I first published a ‘Reasons to Enter Iron Viz’ post in 2019. A lot has changed since then, both in terms of the Tableau Conference, the Iron Viz feeder process, and my perspective on a few things. Given these changes, I thought I would share an updated post with the latest information and my thoughts as they stand today.

Once again Iron Viz season is upon us!

Tableau have just announced the annual Iron Viz feeder for 2021. This year the topic is simple; Data + Joy: Viz something that brings you joy!

You can find out everything you need to know about the latest feeder competition in this post shared by Tableau Public.

The deadline for submissions is July 2nd, 2021.

What is Iron Viz?

For those unfamiliar with the competition, Iron Viz is the ultimate battle of Tableau skills!

Three contestants are selected for the Grand Final of Iron Viz via a visualisation contest (known as a “feeder” or “qualifier” competition) organised by Tableau Public. Each feeder is centred around a different topic. In some cases, Tableau will provide a dataset for contestants to visualise and in other cases, contestants are required to source their own data. Generally speaking, the topics chosen are intentionally broad and open for personal interpretation. Prior feeder topics include music, health and well-being, agriculture and migration. Traditionally, there were three feeder contests held per year with one winner selected from each to proceed to the Grand Final. However, like many things in 2020, the format was changed slightly. Instead of having three separate feeder contests, Tableau ran a single feeder contest with the top three highest-scoring entries gaining the respective authors a place in the final. This is the same format that is being run in 2021.

The finals looked different last year too. Prior to 2020, contestants would go head-to-head in a 20-minute viz battle in front of a live audience of thousands on stage at the Tableau Conference. However, given the Tableau Conference was virtual last year, Iron Viz was also held virtually with each of the contestants participating from home. For the final, the finalists are each tasked with visualising the same dataset which is provided to them a few weeks in advance. This gives them time to prepare the data and find an interesting story to tell.

Entries for Iron Viz are scored against three main areas; design, storytelling and analysis. For the feeder contest, entries are judged by a panel of judges and ultimately, each entry is assigned a final overall score once judging is complete. The authors of the three highest-scoring vizzes are then selected to proceed to the Grand Final. During the final, the judges apply the same scoring categories as applied during the feeders.

If you have never seen an Iron Viz final and are curious about what to expect, you can watch many of the recordings of competitions from recent years on Tableau’s YouTube channel. I highly recommend checking them out! Iron Viz is run as a full-scale production complete with scripts, costumes, lighting and effects. It’s almost like watching a competition on TV.

Iron Viz Grand Final 2019

How Can I Enter Iron Viz in 2021?

To enter Iron Viz in 2021 you need to design and submit a joy-themed data viz! Essentially, think of a topic that brings you joy and bring it to life in a viz! Completed vizzes are published and shared via Tableau Public.

Remember, Iron Viz qualifier submissions are judged on analysis, design, and storytelling so bear this in mind when building your viz.

Everything you need to know about the 2021 Iron Viz competition can be found here.

My Iron Viz Experience

In 2018 I had the honour of competing in the final of the European Iron Viz competition. It was an incredible experience & one which I will never forget.

However, it very nearly didn’t happen since I found multiple excuses as to why I shouldn’t enter. My excuses ranged from “I’m not good enough” right through to “I don’t want to compete on stage”. I put off entering previous Iron Viz feeders for these very reasons too. This is partly why I founded the #IronQuest project in 2019.

I know I’m not alone and many people choose not to enter Iron Viz for similar reasons. I get it. Nevertheless, I believe the benefits to be gained from entering an Iron Viz feeder contest far outweigh the costs. 

In this post I’ll share some reasons that I think you should enter, the benefits of doing so, some tips to help you get started, and we’ll also debunk some myths about Iron Viz in the process!

Reasons to Enter Iron Viz

Let’s explore some reasons to enter the competition and together we’ll bust some Iron Viz myths too.

Reason #1: To improve your skills

Entering an Iron Viz feeder requires you to source your own data set. This is a skill in itself and one that some people rarely get the opportunity to practice. If you use Tableau at work, chances are you work with many data sets that are made available to you. If not, you may query database tables to get the data you need but in most cases, you are likely working with ‘clean’ data. The same applies if you participate in community projects such as #MakeoverMonday and #WorkoutWednesday which come with their own pre-curated data sets.

With Iron Viz it’s down to YOU to source your own data. The world is your oyster! But this also requires additional skills. Sourcing and preparing data is a skill in itself and one you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice for the Iron Viz feeders. You’ll probably need to clean or transform your data at some point which means you’ll get the chance to practice your data preparation skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need to be a wizz at Tableau Prep, Alteryx, or Python. You can do a lot in Excel if this is all you have available to you. However, you could use this opportunity to try out a new data prep tool and learn new skills in the process.

Aside from sourcing and preparing data, you actually need to design and build a viz! Iron Viz is a great opportunity to challenge yourself to try new techniques in Tableau and step out of your comfort zone. I have used Iron Viz as an excuse to learn new Tableau functionality or experiment with complementary tools such as Mapbox, Figma or even PowerPoint.

It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your journey, there’s always something new to try and Iron Viz offers the perfect excuse. Perhaps you want to learn how to build a different chart type, try a long-form viz, experiment with a different approach to storytelling, try out a new design style or a new Tableau feature. It’s completely up to you. Either way, if you push yourself I guarantee you’ll learn new skills through the process of entering.

Reason #2: To inspire others

You might not realise it but just by entering you can inspire somebody else to do the same.

I heard a quote at a Women in Data conference I attended a few years ago that stuck with me that holds true in Iron Viz:

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

If you see people taking part in Iron Viz that look like you, have a similar background to you, or those you share similar interests with, chances are you would be more likely to enter too. Personally, I wouldn’t want to enter a competition where I felt alienated or that I didn’t belong. However, to ensure a diverse Iron Viz final, we first need to see diversity at the feeder stage. Not only this, but we also need those from historically underrepresented groups to perform well. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to entry that prevent people from both entering and ultimately performing well, in the competition. These barriers could be access to (premium) tools such as Alteryx or Illustrator that might help with the data collection process or help produce a great-looking viz, skills gaps (i.e. the ability to source and clean data, or Tableau skills in general), knowledge of the competition itself (if you don’t know about it, you won’t enter), as well as social-economic barriers such as free time available to dedicate to Iron Viz, access to the internet, etc.

It’s worth noting that Tableau have gone to great lengths to attempt to improve representation in the competition over the years and reduce these barriers to entry. This includes recruiting a diverse panel of judges, extending the qualifier period to give participants more time to viz, selecting a wide range of feeder topics which appeal to more people, and opening the competition up to more countries (unfortunately residents of some countries are unable to enter due to local rules on competitions and prizes – read the T&C’s shared by Tableau for more information).

While things have improved in the community at large in the last few years, the Iron Viz competition is still crying out for more diversity. Historically, the Iron Viz finals have been dominated by white men. Lindsey Poulter made it to the Iron Viz finals in 2019 but prior to this, the last time a woman appeared in the finals was Kelly Martin in 2013. I don’t think this is because people don’t show up. They do. Instead, I believe it’s more to do with the barriers I mentioned before that ultimately result in entries that unfortunately don’t secure a place in the top 3.

To help each other, I strongly encourage you to help support other participants where you can. For instance, you could offer to provide feedback on vizzes prior to submission. Or perhaps you could offer to share your knowledge or skills in Tableau (or a complementary tool) to further their chances too. This could involve helping somebody scrape data from a website, get their data into the right shape for analysis, or share your expertise in PowerPoint. Whatever you decide, the more we can do to help support each other, the better.

Reason #3: To challenge yourself

I touched on this in reason #1 but I’ll say it again.

It’s not easy to enter an Iron Viz feeder and it’s even harder to compete in a final. However, by challenging yourself to enter and ultimately up your game, you’ll benefit in the long run. Unlike other community projects with quicker turnaround times, Iron Viz gives you a whole month to ultimately flesh out and execute on an idea.

It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new or bring that viz idea to life that you’ve had on your to-do list for months.

Reason #4: To join the conversation

There’s always a real buzz around Iron Viz season. While it’s fun to watch from the sidelines, it’s even better to take part.

Iron Viz offers participants a great opportunity to become more engaged in the Tableau Community. Many Tableau authors were first discovered through entering an Iron Viz feeder contest. I really enjoy seeing all of the new authors who come to light around Iron Viz season.

Iron Viz is also the perfect blogging opportunity! Regardless of whether you write regularly or don’t even have a blog yet, we all like to read about how other people approach things, their design techniques or how they built that amazing viz. Once you have submitted your work, consider writing about your process and sharing it with others. Even if you don’t want to set up your own blog there are plenty of people in the community who would be happy for you to publish a guest post on their site.

Reason #5: To get noticed

Entering Iron Viz is a great opportunity to build up your Tableau Public portfolio and get yourself noticed. 

All Iron Viz feeder entries are automatically posted to an online gallery on Tableau Public. This helps to bring your viz to the attention of a wider network of people and increases your chances of getting noticed. If you share your viz on social media with the #IronViz hashtag, you might get noticed that way too.

Entering an Iron Viz feeder is a great way to showcase your skills and can help to advance your career. You never know who might stumble across your work and reach out to your with a job opportunity!

Reason #6: To make a difference

The Iron Viz feeder topics allow participants to shed light on important topics, for example, climate change, socio-economic concerns, or animal welfare issues. This is a great opportunity if you are passionate about something and want to help to drive change. In 2021, the topic of joy is particularly fitting here.

In 2020, I was part of a #VizConnect panel discussion (link at the bottom of the post) where Steve Wexler suggested that participants could use Iron Viz as an opportunity to “shine a light on something that deserves light”. As an example, he referenced Corey Jones’ Iron Viz feeder entry from 2018 which explored food deserts in the US:

If there is a cause which you support and would like to promote or a topic that brings you joy and could help educate other people too, by all means, visualise it for Iron Viz!

Iron Viz Myths

Myth #1: You have to be an expert at Tableau to enter Iron Viz

People of all abilities enter Iron Viz. You don’t need to a be Tableau Zen Master or to have been using Tableau for years.

Don’t believe me? 

Klaus Schulte won the European Iron Viz competition in 2018 after being a Tableau user for less than a year.

Kevin Flerlage made it into the top 3 in the 2018 Books and Literature feeder and was recognised as Best New Entrant after using Tableau for a matter of months.

Hesham Eissa won the Global Iron Viz competition in 2019 after being a Tableau user for around 6 months.

The extent of your Tableau knowledge and the length of time you have been using the tool is somewhat irrelevant. It’s much more about how you use those skills to tell a compelling story through display insightful analysis and great design.

Myth #2: There’s no point entering if you think you can’t win

Do people enter marathons to win? No.

The same applies to Iron Viz.

I hate to break it to you but the chances of you winning an Iron Viz feeder are pretty slim. For context, there were an incredible 371 Iron Viz entries for the single global “Health and Wellbeing” feeder in 2020 (compared to a total of 294 entries across the three global feeders in 2019). In 2020, I can recall several entries that I thought were fantastic that didn’t make it into the top 10.

To win an Iron Viz feeder contest, you need to go above and beyond and submit an entry that truly stands out. However, Iron Viz isn’t all about winning. It’s so much more than that.

Timothy Vermeiren entered NINE Iron Viz feeders before he made it to the finals and went on to win the 2018 competition (read about his journey here). 

Luke Stanke has entered more Iron Viz feeders than he cares to remember but has never made the final.

Countless other people have entered Iron Viz and not made it to the final. The important thing to remember is they challenged themselves to take part, they pushed themselves to learn something new, they enjoyed the process, they made friends along the way, and they enjoyed being a part of something bigger.

It’s no wonder Tableau uses the tagline;

“Win or learn. You can’t lose”

Tableau Software

Myth #3: You need to find a great data set

It can be tough to find the perfect data set. It may not even exist.

Even if you find a fantastic data set, it’s more about how you tell the story and analyse the data than the data set itself. Iron Viz isn’t about visualising facts and datasets. You could design the most beautiful viz and use an array of fancy charts but if you simply present the data and don’t extract interesting insights, you’re unlikely to score highly in the competition. Instead, it’s much more about how you bring the stories from your dataset to life; through good design, insightful analysis and compelling storytelling.

When hunting for data, I would strongly recommend finding a dataset that interests you. This may be one dataset or a collection of data sets from different sources. If you use data that you have a personal interest in, the whole process will be much more enjoyable and you’ll more likely have an insightful story to tell.

Bear in mind, you don’t need a huge data set to get started. Sometimes just a few columns of data is enough. If you really can’t find a good data set, nothing is stopping you from creating your own!

For more tips on finding a data set, read this post by 2017 Iron Viz Finalist, Jacob Olsufka.

Myth #4: You need an idea to get you started

Coming up with an idea for a viz is tough. There’s no denying this. But don’t let this hold you back. While it might be difficult to find data on your favourite interests, chances are it exists. It it doesn’t exist, build your own data source!

Brainstorm your favourite things and try searching for articles or infographics on these topics on Google or Pinterest for inspiration. If you are really struggling, I highly recommend taking some time out away from your laptop. You could find inspiration in the most unexpected of places.

Curious to see what others built to get them to the finals? View previous winning feeder entries in this viz by 2017 Champion, Tristan Guillevin. You can view more recent winning entries in this post by Tableau Public too.

Further Resources & Inspiration

#HerData Learns – Iron Viz

At the end of May, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dinushki and Jennifer from #HerData to discuss the Iron Viz competition, reasons to enter and the possible barriers individuals have faced in the past.

#VizConnect: Why Iron Viz?

Last year I had the pleasure of participating in a #VizConnect panel discussion with Chris Love, Steve Wexler, Timothy Vermeiren and Tristan Guillevin. The advice we shared is still valid today so I highly recommend checking it out:

#IronQuest Passion Projects

Back in January 2021, the #IronQuest theme was Passion Projects. We asked participants to focus on something they are passionate about. It could have been a favourite sports team, musician, place to visit, hobby, author or even actor. The most important aspect of this topic was to make it your own and enjoy the process. This is very similar to the 2021 Iron Viz feeder topic! If you are looking for inspiration, this could be a great place to start!

We received a total of 50 submissions for this round and it was fantastic to see the diverse range of ‘passions’ on display throughout the entries. Participants covered everything from sports, movies, books and music to quantified self and topical subjects such as homelessness and abortion rights.

Read the recap post here.

Viz What You Love

It’s far easier to put the work in, undertake research, collect data and build a compelling visualisation when it’s focused on a topic you are passionate about. You may have heard the phrase, “viz what you love”Zach Bowders summarises it perfectly in this post.

In his post, Zach references some of the more unorthodox vizzes he has published over the years. Zach says:

“With each of these projects I learned something new about what did (or didn’t) work, and in many cases tried new techniques I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try at work.

Had I not been as invested and curious about the subjects as I am, I know (I have the vizzes to prove it) I wouldn’t have created something as interesting.”

Zach Bowders

Given the feeder contest topic in 2021, I highly recommend reading this post before you get started.

Iron Quest

I founded the Iron Quest project in 2019 to help people prepare for Iron Viz. #IronQuest is a community project modelled upon the #IronViz feeder competitions which are reviewed against the Iron Viz scoring categories of design, storytelling and analysis. Every month, participants submit vizzes centred around a different topic and all entries are shared in a wrap-up blog post.

If you are looking for inspiration, the #IronQuest section of my blog would be a great place to start!

Storytelling Techniques

If you are looking to improve your data storytelling skills, I highly recommend joining the Storytelling with Data Community and checking out the extensive list of free resources on the site.

Data Sets

Iron Viz requires you to source your own data. If you are struggling to find an appropriate data source, refer to this helpful post by Jacob Olsufka for some data source inspiration.

Here are some further sources of data that you may find useful:

I hope this post gives you the confidence you need to get started. If you still don’t feel ready, try entering #IronQuest instead. I started #IronQuest for this very reason! Find out more about the project and how to get involved here.

Entering an Iron Viz feeder is tough. It will require focus and it will take time. At some point during the process, you may even want to give up altogether. However, if you stick with it, I truly believe it will be worth your while.

Remember, win or learn. You can’t lose!

Good luck and thanks for reading!