When I joined Northrop Grumman/TASC in 2001 as a web designer, my direct supervisor (“section manager” in company lingo), Jim, was a man in his 50s who made a lasting impression on me at my first performance review.
During the session, he spent a lot of time asking me what I wanted to achieve in my career, near-term and long-term. He then gave me a long list of things that he advised me to do in order to achieve these things; all very specific, all very doable, and all of them things that would eventually put me in a role equal to, or higher than, his own.
At the time I thought managers just told their employees what to do, and if they employees did those things, they got raises or promotions. I didn’t know managers existed who just...wanted their employees to surpass them.
My confusion must have been visible on my face, because he went on to explain his motivation. (Obviously I’m paraphrasing this conversation. I do not remember 16 year old discussions in perfect detail. But this was the general theme of it.)
“I’ve been in business a long time,” he said. “But I’m not really the kind of manager TASC seeks out. I was a mechanical draftsman for years. I don’t even have a college degree. I’ll never get promoted past the position I’m in right now. But I don’t care.
"What I care about, and what I consider a success, is helping everybody in my section achieve as much as they can in whatever way they want. The more people that pass me by, the happier I am.
“As far as I’m concerned, your success is my success--whether the company wants to recognize me for it or not. In my career, all along the way, other people went out of their way to help me get to where I am now, and I’m paying it forward now. Not because it’ll get me money or promotions, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
I’ve had good managers and bad, as we all have. Even before joining TASC I had found managers and leaders who I respected; however, I respected them for their abilities and successes in fields and roles that I knew I couldn’t ever fill. Jim was the first manager I could see as a role model. I identified with him.
I knew I owed my success not only to my innate abilities and motivations, but to the grace of others who helped me along the way, and to plain old luckiness of being in the right place at the right time, or being born a white male.
With Jim as a mentor, I was able to develop my technical skills and move into the field I was interested in (software development); with Jim as a role model, I was able to, when I reached management levels at the company, follow a few basic tenets, learned from him, that resonated with me as a human being and allowed me to succeed, for my definition of success, as a leader:
You are only partially responsible for your success. The other parts are due to luck and to other people helping you.
Your role as a leader is to elevate the people you lead; their role is not to elevate you.
Do the right things by the people for whom you feel responsible, even if (especially if) doing “the right thing” does not benefit you personally.
Use the credibility and capital you have accumulated to benefit other people, rather than to acquire more capital for yourself.
What does this have to do with the Tableau Public community?
We are not a company, even though a significant percentage of us work for a few specific companies, or work together, or supervise/train/mentor one another. We’re all professionals or enthusiasts, but we’re not all at the same point in our careers. Some of us are more vocal than others.
Most of us have dataviz and Tableau heroes and role models to look up to. Some of you ARE those heroes and role models. Some of you are on the journey from the former to the latter.
YOU. THAT group. That last one. You are the group I specifically want to talk to.
You’re not brand new to Tableau Public. People know your name. You have a fair number of public dashboards and people who follow your work. You’ve gotten some degree of recognition.
Maybe you’ve had a Viz of the Day, or your work gets highlighted by the Public team or by some of the other people who run ongoing creative endeavors in the community.
Maybe you’ve had something go viral, either on Reddit or through some other content delivery systems.
Maybe you’ve competed in IronViz feeder competitions and gotten really positive feedback, or been confident enough in your ability that you felt you had a real chance of making it to the stage--maybe you even got there.
The point being, you were once new to this world, and you had heroes and role models. Nobody knew your name, and your technical and design skills were raw but promising. Other people took notice of what you were doing, and promoted it. You started interacting with people who were once your role models. You gained credibility, you gained recognition--you gained capital. Now other people come into the community and see YOU as a role model. They look to you for direction and inspiration.
What are you now doing with this capital you have accumulated?
Are you taking the support and assistance that got you to where you are now, and paying it forward?
Are you actively seeking out newer members of the community and elevating their work to a larger audience?
Are you using your platform, as a visible and respected member of the greater Tableau Public community, to ensure that the conversation--and, as a result, the list of potential role models of tomorrow--isn’t disproportionately dominated by white dudes? Excellence in dashboard design isn't related to race or gender. In a purportedly egalitarian, meritocratic, collaborative community, there should be a diversity of role models, reflecting the heterogeneity of the user base. Are you helping to make sure this will be true for the next wave of practitioners?
Tableau is clearly interested in expanding their community of practitioners across many countries and languages. Data visualization is nearly language-agnostic, in my view. I’m sure there are some cultural differences (in color theory, among other things), but we can largely learn from, and understand, dashboards in a variety of languages, regardless of our own native tongue. Are we doing enough to include, promote, and learn from the people in the community who visualize in their native language?
You’re all the bosses of yourselves. I can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. But if I’m going to continue to act in a manner according to Jim, then any capital I’m ever able to accumulate will have to go right back into building up the next wave of Tableau developers.
Why does this matter?
Because representation is critical for people who are all too frequently underrepresented. A direct way to remedy this underrepresentation is for those who have the eyes and ears of the community to use their capital to give voice and visibility to people outside of the majority. (Sidebar: this is a perverse weakness of "diversity" conferences, panels, initiatives; when something is labeled as "diversity," too many people in the majority can take the easy way out and ignore the issues therein, while telling themselves, "Oh, that isn't for me, I'm not a woman or a person of color, and anyway I already believe in diversity." Change doesn't come as easily from the minority telling the majority, "Listen to us," as it does from people in the majority telling other people in the majority, "Listen to THEM.")
Because growing the community this way leads to more voices being heard by more ears. It leads to more brains developing more ideas; more ideas lead to more chances of one person’s transcendent skills breaking out and propagating throughout the community. A rising tide, if you will.
Because elevating others--especially those whose styles, interests, and backgrounds differ from your own or from the majority of the community’s--leads to a diversity of approaches to the same data challenges. However, it also leads over time to a convergence on best practices, but from a sector- and culturally-agnostic perspective.
Because building the community and elevating others encourages your colleagues to do the same, and because those people you promote and mentor along the way will follow your lead for the next generation. Eventually, you have created a wider, stronger professional network. Enthusiastic newcomers will have an easier time gaining entry and finding role models; existing members have stronger bonds across a wider network.
Because it’s an excellent way to maintain and enhance the collaborative, supportive character of this unique community; a rare oasis of respect in an increasingly dark Internet.
And mostly: because it’s the right thing to do. We all got here through the grace, support, and inspiration of others. The least we could do is extend the same grace and support to the next wave of developers, designers, and analysts. Hopefully, they will all surpass anything we’ve ever achieved, and when that happens, I’ll consider it a success.