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'Hacking' Tableau's XML


Born too late to explore the earth. Born too early to explore the galaxy. Born just in time to explore the world of data.

At almost every company I’ve worked for, I’ve heard the phrase, ‘data driven decision making’. Companies now are realizing the gold mine they sit on that is their SQL server or GP or Teradata DB and with this realization comes the need for deeper and deeper data dives in the search for the ‘unknown’. Subtle nuances of your consumer base or aspects relating to operational efficiency are just sitting within gigabytes upon terabytes of data waiting to be discovered.

We’ve come a long way from Excel as the analytics weapon of choice as the complexity of data operations increases. As of February 2016, 24 distinct analytic tools have made it onto the Gartner Magic Quadrant.

With so many options available the potential to fall into a paradox of choice is pretty high and, as I’ve seen, some departments default back to what they know: Excel. Even worse, in the extreme opposite case, departments purchase one of every flavor which makes standardization and knowledge transfer a nightmare; but that’s a topic for another day.

Today, we’ll be focusing on one of my favorite tools: Tableau. At a price point that allows even Mom & Pop shops to take their business analytics to the next level and a learning curve that can have a virgin user building beautiful visualizations in a matter of hours, it’s one of the best analytics tools money can buy these days.

Now, out of the box analytics tools are great but, sometimes, they fail to scratch the itch for exploration that open source tools like d3.js or leaflet are able to. Tableau might seem to fall into the former category; however with a little ingenuity and a sense of adventure, you too can break Tableau.

At its core, Tableau is just a big XML file, so let’s see what that looks like.

To start, we’ll change the extension of our packaged workbook (.twbx) to a .zip. Within the zip file we have a .twb which, when opened in a text editor (I’m using Sublime Text 3) will show you what Tableau’s XML structure for your workbook looks like.