"This company is filled with humble, smart people."
"When I discovered Tableau, I was like, 'Oh my god! This is how I wanted to work with data my entire career.' "
"I interviewed with Christian over the phone. I asked, 'What’s your mission?' And he goes, To help people see and understand data. He stops and it was quiet ..."
Lee: I’m sitting with Elissa Fink who is the Chief Marketing Officer of Tableau. I’ve known her for nine years.
Elissa: I was going to say forever.
Lee: I wanted to take a few minutes to have a chat with her at TC. She is heading out from Tableau.
Elissa: Retiring. I can’t believe it. It’s so bittersweet.
Lee: We’ll still talk.
Elissa: We will definitely talk. No question about it.
Lee: And when you come to New York, you will have your kids in tow.
Elissa: Yes, absolutely. And then we’ll have lunch and I’ll be able to write off my business travel as a business expense because we’ll pretend we’re going to do something together even if it’s just social.
Lee: One thing that hit me and I bet you’re pretty proud of this one. The keynote opening I thought was at another level this year.
Elissa: The video in front …
Lee: Yeah! And the dialog – how did you feel about that this year?
Elissa: I was excited about it. We want people to come in and be inspired and build some energy. It’s the time to get everyone’s attention focused. Someone on our team came up with this idea of a love letter from data or data talking to you. And it was so like, “Oh my gosh!” We’re all so passionate about data. And data is almost a personality to each of us.
Elissa: We have these relationships with data. And so, it evolved from that. I’ve done the voice of the conference before and when the team was pitching these ideas, I was like, “OK, if we do that one,” I normally would never force myself into anything, but I’m like, “Oh, OK. Executive decision being made. I’m doing the voice-over on that one.”
Lee: It seems appropriate because you’re always the voice of the start of the conference.
Elissa: It was fun. And the graphics were spectacular. We worked with the agency who we’ve been working with for years. They know our ethic. We have incredible creative designers who work really closely together and just a great deal of care even though it’s only about a minute and a half. And then you’re ready, “OK. I’m pumped to hear what Adam has got to say.”
Lee: Yeah, the minute and a half I’m sure took weeks and weeks of real time to do.
Elissa: Amen! The creative team is great, the conference team, and then our agency that helps us with it. They do great work.
Lee: The other years have been great but this one just had something about it.
Elissa: It was fun. I’m glad you liked it.
Lee: I want to share with the folks something a bit personal between us that we’ve talked about before, but I wanted to bring it up since it seems like the right time.
Lee: Do you recall back … probably it was in 2010 and you asked me to speak at a conference. And I had never spoken at a conference before so that was a big deal for me.
Elissa: You were great.
Lee: Well, thank you.
Lee: But the part I want to tell you about is the web that it wove. The fact that I did that got me speaking more. I spoke at other business intelligence conferences and got involved with several other organizations. This built my confidence quite a bit, which turned into creating some workshops around Tableau in data visualization, in data literacy. That’s part one.
Part two is around the same time, you said, “Oh, would you be interested in helping start the user groups in the area?”
Lee: And I said sure. I actually had done some things like that before. I have a feel for that. I remember the first one we had was in February 2010, and it snowed. And six people still came up to White Plains, New York to Nokia.
Elissa: [Laughter] Isn’t that amazing?
Lee: And I was shocked. I said, “This thing is going to be me and one other guy from Nokia probably.. But people came. And I was like, “OK. That’s a start of something.”
Elissa: Yeah, that’s great. And now it’s huge. Now, the group is incredible.
Lee: It got really big and it has been fun to do that. I met so many great people. I got involved with the ambassador program.
Now, the thing that ties it together that’s really interesting for me is the community activities and building the workshops. Then I heard about the Tableau Foundation.
Elissa: Oh yeah. It’s amazing.
Lee: When I met Neal (Myrick), now it has been three years, and I met Neal at a conference. I showed him my workshop and I said, “I’m happy to do this for you.”
Elissa: Oh my gosh! That’s awesome.
Lee: So the tie-in is if you never got me to speak, I would have never gotten to the point of being able to speak publicly and build a workshop and come back to do the Tableau Foundation work.
Elissa: That is so cool.
Lee: At a personal level, there are things that you do, but you don’t know what they are going to turn into.
Elissa: I love those stories. The Tableau community is so special. First of all, to be attracted to Tableau and want to use it, it takes a special person because it’s disruptive, it’s different. You’ve got to be curious and intellectual, but also very giving and sharing because that’s the kind of community is.
I love those kinds of stories where people like come out of their comfort zone and do something like speaking. I remember when we talked about it and you’d be like, “OK. I don’t speak a lot.” And I’m like, “Don’t worry. You’re going to be great because you’re passionate about it. You believe in it. And you’re good. You don’t even realize it.”
And those stories of people who continue to develop. And Tableau I think has attracted people to want to keep developing, who are curious, who give, who share, who just keep want to move forward. That’s a gratifying thing about being able to see that and be a little part of that. You want to spend your time working on things that are meaningful.
I have the same reaction to Chris Stolte and Christian and Pat. I was talking to Chris one day and just a couple of years ago, before he left. He is on the board still. And I just said, “Chris, do you realize your invention? It’s this drop in a lake that just keeps rippling. You rippled to me, and I have these benefits. And I’ve rippled. You ripple to other people and you ripple to community. It’s just like wow!
When you think about that sort of rippling effect of this invention and this group of people coming together, it’s really pretty awesome.
Elissa: And then again, the No Malaria program with Joseph at the end of the keynote and the foundation summit, and there’s a lot of our foundation partners here. It is the business and the personal impact, and the development but there’s also all these incredible life-changing improvements because of data, and because of the commitment of this community, and because of this product. It’s amazing.
Lee: I think it’s also because the company had the idea that there was more to it than the software.
Elissa: Yes, absolutely.
Lee: That there was this notion of community. I don’t even know what you guys talked about internally about that idea, but it gave people a different feel about the company.
Elissa: I remember interviewing for the job and talking to Christian over the phone from Washington, DC and asking him lots of questions. One of them, what’s your mission? And he goes, “To help people see and understand data.” He stops and I was like, “It’s quiet.” Is he taking a drink of water? Did the phone just go dead? Where is all the BS about, “Customer shareholder value blah, blah, blah.” No! That was the mission. It always has been the mission.
And the thing that he and I have – from even before I joined the company, that the keyword of that mission is people. And that’s what’s amazing. And it has always been that sense of people that has held their ideas about strategy and about where the company is going to go and where we’re going to go and how are we going to help people, has always been at the root of the right things to do. We haven’t been perfect. Far from it. But we always are trying.
Lee:. Well, like you said, you have to take a risk and you’re trying to change something that has been around for 20, 25 years, you have to be radical.
Elissa: Yeah, totally. Totally. You do.
Lee: So, you talked about the interview – why did you decide to join Tableau?
Elissa: Oh, that’s a great question. I was a customer before I joined the company. I’ve been in and around marketing and data almost my entire career. My first job was selling advertising for the Wall Street Journal. I was there five years. I realized towards the end of that I really liked the numbers, like our subscriber base is different than Business Week. I realized that that’s really what I wanted to do.
Now, back then there were hardly computers in marketing. But I had learned about this little company called Claritas that was doing segmentation. And I got an interview with the company. I remember meeting with my future boss who was leaving the office that he was running at the time, and I interviewed with him and with his person that was going to take over, Eddie. Later we laughed about the fact that our interview, he was like, “This woman don’t know shit!” is what he said. “If you want to hire, hire her.”
But I was so excited about data and marketing, that’s really where it started. I love data and marketing, but it was always so hard to use. You had to write reports. If it wasn’t the perfect report, they still couldn’t get answers. And then I started to use Tableau. And when I discovered Tableau, I was like, “Oh my god! This is how I wanted to work with data my entire career.” Like I’m not a data analyst. I’m an accidental analyst as a former partner used to say, “It just was …”
Lee: Like love, you know what you know when you feel it.
Elissa: Totally! And then they needed a VP of Marketing and I was like, “I don’t care what I have to do to get this role.” What do I have to do to get this job? Because I want to be working for this company.
I remember telling my husband, “I had a great interview. Let’s move. We’re going.” And him saying, “Are you sure we should move 3,000 miles for a company that has got 30 people, and I don’t even know what the sales there. Are they even measured in millions yet?” And I was like, “Oh, this is a no-brainer.” And then a few years ago I realized that was a pretty big risk. You know what I mean? [Laughter]
Elissa: But I knew I had to follow both my heart and my brain.
Lee: There’s something about it that you knew.
Elissa: And the people were great too. I mean that was a big part of it.
Lee: It sounds like the first person you spoke with was Christian. Do you remember, closely at least, what’s the first thing he asked you?
Elissa: Oh gosh! You know what’s funny, Lee? I am a huge note-taker. I don’t remember, but I just recently found the folder of notes from my interview in my house.
Elissa: I can see the page. I don’t remember the first question. But I do have the notes because I kind of knew even then, this is going to be special so I saved it.
Lee: We’ll see it in your memoirs.
Elissa: Yeah. [Laughter] But it was a great discussion. I remember when I came out for the full day interview, which by the way, Seattle in May was glorious.
Elissa: I met Chris, and Christian, and Tom and the current head of marketing at the time, Kevin Brown, and a bunch of other people. I was just like, “Wow! These people …” first of all, they’re all like these brilliant Stanford people which I’m not. “God! They’re so smart and yet they’re so humble.” And they were really interested in what I had to say and how I could help and what are my ideas.
Elissa: I walked away like this company is filled with humble, smart people. And that became a little bit of an internal buzz word of our culture. It’s people-centric, humble, smart, working together.
Elissa: Yeah. It was amazing. But it came from the founders. They were amazing and they still are.
Lee: It’s a good thing I guess when you think about who you want to bring into a company and especially when it’s small. But even if it gets larger, if that’s ingrained, it’s just something you want to keep in mind when you’re meeting people that this person match some of those basic ideas and tenets we have.
Elissa: Yes. As soon as I joined, I felt like one of the other nice things about Tableau, and I tell people this all the time, is we want you to bring your full self to work. We don’t want you to ever have to work to be different than who you are, because it takes energy to be different than who you are. That’s energy you’re not using for the benefit of your career or the benefit of Tableau.
Lee: I like that.
Elissa: And so, it’s really important we’ve got to be a place that embraces people of all types, all diversities, all kinds; includes them and they can be who they are. And they fit the culture of course. And they don’t have to change or be different or be a different person. That’s a really important value of the company.
Lee: Pretty forward-thinking.
Elissa: I give the founders so much credit.
Lee: Just one more question about Tableau then I want to talk about some personal, fun stuff.
Lee: I started working with you probably when the company was somewhere between 75 and 100 people, so it’s still really small, still a startup.
Lee: Can you think about what’s the one decision the company made that really made you go from that startup mode to like we are here, we are a contender, and people saw you that way?
Elissa: Yeah. That’s a great question. I don’t know if there’s one. But I will say this, when you asked that, I have a very visceral collage of memories. Which is the one thing that I really admire about Christian Chabot and even today, Adam Selipsky, but Christian in particular. He was really good at staying true to what we wanted to do. There were tons of different opportunities, the software could do this, this partner wants to go there, these people want to do that, this customer wants us to add this feature, we should go to this event. And he was really good at, “No, that is not where we want to go.”
I think that’s really hard, because it’s easy to say yes to a lot of things and I’m definitely a let’s do it kind of a yes person. He was really good at saying no to the wrong things and yes, let’s double down on the right things.
In no way was he squashing creative ideas or experimentation, or getting out there and being in front of people. No way! He was very positive on this. He was really good strategically about, “We’re not going to do this. We’re going to do this.” It taught me about the values of the company and the direction we needed to go. So even when we’re approached with things, it’s pretty easy to be like, “No, that’s not on-brand. No, that’s not where we want to go. That’s not what we want to represent. That’s not how we’re going to get there. That’s not how we are going to serve our mission.”
I just have a really strong reaction; Christian knew what he had, and he knew where he wanted to go; and Chris too and Pat, and now, Adam and Tom. They really had that sense. It makes it easier to know if you have those parameters, even at lower levels, if you have that sense of where we’re going, people will make that decision.
Lee: Yeah. That’s amazing.
Elissa: Purpose will help you make choices.. So then when you asked that question, I just had a really visceral reaction of like, “That always struck me. We knew because of the founders and our executive team, where we’re going.”
Lee: So it was maybe not one thing. But it sounds like it’s more of the compound effect …
Elissa: Yes. Yes.
Lee: … of always having that vision of where you want to be at some point.
Elissa: Absolutely. And we were lucky. I mean it’s hard work but we had some winds at are back. Data was becoming a thing.
Elissa: I can remember years and years ago, I have been around a long time, and even when I worked for that marketing software company, I was like, “How do people not want to use data? How is that possible?” You know what I mean? But they didn’t. [Laughter]
Elissa: We had a lot of winds at our back and great customers like you, Lee, that are willing to go out there for us and help us and champion. It just all came together.
Lee: Right. Most companies always have something on their side beside just a great product.
Elissa: Yeah, there’s always something. You need it all. [Laughter]
Lee: Yeah, because many great products don’t succeed? Well, I’m glad that this one did.
Elissa: Yeah, me too.