Data Viz Thoughts: Sedale McCall Shares His Tableau Desktop Specialist Certification Journey

Adam Mico
11 min readJun 14, 2020
Credit: Sedale McCall & Steven Shoemaker

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, Sedale McCall (@SedaleM) shares tips and resources that helped him get #CertifiablyTableau. Also, Steven Shoemaker (@_stalsh) provides background & inspiration on his sensational Viz of the Week!

Credit: Sedale McCall

Like many people, my Tableau journey started a bit out of order. I did some of the free Tableau training modules, but I really didn’t know what I needed to know about being functional in the tool. Fortunately, I encountered the D.C. Tableau User Group (TUG), including Eric Balash (@ReadySetData), who introduced me to the #datafam. (1) Now I’m off to the races.

*Sidenote: If you’re in quarantine, take advantage of all the TUG meetings you can find. I’ve attended events in London, Portland, DC, Singapore, Nigeria, Germany, and more now that they are all online.

It was through the #datafam that I found out about Tableau Certifications. Several people I have encountered along the way are in one of the three levels (Tableau Desktop Specialist, Tableau Certified Associate, Tableau Certified Professional) and I was intrigued by the prospect; then the work started.

Why was it important to seek certification

As an intermediate/novice Tableau user, getting certified really has two big, important purposes. The obvious one is the ability to show the skills you do have. I don’t have a huge, popular Tableau public profile with amazing sankey or radial charts. Getting certified is a quick and easy way to say “Hey, I know what I’m doing”.

The other, less obvious reason is the journey before the destination. Getting certified forces you to “learn the process” of visualization. What’s the difference between a date part and date value? Why is that important? Should you use a filter action here? Or a set action? These are things you often don’t think about when you’re building charts, but when you’re getting started, it makes a lot of difference.

Preparing for certification

This was the question I got most often about the certification process. Preparation is pretty important for Tableau certifications. I’ve taken a few certifications (which I won’t name here) where the coursework is optional. If you are skilled enough in deductive reasoning, you can kind of wing it.

This exam is not that. If you read the documentation before the exam, they allow you to open a browser and search for things. Don’t mistake their kindness for weakness. Searching in Google is unlikely to reveal the answer to you. Unfortunately, you actually need to know what you’re doing.

So how do you prepare? Here are two big things….

  1. Tableau eLearning: Or whatever modules you have available. I will say you still have time (through June 30) to sign up for Tableau eLearning modules for free for 90 days. That’s what I used and it was fantastic for preparation. If you miss the deadline and can’t afford to pay for it, you could probably use the free Tableau training as well. The point is, you need to know how Tableau explains the concepts and what aspects are most important. For example, Tableau considers parameters to be valuable when you want to reduce the amount of information in a view of what’s important. You may use parameters for other reasons, but you should know that Tableau thinks that. (2)
  2. Get Vizzing: In my opinion, it’s not enough to know how the features work from a textbook perspective. Applying what you learned in a live viz will make the concepts stick and it will be a lot easier to recall an answer when you’ve done it before, rather than just read about it.

One more thing I’ll talk about shortly: Taking the exam itself is something I would get comfortable with as well. You don’t want to get thrown off by the UI of Loyalist Exams (the organization that proctors the test). More on that in a second.

Experience taking the test and how to best mentally prepare

As Katie Wagner (@ktfontnowagner) once said in a Zoom hangout, it’s “appropriately challenging”. I thought overall the exam was as challenging as it should have been, without being overly difficult.

For context, there are 30 questions in the Tableau Specialist exam and you have an hour to complete it, so roughly two minutes per question. Twenty-two of the questions are “knowledge” questions which are either multiple-choice with one correct answer or multiple-choice with multiple correct answers (“choose all that apply”). There are also eight “hands-on” questions where you have to open Tableau, connect to a data source, and build some basic charts.

Don’t let the timing get to you! Many knowledge-based questions will take you less than 30 seconds if you’re prepared (which I hope you are!) so odds are even if the hands-on questions take you 3–4 minutes, you will have the time to deal with them.

