Every journey is filled with pivotal moments. This is just as true for organizations as it is for individuals. In the case of InterWorks, we often talk about our origins, as well as the development of our overarching company culture. Much of that lore circles around the idea of doing work we love for clients we enjoy, but we’d be remiss without mentioning another group of people who have been vital throughout our journey: our partners.
Our partners are just as much a part of our story as we are in theirs, and our partnership with Tableau Software is perhaps the quintessential story of symbiotic growth between a vendor and a consulting firm. Our history with Tableau “officially” begins with us becoming the very first Tableau Gold Partner in 2011, but there’s always more history than what can be found in a press release. To get the full story of how we met, where we’re going next and everything in between, I sat down with InterWorks CEO, Behfar Jahanshahi.
Discovering the Hidden Gem of Tableau
Q: When did Tableau first come to our attention and why?
Behfar: A lot of this starts with Dan Murray, our Director of Strategic Innovations. Before coming to InterWorks, Dan was working for a company called Blastrac. Dan held various roles there, including COO and CFO. Blastrac was one of our IT Services clients, so we worked closely with Dan on a lot of different projects. At the time, we were not yet into the BI space, but Blastrac had an IBM AS400 mainframe full of data and Dan wanted to see what he could do with it. He contacted me and sent me on a quest to find the best way to pull out that data.
We started talking with folks at Oracle, Microsoft and a few other places, but Dan found the proposed solutions too expensive and personnel heavy. We’d be dealing with a lot of consultants at the end of the day. Dan does a lot of reading, and he’s a solid networker, so he emailed someone who, at the time, wasn’t well known to me: Stephen Few. Today, Stephen is a famous data and analytics author. He told Dan to check out Tableau—an up-and-coming tool that was only just entering the market—and he also became involved in the consulting process alongside us.
Dan checked out Tableau and fell in love. He would not stop talking to me about it. For our first Tableau project, we used a combination of MS SQL to bring that data out of Blastrac’s IBM mainframe and visualized the results in Tableau. We learned a lot about the tool through that project and all came to love it.
For me personally, the big “Aha!” moment happened on Christmas Eve of that same year. I was at my in-laws’ house and decided to download Tableau on my personal machine to see what Dan was buzzing about. Five minutes after downloading it, I was connected to InterWorks datasets, building crosstabs and other visualizations, and generally being blown away by how easy it all was. I came from the world of Crystal and SQL reporting, which involved a lot of coding. By contrast, Tableau was simple and elegant yet possessed the same level of sophistication as any other major tool on the market.
Striking up the First Tableau Partnership
Q: How and when did InterWorks officially become a Tableau Partner?
Behfar: If you look at how InterWorks operated in 1996 compared to now, there are many similarities, especially when it comes to delivering exceptional service around products we truly believe in. In our early days, we would go to local computer stores and talk with them about how we could help their customers. By doing a good job, we earned more business for us and them, which is the basis of any good partnership. Our pitch to Tableau years later was much the same.
When we first talked with Tableau, there was no partner program or partners of any sort. They had a guy named Chuck Hooper, a solo practitioner who eventually became an official Tableau employee. Tableau was a small organization then, so Chuck ended up doing all the things, from pre-sales and post-sales to managing a rapid-growing community surrounding Tableau. It got to the point where he needed some help, which was around the same time we approached Tableau’s then-CEO Christian Chabot and CRO Kelly Wright. We pretty much told them how much we loved the product, shared our belief in its ability to change the analytics landscape and described InterWorks’ ability to do great work for Tableau customers.
Above: Some of the InterWorks team at Tableau Conference 2014
They were skeptical at first, and things were slow-going until we got a call from Tableau about a customer deployment that wasn’t going to plan and asked if we jump in. We sent Dan on site for a week, and that Friday at 5pm, the customer placed a large order with Tableau. This experience showed Tableau that they could send us into uncertain engagements and trust us to turn them around and ultimately earn Tableau new business. I think our success goes back to that service-first, small business mentality. Both Tableau and InterWorks were the right size for each other at the time: agile upstarts built on the idea that analytics solutions could be flexible, affordable and personal.
As we continued to have more success with Tableau, they naturally wanted to expand their partner ecosystem. We became their unofficial Pro Serve and Training Partner, and we worked hand in hand with them on shaping what those teams would ultimately become. In 2012, we were officially named Tableau’s inaugural Gold Partner. Since then, we’ve won 22 Partner of the Year awards across numerous different categories and regions.
