Preparing for the Tableau Desktop Certified Associate Exam

During the quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s, as 2019 was breathing its last breaths, I took the time to renew my Tableau Desktop Certified Associate title. To help you prepare for taking your own exam, here are my thoughts on how to best face the certification.

What is the Tableau Desktop Certified Associate?

There are three exams you can take for Tableau Desktop and two for Tableau Server. The easiest is the Tableau Desktop Certified Specialist, an exam originally designed (as far as I understand it) for university students who have gained some experience with Tableau and wish to have that experience certified on a figurative piece of paper that they can state in their CVs and use in their applications. As students so rarely have to manage a Tableau Server environment, this title exists only for Tableau Desktop.

The next level is the Certified Associate, available both for Tableau Desktop and Tableau Server. If you’ve been part of the Tableau world for a while, you might still remember it as the Qualified Associate, which I originally gained in November 2017. For Tableau Desktop, around five months’ practical experience with the product are recommended before you attempt this exam. Of course, this is merely a guideline and your individual need will vary depending on the intensity and frequency of your usage. The title remains active for two years, after which you will need to renew it.

The third and highest level is the Certified Professional, also available for both Desktop and Server. You can only go for this exam if you already have an active Certified Associate in the respective product. For Tableau Desktop, more than nine months’ practical experience is recommended. This one goes deeper into the complexity, but also the sensibility of Tableau usage, containing nested LODs, nested table calculations, visual best practices, and story building. The title will be active for three years before you need to renew it. I gained my Tableau Desktop Certified Professional title in September 2018 and thus have some time (fortunately!) before I need to face that exam again.

Now, for clarification, it wasn’t technically necessary for me to renew my Certified Associate title. As long as I renewed my Certified Professional before the old title ran out, I would not have needed to have an active Certified Associate title. However, as Tableau changes a lot regarding the frequency of high-profile features being added, I was curious to see how the exam might have changed with it. I also wanted to be able to advise other Tableau users better on preparation for the exam by refreshing my experience.

How is the Tableau Desktop Certified Associate exam set up?

For your peace of mind, I suggest going through the Tableau Exam Prep Guide in addition to this blog post, ascertaining you always have the latest information. You will schedule your exam with an external service provider. It is a virtually proctored exam, so you can take it anywhere, as long as you are alone and in a well-lit room clear of paper and miscellaneous items. I have been able to have a bottle of water and a tissue box on the table with me both times, and a vase of my wilting birthday flowers and a tray of Christmas candles this time, but more items than that would probably be pushing it a bit far.

At the time of your exam, a proctor will walk you through the process and set up a virtual machine for you. You will take your exam in the VM, and will be constantly watched by your proctor. You will not be able to leave your seat, and in my first exam I was expressly forbidden from letting my eyes wander around the room. I know that I personally panic a lot in exam situations, so I take these instructions very seriously, maybe a bit too seriously. But then again, would you want to fail an exam due to ‘misbehaviour’?

The exam itself is a 36 question multiple-choice quiz. You will have two hours (and five minutes in order to read the exam instructions at the very beginning) to complete your exam. You will receive your feedback immediately afterwards with an overview of your score in different areas of the exam. You will not know which questions, if any, you answered incorrectly. You will merely know how many you answered correctly, how your final score was, and in which area (such as Data Connections, Organizing and Simplifying Data, or Field and Chart Types) you can improve.

What wisdom can I bestow upon you?

Little to none, I guess, but I will do my best. The exam experience is very different for everybody, I assume, but I will let you know my perspective and what learnings I took from these two times of taking the Certified Associate.

If you don’t want to read through my twelve detailed tips for the Tableau Desktop Certified Associate, this is my TL,DR in 280 characters:

  1. Allow plenty of time.

You will have two hours (and five minutes) for the exam itself, but please plan at least three, maybe better four hours for your exam. After your exam timeslot starts, you have fifteen minutes to start the exam process. Then you will have to retake the technical tests before connecting to your proctor. Then your proctor will walk you through the exam process. Then you will have to confirm one by one your understanding of and willingness to follow the points your proctor just walked you through. Then your proctor will take you through the technical tests again (I may be messing up the order here). Then they will set up your virtual machine. Then they will ask you for any final questions, give a few final hints, and finally allow you to actually start your exam.

The first time I took my Qualified Associate, as it was called at the time, the proctor themselves experienced a few technical issues and had to call another proctor to help. It took them almost forty minutes to set up my virtual machine. I believe that the service provider has since changed (not entirely certain here) and this time the setup went off without a hitch within fifteen minutes, including all the procedural yadda I mentioned above. Either way, don’t schedule yourself an important board meeting exactly two hours after your time slot starts. Please allow this kind of extra time.

  1. Know how to disable your anti-virus programme.

The proctor will check that you have stopped all applications beside GoToMeeting (the software used to communicate with your proctor) and Google Chrome (the browser used to start your exam). That includes any and all anti-virus software you may have implemented on your computer.

This one took a while for me, because I had to find out where to stop my anti-virus programme, and it wouldn’t stop through the device manager. Don’t be like me. Know your software.

  1. Stay hydrated with an empty bladder.

Be as awake as you can be, but note that you might have to remain seated for two to four hours, depending on the smoothness of your technical setup and the time you need for your actual exam.

When I took my Qualified Associate exam, you were still allowed to leave your seat for a quick toilet break during the exam. I use the term “break” very loosely here, as your timer would continue running. When you came back, you would have to show the proctor around your room again, proving that you didn’t sneak in any paper / people / other potentially helpful items with you.

I didn’t need a toilet break the first time around, but this time I had had two huge cups of tea before the exam and was liberally drinking water during the exam. About half an hour in, I realized that this might have been a mistake, even though I went to the loo immediately before starting my exam.

Well, nowadays, you cannot leave your seat during the exam at all. At least there was no explanation on toilet breaks as there was with my Qualified Associate, so I’m guessing toilet breaks are out of the question nowadays.

Hydrate, yes. But better sneak in a water bottle and hydrate during the exam, rather than hydrate extensively before and then sit around as if on hot coals for half your exam as I did. Believe me, it didn’t make answering the questions any easier.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.

When I went for my Qualified Associate title in 2017, I had about seven months’ experience with Tableau Desktop. Seven months’ experience in my case meant that I had self-taught myself Tableau for the first five months, 40 hours a week, while writing my bachelor’s thesis on the sensibility of bringing Tableau Desktop to my company at the time. The six weeks immediately before my QA were already as a trainee with The Information Lab Deutschland GmbH, where my usage of Tableau intensified tenfold, with my colleagues teaching me all the things you will not easily find out by teaching yourself, with me taking on client projects, and by becoming a trainer to our clients myself.

Simply put, don’t attempt this exam right after getting started with Tableau. But if you really kickstart your work with Tableau, it may not be necessary for you to wait for the full five months. Vice versa, if you use Tableau only occasionally, you may need more than the recommended five months’ experience with the product.

What you need is more than simply knowing what goes where. You need routine in order to quickly understand the questions, translating those questions into action, and smoothly taking that action in Tableau. Most of the questions require you to create views in Tableau, and those practical questions bring the most points, so you can’t really get around them. And the more routinely you find your way around Tableau Desktop, the easier this will be.

  1. Stay calm in the face of technical issues.

You will be working in a virtual machine, and it may not always be smooth sailing tech-wise. As mentioned above, the first time I took the exam, it took the proctor close to forty minutes to set up my VM. That’s not what will break your concentration, though, as this happens before you begin your exam.

What shook me at the time (or tried its best to) was Tableau Desktop crashing and not restarting in the midst of my exam. I quickly checked the time and realized that even if it took them half an hour to restart Tableau for me (which it didn’t; they needed maybe three minutes), I would have plenty of time to finish the exam as I was almost finished. That calmed me right down.

I’m not telling you this to scare you. Quite the opposite: I want you to be aware that these things happen, and that it will be alright. In my case, the proctor jumped right into action, and even when they needed a minute in order to confer with another proctor, they always communicated to me what was going on and which steps were being taken in order to get things up and running again as soon as possible.

This time, my exam went off without a hitch. But even if yours doesn’t, keep a cool head and be assured that your proctor will do their utmost to help you out right away.

That mentioned, your proctor won’t know that you need assistance, if you don’t:

  1. Ask for help.

When your VM is acting up, when your programs crash, when anything else is wrong, when you have any questions, speak up. Reach out to your proctor and state what is wrong. They are there to help you, so let them know that you need help.

Of course, this is strictly limited to technical help and procedural questions. They will not assist you with any questions on the content of the exam or of Tableau functionalities.

