Alter Everything

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

We're joined by John Poppin for a chat about how growing up in the digital revolution influenced his career.




Brian Oblinger - @BrianO , LinkedInTwitter

John Poppin@johnpoppin, LinkedIn



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Episode Transcription


BRIAN: 00:12 

Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Brian Oblinger, and I'll be your host. We're joined by John Poppin, who has the best last name of all time, for a chat about how growing up in the digital revolution influenced his career. Let's get into it. 



BRIAN: 00:43 

Mr. Poppin. Welcome to the show. 

JOHN: 00:45 


BRIAN: 00:46 

So I am super excited to have you on. You sent us an awesome email, which we'll talk about a little bit later. That's what we would call a tease in the business here. But before we get started with that, let's dig into you a little bit. Tell us about your origin story, as they call it. 

JOHN: 01:03 

I was one of those guys that was lucky enough to have a computer very early on. We wound up with a computer in our home through somewhat odd circumstances, but it fell into my lap. My parents didn't really understand what to do with it, and we're going way back to like 1980. And I was supplied with a few basic video games, but back then it was like my blue square fights the red square and it wasn't all that involved. I mean there were a few games that were good, but I got bored of them after a while. And a friend of mine said to me, "Hey, you know you can actually program this thing to do stuff." And I was like, "Really? Okay." So I had these books, and I didn't really know what they were. They were engineering manuals and they weren't coding manuals. We didn't have coding manuals like we do now, but I started cracking open the books, and I noticed some green text, and I started reading it. And I was like, "Oh, look at that, you can list out the program source code." Well, I had Oregon Trail. A lot of people are familiar with that. And so I listed it out and started reading it, and just kind of trying to get it and trying different things. And long story made short, I kind of taught myself Applesoft BASIC, and started writing my own little programs. 

JOHN: 02:14 

That turned into a game actually. Some small adventure game. It was based on one that I had played, but I wanted to make it a little bit different. And it was good enough that I brought it to school, showed it to some friends, they started playing it. They liked it enough to come back to me with suggestions, and I thought, "Jeez, there's got to be a way that I can find out what these guys are doing in the game." And through searching through some more code I found a series of peeks and pokes and so forth that allowed me to log information while they were playing it and save it to a file. And so I released a new version and said, "Hey, look, you're playing this game. It's going to create this little file. Just send me the file." And so a lot of them did. There wasn't a whole bunch of people. It was like 20 people playing this game. And I got these files, and I noticed, "Oh, these guys are spending a lot of time in this area or doing this." And I actually adjusted the game based on that. And talking about my origin story, I guess, professionally as a data-wrangler, that's kind of where it starts. I realized way back then when I was eleven that I didn't really understand that I was working so much with data as we think of it now, but there was the whole, "Hey, I'm getting this information and I can do something with it. I can affect a different outcome." And it was good. It worked out pretty well. 

JOHN: 03:41 

Then I had a really interesting history from there. I went to college. I thought I wanted to be a rocket scientist, so I wound up in an aerospace engineering program down in L.A. And it wasn't everything that I'd hoped. I'm kind of like a DIY guy, and so my whole idea was, "Oh yeah, let's build the rocket, shoot it off, and see what happens. And if it doesn't work well, we'll build another one." And obviously, when you're dealing with multi-million or billion-dollar projects, that doesn't work out well. So they kind of want to teach you to get it right the first time. And I wasn't too patient. But it was my second year there and we were going to do student projects, and they said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "You know, I'd really like to study the aerodynamic properties of the human body." And they're like, "Oh, how do you propose to do that?" And I said, "Well we have this giant wind tunnel. I want to put someone in the wind tunnel." And they were like, "No." And I'm like, "Come on, all you have to do is just get in the wind tunnel and strap you in and turn the thing on." And they're like, "No." And I'm like, "Come on, really?" And-- 

BRIAN: 04:33 

John, for the record, I totally would have been your test subject. 

JOHN: 04:36 

Right? I mean-- 

BRIAN: 04:36 

I would have gone into the wind tunnel for you. 

JOHN: 04:38 

Yeah, I mean, I wanted to. There was the number of people who wanted to, but the university was not having it. And I actually got a little disillusioned. And, oddly enough, I'd written some stories, and unbeknownst to me the publisher of an online magazine on campus-- I mean an on-campus magazine took a story that I had written in a class that just had gotten passed to them by the teacher and put it in their on-campus magazine, and then they submitted it to a contest in all of California. I didn't even know this. One day I get this call and they're like, "Hey, John. Can you come down to our office?" I'm like, "Sure." I thought I was in trouble or something. And the gal running the magazine goes, "Hey, yeah, this plaque came for you." And I'm like, "What?" And it was a plaque that said I'd won second place in California back in 1991 for short science fiction stories. And I was like, "What the--?" And they're like, "Yeah, we're really sorry we didn't tell you that we entered this." And I think were some legalities or something they were dancing around, but yeah I won that, and I was like, "Oh, I can write. Cool. And yeah, aerospace isn't really doing it for me." 

JOHN: 05:42 

And then my dad started talking to me about law school. And I was like, "Oh, maybe I need to change schools." And I wound up going to Oregon - University of Oregon - and pursued an English major of all things. You know, so I learned to read and write. Not a lot of technology there, but I was working in a computer store while I was in college. And that worked out pretty well. I got the English degree, came back to the Bay Area, and I didn't really want to work at McDonald's so I started calling up places saying, "Hey, I know a few things about computers and can do some tech work here and there." And I wound up doing kind of base-level IT work for a while and had a pretty decent career. Got into the whole contract thing in the 90s. 

