Data analysis has become a highly attractive job. If you’re thinking about going in the field, you’re probably wondering what traits make someone a good data analyst. Let’s take a look at four key qualities that define the best professionals in the industry.
At its core, data analysis is about trying to take a deep dive into information that doesn’t always lend itself to easy answers. You have to want to get to the answers, and you have to be willing to think hard about how to create experiments that will get you there. People in the data analysis world are always wondering:
- Why things happen in the first place
- How processes can be improved
- If we’re really getting the whole picture on a topic
- Where the missed opportunities are
- If there’s a different way to take action to solve a problem
- How deeply an issue can be understood
Drilling through data to get at insights calls for a lot of work. People who succeed as analysts tend to have an abiding discomfort with letting things go. The problem doesn’t go away at the end of the workday, and they’re often the folks who have “ah-ha!” moments in the middle of the night.
Willingness to Question
Curiosity means nothing if it stops when it comes up against a wall. In the early days of the analytics revolution in pro baseball, for example, ridicule was the common response that analysts were met with when they asked the simple question of whether there was a better way to score a run. The revolution persisted because people involved with the sport, especially on the stats side of things, continued to ask a simple question: “Are we even asking the right questions?”
To get to the point you question the very questions other people are asking requires a certain degree of courage. People don’t like to be questioned, and the default response by many analysts has been to just say you should follow the numbers where they take you.
But it takes more than that. Many folks who find themselves in analytics as a profession have somewhat contrarian instincts. They’re not fans of following the herd, and they’re often convinced the herd is going to its doom.
The contrarian worldview has become so pervasive in analytics that the financial world even considers it a distinct form of investing called contrarianism. When the global financial markets collapsed in 2007, for example, the contrarians made billions because they had:
- Asked the questions others weren’t asking
- Gathered the data to figure out what was actually happening
- Followed the numbers to the only logical conclusion
- Made aggressive decisions based on the best data available at the time
It takes a special type to tell decision-makers that they’re making decisions the wrong way.
Commitment to Learning
The data analysis industry depends on evolution in both statistics and computing. Keeping up with the pace of those developments is not an easy task, and the best analysts tend to be folks who read a lot. They want to keep up with new studies, technological innovations and shifting attitudes. If you’re the kind of person who wants to spend a weekend learning a new programming language or reading up on fresh research, a career in analysis might be for you.
Calling an analyst a lifelong learner would be an understatement. They might not all hold master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s, but they all have the same relentless drive to ingest new information and ideas.
Analysis was once seen as the domain of shut-ins and nerds, but the rapid growth of corporate, government, academic and even public interest in the field has put the best communicators are the front. People like Nate Silver, a data analyst who specializes in elections, sports and news, have emerged as public figures who are now invited onto weekly talk programs to discuss the news of the day. Organizations also have many inward-facing analyst positions where the jobs are fundamentally about explaining what all the data means.
If you’re someone who loves to tell others what you’ve learned, there is a place for you in the analysis world. Those who can understand the math and convert it into actionable insights are increasingly in very high demand.