One question I see a lot online is “how do I get a job in analytics” or “how do I get a job as a data analyst” or some variation. While I’m sure there is a linear path from college major and short list of skills to data analyst, so many people I know in this field started somewhere else and somehow cobbled together a background (intentionally or unintentionally) that was applicable to data analysis work.
So here is my path.
I was really good at math in high school. I took AP Calculus my senior year, and scored a 4 on the AP test which was good enough to earn me college credit for Calculus I before I started college. I also took a computer programming course my senior year. (We learned Turbo Pascal, does anyone use that anymore?) It was the year 2000, and the internet was this new, exciting thing. My plan was to major in computer science and become a web master.
My first semester of college among other things, I took Computer Science 101. I don’t remember how long it took me until that class started to make zero sense to me. This was before Stackoverflow.com and a zillion online tutorials. We didn’t even have Google. (Well, it existed, it just wasn’t mainstream.) I decided I didn’t want to follow a Comp Sci path anymore, it seemed so dull and I wasn’t a dull person! I didn’t want a job where I sat in a sea of cubicles staring at a computer all day. (Oh how naïve 18-year-olds are.)
I ended up majoring in Communication even though I was so bad at it that I fainted after giving a speech in my Comm 101 class. You’d think that would have been a sign I was picking the wrong major, but clearly I’m so bad at Communication, I didn’t see the sign. Four years went by, and I didn’t really think about my original college plans or my penchant for math until registering for my final semester of college when I thought to myself “you know I really miss doing math,” but I also really wanted to graduate in 4 years.
I started my career in marketing communication. Specifically, creating brochures for accounting conferences. It was as boring as you’d imagine. After a couple years, I landed a job in public relations & marketing for a hospital system. I genuinely loved working for hospitals, it was as close as I could get to fulfilling my mom’s dream of me becoming a nurse. (She was an RN for 35 years.) This was the first time I got a taste of analytics. It truly was a taste. I used Google Analytics to report monthly website visits. That was it. Later, I launched our first social media channels (it was the late 2000s) and eventually Facebook provided data for business pages, Hootsuite provided data for tweets, and YouTube provided data for videos. It wasn’t a lot, but I devoured it. It didn’t occur to me that there were jobs in marketing that just dealt with data. (This is where a mentor could have been really helpful.) Or maybe it occurred to me, but I assumed I didn’t have the skillset. I had never taken a statistics course. A few years later, I landed a digital marketing role at a corporate real estate company. At first, I was focused on website content and strategy. Hey! Look at that, I fulfilled my dream of becoming a webmaster (sort of). Web and social media analytics improved and soon I was reporting on some (kind of) savvy stuff. I was doing it all via Excel or creating basic dashboards within the reporting UI of our web and social media platforms. I mostly figured it all out on my own. (Often with the help of Google.)
And that’s how I landed my first analytics role. The digital marketing team I was on grew significantly (from 13 roles when I joined to ~50). That included creating dedicated marketing analytics roles. I knew I didn’t have the skillset to apply for the analytics lead, but after they brought in a much more experienced senior marketing analytics manager, I applied for the role underneath her. And then I withdrew my application because I was happy in the role I had at the time. They hired someone else. And then he quit. And then my team went through a reorganization, and the position I was in was basically … going away. But I had shown an interest in analytics, and I guess they didn’t want to fire me, so my VP put me in the analytics role.
I was only using Excel and creating basic dashboards, as I said, I had never taken a statistics class, and I didn’t know how to write code, not even SQL. (Ok, I knew how to create links and bulleted lists in HTML … not quite the same though.)
Back when I had initially applied for the analytics role and met with the boss, I asked her why she would even consider me instead of someone with more analytics experience. She said that she could either hire me, someone who knew our business really well, and teach me the tech skills I lacked. Or she could hire someone with the tech skills and teach them the business. Either way, she was going to have to teach someone something.
This seems to be a common theme when hiring for analytics or data-focused roles. Do we want to person with the advanced technical skills, or the person with business acumen and the soft skills like communication? Very rarely will you find someone who is advanced in both areas. If you can sell yourself as someone who knows how to use data to solve business problems, and someone who is a quick learn on the technical stuff, you can have a successful career in analytics. But I’ll save those specifics for a future blog post.