An Interview with Tableau Zen Master Ken Flerlage and Judit Bekker Provides Insight on Her Viz of the Week

A Tableau-centric weekly blog about the data 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 zen-tastic interview with Zen Master and Tableau Forum Ambassador Ken Flerlage (@flerlagekr) and Judit Bekker (@judkacag) reveals her thought and design process covering the sad topic of physical abuse of women.

Feature Interview

Adam Mico (AM): Ken, it’s an absolute pleasure and honor to interview you for the blog. Not to make you blush, but along with Toan Hoang (@thoang1000) and Andy Kriebel (@VizWizBi), you were one of the few people I followed via blogs before I joined the community. Let’s start early on. You went to Northern Kentucky University and earned a B.S. in Computer Science. Back then were you introduced to data visualization or more focused on the math and programming skill building & what were some of your programs you learned to work with in school?

Ken Flerlage (KF): Thanks for having me, Adam — it’s quite an honor to hear that you followed me before joining the community. Kevin [@FlerlageKev (my twin brother and fellow Zen Master)] and I always talk about how we can play a role in expanding the community and the goal of our blogs is often to find a way to help the broader community of Tableau users, so I’m glad that we’re having some success with that.

My computer science (CS) program in college was really focused on coding and the science behind it. When I took my first CS course, in 1995, it was taught in Turbo Pascal! The rest of my college career was more focused on C++. I was, and still am, terrible with C — the logic of the language just never meshed with the way I think. I was much better with other languages such as Visual Basic, which was my bread and butter early in my career.

I spent the first two thirds of my career doing a little bit of everything in Information Technology. I started out as a programmer then transitioned into systems and database administration. But data was always front and center to everything I did. Even though it wasn’t my job to analyze data, I always wanted to make sure the systems I created could provide data to help make better decisions. I didn’t officially get involved with data visualization until I took a role leading a small analytics team about 7 years.

The first true data visualization software I used was QlikView. I immediately saw the power in visualizing data and fell in love immediately. I used Qlik for about 3 years before moving to Bucknell and learning Tableau.

AM: It looks like much of your work was applying data analytics, leading teams to upgrade systems and upgrading structures to enhance performance. Working with data and teams in this fashion is very much different than applying data to create data visualizations — how did this background help you learn to visualize data and what hurdles did you have to overcome to learn how to make visualizations work for a wider audience?

KF: Even though my job descriptions indicated a number of leadership positions, they were always relatively small teams, which allowed me to stay very hands-on and close to technology. I’ve always loved being able to do both — setting the strategy and the direction, while also getting to work to implement it.

When you write business systems for a living, data is always a key component. You have to think about how best to structure that data, both for easy input, but also so the data can be used to help inform decisions. So, for me, it was a pretty natural transition — I was just moving from the front end (data creation and management) to the back end (analytics). But my technical background, particularly my expertise with databases and SQL, helped shorten my learning curve significantly.

AM: You are currently the Assistant Director of Data Analytics at Bucknell University. In this capacity, do you get to work with Tableau (or other data visualization tools) frequently?

KF: Yes! My team is on the IT side and we are responsible for architecture, design, and development of data warehousing and analytics solutions across all functional areas of the university. One of those key platforms is Tableau/Tableau Server. Our philosophy is to enable self-service as much as possible, so a lot of our focus is on training end users, rather than building data visualizations ourselves. That said, we do get involved in a lot of projects, especially more complex projects. But our goal is always to act as internal consultants — we might help users build something, but we always make sure to transfer that knowledge to them so that they can maintain it moving forward.

One thing I really love about working in higher education is that I often get opportunities to work with students and faculty. I regularly give lectures in a variety of courses — covering all three of our colleges (Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and Management). I also work with students and faculty quite often to help them leverage Tableau and Tableau Prep in their research.

AM: Obviously many people reading this will be from the Tableau community. When and how were you introduced to Tableau and was it a tool that piqued your interest immediately or something you slowly gravitated toward?

KF: About four years ago, I accepted a position at Bucknell. They used Tableau and, while I was familiar with it, I had never actually used it. Before starting, I figured it would make sense to at least learn the basics. So, I checked out a few online courses and eventually settled on a course available on Udemy called Learn Data Visualisation with Tableau 9 taught by the great Matt Francis. I spent a couple hours a night for about one week and, just like that, I could do the basics with Tableau. Thanks Matt!!

But, my early work at Bucknell was focused more on analytics strategy, architecture, and the development of our analytics platform as a whole, which meant I didn’t get a chance to really exercise my newfound Tableau skills. However, around that same time, I decided to start a blog. I didn’t have any big plans for it, but I just wanted a platform I could use to merge my love of writing with my passion for analytics. And thus, www.kenflerlage.com was born. My first project was an analysis of Tiger Woods’ decline, in which I concluded that, in athletic terms, he’s just old. In that post, I included a simple line graph comparing Tiger’s tournament wins, by age, to perhaps the best golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus. To create the graph, I used a tool I had a lot of experience with, not Tableau. While the resulting line chart was just fine, I wasn’t able to embed the interactive version into my blog, instead simply including an image.

