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Alter Everything Producer, Maddie Johannsen sat down for a chat at the Alteryx London office with the newly crowned Grand Prix champion, Neil Lord!
If you don’t know about the Grand Prix, it’s the legendary analytics competition at Inspire, where participants race to solve challenges in Alteryx. Neil talks about his experience preparing for, competing in, and ultimately winning the title of Grand Prix Champion.
We’re also announcing a competition to create the theme music to be featured on an episode of Alter Everything in 2020! To enter, send us your name, along with a 60 second .mp3 file to email@example.com by December 3, 2019. We’re looking for an original piece, with no vocals, that really captures the spirit of Alter Everything. Download a .pdf of the full contest rules below.
Maddie: [00:00:07] Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Maddie Johannsen and I'm a little jet lagged today, as I just returned from beautiful London, England. While I was there, I staffed our Inspire conference, met with our thriving community, and sat down for a chat with the newly crowned Alteryx Grand Prix champion Neil Lord.
If you don't know about the Grand Prix, it's our legendary analytics competition at Inspire where participants race to solve challenges in Alteryx. I was so excited to find out what was going through Neil's head when he won the Grand Prix, and ultimately left our chat feeling blown away by his humility as we talked about the experience. I think you're really going to enjoy this one, so let's get started.
Oh, and be sure to stay tuned until the end as we have a special announcement to make.
[00:00:58] To kick off our conversation, I asked Neil who he is and about his origin story.
Neil: [00:01:01] So I'm LordNeilLord of the Community. I'm currently a data and analytics manager at a company called ClarusONE.
I've always been into data, from my very first job when I left college, I stumbled into a data entry job where I had to do basically lots of repetitive tasks. So I got really bored of that really, really quickly. So I just started on this kind of journey of, hey, how can I automate my job? How can I make my life easier? So I went through the whole kind of process of being really good at Excel, learning how to code in VPA, learning about of SQL scripting.
And that really carried me for quite a number of years. You know, I was able to move up the progression just by being able to be good with Excel and be the Excel guy who knows how to do everything. I was the only person in the office who could do a VLOOKUP without looking at the instructions and get it right the first time.
So I spent a long time doing that and I wasn't really, I wasn't really going anywhere. And then a couple of years ago, I heard about the Data School, which is run by the Information Lab. Just as a chance, I thought, I'm going to apply for that and give it a go. So I applied and I was successful, I got into the Data School.
And this is where the acceleration of my career really started because the training that they gave us in Tableau and Alteryx really opened my mind to the kind of possibilities that we could do with data, all of the complex things that we could do. So, and that's where it all started.
And I fell in love with Alteryx straight away. This is the software for me. This is how I think. It's how I like to process data. Forget coding, forget any of that. You know, I can visually see how the data is being transformed. And that was it, I just fell in love straight away. And I thought to myself, I've got to learn this product, I want to be good with this piece of software.
Maddie: [00:03:26] Well, it's interesting when you say, when you started playing around with Alteryx and you thought, this is how I think - how do you think?
Neil: [00:03:37] I'm more visual than writing code. I mean, I have written code in the past, but it's a long drawn out process and you never really sure what you doing - Well, I was never really sure, I’m a terrible coder.
So you know, being able to see the steps and the logical processes that you go through, it's just how I kind of think. I'm never thinking, oh, I'm starting with this and I know I've got to end up with this and I know exactly what I'm going to do to get to that.
It's always that incremental change towards the goal. So you'd put the first tool on and you run it, you think about it and then that's not quite right or you want to change it - that's much more how I approach situations and particularly the data process, it's very incremental.
And that allows you to be flexible, you can change your mind, you can explore options as well. Sometimes you might go down the wrong route, but that can open up other ways of working, which is so it's really interesting. It's really cool to just be able to be flexible and to play around.
Whereas when you code, I find myself get locked into a path and you have to complete it in that path, and it's really inflexible. So yeah, Alteryx really changes that for me. It really allows me to be creative with what I'm doing and how I approach a problem.
Maddie: [00:05:15] One of the best things about the grand Prix is that most people can enter before every inspire. Our grand Prix team puts out an announcement that everyone waits for, that calls for grand Prix participants. Once you throw your hat in the ring, there are a series of preliminary challenges that you must face to really determine the best of the best. The finalists of the prelims are then selected to be on stage at Inspire.
