“I am heading into a conference with 25K tech women which is partly why I’m high octane right now!!!” That’s the message I received from the CEO and Co-Founder of BI Brainz, Mico Yuk. I had reached out to her to be a part of my ongoing series talking to thought leaders such as Ben Jones, Nick Caldwell and Matt David to get her insights on the future of BI. After years of being a sought-after consultant, Mico formed BI Brainz to “help companies take their data and make sense of it in a fun, visual way” using their data storytelling methodology and templates. In addition to running her own analytics consultancy, she’s an author, speaker and host of her own podcast, Analytics on Fire!
Mico was about to enter the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) when she responded to my request for an interview. She was pumped up to attend THE largest gathering of women technologists in the United States. GHC is an event run by women for women in the tech space to network, mentor and find their tribe. Mico shares her highlights of GHC as well as the future of business intelligence.
Allen Hillery: Hi Mico! Thanks so much for chatting with me! I know we were exchanging messages from the Grace Hopper Celebration. Please tell us what the energy was like and what it means to you to be a part of such a monumental event?
Mico Yuk: “I finally know what heaven looks like. Women, from all over the world, talking about technology, making hiring decisions and in leadership.” That is how I described #GHC19 to both the CEO of Anita.borg, Brenda Wilkerson, who inspires me and personally invited me to #GHC19, and our CMO of BI Brainz, Soo Tang Yuk on day one. I literally stood up in the middle of the exhibition center watching companies I only dreamed to worked for 5–10 years ago, with hundreds of women lined up, résumé in hand waiting for an interview. I pinched myself and realized it was not a dream. I stood in awe, as I went from booth to booth being celebrated for being a woman, greeted with girlie colors like pink, pastel green and purples. Every sticker, wall, and pen had an empowering message for women. My heart is racing again just thinking about it! It was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!
AH: What particular moment, event or speaker at GHC has most inspired you ?
MY:There were so many sessions but if I had to pick one event, it would have to be the closing ceremony. I felt like I was at a rock concert, but we, the women in tech, were on stage — crazy right?
AH: Tell us about it.
MY: The closing ceremony on the last day was a collection of final announcements such as the Abie Award winner, scholarships recipients and winners of the #pitcher event. At the #pitcher segment, I was so excited to see Backstage Capital Founder, Arland Hamilton on stage, stating that she hit her goal of investing in 100 under represented companies two years early!
Even more amazing, was running into my engineering classmate Sanna Gaspard after 15 years. She won first place in the #pitcher contest, going home with $40,000 to accelerate her biotech startup Rubitection, an early detection tool. I was delighted to run into old friends like Stephanie Lampkin, Founder of Blendoor, a recruiting tool that removes unconscious bias from hiring by hiding everything but applicant credentials. Her Tedtalk is prolific. It was nuts!
AH: That sounds like an awesome reunion! Can you share more about how that sense of community has been helpful in your career overall?
MY: Community is SO important! It’s honestly how we built BI Brainz from the ground up. Being a woman in tech can be very mentally and emotionally taxing at times. People make assumptions because you’re a woman. You have to work harder because you’re a woman. My outlet has always been and will continue to be the community and knowing that what I do makes a difference in people’s lives. I have also met so many amazing females who are on the same path. We support each other and pay it forward to the next generation of intelligent ladies. I’d tell anyone getting into tech as a woman… find your community and hold unto it, tightly.
“Knowing someone else has been discriminated against, overlooked, and not even invited to the table is sometimes what you need to push forward and realize it’s not just you!” -Mico Yuk on the importance of community
AH: BI and Data Viz are both male dominated fields. What do you think is missing when these fields don’t accurately represent society at large?
MY: The first thing that comes to mind is a keynote I heard at an MIT event I spoke at by Peter Schwartz, author of The Art of the Long View where he described what led IBM to decide not to invest in then unknown startup Microsoft, as they projected that PCs were for girls and the fad would die by the 1980’s. He concluded that companies like IBM who made such ‘now unthinkable’ decisions had one thing in common. A lack of diversity in ideas, a lack of diversity in thought and a lack of diversity in the room (in gender and race).
Business intelligence has been like this for a long time. The last 20 years has been focused on the dark hole aka the data warehouse. Thank God we are now focused on getting insights and wisdom out of data. The creative nature of data visualization also attracts more females to the field, so we will continue to see more diversity in the coming years.
“Business intelligence has been like this for a long time. The last 20 years has been focused on the dark hole aka the data warehouse. Thank God we are now focused on getting insights and wisdom out of data.” — Mico Yuk on the historical lack of diversity of BI
AH: What made you want to get started in data viz and how did you end up where you are now?
