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Christian Chabot (l) and Pat Hanrahan of Tableau Software

The past couple years have brought big growth for Tableau Software, a Seattle-based company that makes technology for analyzing and visualizing data. With about 6,000 customers across a variety of industries, the company doubled from 100 people in January 2010 to 200 people at the beginning of this year.

Tableau has added another 70 people since then and plans to hire about 200 more over the next 18 months. It’s holding an open house Tuesday night at its new Kirkland satellite office, established to accommodate the growth and appeal to current and prospective employees who would rather not commute to Tableau’s HQ in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

In addition to engineers and sales/marketing specialists, the company is looking for more people in operational positions such as accounting — laying the groundwork for an initial public offering at some unspecified point.

“A day is going to come when we start thinking seriously about taking the company public, so there are some positions that are fundamental to that process,” says Christian Chabot, Tableau’s CEO and co-founder.

I sat down recently to talk with Chabot and another Tableau co-founder, Pat Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and two-time Academy Award winner who was a founding employee at Pixar and chief architect of the animation company’s RenderMan technology.

I started by asking Hanrahan about the parallels between his work at Pixar and Tableau.

Tracking hurricanes, an example of Tableau's visualization technology. Click image for interactive graphic.

Hanrahan: A lot of people think they’re completely disconnected, because they think of business software and entertainment being completely disjointed. But I actually think they’re connected in a lot of ways. One is there’s a certain aesthetic value to both of them. Our visualizations are beautiful. People like to showcase them. The people that make them feel creative. They remind me of the artists. Being an information visualizer is a cool thing. Actually it’s very related to storytelling, as well, because you’re trying to tell a story about some data you have. In terms of technology, there’s some parallels there — we try to be really fast. Our GPUs are really fast, for example. Our data engine is really fast. We’re flying over data just like somebody could fly through a game. It’s somewhat different but actually if you look into the fundamentals, there’s some interesting technical parallels between the two.

Q: What underlying technical platform does Tableau use — what type of code, servers?

Hanrahan: There’s a couple levels. We started out as a desktop app, written on the Windows platform, uses C++, a conventional desktop app. We’ve now switched a lot more of our development to server products, and then Tableau Public is actually a service in the cloud. Gradually over time our technology has shifted to different platforms. But probably the single biggest component is this thing we call VizQL, which is an engine for taking data and turning it into pictures. There are two big technologies we have — one is the data engine, for really fast database access and calculation. The other one is this VizQL engine, which turns data into pictures.

Q: The technology originally spun out of Stanford. (Chris Stolte, another Tableau co-founder, was also at Stanford when developing the technology.) How did Tableau end up here in Seattle?

Chabot: I wanted to live here. I grew up in the Midwest, and I married my high school sweetheart. We both went to a public high school in suburbia, in Milwaukee. And then we both went to Stanford and fell in love with California. And then we stayed there for about 15 years, working in Silicon Valley. And that’s how I got into the technology industry. We were both about 29 and I was just about to start Tableau, and we decided we wanted to live in Seattle for a lot of the reasons that are popular — it’s a really nice-sized city compared to the Bay Area. Incredible outdoors life. And the standard of living compared to Bay Area prices. It’s been almost eight years now, and we’ve been really happy here. It ended up being that the hundreds of people we’ve been hiring ended up being in Seattle.

Q: What’s driving the growth of the company?

Chabot: We’re not one of those companies that’s hiring because we went and raised a bunch of VC and need to spend it. In fact, every dollar of VC we’ve ever raised is sitting unspent in our bank account. Our growth is because of our customers. We have about 6,000 customer accounts right now. We’re on to, I think, a pretty fundamental opportunity. Fundamental like Adobe was fundamental. Fundamental like VMWare was fundamental. Every business, every profession, every circumstance, every company needs some of it to make their operations more efficient. And in our case it’s to help see and understand data.

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