Neil: [00:05:36] Yeah, I had originally seen the blog post, and I thought, ah, you know, I might give it, you know, it might just. Give a premium scope cause even the, you know, the opportunities to do different challenges, different Alteryx workflows, you know, every opportunity is a good opportunity.
So I thought, oh yeah, but I had kind of forgotten about it. And then someone from Alteryx actually emailed me and said, “Hey, have you ever thought about taking part?” And I was like, yeah, I'm just going to sign up, take part and just go from there.
So, yeah, I haven't planned to, to do it. I mean the other factor that kind of drove me to do it was Philip Mannering who won the US Grand Prix, he sits opposite of me at work so he's often talking about how we won the Grand Prix and what a legend he is at Alteryx. So I thought I should at least give it a go and see if I can rival him.
Maddie: [00:06:35] Neil has been on my list of dream podcast guests for a while now, as he's always been a top contributor on the Community, and it is well known in the analytics world. So it really wasn't a surprise to me that he made it to the Grand Prix main stage at Inspire. But actually Neil had different thoughts when I asked him what was running through his head when he found out he was going to compete.
Neil: [00:06:52] So first off, I was surprised that I even made it to the Grand Prix after doing the prelims. I gave it a good shot and I thought, you know what, I've done pretty well. I wasn't confident that I would make it through to the final four on the stage. So first off, it was a real shock that I actually made it to the final four, so yeah, I kind of, I was in a bit of denial and thought, wow, you know, it's ages away, I don't have to think about it for now. And then all of a sudden it's right around the corner.
So I kind of got in a bit of a panic mode. I thought, I had better do some practice for this. This is going to be a big opportunity and there's going to be lots of people watching me. So I suppose I better brush my skills up a little bit. And so just to practice for that, I went through all of the weekly challenges that were Grand Prix related or spatial or predictive. In my job, I don't do either predictive or spatial. So those are tools that are really somewhat alien to me. I have used them before and I understand how to use them, but not having done them in a kind of day to day environment, it's really hard to then pick them up again and be confident with how you're using them.
So I really focused myself on spatial and predictive and for the first time ever, I actually looked in the sample workflows. I've never thought to do this before, but the sample workflows, so you get in Alteryx are really, really good and they really make it clear on how the tools work. And I’m really surprised. I've never come across those resources before.
And traditionally I've always got on Google, you know, if you can't find the answer, jump straight on Google. And that's how I found the community. That's how the community came around because it was, you have a problem, you Google it, look on the community, someone's got the answer.
So that's been my previous learning experience, has just been the weekly challenges and community, but then to come across the sample workflows, absolutely fantastic resource. I would absolutely recommend everyone to to go through those and just have a look at them and, and you will find things in there that you never thought were available or any tools that you're really struggling with, have a look at the sample workflows because you can guarantee the answer will be sitting there right in front of you. And obviously ask the questions on Community as well, because that always helps everyone else.
Maddie: [00:09:40] I would say to try to answer questions on the Community as well
Neil: [00:09:42] Yeah, that's a really big thing. And I can't remember when it was, but I remember looking at a post, and a question had been posted and I just happened to be on there and I thought, “Oh, I can answer that. I feel confident to answer that question.” And so I did, and I got marked that it was the right answer. All of a sudden you're like, Oh, well, I wonder if I can answer anymore.
You just kind of get sucked into this world of answering questions in the community. And for me it's great because I remember what it was like when I was first learning the product and how difficult the learning curve can be in some areas. So to have, people out there who are willing to commit their time and help get you over that learning curve so you can go on your own journey. It's really fantastic.
I mean, you know, people like a MarqueeCrew, when I first started, they were invaluable resources. You know, he was always there answering the questions. It was absolutely fantastic. It, it helped me out a lot and really appreciative of, of people in the community and everything they do on the, everyone who commits their free time to do this. It's absolutely fantastic.
Maddie: [00:11:17] as a Grand Prix champion, you have to be pretty well versed and all things Alteryx, you know, spatial, predictive, macros, all that good stuff. So I wanted to know what Neil really would say that he specializes in.
