Constructing a Career in Dataviz: Finding Success

My father grew up on a farm in rural Kansas. His father and grandfather were both builders, and growing up on the farm, he gained bits and pieces of experience in building. Later, in his teens, my dad helped with an addition to a family house in Crested Butte, Colorado, and afterward, he figured he had some experience, so he applied for a job as a framer, assuring the boss, “Yeah, I know how to frame a house.” His first day on the job the boss strolled over, inspected his work, and told him, “You don’t know crap.” Then he fired him. Sixty years later, my dad recounted this story while sitting inside a house that he built, surrounded by furniture he built, and looking across the street at our neighbor’s house, which he also built. Which is all to say that success rarely comes in a straight or expected path, and often only comes after time and failure (the convergence of the two can, in its totality, be attributed as experience). 

My previous two essays on constructing a career in data visualization outlined the key skills for data visualization and how to learn those skills, but what do you actually do with those skills? Maybe by now you’ve identified a niche you enjoy, you’re developing the skills you need, and you’ve started to produce some work you’re proud of — unfortunately all of that won’t get you far if it happens in a vacuum. This essay will step into that gap and discuss how to take those skills you’re developing and convert them into a successful career (while keeping your sanity along the way). Success means something different to everyone: maybe you want to be a well-known data journalist, or a highly respected educator, or maybe you just want a comfortable job with plenty of vacation time. Either way, achieving your goals will require a thoughtful portfolio, shameless self-promotion, patience, and a community of support.

“I just got lucky”

Ask successful people how they got where they are, and you’ll often hear “I just got lucky.” There’s a nugget of truth in that, but it’s not the full story. Here’s a scenario that never happens: a recruiter spends hours scouring far-flung corners of the internet and randomly turns up your name alongside the word “dataviz” (or some variant thereof), calls around to see if anyone knows you, and somehow finds your info. Almost equally as unlikely is that a recruiter plucks your standard resume out of a stack of similar-looking documents and decides to call you because you had good grades in college or were treasurer of your computing club. That’s not to say you can’t get a job by cold-applying — the aforementioned element of luck is always at play — but in my experience, this method has an abysmal success rate.

So if all those successful folks just got lucky, why aren’t you getting lucky? Answer: because all of those people maximized their luck. Luck still needs fertile ground to manifest, and the more of that environment you cultivate, the better your chances are of capturing some of that luck. If getting your desired job or recognition is like winning the lottery, then joining Indeed and sending out resumes is the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket every week and hoping you’re the lucky winner. But what if you could print 100 lottery tickets per day? A thousand tickets? It might not happen immediately, but now your chances of winning that jackpot are more and more inevitable given time — you’ve maximized your luck. To understand how this applies to success in dataviz, let’s look at another hypothetical hiring scenario, but this time it’s how (most) people actually get hired.

You are consistently producing good work, which you make public and accessible. You have a website and portfolio to showcase this work. You start getting your name out there — writing blog posts, going to meetups, and interacting with community members through social media. You share your work, people start noticing and sharing it, and all of a sudden you’re “the woman who made that awesome rap battles visualization.” Then the next time you submit a resume, your name is instantly recognized. Or even more likely, someone who is familiar with your work recommends you for a position. Now with your foot in the door, your thoughtful portfolio will clinch the job for you.

Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done. Building a good portfolio is deceptively tricky, as is navigating social media. Many of us in the dataviz field are introverts, and self-promotion and networking do not come naturally. But like data analysis or design, these are skills that can be learned. So, based on my own experience, I’ve distilled this process into the most important steps to maximize your luck and convert your visualizations skills into a successful career.

Step 1: Show your work

Dataviz is an inherently visual, medium, so a good portfolio that showcases your work is crucial. If you’re new to the field, you might worry that you don’t have enough work to showcase, but a good portfolio is all about quality over quantity (see: how to build a portfolio without much experience). It’s much better to have a portfolio that has one or two really in-depth case studies of projects you’re proud of than a heap of random charts. Here are three guidelines for building the perfect dataviz portfolio:

  1. Only include the type of work you want to do in the future. I heard this advice from Nadieh Bremer, who pointed out that clients or hiring managers will find a project in your portfolio and say, “We want something like that, but with our data.” So if you don’t want to get stuck building dashboards, don’t include dashboards in your portfolio. If you want to move into a specific field like data journalism, include more data essays.
  2. Show your work and explain your process. UX designers have truly mastered the art of the portfolio, and one of the key things they recommend is including detailed case studies of your projects rather than just photo dumps. This means that, for your major projects, you explain what the challenges were, how you worked through those problems, the solutions you brainstormed, and ultimately how your end product solved the initial problem statement and the impact it left. This lets hiring managers or potential clients see how you approach a problem, how you structure your design thinking, and how you work through difficult scenarios. It ultimately leads to a much deeper understanding of your creative process. Adam Ho’s portfolio is a prime example of in-depth and meaningful case studies.
  3. Show off your creativity. I love portfolios that include a section that highlights creative side projects or experiments. If you spend your free time making some wacky experimental charts, doing creative coding, traversing humorous side projects, or just have a playground for random ideas — show that off! It doesn’t have to be displayed prominently or occupy the same space as your primary projects, but including these assorted works shows people your creative side, shows that you like to experiment and adapt new ideas, and most importantly, shows that you aren’t just some graph drone, but rather that you’re able to capture the fun and excitement of dataviz.
A photo of the author’s portfolio showing a section on art and creative coding.
My own portfolio features a section on my art and creative coding experiments.

A place to call home

Everyone should have a personal website. This site does not need to be fancy or difficult to maintain — in fact, the most important thing about the website is that it’s easy for you to update and use. If you’re a coder, you can choose any tech you like (I love static site generators + Netlify), but if not, platforms like WordPress or SquareSpace are equally good options. Don’t sweat too much over the actual tech of the website, as Tom MacWright says in his excellent article How to Blog:

“There are two things that matter, in terms of blog technology: 1) You own your domain, 2) It works.”

Owning your domain not only lends professionalism to your site, but more importantly, it means that it’s your property, and you control the contents. If your site is hosted on my-name.company.com and said “company” goes bankrupt tomorrow, your content can go with it — not so when you own your domain. Setting up a custom domain is surprisingly easy: you can buy the domain from any number of web hosting companies (you may have to fiddle around a bit to find an available address to your liking, but it shouldn’t cost more than $10–$50 per year), and then follow the instructions on your website deployment engine (such as Netlify or WordPress) to add the domain to your website.

With your site all hooked up, you need to fill in the content with the aforementioned portfolio, a short bio that tells people who you are and what you’re passionate about, and a way for people to contact you. But once that’s all set up, how do you actually get people to look at it? Unfortunately, the phrase “build it and they will come” does not apply to websites. The internet is essentially a giant filing cabinet, and your newly-made website is all the way in the back of the bottom drawer. However, the good news is that there are some very effective techniques, covered in the following sections, to point people to your site that will help you build an audience and eventually allow your website to climb closer to the front of the proverbial cabinet.

Step 2: Make a name for yourself

Most of the good things that have happened in my career are thanks, at least in part, to Twitter. Through Twitter, I have met and built relationships with some of my heroes in the field, gotten speaking engagements, connected with freelance opportunities, built connections which ultimately led to my current job, and most importantly, cultivated a community of friends and peers who have helped and supported me in my learning journey. This is not to say Twitter did all these things for me automatically, rather that it enabled them, by giving me a place to network and promote my work, and allowing me to do so while living in a small town in central Pennsylvania.

Regardless of your goals, you will need a forum to share your work — after all, how will people find that beautiful website you just built if you have nowhere to share it? My platform was Twitter, but there are also large communities on LinkedIn, which is more focused on the business world, and Instagram, which is more focused on the artistic. Navigating social media and building a network can be daunting and often discouraging. When you’re new to a platform you can spend months of even years feeling like you’re shouting into a void. As someone who has gone through these stages of social media development, I can say it gets better, and it often accelerates in multiple step changes. Here’s my best advice on how to get over the hump and build a meaningful community on social media:

  1. Consistency and quality are the most important factors to building a following. It may take several months or longer, but don’t let that discourage you. If you consistently post quality material, your online presence will grow.
  2. Quality material includes: work you’ve produced that you’re proud of, helpful blog posts or learning resources you found, work you think is wonderful and inspiring, technical tips and tricks (people love these), personal stories of how you overcame some obstacle, or your thoughts on a particular issue or discussion in the dataviz world.
  3. Potentially dangerous material includes: posts that attack other people’s work, excessive posting about controversial topics (obviously some is OK, you’re a person after all), “funny” posts — this one is tricky because coming up with a viral meme can really boost your exposure and is a quick way to gain a lot of followers, but being funny on the internet is tricky; you’re walking on very thin ice — it’s easy for a joke to be misinterpreted or just straight up inappropriate in such a public setting, and your attempts at humor may backfire.
  4. Don’t argue on social media. Social media tends to bring out the worst in people during disagreements, and most platforms are not designed for any sort of thoughtful or nuanced discussion. You may feel like you have a duty to respond when you feel someone is being wrong or offensive, but social media is just not the place for it, and trust me that no good will come of it. The best social media decision I’ve ever made was to simply never argue with people — the only way to win an argument on social media is to not engage.
  5. Interact with others in meaningful ways. When you see interesting discussions, chime in; when you see work from people you respect, comment and tell them you loved their piece. Thoughtful comments and interactions are far more important than likes or reposts. But please, keep these comments positive and non-creepy: don’t be a reply guy.
  6. Use media heavily. If you share a resource, article, or visualization, try to share it with an image or video of the content in addition to the link. Posts that include media stand out in a timeline and typically have far higher engagement than those that just have text.
  7. Don’t get discouraged. Social media is fickle and unpredictable. Often times the posts that I think will go viral end up dead on arrival, while the things I post randomly will be some of my most popular. And remember that gaining followers or connections is a snowball, at first it can be agonizingly slow, but the more momentum you gain, the easier it becomes.
Illustration of people engaging in online communication
Joining and engaging in online communities is a cornerstone of building a successful career in dataviz.

Create resources and gain exposure

When you first join a social media community, you may be awed by the endless available resources, but in time, you’ll find that you can be a part of building that library.

I’m a big believer in blogging. Besides helping others in their own learning journey, here is a sampling of some personal benefits of blogging:

  1. It improves your writing (and writing is an essential skill no matter what career path you take).
  2. It helps you better master a topic — there’s no better way to learn something than by teaching others.
  3. It helps future-you remember how to do something. I’ve referenced my own blog posts dozens of times when I forgot how to do some little code trick.
  4. It brings people to your website and promotes your own work. I’ve gotten more social media follows, more freelance inquiries, and more notoriety from blogging than any standalone work I’ve produced.

If you’re a beginner, you may feel like you have nothing to contribute, but in fact the opposite is true. As a new learner, you’re the person most in-tune with the struggles of the learning process. People that are experts in a field tend to forget what parts of learning were hard and what people really struggle with as beginners. You, on the other hand, are perfectly positioned to write up how you overcame an issue or learned a particularly tricky concept.

If blogging is not your thing, there are many other ways you can contribute: video tutorials, open-source software contribution, or sharing code notebooks. And if you’re still not convinced that public work is a critical part of a data-related career, check out this wonderful talk by David Robinson, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Public Work.

Step into the spotlight

Cultivating online communities and sharing your work is all vitally important, but eventually it will be time to step into the spotlight and put yourself and your work center stage. In the data visualization world, this happens through conferences, challenges or competitions, and awards.

Dataviz challenges or competitions — and the awards that can result from them — are a great way to network, force yourself to complete a project, and gain notoriety. When I was fairly new to dataviz and learning D3, I saw an announcement on the Data Visualization Society Slack about the VizRisk Challenge. I decided to enter on a whim, and that’s where I ended up building my first real data story. The pressure of the challenge deadline forced me to accelerate my D3 and JavaScript learning, and I ended up producing a story about remotely triggered earthquakes that I was extremely proud of.

It wasn’t perfect, and the project didn’t win the challenge (though it did win a smaller prize for “best write-up”), but the work was well received, and in many ways, launched my career. I ended up polishing that initial project and entered it into the Information is Beautiful Awards, where it made the shortlist, and the Pudding Cup, where I was selected as a winner. But in the end, challenges don’t have to just be about winning. I’ve participated in a few other competitions that I haven’t won, but in every case, I’ve met important people, developed meaningful collaborations, and completed projects I was proud of. With some challenges, you may even end up invited to a conference to showcase your work, which brings us to the next way to put yourself in the spotlight.

My own talk at rstudio::conf resulted in many new connections and collaborations

Going to conferences is both intimidating and important. Face-to-face mingling, and the attention you get as a presenter can be crucial for building relationships and landing a job. Through conferences, I have made lasting connections with people I respect, met wonderful collaborators, and even landed my current job from a connection I made at a conference. Conferences have driven a lot of engagement for my own career. If you’re going to a smaller conference (less than 200 people), it’s not necessary to present, and you can make enough connections just from mingling. At larger events, though, you should try to land a presenting role of some type. When you’re starting out, it can be hard to land a full speaker position (though there’s no harm in trying), but it’s much easier to get a poster or lighting talk, and if these smaller presentations go well, it can catapult you to a full talk at future conferences.

Step 3: Maintain your sanity and be patient

At the beginning of this essay, I told the story of my father getting fired from his first construction job, and eventually overcoming that failure years later when he would design and build multiple houses. Like my father, you will likely face many disappointments in your learning journey and your career: awards you don’t win, contracts you don’t get, and projects you have to abandon. When you fail, it’s important to “fail properly.” First, let yourself grieve — it’s perfectly OK to just be sad and upset. It’s also important to realize that others have been in the exact same spot. If you voice your disappointment to your friends you’ll likely get many replies carrying the essence of, “I’m sorry, I’ve been there, it sucks.”

Then, when you’re ready, regroup and evaluate what went wrong and what you can learn from the experience. Sometimes there isn’t, we try our best, and the world is just cruel. But other times, you might get some worthy criticism or evaluate if a project failed because of poor time management or planning. Finally, let go and move on, history will remember your successes far more than your failures.

Patience is a virtue

There was a nearly 20 year gap between my father getting fired from his first construction job and him building our home. Your personal journey to a rewarding dataviz career will likely not take that long, though at times, it may feel like it is. Developing new skills takes time, and it’s easy to feel like you’re not making progress when you’re just starting and looking at a long road ahead. The only advice I have is to take your process one step at a time, breaking your long-term goals into smaller achievable pieces.

If your long-term goal is to become a data visualization developer for a successful company, break that down into smaller stepping-stones (learn D3, improve UX design knowledge, etc.), then keep breaking those down into smaller goals until you’ve arrived at a set of tasks that can be completed in a couple days or a week, like finish week 1 of online D3 courseread a chapter of The Design of Everyday Things, and write a rough draft of a blog post. Without breaking your goals down into manageable pieces, you run the risk of analysis paralysis, where the size of a task becomes so intimidating that you struggle to even begin. There’s several organization apps you can use to manage these goals: I use Notion to track and organize my tasks, categorizing them by project, priority, and difficulty. Keep your tracking system simple to ensure that you actually update it, and keep your tasks small to help you maintain momentum by checking a few tasks off each week.

The author’s current task list in table format
My current task list in Notion, sorted by priority to keep my most important tasks at the top

Step 4: Cultivate a community

If there’s one truth to building a house and a career in data visualization it’s that you can’t make it alone. I’ve mentioned several times throughout this series of essays that you will need to lean on your community during your learning journey and the rest of your career. Communities can be both large and small — it can encompass the whole of your Twitter-verse, it could be a few choice friends you’ve made through meetups, or it could be a small group of people you’ve met online who share your interests. As your career grows, so will your community. Devote substantial time to community and it will be paid back in multiples.

Since data visualization is our business, it’s easy to think of this community just as a professional resource, but it can be so much more. A good amount of my social interaction now occurs through my dataviz community and I count many of you among my friends. And it’s no surprise — after all, we all share an obsessive love for a strange and peculiar subject. When you spend most of your time thinking about and talking about dataviz, it’s easy to forget that this is still a fairly niche interest. The fact that you have methods to connect you to other people that have the same weird obsession is a gift you should cherish.

And if you’ve put time into your community, when you need help, your friends will be there for you. The same was true for my father building our house; he never could have done it alone.

Give back to your community

Being part of a community is a two-way street. It’s wonderful that so many resources are now available freely to us, but if we only use resources and receive support from others, then these amazing communities will die. That’s why it’s important to give back in some way to the communities that you have benefited from. Creating resources is important to grow a community, but if all you do is create things and ask people to look at them, it makes a community stale, like a bulletin board full of self-promotional fliers. Instead, be an active member of your communities: respond to threads, engage in discussion, give feedback, and promote the work of others.

This last point is perhaps the most crucial in this entire essay series. Anyone who gains success has undoubtably benefitted from others promoting their work and helping them in their journey. It’s crucial that as you move up in the world you do the same, pay back that kindness and create a positive cycle of helping others. As you climb the ladder of success, don’t be tunnel-visioned on your own ascent, but instead, reach down and help pull others up — alone you may survive, but it’s as a community that we thrive.

Will Chase is a designer and developer focused on data storytelling and visualization. You can find his work at https://www.williamrchase.com/ and connect with him on Twitter @W_R_Chase.