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Data science skills a focus of Tableau Conference 2021

The concept of business science -- using AI and ML to enable business users with data science skills -- will be in focus during Tableau's upcoming user conference.

As Tableau Conference 2021 nears, data science is the next self-service frontier for the eponymous analytics vendor.

In the past, Tableau, founded in 2003 and based in Seattle, focused on enabling self-service analytics with visual exploration and data preparation.

Now, the vendor turns to what it terms business science, which it describes as the use of augmented intelligence and machine learning to enable ordinary business users with data science skills.

It first introduced the concept in March 2021 when it unveiled its first integration with Salesforce's Einstein Analytics and made Einstein Discovery -- a no-code tool within Einstein Analytics that uses AI and ML to produce predictive modeling and prescriptive recommendations -- part of Tableau.

At Tableau Conference 2021, which begins Nov. 9 and will be held virtually for the second straight year, the vendor will introduce new business science capabilities, according to Francois Ajenstat, Tableau's chief product officer.

Beyond the capabilities of its platform, however, it's been a year of change for Tableau since it last held its user conference.

Last March, Adam Selipsky, who became Tableau's CEO in 2016 and led the vendor through its acquisition by Salesforce in June 2019, left to become CEO of AWS. Mark Nelson was named his successor, and will be out front at Tableau Conference 2021.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued. At the time of its last user conference a year ago, Tableau was trying to help many of its customers simply survive. No vaccine was yet available, travel restrictions were in place, and many industries were struggling.

The value of data, however, was being recognized as a way for organizations to navigate the pandemic.

Now, data is recognized as an indispensable asset, and Tableau finds itself trying to help customers make sense of exponentially growing amounts of data and turn it into actionable insights that enable them to navigate their ways through what remain challenging economic conditions.

With Tableau Conference 2021 fast approaching, Ajenstat recently discussed what the vendor plans to reveal during the conference, its guiding principle for product development, trends affecting the vendor's development pipeline, and its roadmap into 2022.

In addition, he spoke about the change in Tableau's leadership, and gave an update on the vendor's integration with Salesforce now that it's been about two years since the CRM giant closed on its acquisition of Tableau.

When we talked before Tableau Conference last year, it was a little more than six months into the pandemic, and much of the talk around analytics at the time was how it could help organizations survive. As you get ready for Tableau Conference 2021, how are your conversations with customers different than they were a year ago?

Francois AjenstatFrancois Ajenstat

Francois Ajenstat: It's been pretty amazing.

The data industry has become the core of the future economy as the amount of digital transformation that's occurred over these last two years has created a deluge of data that people are trying to make sense of. And if you think about what has happened -- everyone has gone digital, we all now work from anywhere, and the need for speed and agility have risen to the surface for every part of the technology industry -- those things have played quite well with Tableau. So when I have customer conversations, [they're about] accelerating their transition from traditional to modern -- accelerating their move to the cloud -- and customers are thinking about what they need for growth in the future. They know that what they had may not get them where they need to be, so many of the conversations are less about the tools per se and more about enablement for success in the future. I talk more about outcomes than speeds and feeds, which is fascinating.

People who use data effectively are thriving, while those that don't are struggling to survive.
Francois AjenstatChief product officer, Tableau

In general, how has the role of business intelligence changed over the last 12 months?

Ajenstat: People who use data effectively are thriving, while those that don't are struggling to survive. Data has really given people a light to figure out how pivot, how to adjust moving forward. What they've realized is that they can't just keep data in the hands of the few. So much of what's going on is empowering people to do their best work. Today, we hear about 'The Great Resignation,' and if you don't give people the tools they need to feel empowered and have an impact, they're going to go somewhere else where they can. Some of the conversations we have [with customers] is about how they can retain and grow their employees, and data has been at the forefront. Data is the skill of the future worker.

Switching to product development and what might be unveiled during Tableau Conference 2021, does Tableau have a general ethos that serves as a guide?

Ajenstat: The biggest ethos for Tableau is our mission statement, which is to help people see and understand data. That drives us every day, and it's always in the back of our mind as we think about what we build and how we build it. But if you step back a little and think about what that means, for us, it's about democratization. We look for things that are hard and complex and try to make them simple, things that are limited to the few and look for ways to broaden them to as many people as possible.

Historically, Tableau started by democratizing visual analytics. Then, about three years ago, we did the same thing for data preparation and introduced Tableau Prep. At Tableau Conference 2021, one of the things we're going talk about is what we call business science. We're looking to democratize data science, and by that I mean bring data science capabilities to business users. We're not trying to replace data scientists, but we're trying to augment [data scientists] with more people.

