What Makes a Data Analyst?

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Click to learn more about author Mathias Golombek.

Today’s businesses rely heavily on customer, product, process, input and market data. They increasingly need talented, skilled people who can extract information and insights from the data.

But what skills are employers looking for? In data analytics, there are some skills and qualities employers look for in all applicants. While education will help develop some of these skills and abilities, others can be sharpened with experience and practice.

Know the Business

For a broader and more impactful data analyst role, you need to gain a solid understanding of how the business works. This means looking beyond KPIs and last month’s top 10 selling items.

What is its strategy, its position in the market, and how does it differentiate itself from the competition? What are the business-critical processes, and what connects the different products, departments, and people? Where do dependencies lie and what are the threats to success?

While it’s impossible to know everything, building your business knowledge through your work and your relationships will increase your value as an analyst.

Understand the Technology

As a data analyst, you work with software, systems, and data. Combining these in a meaningful way to extract insights from raw data requires technical skills and a desire to continually grow. These skills need to keep up with developments in technology.

Grounding your technical understanding in curiosity and interest will serve you well in this industry. Are you excited by the idea of using data and analyzing, shaping and transforming it into visible insights? Do you like taking raw inputs and turning them into something significant that tells a story about a certain topic or discovery? That’s a great foundation to build on.

Understanding the data value chain lets you put everything in context. Many systems and touchpoints are involved in the end-to-end process. Knowing this make it easier to understand how processes are connected and who is responsible for what.

  • Where did the data come from?
  • Why was it collected, how, and by whom?
  • What transformation steps did it go through?
  • Where is it stored?
  • How can you access it and who has access to it?
  • What tools do you use for analysis?
  • What questions do your stakeholders have?
  • Who is the audience for your insights and what actions might its members take based on your findings?
  • What happens with your findings once you share them?
  • What impact has your analysis had?
  • What are the visible results in decision-making?

Gold Standard of Communication

As a data analyst you don’t just communicate through and with data but also with stakeholders, colleagues, data suppliers, system owners, and many others developing insights to reach a decision.

Always consider the medium when you’re sharing information. Does your organization embrace digital, interactive, and exploratory dashboards for decision-making or does it prefer to deliver print-ready materials for ‘reading through’? Who is your audience and what is it looking for? Where is your audience, and how do language, culture and location influence the way findings are communicated? What are the timeframes for sharing information?

Improving all your communication skills – verbal, written, and through the use of data – will serve you well over time.

Manage the Stakeholders

Your stakeholders are your customers and form an important piece of the puzzle. Their need for information drives your analysis.

Remember: The larger a group gets or the bigger its influence, the more difficult it can be to find the solution that addresses its needs.

Work with your stakeholders and gather their requirements through discussions, interviews and research. It’s important to understand and manage their expectations in regard to timeframes, available data, people and resources.

Show your stakeholders how to use your analysis. While it should be intuitive and simple to do so, including instructions is recommended. You can’t foresee all the possible paths a user might take through an interactive data visualization, so an introduction for your audience will be helpful.

Try to foster an ongoing exchange of ideas and information with your stakeholders. That way you stay close to their business and their needs for insights while they receive input on data and systems.

Think Critically

Critical thinking involves going – and thinking – above and beyond the task at hand. When you ask yourself, ‘what does this mean and what impact could this have on process X’, you leave the beaten track and dive deeper into the data.

Looking at outliers should always prompt further investigation. What does a spike in the data indicate? Is it insignificant or does it need more detailed investigation?

Visual analytics can support your critical thinking processes because they allow you to look at data from different perspectives. You can investigate an interesting data point quickly and easily using different charts, introducing time dimensions or details about other parts of the business. Consider yourself a researcher and an investigator.

Presentation Skills

Many analysts can share their work digitally with a broad and large audience through the click of a button. However, sometimes you need to present your insights and reports in front of a live audience.

Make sure you hone your presentation skills, so that your findings are shared effectively and professionally. A clear structure that’s easy to follow and communicates key insights logically sets the right tone. Focus on what’s important and know how to navigate interactive dashboards.

Don’t limit your answers to the obvious questions that led to your analysis in the first place but anticipate potential follow-up questions. This comes back to knowing and understanding your business and your stakeholders. What are they interested in, what are their priorities and dependencies at this moment?

Being able to answer all questions comes in handy during question time. And if you can’t answer at the time, prepare a follow-up process to share the answers later.

Preparation is key. Listening to your stakeholders and anticipating their needs will help you build your credibility and brand internally.

Data Visualization Skills

It doesn’t matter what tool you use and how you share insights. Being able to paint a comprehensive picture – digitally or on a whiteboard – to show what’s going on is an important skill to have. Many disagreements can be avoided and cleared up quickly when the starting point is a picture.

You’ll often communicate your insights in a report, interactive dashboard, or chart. Make sure you pick the right chart type for the data and design your work in a way that shows key findings clearly and quickly.

Reporting numbers in isolation can make them lose impact. How are they related to previous periods, to other departments, to industry benchmarks? Put results into perspective to guide your audience on whether they are good or bad, and whether, how, or when action is needed.

Start Your Journey

Helping organizations improve their decision-making processes using data is an exciting field that offers many career opportunities.

To make a start on improving your skills, set realistic goals. Professional growth and development take time and you won’t reach the top overnight. It all starts with a single step.

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