Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tableau Wasted?

It's not development, dagnabbit.

I've been working with this client for several weeks. They've bought into Tableau as a really good and valuable thing, and are moving ahead like gangbusters. Tableau Desktop licenses are being distributed like Hallowe'en lollipops. Things are happening, people are excited and engaged. We're building out the Tableau Server environments, putting 9.0.1 into production this weekend.

It's a good, robust environment, where people are taking advantage of Tableau to help improve their data sense-making abilities. Everything's good.

Or is it?

This came in an email today from someone who's been involved with Tableau for a while and recently received a Desktop Tableau license:

"Do you need a different license to do Tableau development? Or is the desktop license what you need?"

Whoa, mule!

This is alarming. This little piece of information is highly revealing, it reinforces one of my suspicions; that overall, even though the company is rapidly adopting Tableau as if it was the best and greatest thing to come down the pike (and it is), they really don't have any idea what it's about and are missing the big point, and along with it the opportunity to take advantage of most of Tableau's value.

Here's my reply to the email:

It’s actually more helpful to think of working with Tableau as authoring rather than as development.

In traditional software development the “development” activity is at the tail end of the production process, largely divorced from the real analytical work of coming up with the valuable outcome: analyses that reveal and communicate information. Development is the technical implementation of someone else’s ideas.

Tableau provides the opportunity for one to work at the creative intersection of cognitive, intellectual, and experiential factors that, when working in harmony, can synthesize the information needs of the person seeking to understand the data and the immediacy of direct data analysis. This mode of Tableau use can eliminate the lags and friction involved when there are multiple people between the person who needs to understand the data and the person who creates the vehicle for delivering the information from which insights are gleaned.

It –is– possible to use Tableau as a traditional development tool, one that enables technicians to develop dashboards and other analytics faster than with many other technologies. And this use has a valuable place in the overall data analytical environment, but limiting Tableau to this role, or even employing it predominantly in this way, misses the great bulk of the opportunities Tableau provides to help people understand their data with a minimum of fuss and bother.

When someone works with Tableau to explore and understand their data, or in intimate collaboration with the information-seeker, Tableau use becomes a dynamic, creative, cognitive and intellectual exercise, and the creation of analyses that reveal and communicate valuable information and insights is an act of authorship.

Helping people and organizations take advantage of what Tableau offers is a very satisfying way to earn a living. But it's not without its speed bumps and detours. History and experience are very sticky and persistent. Sometimes helping clients recognize that there are new ways of thinking about the world, of the possibilities that exist, the new ways of doing things, can be a bigger challenge than is obvious at the start of the relationship. Fortunately, most people aren't unwilling to get better results quicker, easier, and with less cost, but it can take time and familiarization for the possibility to be recognized.

I love my work.


  1. It's possible the question was a semantic issue or simple misunderstanding from an apparent new user - e.g. people have different names for the perceived "authoring" tool (or other names like creator, builder, publisher, publishing tool, or development tool etc). Most (regular) people don't think of a development tool as a traditional coding tool, rather development tool is equivalent to a creation tool for consumption somewhere (maybe server in this instance). Nice blog by the way.

    1. Good point, Michael. It may well have been a semantic issue, but then again semantics are all we have to convey meaning, and words carry the weight of the paradigm they're based in.

      It's my position that we need to expunge "develop" and "development" as the sole model of how useful things get created, particularly within the realm of business data analytics (BDA). One of the great misfortunes of the past 20+ years is that BDA became a technical activity, reliant upon the full spectrum of software/data processing development activities in order for non-technical people to obtain information and insights from their data,

      For the past 10 years Tableau has led the way, and largely been responsible for, correcting this situation by enabling non-technical/non-development analytical access to data. This has been an absolute boon, and needs to be reinforced, even under the pressure of data processing conservatism that seeks to pull everything back into the data analytical dark ages. And there are substantial forces at work to do just that.