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Starting a business intelligence career from a financial background

Learn various business intelligence career options for professionals with financial analyst experience. It may not be that hard to make the transition, according to a BI expert.

I am a senior financial analyst at a large pharmaceutical company. I am responsible for financial budgeting and month-end closing and reporting, and I have five years of finance / accounting experience, a BCOM and an MBA.

Throughout this time I have led various business intelligence (BI) projects to streamline processes within finance....

I have a keen interest in BI and am wondering what is the best route to start a career in this field. Also, from a long-term perspective, if I had to specialize in analytics or leadership and management, what would an ideal career path look like in these fields?

In a broad sense, I would say you are already in business intelligence if you have led various BI projects. However, if you want to focus exclusively on BI in your career, you could still do that from a business unit, where you would be more business focused, or from centralized IT, where you may be more technology focused. This is how responsibilities are broken out in many organizations today -- there are many 'centralized' BI functions (versus departmental BI functions). Some of these centralized functions include server-side development, installation, upgrades, initial development, standards and handoff to business unit teams. On the other hand, the business unit BI does full-time, multi-month project staffing and departmental support of an incremental nature. And of course, BI staffing that is balanced between IT and business units is a worthy goal. Maybe it seems like I've digressed, but it's important to know which departments you need to focus your search on.

You did not mention if you necessarily wanted to enter BI within your organization. If so, I would keenly observe how they distribute responsibilities, and then act accordingly. It could be that all or most BI is done from central IT. This is not uncommon, especially in younger BI programs where the users have not yet stepped up to the responsibilities necessary.

With your experience, it is going to be much easier to become a business-side (i.e., "front end") business intelligence professional as opposed to a "back end" professional, whose functions tend to require more of a technical foundation. Neither is more important nor necessarily more rewarded than the other, except for one point – those on the business side who can guide BI efforts and apply business intelligence to business results (and get credit for same) can thrive the most. This also requires the most. It requires business acumen, political acumen and technology skills.

If you are more interested in becoming a technology expert, minimizing business skills, be prepared for intense competition in the coming years. If you are five years into your career and you're cut out for details, this may be acceptable.

You do mention analytics, which is one career area that is hot and should remain hot for some time, with data sizes exploding and the rise of analytic capabilities in the business. I see a real need for business-oriented analytics professionals. Analytics on the more technical side is a serious proposition, requiring deep and focused abilities. Again, this may be acceptable and your penchant for detail will help you.

Leadership and management requires yet a different set of skills – a set of skills that is much needed these days. BI management career paths are fairly straightforward because these organizations tend to be flatter than others, relatively speaking. Although if you are at a large pharmaceutical company where "flat" does not seem to apply, you may disagree. Get an IT organizational chart if you can. It tracks up to the chief information officer (CIO), where obviously, you would have broadened your skills well beyond BI. Yet still, I would say that BI is a very important skill to master and makes an excellent foundation of experience for a CIO.

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This was last published in June 2008

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