Neil: [00:11:50] For me, it's about task automation.
And I think that comes from back from what I was saying earlier about my job where I had to do really boring data entry. So I started automating it, and I think that's where that passion came from. And Alteryx enables me to do that, but on a much bigger scale, I can automate tasks and I can help the business that we work with to get those really boring, repetitive jobs that they do day in, day out and almost like, we'll just do this in Alteryx.
We’ll just crunch it all together and we'll produce the output that takes you a day to manually, but we can do it in 10 seconds in Alteryx. That's the thing that really excites me.
Last night I was just about to leave work and I had to do a job where I wanted to copy lots of tables from one database to another. I asked around to see if anyone had an automatic, you know, maybe a SQL script or something that I could run and no one had it. So I just build a batch macro that could do that.
It took me probably an hour to put the macro together, and 10 minutes for the macro to run. So a job that if I hadn't found that I probably would’ve spent the next, well, I'd still be doing it now. I'd still be manually copying the data across. And that's the thing that really excites me about, about Alteryx is, how can I do these jobs easily?
I'm less of an analyst, and I'm not a data scientist. I wouldn't put myself in those categories. I'm definitely more interested in “let's make life easier for everyone.” Um, I'm also really interested in the kind of stability and scalability of platform as well. So we have a lot of analysts where I work, we also have the business and what I'm trying to aspire to is that we have a platform that is stable, we can scale it, we don't get errors from our workflows.
Well, if we do, we have the appropriate methods to alert us so we can fix them. See again, what I'm really interested in - it's that kind of standardization, the scalability of the product. Those are the real interest areas for me at the moment.
Maddie: [00:13:49] Clearly you can tell that Neil really values his time. It seems like a classic trait of people in analytics. You know, they're tired of the mundane tasks that keep them from doing work that really excites them.
Neil: [00:14:05] I get bored really quickly. So having the, “how can I do this job so I don't get bored?” Teaches you so much more and opens your mind up to so many more possibilities. So in itself, the fact that I don't want to do these repetitive tasks, so I go out and find a, an answer that can do it, It teaches you a lot and see if she time and then gives you more time to, to learn other new things or to find out the tasks that are really boring and no one wants to do anything.
Oh, I'm like, Oh, I can do that. I can learn how to do that.
Maddie: [00:14:48] So tell me about what it was like backstage at the Grand Prix.
Neil: [00:14:53] It was, I thought I was going to be really nervous backstage. I thought I was just going to be a bag of nerves. But actually there's so much going on that you don't really have time to be nervous cause Cailin (@CailinS) you know, she's really helping you get ready. She's just reiterating all the rules, the complicated pit stop rules.
She's really good at getting us organized, getting us in the right place, making sure we understood everything that was going on in briefing our pit crew on how they're allowed to help us and when they're around how to help us. So backstage was kind of a bit of a calm before the storm.
I had been nervous earlier in the day but I had relaxed a little bit with everything going on. But yeah, so Cailin does a great job of organizing everything, you know, she really made sure we were prepped and ready to go and understood everything and even standing in the right place at the right time in the right order. So, you know, all of those things that you kind of worry about, well, how will I know when to go up on stage? You know, I've forgotten all the pit stop rules. She was always there, you know, helping us, reiterating, making us feel as comfortable as you can be in that situation.
Maddie: [00:16:15] For those who haven't seen the grand Prix at inspire, it truly is a sight to behold. Picture this: there's a giant head shot of yourself up on screen. You're wearing matching tee shirts with your buddy who's serving as your pit crew to assist you at key points throughout the competition. There's bright, hot stage lighting shining down on you.
Everything that you're doing in Alteryx as being displayed on a screen behind you. Oh, and there's thousands of data enthusiasts also standing in front of you, cheering you on as you build your workflow. To enter a competition like this, you have to be ready for the adrenaline - or at least have a beer onstage with you to help take the edge off.
Neil: [00:16:52] It was kind of amazing, really. And the people I was up against, you know, I was, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't win, you know, the other people on the stage were also amazing, such, you know, quality users of Alteryx. So I was, yeah, I wasn't even sure it was going to get very far with it. So, going into the last round, I had to wait 30 seconds because I'd been in second position the round before, so, you know, sort of sitting in there was thinking, wow, about 30 seconds. Tim, who had won the previous round, he's obviously going to just get the answer straight away.