JOHN: 06:22 

So I'm doing tech work, and my dad said, "Hey, you really should think about the law school thing." And I was like, "Well, okay fine. Let's do that." My dad's an attorney, and I grew up around attorneys, and I was like, "Sure, whatever." So I go into law school and kind of the problem was I was a little bit older. I'd now been out of school for 3-4 years and kind of had a career. And I'm in school with mostly people that were just fresh out of college, right? And they hadn't touched the workforce yet. And so it was a little bit odd for me. And then also having grown up with an attorney who was pretty prominent in the community, and seeing what the legal profession's really all about, I realized early on that law school's absolutely nothing at all like what the legal community is about. It's more like, "We're just going to kind of strap you down and beat you and see who falls out." And I wasn't really having it. I was like, "This isn't really all that cool and I'm not really that interested in this." And the weird thing was-- I was kind of an average student. I didn't-- I wasn't stellar because I just didn't-- I didn't pay it enough mind. 

JOHN: 07:25 

And the one thing-- they had a moot court contest. And this kind of stands out kind of on the DIY side because when we're handed the case, it was about water control projects, and when we were handed the case, I read through everything. And I was like, "What the--?" None of the case law supports our side, right? The argument we were supposed to make. And I talked to the senior student advisor. And I was like, "This is-- what are you crazy? I mean, nobody can argue this. Nobody is going to win this." And she was like, "Well, you know, whatever. Just do your best. We know it's a loser, but it was handed to us by the faculty and this is what you got to do." And so I got frustrated and I tried and tried and tried and worked through all this case law to try and find something, and nothing was coming up. So I finally said, "To heck with this." And I actually called up a couple of local dams-- we have Oroville Dam here in California and I called another one, and I wound up speaking with the actual engineers who worked there, and I asked them questions. And based on what I was talking about, they're like, "What? What the heck is this?" And I'm like, "Dudes, this is case law. This is real law." And they're like, "That doesn't even make any sense." And they set me straight on a lot of what had been talked about in the case. And I was like, "Wow, okay." I took a lot of notes and I tied it all back to whatever case law and whatever arguments I had. 

JOHN: 08:44 

And when I went in to do the moot court contest, I came at it from a completely different angle than anyone else because I'd actually gone out. So I had the box and talked some real-world stuff. And I won the moot court contest. I not only won the case, but I actually won the whole contest with the highest grade that the school had ever given out. And they were like, "We've never seen anyone do this." And I'm like, "What, are you kidding me? Who doesn't go outside the box to do stuff?" And they're like, "Well, nobody ever does. Everybody just stays with the case law." And I'm like, "Well then, what kind of lawyers are you turning out?" And I was happy because I'd won the moot court contest, but at the same time I was like, "Oh my god, this is really not for me." And then, oddly enough, Apple Computer called me up and they're like, "Hey, can you write scripts?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can write scripts." So they invited me to come down and work for them for a while and I did. I bailed out of law school, and a lot of people are probably like, "Oh my god, you're an idiot." But it really wasn't for me, you know? 

BRIAN: 09:38 

You do you, John. 

JOHN: 09:40 

Right. So I went to work for Apple and wound up writing installers for OS X and a few other things and had some fun. But then, unfortunately, all the buildings fell down in New York and that was really sad. And it really changed the industry. And I was standing in a motorcycle shop because I ride motorcycles, and I was standing in a bike shop up in Marin and I was talking to them about this and that, and they said, "Oh, you know, yeah, we need a service advisor." And I was like, "What's that?" And they told me about it and said, "Really? How much do you make?" And it was kind of odd because - I didn't expect this - the salary was actually really close to what I was making at Apple. And here I am living on a sailboat [inaudible] and I was commuting about 50 miles down to Apple via motorcycle and almost every day sleeping on the floor of my office two or three times a week. My social life was in shambles. And I was like, "Oh, so if a took a job like this, I'm going to make almost as much money, not have to suffer this commute and die, and I get to ride motorcycles all day. Well, that doesn't sound bad." 

JOHN: 10:37 

So I start doing that and pretty soon my lead tech - this older fellow who's really awesome - he was like, "Dude, you're too good for this. You need to go do cars." And I'm like, "What do you mean? This is fun. We're riding motorcycles." He goes, "No, no, no, no. You got to go do cars. You'll make a lot more money." So he gives me the number of the shop foreman at Mercedes across the freeway and I call this guy up. He was like, "Oh, you're advisor? Oh, you're smart? Oh, yeah, sure, come over, work for us." So I go and interview and they're like, "Yeah, you're hired." Well, I didn't really know much about the car industry, but it became a really great career for like 6 years. And I worked my way up to service director at Porsche in Mill Valley. And that was a lot of fun because I'm kind of a Porsche guy. I learned to drive in a Porsche, and I had a couple of Porsches - older, less expensive ones, but ones that you kind of can work on yourself. Wound up rebuilding the engine in my own 911 SC but that's more story later - more DIY stuff because I just can't stand to pay for things sometimes. 

JOHN: 11:34 

But it was an interesting career, a very different career change. Parts of it obviously I regret because I stepped away from the tech industry a lot. But at the same time, I picked up a lot of valuable skills. Customer service, even in the software industry, and working with data, is huge because you're working with teams of people and there's varied personalities and varied demands and you have priorities and all this. And you really have to learn how to serve your internal customers. Well, working in the high-end car industry is like, "Yeah, you're going to learn customer service. Oh yes, you are. And there's no way around it." And I did pretty well, but in the car industry like that, you're working 12 hours a day, you're on your feet, you're running around, and inevitably people are yelling at you, whether it's the owners of the companies, or the customers because they don't want to be there and their cars are broken, or whatever. And it became just too stressful. Working as a service advisor is literally ranked on the level of being an air traffic controller in terms of stress and I just said, "You know what? I've had enough. I don't want to do this anymore. I'm going back to computers." 

