If you were to draw a Venn diagram with “data scientist” in one circle and “Academy Award winner” in the other, there’s probably only one person who fits in the overlapping area: Stanford University professor Pat Hanrahan.
The computer scientist is a graphics expert and former Pixar engineer who has spent much of his career designing software to make movie special effects and animations more realistic. These days he’s spending less time with Sharon Stone and Jennifer Garner (the actresses who presented his two Oscars) and more with business analysts at Zynga, Wal-Mart Stores, and EBay. Those are just a few of the companies that have fallen for Tableau software, created by the Seattle startup of the same name co-founded in 2003 by Hanrahan. It’s a kind of high-powered, highly visual Excel. Tableau integrates with a company’s databases or spreadsheets and lets anyone easily turn drab columns of numbers into interactive maps and graphs—no programming skills necessary. In effect, it’s taking business analytics mainstream. “We let any user ask questions of their data by a simple drag and drop interface,” Hanrahan, 56, says.
Today more than 7,000 organizations including government agencies, insurers, and universities use Tableau, and that number has grown 40 percent in the last year. “I’ve never seen people get this excited about data,” says Ted Corbett, director of knowledge management at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where 150 staffers use Tableau for such tasks as scheduling operating rooms and clinic space. In the past year the company released an iPad app and service for media websites. Revenue is on track to nearly double, to $65 million, according to Tableau.
In high school, Hanrahan says he “was pretty bored in class.” In his free time he did his own chemistry experiments and taught himself to program. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he earned perfect grades in his nuclear engineering major, then stuck around for a PhD in biophysics. “I was looking for something more complicated than physics,” Hanrahan says. “I really liked biology, there was less known about it.” He was introduced to computer graphics by his roommate, and for his thesis created software that modeled the nervous system of a nematode.
A few years after graduation, Hanrahan became one of the first few dozen employees at Pixar Animation Studios, where he was the chief architect of the RenderMan software, which makes it easy to add skin, light reflections, fur, and other textures to objects in computer images. The software is now routinely used in Hollywood, and it earned him his first Oscar in 1993 for technical achievement. The second Oscar, in 2004, was for a new technique to render skin and other materials.
Hanrahan went on to teach at Princeton University, then Stanford, where he decided to take graphics into new realms—including business analytics. “I thought there were applications for graphics beyond entertainment,” he says. “I love Star Wars and all that, but I really am a scientist.”