The first part of this post will cover the three things I think everyone should do at the conference. I’m not going to tell you about the obvious things like what sessions to attend (that will be covered in a hundred other posts). I’ll focus on other aspects of the conference that you should think about in order to squeeze the most you can out of the time. In the latter portion of the post, you will get my personal recollections from the first 11 Tableau Conference events in the U.S. I’ve been to all 11. Throw in another two in London, one in Amsterdam, one in Barcelona, and in total, I have spent over 60 days at Tableau Conferences during the last 11 years between North America and Europe.
Three Things You Should Do at TC
- Go to the opening night party, and get some swag, but don’t try to have an intelligent, in-depth conversation with a vendor or partner. Schedule those conversations later at a day and time when you can actually hear yourself think and have an uninterrupted conversation.
The first night is bedlam, and you should just drink in the moment, get the lay of the land, and make mental notes about places you want to revisit or people you want to talk to during the next three days. There will be plenty of quiet times in the Expo Hall for you to have a good conversation with low background noise. Celebrate; you are attending the biggest data geek festival in the world!
- During meals, make a real effort to sit down at a table with unfamiliar people and strike up a conversation. If you are shy, I know this is a scary thought. Just do it. People are friendly at the conference. I’ve made some great friends (lifelong types) because I happened to sit next to a person at a meal and struck up a conversation. Here are few good starter questions that are less boring than “Where are you from?”
- How long have you been using Tableau?
- What cool things have you done with Tableau? Can you show me that dashboard?
- Have you seen any excellent sessions? What were they? Why were they great? What did you learn?
- Do you use Tableau with cloud-based services or databases? Which one(s)?
- What good data-related books have you read? What did you get out of the book(s)?
- Do you know any of the “vizerati?” Who? Will you introduce me to that person?
- What other Tableau conferences have you attended? What was your favorite and why?
- What other tools, products or devices do you use with Tableau? What are the use cases?
- If you run into an IT person who says that they just “support” a Tableau environment, ask them what their biggest challenges are with Tableau and Tableau Server. What would they like to see improved in Tableau Server? What do they like and not like, and ask them to explain why.
- If they are a hardcore BI person, you might ask them what database(s) they work with and what extract/transform/load (ETL) tools they use.
- If you get invited to some special side event, go. I went to a Women in Data Event in Austin that was held in a speakeasy-style watering hole. To enter the meeting, you had to access the room via a fake bookshelf. That was really cool and not something I would have discovered on my own. The very least you’ll get is better food and free drinks. You could also get lucky and have a great conversation with a very knowledgeable person. Many vendor-sponsored events are low-pressure, quiet and provide a better environment for conversation than the main conference.
My History of Tableau Conference Attendance
TC08: Edgewater Hotel, Seattle (150 attendees)
What a nice little event this was. I met tons of Tableau big wigs: Christian Chabot, Chris Stolte, Pat Hanrahan, Elissa Fink, Kelly Wright and a few other people who were instrumental in the early days, including Daisy DePaulis, Chuck Hooper, Ty Alevizos and Deepak Ghodke among others. All of these people had a big influence on me and InterWorks’ early success—perhaps none more than Chuck Hooper who was one of Tableau’s first two Sales Engineers in the world:
Above: Chuck once flew from Pebble Beach to Atlanta with minimal notice and missed a free date to play a round there because I asked him to. That’s a great friend.
At the first conference, I gave a talk on my early experiences using Tableau Software that led me to quit my job of 18 years. I joined InterWorks in December 2008 to build a BI consulting practice around Tableau.
Also at the first conference, speakers got a lifetime Tableau Desktop license, and Tableau also gave all each of us a Flip Video Camera. Remember those? The iPhone 3GS came out that year and crushed their business. The first conference was tiny. I took this video using the Flip Video camera Tableau gave out. It was the morning of the first day. The room could just barely hold everyone.
About a third of the 150 people there were Tableau employees lined along the walls. Each one of them introduced themselves, individually. I also met Stephen Few (a very early influence on my data visualization thinking through his books, phone calls and meetings. Sitting next to a guy named Andy Kriebel at the speaker’s dinner, I made another lifelong friend:
Above: Andy (left) and me
Andy and I discovered that we both lived in Atlanta. We started chatting about starting a Tableau user group at that dinner. He’s now in London, of course. If you haven’t heard of Makeover Monday, you need to check it out—great learning resource.
