Helping Students Become Data Analysts

University of Utah School of Business
By Jason Thompson, co-founder, 33 Sticks
 
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of MBA students from the University of Utah on the topic of analytics & entrepreneurialism and it reaffirmed my belief that there is amazing amount of really smart people that want to get involved in the world of analytics but they are struggling to figure out how to get started.
 
From my interaction with the students, both during my presentation and after, I boiled down our conversations to three core questions:
 

  • What classes will prepare me to be a better data analyst?
  • What resources can I use to stay up-to-date on the analytics industry?
  • How do I start getting real world experience?

 

What classes will prepare me to be a better data analyst?
Obviously, being at a university with a wide-range of class options, the most frequently asked question was which classes should I take?
 
I’ve broken down my recommendations on which courses to take into three tiers. The tiers aren’t to suggest that one class is more important than other but that the tiers build upon each other. By adding foundational knowledge in the earlier tiers, students will be able to gain greater value out of the later tiers.
 
Tiers of Learning
 
Tier 1 is meant to provide the student with a foundational layer focused on the development of critical thinking skills.
 
Tier 2 adds functional skills that all data analysts should possess.
 
Tier 3 begins to introduce the student to more complex frameworks for analysis, these skills will set the student apart from the majority of data analysts in the field.
 
 
What resources can I use to stay up-to-date on the analytics industry?
The analytics industry is moving at an incredibly fast pace and while the underlying fundamentals remain the same the tools and methodologies that are available to analysts are in a constant state of flux. New applications aimed at making the analysts job easier or more productive are being introduced to the market on an almost weekly basis and long time industry leaders are continuing to enrich their product offerings to add greater and greater value.
 
So how is anyone supposed to stay up-to-date on everything that is going on in the world of analytics? It’s a tough ask, but I have three suggestions that have worked for me.
 

Social Media
Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty solid list of people that I follow on Twitter. My Twitter network has helped immensely in bubbling up topics that are important for me to understand. And while Twitter tends to be a popular location for data analysts to talk shop, by no means is it the only place you can stay up-to-date. The important thing is that you can identify a trusted network that can continually present news that is important to you.
 
Social News
While news on social sites such as Twitter has a relatively short shelf live, if you happen to be offline for a few hours chances are good you’ll miss something important, social news sites such as reddit and Hacker News are built to keep hot news on the front page.
 
Meetups & Networking
One of the best sources of new information is meeting directly with people. I make it a priority to attend as many meetups and networking events as I can. It should be noted that these interactions aren’t, and shouldn’t be, limited to a physical location, I have weekly Skype chats with many smart minds in the analytics industry. If you aren’t sure who is open to chatting or which event to attend, drop me an email, I’d be happy to help out.

 
 
How do I start getting real world experience?
I get asked this question all the time and unfortunately there isn’t an easy answer, well the answer is easy but the path difficult.
 
Most people aren’t so lucky as to find the perfect job posting advertising that great entry level data analyst position. Rather than spending time looking for the perfect job title that is guaranteed to get a new data analyst the experience they need to become an industry leader, I recommend those looking to break into the analytics industry to simply look in their own backyard. There isn’t a position out there that couldn’t be made more valuable through the use of data and analytical techniques.
 

Current Job
If you already have a job, regardless of the position, find a way to make better use of the data that is available to you. This may require you to get outside your comfort zone a bit and be pushy. Ask for access to data. Be proactive in using data to prioritize your projects. Use data to present the success of your projects to management. The opportunities are there for people who are willing to step up and take them.
 
New Job
If you are looking for your next job, take this as an opportunity to find an organization that is data friendly. Ask tough questions during the interview process, what kind of data will I have available to me? what analytical tools does the company own? How critical is data in running the day-to-day of the company? Is data used to determine where future projects fall on the roadmap? This is your opportunity to find a company that will give you the best opportunity to make use of data and gain critical, real-world experience.
 
 

The last piece of advice I’ll add is patience. Becoming a great analyst takes time. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s not something that you become by reading a text book. It’s not something you become by working for {fill-in-the-blank-company}. Each experience, each project, makes you a better analyst. Don’t rush it and remember that this is only the beginning of a lifetime of learning.