Winning with Tableau: Paul Ross’s Tips from Beginner to Iron Viz Champion

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How did Paul go from Tableau beginner to winning Iron Viz at his first attempt? Paul Ross is living proof that the Iron Viz title is possible for Tableau users of all skill-levels, from beginners to experts. Iron Viz is the world’s largest data viz competition, where every year, three contestants, selected from hundreds in a global qualifier competition, visualize the same data set in 20 minutes center stage at Tableau Conference. Paul’s journey to becoming the 2023 champion began with using Tableau only a year before the finals—and while he had to fight self-doubt all the way, the learnings and resources he used ultimately equipped him to become champion.

Paul Ross accepting his Iron Viz 2023 Championship trophy. 

“My advice to travelers starting out on their journey is to build a viz on something that interests you,” he says. “The bigger the better because the bigger the viz, the more questions and challenges arise. Let them guide your learning. Done this way, it’s not overwhelming; you’re just trying to find ways around the next roadblock in the way of getting to the next stage with your viz.”

A general piece of advice is to go to Tableau Public for inspiration. “The hardest part for beginners, myself included, is that you don’t really know what you have in your toolbox, especially as new tools are being added all the time. Tableau Public, especially the Discover section, is a gallery of great implementations just waiting to connect with your ideas. The best part is that you can download most of them, pull them apart, and try to figure out how they work.”

Paul picks out Viz Office Hours as a great venue for learning and connecting. It’s run by Michelle Frayman, Nicole Klassen and Zach Geiss, a group of Tableau Community Leaders who volunteer their time each week to mentor others. “You can share any stage of data viz and get feedback and suggestions. They don’t force you in any direction, they make observations, give you little ideas, and dispense technical advice.”

Paul Ross’s Tableau Public profile

Paul’s general tips for Tableau beginners

  • Build something that interests you—the bigger, the better
  • Hunt down the answers to questions that come up as you develop the viz
  • Download and reverse engineer anything that inspires you on Tableau Public
  • Plug into Viz Office Hours or other Tableau groups to accelerate your learning

Paul had experience with other business intelligence for eight years in his work life before he ventured into the world of Tableau. Perhaps surprisingly, that made for an easy transition because “a lot of skills are transferable to Tableau and vice versa. Either way, you have a framework to help you ask the right questions.”

“At the same time, there’s quite a bit that’s excitingly different,” he adds. “The user interfaces are different in a few key ways. The prior tools I have used have pre-selected chart types. When you’re building something, you say ‘I want this exact chart, I’m going to drag it over here’. Tableau has drag-and-discover dynamic charts and you can take an iterative approach: save a viz, make a copy, and keep evolving the design. It’s a journey of discovery.”

Paul calls out the beautiful visualizations as one of his favorite things about Tableau. “It’s a very unscientific metric, but the gorgeous look and feel of Tableau visualizations is on another level, especially with the long form data stories you see in Iron Viz. I’ve never tried to create something like that in Power BI.”

Paul Ross’s Iron Viz Championship visualization: Can We Close The Climate Gap? | Iron Viz 2023

“The number one most exciting thing about Tableau is that building a viz is discovery by doing. With Power BI your actions are largely predetermined. There are a couple of parameters you can play with, but the shape of the visualization is predetermined. In Tableau, you drag and drop things around the screen and the chart changes in front of you. And not only are some changes unexpected, they’re better than expected!”

For Paul, the granular level of control available is one of Tableau’s defining features. “You can tweak every little setting and position things to the pixel. So Tableau Public, the drag-and-discover experience, and the ability to get things looking exactly the way you want all kept me hooked on Tableau.”

Tableau’s secret sauce—the Community

If Paul was impressed by Tableau’s technical capabilities, he was blown away by the Community. “The Data Fam is incredible! It’s the secret sauce of Tableau. It’s the cheerleader squad; the welcome squad; it’s just a great group of people, and they’ve been very welcoming to me.” 

Paul Ross’s Iron Viz Qualifier visualization: What’s The Best Board Game To Try Next?

“And there’s not just one Data Fam, there’s lots of little sub-groups.” Paul found his place at Games Night Viz, which is fitting when you see the love he put into his 2023 Iron Viz qualifier entry on board games, and he’s active in the “warm and welcoming” Brisbane Tableau User Group.

Paul Ross’s journey from beginner to Iron Viz champion shows that anyone can achieve success with Tableau. Focus on building projects that interest you, use Tableau Public for inspiration, and leverage the supportive DataFam. Start your Tableau journey today

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Author: Danika Harrod