How Emma McGrattan aims to transform a decades-old database company into an AI player

During a hostile takeover, Emma McGrattan stuck around at the company now known as Actian. Now the senior vice president of Engineering will help decide who it acquires to evolve for today’s AI realities.

Emma McGrattan, senior vice president of Engineering at Actian,

When she's tired of databases, Emma McGrattan, senior vice president of Engineering at Actian, builds furniture from Legos.

Photo: Actian

Not everyone stuck around when Ingres, the database services company Emma McGrattan worked for back in the early ‘90s, was acquired by Computer Associates. But she did.

“It was a very hostile acquisition, and the entire core engineering team left. I just saw it as an opportunity to dive right into core engineering,” McGrattan told Protocol in an interview earlier this month.

“The way it worked at Ingres previously was you served an apprenticeship, and they had these guys in their ivory towers, and you aspired to be like them one day,” she said. “And when I got to jump right in there, because I'd worked in all parts of the product, I got my choice as to where I wanted to focus once I moved in.”

Thirty years later, McGrattan is still at that fully managed database and data analytics company — since renamed Actian — where she is senior vice president of Engineering. Following a succession of ownership changeovers, Actian now is wholly owned by equity firm HCL Technologies.

Today, as Actian evolves to enable more AI and machine-learning-related services, McGrattan is helping HCL build relevant partnerships and make additional acquisitions to ensure Actian can meet customers where they are today: for instance, with concerns such as data governance.

Protocol chatted with McGrattan about what the company is looking for in new partnerships and possible acquisitions to help fill in gaps. She shared why Actian chose to build its own data quality product rather than partnering for one. And she talked about why she’s surprised — and disappointed — that more customers haven’t moved to the cloud more quickly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are Actian’s customers looking for from you when it comes to assisting in their AI and machine-learning-related projects?

So AI is definitely an area that we put on our horizon suite, an area that we're really interested in. We're probably going to do some acquisitions. There's lots of small companies that are struggling in the area of AI and ML, and we think to really bridge some gaps that we have, and the technology, that we’ll do an acquisition or two.

In the area of AI and ML, we don't have a huge presence today. But we have recognized that as you deliver a platform, it's one of those use cases that as people are dealing with large volumes of data, it doesn't matter what the industry is: The AI and ML [become] interesting.

So when we're talking to, let's say, an insurance company, and they're looking for fraud, DataRobot’s interesting, H2O.ai is interesting. But I think, given the heft of HCL and their deep pockets, that it's likely that a couple of acquisitions will help us fill in the gaps.

So, DataRobot and H2O.ai, those are interesting as partner candidates?

Yeah — not as acquisition targets.

In terms of potential acquisitions, what are you thinking that you might need? What would fill in the gaps?

We're looking for something that aligns with our focus, which is easy to use, and a focus on price and performance. So that's what we're looking at. It's a very crowded space, and not everybody is going to succeed. So we're looking at: Is there something interesting that’s small today that we could acquire that could fill the gap?

At the same time, we need to partner because when we look at the HCL customer base, and the likes of something like Deutsche Bank — who already have an AI/ML stack established, and need to be able to play with that — partnering is going to be as important as filling in that gap within the platform and delivering a more holistic platform.

How does your background and what you do every day play a role in how the company evaluates potential acquisitions?

I would be asked to attack evaluation for M&A targets. The decision — you're right — would not be solely mine. It would be done in conjunction with other leaders, specifically in the area of product management, and then on the sales side.

So what are the sales team hearing as requirements from customers? What are we seeing repeatedly within RFPs that we'll need to address? Who is a good fit for us to work with in terms of their size and their focus area? And then how amenable are they to being acquired? Those are all things that would go into it.

And in terms of integration with our technology, within the platform, we have an extensibility framework. And my gut is that an ML/AI framework that can execute within the context of the engine is going to be very attractive. If you're really focused on performance, you don't want to be pulling data out of the warehouse into an ML or AI framework; you kind of want it integrated. So I'd like to find something that we can use with our extensibility framework to make that happen.

You're probably getting pitched constantly with all sorts of technologies and companies that want to partner with you. What are you evaluating right now?

Data governance is one area that we're really interested in partnering as well.

And then we're building our own data quality solution. We had previously thought we’d do a data quality partnership, but we've decided that data quality is so integral to the platform that it really is something that needs to be within our control.

But a data catalog is something that we could look to partner for. Our customers want to know that there are curated data sets within the warehouse that they can trust. And can you publish a list of those data sets and provide the provenance of who's curated it, and almost have, like, a Yelp rating system where you can say, “I'll give this five stars.”

We do today provide the ability to reach into a data lake and to pull data from a data lake into the warehouse, either to persist it as tables within the warehouse, or just reach out for it in the context of satisfying a specific query. And there, I think things get much murkier. When you're dealing with data in a lake, providing some level of confidence that that data has been curated, that you can trust the data, I think it's important.

Figuring out what are the missing pieces there so that we can satisfy the needs of the data scientist is important to us. And that's an initiative for 2023. So, we're right now figuring out: How do we deliver on that ‘23 by bridging that gap with an acquisition? And it may be that it starts life as a partnership, and then, as we build more knowledge of the organization on the technology, then that could turn into an acquisition target.

Actian has been around since long before cloud. Do you still have a lot of customers that are using your services on-premises?

Surprisingly, yeah. We deliver a fully managed service, so you don't have to have people that know the technology, you trust us to do that. So that means that you don't have to have trained experts available 24/7 to support your data infrastructure: We provide it.

A lot of our customers have peaky workloads [i.e., data processing workloads that rise and fall based on various business factors]. The Irish Revenue Commissioners, which is the IRS equivalent in Ireland, run on our software, and coming up to tax day, they just can't get enough resources to throw at this problem. So cloud is perfect for that kind of workload where it's peaky.

Retail is another space in which, obviously coming up to the holidays, they see massive peaks, and cloud gives you that flexibility to grow the environment as you need it and then shrink it back. And you don't have to buy and build for peak. So I think cloud is attractive — the cloud economics make a lot of sense.

We've all moved to working in remote environments and working from home. I want to be able to work from any place. I’d like to take the ferry to Fire Island and work on the beach over there. Battling through VPNs and all of that I think is uninteresting anymore. I think we need to make it convenient to access data, and cloud enables that.

I’m kind of disappointed that we don't see more customers move to cloud work quickly. It may be that a lot of our customers are on a journey to cloud; they're just not there yet. Hardware refreshes or making decisions about shutting down data centers might be the catalyst for them to look at cloud, but they’re definitely slower to adopt it than I’d like.


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