Tableau Community Spotlight: An Interview with Kevin Flerlage

Kevin Flerlage Bio

Kevin Flerlage has 12 years of professional experience in data analytics and is genuinely passionate about data.  However, data is only part of his role as a Senior Consultant at Cardinal Health.  Kevin sits at his customer’s site and manages the relationship between his company and his customer.  This often comes in the form of providing insights through data, but also in the form of project management, problem/issue resolution, and providing presentations to the C-Suite.  Kevin holds a degree in Mathematics and minor in Physics from Northern Kentucky University.

Just a few short months ago (late February 2018), Kevin found his true passion – data visualization.  He told me about his love for drawing and telling short stories through writing.  He said that when you combine these passions with data, then Tableau becomes an incredibly powerful tool and addictive hobby.  In fact, Kevin isn’t even using it professionally (but hopes to be soon).

Kevin makes it clear that God and family are number one in his life.  He spends a lot of time engaged in Children’s ministry.  He recently returned from taking 32 elementary school kids to camp and even commented that he has often considered full-time ministry.  He is married and has two children and made it clear that the three of them are “his world”.

Questions

Michael: So, your twin brother, Ken Flerlage, is a Tableau Zen Master and is very well-known in this community.  What is that like?  Did he get you started with Tableau?

Kevin: Yes, Ken and I are twins…identical twins…and grew up inseparable.  He was my built-in best friend (and incredibly handsome).  We were in most of the same classes, we had the same friends, and even played on the same teams.  We did pretty much everything together.  When we were 20, we moved out of our parents’ house, got an apartment with a few other friends and lived together a bit longer.  (Did I mention how handsome he is?)

In Ken’s senior year of college, he decided that he was going to study his final semester in Scotland.  He took off and we were separate for the first time in our lives.  While he was there, we continued to speak often, but I missed him…a lot.

While “studying” abroad, he met a girl from Pennsylvania (he went all the way to Scotland to meet a girl from the States).  After a 6 month period, he returned from Scotland, was here for 1 week, then moved to Pennsylvania.  He was now living 8 hours away.

He soon got married and so did I.  He had a child, then another, then so did I.  (We both have a boy as our oldest and a girl as our youngest…twinsies!!!).  We saw each other about 3 times a year and enjoyed that time, but to be honest, we didn’t talk that often otherwise.  Jobs, family, and just general life got in the way.  An occasional text or brief call about what to get our parents for Christmas and that was about it.

Over the past couple of years I would see random posts about this thing called Tableau and he would mention it when he came to visit Kentucky.  I didn’t pay much attention.  I knew he was good at it, but I still didn’t pay much attention.

Then earlier this year, he sent me a message with a link to a website.  The website congratulated him for becoming a Tableau Zen Master…and boy, there wasn’t many of them.  Some rumblings about Tableau at work and Ken’s new Zen Master status started to peak my interest.  I told Ken that I might give it a try and sent me a link to some training videos.  My twin brother, the Tableau Zen Master, sent me a link to someone else’s instructional video!!!! I sent him a text back saying, “Why should I use training videos when I have a freaking Tableau Zen Master as a twin brother?”  He agreed.

On the evening of Monday, February 26, 2018, Ken spent 3 hours teaching me how to get started with Tableau.  Since that day, I was completely and utterly addicted to it.  The design, the story telling, and of course, that gorgeous data!!!  But guess what happened next?  Well, Ken and I started talking about Tableau.  I probably asked a million questions and felt like I was bugging him, but he continued to exclaim, “You’re not bothering me, I LOVE this crap!”.

The questions turned into long conversations about techniques and our current projects, and did you see what Simon Beaumont just posted on Twitter, and did you ever see Adam McCann’s Beatles viz?  But from there it moved into more talk about our lives, stories about his son crushing kids in the pool, me sharing videos of my daughter’s solo in church, and simply sharing our lives like we did when we were 9 years old.

Tableau brought me and my brother, my twin brother, and my best friend back together!

Ken and I talk every day.  We probably average 2 dozen texts per day and at least one phone call per day.  Even though he lives 8 hours away, we are closer than we’ve ever been and I owe it all to Tableau.

Michael: Wow, that is a really great story. Now that you have been working with Tableau for some time now, has any sort of competition developed between the two of you in regards to the data visualizations you create and what you can do with Tableau?

Kevin: Well, that would be like a 10 year old who just won his elementary school 100 yard dash challenging Usain Bolt to a foot race.  He’d smoke me six ways to Sunday.  Right now I’m just his training partner (his very young, green, inexperienced training partner).  He’s been instrumental in my rapid progress within Tableau and I owe so much to him.  Maybe in a couple of years, I may get to the point where I can put up a good fight.

That said, we did recently have a small competition.  Andy Cotgreave put out a challenge on Twitter to recreate the Recaman’s Sequence in Tableau.  I received a text from Ken with a link to Andy’s Recaman’s Sequence challenge. The precious words of my brother read: “I can’t stop thinking about this”. What a nerd! Truth is, within 30 seconds, I was on my computer trying to recreate it myself. (Yeah, I’m a nerd too).  This is where the competition began.  Knowing my abilities with calculations within Tableau are still somewhat limited, I went to what I knew best and worked to create the sequence in Excel with the intention of dropping it into Tableau.  He went straight to Tableau…and the race was on.  We were both successful in visualizing the sequence, his being much more efficient and aesthetically pleasing than mind.  It did, however, lead to a very interesting article that discussed two different approaches to solving the same problem.  It became a very popular article.  At the end of the post, Ken said the following, “Tableau is such an amazing tool. You can quickly and easily create beautiful and insightful charts and dashboards. But the Tableau platform also allows you to do so much more—it’s a data-driven drawing tool. What you can do with it is almost limitless!! If you can imagine it, you can probably visualize it”.

You can read the full article here:  http://www.kenflerlage.com/2018/06/recaman.html

Michael: You recently received the Best New Entrant Award in Tableau’s IronViz for Books and Literature for your The Lorax data visualization. I absolutely loved this data visualization. Can you tell us a bit about your entry, what challenges you faced in Tableau, and lessons you learned in creating this?

Link: https://public.tableau.com/profile/kevin.flerlage#!/vizhome/IronVizEntry-TheLorax/TheLorax

The Lorax

Kevin: I was really excited about entering my first IronViz feeder and had no expectations of competing with the amazing group of people in this community.  That said, I wanted to experience it and challenge myself as I knew it would be a great chance to learn.

One challenge was that I rarely read anything outside of instructional articles and the bible.  I haven’t read a non-fiction book in many years.  I used to listen to a lot of law-based books on tape, but struggled on how I might make a good data visualization about John Grisham.

So my visualization did not start with a good data set or great idea, it started with me trying to find something that simply looked good, that was visually pleasing.  I started looking for good images.  I focused mainly on books that were made into movies knowing that movies would have plenty of visuals.  I tried numerous movies/books like Wicked, Wonder, and several others, but they just didn’t look good.  Then I stumbled across that orange background and that beautiful mustache and I knew I had a something!

I could tell the story of the Lorax in parallel to actual events occurring in our world today, deforestation. 

When I decided on the movie, the topic came easily as I could tell the story of the Lorax in parallel to actual events occurring in our world today, deforestation.  It was perfect as I knew there would be tons of data available as well.

The basic layout came pretty quickly and the first section of donut charts did as well (note that many people do not like donut/pie charts, but I personally love to use them for quick hitting statistics involving percentages).  But when I got to the second portion (The Past), I struggled mightily.  I probably tried a dozen different things before I landed on a dual axis bar and some small multiple line charts.  Sometimes simple is the best.

Within the visualization is a chart showing the disappearance of our trees over time.  I’ll be very honest, I really hated it.  It just never came out the way I wanted it to.  But that was probably the most acclaimed part of my viz.  My brother told me he loved it from the word go and everybody else commented about that chart specifically.

My favorite part of this viz is the bar chart showing animals at risk of extinction.  The chart is a simple dual axis bar chart with animals overlaid.  Although I typically remove all grid lines, the grid lines looked phenomenal in this chart.  It simply came out beautiful.

When I finished this IronViz entry, I couldn’t have been more proud.  I loved the images, that orange background, the simple use of color (blue from the Lorax’s eyes and yellow from his mustache), and solid data visuals.

When I learned I had won 3rd place out of all entries and won Best New Entrant, I was beside myself.  I could not believe it.  I was (and am) so very humbled by this.  It really is a testimony to the intuitive nature of Tableau and how quickly someone can utilize it to create beautiful visualizations.

Michael: You recently entered the second IronViz feeder for Health and Well-Being.  Can you talk about what inspired you to create this viz and how it was created?

