Tech Leadership and Innovation

Cataloguing pioneer Alation seeks to spread data culture

Alation CEO Satyen Sangani helped to popularise data cataloguing but says firms must build a data-driven culture.

Headshot of Satyen Sangani, CEO at Alation

Tech Leadership and Innovation

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Nine times out of 10 if you ask a technology CEO what they are trying to achieve, the answer will be along the lines of ‘a sustainable company for the long term’. But Satyen Sangani, CEO of Alation, a 10-year-old Silicon Valley company, takes another approach; “The world has got a lot of problems where often people use bias and ideology to guide them [but] science-based analysis has always been the only scalable way to think. At a global level, if you have data driving actions rather than the highest-paid opinions or people who have political power, you can sublimate egos and biases to this thing called data.”

Sangani’s grand vision is of problems being addressed based on logic and evidential argument rather than gut feel, hunch or populism and, as we talked on a day when the UK government appeared to be decomposing into a morass of accusation/counteraccusation, deceit, duplicity and chaos, we might all say ‘amen’ to that.

Alation is a cog in the wheel of what is happening in the mile-wide field of data management today, but an important one. For all the lip service expended on the importance of data and the power of analytics, someone must go about the complex business of cataloguing that data in the first place. Alation is a pioneer here and at the heart of the action as organisations attempt to make sense of the ever-swelling digital repositories at their disposal.

Sangani, a former Oracle executive and Morgan Stanley analyst, sees Alation as a platform for data intelligence and says that a catalogue is “an Amazon for your data”. Certainly, the act of cataloguing is fundamental to value extraction allowing for searching, governance, analytics and AI to be applied.

Deep in data

Sangani says he first recognised the data cataloguing and governance mandate at Oracle where he saw financial services customers spending “three, four, five years” trying to get their data in an appropriate state but being constantly stymied by clashing schemas, pesky customisations and more. Alation, along with Collibra, Informatica and other rivals, wants to accelerate that process by providing a base layer of superior data management. “Ultimately,” he says, “we’re just a catalyst for doing this better.”

Of course, data management is a challenge almost as old as software itself, as organisations attempt to unravel the hairball of disparate applications, platforms, versions, data types and years of data being left largely unmanaged.

But the complexities are far from insuperable if tasks and teams are broken down into chunks and cultural issues are addressed, he insists.

“There are technical challenges in the ability to clean it up, deciding who should access it, what laws like GDPR mean for it and so on, but the biggest challenge as an impediment to transformation is that data represents power: you have knowledge of something going on and that knowledge gives you power. You need an approach that says ‘data is a habit’ then show quick wins, build case studies and stories through small teams.

“It can’t be an immaculate conception where you try to connect every data source. It starts with prioritisation. Any data strategy is an exercise of choice: what do I want to do first? It might be customer acquisition, sales efficiency, returns analysis [or something else] but by prioritising one then you start to get a repeatable baseline.”

Not as good as you think

In many ways, companies are still taking baby steps and don’t have that baseline marked. A recent Alation research poll found a Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias and disconnect between reality and belief in data management abilities.

“The irony is that companies with the worst practices score themselves the best,” Sangani said. “The good news is people are becoming more and more aware of their ignorance.” The situation is akin to that old, variously attributed quote that “if you’re not confused, you haven’t been paying attention”, he adds.

Will artificial intelligence ride to the rescue? He is optimistic rather than crazily bullish on what AI and Machine Learning can do to automate his area of expertise and take out some manual grunt work. “More of that work is going to happen sooner,” he says. “I often joke that I’ve been a plumber for 10 years…”

Alation’s work appears to be paying off though. Today it has a staff of over 600 “alationauts”, 350 enterprise customers and 300, 000 subscribers. It has raised $217m in venture capital and expects $100m in annual recurring revenue for this quarter with yearly growth in the “very, very high double digits”.

Sangani’s hype-free outlook is refreshing as he bemoans pre-slump tech valuations that were 400x revenues and didn’t remotely reflect classical Black-Scholes calculations of value. He admires companies such as Tableau, Snowflake’s performance-driven culture and, outside the tech bubble, athletic apparel brand Lululemon, where sales staff are trained to provide customers with guidance rather than applying a hard sell approach.

He hints at future developments where customers will be able to source answers to their questions in a way that is analogous to a wiki or an Amazon web page. That would represent a way to fulfil Alation’s mission to help people find the best data asset to answer their questions. “Knowledge wants to be free” is a favoured mantra.

He is also a believer in DataOps offering scope to better manage versioning, rollback and data pipelines, saying it’s “a big thing because people are saying ‘we need to manage the data lifecycle’”. Other causes of optimism come from growing data literacy and governance activities and an embrace of building blocks to data culture such as creating data processes, logging existing data assets, identifying and fixing data quality issues, educating staff and winning investment for trial efforts. But he remains realistic about the pace of change and stresses the need for a culture where companies capture and build in reliable data into both everyday and strategic decision-making. He’s surely right that culture doesn’t emerge overnight but it’s a fair bet that the business winners of the next years and beyond will be those that have made a commitment to building and enabling it.