I started my career working with IBM mainframe SAS systems that had no visuals at the time. One of my first consulting jobs was working with LG Electronics executives, who began demanding to “see their data.” They weren’t looking for numbers on a spreadsheet; they wanted a way to visualize their data. That was the first time I encountered data visualization. Dashboards came later; my first exposure to enterprise BI dashboards was working on a tool called SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (formerly Xcelsius). I marveled at how quickly people could interpret tons of data on a single screen and make quick decisions. Coming from an artsy background with a love for technology, I was genuinely fascinated. I always wanted to be an artist, and creating data visualizations gave me the opportunity to be an artist whose work had a real impact on companies and lives.
In the SAS, data science world, you have to prove every number. You go into the mode of knowing that any number you present, you have to prove it to a point where it cannot be disproved. When I came into the BI world and started to work with dashboards and reports, I realized that users cared more about the look and feel of the data visualization rather than proving the numbers. That was probably the biggest eye-opener for me. Executives were asking for changes to make things bigger or brighter, rather than asking about the validity of the data. I quickly learned a crucial lesson: No matter how great the data, if the data visualization is poorly designed, no one will use it. It took an intentional mind shift to switch from being 100% data focused to realizing you have to appeal to the human mind if you want to drive real user adoption.
My first encounter with SAP software was when I worked at General Mills where I was tasked with using the company’s robust SAP ERP system with the help of an ABAP developer to automate a very manual supply chain process that was critical to the business. When I got further into my career and started to work with other corporations as a consultant, I kept running into more SAP software. I quickly realized it was a technology solution customers valued and heavily invested in, and one that would allow me to work for some of the biggest companies in the world. At the time, however, SAP was not yet a leader in the BI market, but once it acquired Business Objects, it inherited the BI market leader status and me along with it. By that time, I had built Xcelsius dashboards for executives at companies like LG Electronics, Pfizer, the US Military, Bank of America, and AllState Insurance. I came in from both ends: First I realized SAP customers were mostly major companies, then when SAP acquired the Xcelsius visualization tool, I got completely hooked.
Coming from working on IBM mainframe SAS systems as a data scientist where I always questioned numbers and focused on data, it took me a while to understand how to avoid IT talk when addressing the business. It was an interesting transition for me because developers have a different mindset. When talking to an IT person, I could discuss code and use acronyms. As an analyst, I was not only responsible for ensuring that IT and the business understood each other, but I had to produce applications the users would love and present ideas in a way that was easily understandable to people who didn’t necessarily understand the technology. It took a complete mind shift to master the balancing act between helping IT understand the importance of the user interface while also getting the business to value the data over the interface. I would use visuals as simple as hand drawings to communicate, and that made a big difference.
In June 2009, I became a blogger while working for Pfizer on a transition from a $20 million Hyperion implementation to an SAP BusinessObjects BI solution. I wondered if anyone else was as passionate as I was about working with dashboards, drawing pictures, and looking at data in different ways.