Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
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Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

LaShell Estes and Jay Harter are cornerstones of analytics culture at WestRock, one of the largest paper and packaging companies in the world. Hyper focused on efficiency and automation, they share strategies they’ve used to implement Alteryx across the organization. 







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Episode Transcription

MADDIE 00:00

Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Maddie Johannsen, and my guests today are both from WestRock, one of the biggest names in the packaging industry. My two guests are LaShell Estes.


You ever open a code and you're like, "What?" I mean, me, I don't have an IT background. So--

MADDIE 00:21

Me neither.


--I look at it, and I'm like, "Yeah. Okay, this is totally a different language."

MADDIE 00:27

And Jay Harter.

JAY 00:28

We're really just trying to give people a tool so they can think about Alteryx in different ways and use it like it's meant to. And it's such a flexible kind of Swiss army knife.

MADDIE 00:38

Talking with Jay and LaShell felt like one of those watercooler talks where you're chatting with somebody completely honest who shares not only the exciting things, but they also aren't afraid to share some challenges. I bet this episode will resonate with a lot of you listening out there. So let's get started.


My name is LaShell Estes. I am a senior manager on our finance innovation team. A big part of what my role is at WestRock is to help the finance department be as efficient as possible by leveraging technology. So Alteryx has been pretty much amazing tool at our organization for finance.

MADDIE 01:17

Awesome. That's great to hear. And I have a lot of follow-up questions, so definitely excited to get into that more. And Jay, let's have you introduce yourself.

JAY 01:26

Sure. I'm Jay Harter. I'm a senior manager of self service analytics here at WestRock, and we try to help folks by enabling them with Alteryx, upskilling them, making sure the lights stay on on the server, all that fun stuff. We also run an analytics center of excellence to try to get all these like-minded analytics folks together in one room to talk about what's going on, so.

MADDIE 01:48

Awesome. It sounds like in general, LaShell, from the finance department, you definitely have a department focus with being in finance. And then Jay, my understanding is that you are promoting that self service analytics throughout the company as a whole. Is that right?

JAY 02:06

Yeah, that sounds about right. My role is more enterprise wide, and there's probably a lot of overlap there, at least with the finance department. I'll let LaShell speak to her part.


No. Yeah. I think I was kind of like the first person that brought Alteryx to WestRock. So originally, it started with me trying to get anybody and everybody in the organization, and then we transitioned that. And Jay's role was created-- or Jay's team really was created where IT kind of took on a whole initiative around providing self service analytics to the organization so that we have a more unified approach. And then my job is really to do that for our finance organization, which is pretty large. It's about 1,200 people, so really, that's what we do. But Jay has got 50,000 people. So he's-- [laughter].

MADDIE 03:04


JAY 03:05

Yeah, not quite. We do have 50,000 employees, but yeah. So LaShell was key in getting Alteryx kicked off here at WestRock, which is no easy feat. Things take forever to get off the ground and through our legal and procurement and whatnot. So LaShell took us through our first adoption program with Alteryx. And then we took a step back and looked at it as more of an enterprise tool, although most of the users at that time were finance users, but we wanted to make sure it was available for a wider array of users across all business units.

MADDIE 03:37

Yeah. Wow, that's a lot of associates to get ramped up. And I think starting with building that analytics culture, you guys have done a lot of really great things to make it fun and help build that excitement. As you said, it's always a process with an enterprise that large to get things through all of the hoops that you have to jump through to adopt something. And so once you get to that stage, then you're at the part where, how do we get individuals to sign on, and how do we get individuals excited about this new platform? And so I'm sure a lot of our listeners would love to hear ways that you've helped build prescriptive training for different departments or celebrated success stories and just cool ways that you've really helped drive this analytics culture at WestRock.

JAY 04:29

Yeah. LaShell, when you guys first started, how do you get so many people interested so quickly? Was it just word of mouth, or?


I think when I first started, I was actually in the tax department. And so because of the partnership Alteryx had with Thomson Reuters and ONESOURCE, it was a really great tool for us to leverage aggregating data from multiple sources to help the tax department be efficient. But obviously, when you start with one team here at WestRock, you have to get legal; you have to get all these approvals. That's when you started to see-- I think we got a new person, a lead person in HR that was familiar with Alteryx, and it really just started to snowball. And we got key representatives from each team so HR, tax, even internal audit accounting. And then from there, once we had some interest, we kind of piloted the server. And really, a big piece of it was just starting the interest and showing people like, "Hey, this is cool. Let me show you what it can do."


