Tableau Ambassador Spotlight - Toby Erkson

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    You probably recognize Toby Erkson by his orange Squareback avatar or by his constant work updating Server related documents in the TabWiki. Toby has been a member of the Tableau Community ever since I can remember, and it's always a pleasure talking with him. I had the opportunity of learning a little more about his story, and am happy to be sharing it with the rest of the Community!

     

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    Tracy: Are you born and raised in Portland or the Portland area?

    Toby: No.  No, I was actually born in Mountain View, California, and was in second grade when my parents bought property in Oregon, in hopes of getting enough property for a ranch for horses.  And so that's when we moved up to Oregon.  Jeez, I don't know when that year was.  It was in the '70s.

     

    Tracy: And then you've been there ever since?

    Toby: Yeah.  We started in southern Oregon, and then moved our way up to Philomath, which is the original location of Oregon State University.  And it's just west of Corvallis.  And so I lived in Philomath -- that's pretty much where I say I grew up.  I mean, that was middle school and high school and a little bit of college.

     

    Tracy: Awesome.  All right, now onto some Tableau questions. How long have you been using Tableau?

    Toby: Well, currently I've been active in it for I think three and a half years, whenever I started here at Daimler. I initially started it in 2011, which I want to say was version five. 

     

     

    Tracy: I think that's right, because I started working at Tableau in 2011, and we had just launched version six at the end of the year I think.

    Toby: Okay, yeah.  So that's when I started actually as a desktop developer. My manager stole me from Yahoo where I was a fulltime employee.  We had worked together, and then she moved on to another company.  One day she called me and told me, she had a great opportunity. They were doing a business intelligence unit, and she wanted me on her team.  So I did the interviews, and got hired. 

     

    Soon after I started, she told me "There's this great new tool called Tableau.  I want you to learn it, and I want you to produce a report for our VP of  IT." I downloaded the product, watched the videos, and in less than two weeks I basically had a production report for the vice president of the IT department on whether they were meeting their service levels or not across the globe.

     

     

    Tracy: Wow, that’s a pretty fast turnaround! So then at what point did you move over to Daimler?

    Toby: I worked at a couple other places before Daimler.  And took a break from Tableau.  I was just doing my normal Excel programming.  But after that, I got recruited to Daimler Trucks, where I was a part-time Cognos developer, part-time Tableau administrator, because Tableau had just started here.  So I did that, and then ten months after that contract I finished Cognos, and they made the position for Tableau administrator to be fulltime, and hired me into it.  So I went from a contractor to a fulltime employee doing fulltime Tableau Server administration.

     

    Tracy: And so that's what you've been doing ever since?

    Toby: Yup, I've been here a minimum of three years – since 2013. I think October is four years.

     

    Tracy: So it sounds like you were jumping around a lot for a little bit, and now you've settled in.

    Toby: Yeah.  Well, there's only so far you can go as a Visual Basic Excel programmer. And I kind of just plateaued.  I automated things and was doing reporting.

     

    And then the Tableau opportunity came up.  I took it because it was a challenge, it was something new to learn, and helped me grow professionally.  I'd have another skill on my resume.  And I liked working with Tableau, and it was so much better than having to deal with Cognos when I was at Intel.

     

    So I went for it, and very happy that I did.

     

    Tracy: Well, we're happy you did it, too. Ok, you primarily run your server. So how do you use Tableau at work?

    Toby: Well, we're a really small team. It's just me and primarily another guy. He deals with the licensing side of stuff -- and promotion.  He's a great salesman. 

     

    I administrate the Tableau Server.  I'm responsible for testing Tableau Desktop, Reader, and Server. When versions come out, I test them. And then once they pass, I'm responsible for getting the Tableau Desktop and Tableau Reader off to another IT team who does software packaging, and they put it in an executable form, which they put into their IT website that distributes the software.  It's called Shop IT, and it's kind of like an online shopping center, whatever, for people internally.  If they need software, they go there, they click on it, and it will download it to their machine.  So I help coordinate that part, so the Tableau Reader and Desktop are the same version as our production server.

     

    Tracy: And you guys are typically on the most current version, aren't you?

    Toby: I try.  By trade, I'm a programmer guy, so I like to be on the latest version. But that's not easily done in a corporate environment.  Load testing takes time.  I rely on other people, other teams to do the software packaging, get it out there to the end users.  So there are delays.