Then as Tom's going on and I get to start and I'm trying as fast as I can and the nerves are there and I can't type, I’d forgotten where all the tools are and I can't find anything that I actually want to use. So I was just kind of going through the motions of dragging the tools on.
I knew what I was, I had a plan on what I was going to do. Um, and I just carried on going. I was just going until someone says, stop, really. And I'd gotten to the point where I'd done everything. So the last stop is just to plug the workflow into the macro and see if it gave me the right answer and no one had announced it. I just went for it. I wasn't even sure if I had the right answer. I didn't even check it. I just thought, I'm just going to go for it. And you know, press play, watch the screen. It brought up success that I've got the right answer. And then I saw the flag next to me waving and in that moment I was just, I couldn't believe it.
Neil: [00:18:49] And the crowd just erupted. It was an unbelievable moment. I was so, so happy that I got through and I'd actually made it, made it all the way to the end. It's such an exhilarating moment, you know, and it's almost the reward for all the hard work that you've done over the last few years. The times you've gone home tired and you open up your laptop and you've done more work, or you've been sitting at home on the weekend, with people out there doing stuff and you're there on the laptop, you know, learning and trying to better yourself.
And I must say as well, thank you to Ben Moss for his pit crew. He was invaluable on the stage. He really gave me the guidance when and where I needed it to be able to do it. And I would say to anyone else doing it in the future, get a good pit crew. Get someone you know and you like, because they are crucial to success.
Maddie: [00:19:53] Yeah. I'm sure that relationship has to be pretty solid. You know, having somebody that knows your style of how you do things and will help you along in that style because everybody has a different way of doing it
Neil: [00:20:11] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, so good pit crew is definitely part of the part of the winning factor.
Maddie: [00:20:18] Yeah. That's great. Yeah, that would be such an exciting feeling, you know, to see the flag and to hear the crowd cause you don't hear anything while you're on stage, so when you took off the headphones and you just heard everybody
Neil: [00:20:31] Absolutely. And you, yeah, the noise canceling headphones, just kill everything. I had my music quite loud as well. So I really couldn't hear anything that was going on. And you get a little bit of peripheral vision and obviously you can see the crowd out in front of you. So kind of out of the corner of my eyes, saw the flag being waved and then out in front, you see the crowd erupt, and that's the first indication that you get that you've done it, and then you rip the headphones off, jumping around and it was a great moment.
Maddie: [00:21:03] What kind of music were you listening to?
Neil: [00:21:05] I was listening to Aphex Twin, actually. And if you don't know Aphex Twin, um, it's quite loud. I would describe it as maybe glitch music. It was the sort of music I like it cause it got me a bit fired up and pumped up. It definitely cuts out anything, you can't hear anything else when you're listening to that.
But also I do find it in some way quite relaxing when you're doing data cause it's just, it's almost like background noise, but it is quite loud at the same time. Yeah, it's maybe not everyone’s cup of tea for the music while they're listening to it. I find mostly when I'm under pressure or when I've got tight deadline and I'm like really trying to get through and I just want to get on a concentrate, things like Metallica - quite heavy music actually suits my style of working. If I've got to work fast or I've got to work under pressure, something heavier for me is much better than kind of serene, chill out music for sure. I think it's just what motivates you to get on and get cracking, cut the world out and just having loud music. Obviously loud music does help with cutting out any distractions that might be, might be around you at the time.
Maddie: [00:22:23] Well speaking of distractions, I would imagine those bright lights that are on you on stage like that were totally…
Neil: [00:23:49] Yeah. And it's, it's quite hard on the stage as well. And you're nervous and whilst you can see the room, but because of the lights, you can just see the front kind of couple of rows of people. But even then, you know, you can see what they're doing, sitting and talking to each other. And that in itself is distracting. So you try and just kind of box yourself into looking at the screen. Um, but yeah, I'm always kind of looking around and looking up
Maddie: [00:23:00] For sure. It'd be hard not to.
