Alter Everything

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Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

If you want to show your boss the power of Alteryx, this episode is for you! As a Senior Manager in the International Tax Team at Expedia Group, Lauren Sparks is full of tips for how to demonstrate time savings with Alteryx, and shares how teams benefit from comprehensive Alteryx training.






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Episode Transcription

MADDIE: 00:01

[music] Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. My name is Maddie Johannsen, and I'm on the community team at Alteryx. While at our Inspire EMEA conference in Amsterdam, I got to sit down with one of our customers, Lauren Sparks.

LAUREN: 00:17

I'm Lauren Sparks. I'm a senior manager in the international tax team Expedia Group. So the kind of global travel platform. I've been with them for kind of two and a bit years, based in London, which is nice. And before that, I was at PwC. But yeah, using Alteryx is a big part of my job, which I love.

MADDIE: 00:34

Lauren is passionate about enabling her team with Alteryx at Expedia Group, and she has a bunch of great tips for how you can land your own Alteryx license, enable your teams, and help build a culture of learning at your organisation. Let's get started. I would love for you to share with our audience your career journey because, as you said, Alteryx is a big part of your role at Expedia.

LAUREN: 00:59

Yeah, sure. So I started off my career at PwC. So I started as a school-leaver, which just meant I didn't want to go to university. So I was with them for six years in the end, and that's the first place that I saw Alteryx. I think PwC, especially in the UK, got behind it quite early on, it seemed, so they were licenses for everyone and training for everyone. So I saw it briefly there and was like, "It's awesome. I love it," and then went on a secondment to Expedia. So I was still at PwC but helping out on the Expedia team, and that was about 10 months. And with Secondments, you always say, "I promise. I'll come back," and then if a job offer comes-- often people who stay so, "Wait, sorry, what is that?"

LAUREN: 01:40

So secondment is like where you are-- you feel like you're working for Expedia. Literally, you're going to their office, you're in their team, but you're still employed by PwC. So it's kind of like a short term like to help with staffing issues. If they've got someone off on leave, then they might get someone in. Or if they've just got resource constraints, they might just say as a kind of stop gap, "Let's just get someone from the big four." And yeah, it's often short-term, so it was meant to be six months, so then we extended it. And then a job came up, and it really surprised me actually how much I loved it because if you are in big four, you can't imagine what being [inaudible]. It's like being in-house, just this complete different kind of world. And I had some preconceptions that weren't actually right in the end, in a good way. So I, yeah, really enjoyed it, decided I wanted to stay. I think after six years, it's nice to have a change. So pretty early on, when I'd actually moved there properly, permanently, I was involved in a piece of work that I just thought Alteryx would be perfect for. So I was just bugging my bosses like, "Please, can I get a license? I've used it before. I know I can do it," and they were really receptive, so they said yes, and that's where it all started.

MADDIE: 02:50

Yeah. Yeah. No, that's great. And your focus is in finance, is that right?

LAUREN: 02:55

Yeah, I'm in the tax team, which is part of finance.

MADDIE: 02:58

Yeah. Okay, cool. So given your time in the analytics and finance world, how have you seen the industry evolve?

LAUREN: 03:10

So I think the funny thing is finance is still really Excel based. I think because it's so numbers-- there's so much data, and a lot of people, Excel just is their default, right? It's how people have shared data for ages, and it was perfect for a long time, but I think there's just this recognition that not everything should be in Excel anymore. And maybe finance has been a little bit late to the curve on that. I don't know whether that's a reflection of often outsourcing some of the work that you do. So it's not like directly your problem that a lot of things are in Excel. But yeah, there's just lots of Excel, lots of manual stuff, copying and pasting. No one wants to do that, super dull. So they definitely are recognising that. And even when I was in PwC, there was this recognition, so. One of the teams I was in was all about talking tax functions about how you can improve and how you can get better, and automation was like such a key part of that, and clients were really receptive and wanted to do it. So it definitely has been changing. Everyone's on kind of a journey with it, different maturities and things like that, but yeah.

MADDIE: 04:11

Yeah. Yeah, totally. And then, yeah, I feel like also speaking of the efficiency. Can you also speak to the kind of post-COVID world? There's been a bigger push for that data literacy.

LAUREN: 04:23

Yeah, I think post-COVID, there's just a lot of pressure on your budgets, right? Especially, in the finance world, we are not kind of making money for the company - we don't have a revenue stream - we're supporting the company. So I think if you don't have revenue coming in, then there's always going to be this focus on how much you're costing the business, which kind of there should be. But I think even more so after COVID, companies are struggling. For a travel company, obviously, it wasn't ideal during COVID. A lot of groups struggled for different reasons during the pandemic, and there's lots of kind of macrofactors that are just going to keep happening. That's what it feels like at the moment, cost of living, that might affect travel. So I think that puts a lot of pressure to make sure that these kind of support functions like finances are just really efficient, super lean. So are we spending time on the right things, basically, and are we adding value for the company, or are we just sat there, in Excel, typing? That's not an efficient use of people's time, especially if you're paying people in expensive locations. You can do that elsewhere. You can automate it, so.

