Insights from Tableau’s User Conference
The recent Tableau user conference sparkled with case studies and insights
When you walk into your kitchen, the first thing you’re likely to spot is the spider in the corner. It’s the one thing that may signal danger. That’s how our brains are made, said Tableau CEO Christian Chabot in his keynote at the company’s mid-July user conference.
“Too many people think that analysis is what happens in a series of reports,” he said. Instead, analysis should be live and interactive, drawing from any data source on a whim. “That’s where the richest insight occurs.”
He made me think of Steve Jobs’ talk about Mac OS. Jobs and Chabot are good showmen, though Tableau’s overflow crowd left little room for Chabot to pace. More important, both base their products on simplicity without simplemindedness. Both products try to just get out of the user’s way.
During two days of rare Seattle sunshine at a hotel overlooking Puget Sound, the company’s visual analysis tools — especially the just-released Tableau 4.0 — made data seem to sparkle no less than the glistening water outside. The charts looked good, as usual, but the insights I heard users describe in case after case were even better.
For the director of data administration and reporting at Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences, adoption of Tableau was risky. By the time she discovered the tool, Cindy Sedlacek and her team had spent eight frustrating months trying to implement an enterprise-wide system from Hyperion.
“We spent so many hours and meetings mostly trying to learn tool functions [that] we couldn’t concentrate on the data,” she said. The workload was 90 percent about the tool and 10 percent about the data.” Sedlacek said that when someone would ask how she got a certain number, she’d reply, “Oh, please just take it.”
When she quietly raised the possibility of a switch to Tableau, writing off eight months’ investment, she was told by peers, “‘You could be fired.’” Her team discussed the risks of switching. Tableau Software’s relatively small size raised concerns about the company’s ability to deliver.
Over Christmas break, shortly after implementation of Tableau Server, Sedlacek dived into an analysis of faculty salaries for the dean. She drew data covering the last 20 years from 20 FileMaker Pro databases kept by human resources and other departments.
With the previous tool the college had tried to use, she said, the task would have been more difficult. “I don’t even want to think about it. It would have taken a month or more. Then to get it into a user-friendly report for the dean? Forget it.”
She finished in time and presented the data to the dean. He saw the evidence: the trend lines showed a crisis forming. Faculty salaries at the low end were edging upward while on the high end salaries had stagnated. Some assistant professors, for example, had come too close to older, full professors. The dean soon met with the provost, who quickly approved significant new funding.