An Interview with Mark Connolly (Tableau Healthcare Co-Lead, Millenial Analyst and Tableau Talent Finder Founder)
A weekly blog about the ‘data viz’-making process, #datafam / data analytics member interviews, Viz of the Week & entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).
Adam Mico (AM): You studied at the University of Chicago attaining a BS in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering. During your undergrad years, did you have a career path in mind? If it changed, what was the ‘aha’ moment which shifted focus?
Mark Connolly (MC): I always knew I wanted to work in healthcare (see his IronViz entry and our Viz of the Week for the ‘why’) but went into my early undergrad years still not entirely sure how I’d make that happen or what it’d look like exactly. All I knew is I wanted to get some experience outside of the classroom and in the actual industry. With that in mind, my second year was focused on finding a research lab that would give me a shot. After many cold emails and meetings, I found an opportunity in a lab at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (separate from my university). The Principal Investigator gave me the chance to shadow in the lab. I honestly don’t think he thought I’d show up more than a few times but I thought it was the most interesting work in the world. This lab was focused on improving walking function for patients who had suffered from either a stroke or spinal cord injury. The lab was a mix of physical therapists, engineers, and research assistants all working together on various research projects and with research patients every day. Even though there was a decent commute back and forth across the city (my university campus and the research lab were in different parts of Chicago), I kept coming back. I feel comfortable sharing this years later, but I even occasionally skipped class if there was something really new going on at the lab at the same time. The real-world experience was invaluable to me and class notes were available online :) Eventually, my persistence led to me being offered a part-time paid position. I ended up working with the lab throughout the rest of my undergrad and for about a year after graduating.
It was in this lab where my early career path became more clear. I started to see the pure volume of data we were collecting. Each patient and study had hundreds of data elements (ie demographics, clinical, kinematic/kinetic) that we’d analyze to evaluate the effectiveness of potential interventions. It was powerful seeing what these pieces of data could do but it got me thinking — what would data and analytics look like for an entire health system?
AM: You subsequently earned a Master of Engineering in Bioinformatics. How did that better prepare you to develop your data management skillset?
MC: It was that curiosity around using data in a health system that led to me getting the Master of Engineering in Bioinformatics. I wanted to learn more about data management, analysis, and modeling — topics that weren’t a focus in my undergraduate engineering courses. This program covered foundational knowledge in each of these but it was applying them directly in various work projects where I really felt I brought it all together. I felt I was able to hone in on data modeling specifically, something that gave me a running start with Tableau when I first started using it.
AM: You currently work as a BI Lead for UChicago Medicine. Besides your formal education, what are the keys that helped you the most when advancing in your career?
MC: The combination of my formal education and directly/immediately applying lessons from it in my career helped a whole heck of a lot. In my undergrad/research days, I felt more comfortable with programming than some other classmates but it was simply because we’d cover a topic in class and then no more than three hours later I’d have a real-world example that I (1) was really interested in and (2) didn’t have a solution guide that I’d be working on in the lab — having an interest and utilizing technical challenges go a long way for me.
When I started at UChicago Medicine I was brought on as a Sr. Quality Analyst. The role expected to have some level of SQL, analytical thinking, and data visualization experience in a healthcare system. While I had some prior experience in the clinical research world, I hadn’t really used SQL outside of some coursework. Fortunately for me, history repeated itself in that I was learning SQL in my master's program and then immediately getting to apply the lessons in my career. I found my comfort with SQL grew pretty quickly given the amount of exposure I had to it.
All that said, it was likely developing and working on the soft skills that has helped me advance my career the most. From time management, communication (both verbal/nonverbal, via email, now Zoom), presentation, and goal setting — all of these soft skills are things I actively work on. I’ve been fortunate to have an amazing boss who knows these are things I’m trying to improve on and has given me great critical feedback with that in mind.
Don’t be afraid to ask why/how. I’ve learned a large amount by not pretending to know everything. I was so overwhelmed when I first started in all of my roles, but by asking this when I needed help — I was able to get past each new learning curve.
AM: What was your introduction to Tableau and what data visualization and reporting tools did you use prior to Tableau?
MC: For the longest time, my idea of reporting was Excel, Matlab, and SPSS. It wasn’t until I started with UChicago Medicine that I really jumped into Tableau. I found the learning curve wasn’t incredibly steep to get off the ground (but may have been due to my earlier exposure to programming in school and the research environment). I was able to leverage a lot of online content to move forward as well.
I remember one of my first successes with the tool was evaluating a risk model for patient readmission rates. We were looking at a previously published model to see if it would work to help us identify which patients might be at a higher risk for readmission (an unplanned return to the hospital after being discharged). It wasn’t flashy but it was something I was proud of. Over time I began working on more and more projects and started to get more involved with our Tableau Server.
AM: Do you use Tableau frequently at work? If so and you have other tools for data visualization and reporting, what instances is Tableau your primary choice?
MC: Tableau is the primary data visualization tool I use at work. Occasionally I’ll break something out in Excel if I need to share it with someone who is more comfortable navigating in Excel but almost 99% of my work revolves around Tableau (or SQL to curate data for Tableau).
AM: Shifting gears a bit… I noticed you not long after I joined the community. I believe it was around the time of the Refugee Ironviz Feeder viz. What inspired you to join the community and how did you learn of it?
MC: To be honest, I’m not sure how I first found out about the community! It may have been at the 2018 Tableau Conference where I attended a few different presentations that really impressed me and quickly followed a few folks on Twitter or connected on LinkedIn. And for a while, I just watched and kept up with content that people were sharing in these different channels as I tried to see what I might be able to bring back to my job.
This was incredibly valuable even from afar but it wasn’t until I started connecting with our Chicago Healthcare Tableau User Group that I really started to feel a part of the bigger Tableau community. By attending these in-person meetings I was able to connect with peers at other institutions who were working through the same challenges as me — but who could also go toe to toe with you on late night Mexican options in the city.
From there I started to feel more comfortable connecting with the broader community through Twitter and LinkedIn and participating in some of the recurring community-supported initiatives like MakeoverMonday, SportsVizSunday, and ProjectHealthViz to name a few. These offered an opportunity for me to test out new functionality on Tableau Public before our org upgraded servers as well as obviously connected me with others in the Tableau Community.
The Refugee IronViz entry you mentioned was one viz I was incredibly proud of. While it didn’t place for the feeder, it was something outside of my usual dashboard development and attempted to tell an important story around Syrian refugee volume over time. I recently released my IronViz submission this year and I highly recommend participating to anyone who has the time and interest!
AM: Please explain your LLC, The Millennial Analyst. How and why did it start and what have you learned since launching?
MC: Engaging with the Tableau Community, staying active on LinkedIn, and presenting projects externally over the last several years has led to some folks reaching out to ask for assistance with their own Tableau needs. I’m happy to help but also try to balance with other commitments in my career and life — typically leading to me maintaining an engagement or two max at a time. While this started small with a couple of tutoring sessions here or there, I started to come across larger projects, and given the scope of these, I decided to make a formal LLC.
While this was done primarily for personal liability on potential future projects as well as financial benefits come tax season, having the LLC finally formalized motivated me to put a little more effort beyond these passive leads coming my way. To this end, I created an Udemy course on Tableau for Healthcare. The course just launched a couple of weeks ago and already has more than 20 enrolled. It might not seem like a whole ton but it’s something I’m proud of and hope addresses an industry educational/online resource gap that exists. If anyone reading is interested, they can reach out to me directly as I can provide promotional pricing!
AM: You are a co-lead of the Tableau Healthcare User group. Please share a bit about that group and how you become involved. Also, is there something specific on the horizon we should check out?
MC: The Tableau Healthcare User Group is a virtual user group primarily meant for professionals working in the healthcare industry across the United States and the UK but others are obviously welcome to join. This group meets about every two months with at least 2 new industry speakers at each meeting. The next meeting is going to be held on August 5th at 11 am EST.
Here is the link to RSVP
The group is currently co-lead by Nicole Lohr (@nicole_lohr9), Simon Beaumont (@SimonBeaumont04), Lindsay Betzendahl (@ZenDollData), and me. I have to admit I have imposter syndrome getting to work with these three — they’re all amazing and give so much to the community. I got involved with them shortly after TC19. Along with the UChicago Data & Analytics team, I had presented to the user group before the conference, got connected with Nicole, and met her in person at the conference. We were talking about the group and at the time it was just her and Simon managing it — which was a crazy lift given the group is now north of 1500 users. On the last day of the conference, after the once a year in person Healthcare Tableau user group meeting, Lindsay and I were asked to join as new co-leads, something we both gave a quick yes to! The 4 of us now divide and conquer to find exciting new speakers and continue to engage with the broader Tableau healthcare community.
AM: Since June, you began and been maintaining a passion project… The Tableau Talent Finder initiative to help out of work designers link up with employers who need solid data analysis/visualization to make informed data-driven business decisions as required for their survival. Please explain this initiative and explain how we can contribute?
MC: Thanks for bringing this up!
The Tableau Talent Finder is focused on connecting those who have been laid off due to the financial impact of COVID-19 with organizations that are hiring. Through a Google Form, individuals provide quick information about their experience with Tableau, and every morning the dashboard updates. Those looking to hire can access the dashboard daily to see if there are any new candidates who line up with potential openings and can reach out directly through the dashboard (there are URL actions to email, LinkedIn, and Tableau Public profiles).
I was blown away from the initial reception of this effort by the Tableau Community. Many people shared and the reach of it was worldwide. I’ve had individuals submit their information from many different countries across the globe which reflected the magnitude of the pandemic — but also the need for an initiative like this. Several weeks after launching, a Twitter conversation led to an addition to the workbook. Cesar Picco (@CesarPicco)had previously created a Tableau Jobs dashboard that updated daily after running an API to pull Indeed jobs with the Tableau keyword. It seemed like a perfect fit and within a day we had this included within the Talent Finder — making it truly a one-stop-shop for those looking and those hiring.
It’s easy to contribute — just feel free to share the link to the dashboard with anyone you think could benefit from either the looking or hiring side! I’m also obviously open to any suggestions or offers to improve upon the existing dashboard. One specific thing I’ve continued to struggle with is maintaining the list of those looking. It’s easy to fill the form out but it’s hard to automatically clean it up when people find work. Open to any thoughts there.
AM: Usually, here… I ask a guilty pleasure/fun fact question, but I’m in Madison and have been to Chicago too many times to count. I love so much about the city, but the cuisine is legendary. What are some great spots you would recommend that may be overlooked by some in the Chicago area?
MC: One thing I did the first month of the Chicago COVID-19 related lockdown was ordered in from west side restaurants in search of the best burger. My favorite was from Lucy’s (a place actually known more for their chicken sandwiches), but I also really enjoyed burgers from Small Cheval (a don’t wait for 5 hours alternative to Au Cheval), Fatso’s Last Stand (reminded me of a summer bbq — it’s a weird description but I’ve had coworkers confirm this is spot on, also great shakes), and The Region. Highly recommend any of these!
Small Cheval: http://smallcheval.com
Fatso’s Last Stand: https://www.fatsoslaststand.com
The Region: https://www.theregionburgers.com
Viz of the Week
As soon as I saw the viz with his personal story, I knew this was our Viz of the Week. Mark’s journey is amazing and getting that from a viz so beautifully rendered even elevated it more! I asked Mark for more background on it and he shared…
When the theme was announced, I had to think on it for a while — the idea for BirthMark wasn’t instant for me. All I knew for sure was that for me to be motivated to put in the extra time to submit something I would be proud of, it had to matter and be personal for me. Obviously, my cancer history was personal and got my initial thoughts in that direction but I first started thinking I’d do a data viz on pediatric cancer data and survivorship nationally. I found some datasets but struggled to find a story I wanted to tell through them. Struggling to find data I could viz behind, I finally decided to make the data about me — with the thought that maybe through this viz and a personal story, I might be able to bring some awareness around pediatric cancer and that the stories don’t stop at remission.
Everyone has a story to tell and I’m hopeful that this might help inspire someone else who has been on the fence to go ahead and share a powerful story/dataviz of their own.
Datafam Mentorship Update
Vinodh (@VinodhDataArt) and I teamed up with Mark Bradbourne (@MarkBradourne) to utilize and co-run Mentoring Meetup site Mark built. You can access the mentor/mentee forms from there and I wrote a blog post about the initiative, speaking at the Wisconsin TUG on 7/17, and more. C-c-c-heck it out.
Note: As of 10:30AM CST on 7/19, we have 25 mentors, 73 mentees, and 24 people confirmed paired (just don’t try to pear pie chart this).
Priya’s Bop: I’m in love with this track from Gerard Way’s (lead singer of MCR) solo work. It’s a spacey pop song with an 80s/90s feel, and it was even recorded on a cassette tape!
I watched the Devil’s Advocate for the 1st time in 20+ years. I read the book prior to viewing it the 1st time and the source novel was so good, it hurt my initial acceptance of the film’s performances. After enough separation from the book and the 1st viewing, I loved it. It’s campy, fun, and a little ‘adult’ (so watch when the kids are in bed). The flick is streaming on Netflix, so check it out for a fun movie with one of Pacino’s funniest performances.