By the end of March, a new product will be announced that will make those frustrating tasks seem just a bad dream. The application's name is Tableau 1.0, and I guarantee it'll change the way you look at your company's cash flows.
Visualizing your data anew
Tableau is a "visual environment" for data. That means it allows you to drag-and-drop the headings from your database tables onto a visual analysis worksheet. As you define the goals of your analysis, you immediately see patterns in your data that were never obvious from the raw figures.
• Microsoft Excel.
• Microsoft Access.
• Microsoft SQL Server.
• IBM DB2.
• Hyperion Essbase.
• Microsoft Analysis Services (MSAS) cubes.
• Comma-separated text files.
There's a serious industry that's grown up to make sense of the mountains of numbers that are locked up in corporate "data silos." It's called business intelligence. It has serious players such as Cognos, Business Objects, Micro Strategy, and many others.
Tableau is going to turn some heads when it finally comes out. It's easy for a company to drop tens of thousands of dollars, even millions, buying and/or developing business-intelligence products that require customization. Tableau 1.0, by contrast, is packaged retail software that will list for just $1,600 USD for its professional version and $1,000 for its standard edition.
And, unlike Excel and some other products, Tableau isn't limited to 65,000 rows of data. The product can handle as many rows as your PC's storage can hold.
How Tableau works its magic
So far, all this verbiage is still pretty abstract. Let's look at an example of how Tableau actually reveals patterns within your data.
In the image shown below, you've opened a data file in Tableau. The headings of each data column appear on the left side of the window. You drag a few of these headings into the appropriate boxes on the right side. The boxes mean "sort this," "subtotal that," and so forth.
In this example, Tableau has determined that your sales consist of three categories: Furniture (the orange dots in the chart), Office Supplies (green), and Technology (blue).
Because you've indicated to Tableau which columns contain Total Sales for each product and which contain Gross Profit, the software can chart the relationship on an X/Y graph for you. The products you sell the most of are represented by dots on the right side of the chart, while the products that produce the most profit are in the upper half of the chart.
You suddenly notice a striking fact: You have a dozen products with both high sales and high profitability. Increasing the margin of just those 12 items would make a big difference to your company's bottom line.
Tableau allows you to drag your mouse over this rectangular area of the chart, thereby selecting just those products you're interested in focusing on. As you do this, the dots for each product turn red, making them more visible. Right-clicking that area, you can then click Copy Data, duplicating all the raw data for the selected products into the Windows Clipboard.
From there, it's a piece of cake to paste the raw data rows into Microsoft Word, Excel, or any other program that supports cut-and-paste. (Every graphical object in Tableau always contains every byte of the original data.) In minutes, you've isolated some factors you can use to bolster your profits, and you can present the specific figures using any tool at your disposal.
Bringing powerful minds to bear
Tableau is the brainchild of a handful of Stanford grads who complained during their student years about how hard databases were to use — and then devoted their post-graduate years to doing something about it.
Christian Chabot, CEO of Tableau Software, formerly headed BeeLine Systems, a mapping company that was acquired by Vicinity Corporation (now Microsoft MapPoint). Pat Hanrahan, CTO, was one of the first employees of Pixar and has received two Academy Awards for the visual technologies he developed there for motion pictures.
The techniques these smart guys subsequently developed to bring corporate data to life attracted the attention of venture-capital firm New Enterprise Associates. The VCs laid $5 million on the startup company, which goes a long way when you only have nine employees.
Tableau is already being used by a few data workers at risk-taking companies that purchased the software in an early version. I've heard that code described as a "0.5" release. Sources close to the startup say the 1.0 edition is now feature complete and ready for a March 31 launch. The company has already budgeted more than $100,000 for a publicity campaign. You heard it here first.
I was only able to spend a limited amount of time with the latest, near-1.0 version. But it's convinced me that Tableau will give spreadsheet and database analysts new ways to visualize their data that today would be hard even to conceive.
There's no word yet on the terms of a free trial program, if any. But I assume the company will offer the standard money-back guarantee for first-time buyers. You should look into it as soon as the product is officially released.
Its developers having devoted almost all of their time to developing category-killer software, the product Web site is somewhat skeletal at this point. But here it is, including a few interesting visuals that merely hint at what the product can do: TableauSoftware.com.