Data Viz Thoughts .|: Chris Conn Interview & Kate Schaub has our #VOTW
A Tableau-centric weekly blog about the viz making process, #datafam member interviews, #DataVizThoughts Viz of the Week + entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).
Christopher Conn Feature Interview
Adam Mico (AM): When you graduated from Indian River State College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, what do you think was your career path at the time?
Christopher Conn (CC): It’s very funny you ask, I was actually building experimental airplanes at the time and thought that was going to be my career path — to me, it was such a fulfilling job. You literally get to see a huge pile of sheet metal morphing into an FAA certified airplane, seeing the owner fly their airplane and passing the FAA certification was priceless — but a downturn in the economy proved to me that it wasn’t a stable source of income. So, I went to get the next big thing in town at the time, a job at local the call center. I started off as a call rep and I rapidly got promoted as the lead analyst while managing a few call reps at the same time.
AM: Before receiving your degree, did you plan to immediately attend college for your MBA or did you begin your career while pursuing your MBA?
CC: Getting my MBA was always at the back of my mind, but I wanted to start my career first to gain some experience and save some money.
The advice I always got in regards of getting an MBA was to have some experience first, because the diploma itself won’t help much once you’re in the corporate world so that and my financial situation at the time were the two main factors for deciding to hold off on the MBA for a bit. Around the same time, I met Fio (1) and she was also looking at pursuing her MBA, we both started looking into different programs and found that Florida Atlantic University had a program that would allow us to still work full time and attend school at nights. At that moment we made the decision to start our MBAs together, it was cool to be able to help each other out along the way and see how we both grew and struggled to make everything work — it was worth it — two years later we walked that stage together and graduated! (2)
AM: What was your 1st major role working with data visualization?
CC: My first role was working for an aviation company, my boss at the time noticed that I was very good at design and numbers, so he thought I could be a good candidate to try this new software he had heard about named Tableau.
He got me a desktop license to try it. I was able to pick it up fairly quickly and built a couple of dashboards for our department. The executives liked them so much that next thing I knew Tableau was our main reporting tool in the company and I was in charge of creating all the dashboards. I had such a fun time doing that, because I was given free range to use Tableau; that’s when I started researching about business dashboards and found the Tableau community.
AM: When you began working with data visualization, was it love at 1st chart or was it bug that developed into love after working with them for some time?
CC: It was a little bit of both, at the very beginning it was all new to me. The software looked so strange but I was curious enough to try to make a couple of charts and dig into it. Suddenly, I started loving every aspect of Tableau! I loved it so much that I started researching about what else it could do, I got a little bit more involved in the Tableau community weekly projects which helped sharpen some of my skills, and I would spend time reverse engineering some of the most interesting dashboards I’ve seen. One day I brought it home and showed my wife, she showed interest in what I was doing, and at that point Tableau became a huge part of our lives! I started searching for different data sets and she would do the same just to see what we can create and what the data would tell us.
AM: How has working with data visualizations impacted your career and in your current capacity, do you use/develop data visualizations frequently?
CC: Yes, working with data visualization has had a huge impact on my career (and still does). Thanks to Tableau and data visualization in general I’ve had the privilege to go (and bring my wife along) across the world to work in Australia for work! I don’t think I would have had the same opportunity without data visualization. I still use and develop data visualizations but not just at work. It’s kind of a tradition at home at this point, we try to participate in every active project we see and even have our own projects that we’re developing and hope to publish sooner than later to share them with all of you.
AM: When did you meet your viz and life partner, Fiorella (@FiorellaConn) and was it at Florida Atlantic University (it looks like you attended the same MBA program)?
CC: Meeting my wife was one of the funniest things ever… I met her back in 2012 while I was a manager at the call center I worked at; she had just come back from Sweden and got a job as a call rep there. It was her first day on the floor taking calls and suddenly she needed help with a big question from the customer. I was at my desk during the first shift sitting next to a co-worker that happened to be her supervisor, so she came over to ask a question but her supervisor wasn’t there. I offered to help and she goes on to tell me the whole question spending a couple of minutes of her time (mind you the customer was still on hold) but I couldn’t answer it because I didn’t know — I kind of never told her that there was no way I would know the answer to any of her questions because I never worked on the campaign she was in, but I was trying to be nice and at least listen. Needless to say she called me useless… Not for not knowing the answers but because I wasted 2 minutes of her time on the call (while she could have gone to someone else for the answer) and messed her stats for the rest of the day. She went back to her seat to finish that call without the answer. Then my co-worker came back and it was at that moment when I told him: “I’m going to marry that girl someday.” He told me I was crazy and we’d never last, but here we are 8 years later!