  1. Set a virtual keyboard that matches your physical one.

I learned this particular lesson (which may not apply to you if you’re from an English-speaking location) the hard way during my Certified Professional exam. I had set the keyboard language within the virtual machine to German (that option at the bottom right hand corner of your screen), but not the one of the VM (the one at the top center of your screen). This resulted in me having absolutely zero idea where my plus / minus signs were, where my commas and dots were, my colons, my slashes, my asterisks, my normal brackets, my curly brackets, and everything else you can think of that you might need when typing nested LOD calculations and the like.

This was one of the moments when I should have reached out to the proctor and asked for help. However, I was impatient (you have very little time during the CP exam) and needed a solution yesterday rather than in a minute. So I did what every insanely nervous person would never advise you to do: I googled a list of UTF-8 signs, sought my way to the sign I needed at any moment using Ctrl+F, and copy-pasted it into my calcs.

There’s three lessons to be had here:

  1. Set your keyboard to the language of your physical keyboard.
  2. If something goes wrong, reach out to your proctor and ask for help (as mentioned above).
  3. If for any reasons you forget to ask for help, stay calm and think quick on your feet.

This time, I knew to change my keyboard language in both locations.

  1. Take the exam in English, if possible.

Again, this tip will not be relevant for the English speakers. For everybody else, this will depend on how comfortable you are with the English language. Personally, I would rather rely on my language skills to understand the questions in their original English than rely on the translators to phrase the question in understandable German.

I opted to take my exams in English every single time and have yet to regret it (which I won’t). A friend attempted the Certified Associate in German and was confused by the questions. I can’t say for certain in which parts this was due to the quality of the translation and their ability to understand the questions, but I know that I personally will always choose the original exam language if at all possible.

  1. Google the heck out of your questions.

If you know everything, good for you! But if you’re like me, there may be questions where the answer is not readily waiting on the tip of your tongue. With new features being published every few months, there were a few things I didn’t know the answer to, simply because I had never used the feature before. One of these features were multi-table extracts.

So what did I do? I googled them. You are allowed to use public websites that require no login. So do yourself a favour and use them!

I also ended up googling a particular volcano to find out whether or not it was widely considered situated by a particular sea because the multiple-choice options of that question were slightly confusing. Without giving the precise question away: yes, Lewotobi is by the Suva Sea. You’re welcome.

  1. Know your way around the Tableau Online Help.

That being said, knowing your way around the Tableau Online Help helps. Two particular skills I employed here: know how to switch the English article to your native language (for Germans: simply change the “en-us” in the URL to “de-de”), and know how to distinguish a Help article link from a Help video link. Maybe I was being paranoid here, but the help videos will prompt you for your data, and I was afraid that the proctor would think I was logging into a website which will render your exam attempt invalid, and thus I stayed far away from those Help videos.

Also, please don’t start reading the full article in-depth. Skim the headers and quickly find your way to the required section. It is recommended that you don’t use the Control or Escape keys as they may not react the way you expect them to. My muscle memory was so used to hitting Ctrl+F in order to search a webpage, though, that I did that more than once, and not once did the VM blow up in my face. Use Ctrl+F at your own risk, though!

  1. Use the Exam Navigator (or whatever that little navigation window is called again).

There will be questions you can’t answer on the first attempt. Or questions where you will want to re-check your choice before submitting your replies. Don’t lose time by fretting over those questions. Simply flag them for later perusal by hitting the little flag icon.

There’s also an exam navigator (sorry, I forgot the exact term) that you can choose to view. I highly recommend doing this. You have to select it once and it will stay popped up throughout the rest of your exam. There you will have an overview of where you are, which questions you have and haven’t yet answered, and which questions you have flagged. You can use this little window to quickly jump to those questions.

To go with this hint, I recommend you rename your sheets in Tableau Desktops with the question number you created them for. In case of flagged questions, this will help you easily find the sheet again and to check your work there.

  1. Breathe! You got this.

I get super nervous, and I always try to be more than helpful (and occasionally end up being less than helpful on the way), so I listed every little thing that came to mind you might want to know about the Certified Associate exam. This may seem overwhelming and plenty of things to keep in mind.

But frankly, if you feel confident in your level of Tableau Desktop skill, usage, and routine, just go for this exam. It’s multiple-choice, you’ve got plenty of time (it took me a little over one hour in both attempts, out of the two hours available), and you can do it in the comfort of your own home, or office, or honeymoon suite, or wherever you choose to be at the time of your exam. You can do this!

P.S.: One bonus tip for the road:

  1. If you’re using a wireless mouse, remember to charge it before your exam.