Tableau Zen Master
Innovative Partner of the Year 2019
Merlijn loves technology and, as a child, he was always watching his father repairing televisions, radios and other items of technology; this gave him his love of computers and now they are a big part of his life. In 2019, Merlijn received the honour and title of Tableau Zen Master and the Tableau Innovative Solution award.
I am a big admirer of Merlijn’s work and how he continually tries to innovate and thinks outside of the box; his work on Extensions is also cutting edge and leading the way. It was my pleasure to have a conversation with Merlijn about his journey in data and Tableau.
Toan: Tell us a little about your background, and who you are?
Merlijn: My name is Merlijn and I am 28 years old. I am a Tableau Zen Master and work at Infotopics as a developer and Tableau Consultant. Last year, I started AppsforTableau where we create extensions like Show Me More, PictureThis and SuperTables.
I grew up in a family of five in a small city in The Netherlands. As a child, I always told my parents I want to become an inventor and chose to study Mechanical Engineering at university. But after two years, I found out that Mechanical Engineering was not my thing and switched to Business IT and Management.
This was a great decision and in my second year, I started my own company where I built web applications and web shops for all kinds of customers across The Netherlands. In these years, I learned a lot! At university I had lessons in databases, programming, business requirements, etc. and in my spare time, I put these theories into practice at my own company!
I learned Tableau during my research on Big Data and Self-Service Analytics at the Police Department in The Netherlands. I fell in love at first sight. It was such a big difference compared to the existing tools at the Police Department (Traditional BI). I then gave demonstrations across the country and presented at several police departments about Self-Service Analytics.
This is also where I got to know Infotopics; Infotopics is the first and biggest Tableau Gold Partner in The Netherlands and from the first acquaintance, I knew this is the place for me to start my career and learn everything about Tableau and Data Analytics.
Toan: What was it about Tableau that made you fall in love at first sight? What were the key things that really hit you?
Merlijn: Definitely maps! My experience at the Police Department was with Cognos / Excel and being able to drag a City object onto the map and see your data visualized without any preparation was truly mind-blowing.
Toan: Now that is interesting and given your background in web development, it makes sense that you are one of the thought leaders and innovators around Extensions. I am curious, where do you see extensions going? What do you think are the real opportunities and possibilities? Also, what features would you like to see added to the Tableau APIs in the future?
Merlijn: The more extensibility of a platform, the better a platform will be. I feel like opening up the platform is a win-win for everyone. Tableau gets more functionality, developers all over the world get more work, and the end users get a better tool.
So, I would like to see something like extensions in every part of Tableau and Tableau Prep. For example, Tooltip Extensions, Worksheet Extensions and Server Extensions and, importantly, formatting and theming extensibility; Custom CSS Sheets or professional themes from a theme store will boost Tableau bigtime.
The Extensions API is great but there is also a lot of functionality not yet implemented, for example, we often get the request for Show Me More to use the colors people already configured in their sheet, but that is currently not easily possible with the Extensions API.
Toan: I am sure a lot of people have heard of extensions, what advice would you give to people who want to learn how to create their own extensions? What technologies should they explore, and more importantly, how should they get started?
Merlijn: I did a talk about this topic at the Tableau Developer Program Online User Group so I would suggest everyone to take a look at this online meeting here:
Toan: I was on this call and it is great that you are working with Tableau to share your experiences. Tableau projects come in various shapes and sizes, personally speaking, what has been the most rewarding project you have done in Tableau?
Merlijn: My most rewarding project must have been the first big project I did for an independent non-profit organization in The Hague for internationalization in education.
The goal was to get rid of a yearly released book with graphs and digitalize it on a website. We used Alteryx, Tableau Desktop and Tableau Public during this project. On this project, I was the Project Lead and Tableau Developer. We used the Tableau Drive methodology to manage the project and used a Tableau Workbook with fancy graphs to report progress. It was a big success and it is still being used today!
The goal was to create more insights and reduce the amount of work needed to update the data. We have achieved a reduction from 6 months to roughly a week which is incredible! I also liked the beach a lot where we spent a lot of time after a working day and played with Tableau to create cool dashboards like this VOTD.
Toan: What is the Tableau Drive Methodology, for those that do not know, tell us a little about this.
Merlijn: It is deprecated and will be replaced by Tableau Blueprint 🙂 To summarize, it is an implementation plan you can use to make Tableau successful in any company. I really liked it because it gave me good handles like prototyping and rolling out dashboards in phases.
Toan: Working at the beach sounds like heaven. What is your creative process like? Is it calm and collected? Creative chaos? How do you go about generating new ideas?
