Tableau CEO Rewrites Data Analysis Rulebook

Tableau Software CEO Christian Chabot is a renegade in a sector that has been dogged by failed promise

Identifying meaningful trends from data is a goal dating back even to before computers were around to make storage and processing of information a simpler process. In the digital world we have seen trends come and go, from executive information systems to data marts and warehouses, big-ticket business intelligence systems and so on. Most of these have fallen into disuse because the software has been clunky and required specialist operators and interpreters. Despite this, survey after survey suggests CIOs and their bosses want actionable information to inform strategy and one company has emerged as the leader in democratising and simplifying analysis for the rest of us – Tableau Software.

I spoke in person and by phone to CEO and founder Christian Chabot as well as fellow executives, developers, partners and users to find out more about a company that is doing for data insights what did for keepings tabs on customers.

Although Tableau is headquartered in Seattle, Chabot has a cosmopolitan, not to say left-field outlook. Born in the rural US state of Wisconsin, he took his degrees at Sussex University in England and Stanford. He also wrote a book about the rise of the euro currency and worked in economics consulting, and for the Japanese investment company Softbank Venture Capital before eventually co-founding Tableau in 2003. Today, he runs the company not from the Seattle HQ but from London, half the world away and the city which this anglophile American currently calls home.

Chabot is friendly, dry, funny, deeply suspicious of conventional wisdom and the Silicon Valley industry nonsense that often brings out a high-pitched yelp of laughter.

I start by suggesting that despite all the efforts at interpreting data, organisations continue to fail to identify what’s going on – take, for example, the banking collapse.

“That’s right!” he says. “They all had a massive risk management department so what the heck were they doing?”

The conundrum is answered by the fact, he says, that data analysis systems have not tended to be easy to use. This is Tableau’s calling card: make analysis so easy that everybody can do it to address their challenges and opportunities.

“You can be swimming in data but if you can’t cycle through it you will be caught in some pin-pricking scenario as to what’s going to happen next.”

Having recently passed $100m in quarterly revenue for the first time, built a staff of 1,700 and having established as a public company, 11-year-old Tableau is maturing fast but it has taken a different route to many, most notably in its avoidance of VCs for early capital.

“A tell-tale sign of a failing company is trying to impress Sand Hill Road [where Valley VCs cluster] and chasing the wish-list of professional financiers. These companies never get out of fundraising mode. They spend a lot of time trying to impress the VC at a board meeting and an average CEO might spend a week over a PowerPoint to impress them. It’s a tragic misuse of time and there’s a certain purity to a company that has to go hand to mouth. [A lot of startups are] fundamentally misled and misdirected in that regard. VCs will typically tell fledgling startups that one of the big components of added value they will bring is making it easier to recruit. We started the company in the middle of the ‘dotbomb’ period and I will tell you, top engineering talent could care less who your fancy VC is. We started the company in my bedroom and when summer came it got hot so we moved to the basement. We boot-strapped it and survived. I spent two years in VC which is not nearly enough to be an expert but the biggest thing I learned is not to get involved [until the startup is solid].”

Chabot is similarly mocking of Silicon Valley and the faddishness for concepts.

“It’s like Hollywood making three volcano movies in a year; it’s group behaviour. A few years ago all VCs wanted to talk about was social networks, then it was open source, then Big Data and who knows what next. You could write a book about it. It’s good to be out of that fishbowl; not being a Silicon Valley company helped us.”

Chabot says that his original concept of making analytics available to everybody raised eyebrows at the time but it hasn’t changed.

“We started with a simple vision and a simple idea and that simple product line has become a sensation. We think we have a tiger by the tail and we have an enormous opportunity. I view us as like Google in 2005 or in 2002 - we haven’t even started yet. We’re right at the crossroads of some of the most exciting intersections in computing: Big Data, analytics, large-scale systems, cloud computing, tablet computing, predictive analytics, high-performance systems…  I don’t want to get too ‘arm-wavy’ but people are calling the 21st century the data century and there is immense opportunity to improve the world. Because of the cost and complexity of these traditional BI systems most people on our planet have nothing at all – it’s very much a green-field opportunity.”

Chabot says that the next challenges will be to keep investing in research and development (spending as much in the next two years as in the previous ten) and expanding geographically and capitalise on opportunities everywhere from the UK, Germany and France to Japan, Australia, Singapore, India and Brazil.

Partnering with the complementary likes of Cloudera, MapR, DataSift and Splunk will also be key.

Although some observers carp and cavil, suggesting that providing more analysis tools to end users could result in anarchy and ‘garbage in, garbage out’ results, Chabot disagrees, saying that ease of use has a strong correlation with insight and that the people best able to elucidate their challenges are those at the sharp end of those challenges.

“In essence we’re trying to do the next version of the spreadsheet,” Chabot says. “The potential market is much bigger than we thought it was – the huge range of people who use Excel. We want to let them pour data in and have a Google-like experience.”

And as with Google or Salesforce, users have become the company’s best sales people, evangelising on behalf of the software. Remarkable stories abound, including that of Robert Radburn who works for Leicestershire County Council’s Research and Insight team in the UK, and says Tableau is sharply reducing the time it takes for key workers to get to insights that improve services for everybody.

“I’m not in IT,” he says. “I operate in the trenches, working with social workers, librarians and others and I sit down and say ‘let’s look at the data’: 300 rows perhaps 10 dimensions. It’s really poignant. I work with social workers and they see me turn up in a suit and think ‘who’s this idiot?’ But then they see things that [they can quickly grasp].”

Radburn and others noted how Tableau even “blurs the line between work and play” to the extent that they find themselves running visualisations on tablets while relaxing in front of the TV. One user even used Tableau to visualise the growth of his baby daughter.

It’s a powerful formula that has driven Tableau to become valued at over $5bn. And if Chabot’s outlook and the fanatic support of users is anything to go by, Tableau could become one of the technology icons of its generation.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect