Panel Discussion: Needed Data Skills for 2021

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As we rush headlong into 2021, the pressure to drive decisions and competitive advantage from data is exposing a new challenge: for most companies, the analytics bottleneck they now face is a people problem. To overcome that challenge, companies are racing to build deeper expertise across the board.

And it’s not just hard data skills, either. In a recent Gartner report, their Analytics, BI, and Data Science team noted that, “Data and analytics leaders must leverage the collective intelligence of the organization to compose effective and augmented analytics solutions.” In other words, soft skills and business acumen are now paramount to hiring managers.

To help both hiring managers and job seekers looking to fill these key roles, we sat down with a number of senior analytics leaders to get their perspectives on hiring, recruiting, and critical skills. You’ll find their conversation below, full of insights and actionable recommendations from Ryan Dillon, Head of Analytics at Intapp, Mike Doll, Head of Data and Analytics at Udacity, Don Moore at Kitu Super Coffee, and Charles Zhu, Director Solutions at Sisu.

First off, thanks to everyone for diving into this discussion with us. As you look at the open roles you’re trying to fill now, what are the most critical hard and soft skills you look for in an interview?

Mike Doll, Head of Data & Analytics, Udacity: Great talent can come from a variety of backgrounds and brings many types of knowledge and tools to the table. What really matters, then, is how they deploy those tools in a structured way to solve business problems. For hard skills, SQL and structured problem solving are a must-have to work with data. For soft skills, I look for different things at different levels. Communication and accountability is always important: all analysts must deliver reliably and work with stakeholders. For more senior analysts I look for demonstrations of creativity and influence.

Ryan Dillon, Head of Analytics, Intapp: I agree. When working with data, it’s critical to be strong with the essential tools. However, it’s easy to get caught up in the technology choices and lose sight of the business problem, which is the most important thing we’re trying to solve. Business stakeholders don’t care about what tool you used to get from A to B, as long as the destination provides them with something reliable and insightful. The most important soft skill I look for is analytical curiosity. I like someone who isn’t afraid to test the null hypothesis, because thinking about it another way might uncover an area to improve, in turn increasing the value of the organization.

Don Moore, Senior Business Insights Manager, Kitu Super Coffee: The basics still apply. With the wide variety of data sources we depend on, there’s a premium on great SQL acumen, but also advanced Excel and modeling tools. Particularly when you’re working in tandem with finance and planning teams, knowing your way around Visual Basic, Pivots, and everyone’s favorite—VLOOKUP—is key. On the soft side, one of the key things I look for is politeness and positivity. These are key cultural aspects we look for across Kitu, but they’re particularly important when it comes to building rapport and trust across teams.  

Charles Zhu, Director of Solutions Engineering, Sisu: One critical thing for me is willingness to learn, as the role of the analyst is quickly shifting. At a start-up, we have “full-stack” solutions engineers who not only have the core analyst skills of SQL and data frame manipulation, but have also picked up data engineering, statistics, and most importantly, the ins-and-outs of our clients’ business models. Further, there are simulation questions to ask that test the curiosity of the analyst to acquire this trifecta of skills. One of my favorite business interview questions is to “explain the business model of your favorite app.

Next, looking ahead, what do you predict will be the highest-demand skill-set in 2021 in your industry?

Ryan Dillon: I believe translation is so critical for the industry. Business stakeholders want an analytics partner who can highlight opportunities and risks for them. They want a partner who can provide insights in terms they understand. It is not good enough to be a SQL expert if you don’t understand the problems facing the C-Suite and other functional leaders. Over time, I think technical skills will become a commodity. This means we need to go beyond the code, put on our business hats, and view the world from an operator’s perspective.

Don Moore: In today’s at-home economy, more CPG brands are prioritizing online sales channels. This is a completely different realm for the conventional CPG analyst who is used to dealing with panel data and store portals. In my opinion, there will be a surge in demand for analysts with experience using out-of-the-box E-Commerce Analysis Tools, and who are familiar with standard metrics and analyses in the E-Comm space. This raises the point that there may also be high demand for Data Engineers with knowledge of ETL, Data Warehousing, & BI tools, but this would be a bigger step for the industry, generally speaking.

Mike Doll: I don’t have reason to believe that 2021 will be much different than 2020.  At a basic level, SQL, Python/R and data visualization skills form the foundation of good analysts and data scientists. As the foundation, they will remain in high demand.