     

    So we do upgrades probably once a quarter, which for me is kind of slow but it's not too bad.  Of course we have processes like when the Heartbleed issue came up, we were able to expedite and get some stuff pushed through for security reasons.

     

    But we can't move fast enough, if a gun was pointed to our head.  It takes time.

     

    I do try and be as current as we can, because I have my end user. Oh my gosh, my end users are pushing me.  "Oh, I just saw that Tableau is doing this, dah-dah-dah, when are we going to have the new version?"  I can't slack even if I wanted to, because I have multiple end users who are always pushing me for the latest versions.  So that's great, that means they're following Tableau and they're actively using Tableau

     

    Tracy: Yeah.  But I feel like you were really pushing it at the beginning. I remember having conversations with you a couple years ago, maybe, and you didn't have quite the following of end users.  You were still trying to push it out a little harder.

     

    Toby: Correct.  And it's now taken off by word of mouth.  We don't do any active advertising.  So what happens is that people use the reports that might be seen by somebody else from another department, another part of the company.  And they realize, "That's not Cognos or that's not WebFOCUS.  What is that?"  "Oh, it's Tableau."  "Oh, and how did you do that?"  "Well, I just showed you how I did it.  I connected to the data source, and I pull it, I discovered this information." So they look at it and they go, "That wasn't a canned report, you did it on the fly while we were sitting with each other."  And they're like, "Yeah."  And so then they contact us and then, you know, they get the trial version from us.

     

    We're getting about 1.7 licenses a week. 

     

    Tracy: Wow, that's crazy.  That's awesome.

    Toby: Yeah, it's really good.  And we're also getting people now who have been using Cognos, and they're like, "Screw it, we're done with this, it's too much of a bottleneck," and they're switching their Cognos reports over to Tableau.

     

    Tracy: That's awesome.  That's fabulous.

    Toby: Yeah.  We also have some people who are working with IBM's DB2 BLU with Tableau. It's an in-memory, columnar data source, and they're putting billions of rows of data in IBM DB2 BLU, doing their summarization there, and then attaching Tableau to it, and they're just getting blazing, lightning fast reports. And that is starting to spread like crazy.

     

    Tracy: Interesting.  That's really interesting.  That's cool. 

    Toby: Yeah, people are very impressed with it.

     

    Tracy: Do you use Tableau at all for any like personal projects?

    Toby: No.  It's all work related.  I have this one thing I want to do, but my skills as a developer have really dropped off from version five - well, I think from version five and six.  But as an administrator I use it mostly to look at data tables, like showing me the account of a user and how many views they had in the last week for a workbook in a particular project.

     

    But, I created an Excel workbook that is a gearing analyzer.  So, you put in your gear ratios, your tire diameter, and your differential, ring and pinion information, and it will show you for whatever RPM, how fast your vehicle should be traveling.  One of these days I need to do that in Tableau, because it will look so much better and be faster. I could put it on Tableau Public, and I wouldn’t have to worry about maintaining an Excel workbook or publishing it on my personal website.  But, you know, I just haven't gotten to that at all.

     

    Tracy: Yeah, it's just finding the time.

    Toby: Yeah, it is.

     

    Tracy: I know how that goes. What was the best way for you to learn Tableau?

    Toby: Just using it.  And that's what I tell people. This is what I did.  Go to the Tableau website, watch the videos, read the manual.  I'm a person who reads the manuals and documentation.  I know some people aren't that way, but I recommend they read the manual or go through it, at least in the areas that would affect them. And watch the videos.  I also tell people to go to the forums.

     

    And that really works for a lot of people. There are some people that still require classroom, formalized type of training, but just go online and do a search.

     

    Tracy: And all the information is there; it's just finding it.

    Toby: Yeah, getting to it, finding it, exactly.  And like I said, you know, usually I tell people to do what I did, use the forums, or do a search and watch the videos.  But the best thing to do is just actually to go to your data, because that's the data that you know. Use that data, and play with it.  And remember, Tableau is read only. You can't hurt your data.  So play with it all you want.

     

    Tracy: It’s true, when its data that's relevant to you, it becomes way more interesting. Okay, so what is your favorite Tableau project that you've ever worked on?

