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Lately we’ve seen a lot of articles calling data scientists and statisticians the jobs of the future. While I agree that we’ll probably see an increase in those types of jobs, I think they will still stay niche roles. I believe there are more immediate needs that, when addressed, will have a much greater business impact. Right now we have huge opportunities to make the data more accessible, more “joinable” and more consumable. Leaders don’t want more data – they want more information they can use to run their businesses.
We frequently hear about new data we’ll be able to get through technological advances; the ability to get sentiment analysis from Twitter feeds, for example, or how we will be able to predict the future given certain profiles or behaviors. But, we’re still struggling to make sense of the data we already have. Every company has hundreds of millions of records about their sales, expenses, employees and so on, with dozens of insights yet to be discovered through simple comparison or triangulation of relevant data. Why don’t we focus on this? I think because it’s very difficult to do – being successful in this “data translator” role requires a unique set of skills and knowledge, the combination of which I call the BASE skillset:
This one seems obvious, but it doesn’t mean simply understanding the financials of a business. Rather, it means truly knowing the operational details, the incentives, the install base, market growth, penetration, the competition, etc. An analyst can’t just know the technical aspect of a report or the math behind the numbers, but what is truly driving a pattern in terms of product quality, competition, incentives and/or offerings. The best analysts are able to mathematically isolate the key levers of a trend and then suggest actions to react to or take advantage of those trends.
Ability to Synthetize and Simplify
This is, in my opinion, the most underrated and underappreciated skill. Combing through thousands of data points and netting out 3-4 key issues in under 10 minutes, and then communicating these to a group of execs with very different analytical skills, is truly difficult. The key is to make it simple but not simplistic, which means you still capture the complexity even as you get to the few core insights. It requires a very thorough effort to gather all the relevant information before categorizing, prioritizing and deciding if it is significant. After a while, you become an expert and can sniff things out quickly. At the same time, there is the danger of missing anomalies when you jump to conclusions based only on a summary look.
There are stages that should be followed when explaining complex ideas, something data translators are frequently expected to do. The best storytellers start by giving context and trying to couple the current discussion to something the audience already knows, ensuring the story is well structured and connected. We have to move from a “buffet style” business review with thousands of numbers packed in tables to a layered approach that will guide the audience to focus first on the most relevant messages, diving deeper only when necessary. Minto Pyramid Principles, which are built around a process for organizing thought and communication, are helpful in making sure you really focus on what is important and relevant, versus being obsessed in telling every fact.
Expertise in Data Visualization
I am glad to finally see so much focus on Information Visualization and I believe this is correlated to the explosion of data. Traditional methods of organizing data do not facilitate an intuitive understanding of key information points or trends. For instance, the two examples below contain data on car sales across the U.S. The first, an alphabetized list, is much less intuitive than the second, which shows those sales on a map in Power View. With Power View, right away you can identify the states with the highest sales: CA, FL, TX, NY. (Workbook available here)
There is no better way to see patterns or trends than data visualization, making expertise in this area – both technical and analytical – critical for data translators.
For many years, the type of accessible, layered analysis I would like to do has been limited by my technical abilities when it came to, for example, combining complex data sets. Tools like PowerPivot address and help negate limitations in technical ability, and I can now build a workbook easily, even from a PDF doc (I used Flash Fill in Excel to create a PowerPivot & Power View to build this report). Even more amazing is the ability I now have using these tools to provide self-service capabilities to my business partners, who can interact with the data instead of reading dozens of static tables with different cuts. In presentation mode, I can now present findings and dynamically change the data as I reveal insights and dive from top level learnings to very deep detail. I used to have both a technical challenge and a design challenge. Power View has eliminated the technical challenge, so now I can simply focus on translating data into information – insight that helps my business grow and succeed.
The BASE skillset will always be integral to a data translator, and each of us has the potential to improve our data translation abilities by building this BASE skillset. At the same time, Microsoft BI technology is contributing to this effort by bringing new and very powerful tools to data translation and visualization.
By Marc Requera, Director of Finance, Microsoft