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Business Intelligence Careers

10 Career Tips For The Entry Level Data Analyst

13 min read
By John Pauler
Jul 19, 2021

Are you launching a career in data?

Here are 10 things I wish someone had told me on my first day.

Hope you find this useful!

10) No one expects you to have all the answers

When you’re starting out as a data analyst, it’s easy to think you need to know everything about your specific domain, and that you should have an answer to every question.

You may be nervous that if you say “I don’t know” you’ll look like you don’t have what it takes for the role, and that people will think less of you.

I promise, no one thinks you should have all the answers. No reasonable person will expect you to know everything. And no one will look down on you when you come across something you don’t know yet.

However, your coworkers do expect a great data analyst to be honest and transparent. Nothing sours an opinion of someone faster than when they act like an expert in something they know little about. When someone does this and gets caught, they lose trust immediately. And this can be very hard to repair.

I urge you to fall in love with saying “I don’t know, but I will figure it out”. If you do, you’ll quickly earn credibility and the trust of your coworkers. They will see you as both honest and competent in solving new challenges. This will go a long way in making you an effective team member who people want to work with.

And remember, even the people you look to as “experts” in analytics still have a lot to learn. Keep that in mind, and don’t ever feel bad about not having all of the answers.

9) Your learning journey has just begun

Some people think “I’ve graduated from school. Finally, I’m done learning.”

Ha! You may be done with formal education (or maybe not) but for your sake, I hope you’re not done learning.

Anyone who has been working as a data analyst for a while will tell you that at graduation your learning journey has just begun.

Formal education is great for some things. It teaches us how to learn, how to think, and gives us a broad knowledge base, and maybe some specialized knowledge in a particular area.

Realistically though, formal education rarely teaches us everything we need for our data analyst careers. Once you get started, you’ll quickly realize you have an enormous amount to learn that isn’t taught in school in order to become effective, even in the entry level data analyst role. You’ll identify gaps in your knowledge, and will quickly realize there is no better teacher than on the job training.

Embrace lifelong learning, and understand that if you want to be truly great at what you do that will mean learning an enormous amount which you don’t yet know. This can and should be a fun part of your career. There is always more you can master, so there will always be new challenges ahead of you. Enjoy them!

8) Find the intersection between what you enjoy and what will pay the bills

I’m not the guy who’s going to tell you to follow your passion, whatever that may be. I’m far too practical for that. If that’s what you want, go for it. But I have some different advice to offer.

I’m going to tell you to find the intersection between things you enjoy doing and things that will pay the bills, and focus lots of energy there. That’s where you’ll build a thriving career that can last, and will continue to be fun and rewarding for years to come.

Take me for example… I love playing board games. I also love using data mastery to help companies grow (and teaching others to do the same). One of these is a hobby, and the other is a fruitful career that I’ll enjoy for years to come. Know the difference, and keep each of them in their place.

It’s also very hard to be great at something and to do it for a sustained period of time if you don’t enjoy it. So don’t fall into the trap of chasing something just because it looks like a lucrative career path. It needs to be a good career that you will enjoy. If you forget the second part, you’re likely to burn out quickly, or to underperform compared to what you could have done with a path you were more excited about.

Look for the intersection. Make a list of the things you enjoy doing. Which of them could you see getting paid for and building a career around. This applies both at the macro level (for example: choosing a data analyst career) and at the micro level, selecting the specific types of projects and activities you want to build your ideal data analyst roles around over time.

If you start off pursuing a career that excites you, you’ll thrive. You’ll have fun, you’ll grow, you’ll get access to better projects and better job opportunities. Eventually you’ll make a great living and will become truly great at what you do. At that point, the work will become even more fun than it had been when you were starting out.

7) Don’t compare yourself to your peers. Your paths may be quite different

When you are just starting out, it is very easy to compare yourself to others. This can be especially true when comparing yourself to former classmates or when working in large organizations where you have cohorts of entry level data analysts.

At my first job, there were probably about 15 entry level data analysts who started in my cohort. There were also a similar number the prior and following years. With so many peers, and our performance reviews and promotion opportunities synced on the same schedule every 6 months, it was very easy to become competitive and obsess over who was getting ahead and who wasn’t. At the time, this seemed extremely important to me. But looking back, that group of Analysts has spread out and taken a wide variety of different paths. Some still work at the same company in leadership roles. Others became rock solid independent contributor data scientists. Some went to work for Fortune 500 companies. Some founded startups or joined as early employees. Some of us left analytics and worked as marketing or product leaders. With folks going off on so many paths, it now seems silly that we would all obsess so much about who was doing the best in such a narrow capacity so early on.

If you’re interested in learning about some of the most common career paths, check out this Data Analyst Career Paths guide.

