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Tableau Software CEO Adam Selipsky speaks at the Tableau Conference opening keynote address in Las Vegas this week. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

LAS VEGAS — Nearly 20,000 people are here this week to learn about the latest from Seattle-based Tableau Software, whose technologies turn large amounts of data into visualizations, or vizzes, interactive graphics and charts for interpreting and telling the underlying stories.

They also heard from Tableau’s new parent company, Salesforce, whose co-CEO Marc Benioff joined Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky on stage for the keynote address as a last-minute addition after European regulators cleared the companies to integrate their operations in the $15.7 billion acquisition.

On this special episode of the GeekWire Podcast, recorded on location at the Tableau Conference, we talk with Selipsky about what’s next for the Seattle company following its $15.7 billion acquisition by Salesforce, the future of data and artificial intelligence, the rise of employee activism at Tableau and other companies, and what Benioff emails him about. 

Listen below, subscribe in your favorite podcast app, and continue reading for edited excerpts.

Todd Bishop: Describe what the mood is here, the tone, for someone who’s never been here.

Adam Selipsky: An attendee described it as half rock concert, half religious revival. I think there’s a lot of truth to that because those are all about energy. That’s the incredible thing to me here, it’s just this wall of energy. Somebody asked me last night, “What’s your favorite part of TC?” I didn’t have to think about it very long. I said, “It’s like opening the oven, and you just got this wall of heat coming at you. You just get this wall of energy here,” because our community is incredible.

Tableau’s “data superheroes” at the Tableau Conference (Tableau Photo)

TB: One of the big milestones for Tableau over the past year has been the acquisition by Salesforce for $15.7 billion. This was a giant deal for Salesforce, but clearly, also a giant deal for Tableau. Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff was on stage with you this morning, really making your first joint public appearance since the acquisition was finalized. Can you give us an update on where you are with that integration, because there was a little bit of a plot twist that GeekWire readers will know about.

Selipsky: There was, yes. It’s been a little bit of a page turner for sure. We announced the acquisition in the first half of June, I think June 11th, and our teams started, as they should, quickly down the path to the integration. Of course, this has to go through regulatory review in a number of countries. Just before the deal closed, which was on Aug. 1, the UK decided they were going to review the deal and then actually issued an order asking the companies to “hold separate,” it’s called, and not engage in further exchange of confidential information.

TB: This is amazing. The deal closed, and yet you were not able to integrate until they cleared this about 10 days ago.

Selipsky: It was an unusual circumstance for sure. Really, we were very much trying to — and did — honor that order and work very closely with the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK. Just last week, last Tuesday, they lifted that order, and the teams were able to really start collaborating. That really opened the door for Marc being able to be here on stage with me today, and we’ll reciprocate next week at Dreamforce in San Francisco. All those discussions and planning have been able to kick back in.

TB: What would you say to some of the folks that I’ve been talking with here at the Tableau Conference who are a little bit uncertain about what the Salesforce acquisition will mean for them? … What can you say to the typical Tableau community member who might even be concerned about what the acquisition by Salesforce will mean for the products that they know, and in many cases love?

Selipsky: Well, most of the people I’ve talked to have been pretty optimistic about what the acquisition is going to bring. I think that’s because the value for customers, both for Tableau customers and for existing Salesforce customers, to me anyway, is just really self-evident. Salesforce has been incredibly consistent and overt and determined to let everybody know that they want to help accelerate Tableau’s existing mission. We have a seven-word mission statement, “We help people see and understand data,” and they just want us to go faster on that journey. They’ve got so many assets on the technology side, on the field resources side that we get to turn the dial on a time machine and just get there faster.

TB: What will the integration, the combination mean for jobs, particularly in the Seattle region where many of Tableau’s jobs currently are?

Selipsky: I think that the acquisition will only increase and accelerate the job creation worldwide for Salesforce and Tableau. That includes the Puget Sound area. Tableau and Salesforce each have had, I think, pretty aggressive employee growth targets. Tableau recently went over 4,500 employees, and I’m pretty sure we’ll head over 5,000 pretty quickly. Salesforce is considerably bigger than that, but still growing, as well. I think that Salesforce has talked about really wanting to treat Seattle as an important place to house a lot of different teams. I think having not only the close to thousand employees that Salesforce already has in Seattle, but adding into that the over 2,000 Tableau employees and our corporate headquarters is really going to create a wonderful anchor, if you will, in the region to create further growth and attract fantastic candidates both within Seattle and from other places.

TB: Let’s zoom out and go a little meta here, because at the core of everything that you’re talking about and that you’re working on at Tableau is data. I think a lot of people hear the catch phrases: big data, explosion of data, and your technology helps, as you say, people see and understand data. How would you describe the state of data, even in just a qualitative way, in 2019 as you reflect on your past three years as Tableau CEO and also your decades in the industry. How much data is out there, and how good are we right now at actually seeing and understanding it?

Selipsky: Well, I think we, and by that I mean the world, the community, broadly speaking, I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the past few years, but I feel like we’re still very much at the beginning, and in some senses, we’re just hanging on to the life raft as the sea of data, the river of data carries us along. People think that the data explosion has happened. It’s actually barely just begun. I saw an IDC forecast showing that in the decade leading up to 2025, the amount of data subject to analysis, not even all data, just the amount of data subject to analysis is going to grow 50X.

We’re really just at the beginning stages of that. I think that companies are either going to drown in that sea of data or they’re going to create incredible opportunities, new companies, new business models, entirely new industries like genomics and fintech and ad tech out of that data deluge. It all just does start from the volume of need.

Then, of course, well, how are you going to get on top of it? That’s why Tableau has really focused on creating this end-to-end analytics platform. The end-to-end is so important because customers need to prepare data before they can analyze it. They need to analyze it. They need to collaborate and share. They need to ingest data from all sorts of different data sources. They need different types of interfaces, including natural language interfaces. We’re working on all of those things because while I think that analytics is going to become ubiquitous and is going to be used by literally hundreds of millions of knowledge workers around the world, it’s not just going to happen by itself. We have to help make that happen. We have to enable the community to have really useful tools and really useful platforms that let them get on top of that data.

TB: You showed today a few features that leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence. To what extent do you expect those tools and others like them in the future, AI, machine learning, to play a role in understanding data?

Selipsky: Well, so you mentioned some of the buzzwords of the past. Of course, AI is it today. Sometimes I like to joke, I’m just going to do a presentation and just stick up “AI” on a slide, and somebody will said, “Well, what’s that about?” I’ll say, “Didn’t you see the slide? It says ‘AI,'” but-

TB: It’s exactly what big data and IoT were three and four years ago.

Selipsky: And cloud before that.

TB: Yes, exactly.

Selipsky: But cloud turned out to be real. I think AI is real as well. I think there’s a lot of froth about what it means, and we’ll have to sort the wheat from the chaff. But I think of AI as a technology. It’s not something that I think our customers should have to care about vis-à-vis Tableau at all. I think it’s our job to use machine learning and artificial intelligence, deepen our products in ways that just create amazing experiences for customers. They shouldn’t know or care how those come to be.

I think the features and the products that they’re enabling are going to be transformative for customers as they work with data and do analysis. So really, if you take a step back, I would argue that the past 30-plus years of the business intelligence industry has been around answering a single question, which is “what,” the word “what,” what does my data show, what is the state of my world?

We’re really trying to help move beyond that and go from the “what” to the “why.” Why is my data the way it is? What’s driving it? To do that, typically you’ve needed a data scientist, or at least a very advanced statistician, and with brand new features like Explain Data, literally with a couple of clicks, we run Bayesian models in the background, other AI techniques, and examine all of your data to say with statistical relevance what factors are driving a data point to be the way they are. Now you really democratize data science down to where a competent analyst can be really answering the “why” questions. I think it’s an incredibly exciting new frontier. We’re at literally version 1.0 of that, so we’ll have a rich road map ahead of us, but I think it’s a big part of the future of analytics.

TB: I want to talk about some bigger picture social issues, and this gets into some of the things that Marc Benioff addresses in his book Trailblazer, which is a fascinating read and really an interesting insight. It was for me and to this company that’s now going to be playing a outsized role, obviously, for Tableau and also for the Seattle region. Marc Benioff has called Seattle effectively HQ2 with the Tableau acquisition.

