A couple of weeks ago at Tableau Conference in Austin, I had the opportunity to sit down and have this Tableau Ambassador interview with Jeff Strauss in person. Not only did I get to hear about his journey with Tableau and the community, but I got to see his eyes light up as he talked about it. Jeff has been a Tableau user for a very long time, and if you've seen him around the forums, you know he hangs out mostly around the Server Administration forums. He's smart, is always happy to help, and is a huge Chicago Cubs fan. Take a peak into our interview, and learn more about Jeff's story.
Tracy: How long have you been using Tableau?
Jeff: Back in 2007 when I was working with a research and stats team (prior to their title changing to the cool name of data scientists), we went out to Stanford for a learning session and discovered Tableau, which was only about 2 years old at that point. No one had really heard of Tableau back then and there was no vibrant community to speak of.
At the time, I was the architect for the business intelligence portfolio at my former work place. I observed firsthand the power of dynamic data visualization and jumped at the opportunity to explore its power. Of course, it didn’t have all the powerful features it has today, but all the vizql fundamentals were there.
Tracy: Have you been using Tableau since 2007 then?
Jeff: Back then, I started with learning Tableau Desktop. I did a comprehensive bakeoff between Tableau and Spotfire, and Tableau won hands down. The rest is history. Tableau was just so easy to get started. It did a fantastic job of getting started quickly and proving the valued results. We started really small with a few desktop licenses in the researchers’ business and then it spread grassroots.
Tracy: So what version was that?
Jeff: Tableau 3.
Tracy: Tableau 3! Wow! I’ve seen versions, but I don’t even know, what features were in Tableau 3?
Jeff: It definitely didn’t have any of the data blending or even static parameters (so we didn’t know to ask for dynamic parameters). Somewhere early on, we worked with Tableau engineers to integrate geography & maps into the offering which also seems to have taken off worldwide.
While I had it on my desktop in 2007, I was using it more so for proof of concepts. My role wasn’t so much that of a design analyst, rather I was in charge of overseeing and evolving the BI portfolio strategy. For a long while, I continued to use it on a lightweight basis.
Starting in 2009, I took on a management role leading a BI COE team. Somewhere around this time, we purchased Tableau Server. I wasn’t so hands on with it as my focus was managing the team that was hands on with all the BI platforms. And, while I was doing all the organizational management, my role wasn’t focused enough on my passion of shifting BI into the modern era and the best use of data.
In 2013, I took on a hybrid role of management / hands-on at Conversant which is located in downtown Chicago. Conversant was young, fun, entrepreneurial, collaborative, private and small. It was a culture change from where I came (Fortune 100), but it has a lot of positive effects as the Enterprise BI strategy centered on Tableau and they needed somebody to drive out the strategy. And I was that guy.
Tracy: I bet its fun working in downtown Chicago.
Jeff: Well, I thought I was a suburb guy until I took the job at Conversant. My world shifted. It’s about an hour train ride, but the time is well spent looking at community forum threads or reading or listening to iTunes. And the train is totally better than fighting traffic and red light cameras.
When I joined Conversant, I accidentally became the Tableau server admin as there was a big gaping hole in this space. It was a barebones deployment not integrated yet with any other Enterprise tools and it needed some tender loving care.
Tracy: Ahh, I see. So is that a good or a bad thing in your eyes?
Jeff: It’s turned out great. For a while, I thought it was too narrow, but the role expanded into working with data, and broader surrounding tools to integrate with Tableau such as Sharepoint, Python, .Net, security and the whole performance of big data. And what really helped expand my narrow role and shift my aspirations was the Tableau community. It enabled me to reach out beyond the 4 walls of Conversant and gain a community pulse while actively learning.
But, I don’t think of myself solely as a Server Admin. I think of myself as a BI Visionary at times in terms of strategy and user adoption. Trying to answer questions like how do you fully integrate it (Tableau) in with the rest of the enterprise, and how do you enable the analysts to find their insights and get their work done with Tableau Desktop.
So I’m one of the few go-to experts within Conversant for educating and answering Tableau questions. We’ve put together training programs that basically teach analysts about new features in Tableau Desktop. And we continue to have one on one sessions.
