Alice Boone McKnight on Blazing a New Career Path with Data

Earlier this year, Alice McKnight tweeted an inspirational story that caught the BeDataLit crew’s attention. Alice shared her goal to level up in Tableau. After buying books, subscribing to YouTube channels and eventually following the Twitter #DataFam, she increased the 10% of her workday dedicated to data to 100% by transitioning mid career from the Center of Disease Control to an analytics consultant at a boutique agency. Alice visualized her Tableau journey and took some time to chat in more details about making the leap into the datasphere!

Allen Hillery: Congrats on the new role! It sounds like an exciting journey! What’s going through your mind right now?

Alice B. McKnight: If you told me a year ago that I would leave public health for an entirely new field, I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it. I knew I wanted to make data visualization most of my day-to-day work but hadn’t planned how to make that leap. I truly enjoyed my current work, and most importantly, I had a great relationship with my team and supervisors. Leaving that environment would require an opportunity to meet some specific criteria.

AH: Joining Tessellation fit that criteria?

ABM: My new role as a consultant at Tessellation fit the criteria that made me comfortable making the transition. I had previously followed several people from Tessellation on Twitter because of their involvement and participation in community initiatives. I had used techniques from the blog and the YouTube channel in my own work dashboards. I was confident that I would be joining a talented team that willingly shared that knowledge with the community and each other. A place that valued learning and growth of its employees was essential to me. The nature of consulting requires you to build the soft skills (effective communication, problem-solving, providing insights) and the opportunity to work with data from diverse industries. 

I’m excited to apply and build upon my past professional experiences in this role, to learn from my new colleagues, and share what I’ve learned. 

AH: Tell us about your career journey prior to Tessellation.

ABM: I have always loved science. In undergrad, my original plan was to complete my bachelor’s degree in microbiology and then continue to a Ph.D. After spending my junior and senior years doing immunology research, it was clear that research or academia wasn’t my path. I loved the science but was more interested in the application/implications of the findings. I wanted to have a closer role in improving the health outcomes of people. Luckily, I had a mentor who suggested that public health could be an option for me. 

I eventually graduated from Emory University with an MPH in Health Policy and began my career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC has always been my dream place to work. Before leaving for this new position, I had spent almost twenty years in various positions at the agency. I know that is unheard of at this time but my intention was to spend my entire career at CDC.

AH: What inspired you to learn about data visualization? Did you have a previous data path?

ABM: I wouldn’t say I had a true data path. It sort of fell into the lap organically. One of the core activities of my team was developing, managing, and evaluating eLearning courses and resources for public health and clinical laboratory professionals. We reported data from these courses to internal leadership, external stakeholders, and continuing education accreditation bodies. Eventually, because I was involved in the complete development cycle of our courses, the learning management systems the resources were managed on, and had experience in Excel, I became the data coordinator and led the reporting activities for the team.

Initially, I was doing all of the data preparation, analysis, and reporting in Excel. Over time, I had created reporting procedures, but they were time-intensive, complicated, and inflexible. Excel is a powerful tool, but I knew I needed more. 

“I was very comfortable with the type of data I was working with initially. I was involved in almost every aspect of the data. Having that domain knowledge and familiarity with the data allowed me to learn the tools and visualization principles.”

– Alice McKnight

AH: Is this when Tableau came into your life?

ABM: I can’t remember when I first saw Tableau, but it was part of a larger presentation on data analysis, business intelligence, and data storytelling. Part of the presentation showed a dashboard, and a lightbulb came on for me. We could move beyond our traditional ways of reporting and expand our analysis to uncover trends, dig into how and why our learners utilize our courses, and more concretely and effectively describe and highlight our work to our stakeholders.

AH: Would you agree that your data visualization journey helped navigate your career path?

ABM: Absolutely. Following that presentation, I pitched Tableau to my leadership team, what I planned to show, and how this would benefit our team. I was fortunate to have team leadership that was both open to ideas and supportive of continuous learning. The pitch was successful, and I was provided a Tableau Creator license. Those first visualizations and dashboards were not overly complex, but the stories were new and impacted decision-making on my team. Those first few months of creating those visualizations were the beginning of my current career path.

