Abra Le

Senior Manager of Data Governance, Cisco

Supernova Award Category: 

Digital Safety, Governance, and Privacy

The Organization: 


Cisco Systems is the worldwide leader in technology. The company inspires new possibilities by reimagining applications, securing data, transforming infrastructure, and empowering teams for a global and inclusive future. Cisco develops, manufactures and sells networking hardware, software, telecommunications equipment and other high-technology services and products. The company ranks No. 63 on the Fortune 500 list.

The Problem: 

Cisco is a very large company that’s spread across multiple countries in the world. That means that our data is also spread out, and it’s difficult to share data and communicate on it. Our team needed to democratize our data, improve accessibility, and increase data literacy and data quality to drive the needs of the business. The big challenge associated with this was to enable the democratization of data while simultaneously ensuring that data was properly governed. This was a challenge in the past as governance tools were not end user friendly. To become more data-driven, we needed a more holistic program around data democratization and a platform that embedded governance in the day-to-day activities of data users without disrupting the users’ workflows. We knew that once governance was embedded in a user friendly way it would enable visibility and collaboration among business users, and end users would benefit from consistent high-quality data, clarity into who is responsible and accountable for the data, and transparency into what data exists and where it is. With the variety of new technologies available, Cisco saw an opportunity to build its data ecosystem to enable analytics that truly reap the benefits of its data.

The Solution: 

First we conducted a data governance maturity assessment, introduced a policy desk, and decided that an Enterprise Data Catalog (EDC) would serve as the hub for our end users. Then we outlined the benefits the EDC would have on end users, specifically: decreasing the time it takes to find and verify data, and enabling a collaborative approach to working with data. Alation’s platform supports a people-first, non-invasive approach to governance by connecting policies, documentation, quality flags, and more in a collaborative environment. Alation’s machine learning and crowdsourcing functionality automates and accelerates data stewardship. This approach was critical because it empowered our stewards to have accountability and ownership for the data, which increased data quality. Traditional, top-down approaches prevent users from finding quality, curated data. In contrast, Alation guides more accurate analysis on trusted data, allowing Cisco to generate more value from data.

The Results: 

We strived to enable the democratization of data while simultaneously ensuring our data was properly governed. To succeed, we needed a user-friendly platform that provided business units with the ability to utilize data and drive their business forward. Alation automates and accelerates data stewardship, which empowered our stewards to have accountability and ownership around the data. Increased accountability and ownership drives data quality. With Alation we consistently deliver high quality governed data with context in a single platform, providing our business users with visibility into what data exists and where it resides. We’re seeing significant change and foresee making even greater traction in the future.  


At the end of fiscal year 2019, we didn’t have any Data Advocates which includes data stewards, technical custodians, data owners and subject matter experts at the enterprise level. At the end of fiscal year 2020, Cisco had 97 Data Advocates.


With regard to our enterprise data curation, at the end of FY19, we had less than 100 tables available in our Enterprise Data Catalog (EDC). At the end of FY2020, we had nearly 42,000 tables ingested into the EDC, more than 300 active users, 88 data policies ingested that were available to all users, and 20% of the critical metadata curated including data classification, personally identifiable information, and taxonomy.

The Technology: 

Internally, we refer to our use of the Alation Data Catalog that enables data governance as the Enterprise Data Catalog (EDC). EDC allows everyone in our organization to find the data they need and ensure that the data they’re using is trusted. It automatically indexes our data by source and gathers knowledge about our data. The unique combination of machine learning and crowdsourcing applies governance at the point of data use.

Disruptive Factor: 

There weren’t necessarily issues or challenges with the implementation of Alation, but there are stigmas around the data governance in general. Now data governance is evolving to include data democratization, but the term data governance evokes a feeling of extreme risk mitigation and risk avoidance. The real challenge was ensuring that our stakeholders understood the value that we were trying to drive and the success indicators for our data governance program. We had to learn to speak the stakeholder’s language and understand their needs. We finally identified that the way to excite them was to articulate the transparency they would have into our data sets. Having visibility into where the data sets came from, and what data we have and don’t have was something that our stakeholders didn’t know data governance could provide. By linking those operational metrics and defining what resonated with our stakeholders we were able to overcome this challenge.

Shining Moment: 

What we as a governance team have been able to drive with a bottoms-up approach by really connecting with our stakeholders has been amazing. I can only imagine what will happen when this initiative receives functional support at an executive level in the near future.

About Cisco

Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) is the worldwide leader in technology that powers the Internet. Cisco inspires new possibilities by reimagining your applications, securing your data, transforming your infrastructure, and empowering your teams for a global and inclusive future.