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Tableau Software from the Early Days: Tableau’s first intern reflects

September 8, 2016

Tableau made headlines recently for appointing a new CEO and much of the conversation about the company focuses on the company’s stock performance and market share. What shouldn’t get forgotten in all of this chatter is what Tableau has managed to accomplish: bringing the thrill of visually exploring data to a much broader audience. I served as the small startup’s first intern, rubbing elbows with the founders and watching a fledgling company driven by a unique mission. What I saw was a company re-thinking business intelligence with a core focus on the experience of working with data.

As the 2004-2005 school year came to a close, I packed my bags and left the University of California, Berkeley, where I was pursuing graduate studies, and moved to Seattle for the summer. I was the very first intern for a small but growing data visualization company crammed into a cozy office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood: Tableau Software. Jock Mackinlay – one of my former mentors at Xerox PARC and a pioneer of information visualization research – had recently left his research position and headed northwest to join a start-up spun out of Stanford University research. Driven largely by curiosity about life in a start-up company, I followed Jock’s invitation to work with him at Tableau and joined the engineering team led by co-founder Chris Stolte.

At the time, Tableau had roughly 20 people in the Seattle office, mostly engineers. There wasn’t any available office space for me, so I sat at a desk placed at the end of the hallway. Across the room, a large map hung on the wall. When new customers signed up, we would ring the bell and add a pushpin at their location. As luck would have it, my desk was positioned outside CEO Christian Chabot’s office. Christian would often stop by to say “hello” and invariably praise the “data art” on my screen — all too often the visually garbled view of a not-quite-working visualization! Christian’s enthusiasm wasn’t unique in the office. Even in the early days, Tableau had a culture that was built on a palpable passion for data visualization. Years later on the floor of Tableau’s user conferences, you can see that the same enthusiasm in the faces of thousands of Tableau users.

It was a transformative summer for me. I got to know a product that quickly became as indispensable to me as word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. I received a crash course in production-quality software engineering, and learned that working “smarter, not harder” is sometimes an achievable proposition. I experienced the joy of shipping code in Tableau 1.5 and, on at least one occasion, the agony of breaking the build. In the process, I was shaped by the company’s mission, with its focus on combining fluid interaction, perceptually-effective graphics, and performant connectivity to all manner of databases. This mission in no small way has helped spark a revolution in what we expect from business intelligence tools. Tableau enabled line of business users to work with data at an increasing pace and scale, breaking the assumption that data belongs to the realm of the IT priesthood.

Much of my own subsequent work and research has been molded by these lessons. My internship also offered a ground-floor perspective on Tableau’s subsequent rise. I’ve seen Tableau develop since my time as an intern through stints as a Tableau consultant, then later as a Stanford University professor and colleague of Tableau co-founder Pat Hanrahan, and now as a business partner through my own start-up company, Trifacta.

Tableau’s stock plunge in February sparked investor fears, but it’s important to remember that Tableau is not a company that simply happened to pop up at the right time and place. Tableau has faced adversity, weathering the great recession and cultivating a passionate user base from the ground-up. That 20-person startup with a crammed office in Seattle now puts on an impressive series of conferences that fill with thousands of enthusiastic users, and grew by orders of magnitude using a sales strategy that others claimed couldn’t work. Ten years after that initial internship, I feel something akin to vertigo when I visit Tableau’s sprawling set of Fremont offices and remember that old office a few blocks away.

As Tableau enters a new chapter and brings on additional leadership, it is fitting to reflect on the path that lead to this point: from a provocative Stanford Ph.D. thesis to a data analytics powerhouse. With a new CEO pulled from the ranks of Amazon Web Services, the sector is understandably a-buzz about what this portends for Tableau’s cloud computing strategy and its approach to growing competition in the space. From my own view, I see many of the same early fundamentals at play: a passionate and expanding customer base empowered to make sense of our rapidly growing pools of data. We can all ponder Tableau’s financial future, but what is undeniable is that a tiny Seattle startup helped reshape how we think about data and data visualization. I want to express my gratitude for the people from whom I’ve learned so much. So to Christian, Chris, Pat, Jock, and the rest of the team: thank you for taking a young graduate student along for a small part of your wild – and ongoing – ride.