Why Data Culture Made Me Pack a Space Suit and Head to Orlando

By Stephanie McReynolds

Published on February 13, 2020

Astronaut flying through space with Alation showcasing on his helmet

We live in an age of unprecedented speed and breadth of technological change. Since the year 2000, new discoveries are coming at a fast and furious pace in many technology sectors, including software, material science, neuroscience, and genetics. Innovations are also uniquely broad compared to other eras of technological innovation, spanning multiple technologies from innovations like genetically targeted cancer treatments to 3D bioprinting of tissue. Observers have called this “The Second Machine Age” and The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” In his book titled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Klaus Schwab describes the age as, “characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.” Recent media coverage of the revolution has tended to focus on the raw science, engineering and the innovation that has brought us here. But the future belongs not to technology but to us - the humans.

We fear that the robots will take over the world, but as students of history, we should know better. Artificial intelligence without human collaboration fails. Without training data, without guidelines and guardrails, there is nothing intelligent about AI. Humans give the robots intelligence. The robots merely scale the work and can only succeed in taking over the world if we stop engaging... if we lose our humanity.

Using History to Guide Us

At Alation, as we evaluated the selection of a fun and engaging theme to drive our presence in the industry this year, I was mindful of the learnings of our last industrial revolution and inspired by the theme of humanity in an age of science. The lessons of the last industrial revolution -- the third in history, also called the digital revolution -- provides learnings for us in the current era. We face new challenges. But they are not unlike the challenges that our parents or grandparents or great grandparents faced in the 1950s.

Let’s go back to the late 1950s and the Space Race. At the time, you’d need more than 5,000 desktop computers to match the processing power of the tablet that you’re likely reading this blog on. Engineering was a relatively new career path, part of a trend to create what Peter Drucker coined as “knowledge workers” in the enterprise. Only one in three women worked. And those that did earned 59–64 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned in the same job. In the United States, “colored” students were still attending separate schools. Yet that same era would land a man on the Moon. The race to space drove innovation like few other initiatives and brought society together behind a common goal. Technologies as far ranging as semiconductors, mainframe computing, personal computing, and the internet, all evolved out of the race to land a man on the Moon.

But more importantly than all those technological innovations, the third industrial revolution changed our society. It popularized science, created a fascination with the scientific mindset, inspired generations of innovators and explorers, and despite the inequality, showed what humans could accomplish if only they worked together. In the United States, at a time of high social tension, the aspiration of putting a man on the Moon brought our best minds together, working towards a single goal. The space race inspired passion, creativity and innovation. Television gave us a communication mechanism to bring this passion into our homes. Anyone who has watched Hidden Figures knows that it wasn’t a perfect time. Not everyone had inclusive access. But the Space Race changed our society and changed it for good. All because we focused on building together to overcome something that at the outset was hard, seemingly impossible. It gave us the notion of a moonshot to aspire to.

Each of your organizations has something impossible to accomplish. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it’s there. More often than not, today, the key to unlocking that accomplishment sits within a tsunami of data: data collected from consumers, applications, and sensors. I can guarantee that in the race to be the first, in whatever you do, you’ll need both technology and human collaboration to weather the storm. And it’s the humans, not the robots that are your greatest asset and greatest challenge.

Every year for the last three years, NewVenture Partners has published an executive survey on AI and big data. Their latest findings? “72% of businesses do not yet have a data culture despite increasing investment in big data and AI.” The humans are the issue. We have the technology, but we don’t have the data culture to succeed with that technology. If stats are your thing, check out the survey:

  • 69% have not created a data-driven organization

  • 53% are not yet treating data as a business asset

  • 52% are not competing on data & analytics and

  • the % of firms identifying themselves as data-driven has declined for 3 years straight

We hear little about initiatives devoted to changing human attitudes and behaviors around data. Unless the focus shifts to these types of activities, we are likely to see the same problem areas in the future that we’ve observed year after year in this survey.

Randy Bean & Thomas H. Davenport


To accomplish each of our moonshots, we need to change this trend. We challenge you to think differently. Become an agent of change. Because this revolution is not about the technology, it’s about human innovation. Look at your people, your small corner of society. Think about what they need to embrace a new way of doing business. We challenge you to think actively about your own data culture. To evaluate how as a leader, you might be able to inspire your team to do the hard thing and establish data culture as a driver for innovation.

In Conclusion

We’re hoping that this year you’ll be as inspired as we are to take a page from NASA’s history and join the race to space. We started our moonshot journey at Gartner Data & Analytics Summit Orlando where Guido Di Simoni presented research completed with Ehtisham Zaidi on the importance of modern Machine Learning Data Catalogs. If you’re going to a Gartner Data and Analytics Summit later this year, you should check out their session. We’ll be wearing our NASA-inspired colors at every show we’re at, all year long. And celebrating the ability for Machine Learning Data Catalogs to support data culture in every enterprise. Follow us at #MLDC as we tour the world. Join us at one of our upcoming events and share your story of human-machine collaboration to create data culture. And don’t forget to lead your organization to do the hard things.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. - John F. Kennedy

Alation flag
Gartner X Alation Photo

  • Using History to Guide Us
  • In Conclusion
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