Who else wants to get a job in analytics? Part four – how to get experience
You need experience to get a job and you need a job to gain experience. Everyone has heard this catch-22. This scenario exists in many areas and analytics is one of them. What can you do about it? It will take work, but here at The Analytics Dude we have outlined three ways (in priority order) to gain experience without necessarily having a job.
Adding analytics to your current role
If you already have a job, there are often opportunities to take on more responsibilities or projects. Sometimes those added projects focus on analytics. Few people are willing to take on extra work, and even fewer will do it when it concerns something “difficult” like analytics. If you volunteer for one of those projects, it might not be hard to get.
You can also seek out problems to solve on your own. How many times have you heard someone at work say, “I’ll bet we are wasting tons of money on XYZ,” or “If we sold ABC to these customers we would make a killing?” Take that problem and set up a work plan to solve it. Meet people from other teams if you need outside information.
Large organizations often have strategic initiatives. These programs are ways to get exposure to other areas of the business. They can also be good opportunities to develop analytical skills. Strategic initiatives almost always have a quantitative component. You should volunteer for that part if you want to broaden your knowledge base.
I got my start in analytics by volunteering for a project. Back when I was a Navy pilot, I was studying for my masters in industrial and systems engineering while working in a non-flying back office type role. The Navy wanted to update the airfield but needed some way to justify the expense. They decided to create a simulation of flight operations.
In our weekly staff meeting the boss told us about the project and asked, “Who wants to lead this?” There was silence. No one said a word. I was not there, or I would have jumped on it.
When I heard others complaining about it the next day, I saw an opportunity. This could be the capstone project for my masters! I volunteered and could hear the sigh of relief from my co-workers.
That project was a huge pain. I dealt with incorrect or mislabeled data, unresponsive contractors, confused stakeholders, and more. However, I also learned a ton. I saw how these projects actually come together, and I got a great resume bullet.
Since I started The Analytics Dude I have mentored a couple of people who are using analytics to improve their job performance. (We will publish those as fictionalized case studies here at a later date) They are people who are like you that saw an opportunity and are taking it.
Consulting for local businesses or online
Almost every small business can improve their use of data. Small businesses often do not have the capabilities or the budget for a systematic approach to optimizing their business.
Small businesses have many of the same problems that large businesses have. Retailers may benefit from someone examining their sales and helping smooth their ordering process. Many local service businesses advertise online but do not know if it is working. Small businesses may not know how much of their profit comes from various product lines.
You can help these businesses as a budding analyst. This will take guts, and sales skills, but volunteering to help a business can be a great way to gain experience. Start with places you like and are a customer. “I love your business and would love to help out if you will let me,” is a good icebreaker.
The easiest way to pull this off is as a student. Many universities will have ties with local businesses and often have projects to help local businesses. If you are a student, ask the faculty in the business school what opportunities may exist for some consulting.
Local consulting can be tough if you are not a student, or do not have an existing relationship with a business. It takes a lot of guts to go to the owner and ask for their data. Many businesses will worry about scams so they will not share data. You can build trust by drafting a non-disclosure agreement and getting it notarized.
There are options to perform analytical projects for real companies online. The “gig economy” has created lots of ways for enterprising individuals to get a start on their own. Upwork is a popular site for companies that are looking for analytical project help.
Self study and online competitions
There are several data analysis competitions where you can practice real problem solving. Kaggle is the most popular, but there are others like crowdanalytix if you look hard enough.
These can be good options to get decent quality data to work with. The problems they ask to solve can be tough, but that is a good thing. Competition problems can be representative of real life business problems. The competitions often have groups for participants to discuss their problems and solutions.
Note: Don’t worry about sharing too much in the forums and blowing your chance to win. The teams that win these things, yes teams of analysts, are very good and put a lot of time into it.
If you use these competitions as a chance to learn and practice it can help you shine when the time comes for real work. It is not the type of experience that hiring managers seek out (unless you win, that is impressive), but it can be a way to get a foot in the door. Sometimes all it takes is to be able to tell a recruiter, “yes, I have experience solving analytical problems.”
These three options are in a clear priority order. Analytical work at your day job will read better on a resume than pro bono consulting. It also may lead to opportunities with your current employer. Online competitions are valuable learning experiences. However you should not let them take the place of adding real world value unless you have no other options.
None of the three options I laid out are easy. If that scares you off you should probably quit on this dream now. However, if this excites you and gives you ideas about things you can try, you are ready to get started.
Is there anything I missed? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.