This summer, we asked our talented group of college interns to contribute to the Ovative blog. We asked them to choose a topic that interests them, do a deep dive into the subject, then develop a post to share what they learned. Enjoy this post below, then check out the rest of the Intern Series content!
By: Stefani Weimholt & Sarah Jo DeVore
One thing we’ve learned this summer at Ovative is learning doesn’t have to stop in college. Even though the impending end of college classes can be daunting, this summer was a great reminder that there’s still so much we can learn after retiring the textbooks and donning our caps and gowns. We want to share our experiences with some Greek mythology, because we all love a good Hercules reference.
The culture of learning at Ovative is Atlas, holding together our growing world up in 701 Washington – expanding in both knowledge and people (by the end of the summer there were more than 10 people newer than us). Bolstered by the enthusiasm for skill and creativity, we learned an entirely new program (Tableau), gleaned knowledge from resourceful people just feet away, and branched out to learn more than the specific work of our own teams.
Learning Tableau was like fighting the Hydra of Lerna. For those of you who are unversed in Greek mythology, the Hydra is the many-headed monstrosity that grows nine faces out of every one that gets cut off. If Disney movies are more your jam, in the movie Hercules it’s when our buddy Herc tries to save a village and prove he’s not pathetic by cutting off every head he sees of the local village monster. Predictably, that strategy didn’t work super well, but we won’t spoil it for you.
This is similar to using Tableau with little experience. Nine of your beautiful little blue/green pills turn red every time you change one part of a calculation or click a different visual format in the innocently named “Show Me” toolbar. Suddenly all your carefully arranged variables jump from columns to rows, from rows to color fields, and all your labels disappear. Not that this overly specific situation happened to us…
If you feel confused and find yourself thinking “what is this Tableau you speak of” and “why would I ever want to use it”, check out this blog by Sarah Jo’s manager, Jenna Carlson.
While constantly seeing our equations break may sound discouraging, this is the exact reason why it’s pretty easy to learn Tableau. If Tableau recognizes an error, the tool doesn’t get very far without letting us know things aren’t making sense. When the frustrating feeling and internal (sometimes external) monologue of, “WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING” rears its head, at least half the time Tableau gives a slight hint on how to fix the problem.
So what have we been making as we slog through the Tableau learning curve?
Sarah Jo: My first project was to work through the Tableau textbook my manager handed me on my second day of work – those of you missing college, never fear, there are textbooks for everything. It was a pretty basic project: pull a daily report and put the numbers in a view-able form for year over year comparisons. I’ve been going back to the project every couple weeks to automate more of it as I learn the tricks of Tableau (mostly selfishly – it used to take me about 15 minutes to update and send out the report every morning; now it’s about 30 seconds, most of which is downloading the daily data).
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a pathing report – a much more open ended project. The idea was to look at the different digital media touchpoints that consumers experience before they end up purchasing, and then create something useful. In the process, I also created a lot of things that weren’t useful – we’ll get to that later.
Stef: I started in Tableau by helping my manager, Claire, update workbooks. We produce reports for the client, and the data needs to be updated every month. I saw right away the value of using Tableau. Although some basic calculation troubleshooting was involved, the report was already built. We didn’t have to start from scratch every month, which saved hours of precious time. I also got to see a real life example of how Tableau can be used. There are so many options that it can be overwhelming without exploring ready-made workbooks.
As I got more comfortable with the Tableau software, I learned I could integrate it with R, a free statistical software. I was building a regression model and wanted to do more than the simple linear regression that Tableau provides. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my previous experience in R from my classes, nor the Ovative learning culture that encourages trial and error. Once I finally got R connected, I was able to use more of the data more effectively.
The first weeks we began learning Tableau were 90% error, 10% success. We could spend hour after frustrating hour fixating on a single calculation we couldn’t figure out. But when we finally got it, the hours of struggling were easily forgotten. A huge part of a strong culture of learning is the ability to fail without judgement. It makes getting to the answer less frustrating and there’s more opportunity to grow along the way.
Vulnerability & Iteration
Like good ol’ arrogant Achilles learned from a little pin prick in his ankle, we learned we can’t be invincible. Learning takes vulnerability. This leads us to one of the most important parts of a learning culture: being comfortable with asking for help. We’ve got to know what we know and know what we don’t know and know what others know that we know or don’t know, clear enough? Let’s clarify: We didn’t always know where to start, but all we had to do was seek help. At Ovative, people are equally willing to learn and to teach, which keeps everyone growing.
As a company, Ovative is also very vocal about what it takes to develop deeper skills. We are encouraged over and over again to be vulnerable and ask for help. Many times this summer we wouldn’t know where to start. Our teams we’re either able to help us out, or point us in the right direction. That knowledge alone was an amazing resource.
Sarah Jo: The projects I started were often an iteration of something that had already been done, though not always by my team. I would be sent off to 2 or 3 other teams to ask my questions.
This was a really cool way to see the way other teams worked, to see how work for clients progressed, and to see the wide range of projects people dreamed up. A great example from more recently: I just started putting together a budget/KPI tracking document in Tableau for part of our services team. We wanted to measure new customers, but that data comes in much later than every other metric so there would be longer lag for looking at the overall picture. My manager sent me to talk to Stef about some really cool work she’s been doing combining R and Tableau to predict data output about 2 weeks ahead of its availability. The outcomes are completely unrelated but the method opens the door to a lot of things. And that’s how most of my projects have gone here. People chime in constantly with ideas starting “It would be cool if we…” And then I go meet with someone and they hand me a textbook or send me a deck or report and I’m back to studying. But “It would be cool if we…” doesn’t get you up Mt. Olympus, it’s only the first step.
Building out something useful can feel a lot like shouldering the responsibilities of the three Fates. Let’s take, for example, my pathing project. I spent the first week and a half as Clotho, spinning the thread of life – building out every visualization I could think of, including this beauty:
Probably the only thing you can parse from this graph is that some visualizations are more useful than others.
So, as Lachesis, the decider of destinies, I filed through my 30 – 40 colorful, interesting, helpful and not, graphical children to decide how long they might live. I say with no remorse that some had very short lives. Deleting worksheets from a Tableau workbook is probably not as darkly satisfying as slicing through someone’s life thread with a pair of shears like our dreariest sister of Fate, Atropos, but it is satisfying. It pulled me back to my original purpose, too. The best way to test anything’s use was figuring out “What questions could this answer?” If I couldn’t think of any with valuable answers I pulled out the shears.
We see a lot of that same creation/destruction cycle across projects and analysis at Ovative.
Stef: The story of the three fates also covers the story of the projects I did this summer. My manager, Claire and I had a mantra throughout the summer: “Just throw shit at a wall and see what sticks.” Many times she would give me a project and then leave me to work on it for a bit. I got to explore the problem (Clotho), test out solutions (Lachesis), meet back together, and then iterate again until the project was complete(Atropos). I encountered errors constantly, but this process forced me to problem solve on my own instead of begging for the answer every time.
As people who love open-ended projects and hate brain-dump tests, the cycle of constantly learning and immediately applying new knowledge has been amazing for us. Each project builds off the last and we repeat tasks enough to solidly learn the skills and perform them confidently. While there was always some overlap in what we had already done and what we needed to do, each task always had a new twist so it never became tedious (Sisyphusean, if you want to get Greek with it).