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April 19, 2019

At the Core of Tableau’s #DataDev Hackathon in Chicago: Innovation and Productivity

By: Alex Sippel, Senior Software Engineer

Narrative Science hosted the Chicago edition of Tableau’s #DataDev hackathon series on April 11 and 12. Small teams of interested Tableau users, engineers, and developers from companies around Chicagoland competed for prizes by creating projects that extended Tableau’s functionality.  The overall goal was to use Tableau’s set of developer resources to integrate new tools and workflows in creative ways. As part of the Narrative Science engineering team who developed our Tableau extension, we welcomed the opportunity to host but also wanted to roll up our sleeves and participate. While our team didn’t win the coveted first place prize of free tickets to Tableau Conference 2019, I was amazed by the unique style of the hackathon, which created an environment that encouraged impactful projects and beneficial partnerships.

Dan Platt, one of the Senior Principals on our Product Team and judge for the hackathon, kicked off the event with a presentation that set the stage for building meaningful projects. He went through the history of our integration with Tableau and explained that it was itself the result of hacking on a side project. Feeling that this could really become something meaningful, he shared screenshots with our CEO, and after a dedicated push by a small team, it became a fully-fledged product. Its evolution was a brilliant application of our company’s strengths to solve a challenge for BI users.  

With that spirit of innovation in mind, each of the teams went into the hack day with specific ideas for improving their existing data workflows or visualizations – for example, using voice recognition to email a custom dashboard. This allowed the teams to come away with learnings that could be applied immediately to their needs.

Another way this hackathon stood out was in the feedback cycle.  Generally feedback only goes one way — participants make use of APIs or libraries to accomplish some goal and get judged on the outcome. Here, however, with the presence of Tableau’s #DataDev team readily available for questions/brainstorming, we experienced a two-way feedback mechanism.  Not only did the hackers get feedback on their approach/output, but the Tableau team can now take their questions/feature asks and integrate that back into their APIs and roadmap.

The theme of productive partnership even extended to our own product. One participant used our Tableau extension as part of their project to find insights in data he had performed some machine learning on. Not only was it exciting to see how quickly he was able to integrate our extension into his project, but he also provided valuable feedback to us on how our product’s existing clustering analysis could be extended.

All in all, it was a great two days and an awesome opportunity to partner with Tableau to bring their #DataDev hackathon series to Chicago! If you were in attendance or generally want to learn more, please reach out to me at @alsip89. Thanks!

P.S.  If you are wondering why there are dinosaurs all over the place – on t-shirts, inflated on desks, as a trophy:  Tableau’s extensions are packaged as .trex files (hence the t-rex), so they have been adopted as the official mascot.  Our own T-Rex, named Flex, has a long history as our mascot, helping out with recruiting as well as overseeing office expansion!