Another important note… the questions aren’t broken up in sections. I had one hands-on question to start the exam that took me about 6 minutes. It made me a little nervous to use so much time. But the next 9 questions were multiple choice and by the time I got to Question 10, I was far ahead of schedule. I ended up finishing the exam in 42 minutes (this included the time I spent reviewing my answers).

One thing I slightly underestimated until a couple of days before the exam was the difference between the proctored environment vs. my typical desktop set up. When you take the exam you will have an environment locked in full-screen mode, while a proctor watches you through Zoom. If you leave that full-screen mode, your proctor will stop you and need to re-engage your screen. This happened to me once because I accidentally clicked on the Zoom bar at the top. Not a huge deal, but definitely disrupted my exam flow!

Lastly, I highly recommend you take a break between whatever you have going on that day and the exam. Clear your mind, don’t study, don’t work. Sitting for an hour (or more as with the other exams) can be draining, and you want to go into it fairly refreshed.

Tips, Tricks, and blogs

A few things I did, or didn’t do but wish I did:

  • Prepare for the proctoring. If you have not taken a proctored exam like this before, it can be a little jarring. Look for videos about that and watch how the process will work so you know what to expect. A few to start below!
  • Talk to people who have done it before. The #datafam is extremely supportive and many make it their responsibility to help others on their journey. Take advantage of that! So much of my confidence in the exam came from hearing what to expect from people who had done it before.
  • Open Tableau at the very beginning and load all of the data sources. I did not do this but I wish I did. A chunk of the time you’ll spend with hands-on questions will be simply fumbling around with loading Tableau and the datasets. Just spend 3–4 minutes in the beginning and load them all so it’s ready to go when the questions come up.
  • Use Tableau to confirm knowledge questions. Another good reason to apply your learning in live vizzes is that you can confirm your knowledge questions in Tableau. For example, if a question asks where to start to create a hierarchy, you can confirm your answer by going to Tableau and creating a hierarchy.

There were so many resources I reviewed before the exam, I won’t post every single one. But the ones I post are also from people that would be very willing to help if you have other questions so a double-win I think! (3)

Blog Posts and Powerpoints

YouTube Videos

  • The proctor set up: It’s a little old but you’ll get a feel for the process. The only difference is that I used Zoom instead of Bomgar.
  • Sample hands-on questions: As he suggests in the video, I recommend you pause between questions and try to answer it yourself before he explains what he would do.
  • Breakdown of the exam itself: This is useful to see how much Tableau tests in the different areas.

There are a ton more resources out there but these are the most useful to me.

What it means to be certified/Why others should seek certification

There are a lot of reasons I think you should seek certification. I’ll list a couple of obvious ones and a few less obvious ones.

  • Foundational knowledge: Taking the exam requires you have the foundational knowledge of the tool and how it works. I’ve asked several people about how to get better at Tableau, and this is one thing they all agree on. When you lock down the basics of Tableau, you can do a lot more with it, and you can pass this exam.
  • Street cred: This was probably a bigger reason to get certified than I care to admit. But, I do think the industry looks at certified Tableau users a little differently. You can also build credibility through your Tableau Public profile and being a part of the community, but this is a nice shortcut.
  • Comfort calling yourself a Tableau power user: If you’re like me, it can be hard to confidently call yourself good at Tableau. It can feel like everyone is a lot better than you because so many talented people post awesome vizzes. Getting certified can help you feel like you’re just as capable (because you are!).
  • It allows you to have more fun vizzing: There’s a lot of art to Tableau, and like most art, it can be frustrating when you first start trying to get what’s in your head into Tableau. Preparing for the exam can give you a lot of the tools you need to build some of the things you see in #IronQuest or #SportsVizSunday or #MakeoverMonday, which obviously makes it more fun to participate.
  • Gives me a “bat signal” to help others: One unintended aspect of getting certified is that I got a lot of questions about how I did it and what others should do to prepare, right after I announced it. I also got a chance to write this post as well. I’m very passionate about learning, then helping others learn what I learned so that’s been pretty cool so far!

I really hope this is helpful to anyone thinking about the exam. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions about the exam or certification process. The best places to find me are on Linkedin or Twitter.

Best of luck!

Viz of the Week

Credit: Steven Shoemaker — ‘Conflict in Kenya’ (select the image to access the interactive visualization)

This visualization was near and dear to my heart. I’m classically trained in Imagery Analysis by the Information Warfare Training Command (IWTC) — at a school for Navy Intelligence analysts. Imagery analysts are tasked with taking satellite imagery and drawing out information of interest and importance. This visualization was, for me, a way to reconnect with my military days as well as bring to light some of the things that are happening outside the general media bubble. (4)

For me, my goal is always to create something simple. I see visualization as a vehicle for information and my style is to cut away as much superfluous design as possible which is why I try and keep my colors, layout, and visualizations as simple as possible. With this design, I wanted to ‘drill-down’ into specific events in Kenya but I was torn on how to best approach it. I played with the idea of it just simply being a map and only utilizing the tooltips to give information about the events but I didn’t feel that would allow me the depth that I thought the topic deserved. So, I went with my gut and used a format that I would often use in my military reports.

  • Overview
  • News Summary
  • Event Drill Down

This format of visual is good for pulling in the reader because it flows naturally from macro to micro and is designed to allow the reader to feel they really understand the event. The decision to use the blue middle section was to break up all the white space and to keep the information visually interesting. (5)

In terms of process, I am one of the data viz people who like to use images and import them into Tableau. My design process is fairly consistent and always proceeds in distinct steps.

  1. EDA (Exploratory Data Analysis): Using Tableau or Python I will take a look at the data and see how it hangs together. I will see what correlations I find interesting or important to communicate and from there I will start to get an idea of the information I’m looking to convey.
  2. Wireframe: I create a wireframe using Adobe XD — here I’m able to lay out the basic flow and design of my visualization and understand how best to space the elements.
  3. Chart Design: I design the charts in Tableau ensuring that they are formatted correctly, are colored consistently, and that the charts are simple to understand.
  4. Static Elements: Using Adobe XD, I will fill in the static elements surrounding the charts. This is where I will use custom fonts, headers, icons, and shapes to bring the visualization to life. Once complete, I export the entire thing as a single image to bring into Tableau.
  5. Assembly: In Tableau, I will bring in the background and make sure that my charts are positioned correctly and spaced as outlined in my wireframe.
  6. Publish & Share: From there, it’s uploading the visual to Tableau public and sharing with the community.

Music Morsel

Priya’s Bop: “Hoodoo” by Muse is hauntingly beautiful and I recently rediscovered it after the song popped into my head last week. I definitely recommend listening to their other songs — particularly “Hysteria” which is my all-time favourite. (6)

Binge Bite

Dave Chappelle delivers a powerful address tying in his experiences with today’s events. It’s Dave, so the language will be strong.

Mico’s Footnotes

1) Eric has been a humble and intrigal member of the datafam. He humbly supports people behind the seasons and has brought so many great people to our community. Besides that, he’s a spectacular data visualizer.

2) This is such a key tip. There are so many ways to use Tableau’s countless features, but it’s vital to know and learn what they consider key.

3) If you are brand new to the tool, I also highly encourage you to use a viz Sagar Kapoor, me, and others assisted with to get you started. It’s called the Tableau Learning Path.

4) Applying prior appropriate training and skills to Tableau really makes it a richer experience that one normally doesn’t see when perusing activity on Tableau Public and certainly was something that helped make it stand out to me.

5) This is an excellent point, especially when creating engagement with a long-form viz.

6) Not to be confused as a cover of this hair/power ballad classic.

7) Pre-announcement, but post-Public page posting, Tableau Public has a new author cohort. The new group of authors are a talented collection that viz hard, provide community support and work diligently on skill-building. That list includes a person I’m very proud to work with & a face you may recognize… 😉

#DataVizThoughts Editing Team

Adam Mico

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public

Priya Padham

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public



Adam Mico

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