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Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
MaddieJ
Alteryx Community Team
Alteryx Community Team

How would you go about solving a math problem in a language that you don't speak? Alex Gross, ACE and Alteryx Lead at Alteryx partner M2, did just that in his research on historical math. Through translating the unpublished book "Grosse Arithmetic" by mathematician Anton Neudörffer (1571-1628), Alex has developed a well-rounded problem solving mindset that he uses with Alteryx.

 


Panelists

 


Topics

 

Anton Neudörffer, Schreibkunst (The Art of Writing), 1601, 1631, Publisher Paulus Kauffmann German. The Metropolitan Museum of ArtAnton Neudörffer, Schreibkunst (The Art of Writing), 1601, 1631, Publisher Paulus Kauffmann German. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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Transcript

 

Episode Transcription

MADDIE 00:01

Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Maddie Johannsen, and I'm on the community team at Alteryx. My guest today is Alex Gross, one of our ACEs from Germany. Alex works for an Alteryx partner, leading his team on all things Alteryx. We chat about his journey to becoming an ACE, his advice for getting started on the Alteryx community, and how his research on historical math has shaped how he approaches problem-solving. Let's get started. [music]

MADDIE 00:34

Alex, I'm so excited that you're here with us this morning, sharing this gorgeous sunrise behind you in Amsterdam.

ALEX 00:43

Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. I have listened to so many episodes in the past, and I have actually quotes from one of the first episodes in my kitchen, so.

MADDIE 00:52

Oh, really? Which quote is it?

ALEX 00:54

Or not quote. It's a couple of notes from--

MADDIE 00:56

Oh, sure.

ALEX 00:56

Nicole Johnson, I think. In one of the first 10 episodes, she or someone else talked about what's important when you would like to make a change in organizations. It's about always people, processes, and technology. And you need to fix all three to make actually a change because if one of them is missing, then, well, you cannot get it done.

MADDIE 01:15

That's so awesome. I love to hear that. We're so excited to have you on this episode because not only are you an ACE and super active on the community, which I'll tell people a little bit how active you are in just a minute, but also being here in Amsterdam at Inspire. You have, you said, three sessions as well--

ALEX 01:34

Four sessions.

MADDIE 01:35

Four breakout sessions. And you're recording this podcast, so you're definitely busy.

ALEX 01:40

Yeah. It's just you got to use the opportunities when you have them. And doing this in person is like 10 times better than just virtually recording something. So you got to make it work. And we did.

MADDIE 01:50

Yeah. Do you want to tell us what your sessions are on?

ALEX 01:53

Yeah. I can maybe just start in order like how they happened at Inspire.

MADDIE 01:57

Sure.

ALEX 01:58

So we'll have the first one together with another ACE, Roland Schubert from Germany. So I have a joint session with him about collaborative workflow building. So a lot of times I build workflows together with the customer because as a consultant, it's always-- I don't know how pharmaceutical works. I don't know how the energy works. I don't know how the airport works. But I have customers in all of these regions. And you need to work together with the customers because they know the business best, and I know Alteryx best. And then it's always they tell me how the data should look, and I apply the transformations directly and teach them how to do it. So we do the first time together. At some point, I just watch, and they do it, help them figure out what's not so good. And at some point, they just walk on their own, basically, on their journey. And yeah. I just keep them started. So that's the first one. The second one is a sort of favorite from Denver. So I already did the exact same presentation in Denver, and it was voted, I guess, one of the top three presentations there. So they asked me, can I do it again? So it's about the beauty of Python tools or Python macros, they call it. You just put in a Python tool inside of a macro and make it available for the business user. The first one that I did was I created a tool that sends an SMS to my phone. So when a workflow finishes, it triggers a phone notification. So I often went to lunch break, triggered a long workflow. And for example, when I have pizza, I can eat the pizza in front of the computer once it's finished. And I look at the data already eating the pizza, but often I forgot about the workflow. So as soon as it's finished, it triggers a notification. Or I built a tool that creates QR codes--

MADDIE 03:36

Oh, cool.

