I first published a ‘Reasons to Enter Iron Viz’ post in 2019, and again in 2021. A lot has changed since 2019, both in terms of the Tableau Conference, the Iron Viz feeder process, while my perspective continues to change after each Iron Viz competition. Given these changes, I thought I would share an updated post with the latest information, advice, and my thoughts as they stand today.
Once again Iron Viz season is upon us, yet you’ll be forgiven if it feels as though we only just wrapped up Iron Viz 2021!
At the time of writing, Tableau have just launched the annual Iron Viz feeder contest for 2022. The feeder contest is indeed earlier than normal this year. The theme for 2022 is ‘Visualizing the Arts’.
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 February 7, 2022 (11:59 p.m. PT).
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. Generally speaking, the topics chosen are intentionally broad and open for personal interpretation. Prior feeder topics include music, health and well-being, agriculture, migration, and Data + Joy. Until 2019, 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. They have run Iron Viz in the same format ever since.
The Grand Finals have looked different in recent years, 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. You may have come across videos of previous Iron Viz competitions, or seen photos of winners celebrating on stage. However, given the Tableau Conference has been run virtually from 2020-onwards, Iron Viz has also been held virtually with each of the contestants participating from their respective homes. For the Grand 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 independently 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 criteria as applied during the feeders.
If you have never seen an Iron Viz final (live or virtual) 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! Regardless of the format, Iron Viz is run as a full-scale production complete with scripts, glamorous outfits, lighting and effects. It’s almost like watching a competition on TV.
Iron Viz Grand Final 2019
How Can I Enter Iron Viz in 2022?
To enter Iron Viz in 2022, you’ll need to design and submit an arts-themed data viz!
The theme for 2022 is ‘Visualizing the Arts’. While this may seem slightly vague (after all, what we each perceive to be art may differ), Tableau provide some clarity in the announcement post:
From drawing and painting to photography or film, your data set can be anything art-related.
Iron Viz feeder themes are typically kept broad to give you an opportunity to shape the theme as you see fit. I would say if you perceive something to be art and you want to viz it, go for it! Just make sure you make a case in your viz to clearly state why your chosen topic is arts-related (if it’s not an obvious arts-related subject or topic).
Remember, Iron Viz qualifier submissions are judged on analysis, design, and storytelling so bear this in mind when building your viz. Completed vizzes are published and shared via Tableau Public (it’s free to create an account if you don’t already have one).
Everything you need to know about the 2022 Iron Viz competition can be found here.
Iron Viz Feedback Initiative 2022
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be running another Iron Viz Feedback Initiative this year!
In 2021, I organised an Iron Viz feedback initiative during the ‘Data+Joy‘ feeder. I don’t run Iron Quest while the Iron Viz feeder is on (this would be counter-intuitive since I want to encourage participants to enter the contest instead), so I decided to do something a bit different. I gathered together some friends from the community to provide a feedback network for Iron Viz feeder entrants. Together, we worked with over 20 participants to provide feedback on their feeder entries and helped them to refine their vizzes and maximise their chances of scoring highly in the contest. One of those participants was Lisa Trescott, who went on to win Iron Viz in 2021!
I’ll be running a similar initiative this year and I can’t wait to share more details about it! Keep an eye out for the blog post with all the details you need, coming soon.
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 contest 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, you may work with data sets that are made available to you and are ready to visualise. 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 or #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 or Google Sheets if these are 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 an interactive approach to storytelling, try out a new design style, or play with 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, blind judging (to help prevent unconscious bias in the judging process), selecting broad feeder topics which may appeal to more people, and opening the competition up to more countries (unfortunately residents of some countries are still unable to enter due to local rules on competitions and prizes – read the T&C’s shared by Tableau for more information).
In 2021, Lisa Trescott became the first woman to win an Iron Viz final in nine years! Lisa’s win was a monumental moment and one that will no doubt inspire many future contestants. Not only was it a well-deserved win by Lisa and a representation of her talent and hard work, but it was also long-awaited recognition that women can not only reach an Iron Viz final but win the contest. For so many years, there was no female representation in the Iron Viz final at all. I don’t think this is because people don’t show up and participate in Iron Viz. They do. In 2021 alone, 321 vizzes were submitted for the feeder contest! Instead, I believe it’s more to do with the barriers I mentioned previously that ultimately result in entries that unfortunately don’t secure a place in the top 3. I wrote extensively about the significance of Lisa’s win in a guest post on Be Data Lit, published in December 2021.
I strongly encourage you to help support other participants where you can, regardless of whether you decide to enter the competition or not. 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 design tools. 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 contest and it’s even harder to compete in an Iron Viz final. However, by challenging yourself to enter, you’ll benefit in the long run.
2021 Iron Viz champion, Lisa Trescott said:
I entered the feeder competition as a learning experience and never expected to be a finalist. I just started vizzing for fun earlier this year, and I thought putting together a submission for Iron Viz would be a great way to enhance my skills, connect with others in the community, and have fun with data. It has been all of those things, and I’ve learned way more than I ever expected!Lisa Trescott, speaking to Tableau about her 2021 Iron Viz win (Source: Tableau Public)
Unlike other community projects with quicker turnaround times, Iron Viz gives you a whole month to ultimately flesh out and execute 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, everyone likes to read about how other people approach things, their design techniques or how they built that amazing viz. A great example is this post by Anne-Sophie Pereira, who scored a place in the top 10 in 2021 with her viz “Six Reasons to (Re)Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.
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, I’m sure there are 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 (you can find the 2021 gallery here for inspiration). 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 you with a job opportunity!
Reason #6: To make a difference
The Iron Viz feeder topics often give participants the opportunity to shed light on important topics, for example, climate change, diversity and inclusion, or animal welfare issues. This is a great opportunity if you are passionate about something and want to help to drive change.
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”.
In 2021, we saw participants leverage the ‘Data+Joy’ theme to shed light on important topics. For example, Kimly Scott shared a viz on Cambodia, its troubled history and her love for her motherland:
In a similar fashion, Brian Moore shared a viz which explored the diversity (or lack of) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) whilst highlighting the progress that has been made in recent years:
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
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are plenty of misconceptions about Iron Viz and what it takes to participate.
Let’s explore them here.
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, a long-time Tableau community member, 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.
Lisa Trescott won the Global Iron Viz competition in 2021 after discovering the Tableau community the same year.
The extent of your Tableau knowledge and the length of time you have been using the tool or participating in the community is somewhat irrelevant when it comes to Iron Viz. It’s much more about how you use those skills to tell a compelling story through 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 320 Iron Viz entries for the single global “Data+Joy” feeder in 2021 (compared to a total of 371 entries in 2020). Each year, 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.
I loved putting together my first ever Iron Viz. In my personal opinion it really has acted as a milestone for the past year of growth and development. Those who know me, know how important continual learning is to me. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing to be your best. To be able to have a platform where I can learn from others who share a passion for data, whilst celebrating one another’s success along the way really is something special.CJ Mayes
Countless other people have entered Iron Viz and not necessarily 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!
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. If 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
In 2021, 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. Watch our conversation here:
#VizConnect: Why Iron Viz?
In 2020, 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 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.
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!
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.
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:
- Reddit – Data is Beautiful
- Kaggle Data Sets
- Data is Plural Data Source List
- Public data source list (complied by Cole Knaflic)
- FiveThirtyEight Data Sets
- Information is Beautiful data sources
II 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. The next #IronQuest round will launch after the Iron Viz feeder contest comes to a close.
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!