I feel so lucky to be the Early Career Director at DVS: I get to talk to all sorts of people about data visualization and community-building–two things I love. For this edition of Early Career Corner, I spoke with Dzifa Amexo, an analyst and involved member of the Tableau community. This conversation was particularly special to me because I’ve rarely come across someone so passionate about visualization and community. Dzifa’s words left me energized and inspired, as I hope they will leave you, too.
Simran: Let’s dive right in. How did your interest in dataviz develop?
Dzifa: In college, I chose to specialize in finance and marketing. I took one marketing class and switched to data analytics on a whim. However, looking back, my first exposure to data visualization was as a senior in high school, when we watched the Hans Rosling TED talk with the different countries and bubbles. I thought that it was so cool and the most interesting thing we did in that class. Then, in college, through my analytics specialization, I started learning more about visualization. From fonts to colors, I hadn’t realized there was so much behind the scenes and it brought out a creative side of me. I love dataviz because, with every day and every project, I learn something new.
Simran: I love that. There’s just so much I don’t know about dataviz and every day is so exciting because of that. Through all these projects, is there one that is your favorite?
Dzifa: The first one that I enjoyed–the viz was alright, but the process was something I absolutely loved. It was for a capstone project in my senior year of college that was relatively open-ended. This was last year around the time of the George Floyd protests–someone made a Google Sheet tracking tech companies and what they said supporting Black Lives Matter and comparing that to representation within the company. I thought it was so awesome to have tangible data showing if companies are really “walking the talk” or just engaging in performative activism.
The original Google Sheet was not completely filled in, so I thought this was something I could help collect the rest of the data for. I spent so much time collecting data. It was annoying, but I guess I’m a nerd because I really enjoyed the process of combing through annual reports and briefings. I got to see how these companies visualize their data which, eight times out of ten, were just bad pie charts and also their lack of transparency around data. I put together a ranking system from the statements based off of features that would be meaningful to diversity metrics. Put another way, I tried to understand the words and see whether they were impactful or just fluff. Because it was only for a semester project, I definitely just scratched the surface and would love to revisit it.
My favorite, in terms of aesthetics, layout, and impact, would be my one Viz Of The Day around last August. It was for a Makeover Monday with a social impact theme about contraceptive needs. I didn’t spend a lot of time on it compared to other visualizations, but I love how it turned out in terms of layout and flow. When visualizing social topics, it’s easy to do the aggregate number and say 280 million women are suffering. However, I wanted to make it personal, to show that each one of these women have stories and they are important. The Operations Fistula team picked my visualization as one of their favorites and the possibility that they are using it, that sponsors are seeing it and women are getting access to contraceptive needs is so important to me, even if it’s just one person whose life can be better. That fulfills me to my core.
Simran: Your passion for these projects is so clear! You’ve become such a prominent member of the Tableau community in a relatively short amount of time. How were you able to balance that with being a student and working on visualizations while still pursuing your own learning journey?
Dzifa: When I was a student, I had a lot more free time on the weekends. During the pandemic, I discovered that I’m a homebody. I love hanging out with my friends and going out, but there’s just something about staying home on the weekend and vizzing that gets me in a flow state and makes me so happy.
I also keep a running list of viz ideas. If I’m watching a movie or I’m outside or I’m at McDonald’s and want to viz the number of chicken nuggets I eat per day, I’ll add the idea to the list. I get my best ideas when I’m eating or showering. When I have that burst of creative energy and inspirations from say a newspaper or the grocery store or Pinterest, I’ll get this vision of what the viz will look like, so that will be my spark to start creating.
Earlier this year, I took a few months off social media which was beneficial for my creative flow and energy. I didn’t post my work on Twitter or anything, just Tableau Public. I was cranking out some good, creative work that I was proud of. I think I’d like to do this maybe once or twice a year. My role in the Tableau community is definitely a two-sided coin–it’s great that I get to inspire people, but my biggest fear is that I’ve reached my peak and that I have already made my best work. Sometimes it’s nice to get away and not feel the pressure that I’m putting on myself which allows me to refocus and have that inspiration to just make viz.
Simran: I’m curious…as you started becoming more visible in the Tableau community, did you ever get nervous about sharing your work with a larger audience? What advice would you give to someone facing that?
Dzifa: That is so so real. The first big thing that happened to me was being featured in someone’s Tableau Follow Friday. I couldn’t help thinking that the next work that I put out had to be good or else people would say, “Why did I just follow her? She sucks.” I just get into my head sometimes. If I create something and I’m scared to post it, I’ll step away for a bit. I’ll ask myself: “Is this my best work at this moment?” If the answer is yes, if I feel satisfied and happy with my work and effort, then that’s all I can ask for right now and I’ll hit send. At the end of the day, vizzing is a hobby that brings me joy and I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.
Simran: One thing that really intrigued me was the flow state that you get in. How do you set boundaries, especially when your pursuit of visualization as a hobby is in a professional space and is so screen-based?
Dzifa: I like that question! I am a fan of the Pomodoro method where you work for 25 minutes and take a break for five minutes, but when you’re in that flow state, you don’t want to take a break. That’s why I like to break my projects up into phases. For example, I’ll set an intention to get my annotations done and when I finish, even if I’m breaking my flow state, I know that I’m leaving it in a safe state where I can come back and jump right in.
Something else I’ve been doing recently is reading books about data which is nice–to not be looking at a screen–and still have that inspiration to get that creative flow going.
Simran: I’d love to hear more about some of these data books you’ve been reading!
Dzifa: One that I bought was W.E.B. Du Bois’ Data Portraits book. This was around the Du Bois challenge and I was hooked. I knew he was a civil rights activist and historian, but I had no idea he was a dataviz innovator, so that was interesting to dive into.
One that I got as a gift was Data Sketches by Shirley Wu and Nadieh Bremer. It’s just mind-boggling when I see their work. They use a lot of D3, which I think is fascinating even though I don’t know anything about it, I still got so much from the book. Reading about their processes and seeing all the different projects they’ve done has been somewhat of a magical, inspiring experience.
Simran: In your time as a Tableau Public Ambassador, you shared a role with some of the most experienced practitioners in dataviz…what have your reflections been about this experience?
Dzifa: When they emailed me with the notification, I thought: is this a mistake? I had applied to be a Student Ambassador, but because I graduated a semester early in December 2020, they said I was ineligible for the role because it was a year term. Then, out of the blue, they told me that I’d be a Tableau Public Ambassador! I was so surprised. I let the email sit in my inbox until the day before the deadline to accept…I almost said no. Looking back, there was no reason to say no, but the imposter syndrome crept in. I only really started a few months ago and, at the time, there were only a handful of Black Tableau Ambassadors. I took a step back and thought, “What is the worst that could happen if I say yes?” Though I would do the same things I’ve been doing without this title, I wanted to use this experience to pay it forward since the community had been so welcoming. Additionally, since there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me in the field, I wanted to use my time as an Ambassador to help create a more diverse and comfortable environment and offer advice, feedback, and informal mentorship if people asked for it.
Simran: Right now, your current job description doesn’t include data visualization…are there ways you are trying to incorporate your talent for dataviz into your job?
Dzifa: Right now, none of my specific projects include data visualization, but every organization has data right? While there might not be a data visualization team specifically, there are always opportunities to do that kind of work. So, I’ve definitely been doing my research, trying to connect the dots and network with people in that realm to understand their day to day. I also think networks outside of my company like the Data Visualization Society and the #datafam and LinkedIn are great for professional development and understanding what others are doing in the industry. I’m really doing dataviz as a hobby right now and trying to enjoy myself. I don’t want to lose the skills I’ve acquired and I want to keep my creative juices flowing. In the future, I could see myself exploring fields like data journalism or a role in business intelligence. We’ll see where the road takes me!
Simran: Thank you for sharing. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today and would love to hear if you have any parting words of wisdom for people going into dataviz.
Dzifa: The best thing that has helped me is just getting my hands on data and working with it. Zach Bowders once said “Viz what you love.” That’s such a vibe. It’s a great mindset to have–I definitely learn and explore more when working on a topic I’m passionate about. Be open to feedback and new experiences. Also, I wish someone had reminded me in the beginning that I didn’t have to know everything–you can just start somewhere and learn along the way.
Thanks for tuning in to our Early Career Corner series! Be sure to check out this page for more ways to get involved with the early career community at DVS!
Simran Parwani is the Early Career Director at the Data Visualization Society. She is a recent graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi where she studied interactive media and computer science. When not making or looking at data visualizations, she can be found practicing yoga, listening to podcasts, and exploring wineries in her home state of Ohio.