I have always said that one of the most important skills required for a data career is not related to data analysis. It is communicating effectively. The hardest part is often delivering the last mile, after you’ve put in the work and found the solution. Now you have to communicate your findings to someone else, and help them see the same solution. 

With that insight as a backdrop, I always like to share that I grew up on the other end of the mental continuum, as an analytical person who naturally approached everything with a drive for logic and data. I’ve always felt comfortable using data to make decisions, too, whether personally or professionally. 

My educational path reflects these interests. My undergraduate degree in economics allowed me to explore classes like econometrics, which is about using statistical and mathematical models to find patterns in economic data and predict future trends. I’ve always put a premium on using real-world data as much as possible.

Early on in my military career, I noticed that I had a knack for connecting data and insights into practical applications for what I was doing. The way things move in the military can be so organic and move so fast – especially when you’re deployed – but I was always able to find a logical pattern to organize things or people and heighten my response to events.

Later, in business school, I balanced more traditional MBA classes with data-oriented courses, learned how to code in Python, and learned how to use visualization tools like Tableau. 

Making the shift to business 

Fast-forward to the beginning of my corporate career. I don't think I recognized it until I started at a large enterprise, but the same knack for data I identified in myself started paying benefits when I began leading customer interactions. As I saw the impact I was having, my career started to accelerate. What put things into overdrive was landing a data-specific role at my last company. That meant I could focus all my time on data-driven pursuits. 

Today, as long as I can use data to add value and make a difference for my customers, colleagues, employees and company, I feel like I am heading in the right direction.

The path to data leadership

What’s attractive about a career in data? For one thing, you’ll remain relevant. Over the next five and certainly ten years, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a role in the corporate world that doesn’t rely on data to successfully complete work or become a leader. That’s just the world we live in now. 

You also get to collaborate with other data professionals. Some of the best talent I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, work for, and to lead has been in the data space. Data professionals are creative, hardworking, insightful, passionate innovators. 

Then there’s the great feeling of that ‘aha’ moment when you’re trying to solve a tough question that brings a lot of uncertainty, and then data opens your eyes. Suddenly everything makes sense. Although I’m not a great golfer, it’s a bit like hitting a strong drive where everything comes together and the ball goes exactly where you want it to. Suddenly it’s fun. 

Of course, not everything is clear sailing. Although technology is helping bridge data silos more than ever, we still have a problem with accessibility. Not having all the data you need at your fingertips can be frustrating. And yes, even in 2024, there are still leaders across the corporate world who rely on instinct or previous experiences to make decisions, even when data is available to them. 

Never a better time to get into data analytics

With AI, machine learning, data lakes, and amazing visualization software all around us, I believe this is a great time to jump into a data career, or to make it the majority focus of your role. Here are a couple of tips I’d have for aspiring data leaders today.

  • Be a leader. Whether you are leading teams or influencing teams, be someone who leads with authenticity and integrity. When you do, you’ll become someone that others want to work with (or for). 
  • Be a listener. Truly listen and understand your customers’ and stakeholders’ challenges. Then obsess over how you can help them address those challenges. 
  • Be a connector. Connect data capabilities with opportunities and challenges. I like to refer to myself as the chief bumblebee of my organization. I have an obligation to cross-pollinate ideas, people and capabilities with opportunities and challenges – and to encourage the good things that come from it.
  • Be a great storyteller. Even if you can execute on the previous three strategies perfectly, you aren’t likely to be as successful as you could be if you aren’t able to be an effective communicator and storyteller. Effective communications and great business stories help others along the journey with you and sell through data programs far more effectively than the facts by themselves. The more time that passes, the more I see that the impact my best analysts create has less to do with their data analytics approach and more to do with how they can form and communicate a story that delivers an ‘aha’ moment for the intended audience.

Although I don’t think I’ll ever confidently answer the question of what I want to be when I grow up, I know that as long as I can connect my skillset, passion and interest in data-driven decision-making to create value for customers, employers, or company stakeholders, I'm moving in the right direction. Whether personally or professionally, data has the power to move our lives toward a proactive stance where we anticipate and reduce risk and better meet the expectations of everyone around us. 

What those solutions look like can take many shapes, across many companies, in many industries. But that’s what I love about being a data leader – those skill sets are so transferrable to any situation.