    Toby: I would say probably it was -- I don't know it's hard -- that's hard to say, one, because I have a bad memory, but two, as a Tableau administrator I'm kind of more of a support role.  So it's my end users who are doing the cool stuff with it, and I'm enabling them to do it, like the whole DB2 Blue thing.  You know, they're like, we have this -- all this massive amounts of data, Cognos is failing at it miserably, and we can't get all the information.  You know, what can we do with Tableau?  And so they tried this thing and it worked, and they're able to get a lot more information detail at two to three second speeds than they ever had before. Enabling my users is great. 

     

    I think one thing I can remember that was really cool about Tableau was when I first started using it. In less than two weeks, I had a production report for executive level staff.  It kind of shows how easy you can create a report that looks good, that impresses people, and that actually can be used.

     

    Tracy: Did you have to present that report in front of that executive panel?

    Toby: No, my manager said e-mail it to them. So I did, and I just gave a brief description, this is the report that you requested, and here's kind of how you read it.  It was a bullseye, it was three rings.  The outside was level three, the center ring -- or the next ring in was level two, then the center, the bullseye was level one for the SLA within hours.  And each one was color coded and there was the bullseye on each geography, so it was a world map. 

     

    The executive looked at it and said “I can look at it and I can already see, it makes sense to me. With the color and how close the ring is to the bullseye is the higher SLA.”  The color of the ring tells whether they're in the SLA or not. And, of course, they had tool tips, which he thought was just incredible.  And I made it so like the tool tip was red if they were out of SLA and green if they were in SLA.  Tooltip-wise it was very simple, but the report itself was just nothing like anyone had seen before.  And the fact I got it done so simply, and I could make changes to it so easily.  My manager was the one who kind of micromanaged me on it.  Can you change this color, can you use this font, can you try that?  But I was able to do it all so quickly and easily.  She wasn't expecting the rapid turnaround.

     

    Tracy: Yeah, that's cool.  It's fun when you can impress your manager like that.

    Toby: Yeah.  Well, she's very smart, been in the industry for a long time, worked at Boeing, very smart woman.  She had done her research on the various tools that were available out there, and she chose Tableau.  And she does not regret her decision at all.  In fact, she champions it at other places where she goes to work, because it's such an impressive tool.

     

    Tracy: Yeah, that's really cool. So, what is your favorite feature of Tableau, in Server?  Let's start with that.

    Toby: I think it would be the current form of permissions.  The visual display permissions, you know, like you've got a person's name and you can see the end results of their permissions.  It's easier to view, easier to read or interpret.  Because here, in a corporate environment, what people can see and cannot see is very important.  Security is very important.  The security that Tableau Server implements really calms a lot of people who are worried about information.

     

    I deal with permissions quite a bit.  I try and assign project leaders to different projects.  And so I have to teach them, because a lot of them aren't developers, so they don't understand these concepts.  The current interface is very helpful, and I can step them through it, and show them. They pick up on it really quickly. Server permissions have made big improvements from what they used to be.

     

    Tracy: Yes, they have.  Have you downloaded the beta testing Tableau 10?

    Toby: No, afraid not.  I do have a test server.  However, my actual first priority is to get a Tableau consultant out here.  We need to get SSL because we have HR and finance people who need it.  That's a higher priority right now.  I would love to be on the beta team, but I don't have the bandwidth.

     

    Tracy: There's some other cool stuff with Server coming in 10.  A lot of it's about like version control and web dashboard authoring and stuff.

    Toby: Yeah, I like the web -- okay, so the dashboard authoring is very cool, but people I don't think are really taking advantage of it here, which is fine.  Some organizations need it, some don't.  It's nice to have that option, though. 

     

    Also the versioning, I know 9.3 has that.  And I have had requests in the back for people saying, "Hey, I need this version, can you bring it up?"  And I'm like, "Well, no, I'm sorry, I have to restore it from a backup.  And I'm not doing that to a production server just for your one little report." 

     

    Tracy: Right.

    Toby: So we get 9.3, we have it on QA. Prod I'm hoping will be this weekend. I know the version control will be something that people will definitely want.  So that's cool.

    Well, and one thing which is not a Tableau official thing is the VizAlerts that Matt Coles has created.

     

    Tracy: Oh yeah, mm-hmm.

    Toby: I'd say that boy is a genius. That is -- I use that for my Tableau Server stuff.  I let my end users know about it, too.  I even have some that are starting to use it.  I think it is just a fantastic thing that he's done.

