Unmasking Zach Bowders (an interview with a Tableau Public Featured Author)
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).
Zach has been a friend since I popped-in the community last August. He was my 1st datafam follow on Tableau Public. Not only is he a fabulous designer focusing on fun trends and pop culture topics, but he is also an encouraging voice for so many. I was fortunate to be a guest on his spectacular podcast and collaborate with him on a number of vizzes. He also was my 1st guest post after his maiden Viz of the Day. Without further ado, here is the 2nd chapter of Zach’s #DataVizThoughts journey… the unmasking.
Adam Mico (AM): Please explain your public vizzing and social media origin story… what made you come in and how did it grab you?
Zach Bowders (ZB): I first realized there WAS a social media presence for the Tableau community during the 2017 Conference in Las Vegas. I was with my friend David Kelly (@DataDavidDeluxe) and we both created Twitter accounts and started tweeting everything that caught our attention at the conference — in part out of enthusiasm and in part trying to get our Tweets up on the jumbotron.
I’d begun Tableau Public work a little before that back in June. It began wholly in a vacuum, not realizing there was actually a community. I’d just discovered there was a place to put personal vizzes. So I decided to make a viz exploring the Rotten Tomatoes Audience and Critical scores of M. Night Shyamalan movies. It looks VERY much like the business dashboards David and I had been creating at the time (a style we’ve since grown/evolved past). It’s an interesting time capsule to look back at what I made at that time with little exposure to a greater community.
AM: How has your outlook changed on community and your involvement since you joined the #datafam community?
ZB: I had no idea what was going on at first. I’d followed a few prominent people who floated through my Tweets [Ann Jackson (@AnnUJackson) and Sarah Bartlett (@SarahLovesData) among the first] and started to realize there actually was a community. But I didn’t understand it. I remember Tweeting my Shyamalan viz with a #MakeoverMonday hashtag only to realize after the fact that MM was an actual community exercise and not just a hashtag.
Onboarding can be a little tricky when you stumble back into something.
Now, I see limitless opportunities. I have dozens of friends, I see different community exercises, and I see a group of people that rejects the idea of a zero-sum game, that one person’s success means less pie portions for them.
As I found my place in the community I made several deliberate choices about what I wanted to be.
I promote others. I remain positive. I’m a cheerleader.
There are a lot of superlatives you won’t see attached to me, but you’re going to have to work hard to be more encouraging than me. (1)
AM: I know that you used to overblow everything on your vizzes in the beginning — over time, it transitioned to a less is more approach. What were the key components to you evolving and finding your signature style from the beginning of this public vizzing journey until now?
ZB: Reps, man, reps. The more you viz the more you learn about what works, what doesn’t work. Additionally, you get exposure to a thousand different viz styles from the community and beyond.
I realized at a certain point that I just wanted to make vizzes that made me happy, usually about topics I’m very interested in, and that if no one else was into it that’s ok.
When I switched my mindset, I freed myself up from a lot of expectations I had for myself.
AM: Who are some of your biggest dataviz influencers? What books, series and/or authors do you follow to seek inspiration?
Most of my personal aesthetic is drawn from outside of classical data viz. I look at magazines, comics, graphic designers, etc. When I’m working on a personal viz I’m typically doing that instead of drawing, so I want to be able to use the sort of aesthetic and visual freedom that I’d have otherwise.
I temper this against the desire and need for clarity in conveying the idea that I’m trying to get across.
In terms of drawing inspiration, I look at an image, or a color set and ask myself “does this work and why?” A lot of the time, if you find an image attractive there’s going to be some good notes you can take from that and apply to a viz. Someone else has already done the hard work for you of figuring out if, say, a bright reddish-orange works as a background on a minimalist viz (it did). (2)
AM: In your real-world life, have you tried to explain the datafam and analytics world to friends and family outside of it… what is your explanation and its reception?
ZB: I get a lot of polite smiles and nods. The DataFam is a subculture that exists primarily online and doesn’t have a ton of reach outside of itself.
The best explanation I’ve been able to put together is that the online Data Visualization community is a lot like having summer camp friends. You see them once a year but spend a lot of the rest of the year writing letters and sharing inside jokes.