Something that he talks a lot about is trust and the fact that his employees have sort of influenced his thinking on big-picture social issues. One thing that both companies have grappled with is this question of how to deal with employee pushback on government contracts. In fact, there were Tableau employees who demonstrated near the company’s headquarters recently on this topic asking Tableau to end its contracts with customs and immigration officials. How do you view this type of issue as a CEO when your employees might disagree with the aims of the people who use your technology?

Selipsky: Really, to me, this is part of the broader issues around diversity and inclusion and having very diverse thoughts and opinions within the company and being very inclusive and creating the right environment for those all to be expressed. Our customer base is millions strong in terms of end users, tens of tens of thousands of customer accounts around the world in every industry. They are very diverse. We’re not going to serve them well unless we’re very diverse inside the company, as well. We really welcome the full range of opinions on political, social, all sorts of other issues. … We want to give our employees a voice, and we all become better for it.

Tableau employees protest the company’s work with the federal government. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

I think it’s important to separate the substance from the process. Tableau as a company has a lot of constituents, a lot of stakeholders, and we do our best to navigate that and serve our customers really well and serve all of our stakeholders. Even when we’ve got a group of employees who may have an opinion different than what the company’s currently doing, we really go out of our way to try and have a respectful, honest, transparent conversation and set of processes around how those opinions get aired. I think, in general, we’ve done a pretty decent job of that. I think we create safe spaces and mechanisms where people can express what they want to express, and we legitimately get a chance to hear it because it’s important that we hear.

TB: On that specific issue, how should tech companies approach it, because you’ve had folks across the spectrum, Chef Software, a developer/operations company based in Seattle decided to pull back from some of its contracts. Microsoft is very clear that it feels it’s important to support vital government services and separating that from controversies. Where do you fall in that spectrum?

Selipsky: Sure. Well, first, I’ll just say, every company’s got to chart its own path. I’m not commenting on what anybody else has done. I’m also not commenting on any individual customer that we have because those are all confidential. All of our customers are confidential as they choose to be public. But I would say in general on this type of issue that, in general, two things are true. It makes it a difficult, or I’ll say sometimes unclear, path to chart, but one is Tableau exists to serve its customers and to serve them well, and our customers do all sorts of magnificent things with Tableau whether it’s literally helping to eradicate malaria, educating, providing clean water for kids, saving money inside of a Fortune 500 company and producing lower prices for consumers as a result. I mean it’s across the spectrum, and we are fundamentally here to support our customers.

At the same time, we absolutely do believe that companies have a broader mission. We very much feel not only part of the global community, but part of the local physical communities in which we operate, and we think it’s important to have values and to be a great corporate citizen. We try really hard to uphold both of those two things that I just said. The only way I found to do it is to spend a lot of time on it and scratch your head a lot, and make sure that you’re staying true to your values while serving your customers really well.

TB: This is my last question where I’m basically using Marc Benioff’s book as grist. He wrote in Trailblazer that the opposition to the head tax in Seattle was something that he used in San Francisco to push back and push forward with Prop C. For people who haven’t followed this, there were two different types of taxes to fund services for homeless relief. I was looking at this last night, and I realized you were actually one of the signatories of the letter from more than a hundred Seattle-area business executives opposing the head tax. Is that something that you and Marc have discussed since? Because you were effectively on opposite sides of that issue, writ large.

Selipsky: Well, to be honest with you, I was very casually aware as many people were of what was going on in San Francisco, but I’m not deep on it. The answer to these questions is always very nuanced. What’s the specific proposal, the specific funding mechanism, the specific use of funds? We felt at the time, just given that set of circumstances in Seattle, like many business leaders, like many civic leaders and politicians, that it just wasn’t the best answer for Puget Sound as a whole. We’re very much committed to, and we put a ton of energy into, helping to alleviate the homelessness problem in Seattle. We’re on the mayor’s Innovation Council where we work on that collaboratively together. We work with many government agencies, with nonprofits like Community Solutions. We’re deeply committed to actually solving homelessness issues.

TB: It’s interesting because you do have the Tableau Foundation, and I know you’ve committed $100 million effectively to addressing problems around the world using data, and it’s one of the ways that the Salesforce and Tableau cultures are actually aligned in a lot of ways. Here’s my idea. You’ve got this interesting connection now between San Francisco and Seattle, between the two companies. What if the two philanthropic arms of the companies could come together and lead a joint effort that other companies follow to address this issue of homelessness? That’s my pitch for you here.

