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Ryan Nokes is one of Accelebrate's Tableau trainers and has been using the software for over a decade. Needless to say, he's a fan. Ryan recently sat down with Accelebrate's Julie Halbersberg to discuss teaching, why he thinks Tableau is a valuable business tool, what pitfalls to watch out for, and more.

For the entire video interview, please visit https://youtu.be/tSP_8OZP2d0


Accelebrate: Thanks for joining for this talk today, Ryan. Good to see you. I'm looking forward to hearing more about you, professionally and personally. I'd love to hear just a little bit more in general about your background and expertise with Tableau and data analytics.

Ryan: Thanks for having me. I've been using Tableau for a long time, over a decade now, and it's only been around about 14, maybe 15 years, so I was kind of an early adopter. This was long before it had gone into enterprise accounts and things, it was more of a startup mode. I was in college, I was home for the summer, working for my dad, and he'd asked me to build some complicated Excel reports. Spent all summer building out this masterpiece that I was proud of, and it was tricky, and then my dad was like, "Oh yeah, I found this new software. It's called Tableau and you should learn it." And I was like, "Dad, I spent all summer building this masterpiece." Anyway, in two week's time I recreated, in Tableau, what had taken me all summer to do in Excel, and I've been hooked ever since.


Accelebrate: Wow. That's like the perfect selling point for Tableau. You know firsthand what it means to do it outside of the tool.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, their software has changed my life, really and truly, and my family's life. Interestingly enough, I was a English major in college, so people, somewhat diplomatically or less diplomatically, would be like, "So, where are you going with that?" So, I'd make up things. I'm like, "Someday I'm going to go write rap lyrics for a famous rapper." And people were like "You've got to teach us that." But anyway, I knew that I was going to need to do something maybe more technical, to supplement some of my English major skills, I suppose. And then Tableau fell into my lap, and so it's been great. I've used it ever since. It really has changed my career, what I do, the problems I think about, and all of that. So yeah, it's an awesome tool.


Accelebrate: Super cool. Can you tell us a little bit more about Tableau? Why you like it, maybe why you don't?

Ryan: Yeah, so what makes Tableau really unique is the ability to ask and answer questions really fast. So, there's lots of tools that can build reports. I mean from Excel, and then there's tons of other competitors that allow you to build reports, build charts, and that's great. All of those tools are great.

What makes Tableau unique is its ability to ask and answer questions. So, let's say I start with a question, how are my sales doing? Well, what if I segment my sales by my marketing channel, is there one channel that's producing more leads than another? What about my close rate? Can I look at that? I can just ask questions and I can answer them really quickly, which enables me to then get better insight.

I found early on in my career with just starting with dad, I was a college intern, but suddenly I was being invited to much more senior level or executive level meetings because I had answers to questions that they had. They're like, "Well, what about this?" I'm like, "Oh, well this is what the data says." In a meeting, I can use Tableau to answer questions.

Whereas typically a meeting is like this: you go in, someone asks a question, maybe there's an answer, then there's a follow-up question. It's like, "I don't know, I'll have to go back and check. We'll call another meeting." Tableau breaks that cycle where you can just iterate through questions very quickly and get to insights, which then people can go take action on. So that to me, was amazing. That was mind expanding, that me, as a young college kid or fresh out of college, that I can have insight into people's businesses, that they valued enough that they would include me in a meeting.

I've kind of used it for that purpose ever since. It certainly can do reports really well and even automate reports, but further than that, it makes you a more insightful contributor to your team and to your company. If you can learn to ask the right questions, you can become a very valuable member of the team.


Accelebrate: It's really such a powerful tool. With your consulting and training experience, where do you think Tableau is most important for just any given business?

Ryan: That's a great question. I think it can be used anywhere. Honestly and truly, I think it can be used anywhere. Based on the research that we've done on sites like Upwork and other places where people are posting for jobs, and looking at job postings out on Indeed and things, there is often times what we see is either there's an analytics center of excellence, which is trying to present a lot of data to the company, or we tend to see it in terms of sales, marketing, and finance, sort of in that order. And then some operations thrown in.

But it can be used for anything. It could be used for supply chain. It can be used in healthcare. I mean you name an industry, or you name a department, it can be used. Because there's data for everything and using data helps us make smarter decisions. I mean, really you can use it anywhere, but research shows people generally want it, at least from what I've seen, mostly in sales, marketing, finance, and kind of take it from there.