AM: What role does feedback and applying it help you in the viz process?
ZB: Feedback is essential.
Any time I begin a new project either publicly or for work I always consult trusted friends and colleagues to get feedback. My general feeling is that if more than one person tells me something doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.
I have a wide swath of friends I reach out to, some of which I know are vastly different from me and some that are similar, thus getting a variety of perspectives and feedback.
I don’t think I’ve ever ended up with a worse product for taking advice from friends, it always winds up better. (3)
If you were a young boxer and you could ask Muhammad Ali to train you…wouldn’t you?
AM: How has your public growth visualizing data impacted your data visualization at work?
ZB: In terms of reputation, there’s no carry-over.
In terms of skills picked up, it’s a huge gain.
By working on public projects I’m able to try a lot of different techniques, pick up new skills that I wouldn’t necessarily try on a work product that requires mass appeal and high levels of ease in understanding. I’m then able to take the best of those skills back and, having learned them in a lower pressure environment, begin to integrate the best of them in my work product.
Additionally, exercises like #MakeoverMonday are GREAT drills for creating a quality viz in a limited timeframe. Do a few dozen of those and next time you’re under the gun at work you’ll be amazed at how quickly things can come together.
AM: Your podcast has served a massive niche that hasn’t no other medium served for our community. (4)
- How did you come up with the idea and how long were you working on it?
- What has surprised you most about podcasting and its reception?
- What is your favorite thing about podcasting?
- What did you not know going in that you wish you had known?
ZB: After TC19 in Las Vegas I was thinking about how I could keep the “youth camp high” going all year round. The best part of the conference isn’t the location, or the events, or the classes, but the people. I’d just gotten home from enjoying a week of fun dinners with friends old and new and wanted to create a way to have casual conversations throughout the year.
I’m a huge podcast listener, have been for about 10 years. Anything from the top comedy pods like Carolla and Joe Rogan to infotainment like Freakonomics and Hardcore History. I’d thought about starting one years ago but never really had enough of a topic to commit to.
Once I decided a podcast was a viable idea I immediately started research. How do you record and edit? How do you get your podcast into the various aggregators? How do you keep your audience engaged?
I practiced recording and editing for about a month before I recorded a single episode, and once I began recording I had 3 episodes fully edited before I released any. I’d planned on keeping a buffer of several episodes but have found that in a pinch I can turn an episode around in about a day at this point.
When I began I had two rules for my podcast:
- I wasn’t going to pre-select questions. These would be naturally flowing conversations.
- I wasn’t going to become a celebrity-of-the-week podcast. It’s a hard dragon to keep chasing.
I’ve stuck to the first rule, but have had more Tableau Zen Masters (and some big names coming) on in recent history. Part of that is simply because many of my friends that I was already having on have “leveled up” recently, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
I’m still sticking to my general ethic though, that this podcast is about getting to know the people behind the viz and that there’s no one too big or too small to have on.
I really love the fact that, without a script, there’s no telling where things are going to go. I spend a lot more time listening than talking which really gives me a lot of freedom to follow-up, chase rabbits, or generally enjoy the conversation more than if I were trying to steer back to a planned question.
The hardest part about doing a podcast is committing to your schedule and producing on time. When I began I made a promise to myself and my listeners that I’d put an episode out every other Wednesday. I’ve had…(12?) releases and I haven’t missed yet. But I’ve come close. Also, it’s not very fun having to listen to your own voice when editing. (5)
AM: You have over 2,000 Twitter Followers, over 1,200 Tableau followers, a 2019 Vizzie winner and a popular podcast. You had a slow growth and a recent quick ascent. You will never boast about this or have another platform to reasonably talk about this, but you are an influencer and a dataviz icon. In light of this, how do you maintain humility and drive to create and contribute?
ZB: I think having low self-esteem and a healthy imposter complex goes a long way to keeping humble.
That’s part joking and part serious, but I never really feel like I deserve any success I get, so I always feel a little embarrassed when I get some.
I do have a little PT Barnum in me, which helps me in promoting the podcast as well as shouting out some of the amazing work I see others producing.
