Summary List Placement
Mark Nelson has decades of his own workout data. An avid runner, he tracks his speed, distance, and the streets and trails he tackles (mainly near his home in the greater Seattle area).
Twenty years ago, he would collect the data with a stopwatch and dump it into a spreadsheet. Now, he’s gathering it through apps such as Strava and Runkeeper, as well as his Garmin smartwatch, and he’s ditched the spreadsheets for software from Tableau, the data-analytics firm he now leads.
Nelson originally joined the company as its head of product development in 2018. In March, he became CEO when Adam Selipsky, the prior chief executive, left to lead Amazon Web Services. But as Nelson described it, he’s been working in the data space his entire career and has thought deeply about how it can guide everything from business decisions to everyday life.
“Data is going to affect every aspect of the human endeavor,” Nelson told Insider during a video call in late May.
It’s that aspect of his personality — his proclivity for thinking about both the technology and the big picture of how it’s applied — that makes him the right person to lead Tableau at this moment, said Jackie Yeaney, the firm’s chief marketing officer. She was Nelson’s peer when he ran the product-development division and now reports to him.
“He’s technically brilliant, but he’s an amazing people leader,” Yeaney said. “This is not common in the enterprise-software world.”
Nelson is taking over the data-analytics company at a pivotal time: About two years after it sold to Salesforce for $15.7 billion, Tableau’s individual revenue numbers were just broken out in Salesforce’s first-quarter earnings.
Now, Nelson is tasked with keeping up Tableau’s steady growth and preserving its brand in the software industry while also making sure it integrates deeply with Salesforce’s tools as part of its parent company’s broader strategy of product cohesion. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Nelson’s current and past colleagues said he’s up to the task.
Insider spoke with Nelson and five of his colleagues, as well as analysts, about how his experience and expertise could help him as he takes on this new role.
Nelson has helped Tableau grow up and embrace SaaS
At the time of its acquisition in 2019, Tableau was at the tail end of a yearslong transition from selling its software in boxes to a cloud-based subscription model.
Former CEO Selipsky led the 18-year-old company’s transition to software as a service, and he tapped Nelson to help direct the engineering and product teams to adopt a cloud-first mindset. Nelson’s experience at Oracle and SAP-owned Concur was exactly what Tableau needed, said Francois Ajenstat, Tableau’s chief product officer.
“We didn’t necessarily have the infrastructure to become a ‘grown-up company,’ and this is really what Mark brought in,” Ajenstat said. “He brought us this perspective around SaaS — not just ‘Yes, it’s important,’ but ‘How do you actually bring this cloud and SaaS mindset to Tableau?'”
A little over a year after Nelson joined, Salesforce scooped up the firm. Analysts initially expressed concern about how well Tableau would be able to integrate into Salesforce, given that the parent company has always been cloud-first. But as of the company’s first-quarter earnings in late May, those concerns have largely dissipated.
The report showed that Tableau was the second fastest-growing business unit within the company, with revenue swelling 38% from a year prior. (MuleSoft, a data-integration firm that Salesforce purchased for $6.5 billion in 2018, was the fastest growing, with 49% year-over-year revenue growth.)
On a call with analysts, Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO, said Tableau was included in eight of Salesforce’s top 10 deals in the past quarter.
“Salesforce recognizes that the platform business is not just a big growth opp, but the battleground for enterprise apps moving forward,” said Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Valoir. “So it wants to highlight that growth.”
Benioff added on the call that Tableau’s success gives the firm “so much confidence in this pending Slack acquisition” (a purchase that initially raised some Wall Street eyebrows given its $27.7 billion price tag).
Salesforce is increasingly seeing customers buy a suite of its products as opposed to just one tool, David Schmaier, the chief product officer, told Insider in May, thanks to a recent, industrywide emphasis on digital-transformation initiatives. Tableau essentially helps customers make sense of all the data that Salesforce’s various tools collect.
How a customer-centric mindset and product chops could aid Nelson in his new role
Nelson’s peers said his ability to focus on customers’ needs while also having a deep technical knowledge of the products he works on sets him apart from many other software-industry executives.
He first began developing that skill set during his 16 years at Oracle. Nelson joined the firm as an individually contributing engineer in 1997, and he rose through the ranks to become an executive responsible for thinking strategically about the business, said Thomas Kurian, Google Cloud’s CEO. Kurian was a longtime Oracle executive — serving as Nelson’s manager when they overlapped — before joining Google in January 2019.
“He was one of the most brilliant engineers, but also somebody who really understood the business,” Kurian said. “I think what he got at Oracle was moving beyond just engineering to also understanding all the elements of the business and why products were successful.”
That ability made him stand out to people at Concur when he decided to pursue an opening for a CTO role at the travel and expense-management company, two executives said. Concur needed someone who was technically savvy but also willing to chip in where needed to grow the company, which was bringing in about $500 million in revenue per year at the time.
Elena Donio, who was then a general manager at Concur, admitted that she didn’t think Nelson would fit the bill before she met with him in 2013. She ended up being pleasantly surprised: “Mark came into the room and just won me over, not by selling himself, but by how curious he was about us, about the direction of the company.”
Both Donio (now on the board of Databricks and Twilio) and Steve Singh (Concur’s cofounder and former CEO, and now a managing director at Madrona Ventures) said that the way Nelson dealt with Concur customers stood out to them during his five years with the firm.
For example, a couple of months after Nelson joined in December 2013, the company faced a huge outage: For days, parts of the system didn’t work for customers. Nelson “raised his hand and said, ‘Give me the 10 customers I personally need to go visit or talk to,'” Donio said.
Nelson navigated those hard conversations well, Singh said, and worked with those customers to understand how to make the product better. “That’s a sign of a really good leader: That you dive into the details when you need to,” Singh added.
Ajenstat, Tableau’s product chief, has reported to Nelson since 2018. He said that “pretty much every question with Mark is always, ‘Why is this good for customers?'”
As Tableau’s cloud product becomes the predominant way customers are using the software, that focus on customers becomes more important, Ajenstat said.
Nelson wants to balance Tableau’s autonomy with deeper Salesforce integration
Maintaining Tableau’s own brand while also merging with Salesforce is a delicate balance that Nelson needs to navigate as CEO. The firm has built a big community of developers and nontechnical users and has a reputation as the go-to place to understand data.
Nelson will need to retain that credibility through growth and new features, even as Tableau emphasizes its relationship with Salesforce, said Dan Newman, an analyst at Futurum Research.
That seems to be Nelson’s goal as well: “We, of course, want to keep our product and our product suites and make sure that we’re not just ‘analytics for Salesforce,'” Nelson said.
Nelson reports to Salesforce COO Bret Taylor, while his predecessor reported directly to Benioff, reflecting Tableau’s deeper integration into Salesforce’s product road map. But while some of Salesforce’s other acquisitions, such as Quip and Exact Target, were folded into the larger organization, Tableau is maintaining some of its autonomy.
That’s something Nelson has experience with: A year after he joined Concur, SAP acquired it for $8.3 billion, and during his tenure it operated semi-independently. That experience taught him what things to hold on to when you’re acquired and what things to compromise on, CMO Yeaney said.
For example, Tableau and Salesforce initially used different collaboration tools. Salesforce used Google Workspace for its corporate email, calendars, and meetings, while Tableau used Outlook for email and calendar and a variety of communications tools, such as Google Meet, Webex, Slack, and Zoom. Even though switching to Google for email and calendar would be a big change for employees, Nelson’s view was that “holding on to things like that for too long is not propelling the business forward,” Yeaney said, so Tableau changed its tools. (It plans to continue to use a variety of communications tools, including Slack.)
But Yeaney’s marketing team used tools different from Salesforce’s marketing team, and Nelson knew those were important to how Tableau reached customers, so they stayed.
“It’s hard to know what to hold as Tableau and what to shift as part of Salesforce,” Yeaney said. “And he has much clearer insight than I do on that.”
Tableau still plans to offer its software to non-Salesforce users, as it did pre-acquisition, but it’s also taking on and building more Salesforce-specific features.
For example, earlier this year, Tableau took over the analytics division of Salesforce’s Einstein AI product and rebranded it “Tableau CRM” to allow users to identify patterns based on their data sets and do predictive modeling.
That’s just the start, Nelson said: Tableau wants to put more complex data-science capabilities into the hands of nontechnical business users, a category the firm is calling “business science.” The firm is trying to democratize machine learning “in the same way that we democratize the use of visual analytics,” he said.
Being a part of Salesforce helps Tableau reach more people, Nelson said, while its original mission to help customers understand data remains the same.
“I’m so excited about the time and place we are in — with so much data flowing around, with all the digital transformation that’s been happening,” Nelson said. The firm strives to help organizations develop a data-first mindset, he said, which means making sure it’s not just analysts who see data as critical to their jobs.
“We only get to come to work every day at the pleasure of our customers,” he said. “The real measure of success as always is, ‘How are we creating these transformational sets of products that now allow our customers to do things they just weren’t capable of?'”
Nelson added: “My belief is if you do that part of it, the dollars and cents will always come.”
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