So, in June of 2016, when I called out Nate Silver, I decided to use Tableau. For some time, I had been thinking that it couldn’t possibly be that difficult to project the winner of an election (spoiler alert: I was wrong, but so was just about everyone else) so I created my own very simple model based solely on results of previous elections and polls. I wanted to include an election map like those found on Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website so I needed a tool that would:

1. Allow me to easily create an interactive map

2. Allow me to embed that map into a blog.

Tableau seemed like the perfect fit. Plus, by using Tableau, I would be gaining valuable experience with a tool I’d eventually need in my work at Bucknell. Bonus!!

After developing my model, I was able to create my election map with Tableau in an amazingly short amount of time. And, on June 30, 2016, I formally published it — my first Tableau visualization ever!! I kept using it to help support various analyses I was writing about and found that Tableau was easy to use, but also incredibly powerful. (1) Needless to say, I was hooked!

AM: Returning to programming languages… which programming language has helped you the most to work with Tableau’s calculations and behavior and what skill level does one need to be to take full advantage of its Tableau application?

KF: In my time as a SQL Server database administrator, I became pretty good with SQL. Since SQL is essentially the language of databases, Tableau often has to speak this language. This helped me to immediately understand how to model my data through joins, unions, etc. And I also found that the syntax of many calculated fields is often the same or similar to Tableau. So, as noted previously, that background really allowed me to hit the ground running. While Tableau doesn’t really require people to use SQL, I think that knowledge of the basic concepts of databases and SQL is a pretty important skill. That, of course, is why I partnered with Robert Crocker (@robcrock) to create a series of SQL posts on my blog.

In addition, I often use programming languages to do some more advanced data collection or data prep. For this, my go to language is Python. I’m just an amateur Python programmer, but I’ve been able to use it for a number of different projects, including some web scraping and some of my more artistic projects.

AM: In the future, what would you like to see more of in terms of data visualizations trends?

KF: I think the biggest thing is just the expansion of data visualization and, more generally, data literacy. Even in a world that is saturated with data, many people have very limited data skills and couldn’t read even the most basic charts and graphs. So, I just want to see the field grow and I want to see us doing what we can to help elevate those who are being left behind.

AM: When and how did you find the Tableau social community and who are some of the people that made the landing a comfort for you?

KF: After publishing my first Tableau viz on Tableau Public, I continued to use it for a few months. I had been posting my work on LinkedIn and Twitter, but I hadn’t yet fully discovered the community. That is, until the community started taking notice of my work. This started with my Famous Trees visualization winning Viz of the Day, Josh Tapley (@josh_tapley) noticing my Snowflake Chart post, and Ben Jones (@DataRemixed) sharing my idea of a “sized bump chart.” Then, in January, I was surprised to be named as a Tableau Public Featured Author. Josh, Ben, and the Tableau Public team probably don’t realize what these recognitions meant to me, but I was (and still am) incredibly thankful. They both validated my efforts and introduced me to the incredible Tableau Community.

From there, I really started to engage with the community. People like Adam Crahen (@acrahen) and Jonni Walker (@jonni_walker), though maybe not realizing it, acted as mentors to me. I discovered projects like Makeover Monday and Workout Wednesday. I started diligently reading the blogs of Andy Kriebel, Andy Cotgreave (@acotgreave), Eva Murray (@TryMyData), and Ryan Sleeper (@ryanvizzes). And I learned so much from downloading and dissecting the work of Pooja Gandhi (@DrexelPooja), Rody Zakovich (@RodyZakovich), Matt Chambers (@sirvizalot), Adam McCann (@adamemccann), Curtis Harris (@curtisharris_), Chris Love (@ChrisLuv), Jeffrey Shaffer (@HighVizAbility), Shawn Levin (@shawnmlevin), and so many more. (2)

Having discovered and fully engaged in the community, the pace of my learning accelerated significantly. The truth is that I can’t even imagine where I’d be without it. Never in my life have I seen a piece of software evoke so much passion in people and I want to thank each and every member of the community and encourage you to keep doing the incredible work that you do.

AM: How would you like to see the community evolve in the future?

KF: I really want to see greater diversity. This includes all aspects of diversity, of course, but one thing that I’ve thought quite a bit about is geographic diversity. The Tableau Community still feels fairly centered in the US and the UK, but I want to see that grow. I’d like to see more people from South America, Africa, etc. We’re seeing some great progress in this area and I’m excited to see it continue to grow.

