Alation's Forward-Deployed Engineering Team Pioneers Customized Solutions

By Todd Beauchene

Published on January 19, 2024

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In tech, the most successful products and platforms are those that effectively cater to the end user's needs. However, not all companies have the agility to promptly adapt to changing user demands and market dynamics.

Fortunately, at Alation, we’re committed to forward-deployed engineering, which is why we’ve launched a new team and product offering that I’ll be heading up. Alation’s forward-deployed engineering aims to bring engineering resources closer to each customer's unique needs to create a more customized and value-driven solution. This benefits not just our customers and company but also the career paths of individual Alationauts.

Better recognition of customer needs

Alation’s success is driven by understanding and addressing custom requirements, particularly in the context of our large and versatile data catalog. This is especially true in terms of integration and automation. Any process we can automate to bring metadata into the data intelligence platform will expand its usability. Our goal is to drive adoption of Alation by creating custom solutions for our customers that make the data catalog more valuable within their organization.

Our forward-deployed engineering team, which focuses on creating customer-specific solutions, was formed by merging two groups: the solutions architect team (part of our sales organization) and the Advanced Product Solutions (APS) team. Blending the strengths of these teams helps them go beyond being experts so they can deliver targeted solutions that address specific customer pain points.

Improving team dynamics

The forward-deployed engineering approach is more than just moving engineers into a customer-facing role. Nor is it “shadow engineering,” where solutions are created or implemented outside the organization’s official development or engineering processes. Instead, we’re empowering Alationauts who were already on the customer side of operations to deliver solutions to those customers using flexibility and speed to manage many requests.

For example, we're creating connectors and building unique product integrations — project-based tasks that previously were within the exclusive domain of engineering. When there’s a unique need, the customer no longer has to make an enhancement request that may cause delays and add to the Alation engineering team’s queue for the next product release. 

A recent success we experienced was partnering with a customer to build a custom connector that required authentication and unlocked a use case without requiring engineering’s involvement. By allowing product experts to customize the product in ways they couldn’t before, we reduced the workload on our engineering team, which could then focus on core use cases and major product updates. 

We’re grateful that Alation’s engineering team has built a number of extensible frameworks to enable our forward-deployed engineering work because we’re not looking to write code to change the core product.

Customer satisfaction, career satisfaction

Beyond enhancing adoption rates and customer satisfaction, our forward-deployed engineering strategy offers a dynamic career trajectory for technical individuals who might not align with conventional engineering roles and aspire to be more customer-centric.

When interviewing for my first job out of college at a small software company, the CEO told me that I didn’t sound like an engineer to him. As a soon-to-be graduate in Computer Science, I was taken aback by that remark. He proposed that I join the company’s user interface team, which was customer-facing, instead of the core software development team. That decision led me down a career path focused as much on driving outcomes for customers as on innovating around data.

More than 20 years later, I am excited to lead this new organization focused on blending technical innovation with customer focus. We have assembled a collection of individuals with similar backgrounds to my own. At many companies, technically inclined individuals are forced to choose between engineering roles and solution architect roles. While both can be very fulfilling, this team provides a great balance by allowing engineers to create custom software while collaborating with customers to solve for their unique requirements. 

Fortunately, our forward-deployed engineering isn't just a method to better cater to customer needs; it's also a distinctive avenue for professional growth and advancing industry innovation. With the forward-deployed engineering team, we foresee discovering solutions that could eventually become integral parts of extensive product releases, creating the possibility of our work creating lasting influence and innovation at Alation. 

  • Better recognition of customer needs
  • Improving team dynamics
  • Customer satisfaction, career satisfaction
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