Visualize data-driven solutions at your job in 7 weeks or less

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rep alicja foksinska 413x550px"Data is the best storyteller as long as we are willing to listen," said Alicja Foksinska, who teaches students to tell stories with data and practices the craft herself at Protective Life.Every one of the students in Alicja Foksinska's Data Visualization for Business course has a problem. Many of them have a solution in mind, too. They just need the skills to help others see it.

Bob Everett, who owns a business consulting firm, was working with a prospective client who is a property manager and had been experiencing friction with some of his homeowners over expense decisions. Tapping into what he learned in Foksinska's course, Everett created a dashboard demonstrating the exact relationship between expense decisions and homeowner profits. "My client was able to explore his data deeply, which led to him asking strategically motivated questions instead of trying to react to the problems on a balance sheet," Everett said. "Without the knowledge I gained from this class, I would have used outdated methods to try to communicate multi-dimensional data and possibly have lost the client. Instead, my client decided to move forward with me and signed my retainer that day."

100% online, 100% real-world

The vast majority of Foksinska's students, like Everett and Foksinska herself, have day jobs. (The seven-week course is part of a five-class, 100% online Business Analytics with Information Technology certificate, which is designed to be completed in a year — see below.) UAB employees often take Foksinska's course, too, including staff from the Division of Nephrology, Office of Sponsored Programs, Histocompatibility Laboratory and Human Resources. “As I get to know the students’ industries and professions, I’m able to use examples of data from those areas to make the coursework more relatable,” she said.

Foksinska knows that many of her students are interesting in growing into new roles — as she herself has done. Foksinska, who graduated with a UAB degree in Information Systems and Business Management in 2015, is Lead IT Auditor at the Birmingham-based insurance company Protective Life. "I explore all areas of the company through its data," she said. "My role as an IT auditor has evolved into a data-specialization role where I help all of our auditors get connected to the data they need. Through that process, I explore all different types of data sets that make up the story of our business — stories of our customers, products and employees."

rep tableau marketo starter 550pxImage courtesy of Tableau Software

Listening and learning

Story is the key word. "When I start visualizing the datasets, stories emerge," Foksinska said. "From the auditor's point of view, my stories mainly focus on outliers and unique patterns, since auditors focus on the unusual. I then look to see the reasoning behind each outlier, comprehend it and craft a story for management to understand why that happened. Data is the best storyteller as long as we are willing to listen."

In one lecture, Foksinska reads students a children’s picture book, calling out the narrative arc that is crucial to any effective storytelling. “Being able to create insightful dashboards that tell a cohesive story from beginning to end, with a cause-and-effect explanation, is a skill that takes time to develop,” she said.

For their final project, students present a mock data-visualization story to Foksinska, who plays the role of management. "They tell a succinct, five-minute story with data they have been given," she said. "They share their key takeaways and recommendations that management would need to know. This project is something they can easily translate and use in their careers."

Data from the ground up

Before they get there, though, students learn the techniques that underlie effective visualizations from the bottom up. "We start with the basics, like icons, colors and layout," Foksinska said. Students then learn how to select the appropriate chart for their data. "Just like you wouldn't use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, it's important for students to learn which type of chart is appropriate for the data they want to visualize," she said.

Foksinska shares her own method for starting any data project. "You don't need fancy tools and software to work with data and data storytelling," she said. "You can use Excel to paint a picture with data — or no software at all. I show students my hand-drawn sketches of dashboards that I make before I even start thinking about using technology. That is where I always start: a blank piece of paper and some multi-colored pens."

Students then learn to build interactive data dashboards in Tableau, an industry-standard tool for data visualization and analysis. Modules build on each other to prepare students for Tableau Desktop Specialist certification. "Certifications certainly give the students a competitive edge when applying for jobs," Foksinska said. "Most Fortune 500 companies use Tableau, so the applicant is prepared to use that tool in their new position.” But even if a company uses another data-visualization tool, she said, the basic visualization skills are transferrable. “During the course, students not only learn the tool but most important they learn how to analyze the data and derive key takeaways — and stories — from the data. I always tell my students at the end of the course to make sure they add Tableau and data visualization as skills to their resume and LinkedIn profile."

Student surveys are filled with kudos for the course's real-world examples, Foksinska's “recent and relevant” experience, and her engaging teaching style. Many say it has been their favorite course at UAB so far. "I would follow this woman into battle," wrote a student in her spring 2021 course. "I have learned SO much from her, and I know I can take all of this with me to a career." "In an asynchronous program, I rely very heavily on the instructor's ability to make the content easily accessible, and the structure of the course understood,” another student wrote. “This meets that need beautifully."

Get started

Data Visualization for Business is part of UAB's five-course Business Analytics with Information Technology certificate in the Collat School of Business. The certificate can be completed 100% online in one year. It can be applied toward UAB's top-ranked Master of Science in Management Information Systems degree, which requires five additional courses, all 100% online. The Business Analytics Certificate can also be applied toward UAB's interdisciplinary graduate studies degree, which awards a master's degree to students who complete two participating UAB certificate programs (see full list here) plus a final capstone experience. Apply now.

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