How the EXCEL?! / Tableau

How the EXCEL do I find the flow with Tableau?!


I once spent months building a dashboard.  In Excel.  With pivot tables.  And GETPIVOTDATA.  And all sorts of lookups, calculations, conditional logic, and the like.  It felt like Groundhog Day going to work.  Every day, I did the same thing (try and take over the world!  Er, build a dashboard!) one small chunk at a time.

Painful is not the word.  Excruciating is a start, but still is a miss.  Line by line, cell by cell, setting absolute references so I could copy and drop, resetting them I could drag the other way: this was my world.  Checking the records, adding against 9 pivot tables, filtering and checking, finding the exceptions, re-adding: it was a right mess.

I was good at it.  I could do it with my eyes closed.  They updated auto-magically: I’d refresh the data, refresh the pivots, change the filters, validate the numbers, and start my mass PDF distribution.  Then, people would want more.  And I’d go back and squeeze more into it and create monster calculations with with 3 lines displayed and a scroll bar.

At some point, we realized this was not sustainable.  We tried the gamut of BI tools, until we found the one.


Now, I got Tableau before my area had a user group.  So, I was left to bang my Excel-trained head against the Tableau wall.  And bang I did.

Here’s what no one tells you: Excel is like that Swiss Army pocket knife your grandpa gave you.  Besides the sentimental value, it has lots of things it can do, but the primary focus is the blade.  So, like a good Excel analyst, I’d go into the weeds and whittle away at the wood.  With such a small blade, it took days to make something.

Then, someone gave me chainsaw.  We’ll call this chainsaw “Tableau.”  WITH a slight slight lilt at the end.

If you try to whittle wood with a chainsaw, you get nowhere.  Now, you can hack at the wilderness, but if you’re not careful, someone’s going to get hurt.  And that someone is usually me.

Using a chainsaw effectively requires building the muscles to hold the thing properly, which means that dreaded word: practice.  It means failing, destroying the shrub or lopping off the ice sculpture’s head: Really, that was intentional, I swear!

At some point, something will click.  You’ll be at the right spot at the right time for the right reasons because you’ve walked past it 100 times for the wrong reasons.


The trick to Tableau isn’t taking the same approach: that’s what causes the infinite loop.  Instead, it’s taking a step back and really looking at the reason you went into the woods in the first place.  What drew you there?  Then, it’s tracing the path like it’s the first time again: a left, zig-zag by the tree, a right, straight, over the hill, right by the pine, and sit by the creek.

I used to build Excel dashboards so my clients could get a snapshot of our services and make decisions.  They needed to understand certain metrics to do this.  I got these metrics from their questions.

So, what is question?  Can you start (just start, not finish) to answer it with one chart?  Great, we’re chiseling the ice a bit.  What else will help (not finish) to answer this question?  K, add that.  Surely, there’s more, so let’s toss that into the mix as well.  Now, we have a few charts.  We have a pretty lumpy sculpture now, but the form is there.  Is there an order to this process?  Should some things influence others?  Let’s toss these on a dashboard and use some action filters.  We’re starting to see something.

We’ll spend some time getting this to look good.  Google provides a lot of good answers here.  We may just be chiseling in the details here.

That first dashboard that wins it may still not be great (mine sure wasn’t), but it does something that’s more powerful than just looking good: it answers the question.

How do you find the flow with Tableau?  Just like any language learner will tell you, you get proficient at failure first.  You fail and fail and fail and fail again.  You probably go off the edge, sometimes.

But, at some point, “should” starts to fade and “can” appears.  Proficiency builds with practice and achievement comes from openness.  It’s not fighting the forces of the loop.  It’s realizing the loop gives you time to learn and time to fail until you get it right.  It’s finding happiness in difference that sets you free.


And in case you need a refresher:

It’s 6 am. Rise and shine. And don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?

Flow-finding in 3 minutes.

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