Goodbye, Academia; Hello (Again), Tableau!

I have decided to quit my job as Associate Professor at UNC Charlotte and join Tableau Software. Monday (September 17) is my first day of work as a full Tableau employee. Why give up the job security of a tenured university professor for the treacherous prospects of a startup? There are many reasons, but here are the main ones.

First, there’s a very simple reason: I like doing stuff, but at the university I spent most of my time telling other people what to do instead of doing things myself. This is called “advising” and “teaching,” and it’s part of the professor job; and I generally enjoy it. But when it takes up almost all my time and leaves me next to none to do things myself, it becomes a problem.

My other issue is that I’ve struggled to see my work have an actual impact. It’s incredibly difficult to set up meaningful working relationships with industry when you’re in academia. The things people need and the work you want to do never quite align, and the different expectations cause the projects to fall apart sooner or later. My stance on theory and the need for good foundations in visualization has not changed, but I also don’t believe in doing conceptual work that never gets put into practice. And practical applications are another area where visualization research is severely lacking.

But… But… Tenure?!

I should probably have the feeling of jumping off a cliff in slow motion right now, but I don’t. Getting tenure is nice, but having tenure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, once tenured, you’re expected to do more administrative work, rather than less. Why work your ass off showing your ability to do new and exciting research only to be turned into an administrator as a reward?

Tenure is a good idea in principle, but the way it works in practice is just backwards in many ways. A lot of young people are scared of not getting tenure if they do risky work, but once they’re tenured they’re too old and settled in their ways (and swamped with teaching and committee work) to take those risks.

There has been growing criticism of higher education in the U.S. lately, and in particular of the tenure model. I don’t have a solution, but I think a lot of the criticism is valid. People leaving academia for industry is not a new thing, but it seems to become more common. Terran Lane of the University of New Mexico recently switched to Google and wrote a very interesting blog posting about his reasons for leaving. I don’t agree with all of his points, but the kinds of issues he mentions certainly resonate with me.

Why Tableau?

Jock Mackinlay is currently building up a research group inside Tableau Software, so the timing for this switch was perfect. In fact, a number of things had to align for this to happen. At the beginning of this year, I had no intention of staying at Tableau (my sabbatical contract has some significant penalties in store in case I don’t come back after the year).

The work that is done at Tableau, right now and what is planned for the next few years, is very exciting and aligns very well with my interests. I am already part of several very interesting efforts, and hope to help push those and others forward over the next months and years.

Research is in Tableau’s DNA. That is partly because of its origin as a Ph.D. thesis at Stanford, but either way it informs how many things are done at Tableau. People are not driven by the product or by specific features, but by a mission that is much larger than that.

And I’m not going to pretend that Seattle had nothing to do with it. As a place to live, it just fits me much better (I just sold my car, which I had left in Charlotte), and the weather isn’t nearly as bad as people like to pretend; in fact, summer has been amazing.

The Road Ahead

This site will not turn into a collection of Tableau informercials. I will keep posting, and my topics and frequency will largely stay the same. There will continue to be a cryptic connection between what I am working on and thinking about and what I’m writing here, and it will stay just as cryptic as before (except when there are papers or similar to announce). The site will keep evolving and changing, of course, just like it has so far.

I am, and always will be, a researcher. But going forward, my focus will be on solving more applied problems, and on testing how well things actually work in practice, with real people.

Comments

  1. Andy Kirk says

    Nice summary of your decision and it’s context, Robert. As I said on Twitter, wish you all the best and see you in Seattle in January (I am now expecting blue skies and no need for a coat!)

  2. Brian Lockhart says

    Congrats! I’ve loved reading your work here, and look forward to seeing what you can help Tableau accomplish!

    FYI I’m going to be a coworker of yours as of September 24th – I accepted an offer to join Tableau as well! I’ll come find you and introduce myself sometime in the next few weeks. :)

  3. Ryan Robitaille says

    Congrats, Robert! It will be great to see what happens in the years ahead.

    It’s funny, people always “know” what the “right thing” to do is – but few have the courage to actually do it. :)

    Cheers.

  4. Lee Lukehart says

    Congrats on making a well-considered decision to improve your efficacy, as well as your quality-of-life! The professorial paradox — where more effort goes to teaching & admin rather than research & discovery — takes a steep toll.

    Thank you for all you have already shared, Robert. Good luck and enjoy your journey!

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