How Tableau Software makes business data beautiful

November 15, 2011, 10:00 AM UTC

Former Pixar engineer Pat Hanrahan has found a new calling organizing and analyzing business data, and bringing the information to life.

Mr. Incredible: Pat Hanrahan in his lab at Stanford

FORTUNE — How many enterprise software executives can brag that they have been feted by Hollywood? At least one: Pat Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and co-founder of Seattle-based Tableau Software, earned a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for visual-effects technology he designed while working at Steve Jobs’ Pixar, where he was an early employee.

Turns out those Pixar chops are coming in handy at his current venture, which helps corporations turn reams of disjointed data into useful information. The so-called business analytics category is hot right now — annual sales of business intelligence software climbed to $7.3 billion last year, from $6.5 billion in 2009 — with giants like IBM and Microsoft competing for corporate customers. Tableau’s edge? Hanrahan’s design sensibilities.

Tableau marries data computation with beautiful graphics. The user-friendly program allows businesses to drag and drop large amounts of data onto a digital “canvas,” creating graphs instantaneously. The idea is that the easier it is to manipulate what goes into the interface, the more insight you can gain as to what you’re doing right — or wrong — in your business. Joshua Klahr, a senior product executive at Yahoo , compares the software to Excel PivotTables, a familiar data-analysis tool. “This is almost like PivotTables on steroids,” he says. Other high-profile customers include Coca-Cola and Time Inc., Fortune’s publisher.

The Smartest People in Tech

Tableau began as a research project at Stanford; in 2003, Hanrahan, former Ph.D. student Chris Stolte, and venture capitalist Christian Chabot spun the project out of Stanford and formed Tableau. (Hanrahan, 56, is Tableau’s chief scientist; Chabot is CEO.)

The company last year had revenue of $34 million. It offers a free version of its software, aimed mainly at bloggers and media companies, which use it to create interactive graphics. But it charges $1,000 and up for more sophisticated versions. Its biggest drawback? The program is only compatible with PCs an irony not lost on a guy who used to work for Apple co-founder Jobs.

Though Hanrahan left Pixar in 1989 for academic life, he learned valuable lessons there. “Steve said to me, ‘Creativity is having a unique point of view and applying your background to it,'” Hanrahan recalls. By applying his engineering and animation know-how to Tableau, Hanrahan has tried to come up with business software that’s both technologically sound and beautiful. We suspect Jobs would have approved.

This article is from the November 21, 2011 issue of Fortune.