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Author: Ted Cuzzillo

Power BI: the seductiveness of “free”

A CEO I hear from at a small BI-platform vendor has embedded Tableau for years. It’s still the best choice by far, he says, and he knows its rivals well. Lately, though, a new tool has caught the BI market’s fancy: Power BI, from Microsoft. It’s already a strong contender against Tableau, he says.

One more thing: it’s free.

He describes its seductive quality: “You get your feet wet,” he says, “then your head wet, your whole body wet, and pretty soon you’re drowning.”

It’s still got major pieces missing, but for a lot of people the price tag makes up for that. “You think, ‘Don’t they see that?’ But they don’t care.”

How old spin becomes new

This week a longtime consumer of news, blogs, articles, whitepapers, and other content issued by the data industry said this to me.

After reading stories about big data and data quality for years, I think you’ll agree that everything [the data business] has wanted to say, they’ve said. They’re just trying to put new words and spin behind it.

Yes, but why? Is the old stuff all the issuers of old spin know? Are they like a geezer who’s forgotten he’s told the same joke for years? Or do they hold their noses, hoping that no one notices? After all, the “old stuff” is still current stuff, even though it’s not as much fun anymore.

A good way to make it new is with stories. It takes work, but if you ask around long enough you can usually find a novel problem or novel fix. Old stuff doesn’t have to be boring.

More tangible, less “smart”

First came the prediction: “The whole ‘smart’ thing is about to get real.” Really? What made this apparent insider say so? The prediction, given in a forum where other predictions flew in the breeze, was on the record. Then two months later, it had gone off the record.

What happened? Apparently, there had been a corporate-wide retreat from “smart” — as explained to me, a retreat from the aspirational to the tangible.

That’s unlike conventional marketing, which blows by the tangible in its rush toward aspiration. Does this portend a wider retreat from the term “smart”? Is it a shift toward a market that prefers the tangible over the dream? Or is it just dumb?

“Smart” starts with context

Imagine two marketing people sitting across a table from a data analyst. Marketing wants “simple numbers,” they say, and the analyst understands. The three of them know all the past conversations, the questions that arose and were answered, the points that got made, the conclusions or unresolved questions that remained.

Easy enough. But now with the rise of so-called “smart cities,” where the data spigots open and everyone with any point of view at all takes part, things can get into a mess. There, the starkly disparate points of view, which in business get talked through in relative calm, really show teeth.

Imagine the scene: From the city might come staff analysts, department heads, even elected officials. From the public come experts from interest-groups, grassroots politicians eager to make a name for themselves, owners of mom’n’pop stores, or even the even the grandmother who’s mad as hell. Each side — there may be several sides, and even divisions within each one — may have never set eyes on the other before, though some may know each other from decades of work together. Everyone’s got a different idea of past conversations, or no idea at all.

If only they had a nice, simple tool — as simple as a book, notepad, or whiteboard but also available for fast searches before meetings or quick refreshers on a tablet held just out of view from everyone else. Something as simple as — to use a metaphor by Alation vice president of marketing Stephanie McReynolds — a bicycle. You could walk across town, but it’s a lot easier on a bike. It has no hidden parts. Like any good machine, it makes more of whatever effort you exert.

Past conversations — rich with context, observations, and ideas — can be preserved and studied. Then those who like “simple numbers” might really talk.

“Smart” starts with context. Real decisions, no matter what data anyone has, still takes place among people — every one of whom has to know the context of any decision they’re part of.

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.