How Alation Helps Students Prepare for a Career in Data

By Talo Thomson

Published on January 30, 2023

A young college student smiling while wearing a bright orange sweater as she sits down in front of her laptop.

Alation launched the Data Intelligence Project in summer 2021 to train the next generation of data leaders by providing learning opportunities with Alation in the classroom. To celebrate the program’s global expansion with a new cohort of universities, we’re sharing the story of one professor, Russell McMahon of the University of Cincinnati. In this blog, we’ll reveal how Professor McMahon encountered Alation and launched the program in his own school — and how he plans to develop it for the future.

Enterprise Software Supports Applied Learning

Professor McMahon has been a faculty member in the School of Information Technology (SoIT) at the University of Cincinnati (UC) since 1999. He created the SoIT’s Data Technologies track, which consists of six courses, and designed, developed, and taught four of them. He is very active in the IT-related user group community, which is how he learned about the opportunity to bring Alation into the classroom.

“Our focus is less on the theory and more on the applied side, which is why I was looking for an actual tool that was being used,” McMahon says. “That’s kind of how I stumbled on Alation. Alation has a customer base in the Cincinnati area, and we’re a cooperative education program, which means our students go out after their first year with us, and begin to work the work five semesters. So one semester on, one semester back at school. Our job is to train our students for when they go into a company, and we do try to teach them something real.”

A Teacher’s Path to Alation

As an active member of the IT community, Professor McMahon is a regular on the tech meetup circuit. “I go to about 50 meetings a year, so I know the best pizza in Cincinnati!” he laughs.

In March 2022, a meetup he couldn’t attend caught his eye. At the time, McMahon was serving as a Fulbright Scholar at the Tashkent University of Information Technologies (TUIT) in Uzbekistan. “I contacted Kai Thapa, who quickly put me in touch with [data intelligence program lead] Susannah Barnes,” he recalls. The partnership began. “Having people respond like that — they just did a great job and I’m really appreciative of all the work that they put in,” McMahon shares.

Right away, the value of Alation as an applied learning tool was very clear. “We know there’s a big base here in Cincinnati that uses Alation, some of the top companies in the Cincinnati area,” he points out. “Some of those are Fortune 500 companies as well. Right away, I said, ‘This is a no-brainer!’”

About the Program at UC

Professor McMahon currently uses Alation in his senior-level class, but plans to avail it to younger students in the future. “Right now I have small classes and motivated students,” he shares. “In the last class I taught I had a couple of students who really dived into Alation and felt it was well worth it.”

One student pointed out, “The Alation model fits in for different companies,” and demonstrated how the software has helped him grasp common enterprise challenges with data. “Businesses within a company will label their data differently,” McMahon illustrates. “And that’s a big issue: how people look at their data across different business units. One question I like to pose to my students is: What is a customer? What defines a customer? That’s why metadata and cataloging is important.”

“That’s what I hope to further this semester,” he continues. “I hope to develop some more labs. We have two database courses all our students take and I could push Alation down to the second course. It helps that the product itself is well liked and well used. Because it’s easy enough to use, it’s therefore easy enough for me to teach my students and get them going forward with it.” That usability makes learning about new data managing disciplines — like data governance — much easier.

The Value of Data Governance Training for Students

According to LinkedIn, data governance manager is now one of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. McMahon has long recognized its value and sought to integrate governance lessons into his curriculum for years — but never had the right tool. That changed with Alation.

“Data governance is something I’ve been examining for years, and it’s just now I got a tool I can use to teach it!” McMahon says. “We started looking at data governance, to incorporate it into our courses, about seven years ago. But there wasn’t much we could use, and over that time, it’s changed tremendously.”

Kabir Barday, CEO, OneTrust quote about Data Governance.

McMahon uses Alation to teach students the basics of data governance — which are critical skills for data-driven companies. A suite of governance courses from Alation University complements his own lesson plans. These real-world examples prepare students for local jobs that involve governance activities.

“I know that some of the people being put into this data governance role have no background whatsoever because it’s just so new,” McMahon shares. “And so I’m thrilled that my students can learn this tool, and get some training with data governance, and then go to our big employers in Cincinnati and say, ‘I have governance training and experience.’ They’re building skill sets that will help them in their career in the future.”

I’m thrilled that my students can learn this tool, and get some training with data governance, and then go to our big employers in Cincinnati and say, ‘I have governance training and experience.’

What’s Next for the Data Intelligence Project at UC

As for what’s next, Professor McMahon is thrilled to see more universities joining the program for the opportunities it brings to his students and larger community.

“I know Alation is already expanding its university universe, and the alliance, which is great,” he says. The chance to share and learn from how other teachers are using the software in the classroom is one he is eager to seize. “This leads to collaboration, potential papers or grants being written, which is a key component,” he shares. With Susannah Barnes at the helm, that alliance will take shape with a new social group. The Data Intelligence Catalog Collective will offer networking and knowledge sharing opportunities for educators and faculty using Alation in the classroom. Stay tuned for more on this soon!

Curious to learn more about the Data Intelligence Project?

  • Enterprise Software Supports Applied Learning
  • A Teacher’s Path to Alation
  • About the Program at UC
  • The Value of Data Governance Training for Students
  • What’s Next for the Data Intelligence Project at UC
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