AM: Please explain your 1st work or school project with her and data visualization.
CC: Our first data visualization project was actually Data for a Cause — Pets for Patriots. It was our first try at collaborating and one of Fio’s first times using Tableau. We first examined the data given to us and tried to think about what it was trying to tell us. This dataset combined two things that we’re passionate about: our amazing troops and puppy dogs… so it wasn’t hard to start coming up with ideas. We started brainstorming and sketched the designs we had in mind separately. We showed the designs to each other and combined what we liked the most from both and once we had the sketch we decided on the colors and font type we’d use. We worked on the visualization, submitted it and got second place!
I believe this is when the breakthrough happened for us. From this point forward, we knew we could work on visualizations together to bring them onto the next level. Our visualizations are good, but when we collaborate and listen to each other’s advice our visualizations become great.
AM: When did you learn that you could work together and what strengths does she possess that’s more of a struggle for you?
CC: It’s a rounding issue… [inside joke for Fio]
We learned that we could work together very early in our relationship. We moved in together after about a month of dating and moved down to Miami away from our families due to better work opportunities, so from very early on we knew we’d have to rely on each other. What we didn’t know is that we’d end up working for the same company again, but we did and found a job at the same import/export company. (3) We worked very well together on many different projects and it was super fun! She was in charge of getting all the official documentation to clear the products from customs and I was in charge of scheduling and coordinating all the inspections to guarantee these products were going to be cleared. Before we took over these countries there was a 2–3 week average wait time for these documents and inspections to be completed, we were able to reduce that time to 1–2 days.
My wife’s strength that is a struggle for me is that she’s stubborn as hell…. especially when she knows that she’s right! I could still be trying to calculate our numbers and if she already knows the results are good, she would just tell me to leave it alone (but I’m a bit stubborn too). Or that she might already know what color patterns and font are not the best to use and she’d hold her ground because she knows she’s correct. I think the worse part (or funniest) is that if I’m stubborn enough to try what I have in my mind she would make me save our original dashboard and let me go down the rabbit hole, few hours later of me working on something she would come and point at me why she said such and such thing won’t work and usually we end up going back to that original design — but NOT ALL the time though.
One time we were working on this dashboard for Data for a Cause, we had completed the dashboard on a Friday and were ready to submit it but I thought the numbers were not adding up correctly. I spent the entire weekend trying to recalculate these numbers while she kept telling me “it’s just a rounding issue, honey.” I didn’t listen until she took the mouse from my hand (this was Sunday evening) and said: “look, it’s just a rounding issue, our numbers are correct…” and turns out that it was… hence the inside joke.
AM: What have you learned with your work partnership?
CC: We learned that we can do anything we put our minds to and we can do so much more when we work together. We are a great team and always try to help and support each other in anything we do. We have always said that we perform best when we combine our minds and skills, and it holds true to reality. The communication that we were able to build between us really helps us, we come together to talk about whatever needs to be done, we separate tasks — if needed — and while I try to advance something, Fio tries to tackle something else. Then we come together and something beautiful is created.
This is why our dream is to have our own consulting firm together, because I love working with her and spending time with her. We’re best friends and just enjoy spending time together.
AM: How does your work partnership impact your relationship? Many couples cannot work together. My wife and I have before and it’s a struggle — what tips do you have to prevent work partnerships negatively impacting your personal relationships?
CC: It really hasn’t impacted our relationship; we keep business separate, even if we worked in the same place, which has happened three times already, or nearby like we do currently. We take lunch together when we can and when we’re on lunch were husband and wife but when we’re back at work we’re two very hard working individuals. We have always worked well together; we don’t let it get personal because for us it’s like collaborating on another project. We might get frustrated and disagree on design, color, font, even content but we know that at the end of the day it’s a joint effort and WE are making it happen together.
My best advice would be to first find something that would interest you both then, you both will be able to bring something to the table and find different strengths and weaknesses. Know that not always you’ll collaborate equally; you’ll also have to learn to compromise. Sometimes I am so set on certain content that Fio just has to compromise, but she knows when to be set in hers. So we find it easy to be open minded and say OK we’ll keep this but then this other thing needs to go or be modified to something else. Lastly, just give it a try! It’s so fulfilling to see something that you both made happen.
AM: Your last version of ‘Connected World’ was a favorite in the Tableau community. I know you weren’t completely happy with that viz when it was my Viz of the Week, but after its overwhelmingly positive response, was it more difficult to consider updating it to meet your high expectations or was it easier?