And remember, we’re all taking different paths, and will move faster or slower at different points in our careers. Comparing yourself to others doesn’t typically help, and can sometimes hurt. Focus on your own growth, trying to be better each day. If you do that, you’ll be golden.

6) Your boss matters more than the company

There really is no substitute for having a great mentor who cares about you and will be truly invested in your growth. The flip side of that? There is nothing that makes a job worse than working for a jerk. The quality of your direct manager makes all the difference. I know, because I’ve found myself in both situations :)

If you find yourself working for someone you admire, who respects you, cares about, and seems to be genuinely encouraging your growth and thinking about your happiness and career trajectory, hold on tight! Not everyone is so fortunate. Try and stick with them as long as you can, as long as you are continuing your growth.

If you find yourself working for a jerk, you may want to consider looking for other opportunities. It’s unlikely that person will change, and you’re unlikely to thrive if you’re not being treated well. Be careful about how you handle the situation though. Unfortunately, that jerk is going to be a reference check for you down the road. Don’t burn the bridge when you leave them. Help them ensure a smooth transition (that’s part of your job, be professional), thank them for the opportunity, flatter them, and always treat them with respect even if it wasn’t mutual. Be the bigger person and be smart about protecting your future.

5) Try to be known for one thing ASAP

Branding yourself is something that is often overlooked by entry level data analysts. When it happens, it is more often happening as a happy accident. However, you can do this intentionally with some thoughtful planning.

The most important point here is that when someone hears your name in a professional setting, you want them to associate it with something valuable and useful to the organization immediately. You want to be… “the Excel guru”, “the SQL expert”, “the mind blowing Data Scientist”, etc. If you can accomplish this, you’ll always be thought of for relevant projects, and opportunities will start to open up faster and faster for you.

If you want more ideas on how to choose the right thing to brand yourself with (hint: look for underserved needs in the organization), check this out:

Data Analyst Personal Branding guide

4) Early wins will compound for you

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’, you’re probably familiar with the surprising statistic he shared that an astonishing percentage of NHL players are born in the same two months of the year. These players were born at the right time, so they were the biggest kids on their teams, thrived, and then got selected for the traveling teams where they got even more practice, and continued to improve and separate themselves from the rest of their peers.

This same phenomenon happens in Data Analyst careers. At first, you’re just happy to have any opportunities at all. You may end up doing some jobs that aren’t very fun and where you aren’t learning as much as you’d like. But as you increase your skills and establish your reputation as someone who does great work, you’ll find opportunities start coming your way. Once you become everyone’s “top pick”, you’ll begin to get selected for the most exciting projects. Soon you’ll even get some say in which projects you would like to work on. And you can choose the ones that are most exciting and where you’ll learn the most. You’re now on the learning fast track, and your skills will increase much faster than your peers.

Unlike Malcolm Gladwell’s story of hockey players who are lucky or unlucky to be born at the right or wrong time of year, you have total control over whether or not your early success puts you on the fast track.

Look around your organization for unmet needs. Which skills are valuable, yet rare? Learn them. Buy a book. Take an online course. Offer to do some work for free for a small business on nights and weekends. Do whatever you can to learn those critical skills and then let your higher ups know you’d love to help on projects as they come up.

Once you get the momentum going, it becomes a virtuous cycle: you’ve got skills… so you land exciting projects… which makes it easier for you to learn more skills… which leads to you landing even more exciting projects and job opportunities. It really does compound quickly and the learning becomes easier as your career progresses. You just need to start learning the right things as soon as possible, and the rest will follow.

3) What you learn matters more than what you earn

When you’re just starting out and don’t have any money, it’s easy to think salary is everything. I certainly did. But let me tell you, over the long run, nothing matters more for your career than the skills you learn and the value you are able to bring to an organization.

I remember my first salary discussion after being at my first job for maybe a year and half. It was with my boss’ boss, who said something like “we are so happy to be able to give you a 2% pay increase”.

I thought, “seriously?”

The economics student in me wasn’t very happy, thinking along the lines of “so I’ve been putting in long hours, studying complementary skills outside of work to increase my value, and they want to give me this sub-inflationary raise that tells me I’m worth less in real dollar terms than the day I started with no experience?!?!”

I was upset. In my mind, I should have been worth more to them. The reality is, I was worth more and was producing more value for the company. My salary just hadn’t adjusted to reflect that…yet.

Over the long term, the greatest predictor of how much you will earn is the skill you’ve built and the value you can add to an organization.

If you find yourself in a position like I was in, where your value has increased tremendously but your salary hasn’t changed, it’s only a matter of time until you see the increase. Either your current employer will increase your compensation, or someone else will.

For me, all of that “potential salary energy” I had created teaching myself new valuable skills finally materialized when a former coworker reached out, and after some discussion offered me an opportunity that paid about 40% more than my entry level salary. To me, this was a total game changer, which finally let me feel a bit more comfortable financially. I owed it all to the skills I had built on the job, and studying nights and weekends.

The pattern has continued throughout my career, and the careers of pretty much everyone I know. When you don’t have much experience or valuable skills, you cannot command a very good salary. The more you build your skills and your ability to add value to an organization, the better your compensation will be. Never stop learning, and your earning power will grow and grow.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about your salary. It’s important. I’m just telling you that it’s more important to be constantly learning and growing. Over time, that will ensure your salary keeps going up. I’d rather be underpaid short-term, and be building fantastic marketable skills I can carry with me for a lifetime than making slightly more and not growing. Think long-term. Become more valuable and you’ll eventually get paid what you’re worth.

2) You have to own your career growth. No one else will

Think it’s your company’s job to come up with a plan for your career growth? Your boss’ job?

Come on, you’re better than that!

Even if you have one of those rare, amazing mentor-style bosses, what percentage of their time do you think they can spend thinking about your career? Here’s a list of other things they might have on their plate…

  • Keeping up with day to day work responsibilities
  • Making sure their boss is happy with them
  • Planning for their own career growth
  • Managing other employees on their team
  • Learning new skills to fill their own gaps
  • Spending time with their family
  • Other hobbies outside of work
  • Etc etc etc

So, think about it...what percentage of time do you think that perfect mentor boss spends thinking about you and your career? It’s very small.

Yes, it’s great to have this type of boss.

Yes, you should look to them for advice and guidance.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking they will plan your entire career out for you. You have to be the one proactively thinking about where you should be headed, which gaps and weaknesses you currently have and your plan to develop and grow. Absolutely no one else in the world will be as invested in you as you should be.

Own your career growth. Set aside some time, maybe once a month, to proactively think about how things are going, what you could do better, and what you’d like to focus on next. Ask your mentor for advice, but make sure at the end of the day you know you’re the owner of your path.

1) Your reputation and network will be major long-term assets

The further you get in your career, the more your reputation and track record will matter.

When you’re gunning for an entry level data analyst role, you likely won’t have much of a network, and by definition you don’t have much on-the-job experience. At that stage, it’s almost entirely about your skills and your general aptitude.

Later in your career, you’re going to have a track record, and you will have worked with lots of people. Those people will remember what it was like working with you.

If your reputation is strong and people have enjoyed working with you, then you’ll find more and more opportunities arriving at your doorstep the further you get in your career. You won’t even be looking for work, and people will come to you because there is an opportunity opening up and they want to work with you again. This is how I landed at Maven.

On the other hand, if your reputation is as a weak performer, or if people thought you were difficult to get along with, this will hurt your chances of future opportunities.

You will find the world isn’t all that big, and once your network grows, often someone will know you at the companies you are applying to work at. The hiring manager can easily check LinkedIn to see who knows you. You can be sure they will ask about you. If you have a great reputation, then you’re starting the interviewing process off right. If the recruiter hears negative things about you, you may not start the interview process at all.

You want people to hear your name and associate it with things like this…

  • She really got results for the company!
  • He was so pleasant to work with. Such great energy.
  • She was the best Excel guru I’ve ever seen
  • He was such a caring mentor to the people on his team
  • She was always willing to help out, even if it wasn’t her responsibility
  • He had such a great work ethic

You want to avoid people remembering you like this…

  • She really didn’t work very hard
  • He was a total jerk. No one wanted to work with him
  • She was nice, but not very bright
  • He wasn’t very willing to help others

Your network, and cultivating a great professional reputation will someday become extremely valuable assets for you if you set yourself up right. Keep this in mind, and always be thinking long-term.

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Hopefully this has been a useful read and you will take away some lessons that can help you grow your career.

If you’re looking to launch a career in data, check out Maven’s new Data Analyst Bootcamp.

You can save 20% by applying by this Friday, July 23rd as part of our Super Early Bird enrollment deal.

Space is extremely limited, so reserve your spot today.

LEARN MORE: Maven's Data Analyst Bootcamp

Author

John Pauler

John brings over a decade of business intelligence experience to the Maven team, having worked with companies ranging from Fortune 500 to early stage startups. As a MySQL expert, he has played leadership roles across analytics, marketing, SaaS and product teams.

John brings over a decade of business intelligence experience to the Maven team, having worked with companies ranging from Fortune 500 to early stage startups. As a MySQL expert, he has played leadership roles across analytics, marketing, SaaS and product teams.

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