Advancing Data Governance and Contextualizing Data with Atlan
The Active Metadata Pioneers series features Atlan customers who have recently completed a thorough evaluation of the Active Metadata Management market. Paying forward what you’ve learned to the next data leader is the true spirit of the Atlan community! So they’re here to share their hard-earned perspective on an evolving market, what makes up their modern data stack, innovative use cases for metadata, and more.
In this installment of the series, we meet Kelsey Coffin, Senior Data Governance Manager at Commonwealth Financial Network, a broker/dealer that helps thousands of independent financial advisors and planners run and grow their businesses. Kelsey explains the Digital Transformation journey Commonwealth is navigating, the critical role Data Governance plays in that transformation, and how Atlan will drive a deeper understanding of their data assets for their end users.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and what drew you to Data & Analytics?
I would say I have always worked in data, just in different components of it. My first job out of college was putting through manual transactions. It was very operational-based, very data-based. You’ve got to get it 100% right, you can’t have an extra zero, or you end up with 100 shares instead of 10.
Then I moved into consulting for Financial Services, doing mainly data transformation projects. Their bread-and-butter was assisting financial services firms with data transformation projects, including implementing/sunsetting applications. A very project-based and very data-based role. There, I saw all types of issues that happen in data transformation projects.
After that, I got the opportunity to implement a Data Catalog and Data Governance tool for clients for three years, and I really liked it. Then I found the opportunity to run my own Data Governance program, which I do now.
Would you mind describing Commonwealth, and how your data team supports the organization?
Commonwealth helps investment advisors run their business. These advisors are small to medium business owners, but because of all the regulations around this industry, they want to give the administrative portion to us, and have us help them run their business.
Like any other Financial Services organization, there’s a lot of data that comes with that, both for regulations, and to help advisors understand how they’re growing their book of business. They want to understand how they can grow faster, and what other people in the space are doing to grow their business. So there’s a big appetite for data that our Data & Analytics team, the team I work on, serves internally, and there’s a desire to make some of that data external-facing so our affiliates can see it too.
We’re working on a digital transformation project, including building end-to-end pipelines for getting data from internal or third-party sources to the analytics and reporting layer in PowerBI. On the Data Governance side, we do things like making sure the scope of data we’re bringing in is appropriate and meets business requirements, and that when it becomes business-facing, that it’s named and defined in a way that makes sense to the business.
We have a Data Governance working group that meets twice a week, made up of representatives from all across the business that ensures we make decisions that work for the entire business. Sometimes it’s little things like someone proposing an acronym, and someone else saying “Over here in Finance, we already use that acronym.” So we work together to find a solution.
We want to make sure this program is an enterprise program. It’s meant to fulfill the needs of the entire enterprise, and to address their concerns and requests. We tend to do this data domain, by data domain because we don’t pretend we can do it all at once.
What does your data stack look like?
Our data estate is a bit in flux right now. Two years ago, we spun off our technology team into a different company. We get a lot of data from them, as you might expect, as well as some other third-party sources. We’re working on building up a cloud-based ecosystem, which is one of the reasons we really liked Atlan, and our stack right now includes Snowflake and PowerBI, Salesforce, and we run on Azure. We have some new technology coming in, but no decisions made yet.
Why search for an Active Metadata Management solution? What was missing?
Two years ago when we began this journey, we worked with a consulting firm that helped map out a data maturity model journey. As part of that it was agreed that setting up a Data Governance program should be one of the first steps because it’s easier to set it up before, or at the beginning of a transformation. The idea was that we do governance from the get-go, making sure we have definitions as we’re bringing in data, rather than bringing it all in and trying to define it down the road, and involving governance to set up processes as we go through our transformation.
Why was Atlan a good fit? Did anything stand out during your evaluation process?
The biggest driver was how easy Atlan was to use from a UI perspective. A Data Catalog and Data Governance, in general, are new to Commonwealth, and one of the top risks is adoption. Our biggest driver was, within two clicks, people need to be exactly where they want to be.
We want lots of people using the catalog, even if that’s only for half an hour per week and you have one term that you’re interested in. That’s the bread-and-butter that we were looking for. We also want technical users, but they’re a smaller subset of who this is supposed to reach. So if the UI wasn’t incredibly intuitive, incredibly quick, and easy to use, we were going to have an adoption problem.
What do you intend on creating with Atlan? Do you have an idea of what use cases you’ll build, and the value you’ll drive?
Overall, we’re hoping Atlan can help us increase our scalability, efficiency, and speed to market of initiatives to be well-equipped to handle growth as we work toward our $1 trillion goal and move to a product focused organization.
Specifically, in the next six months, in line with making Commonwealth more scalable, we’re excited to take business terms and metrics we are tracking on Excel spreadsheets and move them into Atlan, which will be much more broadly available to people, and hit our next goal post for Data Governance maturity. It might sound silly and simplistic, but I’m excited to be able to send people a link to a term rather than say, “Look at my Excel spreadsheet, then filter by term, and then you get the definition”, which helps legitimize the terms and expand the scope of users who utilize our definitions, cutting down on the time to create requirements, and helps ensures data is defined/used the same way across the organization.
Also, we have documentation everywhere, and we are not looking to consolidate which documentation application users choose to use. This leads to users having to ask around to find out where the best documentation is, which slows down our speed to market and creates inefficiencies. So, we’re excited to be able to add links and have one centralized repository where people have a starting point and then they can discover, “Oh, that’s on SharePoint. Oh, that’s on Confluence. Oh, that’s somewhere else.”
Another goal for the next 6 months, from a technology perspective is being able to see lineage: see the hops our technical metadata goes through, and understand the key pipelines to help with speed to market for our end users and be able to connect to the new applications to ensure they are governed from the get go.
Then, I’d say in the next 12 months or so, it’s about rolling out the concept of ownership, heading into the space of Data Quality, and adding more application’s technical metadata/lineage to Atlan. Having owners helps make our organization more efficient because they will know who to talk to if they have questions, are doing a project that requires the data, or something goes awry with the data.
Data Quality scores help give users confidence in our data or knowing where data tends to go awry. This in conjunction with bringing in more application’s metadata/lineage, should make us able to utilize our data more efficiently for operational processes, and gives us better insight into prioritizing data projects because we’ll understand the impact of improving the data and/or the impact on other applications.
Anything we missed?
What’s going to be interesting for us in Atlan is utilizing the APIs. There’s a lot that we could start to do. We’re not Python-heavy today, so it’s going to be an interesting learning curve for us.
To me, I think ease of use of APIs are a component that Gartner or Forrester tends to undervalue. I wouldn’t say I overvalue it, but I see it as a sign Atlan is headed where the future is.