JOHN: 12:33 

Kind of through a fluke, I met a fellow who worked at a little company here in the Bay Area, a start-up. And I was describing some of the things I was doing with data in the car industry in terms of cross-joining seasonal trends and some things that had really never been done. And he said, "Wow, that's amazing that you know how to do that with no formal training." And I'm like, "Well, what are you doing?" And he's like, "Oh, well, we do things like take sales information from Safeway and cross-join it to banking information." And I'm like, "Oh my god." I lit up, and I'm like, "That sounds for fascinating." And we got into this long discussion. And he's like, "You really should come to work for us." So I started out as a junior report writer, right? 

JOHN: 13:11 

Well, I didn't know it, but I'd wound up teaching myself SEQUEL in the car industry because they had a service program that used SEQUEL to run data queries. And I didn't know it was SEQUEL. All I knew was there was the stuff you wrote and got results, so I just puzzled through it working on old queries that were in there. I cleaned them all up, fixed them. But I knew SEQUEL. "Oh, well, okay, you can be more than a report writer. You can be a little bit of a data wrangler." And that started my career as a BI person, BI architect. And it's been-- what's it, 2019 now, gosh. It's been almost 12 years that I've been doing this. And it's turned out to be really, really fun. I get to look at new, different kinds of projects and datas and twists and turns to what people want to do with it. Some of my favorite projects involve disparate data, right? Like mashing two completely unrelated data sets together to extrapolate something totally new and hopefully accurate. And I've had a few really cool projects in my time that do that. 

JOHN: 14:19 

And one day I get this email from Turnitin. They're like, "We saw you on LinkedIn, and we want you." And I'm like, "Okay, cool." So I go in, interview, and I'm like, "Woah, this is a pretty slick office. These guys are pretty smart. This looks like a really cool company." I'd kind of been done with the consulting thing for a while. I'm like, "Yeah, I'll go corporate. This sounds awesome." So they picked me up, and then they're like, "Oh, have you ever heard of Alteryx?" And I'm like, "No." And they're like, "Oh, well, you need to learn Alteryx, because we've decided that we're going to go with Alteryx and Tableau." And I'm like, "Well, what about Birst or Informatica?" And they're like, "Yeah, no. We're not doing that." Under my breath, I was like, "Yeah, that's probably a good thing." And I'm not trying to plug Alteryx at this point, because at the time I didn't even know Alteryx. I just knew that there was a lot of problems on the other ends. 

JOHN: 15:03 

And so, my supervisor sits down with me, he's like, "Here, check it out. This is Alteryx. We've installed it, but we haven't looked at it." And I'm like, "Oh, okay." So I look at it, and I see the palette and I'm like, "Oh, this looks pretty intuitive. This looks kind of like it might be like Informatica but without all the baloney." And they're like, "Sure. Yeah, that. Well, we've lined up like three days of formalized training with you with this third-party provider." And I'm like, "Okay, cool. When does that start?" "Oh, like a week from now." I'm like, "Okay." So I start digging into Alteryx. I messed around with it. Pretty soon I've got some basic workflows that are actually pulling data from Salesforce. You know, I'm just doing my thing. And thank goodness that Alteryx is so well cataloged on the Internet because I could read through all the notes and all the failures people have gone through to figure things out. And by the time the formalized training came around, I was like, "Yeah, I think I have this." We went through all the tools in about half a day. And I was like, "Cool. I'm off and running." 

JOHN: 15:58 

And since then, my first major project was to create a workflow that calculated annual recurring revenue for our subscription model, because we're a subscription company. And I was like, "ARR? What's that?" So the CFO had to sit me down and explain to me finance. And then I was like, "Cool. Okay, well we have this data. We're pulling it from here? We're going to combine it with this? Okay. Yeah, let me visualize this for a minute." And I kind of went off into a dark room, and I was like, "Okay, we can do this." And he goes, "Okay, here. I just want to get these rows out of it." And I'm like, "Oh no, no, no, no. We're not ditching any data." He goes, "Why?" And I said, "Because then we can't check it." That's another whole another long story about the workflow we can get into later, but anyway it turned out really successful. He's like, "Oh my god, I use this every day. It's great. It's totally accurate." And we've actually used Alteryx to turn around the whole company as far as how people look at data. And I know it sounds like I'm plugging Alteryx here, and I'm not really because it's all real. I'm actually that enthusiastic about it. But I mean, we're here to talk about Alteryx anyway, so there you go. 

JOHN: 17:00 

But that's kind of the stuff that I've been up to. I've created some pipeline stuff, and I've worked with a lot of decoding, like Salesforce history tables and things like that. But, yeah, I guess that's kind of my short version origin story, maybe long-- 

BRIAN: 17:16 

That's the short version. So let me just back up here. So you saw Mac in the 80s. Then you got into rocketry. Then you went to law school. Then you worked at Apple Computer. Then you were the serviceman awesomeness at Porsche. And now you're using Alteryx. Did I miss anything in the short version there? 

JOHN: 17:44 

No, that's-- Yeah, that's pretty accurate. I mean, I started on an Apple II Plus, and we got the Mac in 87-- we got a Mac SE in 87. 

BRIAN: 17:52 

I definitely resonate with your story. I also saw I believe, at the time-- sometime in the 90s probably, saw the origin Macintosh I believe it was. And that totally changed my life forever, because at that point I had always been into tech. My father had always worked with scanners. We went to racing events and I would help him program scanners so we could listen to the drivers talk to the pit crews and whatnot. 

JOHN: 18:20 

Very cool. 

BRIAN: 18:20 

So I always had this kind of technical influence in my life, but it wasn't until I went over to Jimmy's house three doors down and saw that Mac oddly enough running Oregon Trail as you astutely called out. I think that's the intro for everyone in a certain age bracket of how they got into computers, is somehow Oregon Trail's in the mix there. So I definitely identify with that. I am a massive space nerd, which we should talk about sometime later in the show. 

BRIAN: 18:51 

But I'm just blown away by-- I guess the thing that stands out to me that's really interesting in your story is the fact that you were able to kind of-- I wouldn't say give up on the status quo but see what the next opportunity was going to be and jump into that full-force while seemingly kind of leaving behind this prior trajectory that you had. I mean, is that something you've always had in your life, or did it just happen that way, or personality trait kind of-- how do you-- how does that happen? How do you leave behind these wonderful careers and jump to the next one and-- I mean, it's obviously worked out for you but I think for a lot of people that's a really scary thing, right? And that's why they end up staying in roles for a long time, maybe. 

JOHN: 19:42 

Well, I mean, part of it-- it's a combination of things, right? Part of it is circumstantial, and part of it, it was me just going, "Hey, I got to make a change" for some reason. Take, for instance, the law school thing. I was there for two years, and a year in I was pretty much like, "Yeah, this just doesn't feel me." You know? I became disillusioned with the whole concept of being a lawyer. 

JOHN: 20:07 

My father, like I said, was a really prominent business bankruptcy attorney and absolutely a perfectionist to the end. And so I watched him all my life, I mean, just going over every teeny little detail, and he'd talk about the cases with me and I was always amazed by-- that no stone left unturned. And I mean, no pebble left unturned. Just insane. And he would-- he brought me up in such a way that kind of forced me to analyze things very, very carefully and very, very deeply and it was almost like a casual-- like that's just the way we talked. And so when I got to law school, I was like, "Wow, these guys are really glossing over a lot of crap and kind of just taking things for rote." 

JOHN: 20:48 

And I knew intuitively, right-- so I'd done two years in aerospace and at one point there was a case that had to do with a guy that got blown off a mountain because of an explosion and whether or not he was liable or the government was liable. And everyone was saying-- how did it fall out? Well, I can't remember exactly what it was but I knew based on the distance from the blast presented in the case that there was an overpressure of about two atmospheres, and I was like, "Oh my god. It's so obvious that someone should have known standing there that this is going to happen." And I tried to present this idea in the class, and everyone was just like, "What? What are you talking about?" And I'm like, "I'm talking about science. Hello? You can't just rely on what these words are in this book. I mean, they are basically the opinions of lawyers who are told things by other people." And I got frustrated. 

JOHN: 21:40 

And so leaving law school was painful on the one hand because I felt like I'd let my father down a bit. He really wanted me to be a lawyer. And I knew I was kissing away what was potentially a very lucrative career. But it was so not for me just based on my disillusionment with that. I was like, "Jesus, if I become a lawyer, I'm going to have to fight against this all my career, and it's going to drive me up the wall." And Apple Computer was an absolute life's dream for me, I mean, like I said, I started using Apple computers in 1978. And I was one of those kids who literally got in schoolyard fights over whether Apple or IBM was the better computer. 

BRIAN: 22:17 


JOHN: 22:18 

Exactly, right? But-- Well, these days it's-- things have kind of changed a bit. 

BRIAN: 22:23 

[laughter] We're going to segue into a tech podcast here shortly. 

JOHN: 22:27 

Right. But, I mean, I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to computers now, but I was so starry-eyed with the idea of Apple. And when I got there, I mean, back in-- let's see, this was 1999, Apple was really making the surge. I was there in the room when Steve Jobs announced that he was going to be the CEO. I mean, if you ever heard of the celebrations going crazy, I mean, that room just blew up. It was insane. And I was right there. And it felt like I was really a big part of things. And there was no part of my Apple experience that wasn't great, you know? Back in those years, I mean, we all had our own offices, and it was really great, and there was lots of enthusiasm and we were screwing around a lot, and-- And I met Steve and I was able to actually converse with him on a human level, right? And he was a cool guy. I mean, it was just-- it was awesome. But the commute killed me. And the social life killed me. And when I was-- I mean, man, when you're carving fifty miles each way doing 110 miles an hour up and down this fast freeway on a motorcycle, and you're riding regardless of the weather, after a while you're like, "You know, I'm just rolling the dice too many times. I can't do this." And that's why I switched, right? 

JOHN: 23:39 

And we knew the layoff train was coming down the track, right? When 9/11 happened, all the company [inaudible] were like, "Oh, we're not going to lay off. Apple's going to be fine." "Yeah, right." We saw it start happening. And I was like, "Yeah, I know the--" I was helping code the automation to basically replace what I was doing. And I was like, "This is not going to work out very long." And all I saw was, "Hey, it's going to be less stress and about the same money." 

JOHN: 24:00 

And actually, when I got to Mercedes, I mean, I was making twice what I was making at Apple. A lot of people don't know that. When you take your car into a service department and you talk to the service advisor, I mean, they're basically paid on commission, okay? No big surprise there. But they're making some fat cash, especially at the high-end dealerships. You go to Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, they can make a decent living at it. It's a good career, it's-- and it was an interesting experience too, because stepping away from the tech, I was suddenly working with what people call mechanics. I prefer to refer to them as technicians because they are actually pretty smart people. They're working with a lot of high-end stuff and it was a good experience for that change for me. 

