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Note: This content was originally published on Linked-in.
Exactly two months ago, I walked across the stage at the Alteryx Inspire conference in Anaheim, heading for a computer, a pair of headphones, and three mystery workflows. An hour later, in a crazy turn of events that very much shocked me to the core, I found myself holding up the Grand Prix trophy on that very same stage. Exhilarating, terrifying, thrilling, stunning… these are all emotions that still whirl around when I think back to those first awesome moments, with the crowd cheering, music blaring, and Dean Stoecker (@DeanS) rushing the stage with a congratulatory cheer-scream-hug.
But the real journey wasn’t around that “race track” on stage – three quick laps and a blur of dragging and dropping. Rather the real journey began about a year and a half before, with an Alteryx User Group meeting and the need for a volunteer when it came to tackling some Spatial Analytics.
The Starting Line
I did not begin my career as a data analyst. In fact, the earliest thing I can remember wanting to be was a writer (which makes suggestions like, “Hey, you should write a blog post about your Grand Prix experience!” feel a bit like coming full circle!) *FUN FACT: I actually did write and self-publish a fiction novel in a month once through a program called National Novel Writing Month (because apparently, I like to do crazy things at breakneck speed!)
I chose to stick with the numbers for my career, however, and after four years at the University of Washington, I completed my degree in Finance and Accounting and landed a job at a construction company as a project accountant (and eventually a business analyst). For close to 10 years, I truly enjoyed pairing the logic of accounting with the art of constructing something physical. Like probably 90% of Alteryx users out there, Excel was my initial weapon of choice before accidentally discovering Alteryx at a Tableau demo…and then suddenly I had an incredible platform that did all of the things. I was hooked.
Enter the Seattle Alteryx User Group, circa 2015. I had started playing around with Alteryx on a few use cases, but wanted to talk to more active users, especially since I was the only user at my company. I decided to go to my first meeting and heard from actual Alteryx employees about all the cool features being deployed in their next release. A first meeting turned into a second meeting, where I watched a demonstration of how Alteryx interacts with PowerBI to create automated, interactive dashboards. When they asked for volunteers to share at the next meeting, I raised my hand, thinking I could talk about how I was able to connect to some tricky and unsupported data sources. User Group Leader Michael Stead (@Mstead) was bold enough to suggest that in addition to presenting, I should just pledge to continue sharing my enthusiasm and come on-board as an Alteryx User Group Leader with him.
Sure, why not!
Nicole Johnson & Michael Stead, co-leaders of the Seattle-Eastside Alteryx User Group
Fast forward a year, and our Seattle-Eastside User Group needed someone who was willing to tackle the Spatial Analytics category of the new group format for the Grand Prix at Inspire 2017. Since I was planning to attend Inspire and didn’t want to forego the preliminary rounds on a technicality, I volunteered to do the Spatial portion (i.e. tools which I had NEVER used before) and then spent the week or so before the preliminary rounds looking for training and information online. I figured there had to be something.
(As someone who has on occasion toyed with the idea of becoming a writer, this would be the point in the story where terms like “foreshadowing” come into play.)
Picking Up Speed
My search on the Alteryx Community quickly revealed something called the Weekly Challenge. Now for those of us who were at the Alteryx Inspire conference in Anaheim this year, we heard Jane McGonigal speak about the power of gamification, and how creating challenges and obstacles for yourself can truly help you become “Superbetter”, like the title of her book. I can see now that this is exactly what happened to me. Having no other way to play around with spatial data in preparation for the Grand Prix preliminary rounds, I decided to try one of the challenges and see if it was as intuitive as my initial forays into learning Alteryx on my own.
And then I tried another challenge.
Pretty soon, I had completed all the Weekly Challenges that were Spatial in nature, but there were at least 40 or 50 other challenges available at that point, so I started to check out some of those too, figuring it couldn’t hurt to get some extra practice on some of the other tools.
Well long story short (actually, it will probably still be a long story, but hang in there…), the preliminary rounds did not go as well as I had hoped. I knew what I needed to do, and I am positive I could have solved them all… but holy heat maps, 30 minutes is not a lot of time to solve problems you have never seen before!! Team Seattle did not make the finals…but the fire was lit.
I decided to stick with my new Weekly Challenge regimen – partially because I do not like losing and was determined to not be so caught off guard the next time around in the preliminaries – but also because these Weekly Challenges were opening up whole new worlds to me. The construction industry is so focused on the physical and design aspects of a project – marking up blueprints, scheduling sequential construction activities, framing a wall, erecting a tower crane – that even on the accounting and IT side, there were limited opportunities to play around with data. Sure, I automated some billing processes and found ways to report on equipment data with Alteryx - but I was hungry for more challenging problem-solving opportunities that would allow me to expand my new-found skillset. The Weekly Challenges gave me exactly what I needed to fill that practice data void.
Predict next year’s baseball team wins? Check.
Create a macro to optimize the distribution of products from warehouse to store? Check.
Save an astronaut stranded on Mars??!? Double check. (My excitement for this one was extreme, as I am a huge fan of "The Martian"movie… I saved this challenge for last so that I could savor the joy of rescuing Matt Damon. Victory was sweet.)
Alteryx CEO Dean Stoecker during the opening Keynote at Alteryx Inspire 2018, sharing a testimonial I had submitted about how I've been able to "Alteryx my career"!
But something interesting began happening as I completed these Weekly Challenges. As I sat on my couch every evening, working my way through the list, I found myself starting to think differently about the problems presented. As I glanced through the solutions provided by others on the Community, I thought about how I could do it differently – it wasn’t as fun to provide the exact same solution as someone else. So, if I came up with a workflow that looked too much like someone else’s, I would often task myself with finding another way to solve it. It was no longer about finding the same answer as the solution provided. It was about finding a new way to do something: a more efficient way, with fewer tools, or a way that challenged me to use a tool I wasn’t as familiar with or add on some other element, like Reporting tools or App parameters, to make it more dynamic and interesting. And by doing this – by challenging myself to think outside the box – I started to see the impacts it was having on my job as well. I was discovering new opportunities to use Alteryx for use cases I had never considered possible before. I was creating more organized, streamlined workflows, and I was even starting to surprise myself with how quickly I was able to create innovative solutions for problems with a program that I really hadn’t been using all that long.
The Practice Laps
Weekly Challenges were also my virtual introduction to a whole bunch of other people who lived and breathed the possibilities of Alteryx the same as I was beginning to do. I credit Sean Adams (@SeanAdams) with being the first to really reach out to encourage me on the Community, and I will admit that I was extremely honored. Here I was, a total newbie with no background in data analytics and generally no clue about what I was doing with this platform, getting direct tips and encouragement from someone who I could immediately see was like the Dalai Lama of Weekly Challengers. Then I started getting messages from the extremely creative, enthusiastic Alteryx wizard named MarqueeCrew (@MarqueeCrew) (i.e. Mark Frisch, who at first glance appeared to be the Alteryx Community mascot) and suddenly I felt like I’d been inducted into some secret society!
What other online software forums have members who are so freaking excited about the product that they spend their free time helping other users and posting cheerful messages and crafting helpful articles and competing for virtual badges while designing their own tools and macros to fill in the gaps?!? I would venture to say the answer is that no other companies have the passionate users that the Alteryx Community has – and I couldn’t wait to be a bigger part of that Community.
When I eventually ran out of Weekly Challenges, right around the 75th challenge mark at Inspire 2017, I decided to look for something else to do to fill my now-free evenings while waiting for the next Challenge to be posted each week. I quickly discovered that where I might now be lacking new problems in the Weekly Challenge realm, there were plenty of real-world user problems being presented in the Discussion Boards. I started chiming in to answer user questions, based on the skills and tricks I had picked up doing the Weekly Challenges and by watching some of the live trainings offered online.
Caricature of me from Alteryx Inspire 2017 - "I know Alteryx... what's your superpower??"
After Alteryx Inspire 2017, it was clear that I had found my home within the Alteryx Community and its enthusiastic employees and users. I even found a new work “home” while networking at the conference with a keen pair of T-Mobile accountants who were looking to “Alteryx” their accounting department processes. Accounting and Alteryx? All day, every day?? A match made in heaven! Within, oh, about 10 minutes of arriving at T-Mobile, just three months after Inspire, it was evident that they couldn’t have created a more perfect position for me if they had called it “Nicole’s Job Doing Exactly What She Loves to Do.”
At this point, I was already stoked for the next Inspire conference. I had learned so much at the last one and couldn’t wait to give back to the Community on the new Community track. I signed up to deliver a game show session with super-talented Alteryx associates Matt DeSimone (@MattD) and Tara McCoy (@TaraM), and I figured I could give the Grand Prix preliminaries another shot too now that I had another year of practice under my belt. I think I finished 4 or 5 of the 9 workflows available, so I didn’t have high hopes of making it into the final round, but I was still infinitely more pleased with my performance this time around than the previous year. The initial announcement went out on the Community, naming three other contestants from three corners of the globe. I shrugged my shoulders, vowed to practice my speed for next year, and went back to doing all the thingsin Alteryx at T-Mobile.
Fast forward to a month or so before the conference, and I received a phone call from Cailin Swingle (@CailinS) informing me that something unexpected popped up for one of the original top three contestants for the Grand Prix, and since I came in 4th place during the preliminary rounds, I would now have a chance at competing at the event in his place.
Oh sure, sounds fun! (<-- This was me playing it semi-cool on the phone. But inside? YES YES YES YES YES!!!)
Partially terrified, partially elated, and mostly just expecting someone to hop around the corner and shout “You’ve been punked!” at me, I spent the next few weeks wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into. I had no delusions of grandeur about winning, but I was at least reasonably confident that I could rock any data prep portions and figured if I could finish at least one or two laps, I would be extremely proud of what I had been able to accomplish, regardless of where I placed during the actual race.
The Heat of the Race
Fast forward to the day of the Grand Prix.
Let me just tell you that there is not much that can prepare you for walking across a stage with your face plastered on a giant, 20-foot tall screen behind you and music blaring and people cheering and two very animated Alteryx employees jumping around on stage in full racecar driver suits.
All I can say is thank God for noise-cancelling headphones. (Side note: I had a whole bunch of Alternative Rock songs on my playlist to get me pumped up, but for some reason the first song that played when I got to my station and put on my headphones was Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton crooning “Say Something”, and now I still get a bit of a flashback adrenaline buzz whenever I hear that song…)
For those who haven’t witnessed it in person, here’s the general gist of the Grand Prix race format: there are three racers, and three laps. Each lap lasts about 15 minutes, with the first couple minutes spent reading through the prompt with your noise-cancelling headphones on while the MC/s walk through some suggested solutions. Once they give the green light, you have the remaining time (about 12 minutes) to solve the problem and confirm that your answers match those provided. You get one 30-second pit stop with your “pit crew” if you needed assistance after the halfway mark of the “lap”.
My "pit crew" was my super-awesome all-star user group co-leader Michael Stead, who did a fabulous job getting me pumped up before the race as well as keeping me cool(ish) during the race!
The other two competitors were veterans, which was daunting to say the least – Ben Moss (@BenMoss), from Information Lab in London, was a prior European Grand Prix champion…and Matt Agee (@mattagee) from Teknion had competed the prior year in the group-format Grand Prix in Las Vegas. Both are extremely talented consultants who have made successful careers teaching people the ins and outs of Alteryx... Not intimidating at all. (Read: Very intimidating.)
The Final Lap
At this point, the next hour is a bit of a blur for me, but it went something like this (based on the video evidence and animated retellings from just about everyone I spoke to after the race):
Lap 1: Nailed it! Data Prep and Blending is sort of my jam, and I knew right away that I was going to be able to finish that lap. Despite my wireless mouse going dark for 10-15 seconds, and despite knocking my beer all over the desk in my panic to try and fix the dead mouse, I managed to finish the first lap in just about 7 minutes. First to the finish line on Lap 1, I was ECSTATIC!Having started out just hoping to finish a lap, blazing across the finish line and starting out in First Place was thoroughly unexpected. I allowed myself a momentary lapse of coolness and thought to myself, “Are they all going to be this easy??”
Lap 2: The answer to the previous question, “Are they all going to be this easy??” is a strongly emphasized NO. Predictive analytics is most decidedly not my jam, and I bombed Lap 2. Like, “The car went off the track and ended up in the mud puddle in the middle of the racetrack with only 3 tires still attached” bombed Lap 2. I definitely should have taken the same approach with learning Predictive tools that I had taken with the Spatial category the year before…oops. I was knocked down a peg or two after the glory of Lap 1 when I didn’t even finish Lap 2…
Clearly, all three of us are unimpressed by whatever is on my screen at this moment.
Lap 3: Okay, here’s where things got crazy. Recall how I was first introduced to the world of the Grand Prix (and indirectly, the Alteryx Community) while trying out for the Spatial portion of the Grand Prix in 2017? Well, Lap 3 was, poetically, based on Spatial tools. I felt comfortable with Spatial analytics at this point, if not exactly confident, so my main mission was to finish the lap. It didn’t even occur to me that I could still win – I was just so pissed that I didn’t finish Lap 2, I was not going to let that happen again. It was like one of those pivotal moments in a sports-themed Disney film, where the underdogs are down by 7 and there are only 17 seconds left on the clock to travel 82 yards down the field, and the backup quarterback has only this one last chance to save the game and win the Championship title… yeah, it felt a lot like that. But I was focused, and determined not to let history repeat itself.
How did it all play out?
Well I knew time was winding down, and I was close. So very close. I could see some excitement happening around me, and saw the clock ticking down: 11 seconds… 10… 9… there. I had it. My checkered flag goes up, and I’m not sure if anyone else has finished yet either, but all I know is I did it. I finished it! Then I become vaguely aware that another flag had gone up out of the corner of my eye – Matt Agee had finished too, at what appeared to be exactly the same time! What happened over the next few minutes is still fuzzy, but after comparing the execution times on our workflows… then realizing that our computer clocks were off by a few seconds… then going behind the stage to “Mission Control” for their official verdict on which workflow was executed first…the purely unthinkable happened.
There is no way to describe the shock of that moment (Evidence: See photo above). Competing against two truly impressive colleagues, dealing with a dead wireless mouse, navigating a spilled beer and trembling hands, swimming in a suite of predictive tools I had no real clue how to use, and becoming the first individual woman competitor to win in the 10 years of the Grand Prix so far…it was insanity!
The rest of the evening was mayhem. The rest of the conference was mayhem – I was definitely unprepared for how people would react to this kind of comeback story! But over the course of the next two days, I shook hands, took pictures with strangers, tried not to notice when people pointed and whispered, “There she is!” while going the opposite direction on the escalators. It was a pseudo-celebrity experience! Totally surreal. If I had written a “Zero to Sixty: Journey to the Grand Prix” story before this as some feel-good inspirational novel, I’m not sure I could have even imagined such a perfect ending to the story. Instead, I had the chance to experience in real life one of the most thrilling moments of my career at what would have been an exceptional Inspire regardless of the Grand Prix victory!
Post-race celebration with two of my Alteryx Community favorites, Tara McCoy & Leah Knowles!
But the thing I loved the most was getting to tell everyone that the reason I was even able to stand on that stage, let alone take home that ridiculously large trophy, was 100% because of the support the Alteryx Community had given me over the past year. I was able to do the impossible on that massive stage in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena with the cheers of an entire Community behind me, just like I can do the impossible every day at work with the exciting, dynamic capabilities of a truly incredible end-to-end platform.
Crossing the Finish Line
In conclusion (told you it would be a short story long)…while trying to put my thoughts down on paper about this crazy experience, I found the customer testimonial that I had sent to Joe Miller (@JoeM) a few weeks before Inspire, about my experience within the Alteryx Community so far. And the most perfect part about it is that I could completely re-purpose it to describe how I made it from “zero to sixty” and crossed the finish line at the Grand Prix. The message holds true, now more than ever, and it’s one that I hope (that I know!) others will also be able to tell as the Alteryx Community continues to grow among the mighty Alteryx users around the world. I cannot wait to cheer for the next champion on the Grand Prix stage next year and then turn around and continue to light that Alteryx fire within the people standing next to me in the crowd.
Thank you thank you thank you, Alteryx, for empowering me to do all these impossible, crazy, thrilling things.
“The catapulting of my career over the past year is, no exaggeration, 100% due to my participation in the Weekly Challenges… my Alteryx skillset has made me instantly valuable to my company, and the best part is that it doesn’t even feel like work - this is just plain FUN. And I can honestly say that the ceiling on my career has been shattered because of the things I can now do with Alteryx. Someday, in the Academy-Award-esque speech at the conclusion of my exciting and challenging career, I will be able to point to the exact moment when this wild and crazy world of data and analytics opportunities opened up for me – the day I opened up that first Weekly Challenge workflow.”
Nicole co-leads the Seattle-Eastside Alteryx User Group, and has launched an Internal User Group. Her passions lie in inspiring others and sharing the same excitement that she’s experienced in our community. She believes that sometimes, the 10 wrong turns you take to get to your answer actually give you more skills in the long-run than if you’d gotten there on your first try! Follow her on Twitter @The_Real_NJ