One of the great things about the online Data Community is that it’s not a zero-sum game. For me to succeed no one else has to fail. I can promote others, elevate other good work, and it doesn’t take anything away from what I’m doing.
AM: Please share a guilty pleasure or fun fact that many readers may not know about you?
ZB: I’m really fascinated by Everest expeditions.
Whether it be Into Thin Air or the Discovery series “Everest: Beyond the Limit”, I’m just fascinated by the location, the challenges, and the people that feel compelled to do it.
And I’m saying this as someone who has NO desire to do this myself. It’s a crazy thing to do, and I feel for the Sherpas who are quietly doing one of the hardest jobs on earth. (6)
Viz of the Week
I saw this viz on Tableau Public early last week. There was no way to download the viz or see tooltips. It wasn’t something I saw done in Tableau in this way previously and really thought it was made elsewhere because I knew this would take a monumental effort that only a very few have the skills to pull off. He also teased a day or two after it was published whether he should make it downloadable; that bit of goofing without immediately making it downloadable sort of confirmed it (in my mind) that it was not made in Tableau. I was so [expletive removed] wrong!
On Friday, Yuta made it available for download. Priya brought it to my attention it was real. I HAD to look for myself. EVERYTHING that mattered was done in Tableau from the grid lines most people would make background images to its charting … it was incredible. It was at that point, I immediately ate crow on Twitter and knew it had to be our Viz of the Week. I reached out to him and he was kind enough to share his viz influences and inspirations with us!
Yuta Sakai: Thank you for selecting my viz as Viz of the Week! I would like to share my approaching attitude, and some of the inspirations for this viz.
I’ve made many vizzes for #MakeoverMonday. This is my first viz made with my own data and the first time taking part in #IronQuest — I wanted to create something special. I decided to create the most beautiful viz I could with all of the techniques I learned. This viz is based on many works of the#datafam community members and their blogs.
I’d like to share some of them & and I’d like to express my gratitude. The idea for figuring the grid line by using original data was inspired by the following vizzes; Mateusz Karmalski and Satoshi Ganeko. I got the inspiration for circulating sigmoid curve chart from the following viz made by Alexander Varlamov. I learned the basics of the data densification technique from the following blog posts by Yoshitaka Arakawa — 1st and 2nd. At last, I got a lot of design inspirations from the vizzes made by our community.
Here are a few vizzes in particular that inspired my sleeping habits viz… Yukari Nagata’s beautiful twitter analysis viz; Tamás Varga’s subtly-colored world happiness report viz & Samo Drole’s beautiful minimalistic approach in his baseball viz. Initially, I was going to make something like Wendy Shijia’s circulating scatter chart. I wanted to depict the beauty of the pale dots floating on a dark background but ended up with something a little different.
Priya’s Bop: This song by Wolf Alice has a cool 90s feel and, after rediscovering it recently, I have been playing it on repeat. I also recommend their song “Don’t Delete the Kisses” which has a softer vibe and relatable lyrics.
Who knew Adam Sandler could act? This gritty and complex drama was such an interesting piece on a complicated personality. Sandler showed brief glimpses of talent on a couple flicks (e.g. “Click”), but this was his tour-de-force. Give it a click … it’s streaming on Netflix.
1) In many ways, my approach to community resembles Zach and totally identify with the superlatives bit. He is an encouraging voice and looking more to propel others (sincerely) than seek self-gain (although being recognized is fun).
2) Zach can attest I was most vocal with my disdain for this background (privately). He usually takes in my feedback, but am so happy he held to his design guns on this one because the community response was very (positively) strong to this viz. It didn’t stop me from creating my (less successful) version the next day.
3) Exactly! Regardless of your skills, other people’s trusted eyes can see stuff you miss in your own work.
4) Sorry Priya, I just one-upped last week’s effort with a four-bulleted question!
5) Zach has an incredible podcasting voice, so that’s surprising to see. On the other hand, in my Wisconsin (or Sconnie) version of a bad John Malkovich voice, I would think it is far less pleasing. 😄
6) Same! I can appreciate a good armchair Mt. Everest Climb.