How CURO Financial Technologies Successfully Integrated Data Sources After a Major Merger

By Anthony Zumpano

Published on June 20, 2023

CURO Financial Technologies Corp. is a credit provider operating under several brands in the U.S. and Canada. After its 2021 acquisition of Heights Finance Corporation, CURO needed to catalog and tag its legacy data while integrating Heights’ data — quickly.We spoke with Katie Dreller, a Heights data steward, and Will Brantley, CURO’s Director of Data Governance, about how they united with Alation to conquer these challenges while fostering adoption of Alation Data Catalog.

Bringing together companies — and their data

Alation: For you guys in data, it sounds like the acquisition was the easy part. Then the real work began.

Will: We had announced a pretty transformational merger and acquisition as well as a divestiture. Due to upcoming regulatory changes, there was a big push to understand where our sensitive data lives. Plus, they wanted to merge all the data from Heights.

Alation: Easier said than done.

Will: I’ve been with CURO 11 years, but I fell into data governance. My background is more quality engineering and support, and my role has evolved over time. Katie, who came over from Heights, was the brains of the operation. She had already created a data dictionary at Heights — which was very helpful — and we needed to merge that into our catalog.

Katie: I hadn’t worked in data governance before until I started working at Heights a little over two years ago. For the dictionary at Heights, we’d been using a basic but affordable option, which was kind of perfect for our needs prior to being acquired by CURO. Will and I joined forces to create a data catalog and dictionary for CURO and Heights. It involved a lot of businesses, a lot of brands, and a lot of data.

Will: The real challenge was the data of those existing brands: how do we connect to it, how does it work? There were a lot of spinning plates.

Alation: Plus you had a deadline.

Will: We originally targeted end-of-year 2022.Not hitting that date — with our legacy databases as well as getting Heights integrated — would not have us in a position to be prepared for the regulatory changes.

Alation: And you likely had plenty of data even before the acquisition.

Will: Right. The challenge wasn’t that we had nothing to document. The issue was having information in databases dating back to brands that we no longer have. There’s been close to 30 years of expansion around these databases. Data from any other brands we acquired or built were based on the same schema, so an engineering team looking for data would say, “We know about where it is, but we don’t know exactly where it is.” As we continued to do business and expand, there was no time to go back and document everything.Yet there was so much existing knowledge. People come and go and we get new technology stacks or we get new technologies that we have to integrate, and along the way the data may change. When it came to modernizing and documenting everything, the refrain was always, “We’ll get there eventually.”Then the looming deadline made us realize that “eventually” meant “now”!

Alation: Knowing what you needed must have helped when you shopped for your data management solution.

Will: We had a very extensive pre-sales engagement with Alation. We asked them a lot of questions: Does it do this? Does it do thatHow does it do it? Just getting any tool was “X marks the spot,” but everything after that was a bit of a gray area. So we asked a lot of questions and got to utilize the test flight and play with the catalog to make sure it fit our needs.

Alation: What was the status of your data by the time you partnered with Alation?

Katie: Heights had moved to Snowflake by the time the acquisition had taken place and Will and I started working together. By then I had converted that small Heights data dictionary to the Snowflake sources. But everything CURO was still on SQL.

Will: CURO was primarily a Microsoft SQL house and still is in some ways. We did have an existing data warehouse solution, but it was so rarely used by outside teams, and I can’t even remember the name. After the acquisition of Heights and unifying the teams, it was determined to move forward with Snowflake overall.We’re really excited, because this will be the first time we will be able to document sources as it’s being built, not as some legacy thing that’s existed out there forever.

“We’re really excited, because this will be the first time we will be able to document sources as it’s being built, not as some legacy thing that’s existed out there forever.” – Will Brantley, Director of Data Governance, CURO

APIs (and Alation!) to the rescue

Alation: We understand the APIs were very handy. Tell us about that.

Katie: Once we chose Alation, it was pretty easy to kind of just download what I had already done in the existing dictionary and quickly upload it to Alation using the APIs.

Will: Katie’s now the API guru!

Katie: (Laughs) I’d never heard of APIs before, but two Alation Professional Services consultants, Dre Lajara and Mario Aburto, gave us a super detailed breakdown of how APIs can save us time with the migration — especially because Will and I aren’t programmers. The meeting was recorded and I’ve referred to it several times because it’s been so helpful.

Will: That says something about Alation Professional Services. On Day 1 they had a recommended plan, but stressed that it could be tailored to what we’re trying to accomplish. First they wanted to discuss our goals and any of the headaches we’re experiencing.I think the scope of the original Right Start implementation plan was something like 13 weeks, but we said needed it faster than that — like in time for our next data council meeting. And not only did they deliver, they agreed to meet with us as frequently as we needed them.

Katie: They really had our backs, and they were super organized. Normally, with a new customer they would suggest some preliminary workshops but we were ready to dive right in. So they met us where we were at so we could get moving as soon as possible.

“[Alation Professional Services] really had our backs, and they were super organized. Normally, with a new customer they would suggest some preliminary workshops but we were ready to dive right in. So they met us where we were at so we could get moving as soon as possible.” – Katie Dreller, Data Steward, Heights

Alation: Sounds like you really clicked with our Professional Services people.

Will: Our company culture isn’t about sitting back and waiting. Dre and Mario allowed us to ask all the questions we had about the things we wanted to do.But more than just giving us answers, we had such a great time working with them. I’d say on 98% of our calls, we were laughing. We were joking and learning about each other and our families. I mean, it was awesome. I can’t say any one of those calls ended on time. And it was great.

Katie: Right! We always went over.

Alation: What’s an example of a challenge they helped you overcome?

Katie: We started strong and got a lot done, until we discovered a couple of pain points. Alation’s upload dictionary feature was working well but it was having problems with multiple tables that had thousands of rows. That’s when the API tool that Dre showed up came into play. On the first API run, we added around 30,000 rows. As soon as we saw a problem, we contacted Dre, and he’d meet with us immediately.

Will: They saved us on that one.

Katie: It was very scary. We were like, “Oh no! Do we have to copy and paste out this one Excel into multiple small ones?” They always had our back. Will and I are really just a team of two, and Alation welcomed us asking questions and pushing them to find ways to help us realize our vision.

Will: We do have a software engineering team, but they have their own issues and sprints and we didn’t want to bog them down. So it was a real collaboration between me, Katie, and the Alation team to learn as much as possible within the short time we had.

Evangelizing Alation throughout the enterprise

Alation: One of Alation’s benefits is that it’s for more than just data experts. How have you spread its adoption throughout the company?

Will: Toward the end of last year, we embarked on a kind of a road show. At our monthly technology town halls, we gave a high-level overview of Alation.The Heights folks, who were used to data tools like these, looked at Alation as a better version of their earlier catalog. But for the legacy CURO folks, it was something completely new. And we did get a little bit of pushback on that.To overcome that resistance, we started meeting with not only our tech teams, but also other business units. We explained, “Here’s how you can help us make the platform better for you” — meaning even if there’s something we can’t do today, maybe it’s something we can do tomorrow or in a month or six months or a year or something.So we actually used those roadshows to source our own backlog. From there, word of mouth started to take over. In meetings, people would tell us what they’ve got going on and we’d tell them, “If you’ve got terms and acronyms or documentation that you want added, we can use Alation for this. We can get your team engaged and involved.”So it’s been word of mouth plus the roadshow, and creating things like SharePoint sites to lead them to like Alation University or the Alation Community or just coming to us and saying, “Hey, I want to find this.” Katie just got another request this past week for another training session.

Katie: I still get asked about the previous catalog and I say, “No, no! We use Alation now! It’s bigger and better than what we had before!” Sometimes people ask us, “Do you know where this is or what this means?” and I like to answer with Alation: “Here’s the link! I see you’re signed in!”

Will: We had a question to come through one time and it’s like, “Hey, can you help us with some result codes that came through?” And so we politely responded to that email in normal fashion. And then in the bottom of the email we said, “By the way, this has now been added to Alation. Here’s the URL to it. If you don’t have access, here’s how to register.” This is how we show it’s centralized and other people can converse around it.

Katie: We think it will be fun to have people take a vote on the name of the catalog, to keep people engaged, give them ownership.

Alation: How has that all paid off? Who’s using Alation Data Catalog now?

Will: Our data engineers and our marketing teams, as well as our software engineers. We have some people in technology operations. Over the last few weeks our risk and analytics team has wanted to get involved, too. It’s grown to several teams simply by word-of-mouth.

Katie: The BI reporting team loves the data dictionary.

Will: The big topics for the data engineers are lineage, and the titles and descriptions of fields that they’re using. We’re a big Snowflake user, so they want to see the relationships between their tables and make sure that they’re pulling the right information or that they’re connecting to the right tables.The other thing is just glossaries for when they look up a term. A lot of our columns and tables have very, very weird names that mean nothing related to what they’re actually called. So it’s very helpful that they can go in and say, “Oh, that’s what this is for. This table, this column, the schema, whatever.”

Helping the data team do its job

Alation: How has Alation improved your day-to-day?

Katie: Alation has helped me show my value at the organization. During a second demo with the BI reporting team, one of the newer employees told us how much she loved Alation, how it was so useful. That was awesome because she never had to reach out to me with any questions — she’d just go right into Alation.I was really happy to hear that because that’s exactly what Alation is for, when you’re new and everything can be overwhelming at first. This is the perfect tool for that. I have no idea what the CURO acronyms are and Will has no idea what the Heights acronyms are. So it’s really great to have all of that in a centralized place.We’re also going to create a repository for common queries to enable consistency and faster access to answers.

Will: Our CTO is very excited about that aspect, even if it’s using an article group or a glossary. From my QA background, the simple fact that you can go to a centralized location, it’s valuable to know that that query works for this thing and you can go and search for it.To add to Katie’s other point, another big thing is the time we save on audits. So we’ve had a security guy ask, “Can you tell me everywhere you’ve got a Social Security number filled” and literally we can go and pull up the catalog set and share it with him or write a query and it pulls every source database, whatever else that we’ve ingested. It’s just like: “Here are all your fields.”

Alation: How long would it have taken without Alation?

Will: A lot of query writing.

Katie: We would have had to query each data source.

Final thoughts

Alation: Overall, how would you describe the experience?

Will: Alation provides a true team. We never felt alone in this process. It’s not like buying a car, where as soon as you pull off the lot, they don’t care about you anymore.

Katie: We were excited to work in Alation and build out our catalog, but the support from Dre and Mario — and the working relationship we built with them — is what really solidified our choice and helped our success.Curious for more? Explore our Why Alation page and witness why countless business and data leaders choose to embrace Alation.

  • Bringing together companies — and their data
  • APIs (and Alation!) to the rescue
  • Evangelizing Alation throughout the enterprise
  • Helping the data team do its job
  • Final thoughts
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