How Alation builds on data catalog for data intelligence

Aaron Kalb, co-founder and Chief Data and Analytics Officer (CDAO) of Alation, provides insight into the evolution of his company's technology to embrace data governance that enables data intelligence for organizations to fully benefit from their data assets.

To effectively use data, organizations first need to know what data they have.

That's an area where data catalog technology has played a key role, providing a list of what data is available. Simply knowing that data is available, however, isn't enough, as it's also important to know the quality of the data and to understand the data lineage. Going a step further, for data to be effective, organizations need data governance to manage policies and access.

Alation Inc., based in Redwood City, Calif., is among the many vendors in the data catalog market. In recent years it has gone beyond just providing a data catalog, widening its reach to provide data intelligence features. The vendor's 2020.4 release, which became available in December 2020, integrates data profiling and enhanced data governance capabilities.

In this Q&A, Aaron Kalb, co-founder and chief data and analytics officer (CDAO) of Alation, discusses the evolution of the data catalog market and where Alation is headed.

How has Alation's founding vision changed over the last eight years?

Aaron KalbAaron Kalb

Aaron Kalb: The truth is, the vision actually hasn't changed a lot. My gig before co-founding Alation was I worked at Apple on Siri, the voice system. When our CEO Satyen Sangani and I first met, the dream we shared was to kind of create a Siri for the enterprise.

The idea being, I can ask Siri, 'what's the weather?' Or 'how many cups in a quart?' For really important questions that impact businesses and livelihoods, the answers to those questions are not easily answered by businesses, using technologies they have. Instead of coming back a few seconds later with an answer, like Siri does, organizations have to ask a data analyst, who works on it for weeks trying to find the right data and definitions and then puts the data together in Excel or Tableau or another similar tool, and then you get an answer.

It just seems kind of backwards to us that it should be so much harder to get the answers to questions about how organizations and businesses are doing and how they should respond to challenges. So that was the vision all along and we've been sort of chipping away at this really hard problem for eight years.

What has changed in the data governance and data catalog business for Alation during the pandemic?

Kalb: Our customers and prospects run the gamut of every industry. So there were certain sectors that were very hard hit by the pandemic, but for us that has been counteracted by other sectors that are surging.

Organizations really need data more than ever. It's like your car's windshield is covered up by the hail of COVID-19 and data is kind of the windshield wipers that let you see the road and what's going on.

Also due to changes with staffing and working remotely, people now have to deal with data that they never have had before, and they can't ask the people they would have asked before. We've seen data catalog and the behavioral analysis of how data is used be more in demand and more impactful.

Why did you take the title of CDAO and not just CDO (chief data officer)?

Kalb: I used to be of the mind that CDO should cover it, since data is a big umbrella that clearly includes analytics. The primary reasons you have data is to analyze it and get insights and draw conclusions.

Unfortunately, the trend that appears to be occurring is that the word data alone is sometimes increasingly viewed as being more about technical IT infrastructure and less about data as an asset that drives the business.

We have seen an emergence of the CDAO as an end-to-end role going from the bits and bytes at one end to helping enable business decisions on the other.

Is data intelligence the intersection of data catalog and data governance?

Data culture for us is this idea of organizations making decisions, based on what the data tells them and not who's got the most seniority or who is the loudest in the boardroom.
Aaron KalbCo-founder and chief data and analytics officer, Alation

Kalb: In many people's minds, a data catalog is synonymous with just data search and discovery. As soon as you provide layers on top of data and make it more actionable, you move beyond what is in a data catalog.

The term that most encompasses the range of things our software is used for is actually data intelligence. Data intelligence includes governance, data catalog, discovery, data lineage and privacy. It's a term that captures the way we see our software being used.

We view data intelligence technology as a tool to achieve data culture. Data culture for us is this idea of organizations making decisions, based on what the data tells them and not who's got the most seniority or who is the loudest in the boardroom. Among the barriers that we see to enabling a data culture is data literacy, which is the ability of people to interpret the data they see, and that requires a lot of training.

Data governance is also an issue as it makes sure that you're allowed to use the data, while also ensuring that the data has good provenance, quality and timeliness.

For us, data intelligence is the best way to enable data culture, because if you can find the data that is trustworthy, it's much easier to make use of the data.

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