What Data Analysts Do, Their Prospects & How to Become One
I worked for ten years as a Government Data Analyst and Manager. Although it’s not always the most exciting job in the world, it’s relatively well paid, secure and surprisingly varied, and if you have a logical mind and a curiosity to see how and why things work in the corporate world, your prospects can be very good indeed. As a data analyst, you will also be able to move into other areas as your knowledge and skills expand, and data analysis feeds into the larger sphere of programming, business analysis and management, so your experience could very well take you to the top.
Why Become A Data Analyst?
Competition is lower in work that involves the use of mathematics and statistics, simply because few people have a real affinity for the subject-area, and people with a high standard of the required skill-set are relatively uncommon. This can be an encouragement or it can be a warning. I worked with many fellow data analysts who could not even grasp simple percentage manipulation and basic statistical techniques. This made them quite unhappy in their work, and certainly they were never likely to rise above the lowest level in career terms.
But if you are a maths whizz; if you got your first computer as a kid and went straight to trying to understand how to program in machine code; if you find yourself shouting at the popular press and the adverts on TV for misunderstanding – again – what it really means to say that 6 out of 10 women prefer cats (which women? How big was the sample? How was the question framed and did it bias the answer towards a positive or negative response?) then you may very well make an excellent data analyst, and you may be very successful in your chosen career.
The Rewards of Being a Data Analyst
For someone who is curious, logical, highly numerate, and most importantly wants to share their knowledge, data analysis can be extremely rewarding. The satisfaction of piecing all the disparate bits of data together, analysing it and manipulating it until you’re sure it gives the most accurate and accessible model of the real world can be very satisfying. The people you work with will probably be of above-average intelligence and highly professional. You will work within a certain set of recognised corporate guidelines, and of course the rules of statistics, but you will also largely work unsupervised, and have a great deal of room for your own statistical creativity – it is often up to you to discover the best method of analysis, and it is often up to you to discover how to present your findings to colleagues, management, and organisations that your company works with. You will need to be focused and very much ‘on the ball’, and you will need to have excellent people skills because you will often need to speak to many people and attend a lot of meetings in order to get hold of the data you need.
The financial rewards may not be the stuff of legend, but they are well above average, and you will have the skill-set to be able to successfully apply for a wide variety of jobs, from programmer to managerial positions. In the UK, in the three months leading up to the end of May 2012, 90% of jobs in data analysis paid more than £23,000, and 10% paid more than £57,000. In the U.S., the average for a business data analyst is around $50,000 to $60,000. Top managerial positions will of course pay much higher than these averages. (Sources: IT Jobs Watch (UK) and Salary (US).
What Does a Data Analyst Do?
Collect Data. Data comes from a hundred different sources: it can be in raw form on a computer database, or you may take surveys from customers, or use data for comparison from other large companies. If you’re preparing a report, you will need to collate all your data, and make it meaningful and understandable to those who aren’t necessarily logical or mathematical, so as you collect data, you will need to know where it is going to fit in – as an example, if you’re reporting on the number of 16 year olds in your area who go on to further education in your city, as well as the basic data you will also need comparison data from other cities, and possibly things like the level of income for each group, level of unemployment in the area, how many 16 year olds in total there are so that you can calculate the percentage, how many went on to do other things instead… the list goes on. What data you collect depends on the purpose of your report, and it will often be up to your own initiative to see patterns and reasons in the data you collect so that you can present not just raw data but give some indication of what the data means.
Manipulate and analyse data. By ‘manipulate’ I don’t mean in a dishonest way, but raw data is never meaningful. If you find that 1000 16 year olds went on from school to do some further education, this is meaningless until you know how many 16 year olds there are in the city as a whole. Lets say it’s 10,000. So you now know 10% of 16 year olds did some further education in your city. How does this compare with the city down the road? Let’s say you find that 2000 of their 16 year olds went on to further education, and they have a similar overall population, so that means that 20% of their 16 year olds went on to FE. Well, now you have to ask why your percentage is so low compared with theirs. You might want to look at the number and reputation of the colleges in both cities, or the levels of wealth and poverty, and compare the different percentages for each of the different groups that you investigated.
