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Month: July 2008

Radical BI

Blogger Nicholas Goodman writes that Tableau’s visual analysis tool is not actually radical or revolutionary. He trivializes it as if it were a Coke machine with a cool new button.

For now, let’s not quibble about the meaning of radical, revolutionary, or button. Let’s not worry about the title of Nicholas’s post, “Sexy vs. experience,” stated as if the two don’t mix. Let’s not even consider the post he refers to, titled “Is it just sexy?” and written by L. Wayne Johnson, which supposedly disagrees with “Tableau is the new Apple” but doesn’t.

Let’s just ponder love of good, simple tools that free your mind.

Most tools are used and forgotten like bad movies. But every now and then, I hear of a tool that inspires trust, devotion and respect for its ability to take you where you want to go.

I’ve known people who’ve loved their old Volkswagens. These cars were easy to work on, and a guy could spend a whole Sunday afternoon fiddling with the engine. It made him feel competent even if everyone else told him he wasn’t.

A friend who once bicycled across Marin County and back every Sunday morning recalls her love for her bike. She knew exactly what it would do in any situation, and it made her feel safe and free.

I’ve loved a mechanical pencil because it was the right weight for my hand and let me forget it as I took notes.

I have also loved certain computer applications, such as Adobe Illustrator. True, it takes time to learn. But once I got its logic, its consistency made the rest simple, which freed me to try things on a whim. That ability to experiment with impunity is one of the best kinds of freedom.

I’m a beginner with the Tableau tool, so I can’t claim any affection for it of my own. But I see already that it has all the makings of a tool that I learn to rely on and, yes, love. Few of the many users I’ve listened to have used that word—it’s not really “professional”—but I recognize in their stories that same devotion and respect I’ve felt for well-designed, simple and responsive machines that speed you along to wherever you want to go.

Imagine it: an inexpensive piece of software that digests whatever data you feed it, that you can learn quickly, and that then helps you reveal the data’s story the way we all understand it best, visually. What you realize at a glance is often surprising, gut-wrenching or thrilling.

Is that radical? Others’ opinions may vary, but I think it is. You can take your choice of data-preparation machines. I’ll take Tableau.

Tableau is the new Apple

I watch Tableau Software CEO Christian Chabot demonstrate Tableau visual-analysis and I can’t help think of Steve Jobs and Mac OS X. Chabot has the same bright stage presence, and his product has the same simplicity and elegance. Like Mac, Tableau makes you love it.

In Monday’s keynote, Chabot couldn’t pace. The conference’s overflow crowd left little room for the tiny stage. His address had none of the self-conscious cool of a Jobs production and more reason and humor. This is a business crowd, not a consumer one, and he connected.

The world will be at Tableau’s doorstep soon enough—though I can’t quite understand why it’s not there yet. I suppose that most people have a hard time accepting a radically new product. Perhaps it’s like what happens among strangers at one of those round banquet tables. Do you remember how the conversation stumbles along with polite conversation until someone says something thoughtful? That’s a good time to refill your water glass, because nothing else will happen until people come out of shock.

There are more than enough stories going around to write the article due next week for BI This Week. If I had to boil down all the stories I’ve heard so far from users about Tableau software, it would go like this: We heard about it or found it somewhere, perhaps by chance. We had data to analyze, and someone said let’s try that visualization thing you have. Wow, in a day or so we had figured out something astounding about the data. We’ve been using it ever since.

It’s a company to watch.

User conference with a view

I often have to suppress a question while I listen to pitches for BI “solutions.” I want to interrupt and ask, “Hey, isn’t most of what you’re saying just bullshit?”

I’ve found an exception. That voice didn’t even make a peep Sunday as the three-day Tableau Software user conference unfurled in Seattle. Last night at a reception at the Edgewater Inn overlooking Puget Sound on a rare sunny day, I listened to Tableau staff tell me about their visualization software. Not once did I feel that restless need for more air.

They’ve got something good, really good. The quick stories I heard, sometimes barely, in cocktail-party shorthand ring true: for example, the heavy-hitting analysts who’ve been combing through rows and columns suddenly find they have a lot more time to plumb the data; the anti-terror people who can examine not just a handful of factors at once but a dozen or more; the consultant who feels he’s “stealing” from clients who demand Excel-based solutions who would benefit much more from Tableau; the anti-fraud guy who bought the software on his credit card and within a few hours found something so alarming he had to alert his boss. Some of them will make it into my story for BI This Week.

The only bad pitches today were by the Seattle Mariners. Tableau took a few dozen attendees to the game, and the Indians won easily.

Talking to Jock Mackinlay, the Tableau director of visual analysis, was actually more fun. He looked at the bands of alternating shades of green left by the mower and said, “That’s an interesting pattern. It’s almost like a visualization.” That’s dedication speaking.