When Allison Holloway (MS ’03, PhD ’09) came to UW-Madison for graduate school in electrical and computer engineering, databases weren’t on her mind yet. She pictured herself going into computer architecture, building upon her electrical engineering degree from the University of Texas-Austin.
A database course with professor emeritus David J. DeWitt, a seminal figure in databases at Wisconsin, changed her thinking. And over time, the appeal of databases grew on her: “I knew data and data management was big and getting bigger as a field and as a problem.”
Holloway ultimately switched to the Department of Computer Sciences and became the final PhD student advised by DeWitt. UW-Madison is widely considered to have the top database research group in the country, as well as the oldest such group.
“He hadn’t taken a [PhD] student in a year or two,” Holloway says of DeWitt. “He took me on partially because I was a woman and he thought there should be more women in CS. I was very fortunate, and I loved having him as my advisor,” she recalls.
After finishing her PhD in 2009, Holloway joined Oracle, where she is now a principal member of technical staff. Her most gratifying project so far, she says, has been the Oracle database in-memory project, a major endeavor that involved coming up with new data formats and resulted in a major addition to the Oracle database with 10 to 100x performance speedups. It was especially satisfying to follow a project through its whole life span, from inception to launch to future refinements, she says.
Her contributions at the company are attracting attention. Last year, Business Insider singled her out as one of Oracle’s “rock star engineers,” reporting that she is dubbed the “Queen of Scan” inside the company for devising creative ways for databases to comb through huge volumes of data more quickly.
Holloway has found her UW-Madison education a good foundation for a successful career in Silicon Valley. “My friends from grad school are still friends I see a lot here, and they’re a network I rely on for advice and support. Also, Wisconsin has a great program for databases, and people want to hire Wisconsin grads.”
She encourages current students to get to know not only their own cohort, but also students a few years ahead, to glean all the advice they can. “Having a large network never hurts,” she says.
Holloway sees wide possibilities ahead, noting that—even now—the database field is still in its early years. “The explosion of data”—both user-generated and machine-generated—“has been so fast, we’re finally starting to make tiny bits of good headway.”
Many important questions remain, she says, regarding how companies and individuals can make sense of vast amounts of data, clean data, or remove bad data. “Short of an apocalypse, people will be employed in making sense of data for a long time to come,” Holloway jokes. And with her track record, she’ll be at the forefront of meeting those challenges.