Our first week at The Data School Down Under is done – and what a week it has been! Here’s a brief reflection on my experience so far.


The People

I am one of eight to join the DSAU7 cohort and already I can tell I’m in with a great bunch. Since our original start date was postponed by a month due to COVID-19, we already had the opportunity to meet virtually on Zoom several times between finding out we had been accepted and starting at DSDU. Whilst there was still an element of getting to know each other when we initially arrived at the office (as facilitated by our first task), it did afford us the luxury of scoring off “I wonder what the other people in my group are going to be like?” from our list of new-job apprehensions.

The varied professional and educational backgrounds of everyone in the group coupled with our common ambition to enter the world of data analytics may have led us to this point, but it’s our mix of individual personalities, good senses of humour and weird and wonderful stories from all over the world which have made me glad to be part of DSAU7.

Outside of the cohort, everyone else I have met so far at DSDU has been very welcoming and inclusive to us newbies. The previous cohort, DSAU6, even went out of their way to schedule a Zoom meeting with us the week before we started to introduce themselves and for us to ask any last-minute questions we had. We have had several opportunities to get to know them and members of all the other cohorts even better in person over a few after-work drinks as well, allowing us to pick their brains for what we have ahead of us.


The Learning

The first week’s sessions have been centred around introducing us to Alteryx, a self-service analytics platform which, along with Tableau, will form one of the two cornerstones for our work at DSDU and future careers. The biggest difference between Alteryx and Tableau up to this point was that most of us had no prior knowledge of Alteryx, so we were learning a new program and all its capabilities from scratch.

So far I am very impressed with Alteryx. The user experience is more intuitive and logical than anything I have used before and it didn’t take long for the facepalm moments to hit when each of us realised how much of our time (read lives) we have wasted preparing data in Excel. The training has generally been structured as an introduction to a new topic, such as ‘Parsing & Cleaning’, followed by a worked example as a group, with the remainder of the time set aside to complete a challenge task and ending with a few volunteers sharing their solutions.

What is great about the challenges is you get the ‘answer’ or, more accurately, the desired outcome up front and it is up to us to construct a workflow to get there from the raw data. I have found this a useful way of learning, as you are often able to reverse engineer the outcome, getting you to think about what you are doing and more importantly why you are taking the steps you are taking. The beauty of Alteryx is that there can be several, equally valid, ways of arriving at the same outcome.

Facilitating all this have been our two coaches, Craig and Dave, who combine their expert knowledge of the software with first-hand user experience and real-world use case examples to equip us with all the tools we will need to succeed on our client placements. With these two at the helm, each one of us will end up a top-drawer analyst by the end of this course.


The First Friday

Before we knew it the first presentation day arrived. After we had our headshots taken, we all sat back down for the day’s briefing. Our task was to take one of the Tableau visualisations we used to apply to DSDU, use Alteryx to enrich it with a supplementary data source and then present our workflow back at 3pm. We had between 4 and 5 hours to do the challenge which, thinking back, does sound like a lot of time, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

I chose to use the Viz I submitted as my initial application – the first proper Viz I had ever completed – which was on shark attacks in Australian waters since 1960. The Viz allows the viewer to filter the attack information by shark species, so my plan was to supplement my original data with general information about each species and incorporate that into a Tooltip that would appear when hovering over that species’ icon.

The clock struck 3pm and I was nervous. I had underestimated quite how dirty my data was, so the challenge had pretty much become me giving myself a crash course in RegEx parsing (a topic we were due to cover properly in 2 weeks’ time). I hadn’t managed to get everything done that I wanted to. (Are you telling me you don’t know what ([^,]*) (?:,|$) means just by looking at it?)

I decided I would do the best with what I had, because I knew ultimately it was an opportunity for us to show off to our coaches and the wider businesses over Zoom how far we had come with using Alteryx after only three days of training. In the end my presentation went much better than I had hoped. I even started feeling somewhat at ease up at the screen in front of everyone, which I think attests to the supportive environment the coaches have encouraged and that we, as a cohort, have developed in such a short time of knowing each other. What came as a surprise to me was when our coach, David, complemented me on my delivery of the presentation – something which I have never considered one of my strong points!

Alex Stephens
Author: Alex Stephens