Merlijn: When I get creative, I feel like an explosion of enthusiasm. A safe environment, happiness and trust are very important for me so when all those parameters are at the right value, I open Tableau and just go. I often dream about crazy things I could do with Tableau and I write them down on my to-do list (which is a very long list). One of those things is a complex game like Mario, but also my Photoshop in Tableau dashboard is something I dreamed of for a long time. Being able to understand complex color calculations makes me very excited!
When the Extensions API was released, I felt like a little kid again, this opened up a new person in me and I could not stop programming.
Toan: I know what you mean about the extension API, I have a big list of ideas to get through. To add to the above, what was the most challenging project you have experienced in Tableau, and why?
Merlijn: I once had to automate a laborious Excel process in Tableau. The goal was to automate a forecasting and budgeting Excel file being managed by one person.
The Excel was built on many large custom SQL queries and a lot of exceptions. After the queries, customization was done in Excel to correct exceptions and incorrect data. I made the mistake to recreate the report (table) in Tableau. Because I refused to use custom SQL, I only used the standard joins and did all calculations in Tableau myself. The report was working for 90% but never got used that much. By automating this Excel, I also frightened the employee who was working on Excel weekly. I also learned that Tableau is just not into advanced table ‘visuals’, and weird exceptions that you can do easily in Excel are hard to manage in Tableau (which is a good thing for a transparent process).
If I could do it again, I would have not recreated the report in Tableau but start all over and talk to the users about the report first. I would also involve the employee even more so he wouldn’t feel passed or ran over anymore.
Toan: Excel to Tableau is becoming more common, but there is such a strong attachment to Excel that people try to use Tableau like Excel. How would you have this conversation with the client? How would you encourage your clients along this journey from Excel to Tableau? Could you give us some insight into your thought process?
Merlijn: Seeing is understanding, so I try to show customers the difference between a table in Excel and an interactive dashboard in Tableau. I ask them questions about specific numbers and ask them to give me an answer within 3 seconds. I also show the difference in maintenance. You can talk about why Tableau is better, but it is so much better to show it live to your customer.
Toan: Tableau is amazing, where do you see Tableau going in the next few years. What features would you love to see, or functionality improved upon? If you were the CEO of Tableau, what would you see as key?
Merlijn: Let me answer this question as the CIO (Chief Inventor Officer) of Tableau; @tableau – I would like to receive a message when this role becomes available.
I currently work a lot with the Extensions API, and I would like to see more and more APIs. Tableau APIs open up the platform and make things possible that you cannot even dream of right now; the Extensions API is a great example of how APIs have changed Tableau, as never has there been so much new functionality added to dashboard development in one year. This is all because of the power of APIs.
As a developer in web applications, I see a digital world which is changing very fast. Tableau gives you the ability to build dashboards very fast. But dashboards are also static. I would like to have features in Tableau which are common in web applications such as responsiveness, animations, more formatting options (rounded corners for example) and themes. Also, the async loading of visuals would help improve the feeling of performance.
There are also things I dislike in Tableau. I never use Viz in Tooltip for example because it drops the framerate of the visual to 5 FPS or something. Every time you hover over a tooltip Tableau freezes and it feels sluggish and not enterprise ready. Tableau is very static and enabling some form of graphical acceleration would make Tableau smoother. Tableau Prep is a great example of this.
Lastly, I develop with Visual Studio Code and it is incredible how many shortcuts you have to navigate through the tool without touching the mouse. Being able to hit CTRL+P and navigate to anything you like helps to speed up my work. More powerful calculations like I mentioned here would also be helpful: https://community.tableau.com/ideas/9713
Merlijn: Certainly, good examples are the new modals for calculated fields, edit axis and sorting. They are based on ReactJS and therefore web-based. Tableau is unifying Tableau Desktop and Tableau Web Authoring to reduce maintenance and improve the user experience. When Tableau is fully Web-based, functionality like custom CSS stylesheet and an embedded Google Fonts will be no issue at all.
Toan: I did raise the idea of creating a CSS Stylesheet ages ago as this would be an awesome way of unifying corporate dashboard designs, do you think this is going to come? For those who are not web developers, what would this allow us to do? Why should we get excited about this?
Merlijn: To summarize: Without CSS the web would be a black and white sheet of paper without color, titles, images, menu’s etc. CSS is makeup for the internet. It gives you the ability to customize every element on the web.
I do not know if pure CSS will be implemented. This requires knowledge of programming and Tableau is all about Self Service Analytics for everyone. I think more formatting options, in general, is the way to go for Tableau. Also, putting the formatting closer to the element you try to edit would be nice. Currently, you sometimes must dig to remove an axis line or something. That should be closer to your mouse.
Toan: That idea just got my upvote, yes, it is strange that you cannot have multiple windows open at once, this does reduce productivity. For the readers, this only has 11 upvotes, so please vote. For those that do not know much about it, or engage much, what is the Ideas community and how can people get more involved?
Merlijn: As a consultant, I receive a lot of feedback on Tableau, things which are missing and often people do not know that you have a vote. You can change Tableau by putting your ideas on the Ideas forum. Tableau will read them all and good ideas will be implemented. So, do you have a complaint or a brilliant idea? Put it on the idea’s forum!
Toan: If you could make 6 ideas magically appear in the Tableau community today, what would those ideas be, and why?
- Powerful calculations: this will speed up our work by 100x
- Animations: to make Tableau more modern
- CSS: to do crazy formatting and neat animations
- Tableau as a web application: I would love to use Tableau anywhere I can without installing it. This would also allow working on the same workbook simultaneously.
- Hyper as a database for all: this will help to make Tableau more of a platform and cooperate with other tools as well.
- Async loading of visuals: I think this was announced somewhere in Tableau version 9 but I haven’t seen it. If visuals could load independently and the dashboard would allow it, you can start analyzing data faster and that would help with the feeling of a performant dashboard.
Toan: Do you think Tableau would ever push animations in the product? How do you think this will help the Tableau mission? I did write a tutorial on creating Google Chart Extensions, and I have to admit that animated Bar Charts look awesome, but do you see this feature coming?
Merlijn: Yes, I think they will come when the product is ready for it. I know there is a TC talk about animation called Tableau in Motion. You should definitely look at it! It clearly explains the benefits and downsides of animations:
Toan: That is an interesting watch. I remember seeing Async loading in a demo ages ago, I was expecting this, but it just never came, I wonder about that… Hyper as a database would be interesting, do you think that is the next step for Tableau? To go further into the backend and offer Hyper as a potential high-performance database solution, something akin to SAP HANA? Or a High-Performance NLP Database? What are your thoughts on this? Is there a gap in the Tableau offering?
Merlijn: I would not call it a gap, but a nice addition to the platform. Currently, if you output as a hyper file, you know there is only 1 product that is able to read that file, which is Tableau. For example, we use Alteryx with customers and we now output as a HyPer file for Tableau, and as Hyper is a very fast database engine, it would be awesome to use it more and more!
Toan: Tableau has an amazing community for learning and there are loads of places to go. What is your top tip for really excelling within Tableau, what is your secret?
Merlijn: Be creative, be inventive and work out things yourself. There are always multiple solutions for a problem. Try to find the question behind the question to really understand what somebody wants to see in Tableau. Are you looking for Tableau Resources? Take a look at YouTube. There are a lot of Tableau Conference videos giving you awesome tips on becoming a better Tableau Developer. Also, interact with fellow Tableau fans and organize community sessions to learn from each other.
Toan: I like quotes a lot, and this sounds like a perfect opportunity to put some out there. Quotes have the power to inspire, so what quote would you give to learners:
- People who have never seen Tableau but thinking about trying Tableau.
- Don’t worry, Tableau won’t bite. At least not in the way you’re afraid of from Excel
- New people who just started their Tableau Journey.
- Think Big, Start Small and Learn Fast
- People who are using Tableau but are frustrated.
- Keep calm and be creative
- People who want to go beyond the boundaries of the tool.
- If you can dream it, you can do it
- A problem is like opening a Tableau Workbook in notepad, it looks complex and messy, but when you approach your problem the right way it will show you a beautiful dashboard.
Toan: Lastly, tell us something about yourself, not about your work in Tableau, but something about who you are, as much as you are comfortable sharing, I want the community to get to know who you are, the human being.
Merlijn: In my spare time, I teach speedskating to children and adults once or twice a week. I also like to cycle with my friends. I live in a very small town with my girlfriend for 3 years already. We are together for almost 9 years now. When I am at home I like to be in my garden, grow some strawberries and enjoy the weather. I also sometimes go skating with my little brother who is also a Tableau user at a non-profit organization. Skating feels like dying at my age. Every time I come home without fractures, I feel like I won haha.
I have a broad taste in music and when you take a look at my ‘Your top songs in 2018’ you will be confused. It moves between dance, pop, classic and even Big Freedia (Thank you TC18).
To conclude, I am a very happy person who is always up for a laugh and a challenge!
Tableau Zen Master
Innovative Partner of the Year 2019
A Conversation With Season 1: