For a long time, I was frankly somewhat dogmatic about the tools I used to analyze data: Give me a SQL connection, R, and my trusty calculator and that’s all I need. If I need to make a report, I’ll just use Rails and HTML. Open source or bust.
For most of my four years here at Basecamp, that was mostly how I worked, and it was fine. I think I was reasonably productive (or at least productive enough to stay gainfully employed). I built a lot of tooling and reporting for the rest of the company, and I did some analyses that I’m proud of. These tools were all I needed, but it turns out they weren’t all that I wanted.
As we’ve grown as a company both in headcount and analytical appetite, I found that I was spending a lot of time working on reporting—dashboards, one-offs, random questions asked in Campfire, etc. This kind of thing is important and vital to a successful company, but it frankly isn’t that much fun to do. Fiddling with the position of charts in an HTML dashboard or typing long incantations to generate a simple histogram just aren’t how I want to spend my day, and I don’t think that’s the most value Basecamp can get from my time either.
So I went shopping, and I bought a license to Tableau. I used it to prepare for a big internal presentation, and then I got the server version to use for all future reporting on features, usage, our support team, even some of our application health and performance work. I’ve used Tableau at least a little every day since then — when talking about mobile OS fragmentation in Campfire, when reviewing the year our support team had, and as a replacement for parts of our Rails-based internal dashboard app.
There’s absolutely nothing that Tableau can do that I couldn’t do before, but that’s exactly the point: it lets me do the exact same stuff much faster, cutting down on the parts of my job that aren’t the most exciting and leaving more time for more valuable work. So far, the things I use Tableau for take less than half as long as doing them with my more familiar toolset, and I end up with the same results.
I still use R, SQL consoles, and my HP-12C every single day, and I commit to our Rails dashboard app almost every day. If you’d polled Basecamp six months ago and asked who was the most likely to be using Windows and endorsing the use of expensive enterprise software, I’m pretty sure I would have been the last person mentioned, but here I am.
Admitting that my dogma was wrong and spending a relatively small amount of money on a great tool means that I get to use those other tools that I know and love on more interesting problems, and ultimately to have more of an impact for Basecamp and our customers.