Certifiably Altered

How Certification (and Learning) can be a Game Changer for You, Your Career and Your Team

Posted by David Velleca on February 13, 2020


Tuesday night, I spoke at the St. Louis Alteryx User Group about a learning program that I etablished within my team. The program culminated around challenging each team member to earn their Alteryx Designer Core Certification. Here's the presentation in a nutshell...


The Socratic Paradox is based on the (rough) translation of Plato's Socrates, "I only know that I know nothing." This is something that I really take to heart - I am constantly looking to learn, realizing that I am only as good as the last thing I learned. Being at the top of my game means that I need to stay sharp in my skills and take steps to make sure that I'm continually learning.

This philosphy is what has guided me through most of my career. Too often there is a trap where people that are viewed as 'experts' slow or even stop learning. This is a sure fire way to lose that expert status - especially as quickly as things change today.

The Opportunity

Last February, I started a new position as Manager of Analytics at Mastercard. I lead a team focused on visual analytics, data preparation, data automation and much more. The primary tools we use are Alteryx and Tableau. Walking into that situation, there were a lot of potential hurdles to my success. I quickly realized that devising a strategy to tackle these hurdles would be the best way to make my mark on my new team and drive them (and myself) forward. Here's a rundown of the situation when I took the position:

  • New to Mastercard
  • New to using Alteryx (in a meaningful way)
  • I had a multi-talented team where somne folks were weaker on the Tableau side (super comfortable making an impact there), but some were weaker on the Alteryx side (see the previous bullet)
  • The team was made up of different levels of experience - both from a Mastercard perspective and overall career perspective (one of my employees began his first job on the day we both started at Mastercard)
  • There was a HUGE need to standardize processes and formats across all of the team's work product
  • and finally, we needed to implement internal check points, including formalized peer code reviews

So, faced with this, there were two very similar paths that we could take - utilize online training for Alteryx, or get certifed. I started with online training, and because I've always learned best by doing, I started completing in the weekly challenges. The problem here (for me) was that the only person holding me accountable for completing the challenges was myself. Pursuing the certification (and telling people that I was going for it), would put the pressure on me to accomplish the cert.

The Conundrum & The Trap

Deciding the pursue the certification was the first step in building a learning program for my team. Deciding to do this brought to mind a cartoon that I've seen multiple versions of. The basic idea is:

  • CFO: "What if we invest in training our employees and they leave?"
  • CEO: "What if we don't and they stay?"

Knowing how the corporate world works and that people tend not to stay in their jobs near as long as they used to, the first point is really kind of moot. I'm more worried about the second scenario. Also, I've always thought about talent from the perspective that the one of the most important part of a person's skill set is their ability & wiliingness to learn (pairde with their propensity to be on time, but that's another topic). I'm convinced that with the willingness and apititude to learn, I can teach you almost anything

So, in short - conundrum solved...now for the trap...

It sounds great to say "we have on the job training" - but saying that without a plan, or saying that while expecting the on the job training to be driven through shadowing is the trap. I knew that I needed to create what could turn out to be a robust plan, but also knew that I needed to walk before I ran.

The Plan

I'm a big fan of being able to trial things. This is no different. I created a rough plan and decided to do a brief trial. This consisted ot:

  • Start Small - Started with one team member who was interested in the certification and was (actually) who I first heard about the cert from
  • Research - I dug and found out what was required of the certification, what skills were tested, how it aligned with our work, and what the next steps could be (i.e. Advanced Designer Certification...)
  • Talk to the Certification team at Inspire 2019 - Just another piece of the research
  • and finally - Put Up or Shut Up - If I was going to challenge my team to get certified, I better do it myself

With the trial pieces done - deliverables here were the first certification on my team as well as completing it myself - the next step was formalizing the plan and challenging my team:

  • Set aside time for training - We're an agile team, so I set the expectation that each member of my team reserves time (in the workday!) for learning and development
  • Throw down the gauntlet - I challenged my team to achieve the Alteryx Designer Core Certification

We experienced some quick success! That made it possible to extend the reach of this learning program:

  • Interns - We had two interns start right after I made the initial challenge, so it was the logical step to expand to them. We had 50% success here
  • Offshore Team - I manage the Analytics in Metrics team in St. Louis, but we're only a part of a larger team, including developers in India, very logical to share our success and expand the challenge to them as well
  • Customers - Part of our teams' work includes working with super user customers who build their own Alterx Work Flows and Tableau Workbooks. After discussing the certification with one of our key customers, he earned his certification and became the driver to expand the reach to our other super users
  • Monitor and Expand - I'm keeping track of the successes we've had (see the viz below) as well as continuing to evolve the challenge (once everyone earned their Core, it was time to up the ante to Advanced), as well as incorporating into our efforts to build an Analytics Community of Excellence

The Success

As I mentioned above, I kept a close eye on the progress we made across the team and played the role of cheerleader - both to congratulate those who passed as well as encourage those who needed another try at the exam. Honestly, I didn't actually visualize the results until I was preparing for the St. Louis Alteryx User Group Meeting this week. However, here are the results across time. The stream graph below starts back in February 2019, with key points called out on the viz (see the bar chart below for the color key):

Responsive image

There were some changes to the structure of the team (i.e. interns leaving, job changes, etc.), as well as the addition of the offshore team (didn't include the super user in the viz though) accounting for some of the waviness of the overall stream graph. So to summarize - here's the current situation as of February 1, 2020:

Responsive image

Under a year in and we're sitting at 91.7% of the current team certified - with half of the team holding their Advanced Certification! Now, that's success!

The Opportunity - Revisited

We're sitting at just under 9 months since I issued the challenge - let's look at the original situation I outlined above and see where we fall today...

  • New to Mastercard – Can’t change this with anything but time, but we'll call this "ADDRESSED"
  • New to Alteryx - Also "ADDRESSED"
  • Multi-talented team – Expanded our excellence in Alteryx (or even to a place where I can call it excellence) - also "ADDRESSED"
  • Different levels of experience – Throwing the challenge out to the team really helped to ‘level the playing field’ - we'll call this one "ADDRESSED" as well
  • Need to standardize processes and formats – The skills learned by preparing for and taking the certification help team members understand other team members’ flows, allowing for consistency and serving as a basis for developing standards - definitely "ADDRESSED"
  • Need to implement peer code reviews – Team members able to read, understand and evaluate other team members’ flows. I'm comfortable with any member of the team reviewing and providing constructive feedback on any other team member's work - "ADDRESSED"

I learned a LOT through out this process - about Alteryx, management and personal development. Some of the key takeaways here:

  • Success is contagious - when one team member was able to pass a certification, the team was congratulatory and encouraged to continue learning and succeeding
  • Corporate driven learning can be a positive thing
  • Pushing people (gently) outside of their comfort zone can help them unlock their real potential - I know there are team members who thought they would never be able to pass the Advanced certification and lo and behold, they did :)
  • Regardless of a learning and development program, you MUST drive your own development. Use the program as a tool to succeed, but no one is going to advocate for you or drive for you as well as you can

Obviously, this is only my story, and I'm sure there are other approaches out there. I’d love to know what you think or what has worked for you! I'm a huge advocate for continued learning, so always open to hearing about alternate approaches! Feel free to reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn.