My Journey as an Alation Engineer: Interview with Michael Ting
By Talo Thomson
Published on September 6, 2022
“Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.”—Theodore von Karman, Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer, and physicist
Ten years ago, there was no modern data catalog. That we have one today is testament to the work of our engineers.
So I was excited to sit down recently with Michael Ting, Senior Software Engineer on the Logical Metadata Infrastructure Team. Michael is one our most senior software engineers, having joined the company in 2014. In 8 years, Michael has held six titles, and played essential roles in developing the product UI, as well as the data-driven culture thriving in the engineering department today. In this conversation, Michael shares his experience, revealing why he joined Alation in its early days – and what keeps him committed today.
Talo Thomson, Head of Content, Alation: Hi Michael, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s dive in. You’ve been an Alation engineer for 8 years now. How did you first come to the company?
Michael Ting, Senior Software Engineer, Alation: Before I joined Alation, I was studying synthetic and computational bioengineering. My friend Daniel had been in the program with me the year before and went on to work at Alation. He called me and said, “Have you thought about working in software? At first I told him, no way! But I ended up doing the interview anyway.
Talo: What changed your mind?
Michael: I saw the actual product demo, and Aaron Kalb showed me a working version of Compose – our intelligent SQL editor. He also shared the data catalog, along with his vision for what Alation wanted the world of data to be and how that would solve pain points for people.
At that moment I started connecting the dots and I was like, “Oh my God! These are the same problems that I’ve faced in biotech research!” I worked with biological databases, pulling information and running experiments to synthesize something, test it, and see if you can build a tool. The problem with that is you’re going through massive amounts of data. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and prone to so much error. Bad data is a real, costly problem.
Take GenBank for example. This is one of the main genetic sequence databases, and it’s used heavily by scientists across the world. One of my professors at Berkeley did a study, and she found that 25 percent of the annotations in that database were incorrect! Also, the testing materials are super expensive. We’d order these tiny vials of solution that were thousands of dollars. And we’re just running these experiments daily.
So that’s insane to think about, right? It shows you why research is so pricy and hard. An experiment takes a week to 30 days or more… and one time out of four it ends with your realizing that, oh, my data was wrong and my results are worthless. And it can be frustrating to work in the bio world, as you realize, “Oh, I can’t really make data-driven decisions because there isn’t a fast turnaround time to them.” Similarly, there isn’t really a culture of automation – though that’s changing, but slowly. Back then, a lot of the work I did was manual.
So when I thought about those problems and I saw Alation working, I was like, “What if we apply this to a lot of the problems in the biological space? And I realized this is something that applies to any field out there beyond just computer science.
Talo: It sounds like you saw the product working and realized its value across all industries. And today, of course, we have a diverse range of customers in every industry. How do you see that diversity reflected in the engineering team?
Michael: What’s so unique about Alation is that it’s built on these diverse experiences of people from different walks of life. Many of our early hires were not only computer scientists, but also from different fields: theoretical physics, industrial engineering, and of course Aaron came from Apple. I think that’s something that just really made Alation unique; we’re able to make more meaningful decisions because we think about different use cases from different perspectives.
Talo: That’s a great point. And as a platform, Alation has a duty, in a sense, to consider the experiences of a diversity of users – their goals and needs. So you can see how a diverse engineering team is a real asset to create that.
Let’s fast forward a few weeks, after you got the job: When you think back on your early days at Alation, what stands out?
Michael: I remember coming to the lunch room. Everyone in the company was sitting at a shared table and just talking to each other. People from engineering, sales, and customer success, you name it. I noticed people were just being human, sharing their lives, but also talking about our customers, sharing ideas, and listening to each other. That’s something that was really meaningful to me, because I wanted to experience that collaboration and live that culture for myself.
Talo: In your first few years at Alation, how did your role evolve? What projects did you take on that you’re proud of today?
Michael: We were working with designers on the new UI at the time. And I was like, “Oh, this is really cool!” I told them, “I’ve never actually done frontend development work before, but I love the idea of building a user interface. Can I try it out?” So my focus for the next three years became user interfaces — building on our whole system and the architecture around that. It was super fun, but it’s not something that I realized I would have liked until I tried it. Alation gave me that opportunity to learn something new.
When I started this new project, Colin Poindexter, our main designer, sat next to me and we talked every day. He’d say, “What does the customer want to do? Why should they use this? Why is it valuable? Does it actually help them do their job?” In the end, I got to build something that you see actually affects change for a customer who says, “This makes things so much easier for my life. I’m spending minutes instead of hours doing this thing now!”
That’s when you recognize value and really feel you’ve made a difference in the world. Those experiences really help you grow as an engineer.
Talo: Tell me about your focus today. What are your core tasks and goals with the wider engineering team?
Michael: Today, I work on the architectural scaling of our system to make it more performant. My team is revamping that entire architecture to work for enterprise scale.
This work involves, again, a change in mindset: We’re shifting from on-prem to cloud, which means there are so many things to think about. Like the way we do development, deployment, and testing is completely different..
And that’s what’s really exciting for engineers: experiencing both worlds of technology and building all the foundational architecture for the cloud, which in most companies only happens once. So it’s really exciting to be a part of that process — especially, you know, when it’s such a hot topic and challenge in the software world.
Every day I work now, I’m doing something completely different than I did just six months ago. And it’s challenging, but it’s also really exciting because I get to try new things and learn from different people.
Talo: Let’s zoom back a bit. How do you personally understand Alation’s value and the problem we solve?
Michael: I think one of the core problems Alation really solves is knowledge sharing. We talk about tribal knowledge and companies with data, and one of the most unique things about Alation is that as we have grown, we started realizing we had this tribal knowledge problem ourselves, especially within engineering.
So how do you scale knowledge sharing? Within our own team, we’ve learned it’s tied directly to how you organize information. One thing we’ve talked a lot about internally is: How do you define areas of responsibility or component areas? We call them domains – which is echoed in the product. And that guides our software architecture, our communication structure, and how we organize our teams.
Talo: That’s fascinating. How did you solve the problem of knowledge sharing within the engineering team? And how do you use data to guide your roadmap?
Michael: We actually converted the whole department to be data-driven about two years ago. We had a big meeting with the senior engineers and asked, “What do we want to focus on?” And a lot of people said, “Let’s be data-driven!” It was a big collective team effort, where we answered questions like, “How do we implement data-driven decisions? What does it mean for us in terms of planning?” It was a collective movement.
Today, that means all the engineers think from an analytics perspective as well. When we do our sprint or weekly planning, we run queries on our internal data warehouse, and also leverage a new analytics tool called Jellyfish; this helps us estimate what to plan for. And we change how we estimate every two weeks based on new data we get.
Today, my team heavily uses A@A to just dogfood Alation and document it. This is because we have a lot of the same problems as our customers around understanding data. And specifically, we basically work with almost every engineering team and they consume the data we provide. And we field questions all the time: “Hey, what does this data mean? How do I use it? How do I query it? Is this the right thing? I see this inconsistency with the data; is that right?”
In this way, we see the exact things that our customers did. It’s like we’re customers ourselves. Once you empathize and imagine yourself in their shoes, then you can make better decisions for the product you build for them.
Talo: It sounds like how you work with Alation internally reflects the customer experience. As we wrap up our talk, I’d love to hear why engineers should apply to Alation. What makes our culture unique, attractive and beneficial to engineers?
Michael: Alation is a huge place of opportunity for learning and growth. And if you’re a person who’s curious about how things work, and you love to learn — it’s definitely for you.
We strongly believe in autonomy and ownership. What that means is day to day, we give voices to every single person in the room, no matter how small or large. Engineers get the chance to fully manage, design, and implement their products. You won’t get that chance everywhere! If you work at a larger software company, a lot of the initial work that you would do is generally fixing very small bugs or working in a very targeted space without a lot of visibility.
What’s so unique about Alation is that even with a lot of the new hires we say, “We trust in your ability. We want to see what you do with it. Here’s a big project. I know it’s going to be a little bit larger in scope or maybe it’s a little bit complicated, but let’s work together and figure it out.”
That gives a lot of openness to individual engineers on how they want to work. It also brings their best ideas to the table and helps them grow. We want to support and grow that culture of autonomy and learning.
That’s one of the most beautiful things about Alation: It gives people that ability to be creative and to try something new. I don’t think we would have been successful today had we not had that culture.
Engineers are at the heart of Alation’s growth and global success. Today, more than one in four Fortune 500 companies use Alation to find, understand, and use data in powerful new ways. As Snowflake’s data governance partner of the year, and recipient of $110 million in Series D financing, we’re planning our next phase of growth, and are seeking talented engineers to play a leading role.
Are you interested in becoming an engineer at Alation? Join us! Apply today.