“Combining Math, Art, and Technology: Roles in Data Visualization”: Michelle Maraj, Senior Business Intelligence Manager at Gigpro (Video + Transcript)

December 27, 2023

What is data visualization, and what types of jobs are available? In this ELEVATE session, Michelle Maraj (Senior Business Intelligence Manager at Gigpro) will share her career path in data viz, and how she became a Tableau developer. She will talk about how to build a data viz portfolio and get your own internship / job.


In this session, Michelle Maraj discusses the importance of data visualization and how it can be applied to any job. She uses the example of her travel blog to demonstrate how data points can be interpreted differently depending on the context provided. Michelle also discusses various job roles in data visualization, such as dashboard developer, data analyst, and journalist, and highlights five key skills for data visualization designers: data skills, statistics, knowledge of tools, design skills, and storytelling skills.


Michelle Maraj: Thank you so much. And thank you everybody for choosing to join my session today. Really appreciate taking your time to join me.

Well, I’ll get into a little bit more detail about my history in the field, but before we get started, I did want to give an introduction as far as why data visualization is important and why it can really be applied to any job. And so even though there are some roles out there, I personally am in a role that does center around data visualization, I do believe there is a very cross-disciplinary skill that you can build that can be really contributional to nearly any type of career.

So thinking about why data visualization is important, an example I want to use today is my travel blog. I personally love to travel. It’s one of my favorite, I guess, hobbies, and I did have a travel blog for a few years. So if I was looking at the statistics on my blog, I noticed that in March 2023 I had 16,000 views. So when I give you this data point, this is one piece of data, one row of information, you don’t necessarily know what to do with it. Is 16,000 a lot? Is that a little? What exactly are you trying to tell me? And so even though data can be valuable, it’s not going to be actionable unless you provide additional context around that data point.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to put it into a data visualization and show you that, compared to last month, I am seeing a slight increase in the views on my blog. So you can see that in March 2023, I had 16,000 views, compared to February, I had maybe 15,000. So this would be a great visualization to show the steady growth in my blog over time. And maybe I want to make the argument that we need to invest in more writers or we need to start making more posts because travel blogging is improving, people are getting more interest in the blog.

However, if I look a little bit further back and expand my dataset, and compare it to, say, March year over year, what I might find is that the 16,000 is really great compared to, say, 2022. But compared to March 2019, my views have actually dropped quite a bit. You know, we had the COVID pandemic and so a lot of people were not traveling as much and not really looking at travel blogs as frequently.

So there are a few different arguments you can make here. You might say that travel blogging is slowly coming back, and so, again, we can still make that investment. Or maybe the story we want to tell is we want to pivot niches. Instead of focusing on travel, because we’re not reaching our full potential here, maybe we want to go into lifestyle or cooking or things like that. And so it’s really tricky because, again, it’s the same data points, the data is correct and accurate, but the data visualization that I show tells a completely dramatically different story.

And the question is, which is the chart that I should show? So that’s why data visualization skills are so important, because it comes down to that designer, that analyst, to make these different types of decisions. Depending on what type of story that you want to tell, you can, I want to say manipulate the chart to show that. And so, again, the data is accurate, but choosing what type of data to show and when and how just completely changes your story. Again, it’s really tricky to tell what type of chart, because both would be correct in this scenario. It just depends on what you’re trying to say.

So data visualization is so important because, no matter what role or industry you’re in, you’re going to be using data and you’re going to have to communicate in some way. And so your data vis skills is really that art of figuring out what’s the right format, what’s the right data, and getting it to the right person. And so making sure that you have that right context so that your story is understood.

So today in this talk, I do want to go through my experience in the field of data vis, what jobs exist, what skills you need if you’re interested in pursuing a career in data vis, and then how to build a portfolio. So for me personally, again, my name is Michelle Maraj and I am a full-time dashboard developer. And so what that means is that my users are people within our company who are looking at data, and so I’ll put together a type of view where people can go in and really look up data that’s relevant to them, whether that’s filtering down to certain market or region or maybe pivoting the data in a way that makes sense for their role.

So in my role at Gigpro, I do Tableau dashboard development where I support teams across a variety of different departments. And so that’s marketing, sales, operations, finance. It is a startup, and so we are helping build dashboards for pretty much anybody who needs data. Before that, I was working at Lyft, again doing Tableau dashboard development, but specifically for finance. And then prior to Lyft, I was in consulting where we were building dashboards for pretty much anybody who needed it.

