Tableau is the new Apple again

Fourteen thousand people looked on earlier this month as Tableau’s new CEO, Adam Selipsky plodded onto the stage. The stage was 10 times wider than at the first conference, an audience 70 times bigger — and a CEO not even a quarter as fiery as the first one. But he seems to be a good fit for Tableau’s new era.

I’ve watched this show every year since 2008, when founding-CEO Christian Chabot paced the 20-foot stage and put on his first tent-revival style keynote. Back then, I talked to many of the 200 or so attendees in the jammed hallways at the Seattle’s Edgewater Inn and heard story after story — most of which went something like this: We had data we didn’t understand, and then someone in our group said we should try this funny tool he’d downloaded. By the end of the day, we found something we had to tell the boss about.

Chabot’s pitch reminded me of Steve Jobs just after Jobs’s returned to Apple, and I wrote here that Tableau was “the new Apple.” The whole conference exuded warmth and humanity. Even the food was good.

If Chabot was the new Steve Jobs, Selipsky is the new Tim Cook. The question now is whether the product’s underlying humanity is safe with Selipsky. Is the product’s essence — what Selipsky has called “the golden egg” — safe from corruption from newer, bigger market pressures?

Until now, we felt assured that the three founders stood watch. No matter how they expressed the Tableau essence, they were always watching and guiding. But none of the three even showed up to the conference this year. They’ve ordained an executive who’s more suited to manage Tableau at its new maturity than than I assume any of those three are.

At a Q&A session for industry analysts, I asked how he could assure Tableau users that the “golden egg” will remain intact?

Excerpts of his answer:

The honest answer is I’m not 100% sure. It’s the hardest job that I have. I feel that very personally. … There are some things you know. You know when you understand the product. You know when you understand how we go to market. How do know when you understand the culture and what is valuable about it and what also needs to evolve about it? It’s something that has been an acute topic of thought for me over the past 13 months. … I kind of [feel like I’m in] a room where [we are] moving furniture around and doing a bunch of remodeling in the room. And there’s a golden egg somewhere in there. And we’re not 100 percent sure where it is; you can’t always see it. The thing we want to do is to make sure we don’t smash it as we’re doing a bunch of remodeling.

He’s sincere. He’ll identify the egg and respect it. A committee that chief product officer Francois Ajenstat described to me will care for it, cultivate it, and ensure that it has food, water, and warmth.

The funniest part of all this is that there never was any such egg or essence. I’ll bet that from the beginning the Tableau priesthood just felt their way in the dark. The product, the company, the competition, and the market is all too complex and too subtle for anything else. Those who look for any kind of true north will go crazy as poles shift.

In time, all that will remain of Tableau the company is yet another business story of innovation, disruption, and a final decline. The real, enduring legacy will be that, thanks to Christian Chabot, Chris Stolte, Pat Hanrahan, Jock MacKinlay and others, the data in those stories can be visualized, beautifully and meaningfully — with some tool or other.

So carry on, Adam Selipsky. Build a still bigger, higher, more secure nest. Next year, try to plod over more of the stage, deliver your lines better, and make sure the welcome reception serves edible food.

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