Episode 17: Data Portfolio: How it Can Help and Hurt You – Interview with Juliana McMillan-Wilhoit

Data Portfolio: How it Can Help and Hurt You

Learn how to make a data portfolio that will work in your favor rather than hurt you (because they can!). Our guest, Juliana McMillan-Wilhoit, shares her thoughts on geospatial data analysis, why you shouldn’t trust maps, and data portfolios. 

You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

What You’ll Learn in this episode

  • The field of geospatial analysis and how Juliana and I got into it
  • Mistakes people make with data portfolios
  • Tips on creating data portfolios

Additional Resources

Juliana hosts a data portfolio challenge and course. You can find more info and sign up here.

You can connect with Juliana on:

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Episode Transcript

Today I'm here with Juliana to talk to us about geospatial data and data portfolios. So Juliana welcome. Could you introduce yourself to the listen?

Yeah. Hi everyone. I am Juliana McMillan-Wilhoit. I am based just north of Chicago, Illinois in Lake County. And I am a geospatial data analyst by day and a side hustler by night running a business called Tabulae Spatial services, where I work with geospatial professionals in the data industry to help them create a career that they love.

And I also do consulting with mission driven organizations, but I've been in the field for about a decade. Now, have a master's in urban planning. And so really care about like the human side of data and trying to tell a story about the, the people using data.

I'm really excited for someone else with a geospatial background to be on the podcast. I have a geography background. How did you become interested in this field?

Yeah. So I have a more non-traditional background in geospatial, and I think increasingly as more people are using geospatial technology, right. All of our phones have maps on them. And there's increasingly more geospatial data that you're using, right? Whether it be, you know, looking at sales data at a zip code level, the gate to doing geospatial analysis is a lot less than what it used to be.

So my background is I fell in love with geospatial analysis as a kid.  My favorite toy was a stuff globe. And so in college, when I discovered geospatial technology, I'd bounced around between a ton of different majors and. My mom was like, oh, well, that, that totally makes sense for you. And so I don't have much formal background or training.

I've actually only taken the equivalent of one semester of geospatial analysis, but I'm pretty much self taught. And so I am really passionate about helping bring more people into the field of data analysis using geospatial data. And I don't think that there's as much need for gatekeeping as so.

People in particular institutions think there is because I built a very successful career just by learning and, and working hard.

I am all about the self learning journey. And I had like a flipped experience where I have a traditional geography background in training, and I transitioned to data analytics using self learning path. So I really appreciate people who do that as well. And it's interesting that you mentioned having this non-traditional background when it comes to geospatial data, and when you think about it, a lot of the data we work with.

In the outside of the quote, unquote traditional geographic or cartographic fields, it is spacial.  There's a spatial dimension to a lot of our data.

Totally spatial element. So traditionally geospatial analysis. And so what, what I mean when I talk about that, right? It's it's anything that, that has a S spatial element. So putting zip codes on a map, right. And so showing your sales or showing. Gun violence or whatever that may be, that was really assigned to people who had a background in geography.

And in particular, in something called geographic information systems, you might have heard of Esri or Q, G S. And that was it. And it really, in the past year, I've really been working hard of not calling myself a GIS professional, but rather a geospatial professional, because I see that we have this big wide world.

Of geospatial data analysis that, right. There's so many tools like Tableau can now do maps. You have Altreyx you, you have all these other things that aren't actually like GISS. And that there's just so many more opportunities for leveraging spatial data. And that increasingly so many more people are also leveraging geospatial data.

 Whether it just being plotting stores on a map in Tableau or whatever it may be.

I'm glad you clarified that. Where have you noticed people struggle the most when it comes to communicating geospatial data?

You probably have seen similar things with just like regular charts, but there's something about a map that we're taught to trust inherently, right? Where we're taught that the data on a map, it is accurate cuz we learn to navigate streets and all sorts of other things.

Promo Clip 

And so I think that one of the biggest things that I have struggled with is can have helping people understand that maps. Aren't always right. And there's always a point of view in the data story that's being told and to data analysts. That makes sense. But I think to really understand most of the geospatial profession, most people, or many people who work in the geospatial profession wouldn't necessarily consider themselves data.

It took me personally a really long time to feel like I could call myself that. And so I think that, that, that's just like a particularly big thing is just helping, recognizing that people are going to trust whatever graphic output you produce as being more true than maybe it actually is. And so learning how to communicate the uncertainty around that.

 And we have examples in history of. Actually using maps to purposely deceive people for propaganda reasons or other agendas. So what's like one big tip that you give to someone to avoid getting deceived or tricked by a map.

so I think it's just to, to question it right. Just like you should, with any data visualization is to ask questions, but there's just something for some reason. Humans tend to just think that because it's on a map it's more accurate than it really is. And so just like any, you know, graphic you see shared on Facebook or, you know, Instagram, you know, wherever, just begin ask the questions.

