Salesforce chief Marc Benioff shows up at Tableau’s conference — here’s what he said

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

LAS VEGAS — Tableau Software CEO Adam Selipsky introduced “one of the newest members of the Tableau community” to the crowd at the Seattle company’s annual conference here Wednesday morning, inviting a man in a black fedora to join him on stage from the audience.

It was Marc Benioff, co-CEO of Salesforce, hiding in plain sight as he watched the keynote address by what is now a Salesforce company, thanks to the cloud giant’s acquisition of Tableau this summer.

“I don’t think, for Salesforce, there are many other companies that are so much like us, that feel like us, that act like us, that have customers who are our customers,” Benioff said, citing the similarities between their business and philanthropic work, and the similar feel between the Tableau conference and the events that Salesforce holds, such as its Dreamforce conference.

Benioff acknowledged that the companies are “very much in the beginning stages” of determining how the combination will play out. “The power of that will come from our customers,” he said.

The $15 billion acquisition of Tableau, announced in June, is the largest in Salesforce history. The companies completed the deal in August but were unable to begin combining their operations until UK competition authorities cleared the way for the integration to start last week.

The newness of the combination was apparent as the companies continued to be light on specifics about the ways they will work together under the same umbrella, beyond a discussion of which cartoon character should represent Tableau in the Salesforce graphics. (Selipsky seemed to favor the orca, reflecting Tableau’s roots in the Pacific Northwest.)

Benioff also continued to struggle with the Tableau lingo, initially asking how many in the audience had made “vizzers,” before correcting himself to say “vizzes,” the nickname for the data visualizations created by Tableau technology.

But the logic of the deal made sense when Benioff asked the crowd how many of their companies use Salesforce, greeted by a sea of hands. Salesforce is betting that Tableau’s technology for visualizing data will complement its own cloud and customer relationship management technology.

From a financial perspective, the Tableau acquisition is significant for Salesforce. In its Aug. 22 quarterly report, Salesforce raised its revenue guidance for its current fiscal year to a range of $16.75 billion to $16.90 billion, which included approximately $550 million to $600 million of revenue from Tableau, the company said at the time. Salesforce reports earnings in December.

While Tableau is formalizing its role inside Salesforce, Tableau is also tightening its ties to Amazon Web Services, announcing an expanded partnership this week with the public cloud giant, its Seattle neighbor. A joint initiative dubbed Modern Cloud Analytics aims to get more companies using Tableau and AWS technologies together for data storage and analysis, promising reduced overall costs.

Salesforce and Tableau have a common rival in Microsoft, which makes the competing Power BI data visualization software and also competes with Salesforce in business applications and customer relationship management technology through its Dynamics products and services.

Adam Selipsky highlights the company’s work with the major cloud providers at the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Selipsky highlighted the AWS cloud partnership during the keynote but also promised to work closely with Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and Alibaba Cloud.

Also during the keynote, the company showed new initiatives to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning into Tableau’s technology, including View Recommendations, automated guidance for finding data and creating visualizations; and Explain Data, for understanding underlying trends.

Salesforce and Tableau also share a controversy in common. Like other large tech companies, both have faced internal opposition to contracts with U.S. immigration and customs agencies. Tableau employees held a rally last month in Seattle, going public after they were dissatisfied with the response from executives. In response, the company expressed its respect for “diverse thought and open dialogue” and said it “has a long history of using data to actively engage to address social problems.”

Both companies have maintained their contracts with these agencies, but in his recently published book, Trailblazer, Benioff wrote about the role of employee activism in opening his eyes and causing him to take a stand on social issues ranging from gay rights to homelessness.

Tableau employs more than 4,200 people worldwide, about half of them in the Seattle region. Salesforce employs more than 1,000 people in the Seattle region, part of a global employee base of 35,000 people. Benioff, Salesforce co-founder and co-CEO, said when the deal was announced that it would effectively make Seattle the company’s second headquarters.

Tableau has been holding its annual conference for more than a decade, growing to more than 18,000 attendees this year at the event, dubbed TC19, at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas.

Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky on stage Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

It has the feel of a festival, a Woodstock for data geeks, with large crowds of people sweeping through the halls in search of insights. Sessions are conducted by big companies such as Expedia, Spotify, Bank of America and Facebook. Vendors mingle with attendees in a giant “Data Village,” and data visualization experts will battle it out Wednesday night in an “Iron Viz” competition.

Part of this year’s Tableau Conference keynote focused on a program called Tableau Blueprint, an initiative designed to guide companies on best practices for building data-driven culture. Selipsky discussed the importance of diversity with the story of the women “code breakers” of World War II, as highlighted in the book of the same name by Liza Mundy, who was in the audience.

Tableau also announced a $1 million grant to Splash to help the nonprofit bring safe water and sanitation to children in Ethiopia and India. It’s part of a larger $100 million philanthropic program overseen by the Tableau Foundation to use data and analytics to solve global problems.

In addition, Tableau announced a new milestone for its Tableau for Students program: more than 1 million students and instructors have activated software licenses through the initiative.

Editor’s Note: Tableau is hosting GeekWire for a special recording of the GeekWire Podcast on the show floor at the Tableau Conference on Wednesday as part of a sponsorship agreement. GeekWire covered its own editorial expenses related to its independent news coverage of the event.

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