Data Viz Thoughts .|: Zen Master Klaus Schulte Interview & Wendy Shijia has our #VOTW

Adam Mico
14 min readJan 4, 2020

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 interview with Zen Master, former IronViz Champion and current professor/Vice Dean of the Münster School of Business, Klaus Schulte (@ProfDrKSchulte) and I chat with Wendy Shijia (@ShijiaWendy) as she submitted an insightful and tasty design for #IronQuest!

Feature Interview

Credit: Klaus Schulte (image’s context will come later)

Klaus needs no introduction, but I will introduce him anyway. I knew Klaus since I joined Tableau Magicians FaceBook Group and was (and is) in complete awe of his talent in data visualization/analysis and teaching (via his blog and recorded presentations). It’s an honor to have him interview candidly for this blog.

Adam Mico (AM): What work did you do before focusing on data visualization?

Klaus Schulte (KS): I still do what I did before I started focusing on data visualization. I teach management accounting at Münster School of Business which is a Department of Münster University of Applied Sciences in Germany. That means that I give courses and lectures in (for example) cost accounting, budgeting, and reporting. Of course — as a professor, doing practice-oriented research is also part of my job.

As a vice dean, I’m helping run our business school, which is quite a big one. There is a lot of administration stuff to do which is (probably) not exciting enough to talk about here…

AM: What was the inspiration to work with data visualization?

KS: In the summer of 2017, I decided to use Tableau in class from winter term 2018/2019 on.

The idea was to bring data visualization closer to my accounting students because management accountants are often not too familiar with data visualization. I wanted Tableau training, because as a University of Applied Sciences we strongly believe that applying things we talk about in the classroom is the best way to learn. Since I had no BI experience at that point, all my Tableau work was necessary to prepare myself, because as you can imagine… it’s always good to be some steps ahead of your students.

I had one year to learn it, so I went full throttle. I like to be really good at something, and therefore I literally dug into this ‘Tableau thing’.

AM: Please explain what your 1st Tableau public viz was and how long were you using Tableau up to that point?

KS: I was introduced to Tableau by Tableau’s academic team and Thierry Driver (@TDriver7) in person, who did a workshop at our business school in November 2016 and demoed the famous ‘Where is Will?’ data set. In the follow-up of this workshop, I downloaded the product (it’s for free for students and instructors), but only started using it in summer 2017.

It was a lucky coincidence that I opened a twitter account around the same time and that I became aware of #makeovermonday pretty soon. After watching two or three weeks from the sidelines and playing around with Tableau, I created my first dashboard on July 10th, 2017 on a Tour de France data set.

AM: Looking back at that viz, what have you learned since then?

KS: I hope a lot!

Klaus Schulte’s Twitter Tweet

I think this is a typical first dashboard. Like many others before and after me, it seems like I just got a little bit too excited about all the possibilities that Tableau offers:

· I think this dashboard is lacking a real story — each part is solid, but there is no common link.

· I loved to use the custom shapes; today I use them rarely.

· The postulated ‘strong link’ isn’t actually that strong (just checked the R-squared) (1).

· There is no strategic use of color. I also used different color palettes.

· The color legends and the filter are placed poorly.

· Poor placement of the Tour de France logo.

· I would also make the titles bigger.

Klaus Schulte — le Tour de France

But beside that, I still like this viz. I like the BAN section (2), the explanatory titles and how I tried to implement a visual order. It’s really not that bad :)!

AM: What inspired you to create VIZJOCKEY blog site and what advice could you give to new bloggers that you wish you knew before you began blogging?

KS: I began thinking about establishing a blog as part of my learning strategy very quickly. As a teacher you just know that being able to explain things to others requires a deep understanding of what you are talking about. (3)

However, I wanted to blog in English to reach as many people as possible, but my English was very poor that time. Being kind of perfectionist, it was my major hurdle to in fact start blogging. As one of my New Year’s resolutions I finally published my first blog on January 4th, 2018 explaining one of my #makeovermondays.

