work at Lloyd’s Banking Group as a data analyst. How much of your job is done in Tableau and how does that differ from the work you do publicly?
CJ: My career started at Lloyds Banking Group in a team of around 30, what was back then called Group Analytics. We act as a central data team effectively working as almost internal consultants on numerous retail and commercial projects, across the various product teams we have. I was lucky in a way to have had a manager that was so supportive and a team that really breathes our ethos at LBG of learning and collaboration. I owe a lot of my early development to the team — they are a fantastic bunch. I think in this sense there are many similarities that can be made with the Tableau Community.
Since then the team has grown to about 200 (with the combination of data management and Machine Learning teams). Part of on-going efforts to be a more data-driven bank meant up-skilling in Tableau. I’d say it’s an 80/20 split for me at the moment between Data Engineering & Business Intelligence. As I mentioned previously, the two tend to blend well in terms of Tableau and general data concepts for transforming data.
The two, however, differ in purpose. Working at LBG the dashboards are built with the customer in mind, built to answer specific questions, help improve processes, answer questions across the bank for reporting purposes, finding meaningful insights. The purpose for Tableau Public (is really I guess) free reign to do whatever I want to do.
I’m not sure you’ll see me making a radial Sankey at work anytime soon, but it all builds for a foundation of concepts that can mix and match between the two.
I think Tableau Public in some way is a means of letting loose before taking the best bits and applying them into the workplace. (3)
Similarly, at work, the process tends to outline data sources and customer flow, find insights, present metrics and choose visualisations for the dashboard dependent on that. In the public domain sometimes I will start with a background or a chart I want to experiment making, and work backwards to find a suitable dataset!
AM: What resources helped you as you were working on Tableau design?
CJ: With the lockdown back in March, I did find myself eager to try and turn a negative into a positive and started doing a lot more upskilling (especially with getting commute time back) It started with going through some of what I’d call the ‘big dogs’ blogs. Those could include your typical high profile names and Tableau Zen Masters — trying to replicate some of their skills be it: design, storytelling, tricky calculations, or graphs I hadn’t come across before. The main thing is everyone has to start somewhere! There are so many [great blogs] out there but personally, I started with Tableau Magic & Flerlage Twins.
If you go through my profile, you will rarely see a dashboard that hasn’t been inspired by a current author in the community.
To name a few inspirations of design from oldest to newest on my profile:
- Judit Bekker (Twitter | Tableau Public | Site) inspired my Kobe and mental health week vizzes, as well as many of the newer pieces as my portfolio grew. I rarely see anyone produce works of art like her. To be honest, her profile is a goldmine when it comes to inspiration. If you did a blind ‘who created this viz’ test, her dashboards would stick out like a sore thumb, they are so unique. Not sure what I would do if I couldn’t scroll through that and Pinterest.
- Toan Hoang (Twitter | Tableau Public | Site) inspired the first few Premier League vizzes, with radial bar graphs, dendrograms and chords, I find his templates probably the easiest to follow. The sheer amount of content over at Tableau Magic is fantastic.
- Kevin Flerlage (Twitter | Tableau Public | Site) and Ken Flerlage (Twitter | Tableau Public | Site) inspired Arc Sankeys, Bump chart variations, radar charts, sunbursts, you name it… all came from Kevin and Ken Flerlage. Without these two I think I’d have half a dashboard left. The beauty of their tutorials aren’t just that they show how to make something, but it often explains why as well as the do’s and don’ts, best practice and gives user case.
As things progressed it was more a case of taking the learning’s from the tutorials and amending the logic slightly to fit whatever I am trying to achieve. I think this can be seen when making a sunburst chart into a tournament progress chart, A bump chart into a tournament bracket, as well as taking images and making them animated.
If you want subject-based design inspiration you don’t have to travel far for sport. I think the first two I came across when I started was Spencer Baucke’s and Simon Beaumont’s profiles. The benefit of tableau public is whatever the topic is someone will have covered it previously to a degree, and when you start to merge it with the ideas in your own head it can create something stunning.
Since then I’ve come across works by Priyanka Dobhal, Alexander Varlamov, and Baljinnyam Enkhtur in the sports viz realm that have truly blown me away. The Sports Viz Sunday round-up has moved to a blog format too now making it so much easier to track other authors talent.
You always have to make the most of what is already out there. What I found is I learn so much from breaking other peoples dashboards really helps even if you have nothing to show at the end of it. Just digging around the calculations goes a long way. For other ‘technical’ design I’d head over to Michael Sandberg’s mega blog compilation (you may not find some of the newer blogs).
CJ’s Note: If anyone has any other blogs lists do let me know. There is so much content out there to digest.
PP: What prompted you to join the analytics (social media) community & what are your tips for people starting in the community?
CJ: I actually joined Twitter to start with just to follow the news of banking. Boring right? I love new concepts and innovations and love reading about what other companies are doing in the technology space. It slowly shifted more towards Tableau the more involved I got. The news articles now get happily lost in amongst tableau author’s work.
For the data community, it was the ability to meet other people with similar interests. The ability to learn from others. The ability to grow my own skillset. The ability to see the capabilities of data.
It might have honestly been the best decision I made in 2020, to join the community. Often people say they join for the learning and stay for the community, and now I understand why. The community is such a continuous source of inspiration. Companies that can replicate this cycle of learning, feedback, engagement and overall positivity are onto a winner — for sure.
My tips would be to those just starting out:
- Don’t ignore the Viz of the Day! It displays such a wide range of topics, tools, details and skills.
- Apply these to challenges… Makeover Monday, Workout Wednesday, and Sports Viz Sunday. Different challenges too, such as Iron Quest by Sarah Bartlett. The topics for this definitely may be my favourite. I regretfully have so many partial drafts for the challenges Sarah sets but it’s on a backlog of things to complete. Sarah was a huge inspiration to start my public work and was one of the first initiatives I took part in. Speaking of initiatives, check out viz2Educate & VizforSocialGood too, there are plenty of initiatives out there and they are all great way to kick-start your community work.
- When your dashboard doesn’t come out the way you want it, it is a learning opportunity. I’ve learnt far more from the things I haven’t posted than the ones I have.
- Find passion in whatever you are visualising; otherwise there is no point. For me it’s sports. For others, it may be social good, charity, world heath projects, geography, historical events, financial data, and etc. Whatever it is, find passion! Be yourself.
PP: What is your favourite thing about being part of the datafam community?
1. The people.
2. Seeing the capabilities of data.
PP: Have you felt ‘imposter syndrome’ and how did you work to overcome it — what tips can you share with others that may help them in that regard?
CJ: Absolutely! Still do. I’m not sure it’s something you ever fully overcome. I think it’s just coming to the realisation everyone else is thinking the exact same thing. Affirmations of your own strengths are a wonderful thing to do.
Anyway, they say if you are the smartest in the room, you are in the wrong room. The same concept can be applied to data visualisation. You may have some fantastic ideas that others can’t replicate, and they will have the same. But if we merge them together it can produce something even greater. Why keep these to yourself and run the risk of not being able to push the boundary even further.
I think my colleague, Ant Pulley (@consult_ant) summarises it nicely in his decision to start a blog: “it makes it so much easier to start sharing things, as you realise that there will always be something you know that can help others, as not everyone knows everything you do.” It’s covered here.
The deeper level of imposter syndrome I suspect comes from thinking you are not good enough. With respect to this, I can’t really comment on what will help others. For me, it is trying to rewire my brain to reframe the idea in terms of learning and development rather than the over looming negative feeling. I enjoy reading a lot of books around framing and heuristics, confidence and psychology in the workplace. Personally, it helps me rationalise thought processes. But I can’t say everyone will enjoy this — It’s more a case of finding what works for you, believing in yourself and knowing that everything is a new opportunity to explore. What better way of doing it than in a friendly environment.
AM: In 2020, you were named a Tableau Public Featured Author. Looking back, how has that impacted you?
CJ: Somewhat, only positively. I think it gives an opportunity to be further embedded in the community, meet even more people. Oddly enough opens you up to a wider range of authors too. It really was an honour to be named a Tableau Public Featured Author — Not sure the smile has left, still.
It probably brings with it a factor of responsibility. I am quite conscious some of my designs don’t display best practice and was worried that I would get a grilling for posting a new concept that just didn’t sit well with people.