ALEX 03:36

--on a Snap because we had a customer that wanted to create hundreds of thousands QR codes. You cannot go to our website one by one by one. So that's the second one that's also today.

MADDIE 03:47

That's great.

ALEX 03:47

And then we have two more, one with Joshua Burkhow, who is the Alteryx evangelist here at Alteryx. Yeah. It's about design patterns in Excel spreadsheets. So it was also one of the top sessions in Denver. I wasn't the co-speaker there because Chris Goodman was doing so. But he wasn't able to come here, so I took over that part. And the last one is together with a customer. We had a really huge use case at Siemens Energy that saved a lot of money actually. So yeah. We did a webinar, and then we wanted to get it to Inspire as well to basically bring it to the big stage and tell people that it's possible to approach impossible IT problems. And the bigger the challenge is, the more you can potentially save. I can save 1 hour if it's-- for example, you take an Excel file. It takes 1 hour a day for you. I can only save for an hour for you. But if I have a use case that takes the IT years to implement, and I cut it down to two weeks, there's a lot of just time that I saved them. So yeah.

MADDIE 04:45

That is so cool. Yeah. So much great content. And congratulations on having all of those speaking slots. Speaking of being busy, I have some stats for you from your time in the community, which is just really fun, but. So you joined almost 3 years ago on November 11th, 2019. So coming up on 3 years. You've posted 1,256 times, received 900 likes exactly, which is so funny. [laughter] So you're 100 likes away from that 1,000 Like badge, which is going to be really exciting. You have your Advanced Alteryx Designer certification. And you've written over 50 blogs, which is amazing because only 14 other community members have earned the Columnist badge, which is what you get if you write over 50 blogs. So that's amazing.

ALEX 05:37

Yeah. Just blogs are a passion project for me, and I like to share what I learned.

MADDIE 05:42

Yeah. We love to see it. We love to see that from our ACEs especially. That's obviously a huge part of being an ACE, is being very active on the community. So I would love to kind of hear just a little bit about your background and your career journey. Having a career journey that leads you to being an ACE is, I think, very unique. And so it's not something that a lot of people have experienced. So maybe you can just share some of your background.

ALEX 06:11

Yeah. So maybe we start just with the classics, who I am. [laughter] My name is Alex Gross. I'm from Germany. I work at an Alteryx partner located in Berlin, but I don't really live there, so I'm a remote worker. Yeah. I'm the Alteryx lead there. I basically cover all the Alteryx topics. I lead the Alteryx team. I do enablement, partner management, or not really all of the partner management, a little bit. I do pre-sales and consulting, obviously, but it's a wide variety of topics that I do. So I really have the pleasure to enjoy Alteryx every single day, either on my work or after work. But that's a topic for later. [laughter] And yeah. Maybe a fun fact that I always also tell in every single presentation. If I'm bored, I just walk. Not running, walking. It's like I walk for hours and hours. And I do these walks that are organized by an organization like 55 kilometers, and you have 24 hours to complete them. And it's really cool to just have something that shuts down the brain if you actually would like to get a break because, yeah, you probably had a lot of people that are power users here. And sometimes you just-- the brain is always just working, and you see tool by tool in your workflow. And then when you just walk, after an hour, your brain shuts down, and you just one step after another, so.

MADDIE 07:27

No. That's really cool. So in your free time, you enjoy the work. You enjoy the Alteryx pieces. So tell me, I guess, what is it about Alteryx that makes you excited to just kind of keep thinking about it after you're done working?

ALEX 07:45

It's just the possibilities. It's a tool that really helps me enable or solve problems that I wasn't solving before. And it's just so easy to me, and it just fits into my brain really well. I don't need to write code. I just drop a couple of tools and solve my problem. So I was always an Excel person. I collect a lot of data about myself. There was a time when I was writing down all the meals and stuff, and then I had Excel files and doing analysis on them now. Right now, I do more web scraping and get data out of the Internet. For example, I track my banking account and scrape the data from the banking account and then have an Alteryx prediction running and checking if some of the transactions seem, yeah, weird or not or if they are all fine. And an easy model that I run on a daily basis and just checking, "Okay. All is all right. My money is safe." [laughter] But yeah.