Neil: [00:23:01] Yeah. You want to kind of see what's going on then. I have much appreciation now having been in the crowd, watching people on the stage and thinking, Oh, it's so easy that, Oh, you know, I was just that it's some obvious what the answer is. When you're on the stage and you're doing it under the pressure, it's not obvious and the nerves kick in and you forget everything. You forget everything you've ever been taught about the product. Yeah. I'm not even sure I know what this software is, and you just have this kind of natural reaction of just dragging things onto the canvas almost like muscle memory.
Maddie: [00:23:49] This grand Prix win is obviously huge. And you said you sit next to Phillip. So do you have the trophy?
(Narrating) Oh yeah. You also get a trophy if you win.
Neil: [00:23:53] I don't have it yet. I think we've agreed that we'll drink tea out of them every tea break. Obviously take them to meetings. Take it on the tube. Sit next to it. Tuck it up in bed…
Maddie: [00:24:23] That's it. That's awesome. Yeah.
(Narrating) Besides displaying the trophy next to Phillip Mannering’s, I asked Neil what's next for him.
Neil: [00:24:26] So I think what’s next to me is back to work. I'm really busy at work at the moment, so that's almost a welcome distraction of, you know, get back to normality, get my work done. I'll be looking forward to using the holiday voucher that I got as part of my prize.
So that's going to be really awesome to have a, a nice break next year. Go somewhere sunny so I can get some sun, that'll be really exciting. In terms of a future Alteryx. I don't know at the moment. For next few months, I'm just going to carry on as normal and just take it from there.
There's constant jokes around the office that me and Phillip should do a head to head, you know, champion versus champion. I don't even want to go up against Phillip. I know he'll beat me. So maybe one day. And then, I'm actually really looking forward to going to Inspire US next year, this will be my first US Inspire. So I'm really looking forward to that. Might try to enter the Grand Prix again. But, I honestly don't want to do that experience again, not for a while it was nerve wracking enough to do at once.
Again, it's a lot of pressure, but it's well worth doing. I would say if you, if you think you want to have a go at it, just have a go at it, cause you never know. I didn't know. I ended up winning.
Maddie: [00:26:03] Great. Have you ever been to the States before?
Neil: [00:26:05] No, I haven't. I've never gone to the States before so. Yeah, that'll be my first trip to the States and to Inspire as well is going to be good.
Maddie: [00:26:13] Well, and having it in New Orleans, I think that's going to be a really cool experience too for your first trip to the states. I've actually never been to New Orleans myself, but I have heard just incredible things, so I can't wait to go. There's just so much history there.
Neil: [00:26:25] Absolutely. Yeah. Really, really looking forward to it. saving my pennies now.
Maddie: [00:26:33] To close our conversation, I asked Neil for his Community Picks: resources for additional learning that could help catapult you to the main stage of the Grand Prix next year.
Neil: [00:26:42] So, are two things on the Community I think everyone should look at. The first one is if you use Gallery at all, if you use Server, there's a Server 101 post on the Gallery. There's two parts to it, and it is amazing. It's so well written and constructed and really makes it easy.
I'm a Server admin for our company and when I first started, I had no idea about Server and this post just saved my life. It really makes it awesome and you know, makes server an easy thing to use if you've not experienced it before. So I'd call out that one.
The other one I was thinking about was the Tool Mastery posts that, I didn't think that a lot of people look at that often. But those, again, you know, they're written by users, then they're, they're not technical descriptions of how to use the tools. They are real user blogs on how to be good at each of the tools. I would say for anyone to check those out. If you're wanting to know how to use a tool, look at the sample workflows about that tool, and also read the tool mastery posts on the community because they are absolutely phenomenal resources.
Maddie: [00:30:34] For more on the Grand Prix, check out our show notes where we link to a recap blog as well as the full video of the competition. You can also reminisce on the Inspire experience by searching #Alteryx19 on Twitter.
Oh, and about that special announcement I mentioned earlier, we’re announcing a competition to create the theme music to be featured on an episode of Alter Everything in 2020! To enter, send us your name, along with a 60 second .mp3 file to firstname.lastname@example.org by December 3, 2019.
We’re looking for an original piece, with no vocals, that really captures the spirit of Alter Everything. For full contest rules, check out community.alteryx.com/podcast
This episode of Alter Everything was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ).