The Interview: Christian Chabot, Tableau Software

4 Dec 2014

Christian Chabot, CEO of Tableau Software

If data is the oil of the 21st century then Christian Chabot, CEO of Tableau Software, wants to put the keys to the refinery in the hands of every worker, student and leader on the planet.

If there is a company to watch closely in the coming decade it is Tableau Software, makers of innovative data visualisation software that can turn any data set, from an Excel spreadsheet to a Google Analytics report, into a powerful visual medium that you can manipulate, communicate and ultimately understand.

If you think about this for a second, the chances are that as data becomes essential to every job, then Tableau could soon enter the lexicon of the working world and be as common one day as Word, Excel or email itself.

The company was started by Chabot along with his Stanford friends Chris Stolte and Pat Hanrahan in 2003 in Chabot’s apartment, and is effectively the classic Silicon Valley bedroom to IPO tale.

Hanrahan, a Stanford professor who was a founding employee at Pixar and who has won three Academy Awards for his work in computer graphics for movies, set out with Chabot, an executive with a passion for data, and data scientist Stolte to put data visualisation in the hands of everyone.

As Chabot recalls it was a dreadful time to be starting a tech company, following in the wake of the bust.

The company was still quintessentially in start-up mode when the 2008 economic crash hit. But it was as the financial world tried to make sense of how the crash occurred that suddenly Tableau was in hot demand.

Today it is being used by everyone from students in school and college, professors, business executives, politicians, non-profits and many others to make sense of data and form a narrative in a compelling way across multiple devices, including desktops, mobiles and tablets.

In Ireland the technology is used by Aon, Bank of Ireland, Irish Life, Trinity College, and many more organisations and individuals.

Tableau floated on the New York Stock Exchange last year raising US$250m and the company’s 2013 revenue reached US$234.4m, up 84pc on US$128m the year before.

The company currently employs 22 people in Dublin and is hurtling towards over 40 employees in the coming months.

“I think we will build one of the larger technology businesses in Ireland over time,” Chabot says confidently as he notes the growth trajectory of other companies like Twitter and Dropbox who also started in Dublin at the same Fitzwilliam Hall building overlooking the Grand Canal where Tableau is based.

To hear Chabot talk about data is like hearing an artist talk about a painting and so the name Tableau is one that was well chosen. A tableaux is a picturesque grouping of persons or objects, culiminating in a striking scene.

“Data is like water, it is just percolating and seeping from all the cracks of society right now, we just make it very useful, very fast.”

Chabot believes that the time has come for people from every occupation to be able to use data in a creative, visual way.

“You could be a schoolteacher using data to teach a class, a journalist using data to tell a story or a politician trying to inspire people to action, data is the narrative today. Data is in every field, that’s the thing. It has been held back and was something that only the finance guys used. Now it is being embraced by teachers, doctors, hobbyists, inventors and more.”

‘Data literacy will be a job requirement in the 21st century’

You know a technology is on the cusp of going mainstream when you hear it mentioned in conversation and that has been the case with Tableau lately. Aon in Dublin uses the technology to visualise data for insurance clients and Irish Life uses the technology to create business intelligence dashboards.

As Chabot whizzes through multiple data sets that visually give you powerful insights on everything from real estate in Florida, employment in Minnesota to who is likely to buy a Prius in California, it looks like a lot of fun.

But fun aside, Chabot believes data literacy will be critical in the workplace. “I think data literacy is becoming a basic job skill of the 21st century and so we are really interested in helping people learn how to use data, give them products they can use in their first job and I think this will be one of the more important educational trends over the next few years: understanding data and marshaling facts to make decisions.

“People typically associate data with the ‘big discovery’ but equally important is the fact that data can be used to inspire action. It can be used in local council meetings or board meetings to just get people off their bums to do something, look at the facts or come up with ideas.

“Tableau is a canvas for thinking and often when you have a canvas for thinking it is often like reading a good book. It’s not that the book finishes with a how-to list for how to live your life, that’s not the point, the point was the thoughts that occurred to you while you were reading the author’s journey.

“That’s what happens with data.”

Chabot describes data in passionate, artistic terms. It’s not a pile of details or swarm of numbers, it’s a “constellation of facts.”

He continues: “It’s about going on a journey and looking at the constellation of facts and as you do so you start to generate ideas or teach better or take note of an area that could be a cause for concern for your business in the future.”

On the suggestion that tools like Tableau will or should become commonplace in the workplace Chabot is modest but certain too. “It will probably take a few years before we are there, this technology takes time to diffuse. But we will get there.”

As a company founder who started a company in the dark days following the crash Chabot says Tableau was still in start-up mode when the financial crash hit in 2008.

By the first quarter of 2010 Tableau began to see its revenue double as demand for its visualisation technology accelerated as people tried to make sense of the numbers and what caused the financial crash.

“One thing that helped was often when people are in trouble they look at the data to decide what to do. The strangest thing was all these financial institutions had entire floors of people in ‘risk management’. What on earth were they working on?

“Clearly the world needs help with data technologies because all the data was there. People in retrospect look back and say, well we could have called this one if we looked at the data. But of course people missed it and a lot of people suffered.

“But in 2010 our revenues almost doubled, while at that stage most economies were in the midst of recession.

What does success look like?

Chabot is one of that unique breed of tech CEOs that weighs success in terms of the quality of the product and not just the balance sheet.

He speaks warmly of his company as though it is a family and not an accounting term.

In fact when the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange Tableau broke with convention and ensured that as well as the management team the company’s first 100 employees who invested their talent and time in Tableau were on the trading floor with their families.

You can tell that this is one of the sacred moments in the Tableau story, when the founders rang the opening bell on the NYSE a sea of faces of people who had invested in the company for a long time were there to celebrate.

“When we went public in 2013 it was almost exactly the culmination of a ten-year journey, from bedroom to IPO in ten years.”

But one thing Chabot is adamant about it is data literacy. “More and more jobs will require data literacy for even the most basic level of job function.”

He paraphrases a quote by Cisco CEO John Chambers: “’If I can get each of the 10 people who report to me to consult some data twice a day before making a decision and if they in turn can do that with their next 10 people and so on, that’s a million decisions a month made better than my competitor makes them.’

“That’s the spirit of data literacy, and now that spirit is widespread,” Chabot concluded.

“Data will inform you and make you better off than running on instinct and stories.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years