ALEX 08:39

You asked earlier about the career journey, and it's sort of fun because I wasn't really hooked with Alteryx in the first place. So my old boss told me, "Okay. Just learn this." And he said that in November. I started. I took one week. It was like, "No. I don't like this." And I come from a computer science background, so I know a lot of tools, website building tools, where you also have this icon and drag and drop and building blocks, and you put them in, and all of them are just not good in my opinion. Or at least 2, 3 years ago, they were all not good. And I thought Alteryx is exactly the same but just for ETL. And I was like, "Oh, no. Not another click and colorful tool that's not doing proper work." But really separates Alteryx from the website tools is the engine behind it. If you have a proper engine that would generate a proper website code, I would be totally fine. But usually, the website code is just garbage.

ALEX 09:32

And yeah. That's one of the reasons. And I think it took me a month in January then before I really got hooked and then kind of got lucky because of COVID. I was living in a new city. I didn't know anyone. And then the lockdowns happened. And then I really went all in on Alteryx. It was like 8 hours at work and then 8 hours before and after work. So on a total like 16-hour days of just Alteryx usage. I did a lot of the community's stuff like the interactive lessons, which are one of my favorites, and a little bit of weekly challenges. And then I got into the pleasure of the forums, really. I was a consultant, so for me, it was always about solving problems that people have. And some of the weekly challenges that I tried didn't feel like people problems but problems that someone made up. So I decided, okay, for me, the forums are the way to actually see people problems. And I solved a lot of them in the beginning. At some point, I decided, okay. I switched to blog articles and user groups. That's also one of the points where I meet Roland the first time, and he got me hooked with the user groups. Since then, we started the German user group, and we started a lot of blog article series in the community, especially in the German community. And that's what, I guess, got me really started because I realized the German community is just getting started. I saw in the English community, there's like Marquee Crew, which is a gigantic name in the community, and a lot of other people. And I looked at the German community, and it was just a silent place.

ALEX 11:00

I decided, "Okay. I can make a difference here." In the English community, nobody would recognize me for years probably. But in the German community, there are just a couple of people. I can help get this thing rolling. And that's when it really took off. Then at some point, just [Tuvi?] came to me and surprised me. Roland prepared me a little bit about this. Like he said always-- he was an ACE before I started doing Alteryx. So he always prepared my mind. "Yeah. At some point, you will become an ACE." [laughter] I didn't really care. I felt like it might take 2, 3, 4 years. And then [Tuvi?] came to me and said, "Would you like to be an ACE?" I was like, "I know exactly who you are." [laughter] Yeah. I saw her. A lot of other ACEs tell she just sneaked a call in their calendar with them, and they didn't know who she was. But Roland prepared myself. And when [Tuvi?] added me on LinkedIn already a couple of months prior, I'm like, "I see. I see what you're doing here."

MADDIE 11:51

You're on the radar. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So a lot to unpack there, honestly. Going back to what you were saying about when you were first told to learn Alteryx by your boss, I kind of want to unpack that a little bit because it sounds like you kind of have the personality of you really enjoy discovering things and unpacking them for yourself, and you're more of a self-motivated-type person, it sounds like.

ALEX 12:21

That's a good summary. I always was in school the guy-- when the teacher said, "Do A," I tried to find my own way. Because in the end, it's always find your own way to solve the problems because at some point, you don't have the teacher anymore. In the business career, you don't have someone telling you what you should do. Find your own way to do it. And that's also when I look at the community, a lot of people forced themselves to learn. "I would like to get this, this, this." I always say, "Learn what you would like to learn. Learn what you are passionate about." And at some point, you will become good at it. And you might notice you don't like stuff. When I switched companies, I joined the biggest Tableau company in Germany. And it was my idea. "Okay. Alteryx-Tableau, the combination is amazing." But after a couple of dashboards, I just realized that's not it for me. I'm not the visual guy that likes to build dashboards. I'm the analytical guy. I like to transform data. Find out what you're passionate about that will make your learning journey 10 times easier. And you will probably also spend more hours on it because you enjoy it. If you just do it because someone told you to do, that's not a good motivation.