At a higher level, what will make an individual in higher demand is creativity and critical thinking. The skill of combining business acumen with technical expertise to deploy data in a way that truly drives value, that remains the hardest to find and therefore the highest demand skill-set.

Charles Zhu: SaaS tools have expanded the potential of an analyst. A substantial chunk of data engineering, for example, is now doable by analysts armed with SQL, especially for companies born on the cloud. So for startups, we can imagine that the full stack analyst will hold off the need for a data engineer. Looking further out, we don’t see the trend stopping so like Ryan, we see data translation, action recommendation, and business presentation skills commanding an increasing premium.

When you’re looking at a candidate’s Linkedin profile or resume, what characteristics stand out most?

Don Moore: There are a few key things I look for in an initial scan of candidate’s profile. First, whether or not they have a degree in a quantitative field, the most important thing is to show that they have experience working with data, have a metrics-first approach, and have hands-on depth transforming and visualizing data from multiple sources into a polished deliverable. Beyond that, we’re interviewing for people who are self-motivated in their endeavors and can add value that we didn’t originally intend or expect.

Ryan Dillon: One of the best resumes I’ve seen recently was also the simplest. This candidate simply listed three business problems, the related actions, and the business solutions/results. It was a resume after my own heart. We often get caught up in the technical skills, but as analytics professionals, we’re problem solvers first. This resume communicated that notion perfectly.

Another thing I look for is communication ability. We often work with lots of data and perform lots of analysis, ranging from simple to complex. Still, it’s important that we’re able to configure analyses to the appropriate level.  I’m always captivated by candidates that are able to describe business problems in a relatable way. Questions such as, “How can we better estimate our new sales in the quarter?” are relatable, and sometimes the analysis approach is transferable.

Mike Doll: The characteristic I most look for in a candidate profile is evidence of business partnerships. I want to see specifics on how they deploy data in direct support of business outcomes. Just creating datasets, building reports, and crunching numbers is not evidence of real analysis. Neither is purely fielding requests or just handing over an output. I look for stories about how the analyst was a partner to some business function, be it marketing, sales, product, etc, and helped create value.

Finally, we all know the best way to level up your function is to invest in the existing team. What skills are you planning to help your team develop in 2021?

Mike Doll: For my team, we’ll continue to invest in a mixture of the partnership skills I’ve mentioned, as well as a variety of technical skills. Analysts want to improve their integration with their part of the business, their presentation and influence skills and their understanding of the business itself. And then we’ll also focus on improving skills in areas like statistical analysis, scripts like python, and model building.

Ryan Dillon: My team, including myself, will focus on the concepts I’ve mentioned so far. The more we’re able to elevate our translation and communication abilities, the more we earn the trust of our business stakeholders. The more trust we earn, the more problems we’re offered to solve. The more problems we solve, the more value we create for the organization. 

Don Moore: I’m going to go further afield, and a little against the grain with this one. One of my biggest priorities in 2021 is expanding data literacy (and some basic Excel savvy) beyond my direct team. So, we’re going deep on Pivot Tables! As a small CPG company, we’re required to effectively communicate data to sell our products, but our employees are, for the most part, inexperienced in transforming data to paint that clear picture. By teaching all our employees to create Pivot Tables will enable them to rely less on our data team, make better use of provided data, and be better storytellers themselves.

Charles Zhu: As others have mentioned, the most sophisticated analyses mean nothing if business users can’t understand the insights. On the actionability angle, we have found that the data can show millions of interesting facts, but a very small subset can actually be acted upon, and even fewer result in permanent changes in operations. We have the privilege of analyzing diverse data sets across a variety of industries, so building a library of best practices for the kind of insights that can lead to immediate ROI is critical for us.

About the Author

Grant Shirk is the Head of Marketing at Sisu, where he is focused on helping global businesses diagnose why their critical business metrics are changing. An expert in product positioning, enterprise SaaS, and demand generation, he’s helped brands like Fidelity Investments, UPS, USAA, and Viacom design and deliver elegant, intuitive, and useful solutions to tough business challenges. Prior to Sisu, Grant built highly efficient product and marketing teams at Scout RFP, Vera, Box, Microsoft, and Tellme Networks, with a focus on unique positioning and rich customer-driven storytelling. Grant holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Stanford University.

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