MADDIE: 05:26

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And in trying to make everything efficient, I feel like just having that creative mindset is very important. So I'd love to hear how you've used your creativity to be a great problem solver with Alteryx and how the creativity in general has helped your career.

LAUREN: 05:43

Yeah, that's the side of using Alteryx that I really love. It is so different to my day-to-day job in tax. Problem-solving is just really fun for me. It's like a little challenge to solve. I know not everyone likes it, but, me, personally, I find that stuff really interesting and really rewarding when you solve something and you get it right and then you can see it being implemented. That's a really nice feeling to know that you're making that change, and things are different as a result of kind of what you've done. So yeah, Alteryx has been a massive part of that.

MADDIE: 06:15

So when you started at Expedia, you mentioned that you were asking your manager like, "Can I have this license? I've used it before." Do you have any tips for folks who you think would benefit from Alteryx and are trying to also secure a license? Maybe they have a license, and they want the person next to them on their team to also have one. What are some tips that were helpful for you in having that conversation with your manager?

LAUREN: 06:38

Yeah, so for me, I think because I had a really tangible use case at that point and the added challenge was that this was like a brand-new requirement that we hadn't done before. So it wasn't something that we were already doing but just really manually, it's something that we hadn't even done. And we had just crazy time pressure. You get this in finance all the time, but we had one day that we had to turn this around for our analysis, and I was just like, "It's physically not possible, the amount of work we have to do. Even if I spend 24 hours, it's not going to get done." So something had to happen because it was like, "This isn't feasible. We're not going to be able to do it." So I think that was quite an easy sell, for me, which was good. But I think, for people, if it's them trying to get a license for themselves and maybe they're the first person in their team or their company trying to do it, I think pushing forward for it, getting a trial, because you can get your 30-day trial, maybe pick something that's pretty straightforward for you to do in Alteryx, and if you've built it, then you can show it.

LAUREN: 07:36

And I think, for a lot of people, they just need to see something that relates to their job to get it. And I think as soon as you show someone something that's relatable to them in Alteryx, it's the easiest sell in the world. They can see really clearly how beneficial it is. So that's often just the first step, and I think if you are thinking about wider use or trying to get more and more licenses-- so we actually had a big training push which we did with Alteryx in the UK. They actually came in for us and did that training. And at the end of that training, we had a list of use cases and time savings that we were expecting. So as soon as you can say, "The time that we're going to save outweighs the cost of this license," then your bosses aren't going to push back. It would be silly for them to.

MADDIE: 08:22

Yeah, and you helped organise that training. Can you share just like more of what that kind of entailed?

LAUREN: 08:29

Yeah, so I got a message, out of the blue, from someone at Alteryx, basically, saying-- they were the account rep at the time, just saying, "Hey, we can see that you have a license. We'd love to just talk about what you're doing with it," so had that call, and they were the one to suggest some training, some support that they could give us, and I was like, yeah, because I think the challenge that I had in my team was because I was using it, I was able to solve a few things, but I'm only one person, and I did still have my day job, right? So I can't spend 100% of my time on it. So it was a bit frustrating just, generally, for my team as well because we were getting all these good ideas. We can solve this in Alteryx, that in Alteryx, but we couldn't unlock things. We couldn't get that started. It was quite a slow progress when it's just me.

LAUREN: 09:14

So yeah, we went through that kind of training programme. It was amazing because we have a NDA with Alteryx, so we could just use something real, we were doing, so we could say, "Here's our Excel process currently," and they just built that out in a workflow with us week by week. So again, to that point of having something relatable, something that you can see, you're like, "I know that data. I get that all the time," think just helps people contextualise. So yeah, we just kind of went ahead with it. There was no kind of like big push. It was more just someone's reached out to me. I think it would be a good idea. Like, why not, basically.

MADDIE: 09:49

Yeah. Yeah. Totally. And I think you mentioned too that you coordinated that for EMEA and then that training has filtered into other offices, is that right?