MADDIE 13:22

And you mentioned, too, the engine. Once you discovered that, that's what really made you hooked, I guess. Or do you think it was just more of the self-discovery?

ALEX 13:33

I guess the self-discovery. I just realized at some point it's not that bad. First, I just used the input tool and the Python tool because inputs and Python are not as easy. And when you need to switch them, you need new functions. And in Alteryx, there's just the input tool. There's one single place of inputs and outputs. And at some point, I started just to migrate more and more functions from Python to Alteryx. And then I just got hooked with it. And now it's the opposite basically. I use just 1% of the time the Python tool, like in the presentation that I show later. But 90% or 99%, it's just all of the tools are so easy to use. I don't need a computer science degree to do a filter. It's just drag and drop, configure it, done. Same with the formula tool and the join tool. That's really complicated in some other languages like SQL or Python.

MADDIE 14:22

That's really good insight because I'm sure a lot of people also kind of have, like we used to say, that aha moment when you just realize that, "Oh, this is going to save me a lot of time," or, "There's a lot of things that I can do with this for my use case." And that's the other thing. Everybody's, obviously, their path and their activity on the community is different, all that stuff. But also, what do you find value out of, and what's going to work for you? I feel like it's always so different. And that's what's nice about Alteryx, is that you can pick and choose what works best for you.

ALEX 14:53

Yeah. It's up to you. It's like there are 10 routes to go to the target, and which one would you like to pick, or would you like to create your own? There are so many opportunities. I wouldn't say that there was this one point where it made click. It was just slowly changing process. And at some point, I just realized I don't use the Python tool anymore. Like, "Oh, wait a second. How did this happen?"

MADDIE 15:13

Well, yeah. And earlier, also, you mentioned passion projects. And I know that you worked on a couple of books. I'd love for you to share about that as well.

ALEX 15:25

Yeah. So as a student, I wanted to make or explore different opportunities. I was working at a health care agency. And at some point, one of my professors just said, "Are you interested in historic math?" I'm like, "Not really, to be honest. I like math all the times. But historic math or math from the 16th century is a different animal. Actually, why not?" And that's something I recommend to a lot of students. Just try out topics that might seem weird because this is the perfect opportunity in life to do it. During the study, you don't have any responsibilities. You don't need to bring in a lot of money. You don't have family. You can just try topics. And so I got hooked with the, yeah, historic maths, which is about basically a German mathematician that was very famous in the 16th century. And he wanted to write a large, yeah, school book, basically, but it never got published. And what they found a couple of years ago was that one of his students was solving a pre-release of the book. So we took that version, transcribed it. And it's not like-- you can't just read it. It's 400 years ago. So the handwriting is a lot different; the writing is a lot different.

ALEX 16:38

So the first part of the-- like half a year of the project, we just tried to put it letter by letter to a computer screen and then put it to modern German. And then it splits into two books. So the first one is just the historical background. It's about the person, the persons he was connected to around him. The second one is we solve the math problems that they had basically in the school book at this point in time. And maybe as an explanation also, 400 years ago, school was a little bit different. Or at least when you would like to become a mathematician, it was not something you do at the early ages but more like in your 20s. And it was something really highly appreciated in this society, which slowly changed over the 17th century. But at this point, you made it, basically. If you did math at this level, you made it because all the people-- they had no computers. Someone needs to do the taxes and stuff like this.

MADDIE 17:33

Yeah. True.

ALEX 17:36

So we tried to solve the exercises. And it seems like in the first place, "Oh, that's easy." It's 400 years ago, probably easy problems. And some of them potentially are you just have something like quadratic equations, but the problem is how they put them in the language at that point. So for us, it's like you have X squared, for example. For them, it's a completely new sign. You don't have two, X, and squared. It's a new sign. Let's just call it Z. And you don't realize it's a quadratic equation at this point because you don't see the two on top.

MADDIE 18:11

Yeah. You don't speak the language. You're like, "What is this?" [laughter]

ALEX 18:14

But still, that's still the easy stuff. But the cool part is we saw how the student approached the problems. And what we realized is when you solve equations 400 years ago, you had no equal sign. So you were trying to solve the left part a little bit and a little bit of the right part. And then we have dotted lines between them as like, "Yeah. This probably means this." I'm like, "Oh my God. That's interesting." But that's still the easy problems. And then you have hard problems that are really hard to solve not because of the language, because they're actually hard. And some of them took me weeks to figure out what they do. And this might have been the biggest benefit of all for the whole-- what I learned or took away from it. A lot of the modern projects or problems that we have or even in school, when I was a student, it was always I just go to Google and find the solution. But a topic like this tells you how to solve a problem that you cannot Google. And if you really would like to make an impact in the modern world, you probably need to solve something that's not on Google already because, otherwise, someone else has already solved it 10 times, and you might not make an impact. So that's what I really like to tell people. Do what you're passionate about and then just do it also for the fun. When I did the book in the first place, I was not planning that this is my main takeaway. I was just doing-- "Actually, why not?" And then when we came to the point where we said, "Okay, let's make it two books," I'm like, "That's also cool." I could have put it on my CV. I'm an author now officially by the age of 26. That's not bad.

MADDIE 19:51

Yeah. No. That's amazing. That's such a huge achievement.

ALEX 19:55

Yeah. It was kind of fun. When I first dropped this in one of the ACE meetings, they were like, "What?" [laughter] So one of the other ones was bragging, "Yeah. I just wrote a book. I'm now an author." And I'm like, "Yeah. I've been there for 2 years." And they're like, "Wait a second." [laughter] Yeah. I just dropped it on a side sentence. And yeah. They were a little bit surprised.

MADDIE 20:16

Yeah. Oh, that's great. Well, I'm glad we're talking about it so more people know that you're an author and what a cool subject to research and be a part of.

ALEX 20:26

Yeah. It's just something different.

MADDIE 20:28

Yeah. And you mentioned, too, learning to solve problems that you can't just google. So that was a big piece of it. If you could break down the recipe for how to solve something that you can't google, what are the steps for that recipe?

ALEX 20:42

I would say it's a hard problem to describe because we all solve different-- it's about to figure out how you solve problems that you cannot google. There are visual people that-- for example, when you are a designer, you see inspiration around, and then you make your own design. You get inspired by others, and then you have your own creativity process how to draw something or make a visual. And then there are analytical people. And for us, it's usually you break it down. For example, it's similar to when I build an Alteryx workflow, I like to compare it to a car. If I come to you and say, "How would you build a car? How would you do it?"

MADDIE 21:19

Maybe think about the pieces for the car and what I want the car to do or how I want it to perform maybe?

ALEX 21:27

Yeah. The first one was already good. You break it down into pieces. You break it down into very small problems. And the first one that's just take it down. Okay. A car is maybe a chassis, an engine, a couple of wheels. And let's just keep it at that point for a moment. And then, okay, let's take a wheel. What is a wheel? What do you need for the wheel? And then you do piece by piece by piece. And all the small problems are potentially easy. They are not a-- Elon Musk, when he built the rocket, the first part, he just took an existing rocket, analyzed it, and then broke it down into and improved single parts of it. And it's a lot of times just breaking it down to a very small problem that's easy to solve and then just go up and up and up.

ALEX 22:12

And that's what we do in computer science a lot. So when we write code, it's not just this 1,000-line code. It's a lot of small, simple modules. We always say it's a single purpose. So I have a module that just reads. I have a module that just writes. And it's always a single purpose. It's not multiple. I don't go in here and write the whole book. I don't even write a whole chapter. I write a single paragraph, abstract maybe at a time. And then I just put them together at some point and look that it doesn't look bad. [laughter] It needs to work in the end, obviously, and you need my to do some optimization in the end. But the first step that you always need to do, and that's something I tell a lot when I work with customers, the first step is always achieve your goal. You can optimize it anytime. The first part is always just tackle it, achieve it, solve it, and then optimize it. You can make it work cleaner, nice annotated, and you can put in containers, comment boxes, all that stuff. But the first place, get it solved. And you might do a little bit of proper documentation during the process. But in the end, you always have a couple of hours in the end spare that you can use to clean up your code or workflows.

