I am the most unlikely data visualization champion. I was a liberal arts major in college who was never that excited about math in school. Moreover, I have rarely restricted what I believe to be possible with what I can see taste, touch, and feel. 

I spent much of my first decade out of school in sales and marketing. I learned I enjoyed setting goals and meeting those goals. It was exhilarating actually. Moreover, I found out I was pretty good at it. Eventually, I found myself in management.

Later, I started a marketing and consulting practice which forced me to start asking more complex questions. I need to evaluate and assess a client’s current situation, define the gaps, outline a workflow, and build predictable systems to generate measurable results. 

However, even during all of this, I needed to depend on other people—like quantitative analysts, trained statisticians, and programmers—to produce the type of ad-hoc reports and dashboards we would call data visualization today.

A Lot of Questions, Very Few Answers

It was not until I found myself as a member of the management group of a national comprehensive consultancy when I was faced with one of the biggest challenges of my career. I needed to figure out how an underperforming line of business that had been previously acquired could be turned into a growing, healthy revenue-producing unit. 

Much effort had been put into achieving this goal before me getting the assignment. However, nothing worked.

This seemed like an impossible mess. After interviewing several long-time leaders serving this market segment, there was no conclusive reason why the business unit was not performing as it had for decades. 

I knew the answer had to be buried in the data. However, how was I supposed to access it? I am not a quantitive analyst or a coder. Even if I could get my hands on the data, how would I process it?

A Risky Move

Other internal departments like business intelligence and finance were swamped with other projects, so I had to get creative. I reached out to a few people I knew who used Tableau. I had both of them take 30 minutes to give me a “test drive.” Then I went online and downloaded the desktop version. Thankfully there was a free trial period before I needed to purchase a license.

I started watching videos on YouTube while I also asked one of our sales operations leaders to download all the history of this particular business unit for the last five years. 

All of it. No filters. All of it. 

He looked at me strangely, and I did not blame him. I was the least likely individual to know what to do with this information.

Teaching Myself Tableau

Then I sent myself back to school. I poked and played around with Tableau for a few hours each night and on the weekends. Within a few weeks, I had built a compelling case (or story as they call it) that outlined all the causal and mitigating factors, explained what happened, why, and what would be necessary to experience a turnaround.

I also discovered key relationships of information such as geographic location and contract size, contract size and days to close, and performance by a consultant with certain types of clients. I could go on and on. And I did, of course. Every time I asked myself a new question, I challenged myself to create a new visualization.

But I couldn’t leave it there. I also had to explore some of the predictive capabilities within Tableau to see if I could use historical information to give me directional data such as revenue patterns, close rates, and contract volumes. All of which the system did beautifully.

An Indispensable Business Tool

When I presented this information internally, there was a mix of disbelief and surprise. The disbelief was likely because no one was expecting me to take the project to this level. The surprise was likely because none of this data had been assembled in this fashion before.

Moving forward, I was able to connect the CRM we were using through an API for real-time updates into Tableau. This helped refine my thinking and regularly updated projections and forecasts for sales and revenue planning. It even informed our thinking as a management group about if we should continue to invest in this market segment, in the same way, moving forward.

I did end up buying a Tableau license. This was before the subscription model was in place, and I could not ask my company to pay for an "experimental" tool. So I invested my own money—$1,500—for a license. (That was fun explaining that to my wife!) 

A Predictable and Informed Outcome

People thought I was absurd, but I am so glad I did it. It put me in the driver’s seat and allowed me to ask better, more informed questions. It made me a better manager, a better business partner to finance and business intelligence, and it sharpened my thinking about how to drive a business forward.

Through a series of strategic moves and another acquisition, we did turnaround this line of business as well as brought its revenue system in alignment with the rest of the company. I cannot say Tableau was the secret sauce, but I can tell you it provided the initial clarity as well as the confidence along the way that my ideas, intuition, and instincts were balanced with trends, data, and actionable insights.

I have since left that company and am now at a new one. I carried my enthusiasm for Tableau forward and am now using it again to discern what happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

I am the most unlikely Tableau user and data visualization champion. But if I can do it, so can you.

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