Accelebrate: That makes sense. How about integration? Like a lot of businesses, we use Salesforce for our CRM and manage a lot of data that way. I think Tableau integrates with Salesforce, but what other big integrations do you feel like people should know about?

Ryan: It hits all of your major databases. If any of your Cloud stuff like AWS, like all the Microsoft, like Azure, SQL Server, all your big databases, it does. As far as Cloud sources, Salesforce incidentally just bought Tableau. So, I mean that's going to become an even tighter integration there because Salesforce now owns Tableau. But they will continue with competitors.

So, all of your Google stuff, like Google Analytics, and Google Sheets, all of those kinds of things it connects to. And then it connects to lots of other platforms like Marketo, and Eloqua, and things like that that people use for marketing and sales. Those are kind of native, out of the box integrations and there's at least 50 of them.

Other than that, you would use what's called a Tableau web data connector, which allows you to connect to anything. Weather data, financial data, stock data, any I don't know, Facebook ads, YouTube. I mean, it will connect to all of those sources, and allow you to pull data in and answer questions.


Accelebrate: When you're teaching Tableau, what are some of the most common questions that come up?

Ryan: Maps. Incidentally, people love maps. I don't know, I mean you look at National Geographic, full of maps. You look in The New York Times, there's usually a map. Hit The Economist magazine, there's usually a map. I don't know if it's just because they're in our culture, but people love maps. So, do we even know how much geographic analysis they're actually doing in their jobs? But it's certainly a question we get asked in every training, "We want to learn about maps."

But on the more business side of things, the question I get most, that's the most interesting is, "How do you know what questions to ask?". I mentioned Tableau's a great tool to ask questions and get answers, but that's not a skill that's taught in school. And so, a lot of people ask, "Well, how do you know what's the right question to ask? Where do I even begin to then go find insights?"

So as we teach, we teach people how to do that, how to not only ask questions of the data and find answers, but also to ask questions of their manager, or their manager's manager, or whatever, to frame the analysis in such a way that they're looking for the right stuff. I think people find that really useful.


Accelebrate: I get it. I like maps. And questions. How about just more generally – do you have any tips, tricks, or advice for the Tableau user from beginner to advanced?

Ryan: I would say it's a pretty easy tool to get to a basic level of proficiency on. It's drag and drop. I mean, it's pretty intuitive, and people generally say that. But it's been around for a long time now, and there's a lot of competition. Tableau has to add features all the time. If you really want to get to mastery, that curve gets real steep, real fast. You can go to basic very easily, and most people stop there.

But then they miss out on all of this other value that's been built into the tool like predictive analytics, and just advanced charts, different ways you can present analyses, the ability to automate insights. Those are more advanced skills and advanced features that people don't go all the way on, and then they miss out on opportunities to be more valuable in their companies or other places because there, the answers they find are not quite as rich.

Don't stop learning. Just keep learning. And there's tons of blogs. The community is very active on Twitter, so there's lots of examples out there that are really fascinating. There's a project every week called Makeover Monday, where they go find a chart somewhere in a magazine, or newspaper, or a publication, they put the data out there and they tell the community, "Hey, make it over. How would you change this? How would you improve this?" It's not quite the same effect as like Chip and Joanna Gaines, where people are crying at the end and stuff.

But it's cool. It's cool to see what people do and how they think through a problem. I learn from that. I learn by seeing how people take the same data and redo it 50 different ways. It's like, "Oh, well it could have been done all of these ways." Expand your mind.


Accelebrate: Outside of Makeover Monday, are there any other resources, or books, videos, podcasts, blogs you recommend?

Ryan: Yeah, all of the above. Really, if you Google pretty much any question, "How do I do X in Tableau," you'll find an answer. Every year Tableau will nominate 20 people as Zen Masters. These people are extremely active in the blogosphere and the social interwebs, answering questions, doing cool things, and so if you do a search for the Tableau Zen Masters, you'll find them. Following their work is really invaluable. I've learned a lot from them. It's very coveted. People fight for those positions. And so, you've got to work hard to be one of the 20 in the world nominated as a Zen each year.

I think the Zen's and Makeover Monday are huge in terms of improving your skills and expanding your mind. But, also, just Google searches, the blogs, the Twitter comments, they'll show up, and those are valuable too.


Accelebrate: What does it take to be a Zen Master in Tableau?

Ryan: So total dominance of the tool is one. A very active blog and active social following, and regular contributions in their forums and things. These are people who are experts in their craft, that give very generously of their time, and their talents, and abilities to help other people in their journey. You've got to be both visually amazing, analytically brilliant, technically deep and wide in the tool, and then extremely generous with your time and abilities.

So that's how it's done. And then sometimes Tableau will nominate or sometimes the community nominates people who they think should be a Zen.


Accelebrate: Are there any pitfalls to avoid in Tableau, especially as a beginner user?

Ryan: That's a good question. I think sometimes there is a paradigm of, "I want to take exactly what I have in Excel and transfer it into Tableau." Tableau was built to be a visual tool, so it does tables, and you can build a table of numbers and stuff, but that's not what it was designed to do. It's designed to allow you to explore data visually, very quickly and then build very polished reports.

So if the approach is just, "I'm going to translate Excel into Tableau," you're missing out on a lot of what Tableau was built to do. I think that we have to break that mindset a little bit and say, starting from a blank slate, "What is the question I'm trying to answer and does my report give the answer to that question that we're looking at?" Are sales up or down, and why? Am I answering those two questions? If the table of numbers does that, use a table. If there's something else that does that better, then use that.

So that's what I recommend to people, is don't just try to translate this straight across and like, "This is just another tool somebody asked me to learn." This can make you way more intelligent about the business. It's true business intelligence.


Accelebrate: Can you build or do people usually build infographics with Tableau?

Ryan: Yeah. Makeover Monday, I mean that's what it is now. It's like it's a big competition in the community for people to one up one another about how cool their stuff can be. So oftentimes infographics are built. Custom images are brought in, they're put behind charts, they're overlaid into charts themselves, and now you've got a bar chart with a picture in it. Like all kinds of crazy things. Someone did an image where they did a volcano as an image, and then it's spewing out maps of where there's active volcanoes around the world.


Accelebrate: Very cool. Now, we talked about Tableau a lot in terms of teaching Tableau. What's your favorite part about being a technical trainer? You told me a little bit about how you got into Tableau with your being an intern with your dad and everything, but how did you really become a trainer eventually?

Ryan: It started years ago. Someone came to me and was like, "Can you teach Tableau?" I was like, "Yeah, I can teach Tableau." And they were like, "That's excellent. We don't have curriculum, so can you write curriculum too?" I was like, "Yeah, I can write curriculum." And they're like, "That's excellent. Training's in a month. Good luck."

We went, first training was great. And then I thought that would be kind of a onetime thing. I didn't realize this would turn into training Tableau every week. And so here we are. Yeah, so that was kind of a rush early on. But really what I love about teaching Tableau is just, I think that it makes people better in their careers.


Accelebrate: That's amazing. That is definitely inspiring. I've learned a little bit about Tableau, but I should probably learn more. Do you have any advice for children, young people or older people who just want to get into the data analytics field?

Ryan: Yeah, so I do, and this is kind of a maybe contrarian viewpoint. I think a lot of people are like, "Start coding young," and whatever. What I would say, is start a business. That's what I would give as advice. It doesn't matter what it is, right? Like, sell lemonade. Being able to think about a business and all of its moving pieces, like, "I need to have this and that, and there's a cost to those. I've got to sell those, and I've got to make money on this. How am I going to do that? How do I get people to notice me? What are the key questions? What are you trying to sell for? How do we optimize profits? How do we increase sales? How do we improve our marketing?"

The same kinds of things that I was thinking about as a kid are things that big companies, Fortune 1000 companies are thinking about. They're vastly more complex, but the same kinds of questions that power a business are there. And then so I think doing that makes you just better all the way around. It makes you think more strategically.

So that's what the advice I would say, if you're young, go start a business and learn. It doesn't even matter if you make a profit or not. But it will make you think, and that will benefit you later on in your career.


Accelebrate: Fantastic advice. Great. What do you like to do outside of working with and teaching Tableau?

Ryan: Well, I have younger kids, so there's not much time for anything but just running around after kids. But when I'm not chasing kids around, and picking up the house, and all those other things that are required of dad, I like martial arts. In my twenties, before I had kids, I got my black belt. I recently got back in and I'm training for my second-degree black belt. So, I am hoping to get back to that, but we'll see.


Accelebrate: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ryan. Thank you for all of your amazing classes and for working with us for years now. Everyone at Accelebrate really loves working with you.

Ryan: Great. Thank you. I appreciate that. And have a great afternoon.

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