Andrew Drinkwater

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Back in 2007, I downloaded a free trial of Tableau Software, a company no one I knew had heard of. Their mission was to help people see and understand their data. How many software tools have changed your life? Tableau changed mine.

At the time, I worked as an academic advisor/recruiter at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. Much like Tableau, no one I knew had heard of SIAT. But wow, did we have potential. All those interactive screens and apps you now have on your phone that are so easy to use that you complain about having to use legacy business software? Dreamt up by students of SIAT. Long story short, we grew from 400 students to 1200 in less than 3 years. Fairly predictably, in hindsight, we didn’t have nearly enough teachers, and students weren’t able to finish their degrees because courses were full.

Enter Tableau.

I kind of fell into analytics due to this scenario. Things were changing so fast, faster than anything I’ve seen in my 20 years in higher education… until COVID-19 hit.

We needed to answer some key questions to facilitate planning:

  • Who are our students?
  • Where are they in the system?
  • What courses have they completed?
  • What courses do they still need?
  • Who do we have that can teach those courses?
  • Where are the gaps, and how do we hire for them?
  • Why is this happening, and what can we do to make a better future?

I had previously done this analysis in Excel. I would write some SQL, export it to a CSV, move that into Excel manually, and then try to summarize what was going on. If I presented the bar chart of my efforts, it looked something like this, and took around 4 hours per week:


When I used Tableau, I was able to have it connect directly to the database. Tableau would refresh with the latest data when I opened the tool to prepare for my next meeting. This took me all of 15 minutes the first time I used it.


The real impact here was that it allowed me to focus on what mattes: understanding why the data appeared a certain way, and what we could to help our students. Imagine how much more we could to help our students by understanding and planning.


After this experience, I was hooked. I worked up the gumption to ask my boss if we could buy the full version when my license expired.

Lynne not only approved the request instantly, but helped me understand why she did. She explained to me that saving 3:45 minutes per week meant that the tool would pay for itself in very little time. For context, I earned around $30 per hour plus benefits, but let’s keep this with round numbers so I’ll call it 30 to be conservative. In those days, Tableau cost $1,200 USD for a single Professional license. And in 2007, the Canadian and US dollars were almost the same - that feels like a lifetime ago! So Tableau would take about 40 hours of my time to justify the investment. And on my time saving estimate, that meant it would take me about 11 weeks to return what we’d paid for it.

I am so grateful she made this choice. It certainly was uncommon for an academic advisor to want to use a visual analysis tool in those days. Still is, which is unfortunate. In my view, everyone should have data at their disposal to make more informed decisions, and Tableau makes this process so easy compared to alternatives. We used Tableau for years until I moved on to a full data role, and graduated to implementing Tableau Server so everyone at SFU could see and understand data.

In 2008, I had the privilege of attending my first Tableau Customer Conference. It was at the Hyatt at Olive 8 in Seattle, and I got to hang out with 600 other data aficionados. I look back on the Tableau Conference and am mesmerized at how much I have learned at Every Single Conference since. I recall meeting folks from UPS who talked about how they use Tableau to find inefficiencies in their routes, met the CEO of the Louisville water company who used Tableau to better understand peaks in demand, had lunch with Andrew Beers and wondered whether his or my last name got made fun of more growing up (Andrew is now Tableau’s CTO) and even found my #EduDataFam - education folks trying out this new tool, including as the talented folks at the University of Buffalo who spent as much time as me trying to make PeopleSoft data intuitive for our stakeholders.

Between that first tiny conference in 2008, and now, I’ve been to 7 Tableau conferences. The hallmarks for me have been how much I learned and how much larger our #DataFam has become over these years. It’s no longer 600 people - in fact, over 100,000 people are attending Tableau’s free virtual conference this year - TC20.

And I think you should attend too.


  • Because you’ll learn something new, I promise.
  • Because you’ll see how the most innovative people are using data.
  • Because you’ll see how the best data visualization company in the world continues to raise the bar.

Here’s a couple memories of the conference, and a younger me.



Like Nelson Davis said the other day, I feel like I’ve watched Tableau grow from an amazing core product into the most incredible analytics platform. I’ve grown up alongside it.

While I’ll really miss the in-person conference, I’m super excited for the presentations this year. Here’s just a few:

  • The Power of Data in 2020: Tableau’s keynotes are always great
  • Dev’s at Desks: Tableau actually features their developers front and centre, and they are brimming with excitement about the possibilities they’ve enabled for you and me.
  • Presentations by Snowflake on cloud data warehousing, and Denodo on using data virtualization to accelerate self-serve analytics
  • Data literacy roundtable
  • A community happy hour hosted by Ken & Keven Flerlage
  • And so much more.

Sign up now

So how about it? Join me. Sign up for the conference. Check out some of the presentations. Tell them Andrew sent you.

Try it

The other big thing. Try the software! It’s free to begin.

Let’s chat

Do you work in education and use Tableau? I’d love to connect with you! Please send me a note and we can arrange a conversation.