JOHN: 24:41 

And then stepping away from Porsche, yeah, I mean, sure I got to drive a 959, and I got to drive the Carrera GTs, and hang out with the billionaires, and it was really cool, and I had my own Porsche, and, "Ooo, ahh," and all that. But you're just flogged. You're just flogged for 12 hours a day. You get home and you're just done. Your feet hurt, you're tired, you don't want to do anything, and I was like, "I can't do this anymore." And I'd kind of reached the apex of what I could do mentally. I was creating projections just using Excel and the data that I could glean that were really super accurate and they were awesome but nobody in the car industry appreciated them. Because they were like, "Well, you know, we do things the way we do things because that's the way we've always done things." And only now, I mean-- 

BRIAN: 25:23 

Worst phrase ever. 

JOHN: 25:24 

Right? Exactly. And especially for me, because I'm like, "What? I really don't care how you've done things. I'm going to do things a way that might be better." And only now are you seeing some major corporations step in with some pretty smart people and they are changing the industry, and it's good. But back then, I was like, "Yeah, I don't want to do this anymore. It's just too much stress." 

BRIAN: 25:43 

Yeah. Yeah. So bringing us back to the data science piece of this and what you're doing today one of the things I also heard you talk about there was that you're a DIY guy. And I think that one of the things we've found in these types of professions - data analysis, data science, so on and so forth - is one of the requirements, I think, to be really good at this is a natural curiosity. And it also strikes me perhaps that to be a DIY type of individual-- there's a similar trait there, it's the curiosity about things, it's "How does this work? Can I take it apart? Can I put it back together? Can I do that myself without help?" Am I on target there, are those-- is there a relation there? Or maybe you can talk a little bit about your view on how being a DIY individual has sort of at this point melded with the work that you do from an analytics perspective. 

JOHN: 26:43 

Yeah, so let me think back here. One of my-- I'll just start with an example of one of the projects that I did that was really kind of fun. I was doing-- I was working as a contractor doing contracting through-- well whatever-- I was doing-- not contracting, consulting. I was a consultant. And we were presenting to a company, a high-end furniture company here in the Bay Area, and it was pretty run-of-the-mill. They basically just wanted to kind of chunk their data and get some basic sales results. They wanted some dashboards. And we were sitting in the meeting. I was being kind of quiet. The sales guy was talking. And then it kind of got to a low spot and the salespeople at the furniture company were like, "Jeez--" They were kind of just saying, "We wish we could predict the buying patterns of our customers." And I was just like, "Well, why couldn't you?" And they said, "Well, you know, it depends on this and that. And you can't exactly ask a person a bunch of details like what their race is and what their religion is and all this sort of stuff when you're asking them to buy something online." And I was like, "Why?" And they were like, "Well, laws." And I'm like, "Oh, bum. Yeah, that sucks." So I said, "Well, wait a minute. What if I could build you a thing that could predict that?" And they were like, "What? No way." And I'm like, "I don't know. Give me a little time. Let me see what I can do." My VP of sales was looking at me like, "Oh god, here we go again." And so I get back to the office and he's like, "What are you thinking of?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I really genuinely don't know. But I have a scratch idea in my head that maybe we could find some data." And he goes, "Whatever, dude. Just do what you do." 

JOHN: 28:22 

So I sat down and I started scouring the Internet, and I started with the idea of if I could take your name and determine your nationality and your gender and then I could combine census data and I could take data on buying patterns, maybe I could make something out of this. And I actually found some tables that were publicly accessible. I mean, it's amazing the amount of data that's out there we can get now. Just tables out there that literally linked nationality to last name, and it kind of sort of had a probability factor built-in. It was like by most common top one thousand this and that. And I took that, I took the tables that said if you're named John you're a boy, and if you're named Sally you're a girl to whatever percentage chance because I guess there are some girls named John or something. But I took those, I grabbed the census data that was available, which is-- that's a really interesting thing, because the way the government publishes is really screwy, and then all these companies chunk it for you, and they want to charge you money. And I was like, "Well, I can't go to my sales VP and ask for that." So I had to figure out how to match the codes to what it was and what everything meant. That was-- if you've ever interpreted raw census data, it's awful. It's very difficult, but I got that and I actually found data on buying patterns based on wealth and nationality and a few other details - seasonal stuff - and stuck it all together. And it wasn't like super data science. It's not like I'm writing predictive algorithms here. I can, but I wasn't doing that. 

JOHN: 29:57 

And we actually went back to the company and I was like, "Check it out. If you give me the name of a person and you give me their ZIP code, I can pretty accurately predict based on their purchase history and this information I've gleaned where they're going to go with that. Whether or not they're going to continue to be a customer, or whether or not they're going to spend a lot of money, or what kind of marketing information can you send them, or what other things would they be interested in." And nowadays we have a lot of other ways of collecting this data. We all know Amazon, right? You go on Amazon and they're going to advertise to you six ways from Sunday, and part of it's because your cellphone listens to you - conspiracy - but-- 

BRIAN: 30:34 

Tinfoil hat. Tinfoil hat. 

JOHN: 30:36 

Yeah, exactly. But this was, oh, I don't know, seven or eight years ago before this stuff really blew up. And they loved it. They were like, "Oh my god, you've got to be kidding." And they took it, and my VP of sales was just like, "Oh god, this is awful." Because it's so un-PC, right? Because you're not supposed to pay attention to gender and nationality and all this sort of stuff. And I'm like, "But isn't that what marketing people really want?" And he was like, "Well, yeah, but we're really not supposed to pay attention to it." I'm like, "Okay." Well, we actually went to a trade show, and I kind of quietly showed that to a few people, and pretty soon we had a crowd. And again, he's face-palming just like, "Oh god, you're going to get us sued." 

JOHN: 31:16 

And a lot of people like this kind of stuff, and it was just the idea of, "I don't know how to do this, but I'm sure there's something out there that's going to direct me in that direction." And I just stuck it all together and it kind of worked. And that's kind of the way I work now. I mean, the other day I met with a sales VP here and he's like, "You know, this dashboard you created, this pipeline is fantastic. But it's monthly." I'm like, "Well, yeah, of course, it's monthly. Because that's actionable." And he's like, "No, no, no, we want it quarterly." And I'm like, "Well, you can see it quarterly." He goes, "No, no, no. I need these bars quarterly." Right? And it's like-- sometimes it drives me nuts how people want visualizations in certain ways. And I'm like, "Okay." So how do you take pipeline data that has so many rows per month on any single opportunity and just grab the applicable row for that particular quarter? So I don't know how to do that, but I look at the data and I just kind of go through it. I'm like, "There's got to be a way to do it." And so I start setting flags and running examples in Alteryx and just kind of organically let it bubble up to the top. And that's kind of how it's always been with me. 

JOHN: 32:27 

And in data, I'm kind of like, "Never say no." There's no way you can't do something with data. There just isn't any way you can't do something if-- there's always going to be a way to manipulate the data to get what you want. That sounds horrible, but what I mean is there's always a way to get the results that you're intending to get. 

BRIAN: 32:45 

Hmm. Interesting. And the other thing I hear-- a lot of what you're talking about is you're an efficiency man. I can tell. You're all about doing things in a way that is new and interesting and scalable as long as it's an efficient process. Am I picking up on that right? 

JOHN: 33:05 

Yeah. So, I mean, time is pretty much our most valuable commodity. And I've always-- I don't like wasting a lot of time sitting at red lights or traveling, so that's why the motorcycle thing happened. When I was living in the city-- I got back from college, I got an apartment up on top of Twin Peaks way back when they were cheap, right? Check this out. It was a one-bedroom apartment with a working fireplace and covered parking for $775 a month in the middle of San Francisco with a view - it was a 160-degree view from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to the South Bay - and a deck. And I was on the third floor. It was amazing. 

BRIAN: 33:44 

I'm going to look at the analytics for the show after it comes out and you're going to see a massive drop-off of everybody in San Francisco just stop listening at this point out of disgust. 

JOHN: 33:54 

Right? Well, this was 1994, 1995. Anyway, so I had this awesome apartment and I got a contract job at - what's the name of that place? - Duty-Free Shops. Boy, that was fun to work. Got chocolates all the time. Oh, they were so good. And so they're at 525 Market downtown, and you wouldn't think that you're going 3.5 miles as the crow flies. Like, "That's not a bad commute." Yeah, no, two buses and an hour. Seriously. Two buses and it took an hour. And I was like, "No, that's just not happening." So I saved my pennies - what little I had - and I bought an $800 motorcycle, a Suzuki GS550L. I mean, the thing was just a brick on wheels but it got me where I needed to go. And I turned a one hour commute into 11 minutes, and it cost me 90 cents to park all day. Now it's like $5 a day, but whatever, still. I don't like wasting time doing stupid stuff like sitting in traffic or commuting. 

JOHN: 34:51 

Alteryx is really cool for efficiency because you can really cut to the chase on a lot of things. You can just very easily-- the interface is-- and I know this is like a really random, quick segue, but one of the things I like about it from an efficiency point of view is it's no-baloney. I think I used a different word when I wrote the email to you, but it's really no-baloney. When I saw the designer, I was like, "Wow, this was written by someone who just wants to make it work. Like, doesn't need to fluff it up with a bunch of anti-alias graphics and a bunch of other crap that's going to slow it down. This thing just works." And I was delighted to hear you guys used game designers in part of the design process - part of the UX. Because game designers pay a lot of attention to that kind of stuff, right? Performance is key. And, yeah, I don't-- that's one of the reasons-- well, I shouldn't slam your competition, but there are other companies out there that have pieces of software that are designed to look pretty and they're just slow and confusing. And I never cared for that sort of thing. But yeah, efficiency is a huge thing for me, right? Do it right the first time so you don't have to do it a second time. Maybe spend a little bit more money on the better product so you don't have to keep buying it. That kind of thing. 

BRIAN: 36:09 

Yeah. One of the things I always say to my team and my wife and all kinds of people that'll listen - and you can tell me if I'm on the right track here - is that I think oftentimes the word efficiency or the idea of efficiency is very misunderstood or at the very minimum it's been mangled to-- people use it in a way that it's not what it's meant to be. And what I mean by that is a lot of times you'll hear people talk about efficiency in the way of-- efficiency is about doing more, right? And what I say is, "No, efficiency is about doing what you're already doing better or well to get the time back so that then you can do more." Right? Doing more is a byproduct of being efficient with the things you currently do. Do you agree with that? Is that kind of in the way that you think of it, or do you think of it a different way? 

JOHN: 37:11 

I think that's really accurate. I mean, I think it could be either one, right? Either doing it faster-- doing the same thing faster or doing more in the same time essentially. Which is, I think, kind of what you're saying. I agree with that, yeah. 

BRIAN: 37:24 

Hmm. Okay. Good. So I guess we should let people in. We've drug-- we kind of buried the lead here. I referenced this email at the top. So I guess I should let people in on that, which is to say that we're putting together a little bit of a customer advisory board here at Alteryx. And we sent out some invitations and feelers for who might be interested, and I received this email back from one John Poppin. You might know him. And it was this big long-- I don't know, how many words do you think that thing was? A couple thousand words in there? But it was this impassioned, almost manifesto-like email, and I was just blown away by your passion. And a lot of the stuff that we've talked about here, which is-- this is the genesis of getting you on the show, is I read this email and I thought, "Wow. This guy has a lot to say, and we should get him on." 

BRIAN: 38:19 

And so I did what one naturally does when you receive an email like that, which is forward it to the whole company. And I got tons of feedback back of folks saying, "Hey, this is awesome to hear and see, but it also gives us more ideas about where we should be going, and how people perceive us, and what are they like and not like," and so on and so forth. And so anyway I just wanted to put that out there because it was quite a moment for me and quite a moment for a lot of folks here. Thank you for sending that. And we're super excited about your passion and super excited to talk to you here and talk to you ongoing about things because I guess if we're going to segue back to the Jobsian way of thinking, the best ideas have to win. Right? It can't be about ego, it can't be about your position in the org, that kind of thing. The best idea has to win, and I felt a lot of that kind of coming through in the things you were saying in the email. 

JOHN: 39:21 

Well, I mean, let me address kind of the impetus of the email. I was invited to be part of the initial set of people for the CAB, and I listened to the meeting, and I heard you talk about the various things, and I was like, "These guys, they really try. They really, actually care and they really try and they really are working hard to make this fabulous piece of software." And while I was listening to that I was thinking about my experience with Alteryx. So, I mean, obviously, I've seen a lot of software, and I've worked with a number of different data-wrangling pieces of software. And it goes to a level of efficiency, it goes to a level of attention to detail, and I just realized listening to an introduction to the CAB that I have never worked with a piece of business software of any kind, whether it was data, or a CRM software or whatever that is just so geared toward, "This is going to work for you." I mean, it's like a no-baloney tool chest. And it-- I knew that you guys needed to hear that. I just felt like I want to tell you this, because I'm so elated with just there's-- it sounds bad to say no-frills, but it is. I mean, like I said, there's no baloney graphics, there's nothing that slows it down, and it just works. It just works. Obviously, there's little points of frustration and I'm sure there's-- I'm going to have letdowns. Like I said in the letter, I know you guys are not working on flying sharks with lasers and that sucks. 

BRIAN: 40:59 

Not that you know if, John. 

JOHN: 41:00 

Oh, well, okay that's cool. That's really cool. But-- 

BRIAN: 41:04 

We'll edit that out. 

JOHN: 41:04 

[laughter] But it's just such a great piece of software. I really wanted to tell you that. And when I got running, started typing there, it just kind of ran. And yeah, there was a little comedy in there, but it's really all true. I really feel like you guys have hit the nail on the head with respect to what you're doing, and I don't see any reason to use any other piece of software for doing what we're doing. And I want to learn more. And that's why I wrote it. 

BRIAN: 41:36 

Alright. Great. So we've made it to our community picks segment. John, what's been interesting to you out there lately? What should people be-- what should they be looking for? 

JOHN: 41:45 

Honestly, the Alteryx Inspire thing coming up in Nashville is really big on my radar right now. I had such a fantastic time at the Inspire event in Anaheim - it was literally better than Disneyland - that I can't wait to see what's in store for us there in Nashville. And so I've got to say that anyone who hasn't heard about Inspire or is on the fence about going, I'd really encourage you to get into it, not just to help the community but because it's a damn good time. Alteryx surprised me last time at Anaheim. I didn't expect going to an event like that would be really so much fun, but it was. I mean, of course, it's a collection of a bunch of nerdy, geeky people, and you're all talking about nerdy, geeky stuff, which is fun. But the activities, the after-parties, the food - god, you guys did a really great job with the food - and the entertainment. 

BRIAN: 42:46 

We like to eat. We like to feed people. 

JOHN: 42:47 

Yeah. Oh so good. The food-- I can't go. And obviously, Nashville is going to have a lot of that. So yeah, definitely that's my pick. 

BRIAN: 42:56 

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And for any listeners out there, we actually have an exclusive promo code. You can get 15% off your pass to Inspire Nashville. The first 100 people who use the code "inspirepodcast" - no spaces, all one word - "inspirepodcast" when they register. For my pick, I got one that's a little off the wall, but I'm going to bring it back around to analytics here. So there's this new series on Netflix called 7 Days Out. I don't know if you're a Netflix guy. Do you watch Netflix, John, are you into 7 Days Out? Have you seen this? 

JOHN: 43:30 

I have not heard of that. No, I haven't heard of it. 

BRIAN: 43:32 

Okay. Okay. So this will be great. You'll love this. So they have I think five or six, maybe seven episodes, it's the first season, and the premise of the shows are they are cataloging what happens in the seven days prior to some large world event happening. And so they did the Westminster Dog Show, and they did a fashion show, but the one that caught my eye was they did an episode on Cassini, which is the space probe that we had sent to Saturn. And what was great about this episode is they're interviewing all of the folks at JPL, which of course is just up the road here in California. And what they were talking about that I found really interesting is really the data part of it. 

BRIAN: 44:17 

So they sent this probe. It's like a-- what is it? A billion miles away. Saturn's a billion miles away from earth. And they were talking about how what the satellite does is it pings back this data in little spurts back to Earth. And that data-- basically the communication has the same power as a refrigerator light bulb. It's a very faint, very, very faint signal that has to travel a billion miles. And then once it gets to Earth we have three stations around the world - arrays of telescopes and listening dishes and things like that - that are bringing in that data. And over the course of the years that it's been up there, like a couple of decades, it's orbited Saturn like 200 times, it's gone to all the moons, and they were saying that with the data that they have coming back in those little spurts, they can tell where the spacecraft is at within 50 meters. 

JOHN: 45:17 


BRIAN: 45:18 

And you think about that over the space of a billion miles doing 200 laps around Saturn, right? That is incredible. And we talk about data and analysis. And just imagine swimming in that every day. So anyway, I hope I didn't spoil too much of it, but I don't think so, because there's a huge emotional human component to this show as well. But we'll put a link to that in the show notes. I think everybody should definitely check that one out. 