Growing up in the Caribbean, I’ve always loved art. I was the president of our Art Honor Society in high school, which was no. 1 throughout the Caribbean. I also had a secret hobby at home, which was playing on my over-sized HP desktop I begged my parents to buy in the ninth grade. Fast-forward to age 15 — I graduated from high school and went to college to study computer engineering (dropping out twice before graduating).
AH: Did you see computer engineering as your pathway to data visualization?
MY: Data viz kind of found me. I spent six months programming in mainframe SaaS as a data scientist, and then a year later I saw a job on Craigslist for a data viz expert, who would could help Ryder Logistics role out their Lean Six Sigma program to all their customers. I applied (running away from writing C++ code at AT&T all day, ugh), got the offer two days later and I took it. That job changed my life.
My obsession with user design, user experience and user adoption, helped to make Ryder’s Lean Six Sigma visual program successful, then taking me to New York to work with Pfizer, and then onto work with other large enterprises such as AllState, Bank of America, Shell, and many more. Now I run my own analytics consulting firm, BI Brainz, which is now co-owned by a company called EPI-USE, whose core competency is developing HR solutions. With access to 2,200 consultants globally in 67 countries there is no limit to our future! It’s not easy, but I love what we do.
AH: How much has your love for art impacted your career in data viz? Do you feel someone with a liberal arts background can contribute to data visualization or even business intelligence?
MY: I LOVE art. So when I realized that I could combine my programming skills with my passion for user design and user experience, creating data visualizations was a no-brainer for me. I was honestly dreading doing hard core programming or even graphic design! I think anyone who wants to learn (regardless of degree), enjoys solving complex problems and is willing to put on a critical thinking hat can do BI. It’s a field that requires passion, customer service, and THEN technical know how.
“I think anyone who wants to learn (regardless of degree), enjoys solving complex problems and is willing to put on a critical thinking hat can do BI. It’s a field that requires passion, customer service, and THEN technical know how.” — Mico Yuk on the importance of liberal arts majors entering BI
AH: In addition to a consultancy you also host a podcast, Analytics on Fire. What have you learned from that experience? How has it impacted you and your work? Do you have a favorite episode of all time?
Let’s just say AoF was a $50,000 failure in 2016. I took a break from podcasting for two and a half years (never planning to return, I’m embarrassed to admit that) but after 500-plus “please bring it back” messages from around the globe, I finally caved in and brought back Analytics on Fire in May of 2019. To my surprise we were greeted with 10,000+ monthly downloads and continue to grow!
In terms of lessons learned from hosting a podcast, there are so many hard lessons, but here a few key ones.
1) It’s a different audience. People who listen to podcasts don’t necessarily read blogs and vice versa. You must cater to both learning styles.
2) Be yourself. It’s challenging sometimes talking into a microphone, knowing that thousands of people are going to listen to it word for word. Very early on I decided to just be Mico.
3) Just go with it. I used to be a perfectionist, editing out any and everything that did not go as planned. Today I edit out nothing. Authenticity can be heard, not just seen.
The great thing about hosting a podcast with the biggest data influencers, our largest customers and some of our most successful students is getting a free PhD with each interview. It’s HARD to pick a favorite podcast. Seriously … this may affect me getting future guests lol. But, If I had to pick one, it would have to be Episode 33, with Andrew Mackay. I met Andrew back in 2014, while he was working in Saudi Arabia. He had just registered for our online BI Dashboard methodology course, and wanted to differentiate himself in the analytics field in the Middle East. Fast forward to 2019, where he sold his company to PWC and now the Director or Digital Transformation!
“It’s special to me, because I recall our discussion. I had no idea it would change his life. Those little things keep me motivated and going.” — Mico Yuk on hosting BI podcast ‘Analytics on Fire’
AH: I would like to go back to something you said earlier. You mentioned people who listen to podcasts don’t necessarily read blogs and vice versa. Can you elaborate on that for us in the content game? How do the learning styles differ?
MY: OMG … wow. This was such a freaking learning curve for us. After spending years writing a blog , we made a HUGE assumption (ass — out — of — you — and — me) that our thousands of loyal blog readers would automatically listen to our new Analytics on Fire podcast. Boy were we wrong! We quickly learned from our audience that they listen to our podcasts during their commutes, at the gym and even in the shower (like me). When done, most do not go to the podcast page to get the show notes and downloads, they just move on to the next podcast! So we are super careful how we use the limited notes we can post with each of our podcasts in iTunes, Spotify and other platforms, of course including a link to the full podcast page, but also including the podcast highlights, podcast artwork, and any special offers directly in the notes. Don’t get me wrong, there is some overlap, but we opened up to an entirely new audience which is amazing!
AH: What accomplishment are you most proud of this year?
MY: Disclaimer: I’m not good at talking about myself! I’m never really proud, just grateful. If I had to point out one thing, I never thought I would keynote events at Google, Facebook, and MIT to name a few. I’m now eyeballing a Ted Talk! I feel sooo blessed to have a platform where I can teach and inspire so many. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously. I look at what I do as more than a business, it’s a cause and one that changes people’s lives. I feel humbled and blessed that God chose me.
AH: What has you excited as we go into 2020? There are rumors that you will be chatting with Alberto Cairo very soon!
MY: Many things! This year we re-launched our Analytics on Fire podcast, kicked off our first three-day public BI Data Storytelling workshop (which sold out in six weeks), doubled our team size, expanded our technology focus to Microsoft Power BI and Power Apps. We also started our private BI Data Storytelling Mastery Facebook group which has over 1,500 enthusiast storytellers like me. In 2020 we not only plan to expand on all of the above, but I’m may be writing a book (hint hint) if I find the right publisher and finally relaunching our flagship online course, the BI Dashboard Formula. Needless to say, it’s going to be lit!
AH: I believe there is a difference between data visualization & data storytelling. I would love to hear your opinion on this to share with our readers.
MY: Of course there is — however, most of the big BI vendors (no name called) milk the definition to their benefit. It’s a constant uphill battle for us, as we see storytelling as the art of engaging your users with what you say, write and draw. We view data visualization as one of many means to engage users through drawing. It is just one small component of the data storytelling, but because it is the most visible it gets most of the attention. The reality is this — If you engage just the visual sense of your users, you won’t get long term adoption and buy in for your solution, whether it is a data visualization, dashboard or a reporting tool.
You first have to engage your users on an emotion level. There was a study done a while back by neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio, who concluded that human beings make decisions with their emotions, and then justify those decisions with logic aka data, not the other way around. Data visualization is great, but without engaging and really understanding the user’s story it’s useless IMO.
“Long story short, you need data storytelling to make data visualization useful and that is exactly what we teach at BI Brainz in our BI Data Storytelling Accelerator workshops.” — Mico Yuk on the importance of data storytelling
AH: Between running Analytics on Fire and being co-Founder of BI Brainz, how would you define your leadership style?
MY: Everyday I’m honored that people are willing to work for me and follow my dream. You have no idea. I get up before 5 a.m. everyday, and the first thing I do is thank God that by 9 a.m. my team is ready to go and our customers are excited to work with us. I depend on my amazing team at BI Brainz for EVERYTHING. People often see you on the top but they don’t realize it’s virtually impossible without insane support. I expect a lot from our team, and they over deliver. I want everyone to work to their strengths, but as a perfectionist I am always pushing them to do more, sometimes over the edge. Comfort zones bore me. My motto is, when you stop having fun, it’s time to change.
AH: When reading your website a few messages pop out like timeliness, quick turnaround times and visual presentation. Would you describe this as the secret sauce of your business?
MY: BI Brainz is known for presenting compelling data visualizations, but it’s really our BI Dashboard Formula methodology and Data Storytelling framework that is our secret sauce. To date we’ve worked with about 20% of the Fortune 500 companies like Shell, Fedex, Nestle, Ericsson, Costco and many more. Those keywords are not just hype! We live, eat and breathe what we call the “quick win” mentality. I worked as a consultant for many years before starting BI Brainz, hired by execs of Fortune 500 companies to clean up costly business intelligence program failures. After doing eight to ten of these same clean-ups, I noticed a few common themes and pain points. Most of the failed projects had: high cost, low perceived value to users, and late or no delivery. Our methodology directly tackles these problems and we have multiple use cases to prove it.
AH: “Where do you see the future of data viz or BI going? Where does your own work fit into that?“
I see data viz design and creation being commoditized in the near future, meaning you will no longer need to hire someone to create compelling data visualizations in a tool. Machine learning will auto generate visual stories that are both compelling, data driven and dynamic in nature. Similar to how the Open Data Initiative is threatening to eliminate the ETL role and Open SQL databases have made Kimball methodology antique, so machine learning will automate visual storytelling in the data field. What I don’t see machines doing in my generation (millennials) is having the EQ to influence humans to make decisions! As job roles shift, we see our BI Dashboard Formula methodology and data storytelling framework helping customers tackle user adoption which will continue to be a challenge. By the time kids start trusting robots, hopefully we all will be retired and watching it on TV!
“I see data viz design and creation being commoditized in the near future, meaning you will no longer need to hire someone to create compelling data visualizations in a tool.” — Mico Yuk on the future of data visualization
Check out these articles from thoughts leaders on where they see the future of data visualization and business intelligence!
Why Data Literacy Is the Key to the Future of Data Visualization
A conversation with Ben Jones on user stories and the importance of advancing data literacy
Chartio Is Narrowing the Data Literacy Gap in Business
A conversation with Chartio product lead Matt David on emerging tools and the future of BI