ThoughtSpot executives have a firm grasp on where they sit in the recent history of business intelligence and analytic tools, being part of the so-called third generation of products. While predicting the future is a notoriously fickle affair, ThoughtSpot’s leaders are confident they’re skating to where the puck soon will be.
The capabilities of BI tools and their target user bases are closely intertwined, according to Ajeet Singh, a ThoughtSpot co-founder and its executive chairman.
The first generation of BI tools, which Singh lumps BusinessObjects, MicroStrategy, Cognos, and Hyperion into, were built for primarily for SQL developers, who helped move their companies beyond the MIS mainframe reports created by COBOL programmers (which perhaps should be called generation zero), he said.
“The second generation, Tableau, Qlik, and Microsoft PowerBI, they targeted business analysts primarily so they can build dashboards and show it to business,” Singh told Datanami at the company’s Beyond 2022 conference held last week in Las Vegas, Nevada. “But that still means that the business users are dependent on the business analysts. So the biggest market opportunity that we saw was there was nobody targeting and building tools to empower the business users directly.”
That in a nutshell is what ThoughtSpot has done with its offerings. Inspired by Google (and employing several former Google engineers and product managers), the company’s founders sought to build a BI tool that’s so easy and intuitive to use that it can be wielded by non-technical users to gain insight from data.
Up-skilling these knowledge workers brings several advantages. For starters, it enables self-service analytics, which has been the Holy Grail for years. Instead of troubling the IT or data teams to extract a data set and prepare it for analysis–which can take several weeks or months–ThoughtSpot wants users to be able to dive into the data themselves.
The companies that adopted second-generation tools had a 10 to 1 ratio between the number of dashboard-building business analysts and the number of SQL developers actually maintaining the queries. So that gave them a certain productivity boost over the first-gen tools that came before them.
But the third-generation of tools benefit from a 600 to 1 ratio between the number of business users and the number of business analysts, Singh said, which delivers a much bigger potential boost from data. There are 1 billion such business users (or knowledge workers) who could benefit from easier access to data through a tool such as ThoughtSpot’s, Singh said. If these folks can get their hands on true self-service analytic insights, it could have a massive impact on productivity, he said.
“I think the problem is access to data. It’s just hard,” the former Nutanix co-founder said. “People can’t get what they need to make decisions. And the mission we set was make the world more fact-driven.”
New Era of Data
The last two years have been interesting for many of us. At ThoughtSpot, the pandemic was just one factor, as the company had already begun making a fundamental transition to cloud-based data and cloud analytics delivery before the coronavirus arrived on the scene in early 2020. That turned out to be a prescient move, as COVID-19 turned what was a steady movement into the cloud into a stampede.
That cloud transition is now mostly complete, according to CEO Sudheesh Nair, who was brought into the company in 2019. In addition to transitioning to the cloud, Nair navigated the company through several other transitions, including opening the company and its products up to more partners in the data ecosystem, most notably Snowflake and dbt Labs.
Nair now is looking ahead to the next transformation at the 10-year-old Palo Alto company, which has a valuation of about $4 billion during its most recent funding round and has been eyeing a potential IPO.
“The company’s mission and purpose hasn’t changed from the very beginning. We were inspired by Google. Why can’t we make numbers as easy to find and search and answer as Google made it for words?” Nair said in an interview at Beyond 2022, which bore the theme “Dominate the Decade of Data.” “So in the last two-and-a-half years, we were heads down rebuilding the company, without changing the soul and the culture.”
But the cloud changes everything, according to Nair. Yes, it changed how ThoughtSpot develops and bills for its software, but more importantly, it alters the relationship between business users and their data, he said. It has also lain bare the problems with the old ways of doing BI, where analyst-driven tools were used to generate a static dashboard every few months, and then put away until it’s time for the next dashboard.
“What we are saying is, in the new world, as the datas collide, when you bring constantly moving, constantly evolving, constantly changing third-party data and blend it with your proprietary data, [it enables] a live interface which not just allows the end user to ask questions in the context, but also take actions,” Nair said.
“This is not a tool. I’m going to be very clear,” he continued. “Our job is to close the book on all the old products, including Looker, and then start something where analytics is part of the daily journey as opposed to a tool that gathers dust in the garage.”
As the gravity of data builds in the cloud, it enables new types of products. The idea of “live analytics” that are constantly generating insight from new data is one creation that will come out of it. Another one will be the capability to predict the question that business users will ask, and providing them the answer before he or she even asks it.
“[I]f the data is in cloud, you have now the context, you have third-party data and you have social graph,” Nair said. “You put it all together, I should be able to know based on your persona what questions you’re going to ask, and give you those answers.”
Just as Google seems to know the search queries you’re going to run before you type them, ThoughtSpot leaders say they can predict what business users will ask. It’s an interesting new twist on the old debate about how to best leverage data for competitive advantage.
The Shoulders of Data Giants
Each successive generation of BI tools brought greater capability, as you would expect. They also allow companies to leverage their technical folks–who are always in short supply–in better and more productive ways.
“If business users can do at least some of what the business analysts were doing earlier, then buskins analysts are freed up to do some of what the next level of experts were doing,” Singh said. “So instead of saying ‘There are the next 10 dishoards I need to build in the next three months,’ they can say ‘Here are the three new use cases I need to launch or I want to now go out and bring my third-party data source to my merchandisers so that now weather data is integrated into my system.”
By greasing the wheels on data analytics self-service, ThoughtSpot hopes to not only allow more people to make decisions, but to blow open the doors on number of data-driven decisions can be made, period.
“We are sort of entering this era of what I call micro-decision making,” Singh said. “So you are making technology that enables not five big decisions to be made in the company in a week, but 100,000 small decisions to be made in a week. And for that, the cost of data access has to go down substantially.”
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