Tableau’s new CEO Mark Nelson on life inside Salesforce, and the company’s future in Seattle

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Mark Nelson was named Tableau Software CEO in March, leading the Seattle-based company as part of Salesforce, filling a vacancy created by the departure of his predecessor, Adam Selipsky, to become the new Amazon Web Services CEO. (Tableau and GeekWire Photos)

Seattle-based Tableau Software is no longer an independent publicly traded company, but it’s back under the watchful eyes of Wall Street for a different reason.

Salesforce bought the data visualization company for more than $15 billion in 2019, its largest acquisition at the time. Now, with Salesforce close to completing its acquisition of workplace collaboration company Slack for $27.7 billion, investors are looking to Tableau’s performance inside Salesforce for clues about Slack’s fate.

They found some encouraging news in Salesforce’s recent earnings report: Tableau generated $394 million in revenue for Salesforce in its first fiscal quarter, up 38%, and was involved in eight of Salesforce’s top 10 customer deals for the quarter.

“I can’t speak to all acquisitions (but) this one’s working very well for us,” said Tableau CEO Mark Nelson in an interview with GeekWire this week. “And we’re in a very good spot, as those numbers show.”

“Certainly, part of that is good execution on our part — good products that we’re putting out there,” he added. “But make no mistake, the economy is also roaring back, which is a great thing to see across the board. There’s a bunch of things that are looking very positive, especially here in the US as we come out of the pandemic.”

Combined, the acquisitions of Slack and Tableau position Salesforce as a more formidable rival to Microsoft in enterprise technology, with Slack going head-to-head with Microsoft Teams, and Tableau competing directly against Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization technology.

Nelson acknowledged that Tableau may be a bigger target for competitors as part of Salesforce, but said the combination also “gives us a bigger space” to come up with solutions for customers.

“Because this is such a pressing problem in the universe, there is a lot of people in this space, from big competitors to smaller people that are trying to solve this problem,” he said. However, he added, Tableau will continue to have “a fundamentally different lens on what it means to work with data.”

Nelson is new to the role of CEO, but not to Tableau, nor to the Seattle region.

He grew up in the Chicago area, and attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s in computer science. He held engineering leadership positions at companies including Oracle and Concur in the Seattle region before joining Tableau in 2018 as executive vice president of product development.

Nelson was named Tableau president and CEO in March. He filled a vacancy created when his predecessor, Adam Selipsky, was named CEO of Amazon Web Services, taking over for Andy Jassy, who is succeeding Jeff Bezos as Amazon CEO.

We get to know Nelson on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, talking about his background, life inside Salesforce, his goals as the new leader of Tableau, and the company’s future in the Seattle region. We also encourage him to give us his advice for Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield about working with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, based on his own experience.

Listen above, subscribe any podcast app, and keep reading for highlights.

Is Seattle really Salesforce HQ2? Salesforce announced its Tableau acquisition two years ago this week. At the time, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff declared that Seattle would become the San Francisco-based company’s “HQ2,” borrowing the phrase that Amazon used in its search for a second headquarters.

At the time, Salesforce employed about 1,000 people in the Seattle region on its own. Tableau employed about 2,100 people in the region, about half of its worldwide workforce at the time, for a combined total of around 3,100 people between the two companies back then.

Two years later, including Tableau employees, Salesforce employs about 3,800 people in the region, according to the latest figures from the company.

“Post-pandemic, we are looking at where we hire. I think there’ll be a bunch more freedom to hire in remote places. But Seattle is our home, and we will continue to grow in Seattle,” Nelson said.

Nelson is no stranger to complex organizations and difficult technical challenges. Not long after he joined Concur as chief technology officer, the expense management company was hit with what former engineers still remember as the “Great Outage of August 2014.”

The technical glitches revealed a series of larger organizational challenges that Nelson had inherited.

Darren Bauer Kahan. (Watermark Photo)

People who were on his team at the time still remember how he handled the situation. Nelson didn’t sidestep the problems, or sweep them under the rug, but he also didn’t point fingers or single people out for blame, they recall.

Instead, he leveraged the incident as much as he could, in a constructive way, to “point out the distance between where we were and where we needed to go,” said Darren Bauer Kahan, who was at Concur at the time and is now the chief product and technology officer at education technology company Watermark.

When he encounters difficult challenges, Bauer Kahan says he often thinks, “What would Mark Nelson do in this situation?”

One of the most important principles in engineering is using data to learn, Nelson said. Then have the courage to use the empirical evidence make tough decisions.

Michelle Grover. (Twilio Photo)

Michelle Grover, who is now CIO of cloud communications platform Twilio, also worked on Nelson’s team at the time, leading the TripIt team after its 2011 acquisition by the Concur. She credits Nelson for listening to her and her team when Concur was making the move to the cloud.

He directed his engineering leaders, who had been disregarding input from her smaller team, to include them in the conversations, consider their needs, and learn from their experience.

As a woman of color in a technical leadership role, Grover said she appreciates that Nelson always recognized the value of experience and expertise, regardless of race or gender.

“You always have to prove yourself, but I am usually in a spot where I’ve got to do triple-duty of proving myself. Someone always thinks I don’t belong there,” she said. “He did not do that. He never even thought that. He said, ‘Hey, you’re good,’ and then looked for every opportunity to make sure that I was in the right place.”

Advice for Slack’s Stewart Butterfield? Rounding out our podcast interview, we asked Nelson if he had any tips for the Slack CEO about working with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

“Make sure you stick to understanding your business and putting it in the context of Marc’s vision, would be my biggest advice,” he said. “Make sure you know what you’re doing in your business, and then listen to Marc, because he’s got the vision, and then marry those two things together.”

Podcast edited by Curt Milton; Music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.