AH: You talked about reading books and watching YouTube tutorials. How was engaging the #DataFam a pivotal moment in your journey?

ABM: Engaging the Twitter #DataFam changed everything for me. In the beginning, I was primarily learning from books, blogs, and YouTube tutorials. I would want to build a type of chart or learn about a technique, so I would turn to Google. By the end of 2020, I had decided to put the time into really learning Tableau. What I found out pretty quickly was that consistency leads to competency, which leads to mastery. I needed to spend more consistent time in Tableau outside of work, and I needed feedback from someone in the field. I was a one-woman shop in the office. The lack of having someone to bounce ideas off of and learn from was a gap that I felt needed to be filled.

Makeover Monday was the only dataviz community initiative I was aware of at the time. I started participating but never published to Tableau Public or Twitter. A mutual friend reconnected me with Candra McRae, who graciously agreed to provide feedback if I posted to Twitter. At the time, I wanted to say absolutely no to posting on social media. It takes a lot to initially put your work out publicly, and I was definitely apprehensive. However, the chance to receive feedback outweighed my insecurities.

From there, I pretty much went all in. I followed so many people whose work I admired, added their blogs to my bookmarks, subscribed to YouTube channels/podcasts, joined other community initiatives, and commented on people’s work I enjoyed.  The community has so many people creating freely accessible resources and are genuinely engaged in making individuals in the field better. People have sent me critiques or caught a mistake on a viz and reached out to me via DM. There’s no place more encouraging or willing to help than the #DataFam. I became better from picking a tip here from a Tweet or following a thread on the utility of dashboards, or discussing a visualization found in an article.

“The #DataFam is incredibly diverse, with so many voices contributing and coexisting harmoniously. All of those experiences and backgrounds bring ways of looking at data that would be impossible to get in traditional learning spaces.”

– Alice McKnight

AH: I checked out your Tableau Public Profile and noticed your dashboard on Black American Representation in Congress. It received over 6,000 views and 70 likes! You must be proud of this accomplishment. 

ABM: I’m particularly proud of my Black Representation in Congress viz. This was my first personal viz where I chose the topic, sourced, cleaned, and visualized the data. There’s so much value to be gained from doing the entire process from start to finish.

AH: What would you tell someone who is on the fence about entering the datasphere?

ABM: Everyone’s journey is their own. Everyone’s goal of entering the datasphere is different. Whether you are looking to keep your skills sharp, practice using a new tool, transition to a new career, or a creative outlet, there’s something there for you in the #DataFam. Any level of involvement will only make your work better or expand what you know. If your goal is to learn or skill up, I can’t think of a better way than participating in community initiatives and opening your work up for feedback/critique. Even seeing the feedback on others’ work will provide you with so many tips or ways to approach a dataset. 

Posting your work publicly for the first time can be intimidating especially if you are unfairly comparing yourself to others. How to receive and accept feedback is an important skill to have in the data visualization field. Gaining this skill through Twitter or LinkedIn in a supportive environment prepares you for those critiques professionally.

We followed up with Alice right before publishing the post to see how things have been going at her new job. Alice was happy to report that she has one month under her belt and settling in quite nicely. She states, Being a part of the data visualization and Tableau Twitter community has really paid dividends in preparing me for the technical and not so technical aspects of data as a professional. I’m being challenged in so many new ways everyday.” She also shared that she recently passed the Tableau Desktop Specialist certification exam! She has NO regrets in making the career transition at all!

“You can gain so much inspiration from someone’s story; for someone like me who found themselves using data as part of their work unexpectedly, seeing people who didn’t have traditional backgrounds in data analysis or data science helped motivate me to continue the path.”

– Alice McKnight on being inspired by other’s data journeys.

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    1. aldatavizguy says:

      Thanks Steven! It’s our goal to bring inspiring content to you all!


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