I used to think my journey was a bit unusual, but the more I hear about the career paths of people in the data analytics industry, the more I realize that the wild and winding path is the normal one.
Wild and Winding Path
I earned a degree in accounting and finance from the University of Washington, then spent the first 12 years of my career working in the residential and commercial construction industry in a variety of accounting and IT-related roles. My real “education,” however, came from my tendency to get involved with “special projects” — the ones where people cringe when they talk about them, or the ones lacking direction and consensus from stakeholders, or the ones that had a great vision but not the technical expertise to get across the finish line. When I discovered self-service analytics, it was a bit like when Dorothy clicked her sparkly red heels together and shouted, “There’s no place like home!”
When I discovered self-service analytics, it was a bit like when Dorothy clicked her sparkly red heels together and shouted, “There’s no place like home!”
-Nicole Johnson, Alteryx ACE
I have always been fascinated by new languages, both spoken languages and programming ones like VBA and SQL, and there was something about one particular platform that made me feel like I was finally speaking in my native tongue. It just clicked. Here was a solution that would allow me to take the things I saw in my mind, the connections that I could draw between programs and people and processes, and display them in an intuitive, productive way right on the screen so that they could be easily explained and repeated in the future.
Carving Out Your Own Space
Accounting and IT are not typically seen as the most social roles in an organization, but I have grown to see them as the perfect liaison between different groups that all have the same general objective — build something incredible and get paid for it, with the least amount of hair-pulling possible. My role evolved into that of an internal consultant, and I found my niche — bring me the data, tell me what you want to create, and I will help you build the bridge.
A typical day for me looked like being offered challenges and flipping them into solutions. Tired of manually adding information to a spreadsheet? Here’s a macro to do it automatically. Software developer not responding quickly enough on defect resolution? I learned some SQL so I could help identify the root cause and eventually just fix it myself. Rather than following archaic or traditional paths, I embraced a new philosophy: Go rogue.
Finding and embracing new ways looked different each time. One day, I would go track down a superintendent and ask him to explain what that widget he purchased was for and how it connected to other widgets, and then I’d offer some help streamlining the spreadsheet that tracked the delivery of the widgets so that we could both get the information we needed quickly. Or, when I noticed two different people filling out tracking logs for the same things, I’d put them in a room together and help create a joint, automated process so that there were fewer errors and less need for reconciliation between two sources.
A common theme began to evolve, and I became a fierce advocate of the importance of context and understanding the reasons why a process was being done. Read the whole story, not just the ending.
When you take the time to understand the details, it becomes almost intuitive which steps need to be taken. The workflow builds itself!
Getting Into the Swing of Things
I used to row a little in college for fun, and there’s a point in rowing where the boat hits a certain rhythm. The rowers are aligned, the oars are moving perfectly in sync, and you suddenly experience this sensation of weightlessness as the boat glides through the water. I didn’t spend years in school studying theory. I don’t have letters after my name, and I constantly confuse Hadoop with that Hooli company from “Silicon Valley.” But I am confident because I have the most important quality of all — curiosity.
I didn’t spend years in school studying theory. I don’t have letters after my name, and I constantly confuse Hadoop with that Hooli company from “Silicon Valley.” But I am confident because I have the most important quality of all — curiosity.
I am energized by the belief that there is always something new to learn, and the best part about the discoveries I’ve made with analytics specifically in Alteryx — both personally and professionally — is that there is no end in sight to the vast sea of knowledge that is now so readily available at my fingertips.
I had a conversation with fellow Alteryx ACE Sean Adams a while back about how to build the right data culture in an organization, and he had two wise pieces of advice.
First, he told me that a great data culture is built on four pillars: the right toolset, the right skill set, the right dataset, and the right mindset. The last one resonates so strongly with me. I may not have started out with all the skills, and it took me a while to find the right solution, but I know, without a doubt, that my endless fascination with knowing the unknown is exactly the right kind of mindset to get me where I’m going.
(Sean’s second piece of advice was to focus on defensive design because the data is always going to be shit. I have found this statement, while a bit uncouth, to be unequivocally true.)
I would not normally call myself an adventurous person. You won’t find me scaling the sides of cliffs or kayaking white water. When I travel on my own, it’s because I’ve planned it down to the minute on the train station timetable. I’m a picky eater. Most of my clothes are neutral, black, or gray. I start looking worriedly over my shoulder when I catch myself going more than seven miles over the speed limit. However, if you give me an analytical problem, my choice of an analytics platform, and a time limit, I will dive right in without a second’s hesitation!
However, if you give me an analytical problem, my choice of an analytics platform, and a time limit, I will dive right in without a second’s hesitation!
The floodgates of my career have opened for me, especially after my Grand Prix victory on that stage in Anaheim at Alteryx Inspire. I think I have always been a competitive person, but the thing that lights my fire more than any other is to be told, “That’s impossible.”
The moment I hear those words, I cannot help but throw myself into the water without a life jacket, knowing that I will not rest until I have discovered how to swim to the other side. And the best part about this journey I’m on is that even though I have reached farther shores than I ever imagined I’d see, there is still a bigger, wider world just beyond that next sunrise. And I cannot wait to see the adventures it holds.
My Top 3 Tips for Myself and Data Analysts
Be curious. I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I want to be the one who walks away from every conversation, or every project, with the newest knowledge. And then I want to turn around and return the favor when I walk into the next room.
Go rogue. That’s where the best ideas are hiding. They’re not going to be the ones floating on the surface. You have to dive pretty deep to find the real buried treasure.
Read the whole story, not just the ending. I once heard someone describe themselves as a data therapist, and I’ve never heard a more accurate description of what I love to do. Look at the problems you’ve been given and ask, “Are you privileged data that has lived in a nice orderly suburban database with rules and resources to help you plan your future state? Or are you a disorderly, disheveled database with two different shoes on and a history of people smooshing and squeezing you to fit their own nefarious purposes?” Now it’s usually the second case, but let’s be honest, even the first one thinks their parents are out of touch with reality and went through a rebellious phase in college. And to both, I say, “Tell me your story, and let me help you understand yourself.”
Check out the Women of Analytics Spotlight on Nicole Johnson featured on the Alteryx Community.
Hear Nicole’s fireside chat about going from an accountant to a data scientist.