And so we did a lot of different road shows around the organization and just got people way more excited. And so once we sign on with Alteryx, they had basically a person where WestRock was our account, and he would come and set up different workshops with different teams. So once we saw someone was interested, we did multiple different workshops where he met with those teams, went over the tools, and then worked on specific processes and projects. We also even did core training, so it was like tax. And then we reached out to other people to say, okay, we're going to pay for three days of-- I think Data [inaudible] was the team or partner that we used at the time to come in and basically prep everybody for three days. And the goal was for those individuals to go get a core certification, because if we were going to do it for 5, we might as well do it for 50. That was also one of the first things that we did when we were trying to mass train the tax department. And my job for finance is to say, yeah, Jay created all this training. How can we target it and now, say, come out with specific processes and specific savings so that the finance organization can actually see the dollar amount?

MADDIE 07:04

Awesome. Yeah, that's really cool. That sounds like such a cool partnership. Jay, I'd love to hear from your perspective what that has looked like.

JAY 07:13

Yeah, I think LaShell said it well. A lot of what we're doing is, like I said, enablement upskilling. So we'll do things like we'll have regular training sessions. So as part of our support contract with Alteryx, we have a certain number of training hours that are available, and so our support contact will work with them and say, hey, let's do three sessions on these three topics over the next couple of months. And that's been very well received. It ranges anywhere between beginner, intermediate, advanced topics depending on what we're looking for. And then we have challenges where-- just the Alteryx challenges on the website, but we have our own kind of unique challenges that we throw out to the Alteryx community and we say, "Hey, here's the challenge. How about it?" And we're going to have a competition to see who can solve the challenge and see all the different ways people are trying to solve it. And you get a lot of different solutions, and then people start to-- even if they can't solve the challenge, they can see other people and, "Oh, wow, I didn't even think about using a tool that way." So you can see we're not really trying necessarily to take a specific use case and build it out. We're really just trying to give people a tool so they can think about Alteryx in different ways and use it like it's meant to, and it's such a flexible kind of Swiss army knife.

JAY 08:28

And then when we do have solutions, I encourage people to bring them to the table. We share them out with the community at large. We have a newsletter that goes out to hundreds of folks. We have office hours where we like to share things like that as well. I think those are the main things where we're sharing back and forth, both enablement and sharing on the showcases. And then we also talked about the analytics CoE where we are bringing these like-minded kind of analytics champions within all these different business units. A lot of times we'll showcase what's going on with Alteryx and say, hey, look, this person built this incredible workflow that brings all this data together. And we use Click Cloud, and they've built this amazing dashboard. We have a lot of disparate data sources like many companies our size. So Alteryx is great about bringing those together, building that reporting view layer. And then you can use a viz tool like Click to really make it something that's incredibly useful.

MADDIE 09:24

Can you share what kind of feedback have you received from all of these different methods that you're using to really ramp people up in the org? Are they excited the way that you want them to be? Are you getting great feedback on the newsletter and the CoE?


I think it's been a evolution. I think in the beginning we were more excited, or at least I could say I was excited. I was like, "Oh my God, this is going to change how we do work at WestRock." But then people were like, "What? I don't know. Sure. What are you talking about?" Then it was teaching them, showing it to them. And first, it started with words, and then some people who maybe have an IT or automation kind of background that understand ETL, they're like, okay. And then it's like, okay, well, let me show you some examples. But the examples weren't necessarily at WestRock. So then they're like, "Yeah, this looks cool, but I don't know how I'm going to apply it." And then as we started using it, like with Jay's use cases and things, people are like, "Oh, I use that system. I use that software. Oh yeah, I always run reports. I'm pulling data." And then we've evolved with a company. And Jay's team also is part of setting up databases and where it's like, "Oh, I don't have to run a report. I can just have a data lake and pull that directly into Alteryx." And so I think as people discover and we do more and more like trainings and just showing tools and functionality, people get more and more excited. First, they're like, "Oh, I still have to run this process." And then we do a training on the analytical apps. And then they're like, "Oh, I can add this and make it dynamic. And I can now give this to Susie, and she could run it." "I built it, but I don't--" Or I'm out for a week on vacation, and I don't have to do all this work to run it before or pause my vacation to run this critical report. I can schedule it on the server or whatever. I can hand it over. So I wouldn't say we're at the peak of our excitement, but I think it's gradually growing.

MADDIE 11:34

Yeah, I like the description of the evolution. Go ahead, Jay.

JAY 11:37

Yeah, I think I agree. And I think early on we had a lot of people, and we probably still do, that would take a dashboard and click and export to Excel and then they'd start their Alteryx workflow there. And we're like, hey, this is still a manual process. If you do it this way, we can help you automate this process if you go right to the data source. It's not always that easy because there could be some transformation in the Click dashboard. But that's what we're trying to get folks to see the value of this, that you could actually-- with Alteryx and with the server, you can take all of the manual effort out of this and just have it scheduled, run, email, whatever the case may be to automate the solution. So we've done a lot of process improvement, automation. Finance has been a huge beneficiary of that as far as number of hours saved. I get comments at least once a week that Alteryx is just such an amazing tool, and people don't know who to thank, but they thank me. I'm like, whoever it was that decided we should use Alteryx, this has just been a game changer. So I've definitely received a lot of kudos for Alteryx and what it can do.


It's done two things, right? It's challenging people to change their mindset and have more of what I call automation mindset. Not just looking at our process the way that you've always done it, but now thinking of the technology that we have, and now what does that process look like? And also pushing back on the organization which triggers some change management, because sometimes it's like these eight people send me files in all different formats. Well, how about we come up with a template and require people to send a template so now you can automate the process and you're not pulling the data in 80 different ways? So I think it has challenged the business to work better and more efficient and push back sometimes when things just don't make sense. Whereas previously, people would have accepted just-- they're like, "Oh, I'm just happy to get the data." And we're like, yeah, we know we can get the data, but now let's get the data in a better format so that we can automate it.

JAY 13:52

Yeah. And just to layer on top of that, I've found that the people that are most successful are sometimes the engineering types and the SQL types, but what they've done is they can showcase a solution that they've built. And now those super Excel users, maybe they weren't SQL users, but they're super Excel users. They look at that, and to LaShell's point, they've changed their mindset and said, "Oh, I don't have to create this pivot table anymore. Or I don't have to do 100 V-lookups anymore. I can think of this in a different way." And I think just bouncing those things off of each other and having our users constantly kind of share and showcase their solutions has been a huge benefit. And people are learning by seeing what can be accomplished.


And I think it's also bridged the gap a little bit between somebody who writes code and SQL. And you ever open a code and you're like, "What?" I mean, me, I don't have an IT background. So--

MADDIE 14:50

Me neither.


--I look at it, and I'm like, "Yeah. Okay, this is totally a different language. I don't know how to use it." But then you see it within Alteryx and using some of the scripts but then using tools, and I think for the everyday user, it becomes like, "Ah, I can do this. This is obtainable."

JAY 15:09

I think you just have the label for your podcast. It's Jay and LaShell, bridging the gap.

MADDIE 15:14

A thousand percent. And also just going back to what you said LaShell about going on vacation and not having to prep way far in advance for your vacation. What's the point of a vacation if you're working double time ahead of time and then also playing catch up when you come back? So that should be--


I call it the vacation penalty.

MADDIE 15:33

Exactly. Yeah, there shouldn't be that.


They're like, I get to either work a lot before vacation or work a lot when I get back from vacation.

MADDIE 15:40

Exactly. And to get rid of that penalty, that should be selling point enough, in my opinion. That would definitely perk my ears up.


I think another thing that it helps with is if organizations face turnover or giving people the opportunity to change roles. Right? Sometimes you feel like, "Oh, I want to move to this team," but you own so many processes. If those processes are well documented and automated in Alteryx, it makes it really easy to transition them to a new user, because the process doesn't stop. You're just teaching them how to run the process, which in Alteryx, sometimes it's just a click of a button and then they can still run the process while learning the process at the same time.

MADDIE 16:23

I think that's a really good point. Going back to something else that you said earlier, LaShell, about being nimble and fluid with challenges throughout this whole evolution of building the analytics culture. I want to talk about that a little bit more, because for our listeners who are struggling, you guys gave some examples of ways that the evolution evolved for you guys. But I'm curious if you have any other tips for how you have stayed motivated or maybe just trying to remind yourself that it's probably normal for new users to be a little hesitant when learning something new.


Oh, we get frustrated all the time. Sometimes Jay will be like, we hosted this challenge, and one person submitted something and they're like, "What?" But then I think that's where it's awesome for us to have the dynamic to go back and forth, because even sometimes we get frustrated with each other because he may have his way and I have my way. And we're looking from different lenses, but we respect each other's different perspectives and what we're trying to accomplish and push each other, right? Because sometimes Jay will be like, I'm going to the right. And I'm like, what do you think about this? And then he's like, "Actually, I don't agree with going quite to the left," but we just come up with a whole new plan. It's not one that either of us 100% thought of, but together, collectively, we've collaborated and come up with a different way. And I think that is what's important.