I did not study data visualization in school. My background is in information system. So I did have that data background, but a of the stuff that I learned was actually on the job through consulting. As I was practicing those skills, it’s something that I started developing. So I love talking about data visualization. I think it’s just such a cool field to be in.

What jobs are there in data visualization? Now, I mentioned that data vis skills are going to be helpful across a variety of roles and industries, but if you are super, super passionate about it, like I am, there are a couple of jobs where it is going to be a much larger portion. So I mentioned being a dashboard developer. So a dashboard is, again, a view where people can interact with data, and so it is sort of a user experience development type role. I personally use the tool Tableau, but there are also similar tools such as Power BI, Looker, Data Studio. It really just depends on what the company is using and what tool you’ll need, but that would be dynamic report building.

Another different type of role that is really going to use data vis skills is going to be either a data analyst or a business analyst. And so you’ll find these types of roles, again, across nearly any industry or department. So if you have an interest in, say, fashion or home goods, you can probably find an analyst role in those different niches and really drill down into data related to those. And so as an analyst, typically what you’re going to do is you’re going to be responsible for pulling data out of a system, cleaning it, manipulating it, and then presenting any findings. And so typically, with an analyst role, you are creating static visualizations that are going to go into maybe a report or a presentation.

Another area where we see a lot of data vis skills being used is with journalism. Though you might have seen, maybe, infographics online, or even a lot of articles that are starting to incorporate charts to help better communicate stories. So I think that the journalism field is one of those where it’s growing quite a bit as far as thinking about how we can incorporate data into communicating a little bit better. And so those are three main different types of roles that you can look for if you are interested in a data vis role. But again, there are lots of other jobs where you’ll probably use data vis skills in them.

So if you think that the field of data visualization is interesting, let’s say, for me personally, I grew up loving technology, loving my computer loving video games. I considered being a graphic designer. I also really like math. If you’re interested, I think that data vis is one of those fields that really just combines all of those different types of interests. And so if you are interested in pursuing a career where you’re really using data vis skills, what kind of background would you need, or what could you work on to improve?

So I think that there are really five key skills that will help you be a really strong data visualization designer. So the first skill that’s really helpful to have is data skills. So knowing SQL, understanding data vis, figuring out how to get data out of different systems, how to manipulate it for analysis is going to be really, really valuable. Because no matter what type of tools you end up needing to use to create your data visualizations, you’re probably going to have to format your data into some form so that way you can get it into the tool in a way that you can create your visuals. So having that data background is going to be really helpful.

Then you’re going to want to think about statistics. So I didn’t necessarily… I’m not a data scientist, you don’t necessarily need to know how to do regressions by hand or anything like that. But having that background, depending on the type of role that you have, can be very beneficial to create either really complicated data visualizations or really just help you summarize your data better. Because with data vis, you are summarizing data points. And so thinking back to school when we had to figure out the differences between mean, median, and mode, and trying to figure out which of those is going to be the most effective, those are the types of decisions that you will make as a data visualization designer. How you want to aggregate your information and what types of summarizations are going to be the most accurate and the most valuable.

Then you’re going to want to think about what tools you’re going to use. And so this is going to really vary across different companies. I mentioned that I’m a Tableau developer, and so Tableau is my area of expertise, and I’ve really built a lot of Tableau skills. But, if you’re interested in, say, maybe a specific company, not every company is going to use Tableau. And so what I do recommend is looking at job postings for the companies they’re interested in and seeing what types of tools they’re currently using. Because even if I go to a company that doesn’t use Tableau, and I can’t always convince them to purchase it because that’s a pretty big investment, and so making sure that you either are building skills in a tool that companies are interested and use, or making sure that you can be flexible in the skills that you’re building.

So, for example, being flexible between Excel or G Sheets is going to be really valuable because a lot of companies will use one of those. But then also thinking about, even if you are a Tableau expert, at least being familiar with maybe how Power BI works could be helpful in your job search.

Then coming back down to it, we’re looking at design skills, and so thinking about how to make your charts visually appealing. Because if you think about, say, Excel, you can create a chart in Excel and it’s going to give you some type of basic chart, but what are the chances of you leaving the chart the way it is? You’re probably going to want to make some edits to it, whether you’re cleaning it up or moving chart junk, changing the colors, things like that. And so understanding different design elements will make your charts more visually appealing.

