Big data projects originate with solving problems with some business objective in mind. Much of the focus today centers around technology implementation, visualization tools, and data products, but it’s important to remember that technology with no end in mind has little business value.
Enter the role of the business analyst. Some people claim that this career is an endangered species, but there is some very good news for business analysts. Big data isn’t just a new technology. It’s changing the face of how we do business, and that means that the business analyst’s role in big data is extremely important. It has been expanded to include that of business architect. If you can envision a bridge that spans the gap between business and technology, you may find great success in this type of role. A business analyst can serve within a corporate IT division, a software firm specializing in big data, or a consulting firm.
Besides the official title of business analyst, other possible job titles include marketing analyst, data analyst, and system analyst.
Assessing your interest
In this section, I fill you in on some attributes you should consider as you evaluate your skills and interests. Spend some time reflecting on these areas. Talk to trusted advisors and get their perspective on you. Look back at your reviews from previous jobs or class reviews if you’re still a student.
If you answer “yes” to many of the following questions, the business analyst role could be for you. Keep in mind, this is not an all-or-nothing guide. If you answer “no” or “not really” to a question, that doesn’t mean you should rule out a role as a business analyst.
Are you naturally inquisitive?
The best approach to big data analytics is to come at business problems with the question/hypothesis perspective. Business analysts need the industry expertise (or ability to collaborate with industry experts) to identify the most relevant and most valuable questions to explore.
Can you see beyond the surface issues and go deeper into the problem? Do you know when a good idea has potential? Business analysts are skilled at sticking with a problem until they’ve found a solution. If you can drive hard and get to an answer, this could be great role for you.
Can you see through to the end quickly?
Do you know when you’ve uncovered the right area to focus on, and do you pivot quickly to focus your energies on solving that problem?
One of the biggest challenges in big data is that there is way too much data — not too little. Business analysts can quickly see what is just a distraction and what needs focus are very effective.
Can you shift between creative and analytical?
I sometimes think of big data analysis in terms of an alternate blend of left-brain and right-brain activities. Creativity, curiosity, and imagination are all needed, as well as logic and rational and critical thinking. This is perhaps the rarest attribute. People tend to have a bias toward either creativity or logic, but the well-balanced analyst has the ability to see things at an abstract level and then to quickly go deep into the issue. Can you build a presentation for an executive to explain an idea and then write a four-page detailed document to explain the economics, technology, or implementation strategy? If so, you might make a successful business analyst.
Do you understand your audience?
One of the biggest opportunity areas I see right now is the improvement of how information is communicated to decision makers. Business analysts who can convert data into business opportunities and recommend action will rise to the top. There is absolutely no business value in data unless it translates to action.
Can you talk technology with the CTO and also explain the financial benefits of big data to the CFO? Can you help the marketing manager see the impact to her business unit? A good big data business analyst doesn’t just understand big data technology and how it works. He also understands the impact to business and can speak the language of business.
Business analysts need to have people skills, as well as communication skills. They need to like to work collaboratively and make presentations on and off the white board. They also need to write, document, and negotiate.
Looking at a job posting
The job postings for business analysts vary based on the type of company — whether it’s a consulting firm, a big data software firm, or an internal big data team for a corporation. These postings tend to be less specific in responsibilities and focus on solving business problems, good communication skills, and a balance of analytical ability and technology.
You often see requirements for familiarity with Microsoft Excel, analytics tools, and database technologies. Largely though, the analytical skills are focused on problem-solving frameworks rather than database programming. A problem-solving framework follows a pattern for solving problems and executing on the solution. You need to be able to quickly identify the problem or need, find a solution, make recommendations, identify risks and how to avoid them, and describe what the action plan should be.
Consider the following job posting for an analyst with a big data focus. Carnegie Mellon University has published samples of business intelligence roles that employers have used. The following posting is for a business intelligence analyst, taken from Carnegie Mellon.
Business intelligence analyst Each Business Intelligence Analyst is aligned with one or more groups, such as marketing, logistics, or customer service, and partners with those teams to help them achieve their goals. Whether you’re measuring site performance, analyzing customer behavior and trends, data mining, or optimizing SQL queries, you’ll be working with cutting-edge technology and multi-terabyte datasets. Working on the Business Intelligence team is a premier opportunity to develop a career in business and big data analytics.At their core, Business Intelligence Analysts are strong in quantitative analysis. They enjoy coding but also want to balance that with their interest in business. They think critically to tackle complex challenges, thrive in a fast-paced environment, and are seeking a high-growth opportunity where they’ll have an immediate impact on day one. Business Analysts are strong communicators who are eager to learn, are endlessly curious, take pride in hard work, and are committed to rapidly advancing their career.Responsibilities include:
Consulting with internal customers (for example, marketing, logistics, or customer service) to develop analyses that lead to actionable insights that accelerate profitable growth
Wrangling data from multiple sources including sales, inventory, product, and customer databases to create integrated views that can be used to drive decision making
Working with several large and complex SQL databases
Designing and building reports and analyses in Microsoft Excel
Highly analytical data junkie who enjoys coding but doesn’t want to be a software engineer
Positive, people-oriented, and has an energetic attitude
Analytical, creative, and employs an innovative approach to solving problems
Strong written and verbal communication skills
Degrees represented on current Business Analyst team include: Economics, Computer Science, Engineering, Physics, and Music
There are a few things worth calling out in this posting that can help you decide if this role is for you. In the list of responsibilities, the positing says, “Consulting with internal customers (for example, marketing, logistics, or customer service) to develop analyses that lead to actionable insights that accelerate profitable growth.” What does that mean really? Analysts don’t just have to understand information; they need to be able to articulate an action plan so that the business can capitalize on those insights. This is not merely a role that notices interesting things. This individual is expected to draw conclusions and drive action to revenue.
This role is technical, but you aren’t expected to do heavy programming. Should you be able to code? Yes, but you probably won’t be doing much of that. That’s important for those who build those virtual bridges between business and technology — they need to be able to understand the components of big data solutions like appropriate technologies, software, or hardware needed to fulfill the business requirements. If the technology team has selected one programming language or model over another, the business analyst needs to be able to understand why that’s a good or bad decision and how that could impact the overall outcome.
Finally, check out the kinds of majors that fall into this role — pretty much everything. Employers are looking for problem solvers who can find creative solutions and have the bias for action to drive real results.
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