10 Questions for Tableau Adventurer Keith Helfrich


10 Questions for Tableau Adventurer Keith Helfrich


10 Questions is an ongoing blog series in which Tableau Zen Master Dan Murray interviews some of the brightest folks in the world of data.

10 Questions for Tableau Adventurer Keith Helfrich

The Tableau community is diverse drawing people from many industries and lifestyles. Keith is one of the most adventurous people I’ve me in the last few years. He’s a regular at Burning Man and has lived in Europe and South America. Keith’s a free spirit that isn’t encumbered by convention. He also and runs a great blog called Red Headed Step Data.

The Questions

Q: You are a bit of a world traveler. Can you talk a bit about that?

Helfrich: Thank you, Dan, for having me on the show! Travel and adventure are two of my favorites. I’ve traveled to something like 50 countries. While that may sound like a lot, it’s still less than a third of the planet. So, I’ve been thinking recently that it’s time to pick up the pace a little. My recent trips were a sailing vacation around Cuba in November and a scuba trip to Belize over Christmas and New Years.

As an approach, I prefer to live in faraway places. I lived for three years in Germany (before, during and after the Berlin Wall came down). My first job out of university was with a Dutch consulting firm, which moved me to live in Amsterdam. And now, I’m two years here in San Francisco after seven years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Asia will be my home at some point. In the end, I suppose I seek to have lived a great life, a little bit of everywhere.

Q: When and how did you discover Tableau?

Helfrich: Three years ago, I was manager of BI data architecture at Macys.com. The Tableau environment was under my purview, though I wasn’t doing the hands-on. Tableau was the hottest thing going an is hotter still today. That was a traditional BI management job focused on the IT side of data integration.

For my pivot into Tableau, I embraced the example I found in Leigh Fonseca. Leigh was an independent consultant working on several strategically important Tableau projects for the business. When she told me that she, too, had once been a BI manager, that’s when I began to consider. A few months later, I said to her, “Leigh, I’m going to do what you do.”

It was among my best professional decisions. Today, a year and a half later, I am in a flow state. My career is so much more exciting!

Q: What are you doing for a living now? How do you utilize Tableau?

Helfrich: I’m an independent, working in analytics and visualization. My focus for the past year at Apple has been to build a complex data product that incorporates all of the industry buzzwords. The project packages together a data science pipeline with enrichment and augmentation steps, all run on a massive and interesting data set. We export those results to a Vertica data mart for visual analytics.

Seeing this project all the way through — from our initial envisioning, to a POC, to sponsorship and build-out — has been very rewarding. Even more so because of the delight it brings to the business.

My colleagues are your prototypical data scientists and big data engineers of Silicon Valley. It is great to work so closely with them and to influence their direction without being directly responsible for writing the algorithms.

My technical role begins at the data mart. I’ve built a complex, guided analytics UI in Tableau, and I’m currently manipulating the data model in Vertica for high speed performance. My non-technical roles are a fun mix of business analyst, product manager and project lead. Apple is a great place to work. I share my day with some amazing folks, and I’m really happy to be there.

Q: How many years have you attended Burning Man?

Helfrich: I knew you would ask that!  Let’s see, looks like twelve out of the last sixteen years. I’m glad you’ve asked about my tenure and not, for example, to explain what Burning Man is. One really does need to go and experience it.

Mashable says that Burning Man is a week-long art party in a handmade city in an environment that is doing its level best to kill you, and that’s accurate. The event has certainly continued to evolve. Now there is a lot more money involved. Fewer people die, though some always do. And it is chic to talk about in Silicon Valley.

This article is the one I sent to my boss at Apple to help him understand where I was spending my vacation; along with this one (for fun), which was the fundraiser for the project of a good friend.

I’ve had a hand in a few of those large scale art projects. And also some smaller ones. For my fellow burners, maybe we should organize a meet up at the next Tableau Conference?

Q: What is it about Burning Man that attracts you? What’s the experience like?

Helfrich: It is a big experience. And that, in itself, is one of the reasons I like it so much. My favorite components are the contemporary art, the human connection, and my ability to have fun and play. Kindred playfulness is paramount to youth. And Burning Man is a modern day World’s Fair for crazy smart people. All of the crazy smart people are there. I love it!

I also enjoy the opportunity to work on real things. Things that, if you drop them on your foot, it hurts; projects that have meaning to the humanities. Thanks to various projects over the years, I’ve worked with wood, steel and stone; also mechanical and electrical. Dealing with data all the time, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with those materials.

Q: I believe we met at the first Tableau Partner Conference in Las Vegas? Why were you there? 

Helfrich: That was a fun time, Dan. It was great to get to know you there, as well as the rest of your team. Verified, high-quality humans at InterWorks. That was the moment of your big announcement, introducing your Power Tools for Tableau.

And myself, I was on reconnaissance. I was about two months into my pivot, bootstrapping my new identity as a Tableau consultant. So, I took myself to Vegas with a “who’s who” list of the people I wanted to meet.

My main goal was to pitch to Miguel Nhuch, Tableau’s VP of Latin American Sales, that I was his best man for Rio de Janeiro. It was a bit early a year ago for somebody like me in Brazil, but the demand for visual analytics is ever increasing worldwide.

If I don’t receive any phone calls over the next 18 months with a mission to parachute into an exotic part of the world using Tableau, then I may just do it on my own. Life is way too fun to wait for an invitation.

Q: What do you hope to do with your career and with Tableau over the next few years?

Helfrich: You know, I’m in a really good groove right now. I love working as an independent. I have an amazing client at Apple, and I’m also expanding out a bit.

I see one to two more years of serious study ahead. I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard for the past 12 months, which means I’m about a third of the way through a self-styled master’s program. I’m augmenting Tableau with more rigorous studies in programming and data science. It’s not that I seek to become a Data Scientist; I don’t. But rather, I feel it is important to be data literate, and these are the steps I’m taking to better speak the “lingua franca” of our time.

As an outcome, I see myself evolving into a breed of switch hitter between business and IT, somebody adept and reliable who is equally successful on both sides of the enterprise. My current challenge is to fluently translate math and tech speak into business lingo.

Deepak Chopra says that love without action is meaningless, and action without love is irrelevant. I embrace that approach in my personal life. In our business lives, my mantra is that “analytics without action is meaningless, and action without analytics is irrelevant.”

The result of crunching all this data needs to catalyze decision and action to be valuable.

Q: You are a proficient Tableau Desktop user? Do you utilize Tableau Server as well? How?

Helfrich: I do. My early career was in server admin for large ERP systems. So, with that background, I found the Tableau Server Essentials to be familiar territory. Now that this data product I’ve built for Apple is off the ground, there is a fair chance I will begin to help them with their server environment. I did server work prior to Apple, at MCOM and Salesforce.com, and I’m signing up a new client now to help improve their server as well.

My role model personas in Server are Paul Banoub of UBS and John Abdo of Pallette Software. Both have taken the reins on their careers by evangelizing that enterprises can’t make the shift without a well-run Server. 

From a skills perspective, Chris Love from the Information Lab is my leading example. He is ace in both Server and Desktop, and I aim to do both equally as well. If you draw a quadrant, one axis represents business vs. IT and the other Server vs. Desktop. My future lies smack in the middle with a lasso around the bull’s eye.

Q: If you could change anything about Tableau Desktop or Tableau Server what would that be and why?

Helfrich: Today, my insta-wish list would be fewer clicks, dynamic parameters and to squash the bugs.

Looking ahead, in my opinion, two years from now, Tableau needs to be a fully-integrated development environment capable of building complex data-driven applications. More than flat dashboards, guided analytics will mean completely immersive data-driven environments.

Tableau will need to enable me to build those environments, and that means a total mindset upgrade from “dashboards” to “applications.”

Q: What people in the Tableau community do you monitor? Are there any newcomers whose work you find to be interesting, creative or different?  

Helfrich: The content deluge is my best friend, actually. I invest hours each week into absorbing articles from Feedly and Twitter. All of the Zen Masters, I follow. I also follow the consultants from three main shops: InterWorksSlalom and The Information Lab, as well as the Tableau employees. Other authors who produce great work are Jeffrey ShafferKen BlackPaul Banoub and Chris Gerrard.

Hands down, though, Jonathan Drummey and Joe Mako are at the center. They are master climbers who scale gnarly mountain tops without any tie downs. And they are generous and kind, consistently helping those of us who come behind them. If you are in the Tableau community and you’re not following their cultural example of kindness and generosity, then folks will notice quickly.

As for identifying newcomers, Oliver Catherin did an amazing thing recently when he pioneered a polygon approach to decision trees, sankeys and flow diagrams.

This has been really fun, Dan. Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to tell my story.

Discover More Interviews

Want to read more insightful interviews like this one? Then you’ll love our 10 Questions blog series. Check out the full list of interviews here, and stay tuned for new additions.

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Dan Murray

Director of Strategic Innovations
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