And then finally, storytelling skills. And so it comes back down to understanding your audience and understanding how you’re going to need to communicate your data is going to be helpful so that way you can communicate it the most effective way. Some of your users might like a dashboard where they can interact and drill down, but others are going to need a presentation or a printout of the data. And so knowing how people are going to consume your information is going to be really valuable so that you can put together the best visual for them.

So how do you practice your skills if you’re interested in this field? I do think that you can read books, take courses, and then, honestly, it just comes down to practicing, as I said. So, if you’re interested in different vis books, these are some of my favorites that I would highly recommend. So across the top, Alberto Cairo is one of my favorite authors that really gets into the psychology of how we are, how we read charts, how we interact with data and art. So love, love, love all of his books.

If you are going to be creating static charts, and so whether that’s charts that you’d put in a report or presentation, Storytelling with Data by Cole Knaflic is a wonderful resource with a lot of really, really practical tips. Nathan Yau’s Data Points is another book. He’s a data journalist, and so that’s a great example of how you can use data vis to communicate stories. And then Steven Few’s book Information Dashboard Design is one of my favorites if you are building dashboards where people are expected to interact with your data and drill down. So love all of these different books.

As far as courses go, again, there’s lots of free resources online. I know that with Tableau specifically, Tableau does have their videos online and free so you can follow along. So I recommend that.

But then when it comes down to practicing, this can get tricky because you think, where do I find data? How do I practice? Coming up with the case studies can sometimes be the hardest part, so I do recommend different community driven programs such as Makeover Monday. So you can Google this, but what they do is it’s a group of volunteers that find a chart that could use some help, or, essentially, a makeover, and they’ll share the chart, share the dataset, and then it gives the community an opportunity to try and recreate the chart. And so this is really great because not only do you have data to work with, but you can also see what other people are creating and get some ideas and inspiration from that.

So creating a portfolio. So let’s say you have been practicing, you’ve been building those skills, and now you want to share your work with the world. And so, again, a portfolio is going to be really, really valuable if you are interested in pursuing a career in data visualization. And so, for me, as a Tableau dashboard developer, I like to show examples of my Tableau dashboards because that shows the employer that I’m telling the truth on my resume and I do know how to create these visualizations and I can really show off my skills. So if you are looking at a specific tool like Tableau, you can use Tableau Public where you can post your dashboards and essentially build up your portfolio that way.

You can also use social media. And so you can use LinkedIn, or there’s actually a really big data vis community on Twitter, and you can essentially build up your portfolio by posting screenshots of your work or links to your work across those different types of platforms. Also, I personally have a personal website where I’ll put my visualizations and it’s called TheChelleCurve.com. I believe there’s a link in my profile here in the chat. But, essentially, what I do is I have a blog where I will post, well conferences that I’ve been to, but also some of the work that I’ve done as far as data vis creations, and I’ll put a little bit more detail as far as either how I got the data set or why I made certain design decisions. And so I built my website on WordPress, but again, there’s a lot of great resources out there.

And if building a website’s a little bit too intimidating, that’s totally fine. You can also put together just a Word DOC or a PDF of your work, and then you can upload that to either a job application, typically there’s room to upload additional materials, or you can upload it to, say, your LinkedIn, and that way people can see your work that way.

So if you are interested in this field of data visualization, a couple of things to remember from today is that, again, data visualization is such a valuable skill to have, especially in this tech world. However, with all of the data we collect, data is only going to be helpful if you can get it into the right format in the right hands. And so if you are presenting, say, a chart to a CEO, if he’s only going to read your emails, he’s not necessarily going to visit a dashboard and spend the time to drill down, then you need to make sure that you are summarizing the data and putting it in a format that they can read.

And then, again, data vis can be valuable to any rule. Data literacy skills are going to be valuable no matter what type of industry you’re in. And so, again, highly recommend at least freshening up on those skills. But if you are interested in pursuing a career in data vis, you just continue to learn, read those resources, practice, build a portfolio, and that way you can show future employers the work that you’ve done and what you’ve been working on.

So, again, thank you so much for attending my presentation today. If you want to connect, my name is Michelle Maraj. This is my website. Thank you, Beth, for sharing the chat the link. And then I can also… Happy to connect on LinkedIn or answer any questions there. Thank you again and hope y’all have a great afternoon.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Michelle. That was a really great talk and we’re going to end the session and go to the next one. So thanks everyone.

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