It can't just be one person. It's got to be multiple people, because when one person gets tired, the other person is pushing from a different angle, and you just keep going back and forth. And don't get discouraged because there's so many factors around timing, people's busy schedules. Is it month end? Is it quarter end? Are we implementing a new technology somewhere else in the organization? And maybe it's just like a rough month and pushing through those times. It's literally a roller coaster ride, and it's just keep throwing out the solutions. And I think we've gone from big trainings to full day trainings to half day trainings to couple hour trainings to targeted trainings for specific teams. And literally, we're just juggling a bunch of different things because if you only get one or two or three people out of each of these things, it really does grow, because that one person is maybe on a team of 10 people, and then people are like, oh, what are you doing? Or how are you doing X, Y and Z? And then it's like, "Oh, I want to learn," or, " I want to know." And that's all it takes to spark some new energy, because then they may reach out to Jay and Jay be like hey, the corporate FP&A team is really interested in doing X, Y and Z. And now you have 15 people that you're going to present and talk about Alteryx. Or honestly, we both talk about all different tools. How do we use everything that we have to make your day and your life better?

MADDIE 19:33

Yeah, for sure.

JAY 19:35

Yeah. I think the variety of training is a good point because we do have a training session-- I'd say about twice a month we have training sessions. And like I said, it could be anything beginner, or intermediate, advanced. But then we try to do this twice a year where we actually have a boot camp where we're doing two half-day sessions. It's more geared towards new users, obviously, on basically Alteryx for Excel users or data blending and joining, that kind of thing. So it's just really those kind of core set of tools, getting people started with Alteryx that maybe they have it, but they just don't even know how to navigate. And it's just a way to get folks started, but it's a little more concentrated over a couple of days. And we've actually recorded all of these sessions as well. People can leverage them on demand because not everybody can make it due to maybe they're part of finance and they're in the financial close cycle, or everyone's got their day job and they can't always dedicate four hours over two days for training sessions. So I think just being flexible, trying to understand our users and what they need and what they want has been helpful.

MADDIE 20:39

You mentioned earlier and maybe this maybe will jump towards the analytics CoE topic. But have you guys gone for more of like a grassroots approach, or have you kind of gone to leadership, execs, things like that to really do more top down?


All of the above.

MADDIE 20:56

Okay, great.


Honestly, because obviously you need the dollars, right? So that's where you have to go to leadership. But you need the examples and the use cases to support the dollars. So it's a combination of all those things.

JAY 21:14

Yeah. And I would say for the analytics CoE, we've taken a middle out approach where we didn't necessarily want to bring in some executives right off the bat where they might not even really know what Alteryx is, what it can do and we're asking them to make decisions from a steering committee perspective. We wanted to start in the middle where people are familiar with it, they have teams of people that have Alteryx users on them and they're sharing pertinent items. Not just about Alteryx, but it could be Click. It could be other analytics tools. And so we're sharing with each other. We're also sharing from our perspective if there's updates regarding Alteryx or if there are governance discussions, we have to have, hey, we need to clean up this process, or we need to think about things differently on how we publish workflows, whatever the case may be. But we wanted it to be more pertinent. And then we do have a longer term goal of potentially adding an executive level where we're making some of those larger steering committee type of decisions, but we're not quite there yet. It's early stages.

MADDIE 22:15



And I think some things that we've done, when we did the first adoption program, at the end of it, we did hackathon, and we picked three teams. And we did three processes, and we worked with Alteryx to have a person a part of each one that helped us build within a month. So we'd meet once or twice, and at the end of the day, we showcased what we accomplished to leadership so that they could see. Because I think what Jay says, targeting the middle people, right? The middle people still-- they understand how much work it takes to get to the result. Leadership, sometimes they're like, "Yes, we got the number. Okay, that's great. Amazing." But they don't always realize the effort that it took to get that. And so the people that are going to be most connected really are in the middle because they're managing the people who are working really hard, but they're also delivering the results to the leaders. So that's why they're the best people to push and pull with and have them champion the initiatives.

MADDIE 23:25

That's great. Yeah. Lots of amazing tips, especially for folks who are at a larger organization. There's just so much going into it. As you said, even if you reach out to one person, that person could really spark a ripple effect. I've seen with the two of you, LaShell, you're one person. Jay, you're one person, but you're making such a big impact. So this is amazing and hopefully really inspiring for our listeners too.


And I think one thing for all the listeners out there, don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves. I can't tell you how many times Jay and I have met with one individual. And it may be a simple process. It may be hand holding. It may be like, we made it this far in the workflow today. Let's meet tomorrow, or let's meet in a week. And let's just keep pushing you along. Because really, the hard part is changing your mindset and applying it, right? And so if we can help you learn how to apply it on your own, that's where Alteryx really becomes powerful because the options are limitless. You just have to know how to use what you're being given.

MADDIE 24:32

Thanks for listening. For more tips and resources like Alteryx premium support and other services, check out our show notes at Catch you next time.


This episode was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ), Mike Cusic (@mikecusic) and Matt Rotundo (@AlteryxMatt). Special thanks to @andyuttley for the theme music track, and @mikecusic for our album artwork.