AM: What tips can you share to those that may be lurking around the fringes of the community, but haven’t decided to participate?

KF: This is a great community. By jumping in, you’ll not only get a ton of opportunities to learn, but you might also find “your people”. (3) That’s certainly the way I feel and I relish any opportunity I get to spend time with members of the community. That said, it can be hard to join, particularly for introverts, so take it at your own pace and engage as you see fit. Also, feel free to reach out to people directly. I personally love hearing from new people and I know many other leaders in the community do as well, so don’t hesitate. (4)

AM: A somewhat under-discussed/utilized aspect of Tableau is the Tableau Community Forums. From a personal perspective, it is a little difficult to navigate, but it does have a lot of value. What are some of the best drawing points to the Tableau Community Forums that you feel many people may not understand, but could gain great value from?

KF: The forums have a bunch of Tableau experts who are ready and willing to help you address a problem — whether you’re new to Tableau or you’re an advanced user looking for an assist. You can post a question on the forums and get an answer (or half a dozen answers) almost immediately.

Participating in answering questions on the forums is also a great way to teach people in a one-on-one fashion. Every question on the forums is unique — they all have different business drivers, different data and data structures, and different constraints. And, in order to help the person, you have to work within these confines to provide an answer. This often requires some creative thinking or even hacky solutions. And this is where it gets interesting — while you’re there to help teach the platform, you’re also learning a lot along the way. So the forums end up as a two-for-one deal — you’re both teaching and learning at the same time. You can’t beat that!

AM: You have been a Tableau Zen Master the last three turns. How has the responsibilities of that title challenged you in ways that you didn’t anticipate and how has it helped you evolve beyond anything explicitly related Tableau?

KF: Probably the biggest joy of being a Zen has been the opportunity it has given me to work with the Tableau Foundation. The Tableau Foundation is a philanthropic initiative which helps to use data to solve many of the world’s biggest problems. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Community Solutions (Tableau Foundation and Community Solutions Partnership to Eliminate Veteran and Chronic Homelessness in 50 U.S. Communities) and the National Alliance to End Homelessness on projects to address the United States’ homelessness problem. And I’ve gotten to work with the ONE Campaign to help them track progress toward their goal of raising $14 billion to for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria (Visualizing the Impact of $14 billion).

What an incredible opportunity and responsibility this has been. This is not just creating a beautiful dashboard for Tableau Public or even for work — this is something that has a direct impact on people’s lives and I’m incredibly proud and humbled to have had a chance to play a small role in the work these organizations are doing.

So, while I’m on the topic, let me just encourage your readers to find a way to help as well. You don’t have to be a Zen Master — if you have strong Tableau skills, then charitable organizations can definitely use your help. All you have to do is sign up to be a volunteer with the Tableau Service Corps and you’ll get a chance to use your unique skill set to make a difference.

AM: On Zen Master topics, your twin Kevin and now Tableau blog partner took a different path to ‘finding Zen’. Based on my interview with him, he was reluctant to get involved with the software and community, but when he committed he rediscovered his bond with you. Were you surprised on how he took to the software, community and the simultaneous re-growth of your bond once he decided to participate and how has his development impacted you personally?

KF: I certainly wasn’t surprised at how he took to the software. I know how smart and talented he is, so once he went all-in, I knew he’d master the software immediately. But I am incredibly proud of him. He’s worked so hard to master Tableau and it’s been fun to watch his growth. He truly earned Zen Master and I’m excited to see where he goes from here.

When we first merged our blogs to create www.flerlagetwins.com, we wrote about how Tableau brought us back together, so if you’d like to hear the whole story, definitely read Introducing FlerlageTwins.com!! (5) But, in short, Kevin and I were always best friends growing up. I moved away after college and life just sort of got in the way. We were still friends and didn’t skip a beat when we got back together, but we didn’t really speak a lot and just weren’t that involved in each other’s lives. But, once we had this shared passion of Tableau, that all changed. We now speak to each other almost every day. Who’d have thought that a software package could make us best friends again!

AM: You just launched your new blog for 2020, working on fantastic blog posts and been a consistently (if a little behind-the-scenes) supportive force in the community. What drives you to push out content and are there any big things you are working on that you can share a peak?

KF: The answer to this is pretty simple. When I first started, this community helped me to learn and grow. Now that I have these skills, I just want to pay it forward. There are probably ways I could monetize my work in Tableau (other than my existing job), but we’ve chosen not to do that — we don’t even have advertisements on our site. (6) Our goal is just to help others get better at this tool and with data in general. And, if we’re successful at that, we’re happy.

As far as upcoming projects, I keep a long list of ideas and I add to it quite regularly. I don’t have anything big planned at the moment, having just finished up a couple of fairly big projects (equal-width sankeys and 20 Use Cases for LODs, in particular), but I have enough to keep me busy. :)

AM: What’s an interesting fact about you that others may not know?

KF: OK this is strange and kind of gross, but I have really really stretchy skin (Kevin’s skin stretches as well). I can stretch the skin on my elbows and face quite a bit further than the normal human. It’s pretty weird… (editor’s note, and can’t be unseen)

Credit: Ken Flerlage

Viz of the Week

Credit: Judit Bekker — I Am Not OK With This (select the viz for her interactive version)

Adam Mico (AM): The design of your viz is very striking. When you were working with the data, at what point did you determine to go with your published design and please explain any other design thoughts that didn’t make the cut along the way?

Judit Bekker (JB): I entered this week’s MakeoverMonday game pretty late, so I had to come up with something original, otherwise, I wouldn’t even decide on doing it. I always start working on a project with sketching wireframes on paper and only after I have it ready in my head I switch to any software. (7) That afternoon, one of my colleagues told me that I would make a good fit for their band, except that I have a terrible taste in music (I don’t). That’s how I decided to have two visuals on top of each other to achieve this vinyl effect by using complementary colors. I drew the background in Adobe Illustrator and added the interactive part in Tableau.

AM: It looks like you have training and experience in infographic design. What are some of the challenges you face when making visualizations with data and interactive?

JB: My only concern is to be limited to web-safe fonts. I fell in love with Futura (8) when watching a TED talk about its rise in popularity after being used on the Apollo 11 mission and I’m quite obsessed with it. I try to use as few texts in Tableau as possible and hide the parts where I need to. This is where the show and hide containers for filters come in handy. Tooltips can be customized even less, so I just came to terms with it.

Otherwise, after drawing the wireframes, I place my charts on the Tableau dashboard and export it as an image. The next step is putting it back to Illustrator as a different layer so that I can switch it on and off while designing.

AM: The closest Tableau public designer I could think of that would come up with a similar design is Ivett Kovács (@IvetteAlexa). I also see you also work at Starschema Ltd. How has your work with Starschema Ltd. inspired you and your designing data visualizations?

JB: Ivett is quite an inspiration, and so is the whole Starschema crew — I’ve never been happier to be on board with a team like this. The company takes our personal growth very seriously and also I’ve got the best team lead one can imagine. He ensures that I have the time for any pet projects I have in mind and considers what’s best for all his people. The core principle of Starschema is that it wants to be a place where you enjoy working and they have not failed to deliver on this!

AM: Investigating the data, what were the most startling trends found?

JB: The most shocking thing for me, many countries have a higher percentage of women thinks they deserve to be hit than men. I’m not saying (far from that) it’s our fault that a lot of women suffer from domestic violence, but everything starts with respecting ourselves. One of my favorites quotes by J. K. Simmons from Juno sums it up quite right: “Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what-have-you. The right person is still going to think the sun shines out of your ass.”

So to all the women out there: don’t settle for any less and find that special one who thinks of you like this!

Music Morsel

This video version of a 1997 radio station performance + behind-the-scenes high jinks screams pre-smart phone 1990s energy & foolhardy fun.

Binge Bite

‘Take Me Home Tonight’ is a totally tubular 80s nostalgia mindless goof fest full of mindless clichéd scenes and danceable pop music. In these stressful times, I very highly recommend when you want to press pause on the anxiety button of present times.

Footnotes

1) This was my 1st impression of it. Mind you, I wasn’t doing anything nearly as cool as Ken, but I was ecstatic that it could quickly manage millions of records and you can build intuitive and interactive vizzes.

2) This is now officially my 2nd most person linked post behind the 79-person community blog post. :)

3) For me, pretty much my only people that I’m not bound to by work or family.

4) You can also reach out to me. I’m a title-less autist, but would love to introduce you to the community and help share resources.

5) That post was one of the most inspiring posts I read from the Tableau Community in the time I’ve been a part of it!

6) Although my scale is MUCH smaller than the FlerlageTwins, I also only want to pay it forward bypassing any additional financial reward as it helped me so much in my actual career meet any needs I have in that regard.

7) A most excellent tip!

8) I love Future too. I am partial to Meiyro UI

9) Health Metric Thru Week 8 (vs. the start of the journey)

* Weight = 234.6 (–15.4 lbs)

* Waist = 40.8 (–2.2")

* Calorie Intake = 2034 (–966 calories)

* BMI = 32.7 (–2.7)

* Resting Heart Rate = 68 (–10)

* Systolic Blood Pressure = 131 (–3)

* Diastolic Blood Pressure = 78 (–19)

Keyrus US’ Tableau Evangelist and Tableau Ambassador. Views are very much my own. Priya Padham assists on #DataVizThoughts.

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