30 Oct 2014

Tableau: How Fast You Can Learn It? A graduate’s perspective

Yibai Hu

Two months ago, I was faced with a Tableau challenge. Fresh from graduating with a Master’s degree in Financial Engineering, I was set the task of finding open data, learning Tableau desktop on my own, and presenting some interesting findings in Tableau Story for my interview for Concentra’s Business Intelligence developer role. I had some experience in VBA, Matlab and C++ but at the time a new software or language meant at least 3 months of lecture and several projects. So you can imagine I was slightly anxious with only a week to complete the task before interview! Looking back on it, my experience was a fantastic case study for those looking to get to grips with Tableau with limited support and in quick time.

Step 1: An introduction to Tableau

The only way to begin is go hands on straight away! It gives you an idea of the outputs you can achieve, and what sort of data you are going to need. I started with Tableau’s demo videos and sample data from Tableau desktop – it was a great way of gaining an understanding of Tableau how it combines data from different sources through building connections, and the flexibility of the data visualisations. However, don’t feel the need to watch too many videos. The basic videos, such as Getting Started and Connecting to Data are good but I found it best to try things in Tableau and refer back to the specific training video when needed.

Being impressed with Tableau’s power in visualising dimensional data, I decided to present some open source data which can reflect various facts of the object. The UK National Travel Survey data by the Department of Transport is great for this type of thing as it consists of a series of tables containing statistics on various aspects of travel, such as mode, purpose and distance.

However, lesson number one: obtaining source data and formatting that data takes time! Although Tableau is generally very intuitive it only works best when you format the source data in a particular way. For example, the bottom part of the image below shows the format of Tableau raw data, where each column represents a dimension or measure of the data and will correspondingly show up in the dimension/measure window in Tableau. Having picked 6 tables of data to present, I spent almost 2 whole days obtaining and formatting the source data! Pressure on!


Step Two: Creating Dashboards

With my data ready, now to visualise it. New to Tableau, I faced a dilemma; although I knew what data I wanted to present I wasn’t sure which view to choose. “Show Me Tool” to the rescue! This is a great feature for beginners as it shows you all the ways to visualise your data, and gives you suggestions on which visualisations are most suitable based on your data structure. With my target visualisation acquired the fun could really start. I started building my sheet by dragging different dimensions and measures into Columns and Rows to see how my visualization changed. However, what I loved was not just the rows and columns, but the ability to simply drag and drop any unused field and visualise it by colour, size, label etc… As a beginner, the flexibility which Tableau offered is genuinely exciting. I was free to add/hide headers and annotations, edit colours, switch views, and even alter the visualization by changing the order of row fields. Tableau Jedi status here I come! (a phrase I only learnt after my interview!)


Next on the list was to build a dashboard. Building a dashboard is a process of combining sheets with a common theme. Filters are very useful in this case to drill down into specific parts of the data. Another useful feature here is the use of parameters, adding power to the filter by creating a variable or option that is not in the original data to be used across sheets and dashboards. There are many other functions such as calculated field and sets which are introduced in the Tableau training videos.

Step three: Presenting in Story Mode

Goodbye PowerPoint, hello story mode! I like the Story mode so much, because it not only remembers my story points statically (after whatever filters and highlights you use), but allows me to interactively change the view by altering the filters during presentation. I could also bullet point the reason behind my data enabling me to give a much more polished presentation during the interview process.

And here I am! Concentra Tableau challenge successfully completed with much less stress than I anticipated. I think my experience resonates with CEO Christian Chabot’s comment at Tableau’s Roadshow 2014, that Tableau is developed taking consideration of human brain’s activity when visualizing data so that users won’t experience a hard time learning the software. So, for those of you looking to try out Tableau, DO IT! (You can sign up for a free trial here) You will be amazed how quickly you pick it up, and start really enjoying working with data.

You can check below a video showing exactly how you create dashboards and present in story mode:

Interested in working with data and analytics? Find out more about Concentra’s graduate opportunities


Yibai Hu

About the author

I joined Concentra recently as a graduate developer of Business Intelligence after I graduated from a master degree in Financial Engineering. I am actively accumulating experience in data mining and data management. My current interest is on automating Microsoft Office with Powershell.