CC: It did grab a lot of attention within the Tableau community which I thought was amazing. I wouldn’t say it was difficult to update; on the contrary, such positive response gave me more incentive to complete the original design I had in mind. I wanted my visualization to be interactive so the user can play around with all the routes available. Overall, I am super pleased with the outcome of V.02, because it allows the user to see the actual routes in both the network cluster and geographic reference!
AM: What were the updates you made to this version compared to the prior version and how do you feel it enhances the users’ experience?
CC: In Version 2, I wanted the user to have the ability to swap the network graph for the geographical layout as desired, but using the button feature and allow hover/select highlight actions for the different routes. This is now live, so the user can select a node on the network graph to see its close relationships and also see the actual geographical routes of air travel worldwide, whereas before, the first version was lacking the interactivity mainly due to my own personal hard-set deadline. I wanted to publish my ‘Connected World’ the day of my birthday, Fio was on me so I can be a bit more flexible but she had to compromise and just let me finish it, haha.
AM: I like to end the interview with a silly question. Do you and Fiorella have any silly shows you binge together? What are the guiltiest pleasures you two have when it comes to a show, music or a YouTube channel?
CC: We don’t really have a single thing we binge on to be honest, especially shows. We love to be outdoors and get into different things, from going on a hike with Pirate (our dog, who we try to involve in everything) to tending the garden (also with Pirate). If we happen to be inside of the house (most likely on a rainy day) and not playing in Tableau, we’ll start something like an all-day campaign in a table top skirmish game called Necromunda or Spacehulk.
Now, if we really want to just relax and do nothing we’ll play Final Fantasy XIV, which we love, and just do quests and run through dungeons… Super nerdy, haha. Here’s a little list of the usual things we love to do on rainy days because on sunny days you’ll most likely find us at the beach:
• For crafts… we love Estes Rockets, Warhammer and Necromunda models.
• For board games… we like Warhammer 40K and Fantasy, Necromunda, Spacehulk, and Pandemic. Fio loves playing cards as well.
• For television shows… we loved Stranger Things and are hoping Hopper is at that Russian facility alive (SPOILER ALERT!!!) and the other silly shows we like are Bob’s Burgers and F is For Family.
• For video games… definitely Mechwarrior Online and Final Fantasy XIV.
Viz of the Week
Adam Mico (AM): I see the rhythm of food project inspired your viz and you used Google Trends to research cocktail popularity. This project has been around awhile because of densification and file size, what (if any) concessions were needed to make an ace-level version of this in Tableau? (4)
Kate Schaub (KS): When Sarah Bartlett (@sarahlovesdata) announced at Tableau Conference 2019 that the next Iron Quest topic would be about food and drink, Kevin Flerlage (@FlerlageKev) and I joked about needing to keep our 100% participation alive. I started digging around for topics and stumbled up on The Rhythm of Food website. I was hooked right away, digging into all sorts of food and drink trends. I knew right then I wanted to try to do this in Tableau. To do this, I would say the biggest concession I had to make with wanting to create this in Tableau was narrowing down my focus specifically to cocktails. In the beginning, I had a lot of ideas to try to incorporate other drinks such as types of beers and wines, then allowing users to look more specifically at their drink(s) of choice. However, it didn’t take long before I knew this was going to drastically increase the amount of data I needed, which would have negatively impacted the overall performance of the viz. Still on that same idea, I knew I couldn’t display it all on a single view, so I would have needed to include functionality to display that information. It was then that I decided I needed to really narrow my focus solely to one piece of the puzzle and landed on cocktails. At the end of the day, it really became a choice of whether to exert control over what my users saw and experienced, and rather than making it a tool of sorts, it transformed into a data art piece.
AM: There are a lot of custom techniques involved in this visualization and one of the best viz in tooltips I’ve seen… what inspired this and what were some of the challenges?
KS: The inspiration for this regarding both design and functionality really came directly from The Rhythm of Food. I have seen a variety of radial charts in Tableau, but I hadn’t ever seen a chart quite like this, so I wanted to see if I could find a way to recreate it on my own. However, I don’t want to take credit for creating the radial chart because Toan Hoang (@Tableau_Magic) is the magic behind that piece of the puzzle. Give him a few hours on a flight, and the rest is history! All I had to do was plug in my data. As far as the design was concerned, the inspiration for this came from it transforming into a data art piece. I wanted it to be eye-catching, bright, and fun and draw users in solely based on what they saw. I wanted it to be sort of like a picture you’d hang on a wall. But, being a data visualization, I wanted users to learn from it, for it to tell a story about the trends of cocktails, to show that, just like a lot of things in our world, there are ebbs and flows in a cocktails popularity, both over the course of a single year, and over a larger amount of time. There was a big challenge in doing this though. The amount of data I had alone had the potential to be completely overwhelming and that was without additional context. To find the right balance, I wanted to give just enough information for users to understand what they were viewing on the initial view. Once you know how to read the charts, you have a full visual on the trends of each cocktail, all without clicking on anything. That’s where the tiled layout came in handy. I could display all the cocktails in a single view to give an overall picture. Then, for those that were interested in more details, they could have the option to expand the details of a certain cocktails. And, let me tell you, collapsible containers were the cherry on top to get all of that to work. Those alone allowed me to add an enlarged view of the chart, plus additional details, all without compromising the overall design and beauty of the viz.
