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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.”

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.

‘How’s it compare with Tableau?’

No matter what BI product Suzanne Hoffman mentions during needs-assessment meetings with business users at SMBs, she says, the question is the same nine times out of ten: “How’s it compare with Tableau?”

“No one ever asks how it compares with Power BI,” says Hoffman, an industry consultant with vast experience. She does mention Power BI as a “low cost alternative.” But it’s thrown out more often than not.

They want down and dirty and a low learning curve, she finds. The winners of that contest are things like Tableau and Domo. Ask for a line of code, such as in Qlik or Power BI, and it gets wiped off the whiteboard.

The market has taken note. Tableau lookalikes pop up, change, and disappear so fast it’s hard to keep track . “It’s like trying to compare drops of water on pavement,” she said. “They dry up before you get a chance to look at them.”

“Radical” change under new Tableau CEO

The changes at Tableau Software in the eight months since CEO Adam Selipsky succeeded co-founder Christian Chabot have been “pretty radical,” says Dan Murray, director of strategic innovation at InterWorks, one of Tableau’s earliest partners if not the first.

“There’s been pretty much of a brain-ectomy” over the last few months, he told me by phone on Friday. People have been leaving.

Whether that’s good or bad might depend on your point of view. To Dan, there’s only good news in the department he cares about most: The development team seems to be intact and performing as well as ever.

He mentioned two technologies in particular whose potential is much greater than most people realize: One that’s already part of Tableau is the data interpreter, the Excel ingest tool. He asks people if they use it, and they shrug. It’s not sexy. “This is going to do a lot more in the next couple of years,” he said.

The other widely underestimated technology is Hyper, the Munich-developed database technology acquired by Tableau in 2016. He compares the potential to the first great re-engineering of the Tableau extract engine five versions back.

The new CEO, Adam Selipsky, “isn’t nearly the stage presence [of Chabot], but he’s a detail freak,” he said. The consensus among employees he’s talked to is that this should have happened a few years ago. “He’s very, very deeply engaged in the business at every level.”

With Seplisky, he said, “you don’t get the husky-eyeball treatment and wow factor [as with Chabot]. But all the employees who’ve been there a while the the tech, operational types are really impressed with the guy. He’s much more in command of the business aspects, more detail oriented.”

He sees new, more seasoned managers coming in. In sales, he said, Tableau now seems friendlier to partners. “The business getting to size where they need a vertical focus,” he said. “It’s the natural evolution.”

What are Tableau’s prospects now as it hurdles toward maturity? “I think they’ve got a lot of juice left in them.”

Qlik road goes past white coated smart guys

An earlier version of this post, with a different conclusion and minor differences, appeared in late November.

Qlik CTO Anthony Deighton was drying his hands on the thick, almost cloth-like paper towels in the men’s room at the Miami Edition hotel at the recent Qlik analyst event. He heard another man in the room comparing the towels to some at a past hotel. There, the man said, the towels were thin, the man said. Deighton replied, “They were useless, like Tableau.”

Back in 2012, the T word was barely uttered at the gathering that year of industry analysts. Not long before, the bright and playful Tableau had just stung the plodding, script-laden Qlik in what felt like a surprise attack. This year, Qlik seemed to have regained its poise — and two dozen or so industry analysts gathered at the hotel with good paper towels to hear about the progress.

First, the analysts wanted to know about the buyout. As of late 2016, Qlik’s no longer publicly traded. CEO Lars Björk introduced Chip Virnig, a principle at the private equity firm that bought Qlik, Thoma Bravo, and now a Qlik board member. The buyout is “a very big bet” for the firm, he said, but it felt not only “safe” but also well positioned to thrive. Deighton, speaking afterward, praised the new “cloak of darkness that frees management from an old distraction, public scrutiny.

Decline of “white-coated smart guys”

Qlik sees the end of BI “as a destination,” in which “white-coated smart guys” serve hapless data consumers. This is the beginning of BI “as a platform,” Deighton said, that feeds on a wide variety of data sources, whether on the cloud or under a desk, which then supplies bits of analysis to vertical applications.

You might imagine BI disappearing into everyday business. Applications will serve specific needs and embedded apps will weave into “real work” throughout the day. Deighton cited the Uber app, which is at first glance hardly a data-analysis tool. It’s only under the hood that that shows itself.

During a break afterward, a few analysts grumbled about Qlik’s road toward the cloud: “They’re late,” said one person. Later, others seemed to agree.

Does lateness matter? As if in defense to the grumbles outside, Deighton declared, “I don’t care what competitors do. What really matters is ‘know thyself.’” Imitations usually compare poorly with the original. You’re better off knowing what you do best and doing it for all you’re worth. I agree.

Sticking to the be-who-you-are strategy, they stick with three known Qlik differentiators. One is the platform and a second is its traditional fondness for governance, which has given Qlik an edge on Tableau.

The third differentiator is the troublesome one: the “associative experience.” The concept is easy: It answers not only the direct question, “What’s in this set?” but also the implied question, “What’s not in this set?” Hey boss, it might say, I know what you asked to see, but did you notice this over here?

Actual examples of the feature at work seem scarce. Many of the supposed proofs don’t prove anything: money saved, decisions made, and other fine outcomes that fail to demonstrate the feature at work. I can recall only one example that truly illustrates the value: IT consultant Don Marks, one of four Qlik customers flown in for this year’s UnSummit, told me in a one-to-one meeting about a fraud-prevention project at a bank. They had managed to suppress fraud in areas where it had occurred. But then Qlik Sense let them see it pop up in areas they hadn’t thought to look.

Tableau users I’ve heard from seem to think little of the feature. They compare it poorly to Tableau filtering, though Qlik argues that by definition filtering would have hidden the rebounding fraud.


Deighton asked the assembled seers, “Does this resonate?” Well, sure. If you squint, you might even see his trends coming true already.

But what does it matter? What’s it matter that Qlik is, as some say, “late” to the cloud? What’s it matter that it can do some things better than Tableau or any other tool? Each constituency insists that their chosen tool is more useful. Each side trivializes the other’s advantages. Each one’s pitch to industry analyst assumes roughly the same trends. Only the emphasis varies.

My impression: Generally, Qlik seems to be building out to a bigger, bolder ecosystem. Its three differentiators — platform, governance, and the “associative” feature — contrast boldly with Tableau’s differentiators, which seem best expressed as flow, art, and expression.

Overall, Tableau looks like fun, and Qlik looks like work. Both are useful, but each tells a different story.

Which one would go on my short list depends on the type of organization. Qlik if users wanted a routine and relatively limited set of analyses to be used in mature organization. Tableau if analyses had to be more free-ranging and used by more intellectual or creative people than the average business user, in a dynamic and creative organization.

Useful stories

Any paper towel is useful depending on location and intent. To compare brands, some might turn to the Handle-O-Meter, an actual machine developed by Johnson & Johnson to measure surface friction and flexibility — the same way that industry analysts like to add up features.

But the Handle-O-Meter is useless for judging a towel’s important aspect: its message to the user. Does its plush, silky finish tell you that you’re a treasured guest worthy of comfort? Or does is say with its cheap, rapidly disintegrating fiber that you’d better hurry up and get out?

What do Qlik and Tableau tell the user? Tableau says, “Ask! Explore! Play!,” which appeals to some cultures. Qlik says, “Be serious!” which appeals more to other cultures.

Deighton’s quip is fair enough. But whichever is more useful depends on who’s asking and why.