LAUREN: 10:00

Yeah, it's evolved from there. So I think because EMEA was almost like a little trial, I guess, because we got to the end of that, and we had all this kind of-- all these use cases, we had more licenses. I think we got five off the back of that, and because we could show, this is beneficial, and people really liked it. We had really good feedback from that training. Our global tax team then decided to roll something out just for everyone globally. So led from the US, again, with Alteryx, like a very similar setup. So that was much broader. And again, we got lots more licenses off the back of that. And then we were like, "Okay, we've done it for tax, but surely, there's other kind of finance teams that would be able to use it. We're all solving pretty similar-ish things. Just the subject matter might be a bit different." So we then in EMEA showed it to our accounting friends in London, and they were like, "Oh my god, we love it."

MADDIE: 10:47

Oh, good.

LAUREN: 10:47

So then they had some training. So I think it's very much like spreading across the department, and it's all kind of word of mouth, which is nice. Someone might be in a-- just having a coffee with someone and saying, "Oh yeah, we're using Alteryx for XYZ," and then that person might just say that that sounds really interesting, and they want to chat. So it's happening like more and more, which is good.

MADDIE: 11:07

Yeah. Yeah. For sure. And you mentioned the accounting team and, as you just said, having a coffee with somebody and then explaining it, and then they're sharing what they're using it for. Can you share any ways in which people are using it?

LAUREN: 11:19

Yeah, we've put lots of different use cases, which I think is good because it just shows it's not just applicable for one or two things. There's lots of different things that you're doing. So a lot of finances, just repetition, right? You do something monthly or quarterly or daily, and a lot of processes are really structured. We get financial data in that's always in a set format. So that's quite helpful for Alteryx because we're not having to deal with lots of rubbish data. So it might be things like forecasting, it might be journal entries, doing actual tax calculations for some things. So yeah, lots of different use cases.

MADDIE: 11:53

Yeah. Yeah. No, that's cool. And what's your favourite Alteryx tool or trick or use case? I guess maybe it's like forecasting or something that's had a big impact for you or your team.

LAUREN: 12:06

Yeah, so good question. This literally just was part of my session just now. There's some tools called the Blob tools, which I always say are my favourite, partly because of the name, because I just think it's amazing - you have like blob - but mostly, because of the cool stuff that they can do. So we have a big challenge sometimes where we have to report out in a quite structured way, and that's most of the time in Excel, right? Lots of people know Excel, and that's how we share things across the organisation. And those Excel files are really formatted, doesn't lend itself great to just a raw data output from Alteryx. There might be header rows or sign of rows, lots of different things in there. And I think, often, when people get started on Alteryx, they don't actually realise that you can output to things that are so structured and fixed. So people will do all these cool workflows but then still get some kind of like raw data at the end and then spend time still fitting that in to these Excel files that they need to use. So it takes a tiny bit of magic, but once you do it once with the Blob tools, you are just like, "This is transformational for me," because, now, I fix the whole process. I'm not just fixing that front bit. I'm doing kind of end to end, and I just get my output, and I send that off.

MADDIE: 13:19

Yeah. Oh, cool. I feel like I don't hear about the Blob tool as much as I want to. I feel like that's-- it sounds very impactful for you. That's really cool.

LAUREN: 13:26

The icons are really sweet as well. They look like little PAC-MAN.

MADDIE: 13:30

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that's awesome. Yeah, and so you mentioned your session, earlier today. So for our audience, we are recording in Amsterdam at Inspire and Lauren had a breakout session. Can you tell us about what you talked about during that session?

LAUREN: 13:44

Yeah, sure. My session probably pretty similar to stuff I'm saying on this podcast. It was all about my personal experience with Alteryx and how we're using it in Expedia, like in my role in tax and how I just think of the finance profession in general, so regardless of what industry you're in or if you're an advisor or if you're in-house, that Alteryx is really helpful, and there's so much use case in finance just generally. So that was it. I guess it was more of a-- compared to a lot of the other sessions at Inspire, which are really technical and, "Here's how you do this really cool thing in Alteryx," it was a bit more just storytelling, like how have I found it? What's my learnings, what's gone wrong, and how can you learn from that? So yeah, we did also have a tiny little demo of that blob thing as well, which--

MADDIE: 14:26

I love it.

LAUREN: 14:27

--was fun. But yeah, it was kind of a bit more kind of high-level.