JOHN: 45:44 

Cool. I will. That sounds really good. It sounds like it's really a lot of fun. 

BRIAN: 45:48 

Yeah. Alright. Well, John, thanks for being on the show. Thanks for telling us some great stories. And we're looking forward to seeing you at Inspire. 

JOHN: 45:56 

Awesome. Thank you. 



BRIAN: 46:07 

Thanks for listening to Alter Everything. Go to for show notes, information about our guests, episodes, and more. If you've got feedback, tweet us using the hashtag #AlterEverything or drop us an email at Catch you next time. 



BRIAN: 46:37 

So, John, let's talk about space. 

JOHN: 46:40 


BRIAN: 46:41 

So we talked a little bit earlier about our upbringings and computers and your time in rocketry and whatnot. I'm a huge nerd. I know you can't see me right now. But I have a big NASA sticker all over my laptop. You know, I grew up kind of wanting to be an astronaut and immersing myself in that world. I'm super envious that you had the opportunity to work in that field for a couple of years. Do you keep track of the current stuff? Are you watching SpaceX and all these guys shooting rockets off all over the place? What do you think about that? 

JOHN: 47:21 

I think the private development of space exploration is fascinating, awesome, and totally necessary. I can't wait to see what's happening next with our explorations, especially to Mars. I'm very enthusiastic about that. A lot of people were talking about-- was it Japan who put a lander on the Moon just the other day? I can't remember who-- 

BRIAN: 47:45 

China. China put-- it's on the-- yeah, it's on the backside of the moon. 

JOHN: 47:48 

Right. And a lot of people-- there was actually a bit of a negative response in some areas of the Internet to that. And I'm like, "What, are you kidding me? This is awesome." I mean, this is fantastic. We're getting interest back in this kind of stuff, and it's going to catapult us forward again. And we need that. We really do need that. There's-- a lot of people don't realize that one of the reasons that the space station exists is because there are scientific experiments or even products that can only be manufactured in true zero G. And some of that actually happens. Those developments-- a lot of our technology comes directly from our space exploration and development and it's going to be cool when we set foot on Mars. 

BRIAN: 48:30 

Yeah. The thing I appreciate about what's going on right now-- you talked about the privatization and sort of the renewal of interest in this stuff. The thing I'm appreciating about it lately is sort of the willingness to fail again. Right? Try some new things, see what happens. Learn from your mistakes. 

BRIAN: 48:48 

And I saw the other day SpaceX had sent up one of their rockets and the first stage was coming down, and there was a mechanical error with on of the fins that deploys. We'll put a link to this video in the show notes. I think it was on SpaceX's Twitter account. They put this video. And they ended up landing the thing in the ocean instead of on land. But it basically came down as if it was going to land on land like always, and it just sort of plopped down in the ocean. And then it turns out it's totally fine and they think they can reuse it again later. And I think that when you see stuff like that happening, the immediate reaction is, "Oh, they failed. Look, the blew it. They landed it in the ocean instead of land." And it's like, a couple of things, first of all, that's really hard to do in the first place, and missing the coast by 20 miles or whatever it was is not the end of the world. And number two, that's great, right? They'll learn from that. They'll fix whatever the mechanical error was, and we'll do it better next time. 

BRIAN: 49:44 

And I think one of the great things about space races and interest in space is that it's something that can bind us all together, right? It's something that we can all get interested in and sort of have a shared experience. And I know that some people think it's frivolous and we should spend the money in other ways but I think that's one of the things the private companies are helping address, right? Is to say, "Well, this isn't necessarily so much public money," and all that. But regardless of that whole conversation, I really appreciate it all, I'm excited about it, and I'm ready to go to Mars. I don't know about you, but any time they want to ship me out, I would love to do that. 

JOHN: 50:23 

Oh, I'm right there with you. Absolutely. Absolutely. Although I've seen-- the movie The Martian's scared me all too completely to death. But yeah, I would definitely do it if I had the chance. But I mean, without getting political, because that's really bad, but there's a huge difference in the way private companies and the government do things. Right? The government typically is very, very slow. They are working with a very, very fixed set of money. There's budgets and politics and all this stuff involved, and so they're going to do it right the first time, i.e. NASA, although they did have plenty of flubs in their moonshot and their other programs. 

JOHN: 50:59 

And the thing that I really like about what we've seen, again without getting political or throwing too much opinion in there, I do kind of like the way Elon Musk looks at things. And his early attempts the rockets blew up or whatever. And I seem to remember him almost laughing at it, being like, "Ah, that was cool. It blew up or whatever. I guess we just have to do it again." And that's-- I love that sort of attitude, like, "Yeah, we're never going to say die. We're never going to say die. We're going to get there. There is a way to do it. And we're just going to-- we're going to do it." And I think it's going to be very exciting to see what else happens. 

BRIAN: 51:39 

Yeah. We all need a little more childlike wonder in our lives, I think, and this is one avenue that can provide that. Plus, to your point, all of the interesting things we learn that end up helping us back here down on Earth. Medicines, medical practices, new technologies, all that stuff. It's really important for the advancement of us as a species and a race. And so, I'm really excited. But do you want to go to Mars with me, John? Should we submit-- I don't know where you go. Does anyone know? If you're out there, and you're listening to this show, if you're still listening to this show, send us an email, let us know where John and I can submit to-- I'll go with you. You want to go to Mars? I'll go with you. 

JOHN: 52:19 

Yes. Yes. Let's do this thing. 


This episode of Alter Everything was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ).