3 skills you should learn to be an impressive Data Analyst

Don’t be surprised if I tell you that is none related to technical skills

So, I don’t need to say that all companies (not only tech companies) want some kickass data analysts to help them to achieve their goals, everyone knows this. By 2022, data analysts are going to be one of the most in-demand roles companies are going to be hiring, along with software engineers and data scientists.

I have been working for almost 4 years with data analysis in three different companies (GetNinjas, Uber and now, OLX) and during this “short” path I got to know several outstanding analysts with a huge variety of skills. I want to introduce what I think are the most important skills you should master as a data analyst if you want to be a superstar (also the skills companies should value the most when hiring analysts):

  1. Curiosity;
  2. Common sense;
  3. Business acumen;

Now, you are probably surprised that none of these skills are hard skills, right? I am confident about it and I am going to explain why in the next paragraphs.

1. Curiosity as the motor of analysts motivation.

Like I said before, I worked and met with no less than 70 different data analysts during my career (I actually count it) and one of the skills that most impressed me in some of them was their curiosity about everything. This allowed these guys to relentlessly follow any piece of information that could lead to answering big questions like “what would happen if we introduce X product in Y location?” or “what price should we charge each user if we want to make good revenues but also offer an awesome experience?”

Curiosity is critical to your success because it’s a strong desire to learn without constraint. It’s the driving force behind new discoveries in all fields, not just technology and science — Larae Quy

I found the quote above and I could not agree more — I think the fundamental words of that quote are the driving force. We all need to have this force and without it, we are going to be just a guy that can run some cute SQL scripts but can’t answer anything impressive.

An entire issue in Harvard Business Review was dedicated to why curiosity matters. One fact that really impressed me was:

In a survey I conducted of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries, only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

This is highly concerning and I think some companies may have a similar situation in some areas, where most of the leaders acknowledge they cherish curiosity but at the same time don’t create opportunities for employees to develop their curiosity… If you are a manager and you are not encouraging your reports to have inquisitive minds, you may not be taking advantage of the full skills of your team.

After all, I already stated some of the benefits of being curious and there are other ones like innovation, better decision-making and teamwork, but what all the researchers from HBR found that I think was really accurate were the two principal barriers of curiosity in business.

First, they found that leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. I am leaving my two cents about this — sure, sometimes curiosity and innovation could lead to nothing valuable but what I am more concerned here is about the huge cost that is generated by employees that are not encouraged to be curious and they are only delivering half of their full potential, only delivering what they are asked to do.

Second, most of the companies seek efficiency on the detriment of curiosity. I could not agree more: I have felt this loop where I was not really motivated in innovating and was only looking to deliver the more I could without thinking further about really important things, like the business strategy where I was probably able of having a great impact. I learned it the hard way.

With this, I want to encourage all of you and all companies that say “I am a curious guy” or “we are an innovative company”, to be really consistent and apply curiosity as a core principle and have many ways to encourage and improve the way we challenge the status quo.

2. Common sense and looking at the big picture.

While common sense has the word “common”, it does not mean that it’s highly employed by everyone, not even outside working hours —for me, having common sense is the ability to look at two similar issues and to decide which one has the best outcome.

I believe common sense is composed of two important things, 1) ability to see the big picture and 2) knowing what’s missing in it. This is highly related to prioritization and analysis depth.

Imagine you have the task of understanding what makes users come back to use your product — first, you need to validate if this is the most important task you should be doing now and if there is nothing more important than this that you should tackle right now. Always be sure that you are doing what creates more value for the product and the users.

Once you defined that this is the task you should be doing, you are probably going to start separating this group of people in users that come back and users that don’t, and understanding the difference between them, right? You are going to find something, however, that’s when you need to ask yourself: What’s missing? What else can I bring to the table? What other types of information do I need to answer even clearer?

In the end, the more information you can bring that is highly related to your problem, the most relevance your job is going to have.

3. Business acumen or business savvy.

Based on the last example, you should also be asking… Do we actually have something special for users to come back or do we need to build something that’s going to help us create loyal users? Where should we invest our efforts to make the greatest impact?

To have business acumen means that you are always thinking in these type of questions during every analysis — it is your understanding about how the business makes and uses money and applying that knowledge to make smarter and more accurate business decisions. Also, there are probably dozens of definitions, I tried to put it simply but it also has many other things you should add to the definition of business acumen.

The first thing you need to do is to understand all business metrics and make it your own. You need to interiorize what happens when X metrics go down or what it means when we have positive EBITDA — take this as your primary goal in any company. After that, you should also guarantee that the company is following the right metrics and support the creation of new ones.

Then, get familiar with the company strategy and create ways to be more informed every day. This is important because you have the power and skills to take part in creating and implementing the strategy, leading the company to better outcomes.

One excellent book that I believe is really helpful to introduce you to Data Analysis and that brings an overview of main metrics you should understand in any kind of company is Lean Analytics from Allistar Croll & Benjamin Yoskovitz — one of my first books when I started my career and I remember it like it was yesterday, it is a must read for you.

Final thoughts

After four years working with data, I still feel like I have a long way to mastering these skills but I am sure I’ll get it someday, learning with others and taking the time to always improve my skills altogether.

All these three skills are pretty well connected by each other, just think it this way, if you are not curious enough you are not going to be willing to understand all business metrics and probably the strategy is not going to come knocking on your door (business acumen) and without both of them, your common sense is going to be somehow less sharp and you are more likely going to have a hard time trying to have the impact you want in companies.

The important thing is to always be prepared and trained for whatever challenge you have to face and get it done until you feel really satisfied with the final results.

Just making clear that this is not like a food recipe — these are just my thoughts about what I learned and saw during these years, so please feel free to comment or reach out directly to me if you want to discuss further about it.

Thanks to Lucas Navarro, Renato Caliari and Gabriel Rosario that encouraged me to write my first piece. It is not going to be the last one.