Adam Selipsky, left, with Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff at the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo/ Todd Bishop)

Selipsky: Well, I think each of us feels the responsibility and the opportunity to be leaders in homelessness, amongst many other issues. There’s climate change, there’s equality, there’s poverty, there’s health, but on homeless in particular, which are major issues that really affect people, thousands of thousands of people in Seattle and in San Francisco, we both want to be really involved. If we can do that together, then awesome. I’m all for it.

TB: We’re here at the Tableau Conference, and it’s really interesting to see what’s going on around us. One of the things that struck me was the sheer number of blue-chip, marquee companies that are using Tableau, and maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me given the fact that you were valuable enough to be acquired by Salesforce for $15.7 billion. What do you do to attract those big companies, and how can you simultaneously serve them and the small developer, small startup that might also want to leverage Tableau’s infrastructure and approach?

Selipsky: Well, we absolutely want to, are going to, and currently are serving all of those people. I have no time for points of view that say you have to choose. I say, “No, we don’t.” We’re going to do both, and we’re going to serve everybody from the nonprofit to the individual hobbyist to the data geek to the big enterprise. I think you can do it because everybody needs a broad and deep platform that has incredible features and enables them to do what they need to do with analytics. Some things will vary. You’re going to have the individual developer probably be less concerned with access controls and things like that, that an enterprise will, so there are things that we’ll do from an enterprise perspective, but we absolutely are big enough and have enough internal mind share to pay attention to all those communities.

On the enterprise side, specifically, it’s been an across the company multi-year effort and will continue to be going forward. It starts with the product and building not only analytics features, but security and governance and compliance features into the product. It means that you market differently and think a lot about customer reference stories and ROIs and total cost of ownership analyses. It means that you approach your sales and your account management relationships differently. You really think long-term about building long-term trusted relationships, and it means you have to have fantastic support offerings where you really focus on long-term customer success. The team has done a great job over the past few years of building those up to a point where you do have tens of thousands of Tableau users at places like JPMorgan Chase and Charles Schwab and Woolworths and Honeywell and Pfizer, and I’ll stop there.

TB: It seems like you have a lot of customers in common with Salesforce, as well. What does Marc Benioff email you about these days?

Selipsky: Marc loves to email me and tell me how much he is seeing and understanding data and how much he loves data. I always get a kick out of the enthusiasm that that Marc and the rest of Salesforce is bringing to just helping to put a shoulder behind the wheel of Tableau.

TB: I got to say, the last time we spoke I was kind of ribbing him through you about the fact that he’s still struggling with the plural of the abbreviation of the product that Tableau creates, essentially, visualizations or vizzes.

Selipsky: Vizzes, yeah.

TB: He struggled with it on stage today again.

Selipsky: I thought he nailed it today.

TB: He said it wrong, and then he edited himself.

Selipsky: Sounded great to me.

TB: That’s when you are going to know that the integration is complete, when Marc says “vizzes” without pausing.

Selipsky: Well, Marc’s really become a fantastic a member of the Tableau community. We have officially anointed him a Tableau data rockstar.

TB: That’s right. The last thing here, very important question. What will be Tableau’s character as part of Salesforce presentations?

Selipsky: Critter. The Salesforce critter. Of all the integration topics, of all of them, this could be the most hotly debated and closely followed. It’s quite amazing. I think that there’s been a lot of discussion. I think we will absolutely also involve the community in that. I think Marc gave the community the thumbs up to voice their opinions this morning on that, but do you have a particular vote?

TB: I liked what you mentioned, orca. I think that makes a lot of sense.

I mean, just as a sign of the hot debate, there’s the two schools of thought on that. One is that the orca is very Seattle, very Pacific Northwest, emblematic, and it’s an important and wonderful creature. Other people say, “No, no, no. Orcas cannot exist in the forest. They will die in the forest. You cannot have a forest creature that’s an orca,” so that debate rages on.

Editor’s Note: Tableau hosted GeekWire for a recording of the GeekWire Podcast on the show floor of the Tableau Conference as part of a sponsorship agreement. GeekWire retained editorial control of the podcast and covered its own expenses related to the podcast and news coverage from the event.

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