Well, Here I Am: The Phil Perrin Journey into Data Visualization & Analytics
I was always good at math. In high school, I skipped our pre-calculus course and went straight into Calculus. I then received our school’s Calculus award! It was fun, and I was good at it.
But I felt that something was missing.
So for college, I surprised everyone by declaring my major as International Relations! I really wanted a deeper understanding of people – not just numbers. This was enlightening. We debated the utility of the Triffin dilemma, considered geopolitical interactions between various countries, and read through pieces like “The End of History and the Last Man” by Francis Fukuyama.
I wasn’t very good at any of this. But along the way in college, I was a student-athlete, I studied abroad, I was a leader in student government, and was employed as a resident assistant (RA). I arguably learned more about people through those experiences compared to my formal studies.
So for graduate school, I studied higher education administration. I figured I liked this whole ‘college thing’ and wanted to do more with it. That was interesting too – but I found myself really desiring more of that math and calculus of my yesteryear. So I enrolled in an elective on Hierarchical Linear Modeling. I skipped a few prerequisites for this and ended up helping out some of the PhD students that were in the course and couldn’t quite figure it out.
Things were starting to come together. I had a solid understanding of the people that interested me so much, and I also had a good handle on the math that could help me analyze their experiences.
My family was also growing increasingly worried about me. There were always the questions of “So what do you want to do?” that I had no idea of how to answer. I decided I could just say “I’d like to save the world.” and that would sound positive-yet-vague enough to get me through.
My first ‘real job’ out of grad school was at an international education development non-profit. We basically were the intermediaries between US government aid and the countries out there that could benefit from educational assistance. I stayed on this non-profit track for a few years, always being the “data guy” on any of our program teams. I would figure out all the Excel tricks to make tasks easier, build out evaluation forms and analyze results, and prepare reports for our funders. Two of my early projects that were really great were building an MS Access database that matched scholarship applications to placements, and a complete redesign of a paper-based award application system into an online application.
But then came what many would call “A Turning Point.”
I made a graph. Not just any graph, but one that really really had an impact. It was simple – an age pyramid. But when presented, it was like magic filled the air. Everyone immediately got the point I was trying to make, and at the same time I got the point of what I wanted to do:
I want to work at the intersection of people systems and data systems.
So now that I know that, now what?
Life Takes Over
Well, what happened is that I met the most amazing woman ever and we got married, made some babies, bought a house, and then moved across the country to a place where we had no family. I also really struggled with finding career alignment between what I wanted to do, and what was available.
I worked in a couple of state government job roles as an analyst – but I never quite fit in. I was also dabbling in Tableau at this point (around 2013), trying to re-capture that feeling of magic I had with the age pyramid. Once in a while I got close, someone would say “oh this is really clear – I get it.” or something like that.
After some really interesting work with these agencies, I saw there was so much need for visual analytics, but a real lack of available talent for non-profits and government agencies – specifically in the human services sector (I have spent most of my career now in the early childhood research and administration domain).
So to serve that need, I formed my own analytics consulting firm to better meet the needs of small non-profits and government services. Take a minute now and reflect on everything else in this article. Was there any mention of a business degree or any prior consulting experience? Nope. Not a bit. But I made it work. I quit my job one day and the next day I was looking for clients. For about two years I was stringing enough jobs along where it was actually financially viable (and bonus points I got to spend more time with my kids!).
Throughout that time, I also attained my Tableau Desktop Professional certification, learned how to administer my own SQL database, became Alteryx CORE certified, and taught myself a whole lot about business development. I also participated regularly in #WorkoutWednesday – the Tableau community program for working on more technical development in Tableau – and virtually met the #datafam community on Twitter. Luke Stanke and I had a few conversations online where I expressed some interest in whether or not he had a need for external contractors. Not really was generally the answer – just a need for full-time staff.
My wife has always had a remarkable career. She’s amazing at what she does – passionate, smart, savvy, calculating, and detailed (but yet still gets ‘the big picture’). She got to a point in her career where the people she was working with revealed themselves to have some really questionable values. She needed to take some time off and asked if I could hang up my consulting practice and find something that would work better for our family – mostly in terms of finances, but especially in terms of health insurance (which I had not provided for myself). I knew it was time for this to happen too. I liked the work too much and didn’t like the other parts of running a business – taxes, managing software expenses and licenses, building out a pipeline of projects, etc. It was ok, but as a professional, I need a bit more structure that isn’t entirely self-imposed. So I reached back out to Luke and submitted a job application for a consultant role.
And now, here I am. I love what I do, and even more so than before. I am surrounded by both smart people and equally smart problems. I help bring insight to clients on what they need and also get to pass along a few lessons on visual best practices. My experiences working in low-cost scenarios have really helped me hone in on delivering a solution quickly that will maximize their investment in the solution. I love being in an environment that has so many deep areas of expertise – from analytics to data science, to visualization across multiple platforms. While this haphazard journey to Tessellation is anything but linear, I believe that I have come full circle with finding my Tessellation family.
Want to Learn More?
Have any questions, comments, or curiosities? Feel free to reach out to me about my journey to Tessellation via LinkedIn or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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