Thank you so much for this advice. We can keep talking about geospatial data, but there's also this other area of expertise that I know you have, which is data portfolio. So we're gonna shift gears and I know that you encourage data professionals who visualize data in some form to have a data portfolio.

Can you tell us more about why you think. Data portfolios are important.

Yeah, and I it's really great to see how portfolios have become so much more common in the past few years. So my training is as an urban planner and in urban planning, it's. Somewhat common. If you, if you have a design background that you'll create this huge portfolio of all your stuff, you know, that involves all these pretty sketches of buildings and you know, streets.

And you'll take that around when you go interview for jobs. But what I noticed was that particularly people who would consider themselves to be GIS professionals, they were not creating portfolios to communicate the work that they were doing. 

Promo Clip

And I was considering transitioning out of a job and.

Put together for this job, a few maps and things that I had done, not really in a portfolio, like in a word doc, just to be like here, here's some relevant stuff to help explain why I'm actually qualified for this job. And I ended up getting a job, offer the place was not a good fit. I did not take.

But it demonstrated to me that a portfolio could really help me stand out in the world of interviewing. And because what I do is inherently visual. Like there's a lot of analysis that obviously goes into the back end of stuff. But a portfolio enabled me to both show who I am as a whole person, but it also was an opportunity for me.

To, you know showcase what I can actually do in a way that I thought a resume wasn't really doing justice to my work.

I hundred percent agree with that. And I actually had a similar job experience where it actually, my data portfolio ended up helping me because like I was doing a technical interview back to back five panels in one. Day and towards the end of the interview, the last interview was a very technical one and I bombed it.

I had a migraine, I didn't tell the interviewer that, but I was just done and I didn't do so well in that particular interview, the last one, but I did mention to the interviewer that, Hey, I have a portfolio. They can check out and she pulled it up right then and there. And I left the interview thinking I'm not gonna get this job, but I did two days later find out and.

Turned out to really help me was that data portfolio when I didn't do so well in the interview and ended up helping my interviewers realize that I'm actually qualified for the work that I'm applying for.

Yeah, I do believe that a portfolio can hurt you. So I did a project last year where I was collaborating with a number of college students. And so I had a bunch of applications for this project. And some students sent me portfolios that like, based off of their resume, they were gonna be brought onto this project but their portfolios, I was like, oh, okay.

You are not very good at data visualization at all. And. This is an area where you need to grow, but I do not have the capacity in this project to mentor you. I think at least I've seen some people who in the mapping world who will just put some maps in their portfolios that I just think are ugly.

And you know, that's, again, my personal opinion, but I think. Portfolios can a hundred percent help you, but I do wanna put caution out there that you need to be really careful about how you craft your story and the story that you craft to make sure that you are not putting yourself at a disservice.

So basically making sure that the quality of the work that we're actually putting in our portfolio is. Actually good in quality and not focusing too much on quantity. Is that something that you see these people, like maybe they put on too many projects and they're just low quality.

Were like what I'd call like word document portfolios, right? Where there's a word document, I think is way better than nothing in many cases. So I would say that. Their portfolios were evidence of a level of growth and immaturity like that there, that there was opportunities for growth.

And it's really hard cause you have to start somewhere. But  if I were to compare this to my peers of this final project, would people say that this is a good visualization? Or like, what was the feedback that I got on this? Like, am I really putting my best foot forward?

And perhaps, you know, I think that they really thought that their visualizations were all that great. And to me it just showed like a lack of self-reflection in terms of being like, this is a great visualization, and I think there was really good analysis behind it, but I was looking for people who could visual. 

This role that you were talking about, there are some roles out there that they do require submitting a data portfolio, and this was one of them.

So for this role. There was no data portfolio that was required.

Oh, interesting.

Give me your resume. And then some people chose to give a data portfolio to help showcase additional skills. For some of them, the portfolio really set them apart, or everyone who gave me a portfolio set them apart, some for better and some for worse.

 So can you share with us your top five tips for creating a data portfolio.

Yeah. So I would say that the first thing. To start with the end in mind. So what is your goal of creating a portfolio?  I'm assuming that your portfolio is on the web and that's where many people's portfolios live. My portfolio for a long time was a PDF that was, I created in Google slides.

And the reason why I did that was that I could. I didn't want it living on the internet because of somewhat sensitive projects where it was okay for me to show people stuff, but I didn't wanna just like living out there where anyone could find it. But I also wanted to be able to more easily tailor the wording for different companies as well as I would attach instead of a cover letter, I would attach my portfolio when I was applying for jobs.

