Tableau CEO: We're the Google of data visualization

Christian Chabot, in an exclusive interview, explains how Tableau Software is putting a consumerized face on business intelligence and analytics

There's a reason big companies put business intelligence at or near the top their technology priorities year after year. Meaningful business decisions demand the support of business analytics -- and the visualization of trends, patterns, and data relationships provide insight you can't get any other way.

Christian Chabot is on a mission to make that insight vastly more accessible and interactive. As CEO of Tableau Software, he aims to wrest business intelligence from the grip of specialists and hand it to a broad swath of business users, providing the tools to tap data stores and explore them visually by clicking and dragging instead of entering complex queries.

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Chabot maintains that Tableau is "the fastest-growing company in software worldwide" and has been open about his aspirations to take his firm public. The company claims it will see more than $100 million in revenue this year and boasts thousands of customers, including such marquee names as eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Wal-Mart. According to a company representative, the following interview with Chabot, which appears in edited form, may be one of the last pre-IPO opportunities for him to speak publicly about the company's goals.

Although Chabot began his career in a consulting firm where he served as a "bona fide data geek," he considers himself "an entrepreneur by identity." His first startup, a digital mapping pioneer called BeeLine Software, was sold to Vicinity Corporation, which was in turn bought by Microsoft. He considers Tableau "the culmination of everything I've done."

We began the interview by focusing on what Chabot calls the "the moment of invention" when Tableau co-founders Pat Hanrahan (a founding employee of Pixar) and Chris Stolte came up with the idea fusing graphics and databases.

Q: You have equated Tableau's invention of visualization on top of databases with Dan Bricklin's invention of the spreadsheet. Why do you think it ranks with that?

A: Well, we didn't invent visualization. We invented visual analytics. It's been true virtually since the dawn of computers, that you could take some set of data, like -- here are my nine points, I want to chart them and put them into some procedural program, usually called the Chart Wizard, and pop out a visualization. That's decades old. We didn't invent that.

What we invented was a visual query language that actually lets you interrogate data using the picture. I can zoom and filter and sort and group and dive and compare and rotate and flip databases with a visual canvas.

That's the key ability -- for people to have a blank canvas and just see the schemas of the data they're connected to and just throw the items they are curious about on this canvas and get instant visualizations and generate the query needed. It's a revolution in thinking with data.

Q: That visual querying must require its own syntax. Is there a learning curve to that?

A: There's a bit of a learning curve at the top, of course. But the breakthrough technology Pat and Chris came up with is called VizQL (Visual Query Language), which isn't exposed to end-users. That is our internal language that lets us bridge the world of a simple user interface with serious high-performance database queries against the world's biggest databases.

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