MADDIE: 14:30

Yeah, that's great. And with the learnings and just being really open to-- you seem very open to change and very open to trying something out and then learning from it if it doesn't work out totally correct. I think that's just a really, obviously, important quality to have. But you also seem like a really big go-getter, and I feel like those two qualities really go together. You are a go-getter, and you're willing to try things out. You have a breakout session, you're doing this podcast, you went after Alteryx, and you got it. But then tying that with trying things out, making mistakes, seeing how things work, I'm just curious if you have any advice or anything to say about that because I feel like those are two, like I said, I think, good qualities that I think a lot of our listeners also have. One of our big things that we like to talk about on the podcast is just failure and failing and trying things, and that's the nice thing about Alteryx is that you can try things out, and if you mess it up, then you can always change it, and it's fine. So yeah, I just wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

LAUREN: 15:33

Yeah, I think, I don't know whether it's just me being lucky in the teams that I've been in or the companies, but for me, there's always been space for that if you are keen. So I think it's just about finding that room and just pushing forward for things like-- maybe it's just a reflection of me not wanting a really stable same, samey job. I kind of like the challenge and things that are different. That's just what keeps me-- like, personally, what keeps me interested and excited about my job, the fact that it's changing all the time and I can look at lots of different things. And failing is part of it. Things go wrong, and you learn from it. But again, I think kind of if you are in a team where you have that kind of support and trust-- and that's something that you have to work on, right? You have to build that up. But once you have that, then you shouldn't really be scared of failing because the alternative is just you don't improve things. And I think we just need to not be scared, have a culture of try, get it wrong, be open about it, but then just try again, or let us know what you need to get over that.

MADDIE: 16:32

And you mentioned, too, you enjoy looking at different things, working on different projects, being creative, and I think that so many of our customers also have that desire. Do you feel like with Alteryx-- you can obviously automate tedious tasks, you don't have to do those boring copy-pasting like you mentioned earlier, but how has Alteryx opened up more space and time in your schedule to allow for that creative thinking?

LAUREN: 16:58

Yeah, so for me, the time savings from stuff that I didn't want to do before, I'm now able to channel back into more stuff in Alteryx, right? I think that's different to maybe my colleagues who aren't Alteryx users, the benefit that they're getting from that time-saving is to be able to do other things. But for me, because I love Alteryx in that side, I'm just like, that's the thing that I'm pushing to do more and more of.

MADDIE: 17:19

Yeah. Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense.

LAUREN: 17:21

I'm like, "[crosstalk] question."

MADDIE: 17:22

No, totally. And you mentioned, too, being a senior manager and working in tax and finance. Did you know that you wanted to have this career? Or what did you want to be when you were a kid?

LAUREN: 17:38

To be completely blunt and honest, it's not, I was really guns blazing. I want to do tax. For me, I guess my decisions were quite practical, right? So at the end of college I was like, "I know I don't want to go to university." I just had my own thoughts of why it just wasn't going to be for me. Because I already knew that, I then looked at industries that had alternative routes. Because I also didn't want that to be a blocker for progression, right? I didn't want to end up in a job where I'd have this ceiling because I'm not a graduate, I can't get any further. And I was always very like numbers and not words in school. So I loved maths, absolutely loved maths and hated anything to do with writing. So because I knew I was numbers, I was like, "Okay, accounting in general." The big four accounting firms offer these school-leaver route, and they're numbers. So that seems to tie into what would suit me.

LAUREN: 18:34

And then the decision for tax was just-- I guess more of like a interest point because at the time-- still now, I think it's just happening all the time, but there's so much attention on tax, and there's big news headline, grabby stories about tax. So I think there's a lot of interesting kind of challenges about working in tax because of the perception and because of all this kind of like news around it. So that was really my decision. But yeah, my career has taken on loads of different kind of route. I was in lots of different kind of teams in PwC-- or not lots, but a few different teams doing slightly different things and then ended up in a kind of corporate tax role, which I didn't necessarily know I was going to do. So I think, yeah, I'm open-ish to change, I think. I just don't want to get stuck in one thing. It's probably what's led me here, to be honest.

MADDIE: 19:26

No, I think that's such a healthy mindset to have, and it also, obviously, opens up doors, and you don't know exactly where it will lead you, but that's a really great mindset to have. Any final tips for folks looking to build their career in analytics?

LAUREN: 19:42

Get Alteryx. Obviously, I'm not been paid to say that. Yeah. No, I think just going back to what I said earlier, just push for it, right? Everyone, I think, recognises that this is a really important skill to have. No profession or industry is going to not want someone who is amazing with data and analytics. That's such a valuable skill. So I think people [music] who are interested in that have a really amazing opportunity to get what they want, basically, find something that interests them and a company that interests them, and just go for it. I think there's no shortage at the moment of wanting that as a skill.

MADDIE: 20:15

Yeah, that's great advice. Awesome. Thank you so much, Lauren, for joining this episode. This was so fun to talk to you and get to know you more.

LAUREN: 20:23

Cool. Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

MADDIE: 20:26

Thanks for listening. Check out the episode description for a link to a free Alteryx trial and other resources for getting started. You can also join in on the conversation on the Alteryx community at Catch you next time.


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.

Alteryx Community Team
Alteryx Community Team

If anyone is curious about using blob tools to format their outputs after listening, here's a helpful blog about it!