MADDIE 23:22

Yeah. That's such a good point. Yeah. Just get it done and then from there, adjust and tweak it if you need.

ALEX 23:30

Yes. I have this a lot in business. As a consultant, I often do optimization work. So when a customer comes to me, and I basically delete half of the tools, and the workflow is five times as fast as before, they feel bad, but they shouldn't. They solved the problem. As I told earlier, I don't know how the pharmaceutical stuff works, but they do. They figured out how to do an Alteryx. And then for me, it's just-- I don't know what or I might know what the data is, but I see a couple of tools, and I could put them down to one tool. I still don't know all the business logic that was put into the workflow, but I can solve the Alteryx problem on top of it, how to make this more efficient and so on.

MADDIE 24:10

No. That's great. And really great advice for folks. Anything else that you want to share?

ALEX 24:16

Maybe just one tip for new people in the community that I see a lot. A lot of people are scared to share problems or blogs along their journey. So when I started, I think like three months after I was started in the community. You can probably look it up. I guess it was somewhere around March. So from January, roughly two and a half months when I actually started in the community, I put out my first blog. And a lot of people would say, "You shouldn't do it. You don't have the experience. You're not an advanced user at this point." But it helps you. Don't be scared. Just put it out there. And the best thing it can happen, someone will give you feedback, "Hey, you can do it better." And then you improve just by the people telling you. And yeah. That's what got me into the blogging story. I just put the first couple of blogs out. I realized, "Okay. I still like it." So I was blogging for the last 10 years on a private account. Then I realized, okay, Alteryx blogging, that's cool. And when I become an ACE, I realized I would like to give something back to the community. So I have done the Tuesday Tips series, which are most of the 50-plus blogs that I have are on the Tuesday Tips. I have a couple in the international communities as well, but we're just doing small tips, a five-minute read that you can do every week. Like how to do a better input tool or how caching works in Alteryx.

ALEX 25:33

Because when I started, I didn't know about caching. When somebody showed me like nine, eight months into my journey, I'm like, "Oh my God. I wish I knew this on the first day." [laughter] Because when you build larger workflows, it takes a lot of time at some point. And the caching just snap, and the workflow's fast again. So yeah. Just get started in the community and maybe just be open to share and appreciate the feedback that you got. The people are very kind in the community. And even if they tell you, "Hey, that's not how you should do it," appreciate it because you can learn from it. You might not always use what they tell you. As I said, with taking your own path learning way. If the teacher told me, "Use that way," I might not use it. But in the community, I feel like I appreciate really what the people say because they are not my teacher. They are more like my friends. Yeah.

MADDIE 26:22

Yeah. That's nice. That's really sweet. Yeah. No. I agree. Yeah. Everybody is very friendly and everybody-- it's the same thing like when you come to an Inspire. I feel like everybody-- it's like old friends connecting. It's so much fun.

ALEX 26:37

Inspire is just like a nerd. [laughter] Yeah. You just meet a lot of Alteryx nerds here and-- [laughter]

MADDIE 26:43

Exactly. It's a good spot to be, for sure, so. Good. Well, thank you so much, Alex, for joining today. This is such a fun conversation. And we'll definitely post more about this historical math on the community. I feel like people would love that.

ALEX 26:59

I can show you some pictures, and you can put them into the show notes.

MADDIE 27:01

Totally.

ALEX 27:02

But yeah. It looks really interesting. You might see it on Harry Potter from just the writing because sometimes it's really creative, I would say. Sometimes, inside of an exercise, they put in a large drawing. I'm like, "How much time does it take to do the drawing for the exercise?"

MADDIE 27:18

Totally. Yeah.

ALEX 27:19

It needs to be hours and hours of work.

MADDIE 27:21

That's amazing.

ALEX 27:21

You couldn't just print it like we do nowadays.

MADDIE 27:24

I can't wait to see.

MADDIE 27:26

Thanks for listening. To see artwork and math problems from Anton Neudorffer, the mathematician that Alex researched, check out our show notes at community.alteryx.com/podcast. Catch you next time. [music]

 


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

Anton Neudörffer image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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