The InterWorks + Tableau Difference
Q: What makes InterWorks unique as a Tableau partner?
Behfar: Aside from coming up with Tableau from the ground floor, there are quite a few distinctions between InterWorks and other Tableau resellers and services partners. Our strength has never been in numbers, and that’s intentional. Instead, our strength ties back to our obsession with customer service and learning everything we possibly can about the technology we support. The fact that we are small, agile and personal are strengths.
In any services business, whether it’s tech consulting or lawn mowing, I think good service starts with the basics, which is simply doing great work, communicating well and providing a solid human experience throughout. I think many firms have the technical ability to do sound work but lack skills on the people side. When things get transactional, quality of service often suffers.
Another advantage in coming from the small-business world is that, while we have fewer people to throw at our engagements, our consultants are incredibly well-rounded and capable of doing many different things in and beyond Tableau. In a sense, they’re a lot like decathlon athletes, only their events consist of visualization, scripting, coding, database work, data transformation, standing up servers and more. Larger solution integrators might find that work unappealing because it’s not easy or the most profitable thing they could be doing. We preferred the Swiss Army Knife sort of approach, and we found that our clients did as well. Now, things are a bit different today than they were 10 years ago. Organizations are generally further along in their data journey, dealing more with issues like adoption and governance. We’ve adapted, too, but we still have that agile, small-business mentality.
Strategically Adding Value and Filling Gaps
Q: InterWorks has created several Tableau add-ons like Power Tools for Tableau and Curator. How have those enhanced our partnership?
Behfar: Predating our involvement with Tableau, we’ve always had people with strong development skills, and we’ve always encouraged them to use those skills when building solutions for clients. This has taken us down some interesting avenues, from developing mobile games like Fightin’ Words to building full-fledged oil and gas software like Landboss.
Since learning about Tableau, our people organically went about all sorts of skunkworks projects to see what Tableau looked like under the hood and what it might be capable of. As we started consulting more on Tableau, we saw more opportunities where the combination of Tableau and custom development might solve some unique challenges. Honestly, a big part of this was also driven by the needs of our consultants.
Above: Members of the InterWorks and Tableau teams at PEKO 2019
The more experience we got in the Tableau consulting sphere, the more we saw a need for performance tools or tools that helped solve server-related issues. Our developers and consultants spent a little time putting together the duct-tape version of these tools at first, and the first “official” tool we created was the Tableau Performance Analyzer. This eventually matured into an entire suite of tools, called Power Tools for Tableau, that helped people do more with their Tableau workbooks, server and so on.
Tableau was already great and could do so many things that traditional BI tools couldn’t, but Power Tools took things further. These tools became so popular that, eventually, something like 70% of Fortune 100 companies were using Tableau AND Power Tools along with it, which was crazy for a small business like us to conceive. We built out an entire product team, developed a sound product lifecycle and roadmap, and then Tableau approached us about officially building Power Tools into Tableau proper, and that’s exactly what happened in 2019.
The Tailored UX Power of Curator by InterWorks
Another big part of that Power Tools legacy can be seen in our Curator by InterWorks today. Formerly known as Portals for Tableau, Curator started much in the same way as Power Tools did but with a different emphasis. We had customers coming to us with their data visualizations, wanting to present them internally or externally in a custom-skinned manner. This wasn’t possible with Tableau out of the box. After building more or less the same custom solution over and over again, we naturally thought it might be wise to productize our efforts a bit more.
One of our consultants had a background in building CMS solutions and eventually started a skunkworks project to make something we could deploy repeatedly vs. building one-off web portals each time a customer needed something like this. Those efforts were successful, and today there are hundreds of customers around the world—ranging from small businesses to multi-national enterprises—that use Curator to embed their Tableau dashboards in a custom web portal. More than that, Curator has added all sorts of additional functionality that combines the best of Tableau Server and CMS for an incredible user experience.
Earlier, I talked about organizations being collectively in a different spot with their analytics needs. One of the biggest roadblocks we’ve seen our customers encounter these past few years is figuring out how to make their users and stakeholders aware of the great Tableau dashboards they’ve built. Their options are either make do with what they have or build something on their own, which can be expensive and time-consuming. The reason Curator is so popular is because it’s customizable, feature-rich, solidly built and deployable in under a week, sometimes within hours. Frankly, it makes analytics departments look good to the rest of the company. That all probably sounds like a sales pitch, but we’re tripling down on Curator because our customers routinely tell us how much they love it, and our development is largely driven by their feedback.
A Partnership with Room to Grow
Q: How has our partnership with Tableau evolved? What’s it like today?
Behfar: Ten years ago, I think everything was a bit more off the cuff and ad hoc. One of our consultants would parachute into a client site, get things going and then walk out a hero. Most of our engagements looked like some version of that for many years. But as the market started to mature and organizations got further along with their data journeys, their needs changed. The primary challenge for them became things like, “How are we going deploy Tableau organization-wide to thousands of users?”, which includes things like governance, adoption or the best way to roll out dashboards to a wide audience of diverse viewers.
In the early days, we spent a lot of time just getting people familiar with the basics of Tableau, which was a tool many people had never heard of. Today, there’s a much higher degree of Tableau familiarity and general data literacy, so we’ve evolved our offerings and grown our team to address more mature needs. Tableau is no longer this experiment that people are running on a server under their desks; it’s their primary analytics platform, touching virtually every group within their business. Our work now is fewer of these two-to-three-day engagements and more strategic advisory along the lines of “teach a man to fish.” Curator, Center of Excellence creations, custom workshops and planning sessions—these types of custom solutions now represent the bulk of what we provide.
Above: A Power Tools for Tableau: Server workshop
Bringing this back to our partnership with Tableau, we’ve been equal parts fortunate and strategic to grow in tandem right alongside them. Though their needs and what we provide have evolved a bit over time, the basis of our partnership remains the same. Tableau trusts in our ability to solve challenges with customers of any shape and size, helping those customers get the most out of Tableau and turning them into ardent Tableau fans. The benefit for us is that we continue to receive a steady stream of Tableau work based on that pattern of customer success. I think it’s important to note that even though we have great relationships with our contacts at Tableau, this trust has been earned exclusively on the basis of our work ethic. It’s pretty cool to me that InterWorks is the go-to partner when things need to be done to the highest standard.
Moving Forward with Salesforce
Q: Final question: How has the Salesforce acquisition affected the Tableau product and a community?
Behfar: Any time one company acquires another, there’s going to be a confluence of different cultures. Aside from simply being an incredible product, I think Tableau’s greatest strength is its community. I mean this in a good way, and I don’t know that there’s any other way to say it, but Tableau has a cult-like following amongst its users; that’s how much people love it. We work with a lot of different vendors across IT and data, and I don’t know that I’ve seen such a dedicated community anywhere else. You simply don’t see it in the Power BI, Oracle or Cognos communities. It’s on an entirely different level with Tableau users.
I think the community is so strong because Tableau has been so intentional about connecting with and fostering that community from day one, which is a real credit to people like former Tableau CMO Elissa Fink and others responsible for making that such a priority. Knowledge-share in the Tableau community is off the charts, Tableau Public is one of the most inspiring places in the analytics world, and there are deeply engaged user groups for every city, industry and use case you can imagine.
With any acquisition come certain changes to things like product roadmap and community engagement, and the Salesforce acquisition of Tableau is no different. Tableau will evolve and grow in new ways, and it’s already become more closely integrated with the broader Salesforce environment. Many see this as a good thing. Others are more focused on wanting Tableau (and moreover, the Tableau community) to be the same great product they’ve known for years. I think Salesforce recognizes this, so it’ll be key for them to continue preserving that Tableau community and enabling Tableau to thrive as an independent product that’s still part of the Salesforce family. Of course, I think the biggest benefit for Tableau and its users is that Tableau’s reach will be massively amplified, opening up the Tableau community to even more ardent fans. That has the potential to be really special.
Need a Tableau Advisor? Chat with Our Team
It’s clear we’ve had a unique relationship with Tableau for many years, and we’re excited to keep that relationship going for years to come. If you’re interested in chatting with a Tableau partner that can help you take the next step with Tableau, or really any other part of your analytics environment, we’d love to connect you to our team. The biggest takeaway we hope readers get from this blog is that we’re committed to always doing the best work we possibly can for our clients. Whatever success looks like for you with Tableau, we want to help you get there.