Link: https://public.tableau.com/profile/kevin.flerlage#!/vizhome/IronVizEntry-CandyLand/CandyLand

Candyland

Kevin: I work in healthcare, so there were a number of topics that came to mind.  But if you couldn’t already tell, I like to use fun within my visualizations even if they are related to serious subjects.  A colleague and I were talking and we came up with the idea of Candy Land where each stop on the path would drill down to something related to health and wellness.  Later I decided that since it was Candy Land, it should focus solely on sugar and the dangers of eating too much of it.

However, I had one problem, I had absolutely no clue how to allow my game piece to navigate around the board.  I had to have the proof of concept before even beginning to look for data.  I thought that I could use a scatter plot and with some trial and error, plot the points related to the squares I wanted the game piece to land on.  But then I realized that transparent sheets were not yet available which would make this very difficult.

I started digging and found an article from Ryan Sleeper (https://www.ryansleeper.com/how-to-map-any-background-image-in-tableau/) which talks about how you can map a background image with other images overlaid without the need for transparent sheets.  It was EXACTLY what I needed.  I tried it and it worked perfectly.  I then used his annotate trick (in the same article) to find the coordinates of where I wanted my game piece to land, added those points to my spreadsheet, uploaded it, then used a filter to make that same game piece shape seemingly move across the board.  (In reality, I just used the same custom shape at each point and allowed the user to filter between those points).

From there, I wanted the user to be able to click on the spot on the path to jump to a dashboard that presenting data on sugar intake.  That meant I had to find a way to navigate within the dashboard itself.  With a bit of research, I found the following article from Niccolo Cirone on The Data School website: https://www.thedataschool.co.uk/niccolo-cirone/tableau-tip-week-wednesday-creating-dashboard-navigator-buttons/.  It shows you how you can use a custom shape as a chart then use a dashboard filter action to navigate to a different story point tab within that visualization (the key is to allow it to show tabs on either Tableau Public or on Desktop).  Armed with this information, I knew I could create a small custom shape or even just a filled square that matched the color of the spot I wanted the user to click on.  That way you couldn’t see it because it blended in, but you could click on it.  By clicking on it, it would evoke a dashboard action to jump you to a new dashboard.  Each dashboard was developed in this manner and each had back buttons to allow the user to easily go back to the game board.  Navigation was 100% within the game and there was no reason to use the tabs whatsoever (although it was necessary to show them in order for it to work).

I won’t go into the data too much, but one intention of mine was to make the visualization interactive, not only on the game board but within the true data visualizations themselves.  I wanted to do this mainly based on the judges’ feedback of my previous IronViz feeder entry, The Lorax.  This feedback basically stated that he/she wished they could have investigated more, basically saying that The Lorax was somewhat static, and I totally agreed.

The end result was a viz that focused on an important health topic in a very fun and interactive way.  It was a fun one to create and an incredible learning experience.

Michael: Can you tell us three of your favorite Tableau tips and tricks?

Kevin: In the interview you did with my brother, he said that for the first year and a half, he felt like he was “drinking through the firehose”.  This is the exact way that I feel.  I find this question very interesting primarily because everything in Tableau is so new to me that I don’t really know what others would consider a trick or simply as common knowledge.  That said, I will talk about a few tricks and techniques that I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Several of my visualizations have included music. My Seinfeld viz (Kramer’s Lollipop) played the Seinfeld theme as soon as the viz was opened.  My Super Mario Bros viz played music when you pressed start and then changed theme song music as you toggled between Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2, and Super Mario Bros 3.  The former was set up to simply auto-play and the latter was set up with dashboard actions.  The trick, however, isn’t necessarily in how the music is played, but how it is arranged on the dashboard so that it remains unseen.  You place the object near the edge of your dashboard then simply use the Layout tool to move it off of your dashboard.  You’ll still hear the music, you just don’t have to see it!

Kramer's Lollipop Dashboard

  1. After a month of using Tableau, my African Water Crisis viz was honored with viz of the day. I cannot tell you how surprised and excited I was (it was actually my first goal from the time I started using Tableau). What I found most interesting was the overwhelming response to the water bottle chart showing access to clean water per region (shown below).

Filled Shape Chart

Since then, the “filled shape chart” has become my favorite technique/trick and it is so easy!  (It’s so easy, it’s almost disappointing).  Because of the overwhelming response, my brother encouraged me to write a guest blog on his site.  You can read all about that technique here:  http://www.kenflerlage.com/2018/04/filled-shapes.html

 

  1. When creating my Candy Land viz, I used a few resources on the web to determine how to navigate between story point tabs using filter actions. The end result was a seamless way to move from one tab to another by just clicking buttons within each dashboard. There was no need to click on the tabs themselves.  I knew this was possible, but the article from Niccolo Cirone on The Data School website set me loose.  It’s a really great trick to make navigation much cleaner.  https://www.thedataschool.co.uk/niccolo-cirone/tableau-tip-week-wednesday-creating-dashboard-navigator-buttons/

 

Michael: What is missing from Tableau Desktop (don’t include anything that is going to be released with v2018.2) and why do we need it?

Kevin:

  1. Copy/Paste: I would love to see the ability to copy and paste objects and formats. In my African Water Crisis viz, I placed water drops across the viz and the ability to copy and paste those would have been quite handy.  In regards to formats, I typically use very consistent text throughout my visualizations.  I currently have to insert a text box, change the font, change the size, change the alignment, etc., then repeat that process for every other text box.  I would be very efficient if users were able to simply copy and paste the formatting from one text box to another.
  2. Word Wrapping: I often wrap text around words within a viz.  Unfortunately the only way that I know to do this is with hard returns and much trial an error.  Within Microsoft Word, you can set it to wrap text around images.  This would be an awesome feature in Tableau.
  3. Larger Custom Shapes: I admittedly use custom shapes for reasons that they probably were not intended for.  As an example, I used a custom shape of a cloud in my Super Mario Bros viz so that you could hover over the cloud and it would provide further instructions (I did not want text on screen).  Unfortunately, these custom shapes are fairly limited on their size.  I’d like to have the ability to make them larger than I am currently able to make them.
  4. Dashboard Resizing: During the creation of the Lorax viz, I continued to add content and my dashboard got longer and longer.  I had to resize the dashboard 4 times and when you resize the dashboard, all the objects within the dashboard are resized as well.  It can be a very time-consuming endeavor to resize all those objects.  I’d love the ability to lock object sizes so that when you lengthen or widen a dashboard, the objects within that dashboard remain intact.

 

Michael: In watching some of your Vimeo videos, you show that you enjoy good natured humor. Is humor important in how we deal with other people?

Kevin: I grew up shy and was always jealous of people who simply “owned” the room and made others laugh.  Although I might not be the funniest guy in person, my humor translates through my creativity via writing and other media.  A hobby of mine, which I don’t do that often now that I discovered a better one (Tableau), was making movies.  I don’t have superior equipment or lighting, just funny ideas.  A lot of the videos were created as small promotions for church events, but many (especially the Christmas videos) were done just for a laugh.  Feel free to check some of them out on Vimeo page (https://vimeo.com/user41493348).  “Family Disappears” was a huge hit on Facebook, so be sure to check that out and let me know at what point in the video you “get it”.  “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was also a big hit and worth a few minutes of your time.

To answer your question, yes, we often take ourselves so seriously and…well…it’s no fun.  I desperately want to enjoy life and humor is such a big part of that.  You’ll often see me walking down the halls at the office like a duck or smash nose up against a window to make a child laugh.  Within our children’s ministry, a friend and I will do just about anything to make the kids laugh (including eating, or should I say drinking, blended up hot dogs and lemonade as quickly as we can).

I think this attitude is apparent in many of my visualizations such as The Lorax, Candy Land, and Kramer’s Lollipop.  Many of them deal with serious topics, but done in a way to keep them interesting, engaging, and fun.

Kevin the Elf

 

Michael: What is next on your “To Do” list? What can the Tableau community expect to see from you in the near future?

Kevin: I have been asked my numerous people, especially on LinkedIn, to create a blog or videos that explain how I created my visualizations.  I received numerous requests for this when posting my last three visualizations: The Lorax, Super Mario Bros, and Candy Land.  Because of this, I do intend to create a blog…but I would expect that to be well in the future.

I’m still very much a newbie and I have so much to learn about the platform.  I want to improve my ability within Tableau using calculations, bins, and parameters as I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I just want to continue to soak up the wealth of knowledge from such a fantastic and uplifting community and I absolutely cannot wait to meet my idols at the Tableau Conference in October.

In the meantime, I’d expect to see some fun-loving visualizations that help make “non-data” people into data people.

Tableau Public Link: https://public.tableau.com/profile/kevin.flerlage#!/

Tableau Public

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