Data industry’s breakthrough starts with a smile

The tweet stream running from Tableau’s presentation to the Boulder BI Brain Trust on Friday morning reflected one dominant reaction: awe. That’s easy when the product is a new shiny thing, but not so easy for number nine. As I said in one tweet, Tableau demos are always thrilling — no less than it was seven years ago. It’s magic, and it’s about time we give magic its due.

The question is what kind of magic? Is it the magic of a car salesman and his “new car smell”? Or is it an enduring magic that “takes a licking and keeps on ticking”?

The demos, at least, keep ticking. So far, now nine versions along, so does the product. How else can we explain the apparent, sustained cheer among the legions of seasoned users? Go ahead, tell me it’s all a fake. The walk on the Moon was a fake, too.

If there’s any sleight of hand in the Tableau show — and Qlik’s, too, by the way — it’s that it’s all about data. Listen to any Tableau presenter, and you hear them tell about data discovery in the context of a story. Storytelling is where the magic happens. I had this data, I looked at it this way, then that way, and I flipped over into this view, and then over to this one, and by god I saw this… It’s presentation magic, but unlike “new car smell,” this magic works even months or years after purchase.

Tableau has its doubters, of course. One bitter agent of the “just the facts, Ma’am” creed sat next to me last September during Tableau CEO Christian Chabot’s keynote and grumbled, “He’s telling them they’re artists.” Remember how that old song goes, “Do You Believe in Magic”: “I’ll tell you about the magic and it’ll free your soul, but it’s like tryin’ to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”

Sure, “You’re an artist” wins over the rubes in the cheap seats. But there’s more to it. In fact, many are a kind of artist, data storytellers. Forget Tableau’s “story points,” the cave painting kit for beginners, and look instead at what users produce. Look at not just Tableau’s stories about data discovery but at stories of discovery from users.

Perhaps the Other 80 Percent — the estimated mass of business users who’ve shied from the cold grip of traditional data tools — needs to feel swept up in discovery and data stories. That could just be the data industry’s salvation.

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