And I never looked back since then and really enjoyed blogging about chart types, workarounds, and Tableau techniques to create custom visualizations. Like I had assumed, blogging helped me to gain a deep understanding of how Tableau actually works. (4)

My advice: don’t be too strategic when you think about starting a new blog. Blog in your natural language when English is a problem [like for example the fantastic Rosario Gauna (@rosariogaunag) does] and find topics you can connect to — no topic is too simple or too complicated to blog about. Moreover, when you want your audience to grow quickly, publish regularly like once a week.

AM: How frightening was preparing your IronViz visualization in front of a large live audience and how did teaching/lecturing prepare you for the competition and discussing your viz?

KS: Of course, I had my doubts before the conference.

Would ‘my best’ be good enough? I don’t mean good enough in the sense of would I be able to win the contest but in the sense of justifying my nomination for this final. You don’t want to do a bad job or do silly things when you are sharing your screen with so many people, including countless Zen Masters, Tableau Devs, practitioners and consultants from all over Europe, who use Tableau every single day.

Failing on stage would have felt like stealing away a spot for the final from someone else. (5)

We were given the dataset on the Economist’s Big Mac Index a few weeks ahead of the conference and were allowed to mash in own additional data. The topic (over-/undervaluations of currencies) is not that intuitive to many people. So, I was trying to come up with a story that is easy to understand but is also having some analytical ambitions.

While developing my story and my analytics I talked to a lot of people to get their feedback. Especially the feedback from my colleague Manuel Rupprecht, who teaches economics at Muenster School of Business, was very helpful. Eventually I finished my viz one week before the competition meaning that there was one week left to practice building and presenting it.

In this week I went through 15 test-runs reducing the time needed from approximately 50 minutes to around 17 minutes by changing little things in the viz, optimizing the sequence of my clicks and just learning everything by heart. I will probably never forget how to build this viz.

Did teaching/lecturing prepare me for the competition? In this particular case… maybe yes, because I was able to discuss my ideas with an expert at our Business School. But generally speaking, you don’t need to be a teacher to succeed at IronViz — like seen many times.

AM: When did you find out you became a Zen Master and what does that title mean to you?

KS: I received an e-mail from Amanda Boyle (@ettaboyle) in late January 2019 and she was asking for a call. In this call she then asked me if I would like to join the 2019 Zen Master group. So, I already knew about becoming a Zen Master when Tableau published the blog announcing the class of 2019.

And of course, this title means a lot to me. Being recognized as an Iron Viz champion and a Zen Master in only one and a half years is beyond anything I could expect when I started with Tableau in 2017.

The title also meant an obligation for me to keep on doing what I did in 2018: Being a master, a teacher and a collaborator. For the master part, I tried to push my boundaries, learned new techniques and applied the techniques in Tableau Public visualization projects like Game, Set & Match Becker, Overshot or my work on visualizing P&Ls. For the teacher part, we already talked about blogging. Moreover, I really enjoyed being on stage at TCE in Berlin alongside Ludovic Tavernier (@ltavernier7) and at TC in Las Vegas together with Ivett Kovacs (@IvettAlexa) who are two of the datafam members I very much adore. I also presented at Tableau User Groups (TUGs) and other events about Tableau and data visualization in general. The best part for me last year was the collaborating. I did several, for example with fellow Zen Masters Ken Flerlage (@flerlagekr), Merlijn Buit (@MerlijnBuit), Steve Wexler (@DataRevelations), Rosario Gauna, and with my TC co-speakers Ludovic Tavernier and Ivett Kovacs. Collaborations absolutely rock and I learned a lot in each of the projects.

AM: I understand that you love teaching and mentoring, what is the biggest challenges you face in that role and what have you done to overcome them?

KS: To enjoy teaching does not automatically mean that you are a good speaker. I think everybody has experienced that there are speakers who are subject matter experts but just can’t get it across.

For me it certainly was not that dramatic, but I know the areas where I can improve and where I have already improved since public speaking has become an important part of my job. With the Zen Master role, I am now leaving the lecture hall and speaking in front of more than 1,000 people (as at the Tableau Conference) — this was a new & exciting experience.

I have mastered these challenges by preparing myself intensely, both in terms of content and presentation.

AM: What do you envision the future of Tableau and its community will be — specifically what would you like to see and how can those goals be attained?

KS: Together with Salesforce, Tableau is in a very strong position to co-create the way organizations unleash the power of data. And I very much hope and believe, that Tableau and we as a community will use data to do good and face the incredible challenges of our time.

Universities are a strong multiplicator to spread the word of ‘helping people to see and understand data’. In 2019 Tableau’s academic team reached a milestone of 1,000,000 free licenses for students and instructors at universities all around the world. What an achievement! I would love to see and help this program growing even faster to give future graduates the tools and skills needed in a world full of data.

The community and Tableau as an organization have already achieved a lot, but there are still blank spots. I would really like to see these spots disappearing — both regionally and in terms of a stronger consideration of underrepresented groups in the community, and also in community programs like the Zen Master program.

AM: You have shared so many incredible vizzes. Which viz surprised you the most as far as positive reception — on a separate note, which viz did you work hardest on the you were surprised didn’t fair as well publicly as it should have?

KS: It’s always great to see when one of your own work inspires others to great work. I experienced this for example when I did a #makeovermonday on minimum wages in the US earlier this year, where I had the idea of a small multiple/hex map combo.

Klaus Schulte — Sparkbar Hex Map

I described the technique I used here in a blog and I was really pleased to see several vizzes and blogs popping up using and referring to the technique I described.

This year I’ve spent quite some time on a collaboration with Merlijn Buit, where we created a virtual Data Village using the Extensions API. We presented the project both at TCE and TC and got really great feedback. But not being able to upload a workbook with extensions on Tableau Public (on my wishlist for­­­­­­­ 2020) was probably the main reason that it didn’t get the publicity the project would have deserved. If you want to learn more about the project, check this blog by Geraldine Zanolli.

Credit: Tableau, Merlijn Buit & Klaus Schulte

AM: Achieving so much, what are your personal goals in the next five years and how can you maintain motivation to reach them?

KS: I don’t follow strategic five-year plans. Five years ago, I wasn’t even aware of Tableau and that there is a group of Tableau Zen Masters. As a professor in Germany you are in a fantastic position. The principle of freedom of research and teaching allows us to set priorities independently, as I have done with Tableau in recent years.

For sure, I will go on contributing to the Tableau community with my blog, conferences and Tableau Public visualizations. Moreover, there will be some new adventures in 2020. I’m thrilled to host a summer school ‘Data Literate Minds’ in Münster in May, where Chantilly Jaggernauth (@chanjagg) and Merlijn Buit will join me in teaching and training international students. Before that, in March, none other than Ben Jones (@DataRemixed) will have a virtual appearance at MSB talking about Data Literacy.

I try to keep up my motivation by spending as much time as possible with things that I enjoy doing and getting rid of the things I don’t enjoy — a pretty simple recipe.

AM: Please share one guilty pleasure you have that may be surprising to some.

KS: Any kind of sweets! (6)

Viz of the Week

Wendy Shijia — China’s Dairy Imports

Wendy is a rising viz star. Her growing portfolio is eclectic, beautiful and combines strong data analysis with sound visualization strategies applying spectacular standard and custom charting to her data visualizations.

Adam Mico (AM): What inspired you to use a data set of dairy imports to China?

Wendy Shijia (WS): This is my entry to the December Iron Quest, the theme is: Food & Drink. I had already come across a very good data source while working on my last piece about China’s Christmas decoration export and this time I used it again to browse through a very broad range of food products… from pork, durian, wine to instant noodles.

I finally decided to focus on dairy products. On one hand, milk and especially China’s dairy imports have its fair share of media publicity already. It’s going to be topical for many readers both in and out of China. On the other hand, I was able to access a good many sub-categories from my data source because this data already came with fine classifications for dairy products. They even allocated four different categories for ‘milk’ alone, according to the milk’s fat content.

AM: Did anything in the data surprise you & if so, please explain?

WS: Yes, of course! It hadn’t occurred to me that Germany would come in second for dairy import. My impression of Germany imports, as I’m assuming that most Chinese would share, is immediately about electronic devices, auto industry, and other heavy industries. I hadn’t thought that China has imported lots of German dairy products.

I had also some minor surprises with a high unit price of some products such as Polish butter and Argentinian cream ($81.50 (USD) for a kilo of cream?!?!).

AM: I love how you have a wide variety of techniques and styles and particularly dig the Top Countries by total weight chart. What inspired this approach and how many different styles were tried before you ended up on the circle/diamond and layout?

WS: I stuck to my initial idea of displaying weight and price in a matrix, countries are rows and products are columns. However, I’ve tried a couple of styles to show weight and price in one cell.

Credit: Wendy Shijia

In the beginning, I only used circles to show total weight, and hid total price in the tooltips — but weight and price are equally important so I decided to visualize both in one chart. Later I realized the average price makes more sense than the total price because average prices are smaller numbers which are easy to compare. They are also closer to the reader’s everyday life. I tested various complicated combinations and finally ended up with the circle-diamond style, which can display two values at the same time and is pleasing to the eyes.

Credit: Wendy Shijia

The charts on the right also have a couple of iterations, from dual-bar charts to sparklines to stacked bars. Comparing to all the other countries, New Zealand has extreme large numbers and price fluctuations. It’s better to use a percentage to compare among countries. So I chose stacked bars to show the percentage of the total price of each product. You may find that for most countries, the major part of income is less processed dairy products (blue bars). Some exceptions are British cream, French cream, and Italian cheese!

AM: What were the biggest challenges you faced when displaying the data; did you know what you wanted to do before you visualized it or was it something you played with to determine its display?

WS: When I found the data set, I had an initial idea and started with some sketches. In the process, new data and insights continued to pop up and threatened to thwart some of my preconceptions. The challenge is to balance what’s interesting to include and what data can robustly support my ideas. I found myself rationalizing its inclusion if they meet these two conditions — one, that they’d compliment my original idea instead of thwarting it, and two, I have enough time to process it.

I did come across some interesting data such as, what percentage is the dairy export in a country’s total export to China? How much dairy product does China export to other countries? This data arouses my curiosity but are not included in this viz because they would change my story to a very different one. I’d prefer to make another viz with this data.

Music Morsel

2019 had a ton of sensational music if you dig deeply. Big Thief’s Two Hands was my favorite album of last year. Adrianne Lenker recalls a lot of the visceral energy + anguish of peak Patty Smith with her bandmates providing a dynamic musical backdrop (clearly inspired by Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s ‘Cortez the Killer’) that catapults Adrianne’s poetry with complex grungy soundscapes.

Binge Bite

My binge bite this week is a Google Sheet to my favorite 125 documentaries categorized by type, applying IMDB (secondary sort) and my ratings (primary sort) with Netflix and YouTube links (Amazon Prime to be added later).


1) LOL, been there strong link postulations.

2 Here’s a great blog on formatting BANs (Big Ass Numbers)

3) Should be obvious, but not always true — I’m sure his students appreciate that ethic in Klaus.

4) Viz Jockey is one of the best blogs in all of Tableau — please check it out!

5) That’s an incredible tribute to the competition. It also keeps you at a certain level of humility.

6) Because who doesn’t love some good The Jesus and Mary Chain?



Adam Mico

Data Visualization and Enablement Leader | Data Leadership Collaborative Advisory Board Member | Tableau Visionary + Ambassador | Views are my own