I try to push the envelope with what’s possible in Tableau because Conversant has really adopted it in a big way. In a lot of ways it feels like we (as a company) might sometimes be on a leading edge of the overall Tableau community in how widely it’s been adopted. We use it as our primary BI tool. We use it for our enterprise reporting and analytics. We also have an external client portal that we allow customers to come in through the portal, then use APIs to allow them to see their performance on their digital advertising.
Tracy: And that’s all through Tableau Server, where they get a personalized or customized view?
Jeff: Yes, it’s great. We’ve personalized the Tableau offering via front end portals and row level security so that user adoption isn’t so much a question, but rather it’s easy to find the insights. I walk around Conversant every day and see dashboards being shared like a ubiquitous platform. This is the way that it should be!
Tracy: So how many people are accessing this? How many customers do you serve that way?
Jeff: Our Tableau deployment is shared by 2/3 of our internal people and by our external CRM clients. We have plans to expand into broader client segments sometime soon.
Tracy: Did you work on the client project and was it part of your vision to make the portal external?
Jeff: Yeah, well when I initially got here, the first rollout to the external clients was to replace MS Reporting Services which was way too static for our clients. We did the initial rollout via Sharepoint webparts, but now we’ve since replaced sharepoint with a whole new customized portal that we’ve coded in node.js. It has full service functionality – they can interact with dashboards, export and subscribe, approve digital assets, file share, and the list goes on. It’s not my team who manages and creates the external portal, it’s more like our team does all of the Tableau work that is integrated in it. Our teams work closely together on integration, performance, troubleshooting and upgrades.
Tracy: What’s your favorite Tableau project that you’ve ever worked on?
Jeff: I don’t know that I have a favorite. That’s kind of like asking me which of my 3 sons is my favorite. They’re all great, but all very different.
Some of the custom scripting that I’ve done is cool as it leverages Tableau, but expands the capabilities only limited by the sense of creativity.
Tracy: That’s super cool. Almost seems like something that should be built into the product already!
Jeff: Yeah, Tableau engineers are making lots of progress and upon seeing some prototypes at TC16, I know they are making great strides. And it’s great that they are taking customer input on features such as export.
Tracy: How did you learn Tableau? How do you know how to do all the things you know how to do with Tableau?
Jeff: A lot of my learning is playing with it independently, and connecting to my own data. I don’t think I ever really went to any of the training sessions, except for going to the conferences and going to sessions there. I learn well on an independent basis and part of that is because I like to look under the hood and figure out how things work. The other part of it is that I had so much foundational knowledge from being down and dirty with BI for 20+ years and also studying computer science in school.
I’ve been doing BI for a long time, it’s just been with many different tools. They each have their own peculiarities, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. So having that foundation of BI and data warehousing was a different paradigm of picking up Tableau, but once I did and understand the concepts of visualizations, it was easy to get going. I equate it to learning chess. It’s easy to get started, it’s another thing to master.
There are definitely some features out there that I’m still a little shaky on, such as table calcs. So I’m continuing to learn these as I progress in my desktop knowledge. TC16 has definitely helped.
Tracy: Yup, table calcs are definitely the type of thing where you often times have to try it to learn it.
Jeff: Exactly, that’s how I learn too. We live in a fascinating world. Twenty years ago, I was still in the mainframe world, the CIO was talking about how in the future we’d be able to create reports without having to do any coding, we’ll be able to drag and drop. And sure enough, that’s the world we live in.
Tracy: So crazy – he knew the future! So what’s your favorite Tableau feature – in either Tableau Server or Tableau Desktop, whatever you want?
Jeff: I think one of my favorite features is brand new in version 10.1. It’s small, but it’s highly effective. It’s Tableau Servers’ ability to be able to subscribe others with conditional alerting. It’s been a long standing request. And I look forward to seeing this continue to get built out. It’s in its infancy and at TC16 we got a peek into how alerting is evolving.
Also, we love working with all the mapping enhancements, one of the custom projects we worked on imports custom geocodes and shapes via a 3rd party utility (tabgeohack), so that the territories appear as if they are native inside of Tableau. Some of this is being replaced soon by being able to import shape files directly to Tableau natively.
Tracy: What about on the flip side of that – what is one of your biggest feature requests?
Jeff: There are really small ones out there, but one of the really big ones is being able to have a faster data engine for the ingestion of all the extracted data. It’s really exciting to see this starting to be built out via the Hyper engine. It will be big for us.
We’ve done a lot of custom work to make fast data extracts work for us. In Tableau Server out of the box, you can do full or incremental refreshes. We came up with a 3rd method to do backdated incremental refreshes to speed things up.
Tracy: What does that mean? Backdated incremental refreshes?
Jeff: It means some back end scripting, it involves keeping a copy of the published extract at, let’s say 90 days ago. Then, as part of the script, we take that 90 day old extract and we overlay it on top of the current one and that becomes your starting point for doing the incremental refresh. It gets a bit more involved, but this is the underlying concept.
Tracy: Wow, that’s really smart. You’re like a magician over there.
Jeff: I like to say that we often take what seems impossible and make it possible. And we do push the envelope. I feel fortunate that we have the latitude to explore.
I also feel fortunate and want to give a shout out to all the talented analysts back at home that I work with. I like to think that we have a pretty mature model of analytics where it’s all centralized in one analytics division, and the various business counterparts such as Finance, Product, and Account Management, as examples, when they need analysis on a given client they come to the Analytics Division.
Then, within the Analytics Division there’s a subset team called the BI team who are really the automation champions of Tableau and they make sure the trust and integrity is all there of all the content that gets published up to Tableau Server.
Tableau Server is a lot more than just publishing new content, and hoping that people view it. It’s about stewardship, how do you make sure that people know about this content, how do you make sure that people trust that content. In order to facilitate, we’ve done a lot of work within the BI team of putting together wikis, training sessions, doctor sessions, all of which are outputs from our BI team.
Tracy: How did you discover the Tableau Community?
Jeff: I think I bumped up against one day when I was doing some Google searches. And then the curious guy that I am, I dove deeper as I realized there was some really great stuff in there. I just kept on getting attracted to it. I needed to learn a lot about Tableau Server, and learn more about Tableau Desktop. Three years ago, was the first time that I was actually diving deep into the Tableau discipline so it provided a place for me to learn. And then, as I read through the threads, I realized, “Ah, I know the answer to that.” So I went and answered it.
It provided me a lot of really good knowledge. Life is full of distractions, but nowadays when I read the forums, it provides me with some level of focus and some level of trust that I’m getting some good answers out there. It allows me to reach out beyond the four walls of Conversant.
Tracy: What’s your favorite part about the community?
Jeff: I think being able to really help others who are being challenged. I’ve become much more involved in communities, not only this one, but also activities such as boy scouts, and charity fundraisers such as bike MS and bike Leukemia.
And it shouldn’t be every man or woman for him/herself. We need to act as a community to be able to relieve stress levels and relieve challenges because we live in a fast-paced world, and everyone’s challenged. Many of us are quite privileged in that we have professional jobs and we live in great communities so this is just one way of giving back.
And of course I’ve made new friends through the community too!!! It’s always great to meet up at the conferences, you’re all invited to Chicago during the summer months.
Tracy: We are very lucky to have such a lively, robust community that really does care so much.
Jeff: The other thing is that I am a total introvert. However, the power of the forums brings out the extravert in me. And it allows me to express my thoughts.
Tracy: That’s fantastic. It pushes you in different ways.
My last question, what advice do you have for new members of the community and/or new users of Tableau?
Jeff: The advice I gave to my friend is to go post on the forums, get involved. You will be surprised what you can learn out there. And he followed my advice, but the other part of advice that needs more work is to be sure that you include a packaged workbook, and don’t make your question too complex as we are all volunteers here on the community. So far, so good.
Tracy: Anything else you’d want the community to know about you that we didn’t talk about?
Jeff: Wow, what to say. When I’m not playing with Tableau or building out Enterprise integrations, I like to have fun doing anything outdoors. Getting out for a hiking trip or road biking or gardening are some of my favorite activities to take in the fresh air.
And Tableau has led me down a prosperous path, yes there have been challenges that I’ve learned from, but at the same time I’ve seen it grow into a mature Enterprise Analytics tool. With anything in life, you have to make the investment to be really good at it. And the community is one way to explore and become best in class.