One main great thing is people tend to reach out to ask questions more, my engagement previously was realistically telling others how much I admire their work but now it has shifted to deeper conversations of understanding how an individual dashboard works, asking for tips etc. I like this and would say I’ve met some fantastic people off the back of it.
Recently I’ve been posting a few ‘personal development’ vizzes, I think its important to keep learning and developing skills rather than be afraid to show when you don’t fully understand a concept. The worst thing would be for my vizzes to now all look the same and stay at the same level of technicality.
PP: Are there any specific future Tableau goals and plans or any vizzes currently working on?
CJ: Who knows what the future holds! Now the building blocks are in place, I think it’s time to take it to the next level with my own site for content. This should be up and running in January (launching in a couple of days), at the moment it’s just a landing page. It was only a matter of time. One more guest blog will be on its way in Q1 of 2021 too, which I am SUPER excited about.
No plans on current vizzes so much. I’m hoping to commit to some of the Workout Wednesdays next year. They look like such a good learning opportunity. I’ve got a bit of a backlog of ideas in the sports remit too, but the order that I do them is yet to be seen. I am hoping to do a few collaborations this year, I didn’t do anywhere near as many as I liked to last year. It’s been mentioned to a few people but I never know if it’s an awkward thing to ask or not to someone?
PP: How do you get your ideas for vizzing and what do you use for inspiration?
CJ: I briefly alluded to this in some of the past answers in terms of design especially in terms of the community impact, but to take it one step further and highlight some individuals who I think have great design concepts they are:
- JR Copreros — I love JR’s ability to mix technical and design into one. A few of my favourites include his pastel-coloured vizzes Exonerations in America and The Influence of Racial Discrimination, as well as City and Colour: Income Inequality in Toronto. It’s got to the stage where I’m more surprised if JR’s vizzes don’t get a VOTD.
- Francisco Cardoso — I was honoured to be in the same cohort of authors as Francisco. I really enjoyed his Benefits of working remotely piece and Apparel Imports. So elegantly presented.
- Josh Hughes— Arsenal’s worst ever PL start was one of my favourites from the recent Makeover Monday. He has a clear flair for design.
Looking outside of design, and the question more broadly of inspiration.
For me, Tableau Public gives me the ability to test new things and experiment. It’s safe to say I won’t always try to make a ‘pretty’ visualisation if I’m trying to just learn new calculations and vice versa.
Given this inspiration for topics can come from anything, I often have to scribble down random ideas that come into my head. They’ll sit stagnant on a piece of paper for months and then I’ll finally have a eureka moment of what I want to show and how to do it. I often spend time scrolling through Pinterest too. I’d recommend that highly. I probably spend far longer thinking about a viz than actually creating it!
AM: Your guest post on Marc Reid’s (@marcreid) blog blew up and so many people are using circular Sankeys for their vizzes in our community. What are your takeaways on its adaption and best possible use cases?
CJ: I think it’s definitely a learning opportunity for myself as well as the community. Firstly, I’m blown away by the power of social media and the number of people across the world that has interpreted the tutorial for their own use cases. It’s awesome to see the impact it has made, and I’m honoured to see the progression made. Really the idea was already in the community, I just built on top of Spencer’s foundation of work.
I think there are a few takeaways to be made, some which I may have alluded to in the VizConnect session at the start of this month.
The first takeaway is one for myself, the template was designed in a way to make it as simple to follow as possible, and with that came a minor ranking error that when others applied it to their dataset it often created a flame shape due to different combinations of inner and outer circle edges. Whilst trying to remove complexity I have additionally accidentally somewhat ruined the shape. If people revisit the template but amend their calculations with respect to Luke Stanke’s (@lukestanke)/ Spencer Baucke’s (covered in the blog) tutorial it may help.
On this, I should have done some further testing to make sure it works for other datasets. If you want to see a perfect example of how to build it check out Sam Parson’s (@SParsonsDataViz) VOTD. His blog post covers the build section for it and more. His viz was truly mind-blowing.
The second is to re-emphasis the use case. Whilst great to produce a new visualisation style it’s worth reminding yourself if it’s the best way of showing the data. Sounds a bit of a case of the pot calling the kettle black, especially as I’m not a stickler for keeping to guidelines. This being said — I LOVE the fact people have tried it, asked questions, and if it can benefit even one person I am happy.