     

    Tracy: I know.

    Toby: I'm so happy he's done that.  It is fantastic.  It helps me so much.

     

    Tracy: Yeah, I think it helps a lot of people. Well, I mean, we use it -- I know he uses it internally all the time, too.  Like we use it on our support team and stuff all the time.  It's like, when are they going to put it in the product itself?
    Toby: Exactly.  Yeah, so if you want to know what my favorite feature is that is not in the Tableau product but kind of is a Tableau product, then put VizAlerts. I'm serious, because that has been great.

     

    Oh, and Jonathan Drummey has helped Matt as well, helped improve it.  I'm just kind of like their little monkey that tests it.  They're the powerhouses behind it.

     

    Tracy: Right, but you need to test it just as much, though.  That's awesome. So what would you say then is your biggest feature request?

    Toby: Well, I think they're already doing it with version 10, and that's going to be disparate data sources being able to be pulled in, because that's always been a big one.  Just because blending was a great interim feature, you know, getting that in there, but actually being able to get different data sources together as a single data source I think is great.

     

    That was kind of hard to say.  Tableau is always improving.  You know, they're listening to their end user community, they're improving the product, and they make some really big leaps in terms of progress, like the stuff that happens on the Tableau Server in terms of multithreading and different processes running and stuff like that to speed things up. There's stuff that happens behind the scenes that I don't know of, but see as an end user, and it’s great.  So it's hard to say.

     

    Tracy:  Yeah. Well, that's a good answer. How about how did you discover the Tableau community?

    Toby: I don't know.  I guess it would have to come from the Tableau website. That's the only thing I can think of. Because, I mean, I started back in 2011, and there was nothing else out there.  Anything out that is out there is still far and away behind the Tableau forums itself.

     

    Tracy: Yeah, there's just so much content in our community. What's your favorite part about the Tableau community?

    Toby: I'd say it's the deep knowledge and rapid responses to questions. 

     

    Tracy: I know, it's pretty incredible how fast people can get answers.

    Toby: Yeah, when somebody forms a good question, and provides the right information, hopefully with a workbook, they’ll get a really fast response.  In my case of  using Tableau Server, that's not necessary, but a well-formed question really goes a long ways.

     

    Tracy: Sometimes people forget to include the right information because they’ve been working with the data and workbook so closely, they forget not everyone else knows it so intimately.

    Toby: Yeah.  And I've done that myself.  I've done a post and I'm like, oh, of course they're asking that question, because to me it was obvious, but for someone on the outside it wasn't obvious. And so it happens to me as well.

     

    Tracy: What advice would you give to new members of Tableau or the community?

    Toby: Just read the documentation.  Good God, we send it to you for a reason. It's not to fill up your inbox. Really, just read the instructions, the manual, you know? It'll help you, it'll help the other members of the community help you that much more quickly. 

     

    And take your time.  When you write a post, it's not a race.  Take your time.  Be thorough. Be detailed.  You can never have too much detail.

     

    Tracy: That's true.  Awesome. Well, do you have anything else that you want to share with the community, want to make sure that they know about you?

     

    Toby: Hmmm.

     

    Tracy: Your favorite color is orange?

    Toby: Hahaha. Well, that's my signature color, it's not necessarily my favorite.  It dates back from my Volkswagen Squareback.  And the stock color in 1972 was bright orange. Almost the same color as a peanut M&M. 

     

    Tracy: Did you choose that color or was that just what was available?

    Toby: That was the stock color.  My parents originally had a Volkswagen bus, and they traded that in and got the Volkswagen Squareback, brand spanking new off the showroom floor.  And that was our family car.  The Volkswagen Squareback is basically like a Passat, where the Volkswagen Beetle was like the Gulf or the GTI.  It was better suspension, roomier.  You had the engine in back, just like a Volkswagen Beetle, but you had the cargo space back there.  It was a station wagon.  That was the stock color was -- 1972 it was a bright orange, and that's what my parents got. It hasn't left the family.  I grew up in that car.  It's been across the United States several times, car shows. It's just been part of my life, it's part of me.

     

    Tracy: And you still have it?

    Toby:  Yup, except it needs a new engine.  And I don't go stock, I go big.  So it's several thousand dollars to get a new engine built for it.  Other priorities kind of get in the way – so maybe one day.

     

    To see Toby's profile and start following him, visit Toby Erkson.