Beyond Tableau's own guiding principles, what are some market trends that are influencing product development?

Ajenstat: One macro trend is AI, which is disrupting every single industry. It's a key technology that can be used by everyone, everywhere. What we're trying to think of is how to bring that trend to the people and give those tools to people. Another macro trend is the growth in the cloud, which is both cloud analytics for us but also cloud data, which the rise of Snowflake, Databricks and Google BigQuery have transformed. For us, we're leaning into partnerships with those vendors.

The third trend I'll call the rise of automation. There's so much automation -- workflow automation, robots, etc. I bring that up because we think the purpose of analytics isn't just to see data but to drive action, and we don't want dashboards or reports to be dead ends, but rather we want them to be the beginning of an action.

You spoke about business science being an important part of Tableau Conference 2021 -- without giving away any secrets, what else can you divulge about what will be introduced next week?

Ajenstat: The theme is to go broader and deeper. The core of Tableau is strong, and we're continuing to invest in the core to make analytics easier, more powerful, and continuing this journey around self-service analytics. But what we're trying to do is dramatically accelerate the pace of adoption, so one of the things we're going to talk about is collaborative analytics, how to bring analytics into the flow of business. There, a big theme will be around Slack, to stay on top of your data via Slack and being able to talk to your data via Slack so that data becomes like a colleague who you can ask questions and get answers. We started talking about that at [Tableau parent company Salesforce's] Dreamforce [conference], and you're going to see the next big payoff at Tableau Conference 2021. Business science, obviously, is going to be a big theme, and we're going to take another giant leap forward at Tableau Conference.

The next piece, which we've been talking about for a while, is trusted data at scale. Ultimately, if you can't trust your data, then you can't trust your insights. And the last thing you'll hear about is what we're calling in the keynote 'analytics everywhere.' The reality is that, today, every app is an analytical app. It doesn't matter the industry or the business use case, but every app has analytics built in, and we want to make that easier to deploy and more flexible for folks. You'll see a lot of capabilities around this idea of bringing analytics to the user in the apps and tools they use every day.

Looking beyond Tableau Conference 2021, what can you share about Tableau's roadmap for 2022?

Ajenstat: Before I go into the roadmap, the pace of innovation at Tableau hasn't slowed down through the pandemic. That's been important. And it hasn't slowed down since being acquired by Salesforce. There was a big fear when we announced the acquisition that Tableau would be only for Salesforce or we would slow down and do only things for Salesforce. The reality is we've done both -- we've delivered to our mission of empowering people everywhere, and we've added some great integrations with Salesforce Customer 360. The team has stepped up and just kept delivering.

The roadmap will be about adding more analytical capabilities for the core and more enterprise capabilities to deploy at scale. We'll deliver on some of those Slack and business science capabilities and you'll see new data capabilities every quarter. And then APIs. We've also seen a [user] ecosystem built around Tableau, and at the conference we're going to talk about how the ecosystem and Tableau work together and how we're trying to foster that ecosystem. You're going to start seeing more hooks between Tableau and that ecosystem so solutions that are built by our community can show up in our product more easily.

You mentioned Salesforce -- what can you share about where the integration between Tableau and Salesforce currently stands?

Ajenstat: We're still in the early innings.

From a product perspective, the focus has been to unlock Salesforce data and build relevant solutions for every cloud. At Dreamforce, one of the themes we had was Tableau everywhere. Tableau's integration with Slack was the big, flashy thing, but Tableau was actually infused in all of the sessions. Our strategy was to make analytics a core differentiator of the clouds, and now you're seeing those integrations happening. There are some new solutions around revenue intelligence, digital shopping, benchmarking and around customer data platforms. That's been really exciting, but I'll call it inning one right now.

We have a lot of ideas and capabilities that will be coming in the coming months.

Finally, Tableau appointed a new CEO in March after Adam Selipsky departed for AWS. If at all, how has Mark Nelson's leadership changed Tableau's direction?

Ajenstat: First, Adam was amazing for Tableau. He brought incredible scale to our business. He helped transition us to a subscription business and set the foundation for long-term success.

Mark, coming in, is a testament to what Salesforce really values, which is innovation. They raised innovation to the top [priority] by moving an engineering leader to the top of Tableau. For me, that doubles down on the idea that what we need to do to be successful is deliver the innovation. I've worked with Mark for the last four years, so from my standpoint it feels like nothing has really changed. Mark is a really thoughtful leader, and he's focused on how we accelerate and drive impact together.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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