AM: Were there any data surprises uncovered when you saw the trends (and what were they)?
KS: I think my favorite data surprise in this viz has to be how truly unpopular the mint julep is outside of the Kentucky Derby time frame. Other cocktails had their fluctuations, some had more popular seasonality trends, but they also remained relevant throughout other parts of the year. With the mint julep, there really is only one time per year that people are searching for it. Outside of that, I just thought it was really neat to be able to visualize the search trends of cocktails and to actually be able to see cocktails become more popular over time (e.g. Whiskey Sour and White Russian), while others have started to fade over time (e.g. Pina Colada and Daiquiri). With a lot of these, it’s easy to make assumptions about trends and what cocktails are going to be more popular in the summer, but it’s just really cool to be able to see those trends in a visual way.
AM: One of the most under-appreciated aspects may be the care and fun guides you developed to help a user learn quickly what they are seeing. Was there a lot of trial and error involved to get this in the viz without sacrificing the inherent beauty of it or did you map it out before developing the viz?
KS: This may have been one of the most difficult parts of creating this viz. In creating a chart that’s not common or well-known, I knew I was going to need to include some form of instructions on how to read the radial charts, so users could easily tell what they were looking at. Also, being that it’s the opposite of a traditional business dashboard, I knew consistency and repetition throughout the viz regarding text, colors and icons was going to be key for users to truly grasp what they were looking at. All of this was a big challenge because I wanted to avoid text on the initial viz as much as possible. That’s where Ken Flerlage (@flerlagekr) saved the day (whether he knows it or not)! The inspiration for the viz in tooltip as a ‘Recipe’ for how to read the viz comes directly from his Wind Roses viz. When I first reached out to the Tableau community for how to create this type of radial chart, his viz was mentioned more than once, and even though I didn’t use it for creating the radial chart itself, I thought it was absolutely brilliant how he created the ‘key’ to his viz. It was the first time I had seen a viz in tooltip used as instructions on how to read and interact with a chart. This technique allowed me to display an actual chart with added annotations and instructions directly to it without impacting the overall design of the viz. It was perfect for what I needed!
AM: What advice would you share to someone who wants to do their version of the viz that you wish you had when you began?
KS: The biggest piece of advice I would give someone wanting to do their own version of this viz would be to have all the design decisions made before you ever really start to create it in Tableau, which includes things such as tooltips, colors, etc. Once you have those decisions made, create and finish a single chart before duplicating it for each additional item you add on. This may sound obvious to those who have used Tableau for a long time, but with this, I had the initial ideas drawn out, and thought I had things finalized, but I ended up making so many changes along the way that I ended up having to make these changes over and over again for each chart. Had I had everything finalized on one chart first, then duplicated it for each cocktail, it would have made things a lot more efficient with all the pieces that make this up. Copy and paste ended up being my best friend by the time this was finished!
It’s amazing when art can be delivered as a change agent. Lyrically, it was one of the most accessible songs Bob Dylan wrote — it just wove a short history of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, painted dense scenic pictures and shared a convincing opinion based on the woeful racial injustice applied to Rubin’s investigation and trial — the musical template relates a sense of anger, chaos and sadness to the words. Although this song did not directly get Mr. Carter released, it raised public awareness — even after that, it shamefully took another 10 years to release Rubin.
Adam and Satan is a documentary sharing the stories of a natural musical talent from Harlem (Satan) and a studied music enthusiast from Manhattan (Adam). It’s a moving and very real tribute to both people as they bounce in and out of each other’s lives (aware, yet accepting of each other’s differences), but realize how dear their partnership is to them 30+ years into their relationship.
1. Fiorella is a super-talented data visualizer in her own right; check out her Tableau Public profile here!
2. For some reason, my mind went to “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne, but it also replaced ‘Lawyers’ with ‘MBAs’
3. Follow-up question fail: “Was it Art Vandelay Industries?”
4. Kate’s viz uses a lot of powerful techniques/data that may require more time than normal to load — please keep that in mind if you are waiting for this cocktail to develop; the blend makes it worth the wait.