Tell us a little bit about your career path and what attracted you to data analysis. How did you make the leap from mechanical engineering to starting your own business which deals with creating spreadsheet-based tools?
My interest in data analysis and visualization started in college. In graduate school I researched uncertainty analysis and optimization methods. It was always easier for me to understand things if I could visualize them. Somewhere along the line I came across Edward Tufte’s work and have enjoyed learning about ways to visualize data ever since.
My love for Excel began with a project in a machine design class where we developed an engineering model for a gear train using Excel. That wasn’t the first time I used a spreadsheet, but it was the first time I realized that it could be used for a lot more than just tables of numbers and graphs. In my engineering work I used Excel to generate parametric models for a finite element analysis tool. I also used it to generate the command line code for parametric CAD models. I didn’t use Excel for everything, but I tried.
I started vertex42.com while I was still in school - mostly as a way to get a little business education without having to take classes. After reading a lot about internet-based businesses, I figured I’d combine a couple things I enjoyed (spreadsheets and web design) to create a website where I could sell spreadsheet-based tools. I never expected it to be more than just a side business or hobby.
My mechanical engineering career and my website business were running in parallel for a few years. Eventually the 70-hour work weeks caught up with me and I had to drop one or the other. The allure of working on my own business won out in the end. I miss the mechanical engineering work, but the things I liked most about it – modeling, problem solving, and analysis – are things I still do but with different application.
Can you tell us a bit about your current role and some of your favorite analytics projects you’ve worked on?
For the first years of vertex42.com, I wore all the hats of a one-person business owner. More people are involved now, but I still do the majority of the content development (web content and spreadsheet work). I outsource most consulting requests, but occasionally take on projects that look fun.
One of my most recent analytics projects was using Power Map in Excel 2013 to create heat maps for demographic data with custom geographic boundaries. We were able to make changes to the grouping of regions in real-time, have immediate access to the compiled statistics, as well as see those changes in the maps.
Another fun project was developing heat maps for warehousing. People have been doing this with Excel for quite a while, but something doesn’t have to be novel to be fun. The idea was to optimize picking efficiency in a distribution center or warehouse. The heat map can be created fairly easily using conditional formatting in Excel, where each cell represents a pallet or bin on a shelf, and the numbers within the cells can represent any statistic related to the location such as frequency of restock, travel distance, etc.
For my website, an ongoing analytics project has been to track keyword search statistics. I import data from Google Analytics into Excel and use sparklines to visualize trends.
Looks like you’re attending the PASS Business Analytics Conference this year! What topics are you looking forward to learning more about?
I’m attending mostly so that I can see all the awesome things people are doing with Excel. I’m hoping that I’ll learn some new techniques that will help me make better spreadsheets. The “Visualize & Inform” track will probably be my main focus, but there are many talks I want to attend that are overlap. So, I’m sure I’ll be watching many of the session recordings later.
What are some things you like to do in your free time? (Hobbies, activities, etc.)
I’m mostly a family guy so my life right now mostly revolves around them. I enjoy board games, hiking and mountain biking. I spend a lot of time in the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque. I helped develop boardgaming.com - my latest hobby side business.