So I think that the, the first thing is just figure out what is your goal with your portfolio? And part of that is figuring out what format your portfolio is going to, to hold. The second thing that I would say is to actually just start your portfolio for me, the idea of creating a portfolio was so daunting and was something that. Was utterly overwhelming for me when I thought about starting it, it turned out that actually creating a first draft of my portfolio. It just, it took me a few evenings was really, really fun and was something that I was really, really thankful that I did. So you just need to start the process and start brainstorming what you're going to put in.

The third thing that I'd say is that you should tell a story. And by that, I mean, you know, make it compelling in terms of who you are and the skills that you bring to the table related to that is that I think it's really important to include all of what you do in a portfolio. So I host a portfolio challenge and I also do a lot of one-on-one coaching with people around their portfolios and helping them create their portfolios.

And the thing that I so often hear is what I can actually include that in my portfolio. So whether that be a grad school project that you're really proud of, or your undergrad thesis, but also I think that part of the purpose of a portfolio is to show you as a whole person. And so I include nonprofit volunteering activity.

I include stuff about my husband in part, because I think that he's the best. And I can't believe that I'm married to him, but also because my marriage is a super important part of who I am. I include some stuff about my faith, which is not like to try and prosper ties, but that I really want to. I need to work in a place that's willing to accept me as a person of faith.

And so I include a bit about that in my portfolio because that's a value that sets me apart. And it's possible that, you know, some organizations might not like me because of that, but it's better for me to be bringing my whole self to work. And the final thing that I would say is that you should just develop an update frequency of how often will you update your portfolio.

So I real, I highly recommend that on the last Friday of every month, you block some time on your calendar.  and you write down what your biggest accomplishments were of that month pro tip. This will really help you in the annual review process. But to like screenshot any visualizations, anything that you did and have a folder on your computer, where you have all that stuff, and then you can either update your portfolio, know, once a month, or at least you have a cadence of reflecting on.

Anything that you might have done that you might want to put in your portfolio.  In summary, the five tips that I would say are starting with the end in mind of your portfolio, just start tell a story, include all of what you can do, and then actually update your portfolio.

I really liked number four because what I see, especially new data professionals, they struggle with finding so-called unique projects that they can add to their portfolio, but there's a lot that you can find in your life.

As you mentioned, I love the examples that you shared, because it will not only make it easier for you to find case studies that you can put in your data portfolio or  personal data that you can use in your data portfolio, but also set you apart as a candidate. So I  particularly like that tip

I think it's super important, particularly for women because there's oftentimes unpaid labor that women do. So organizing the church rummage sale, being on the PTA. Well, you may not have a leadership position at work. There's visual evidence that you can create, even if it's just like you standing in front of a room of volunteers that tells a story about who you are and experiences that you've had, that wouldn't necessarily show up on your resume.

yeah, that's a really good point. I hope that everyone listening takes their data portfolios really seriously after listening to this episode. And for those that are looking for additional help and motivation to either creating or updating their data portfolio. You mentioned that you have a challenge.

Can you tell us more about what that challenge is? What it entails?

Yeah. So every year I run a six week data portfolio challenge. And so it is geared towards people who are in the geospatial industry, but it's really open to anyone who works in data. So this past year, when we ran it, there were a few sort of non geospatial data people. And so over the course of six weeks there's weekly coaching where we talk through a different topic.

So whether that be figuring out what platform you should put stuff on. I have some really in depth exercises for you to brainstorm about the topics that you would want to include in your portfolio. Those are the topics that we cover. I generally run that in the summer.

We're gonna see what this summer holds, but I also have a recorded version of it that isn't done live that you can purchase on my website.

 Can you tell the listeners what website they can go to? 

Yeah. So my website is tabulaespatial.com and it's very similar to Tableau, but not quite so. It's, Tabul a T a, B U L a E spatial S P a T I a l.com. And then forward slash portfolio hyphen challenge. If you wanna get more information on the challenge.

I will be posting the link to this website on the show notes for this podcast episode. For those of you who do need help finding this link, Julian. And can you also tell us where people can connect with.

My favorite social media platform, where I am really active is on LinkedIn, which I know it tends to have a really stuffy Personality, but I built such great connections there. So I'm at Juliana mapper across all social media. So I'm on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and on LinkedIn on at all those.

And so I post stuff about creating a, a geospatial career stuff about portfolios. And I would love the opportunity to connect with you and chat with you and DMS on any of those platform.

Well, thank you so much for those who are listening, I will be posting Juliana's handles on my show notes as well. So make sure you check that out after listening to this episode, Juliana, thank you so much for coming on the episode today and sharing so many valuable tips and advice.

And I really look forward to you coming on the podcast again in the future.

Yeah, this was amazing. It's so great to talk with you and thanks so much.