It’s unbelievable how often I get asked about where to begin with a career in Business Intelligence (BI). So, here’s my thoughts on it. If anyone has additional thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Are You a Fit for BI?
First, what is it about BI that appeals to you? I think that’s really important to know yourself well enough to feel confident whether or not this it’s a good fit for you personally. The following strikes me as important attributes:
- Desire to solve problems
- Willingness to understand business needs (and I mean really understand, really “get it” beyond a superficial level)
- Ability to interact really well with both technical people and business people
- Capable of learning quickly, and almost constantly considering the technologies are always evolving
- Natural aptitude for learning “technical stuff”
Notice that it’s really only the last bullet where I mention “technical stuff.” In BI technical skills are very important, but the soft skills are easily just as important. How technical you want to go is really up to you. Wayne Eckerson calls us Purple People and I think it’s true. In the world of BI we vary from predominantly business users to quasi-technical folks to extremely skilled technical IT people.
Choosing an Entry Point Position for Getting Exposed to BI
I believe the entry point to doing BI work is lower (i.e., easier) than many other IT jobs out there. The types of jobs I’ve seen most often as an entry point to BI are:
- Report Writer. The appeal of starting off as a report writer is that you will learn some querying, such as SQL and MDX, as well as other important things like change control, deployment, and probably even some performance tuning skills. You’ll also get exposed to some data modeling principles as you work with the underlying data sources. It’s also quite likely you’ll interact with the ETL team and/or Cube development team (for instance, you wouldn’t want to derive a new measure in 18 reports – you’d want to ask the downstream team if it’s possible to centralize it).
- Data Analyst. This term is used a lot and can mean a lot of things. I’m thinking a role like this would usually be a business-oriented power user that does a lot of Self-Service reporting, data modeling, and data analysis. This type of person would probably have opportunities to interact with the Corporate BI team quite a bit if they choose to. This is basically what we usually think of when we throw around the term “power user.”
- Business Analyst. I always say that a good BA is hard to find! To me this is a quasi-technical, quasi-business role. If you are in a role like this, collecting requirements for BI and analytics type of projects, you would get exposed to all of the concepts. You would be exposed to the business need, as well as helping to scope and define rules for the data model, ETL, Cube, and Reports. You would probably work with a project manager to properly define and manage scope (always a huge challenge with BI work!) as well as prioritizing planned enhancements and change requests. Basically this role could give a good end-to-end experience.
To Specialize or Generalize?
Figuring out if you want to focus on doing BI work as a business user (i.e., those analysts who do Power Pivot models and reporting are doing Self-Service BI) or evolve your skills to become a Corporate BI developer job is a decision you might find yourself considering at some point. If you do decide to pursue a BI developer job, you’ll also want to give some thought to specializing or not.
Depth vs. breadth is a constant challenge for me personally – both are important. Some people feel more comfortable specializing and therefore having much deeper knowledge in their area. Sub-specialties for BI professionals could include:
- Data Modeling and Data Warehousing
- ETL and Data Integration
- OLAP Models Semantic layer
- Reporting, Dashboards, and Presentation Layer
- Master Data Management
- Metadata Management
- Predictive Analytics and Data Mining
- Big Data and Streaming Data
- Mobile Delivery
- System Architecture
Whatever you choose, if you don’t have a broad background or a grasp of the big picture, please try to start with the basics. Understand what a good data model is, how data warehousing works, what all the components are. You might read that data scientists are the hot new thing, or that big data is catching on, but I can’t imagine that starting with these more advanced niches would work for very many people (unless you’re a statistician).
To Focus on a Platform?
I have focused on Microsoft BI for the last several years. Before that I did some work with Cognos, a bit of WebFocus, and a sprinkle of Hyperion and a couple others I don’t even remember anymore. There’s so much to continually learn with the Microsoft BI platform that I am personally very happy with focusing on the Microsoft platform.
You’ll want to give some consideration to platform choice, especially if you’re starting an endeavor to ramp up skills. For a lot of people I think this might happen just due to what you are exposed to in the workplace and that’s ok (that’s how it happened for me). You might refer to the Gartner Magic Quadrant to get some familiarity with various BI software vendors. The leaders in the top right will generally have more market share, thus more jobs available.
Suggestions for Getting Started
Here’s some thoughts regarding ramping up your skills. These are not ordered in any particular way. Which items make sense for you depends very much on your entry point and your particular focus.
- Work vs. Formal Education. Decide if you value work experience or formal education more, or what feels best to you. There are BI programs available (such as CPCC’s Reach IT program here in Charlotte). Or, you might feel like getting a “foot in the door” type of job suits you more.
- Certifications. The value of certifications is constantly debated. I think they are immensely valuable for learning the basic concepts, and for getting introduced to a breadth of material that you may not deal with normally. For Microsoft BI professionals, you would take this certification path to focus on BI. There is also a certification from TDWI that is platform-agnostic.
- Build a Solution. There’s nothing better than real hands-on experience. Create a virtual machine that has all of the software you need and build a solution. Evaluation software is free. Developer editions of SQL Server are very inexpensive. Codeplex has many starter solutions and sample databases. Public datasets are becoming easier and easier to find. All you need is the initiative to go build something that you could use to demonstrate your skills to a potential employer.
- Learn the SQL Language. Knowing how to write SQL queries is a great first step. It is the underpinning of a lot of different types of work in BI.
- Read the Kimball books. The Kimball Group methodology is used significantly at many, many organizations. Bill Inmon is also very influential in this space.
- Attend Events. In the Microsoft community, we are very lucky to have lots of opportunities to learn. Many of them are free. There are local user groups, virtual user groups, SQL Saturday events.
- Talk to People. Talking to people in the industry could help give you perspective and help you decide what your focus should be. Heck, it might even help you get a job.
- Volunteer. Perhaps a really small organization or a nonprofit would be willing to let you learn as you build something for them.
Good luck with your decision!
Josh Fennessy's Blog - Breaking Into BI: Where to Begin?
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