In general, I can’t see it having much of a place in the work environment. Where it works well I found was where generally, individuals used smaller datasets and consideration for colour.
A couple of my favourite versions include:
- Tamas Varga — Tamas using a lighter colour palette suited the ability to have a larger dataset. In general Tamas has a great eye for design.
- Eve Thomas — Eve’s Grand Slam viz has the nice additional touch of not making it a full circle through amending the X & Y calculations. I also love what she did with adding the pie chart to the centre. The specific highlighted colour is a great touch.
- Amar Singh — Amar’s interpretation goes as far as including different generations which will have included slight amendments to the original dataset above what is explained in the blog post — so credit to him. I also like the use of lighter pastel colours.
PP: What are your favourite all-time vizzes?
CJ: To just pick one is quite hard. There is so much out there. I’ve scrolled through all 300 of my favourites and chosen this one for ALL-TIME:
There is such beauty in this visualisation by Ivett. The colour in the radial is so encapsulating. The layout for me is beyond perfect, have you ever seen such a nice looking key too? The combination of smaller subtle graphs, word sand spacing I think pulls the piece together effortlessly in terms of context and framing. Recently I’ve really liked seeing the way gradient colours fade into darker backgrounds too. If I could replicate an overall style, it would be this.
My favourites from 2020 also include:
- Marc Reid’s Museum of Modern Art Collection
- Robert Janezic — Ebb & Flow
- Judit Bekker — Couchella
- Praveen Jose — Quarantine Tweets
Kevin started a fantastic thread a couple of weeks back where everyone in the community started listing what their favourite was, there is a Tableau summary of there favourite by month too which is worth checking out.
My favourite sports vizzes this year:
- Baljinnyam Enkhtur — Pele Goals
- Simon Beaumont, Lorna Brown and Sam Parsons — Rematch — Joshua v Ruiz — Clash On The Dunes
- Luther Flagstad — The Perfect Round | Paul McBeth | Great Lakes Open
There are so many other talented authors out there, but I have scrolled through my favourites section way too many times now to continue the list. Hopefully, this acts as a reminder that everything you put out in the public domain can be used as inspiration for someone else, and how powerful that message is!
PP: What music do you enjoy listening to when vizzing?
CJ: I am a sucker for a smooth jazz playlist. Definitely one for a long concentrated session!
I tend to listen to Sweet Soul Sunday on Spotify a lot too. A couple of classics on there would be ‘Me and Mrs Jones by Billy Paul’, ‘Someone should tell you by Lemar’, and anything from Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke. Give me a Motown playlist too and I won’t complain.
In the car with friends, it probably would just be the top charts at the risk of not accommodating everyone’s taste.
AM: Please share a guilty pleasure or fun fact that many readers may not know about you?
CJ: A fun fact would be this may be oddly timed with my 24th birthday if it goes out on the third of January.
A guilty pleasure would be watching an insane amount of Youtubers. I tend not to watch much telly, my brain can’t focus that long when it comes to Television, so prefer the odd 10-minute clip on YouTube. My watch history is a combination of prank videos and Ted Talks. There’s no in-between.
Another guilty pleasure would be chocolate! I love Kit Kats (4), Chunky (the original flavour) & none of that mint-flavour business. If I got a multi-pack it would be wolfed down in seconds.
If you know me, you knew this would be the most obvious binge bite of the lot. Yes, I was one of the likely millions who binged the entire season in one day and I loved it.
Quick Spoiler-Free Review:
This season has much more depth with backstories, stronger writing for female characters and better character-depth overall. They continue to have great fight sequences, cleverly apply nostalgia with plenty of winks and Easter eggs. The season really kicks into gear in Episode 4 (although it’s great before that episode).
Feel free to check out my fun take on Cobra Kai vizzing Seasons 1 and 2.
I have just dug into the sister duo of Chloe x Halle. Not only are they great individual singers, but their harmonies and ad-libs are magical. They co-wrote their catchy tracks with a strong hat-tip to classic artists of the genre. With a strong sense of empowerment and modern lyrics, it feels entirely fresh and familiar at the same time.
1) Little did I know this would be published on his birthday. Happy Birthday CJ!
2) Well, our toast is buttered.
4) I do love Kit Kats, but do not enjoy the original flavor as much because of the inventive and delicious Japanese flavors. This one is my all-time favorite.