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Professor Brings a Wealth of Experience and Passion to Data Visualization Course

Professor Brings a Wealth of Experience and Passion to Data Visualization Course

Javier Leon Villanova faculty spotlight

Last Updated January 18, 2021

Javier Leon is likely one of the few people in the world that discusses the Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception as they relate to placement of children’s breakfast cereal in the grocery store. He’s also followed a relatively rare career path that has taken him from work as an engineer in a Venezuelan brewery to becoming a successful entrepreneur and professor in the United States.

Leon has had quite a colorful career trajectory. But he’s not focused on the past, but rather what he can learn and do next.

“I’m a very eclectic person. I like doing a little bit of everything,” Leon said in a recent interview.

Leon currently works as a project manager for Amazon Produce Network. He also teaches the Essentials of Data Visualization course 100% online for Villanova University. His road to these positions started in Venezuela.

Working As An Engineer at a Brewery

Leon started his academic career at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, one of the largest universities in Venezuela. He graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering in 2009.

At work, he also began to develop an interest in technology and its uses in all phases of an operation. After graduation, he went to work with one of the largest breweries in Venezuela. While there, he was put in charge of the team that implemented Systems Applications and Products in Data Processing (SAP).

“We did over 155 implementations, which included all of the different modules of SAP, and in many different aspects such as manufacturing, distribution, sales, marketing, finance and HR,” Leon said.

But Leon also reached a point where he wanted to learn more, so he decided to come to the United States and earn an MBA. He did that, with a concentration in marketing, at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where he graduated in 2015.

Applying His Education to the Real World

While working on his MBA, Leon worked with the Cochran Fellowship Program, which brings people from developing countries into the U.S. and teaches them best practices for retail, marketing, sales, and promotions, among other areas. All of it is based on the food and beverage industry, where Leon had years of experience.

Leon then took a job with Amazon Produce Network as a project manager, a position he still holds. He works with special projects, including the implementation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), data visualization, databases and forecasting.

He also continued with his education and went on to earn a Master of Science in Business Intelligence and Analytics in 2017 and a Master of Science in Food Marketing in 2018.

As if multiple master’s degrees wasn’t enough, he then became a certified project management professional (PMP®) and has taught as an adjunct professor in business intelligence and business analytics classes at the advanced and intermediate level. For beginners, he’s taught statistics, data visualization and data-based programming.

Teaching the Essentials of Data Visualization Course

Leon recently developed and started teaching Villanova University’s new Essentials of Data Visualization course. He is passionate about data visualization, believing it can benefit anyone.

“I would say that the mindset behind a person that might be interested in data visualization is that of curiosity,” Leon said. “If you are a curious person and want to learn more about any topic in particular and you find ways to connect to honest and transparent data sources, you can do research on your own and put things to the test.”

He said people in certain fields simply must know how to use data visualization. He included those in STEM fields, as well as those aspiring to become a data scientist or project manager.

Students in the course get hands-on experience with Qlik and Tableau, two of the best-known software programs in the industry. They create their own visualizations, and learn how to produce different types of charts, graphs and key performance indicators.

Leon also brings his own experience to the job. 

“I try to relate how these tools are being used in real life. One very common thing that students will find is that I share from my portfolio of real-life projects that I’ve done with my company,” Leon said. “It allows students to see a real-life problem and a real-life solution and a person that they know who has been hired to solve that problem.”

Gestalt’s Principles of Visual Perception

Leon has been talking about Gestalt’s Principles of Visual Perception since his time at the brewery. He said he used to talk with grocery store managers about the principles in context of how to place children’s cereal or how to best display and pre-cut meat.

Leon discusses the principles with his class and uses them to explain how people perceive data. The basic theory is that people always look for patterns, something primitive man needed to understand the world around them. As Leon put it, “If something moves, I need to be alert. If something is a little bit off, that could be a tiger or a lion.”

People also tend to believe that things in groups are similar. For example, all the news articles in a highlighted box must be of high interest. Or three people standing together at a dinner party must be part of the same group.

He pointed out that the genius in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting is that the three customers in the diner – the only three customers in the diner – are not focusing on each other. They’re not touching or communicating with each other. Even the man behind the bar seems focused on something other than the patrons.

“One of the things that makes that painting so interesting is that when you look closely, you realize he basically plays with our notion of perception,” Leon said. He uses this to show students how to better group information in a way people expect.

The Benefits of Live Lectures

Leon said one of the many aspects he enjoys about teaching the course are the live lectures. He said they provide an opportunity to bring students together to share information.

“You can use them as a forum which you can get students to share with one another what their experiences are, what they have seen in their businesses or industries, best practices (and not so best practices), etc.,” Leon said. “They can also use them to expand on the knowledge they have received in the readings and videos, and of course, on the hands-on experience that they have been assigned.”

PMP is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.