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SAN DIEGO -- There are two kinds of data analytics professionals -- those who show up merely to collect a paycheck and leave at 5 o'clock, and those who add value, solve problems and make themselves indispensable to their organizations, according to Bernard Wehbe, a founding partner at business intelligence and analytics services firm StatSlice Consulting.
Wehbe, who spoke this week before a crowded room at the Enterprise Data World 2013 conference, is making it his business to teach people about what it takes to become an indispensable analytics professional. And he had a great message for newcomers to the profession as well as seasoned veterans: Remember that analytics excellence is about more than just crunching numbers; it's also about people, processes and, not least of all, passion.
Wehbe, who boasts 14 years of analytics project management experience, went on to offer a helpful list of nine key principles that -- when focused on and adhered to properly -- can turn one into an analytics rock star.
1. Make sure you're passionate about analytics.
The difference in value to an organization between an average performer and a rock star is massive, according to Wehbe. That's why it's important for those considering or re-examining a career in analytics to be honest about their personal affinities, strengths and weaknesses.
The analytics rock star knows how to balance her business as well as technical knowledge.
founding partner, StatSlice Consulting
Wehbe recommended taking a personal assessment test, such as the one put forth by author Tom Rath in the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, and said that those in the analytics profession should get confirmation that being "analytical" is one of their strengths. If it isn't, they may want to consider another career. "A top performer in business must be passionate about what they do," Wehbe said. "Analytics is no exception."
2. Focus on applied learning and mentoring.
It's easy to find classes on the basic tools of analytics, such as the SQL query language, ETL technology and statistical techniques, and classroom, or theoretical, learning is vital to being a successful analytics professional. But applied learning, or learning on the job, is just as important as theoretical learning, if not more so, according to Wehbe. On-the-job learning is the only way to hone the skill of creating the underlying assumptions that go into solving analytics problems.
"In school, you are given the assumption, you are given the problem and then you are told to solve the problem based on the tools that they teach," Wehbe said. "Solving the problem is a lot of times the easy part. Coming up with the assumptions is the hard part. Applied learning is the only way to learn how to come up with those assumptions."
3. Develop your presentation and communication skills.
The most indispensable analytics professionals work hard on their presentation and public speaking skills. Wehbe recommended taking public speaking courses and getting involved with a group outside of work, such as Toastmasters, that offers an opportunity for public speaking.
"Communication is key in any field, but that is especially so in analytics," he said. "Not only do you have to present your ideas neatly, but you also have to sell your ideas."
4. Be the 'go-to guy' for analytics.
Wehbe used an example from another area of life to illustrate the value of the go-to person in an analytics program.
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"Let's take an example of paying bills and finances. What if you could find someone who takes it over for your life? Think about how that would make you feel. That's the level of service that is expected from the analytics rock star," he said. "You take the problem on and [own] the problem end to end, and you provide a solution."
Wehbe added that analytics rock stars are also good at anticipating and finding the answers to questions before they're asked. They look for problems that need to be solved instead of waiting for problems to come to them, he said.
5. Don't stop until it makes sense.
It might seem counterintuitive to have a principle about intuition when talking about analytics, but Wehbe told the Enterprise Data World crowd that analytics professionals need to hone those intuitive skills. He said analytics rock stars are always asking why and understand that most problems are just symptoms of a larger root cause. They typically aren't satisfied until they find that root problem and solve it.
"Make no mistake, the analytics rock stars must learn to rely on their intuition," he said. "I'm not saying that if you are new to the field you should rely on that too much, because it takes time to hone that intuition. But as you achieve mastery in the field, [you will] start to hone that intuition [to come up] with better hypotheses."
6. Learn to quickly create prototypes.
When analytics professionals present findings and proposed actions to business executives, visual tools like dashboards can be very useful. But when making a proposal to a department head or other interested stakeholder, Wehbe said, it's important to create a prototype and populate the presentation tools with actual data. That's much more effective in terms of communication than displaying stock data that means little to the business execs.
"There is a huge difference between presenting a [canned] Tableau or QlikView dashboard versus quickly coming up with a prototype with their data and then presenting those dashboards to them," he said. "The difference is night and day. With a prototype, they can see and feel the exact impact [on] their business."
7. Question assumptions.
Rock star analysts are always questioning assumptions and know how to avoid the common analytical traps that people tend to fall into. For example, one of those traps is the tendency to miss the big picture when focusing on what might at first seem like a small problem. Another example of a common trap is the human tendency to seek "silver bullet" solutions to problems. In analytics, the answers are always complicated and silver bullets are exceedingly rare, according to Wehbe.
8. Be an advocate for a solid analytics foundation.
The vast majority of source systems have problematic data models, according to Wehbe. That's why it's important for the analytics rock star to push for improved data models for source systems. This will create a solid foundation for analytics activities and ensure different analysts can understand data sets "without having to fumble through overly complicated joins," he said. "You must become an advocate for reliable data contracts and you must promote good data governance practices within your organization."
9. Be a bridge builder.
The hardest people to find in any organization are those whose skill sets span both business and IT. People who can bridge that gap are crucial to the success of companies. The most successful analytics professionals work to hone their business skills while maintaining a solid understanding of the inner workings of the IT department. An added bonus of maintaining technical skills is that it helps the analytics professional better understand the data.
"We know as analysts that 90% of our work is about understanding data, and without understanding how IT works and understanding IT concepts, you cannot achieve an understanding of the data," Wehbe said. "The analytics rock star knows how to balance her business as well as technical knowledge."