Programming. To be able to get hold of the data and then analyse it, you will almost certainly need some programming skills. Even if you only use Excel spreadsheets, you will need to be familiar with some Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) to be able to use some of the techniques that will turn rows of numbers into meaningful data. You may have to interrogate databases, and because you’ll be going so deeply into the data they contain, you might have to code or re-code parts of it to persuade it to give up its secrets. If you start off in a trainee or entry-level position, you may be given some leeway and some training in this, but most companies will expect you to hit the ground running to a certain extent and at least have some basic knowledge of programming.
Report Writing. Data Analysts must be able to present their findings, whether it’s in a low-level report to the colleague who sits next to you so that she can use your findings in her own report, or whether it’s a high-level report to the management team so that they can plan future policy. Reports must be clear, unambiguous, and will almost always include graphic elements like graphs in order to get the data over as accessibly as possible.
Quality Assurance. As a Data Analyst, you will have unrivalled insight into the workings of your company, both in the areas where it excels and the areas where it could do better. You may find yourself working on Quality Assurance or Improvement projects, and this can be a very creative and varied part of your job, and rewarding too, if one of your projects leads to corporate success.
Finance. Many of your reports will have a financial element even if you aren’t directly working with corporate financial data. Data analysis is often geared towards fault-finding (and fixing!) or improvement, or both - and both problems and improvements cost money. Data analysis also deals with saving money and bettering the finances of the corporation, but either way, analysts deal with a lot of financial data.
Meetings, Presentations and Conferences. Even if you’re a lowly newbie to the team, you will need to attend meetings and both hear and give presentations. Luckily, short and concise is always better. Everyone is busy, and all they want is the data and maybe some of your ideas on what this data means. It’s nothing to be nervous about, it’s just a report in spoken form and you can use handouts so that people are looking at them instead of you.
Technical Work. As someone who uses computers all day and has a grasp of mathematics and technology, your skills will often be unofficially borrowed by other departments – certainly if you work for a smaller company – and you may find that whenever the I.T. department is short-handed they may call on the data analysts to lend a hand. If you have the time, this is always a good thing, not just for team spirit and interdepartmental relations, but also to add to your own contacts and skills.
How To Become A Data Analyst
So you’re sold on the idea of becoming a data analyst. Where do you start? Before you apply for positions make sure you have some evidence of skill. If you have a maths or statistics qualification already that’s great, but have some evidence that you have other strings to your bow. Signing up to programming, mathematics and statistics courses at night school will look very good on your CV (as long as you don’t drop out!); find your way around excel and VBA, and as many other software applications and programming languages as you can, so that if a potential employer decides to set tests and ask technical questions at interviews, you will have the edge.
Get, or at least start working towards, a professional qualification. There are many you might choose from – there are professional qualifications available in statistics, business, and data analysis from very reputable establishments, and a number of associations and guilds that will provide in-depth advice to help you start or develop your career.
Even if you have few or no relevant qualifications and little experience you may be successful in applying for a position as a data analyst, or be able to get a position in a related area if you aim for trainee or entry-level jobs. Find your own ways of gaining experience – show yourself as intelligent and innovative in work even if you are just a file-clerk right now, and volunteer to help with, or start, projects that aim towards improving the business, even if it’s only putting files (whether real or computer-based) in order. Having projects outside work can also be invaluable – maybe design a website and give it interactive features – it doesn’t have to be conventionally successful or even attract any visitors at all, it is your showcase that you can use to show to potential employers to demonstrate your skills and interest. When you’re designing it think ‘business’ and ‘functionality’. Web, design, business, mathematics, statistics and programming all feed into each other, so learn as much as you can about each of these areas and think how you can demonstrate your experience and knowledge. If this appeals to you, start by learning HTML and see if you can get the use of Dreamweaver and Photoshop – they are very expensive to buy, but your local college may do night-school courses that will give you both instruction in and access to the software.