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Month: September 2010

Tableau rising

As Stephen Few delivered his keynote address at the recent Tableau customer conference in Seattle, he suddenly broke his rhythm to look at someone in the audience. “Is that Howard Dresner?” he wondered, surprised.

It was. Howard is the man who as a Gartner analyst in 1989 revived the term “business intelligence,” and he’s one of the industry’s patriarchs. He holds a seat on the TDWI faculty, and he founded Gartner’s business intelligence event.

In that world, Tableau is still an insurgent. Tableau usually bypasses IT buyers on its way to data analysts, who only want to soak insight from data and then show others the results. Many Tableau users are veterans of miserable, lockstep interfaces procured by those IT buyers and made by IT-facing vendors. That at least partly explains why Stephen Few’s evisceration of the Business Objects interface seemed to delight just about everyone in the audience. Even Howard called it “wildly entertaining.”

Two mornings before, Tableau CEO Christian Chabot had started the fire. In his Monday morning keynote, he made allusions to Apple’s “1984” ad, then went into Tableau 6 — using FAA data on another variety of Big Brother: the airlines on which most of the crowd had arrived in Seattle. Both keynotes were as much fun to watch as the wild flames of a bonfire or a public execution.

Now and then, though, I had to check the exits. My inner skeptic always questions such fervor. I subscribe to no guru, no preacher, no righteous political philosophy, nor any movement that’s “green,” “red,” or “blue.” When you glimpse the underside, they’re all too ugly to bear.

But, again and again, I’ve seen that this is not any of that. The Tableau crowd is simply a bunch of people who’ve found a good, honest tool that responds the way good tools do. They have fun listening to the keynotes, but most Tableau users themselves are about as fired up as chess enthusiasts or weekend car mechanics. They’ve adopted something that’s logical, responsive, and economical, in which the simple interface encourages experimentation and learning.

One of the only signs of celebration was giddy tweeting. I suppose that was hard to take for some. One BI biggie — perhaps speaking for the Ministry of Truth — grumbled in a tweet from far away that there was “no silver bullet,” but most Tableau users don’t follow him and don’t care. Others, such as Howard Dresner and Microsoft lead for BI strategy Bruno Aziza both showed up to see what it was all about.

The conference was sold out. Total paid attendance was around 700 — more than twice last year, which was significantly higher than the first year. Most user conferences, in fact, declined this year and last. This year’s total was also in the same range as TDWI World Conference in San Diego, held just two weeks earlier, and not too far away from the 1000 or so that Howard Dresner says Gartner often attracts.

At this rate, says CEO Christian Chabot, the conference will be forced out of Seattle next year and possibly longer. The only space that will hold a larger crowd than this year’s would be space mashups within an easy walk of each other, and that’s not available next year. Tableau is already looking at San Francisco and other cities, even Las Vegas.

One user, now back home in Lithuania, pondered the future: Giedre Aleknonyte, a data analyst at a phone carrier, said “You know how people say they’ll ‘Google’ to find out some information, even when they don’t actually use Google? Maybe someday when we want to analyze data we’ll say, ‘I’ll just tableau it.'”

The basic skill they don’t teach in BI boot camp

One of the saddest phenomena in BI projects is also a classic: IT and Business stop talking, or else they never talked at all. Projects launch but then stall when the light from shiny things dims. It’s as good an example of bad politics as I’ve heard of.

Jill Dychè, a principle at Baseline Consulting, hears about such pain in her popular TDWI conference course held on Sundays, “BI from Both Sides: Aligning Business and IT.” It’s full of the “war-wounded” who’ve come to learn how to get moving again.

She finds a common root to many stories: neither side knows how to engage with the other.

“Shockingly, IT says ‘Well, when business knows what it wants, it’ll ask us,'” she says. “It’s unbelievable how often that happens.” From the business side, she often hears, “‘We’ve been asking for X for five years and haven’t gotten it.'” She wants to know, “Who did you ask? How authoritative are you? How did you know what to say? How formal was your request?”

People with stalled BI projects on their hands often try to “get back on the radar” with new and emerging technologies, she says. But that strategy usually doesn’t work.

Such attempts usually come in one of two kinds, she finds. In one, people try to re-label the project — something like business intelligence competency center — perhaps to gain headcount. Too often, though, that fails when the group fails to follow up with real value, instead delivering only disillusionment. In the second type, they have what Jill calls “technology in a vacuum.” They deploy something new without making sure anyone wants it or could use it. A dashboard tool, for example, then goes unused.

If only they’d talk to each other. I noticed her course when I saw she used the word “politics” boldly. It’s not a dirty word, it’s a practical one.

“Understanding who the influencers are helps you boost your agenda,” says Jill. “It’s politics.” You hitch the BI project to organization strategy, for one thing. For another, you find a strong, active sponsor. And you show stakeholders how meaningful analysis based on good data will improve business.

These skills are essential, so why schedule “BI from Both Sides” on a Sunday, a day before prime time? The light from all the shiny things we buy or sell — the BI products — is just reflected light, isn’t it? It all goes dark if the would-be users turn away. Make it part of boot camp!

She answers that it attracts people who really want to be there — and she has a point: Wounds motivate.