Elissa Fink introduced us to a few other people in Atlanta interested in starting a TUG as well: John Hoover and Andy Piper (Norfolk Southern), Chris Cushman and Martin Click (UPS). That’s how the Atlanta Tableau User Group (ATUG) became the first one in the United States and one of the first two in the world. Tom Brown and I will argue about whether London or Atlanta was the first one in the world, again at the conference this year. All of those folks became lifelong friends.
The event was very well done. The food was great, and at the party at the Seattle Aquarium, Christian Chabot and Chris Stolte spoke with me about what I was doing with Tableau. I decided I would try to come again in 2009.
TC09: Olive 8 Hotel, Seattle (350 attendees)
The event was moved to a bigger hotel. Garr Reynolds was one of the keynote speakers. I gave another “customer” talk, even though I was technically a consultant. It was here that I met a fellow named Tom Brown. Tom was one of 10 people in the world that read a blog post that I’d written about high value, low cost business information with Tableau and Excel. He complimented me on that post when we met (he’s an outlier in many ways) and asked me, “How can I start a consulting business in London like InterWorks?” I had some advice: “It’s like the Pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower, Tom. Just burn the boats and you’ll have to learn to forage and hunt.” Amazingly, he told me the next day that he had started the process of selling his shares in his existing partnership and was going to start a new practice built around Tableau. A few years later, Tom invited me to dinner in London with his team when his company won European Partner of the Year. Classy guy. Good friend. The Information Lab is my second-favorite consulting company in the community.
TC10: Olive 8 Hotel, Seattle (700 attendees)
The main thing I remember about is running into Garr Reynolds multiple times per day in the elevator. Garr was invited back to be a speaker again. And he was excellent again. If you haven’t read any of his books, you should. My hotel room happened to be right next to his, so we had a lot of elevator time to chat.
TC11: Encore Hotel, Las Vegas (1,400 attendees)
This conference was when I realized that Tableau had become a phenomenon. There were great speakers (I met Guy Kawasaki), and the session count continued to increase:
Above: Guy Kawasaki (left) and me
The most memorable part of this conference was the Tableau Night Out Party at the pool between Encore and Wynn. It was the best party ever (before and since). Imagine walking into a party with models wearing tinfoil dresses, drink booths from around the world, temporary tattoos, etc. I also floated on a raft with Pat Hanrahan and talked data with him for a couple of hours while several other InterWorks team members anchored us poolside by holding our ankles. It was my favorite party because it was quiet enough to have real conversations yet wild enough that lots of good stories came out of that one.
TC12: Hilton Bayfront, San Diego (2,800 attendees)
I got to meet Steven Johnson, author of the Ghost Map and one of my absolute favorite books on data visualization and mapping. His story of the London Cholera outbreak in 1854. Fantastic read. Highly recommended. I’ve delivered a full-day seminar about this fascinating story. If you want to know why data visualization is valuable, this story highlights one of the reasons why.
This conference had the best “large” party night at the San Diego Padres baseball park, complete with a fireworks display. Tableau rented the entire park! It was over-the-top great. After that, I had “breakfast” with a dozen InterWorks team members and a client, Facebook, who tried to hire all of us (half-jokingly) while we ate breakfast at a IHOP. And, yes, we all made it to work for a full day after that. And we were on time.
TC13: Hotel Gaylord, Washington DC (4,000 attendees)
Things were getting out of hand. The night before the show started, I was asked by Elissa Fink if I would be willing to go to Richmond, Virginia on the afternoon of the first day of the Tableau Conference, to give a talk (on anything I wanted that was data-related) to a few hundred people in local government.
I did the talk in Richmond and raced back to DC to attend the evening party. The event was in the District at the Newseum. That required a lot of buses to take people from the Gaylord in National Harbor to the District. So, I got in line. It just so happened that two people I knew through Twitter were standing at the end of the line with me (for an hour). That’s when I got to know Matt Francis and Emily Kund of the Tableau Wannabe Podcast. If you’re into Tableau, you need to listen to this podcast. While you’re at it, check out ours, Podcast Your Data, as well.
TC14: Seattle Convention Center, Seattle (5,500 attendees)
This was a big year for me. After publishing my book and giving 60 speeches all over the U.S. and Europe, Tableau recognized me as a ZenMaster:
Ever wonder what it looks like from the stage when Andy Cotgreave introduces new ZenMasters? Here’s the view I had:
Atlanta has had four Zen Masters. They are pictured below:
Above: (L to R) Nelson Davis, Mark Jackson, me and Andy Kriebel.
Tableau also invited me to join them them onstage for the closing bell of the NYSE when Christian Chabot rang the gong. I recorded this video using my iPhone just a few feed behind Christian and Kelly Wright. My good friend and former Tableau Enterprise Rep, Deepak Ghodke was standing on my right and Tableau’s founding CFO, Tom Walker was to my left.
Tableau scheduled a breakfast meeting for Zen Masters with Hans Rosling that year. I actually met him for the first time the year before in London just before his keynote. Hans Rosling is still an inspiration. We’ve lost some great people in the community, but Hans was on another level. Check out his book, Factfulness. If you want to see the inspiration for what become the Pages Shelf in Tableau, check out this viz on Gapminder. Change the vertical axis to Babies per Woman and the horizontal axis to Child Mortality and then play the last 220 years in 15 seconds. If you haven’t seen it, this viz will change your view of the world.
Above: If you haven’t watched Hans’ TED Talk, you can’t call yourself a data visualization expert.
I got to know Kelly Martin, another ZenMaster at this event. Kelly died this year (2019). You should check out her website and her Tableau Public profile. Kelly was a creative person who seemed to me to be a flower-child that discovered her inner analyst through Tableau and demonstrated her creative talent with her dashboarding. I’ll miss Kelly. She was only 58. Tableau is honoring Kelly as a Zen Master Hall of Fame member. I will miss her calm intelligence.
TC15: MGM Grand, Las Vegas (11,000 attendees)
Everything was over-the-top at this conference. Over 11,000 people. Tableau rented Fremont Street. The full length of the street had zip lines that carried conference attendees over the other 10,597 people. I made a mental note not to stand under the zip lines as the night progressed and “well-lubricated” folks were flying overhead.
I think this is the one that Neil deGrasse Tyson was supposed to speak for one hour and ended up talking for over two hours because “he was having fun.” Or, maybe that was at the 2016 conference. They all start to run together in my mind.
Above: Yes, a friend managed to get both of us in a picture with Neil after he finished his talk.
TC16: Austin Convention Center, Austin (13,000 attendees)
This conference was a throwback to the old days because Austin really could not “fit” the Tableau Conference in one place. Many sessions were broken up between different hotels. While a lot of people didn’t like this, I did. If you picked advanced topics like I did, it had the feel of a much smaller conference with only 500 people. I liked that a lot.
TC17: Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas (15,000 attendees)
Everything from this conference was overshadowed by the Mandalay Bay Shooting, which happened only seven days prior to the event. I remember walking in the hallway and seeing the boarded-up windows where the shooter committed the act. Tableau made the most of it, and the conference attendees raised money for the families of the victims. I really don’t remember anything else about this event. I’m sure it was good (they all are), but that event occupies all of my brain’s historical RAM. This year’s conference, once again at Mandalay Bay, should be more cheerful.
TC18: New Orleans Convention Center (17,000 attendees)
While this conference was great, and the opening night parade was a lot of fun, I was saddened by the death of a long-term Tableau friend, Mike Cristiani:
Above: (L to R) Mike, me and Andy Cotgreave
Mike was one of the very first people I met in the Tableau Community (via Twitter). Mike and I were conference roommates for eight years straight. He was InterWorks family even though he wasn’t an employee. Mike connected many people in the community through his generosity and good nature.
TC19: Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas (20,000+ attendees)
I’m looking forward to this year’s show in Las Vegas. Removing the tragedy of the last event, I’m certain this year’s conference will be great. Come by the InterWorks booth, #431, and say hello!