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Business Intelligence Careers

The Many Options for a Data Analyst's Career Path

9 min read
By John Pauler
Jun 15, 2021

What does the Data Analyst career path look like?

If you're just starting out, you might be asking this yourself.

Well, good news - a Data Analyst's career path can be very rewarding, and a lot of fun :)

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's dive in!

If you only take one point away from reading this post, let it be this...

There is no single career path that a Data Analyst must follow. The skills mastered in the Data Analyst role are so valuable, flexible, and widely applicable, that they create an enormous number of options for future career growth.

If you can take a second point away, this one would get my vote...

It's totally okay if you don't know which track is for you yet. The various paths can be sampled and modified, and require no long-term commitment. If you start to go down one path and later decide it isn't for you, the foundational skills you've developed will help you in the next path you decide to go down. The Analyst's skillset (technical skills, problem solving, critical thinking, making good decisions with data) is extremely portable from role to role. Think of your data skills as a tool box that will grow and grow over time, yet somehow remain light enough you can always carry it with you.

Okay, so make sure you get those 2 points before going further.

You've got tons of options.

You don't have to commit now.

Just start learning about data. Learn on the job and outside of work. Learn as much as you can. Build valuable skills. Pay attention to the types of things you like doing and the things you don't like doing.

Before we get into specific paths and roles, here are some questions you will want to ask yourself that will help you think about things you like and don't like...

  • What's more exciting? Building data infrastructure and automation? Or diving for insights using a large data set that someone else has prepared?
  • Would you rather work on a deeply technical project? Or present findings and try to convince stakeholders to take action?
  • How much do you value consistent work that you are the expert in vs constantly trying new things and solving new problems?
  • Would you rather go deep with one business or get to dabble helping lots of businesses(but not go as deep)?
  • How much do you enjoy working in teams vs working autonomously?
  • Do you want to mentor others? Would that be fulfilling or a burden?
  • Would you rather be tasked with creating a specific report, or with a more "white space" task of trying to improve the business without being given much direction as to how?
  • Do you like writing code? (it's okay to say no)
  • Do you love stats? Modelling? (again, okay to say no)
  • Do you like creating data visualizations and being a storyteller?
  • What functional areas of business are most interesting to you? (Finance, Marketing, Product, Operations, Manufacturing, Customer Service, etc)
  • Would you prefer a steady guaranteed salary or the potential for higher compensation that is tied to company performance but with no guarantees?

Don't worry if you don't have an answer for all of these.

These are just some questions you will want to ask yourself as you progress and try new things. The key is to find out what makes you most excited about your work, and then steer into opportunities that will make the most of your unique abilities and preferences. There are no bad answers here, just "you" answers.

Hopefully these questions make it clear that there are many different flavors of data people. It's one of the best things about being a data person!

Alright, next let's get into some of the specific career paths you might go down. We won't cover all of them (there are literally hundreds) but seeing these concrete examples should give you an idea of the different types of roles you could be aiming for...

VP Analytics / VP Business Intelligence / VP Data Science

This is the career track that first comes to mind for folks starting out. It's an intuitive goal... keep learning more about what you're doing as an entry level employee, develop more skills, start managing people, get comfortable making decisions for the organization and inspiring others, keep moving up, and eventually you're running the show. This can be a great track if you think you would love mentoring people, and being a vocal advocate of your team's data. You will spend a lot of your time coaching, helping to steer your company, and most likely participating in lots of meetings. You may still keep some hands-on work, but a lot of times the higher up folks on this track get, the less time they will spend on technical work.

Super Senior Individual Contributor: Analytics / BI / Data Science

For me, seeing a couple of people in this career track really opened my eyes. 22 year old me thought every Analyst had to be gunning to run a big team one day. I had thought that was the only way to continue to add more and more value... running larger and larger teams. Then, I had the pleasure of working with some folks who had no direct reports, yet were very well compensated and highly respected. Instead of growing their value by managing more people, they did it by growing their skills and finding ways they could be leveraged effectively at scale. These Specialists are typically extremely mind-blowingly strong in at least one particular area; predictive modellers, machine learning jockeys, database gurus, etc. If you don't think you would want to lead a team but want to add major value to an organization, this can be a great career path for you.

Data Visualization Specialist

Do you love nothing more than spinning up dashboards, and telling stories that inspire business action? If so, this could be a really good career track for you.

Data Engineering Guru / Database Administrator

Is setting up infrastructure and automation your thing? Do you love really technical work, and building the tools that will allow other Analysts to thrive. If so, you might find yourself leaning into one of these tracks. These are roles where you can go pretty deep as an individual contributor, or move up and lead larger teams, depending on your abilities and preferences.

Operations Specialist

There are a number of flavors of this track, which is challenging to describe succinctly. One example: a Salesforce Administration Specialist, who owns a Salesforce implementation for their company. This person will have some responsibilities that overlap with a Data Engineer / DBA, but they will also be doing some Data Analyst work typically. It's definitely a technical role, that requires the Analyst skill set, but it isn't strictly an Analyst role. Same could be said for a Marketing Operations role. In this type of role, you are typically building marketing automation...making sure data is flowing to the right place, emails are getting sent, leads are getting called, etc. But you're also analyzing what works and what doesn't to improve the operations. Again, it's a quasi-Analyst role where the Analyst skill set is highly valuable.

If any of the above tracks sound fun, great! If not, maybe you'd be interested in some of these non-Analyst roles below that Analysts also typically do great with...

Back-end Software Engineer

Yup, this is totally a non-Analyst role where the Analyst skills come in extremely handy. I know quite a few folks who learned the ins and outs of relational databases while they were working as an Analyst, and then later became software engineers after picking up an object-oriented programming language. Working on the back-end is the most seemless transition from a database analyst (the database, logical code, etc) but I have also seem some make the jump to full stack engineers and work on the front end as well (just note that working on the FE is a very different skill set). If you like the logical and technical nature of the Analyst role, and love databases, but analyzing the data / understanding the business doesn't get you as excited, this could be a good fit.

VP of Acquisition Marketing / VP of Paid Marketing / CMO

Some of the strongest Paid Channel Marketers are former Analysts. Why? The job is a big math problem at scale. How do I spend a dollar to make two? How do I measure performance? What's working? What's not? How can I optimize this spend better? What levers can I pull? Can I be bidding more effectively? How can I make this website convert more customers? These are all questions Analysts are great at answering. In my experience, when an Analyst gets their hands on the marketing channel budget, it is usually good for business.

Some Analysts make great CMOs too, but this one isn't quite as much of a slam dunk. It's not for everyone. Some are great at the quant side of the job and using data to make decisions, but are generally less creative and may actually focus too much on the numbers and be under-developed in other areas needed for success. To be a really effective CMO, you have to play both positions. Sometimes you have to get completely out of the data and just think about the customers and the people you have working in your organization. This one isn't for everyone, but for some Analysts this can be an excellent career track. I know a number of CMOs who came out of my former Analytics group.

Product Manager / VP of Product

The PM role in my experience is pretty well suited to former Analysts, for a number of reasons. First, you're going to be working a lot with Engineers. Any technical abilities you've picked up as an Analyst will help you communicate with your Engineers better than a non-technical person. Maybe you wrote SQL code for years and that helps you follow along with their Ruby or Python scripts to understand what they are doing. Or at least you can translate business requirements you are gathering into pseudo-code or logical statements that make their job easier. And one of the most important roles the PM or VP of Product plays is prioritizing projects and allocating resources for the team. Analysts tend to be great at taking in all the information, thinking about the needs of the business in a quantified way, and make good cost-benefit driven decisions about where to allocate resources. The weakness of an Analyst here is their over-reliance on using data for everything. Great PMs talk to real customers as much as they can. Analysts are not usually very inclined toward this aspect of the role, and may need to work on this one a lot to establish good habits.

VP of Growth

Lots of Growth leaders are former Analysts. The whole role is about understanding the growth levers, and then using experimentation, optimization, and new product features to explode the business. For young Analysts who find themselves really excited by experimentation and optimization, and truly driving business impact, this can be a great track to aim for. You'll need to learn more about Growth, Marketing, Experimentation, optimization of websites, and working with Engineering, but the core skills you have as an Analyst are extremely important.

CEO / CFO / COO

Really? The top spots? Yes, absolutely! Of course, like we talked about for the CMO role, these aren't going to be for every single Analyst. But some Analysts will be great for these roles. Think about it... CFO and COO are super data-driven positions. It's all about the numbers. You need some specific domain expertise in addition to your data chops, but the Analyst mindset and ability to make good decisions with data is hugely important. And while the CEO role requires vision and leadership, it also really helps to be quantitatively strong. Please, don't misinterpret this as "every Analyst would make a great CEO". I'm just saying that the Analyst skill set can be extremely valuable in these roles, and some Analysts can thrive in these positions.

Like I said, there are LOTS of other potential career tracks for someone starting out as an Analyst. There is no way I could cover all of them, but I did want to give you a good sampling, with some concrete discussions around each. I hope it helped.

Remember, while it's a great idea to steer into a track that you think will be a good fit for you, it's not the end of the world if you change your mind later. No matter which path you go down first, you'll learn some technical skills, problem solving, critical thinking, and generally how to use data to make good decisions. These skills you build as an Analyst will serve as a strong foundation that you can apply to a wide variety of roles you may be interested in down the road. The more you learn, the more flexibility and options you'll have later. The key is to just get started and keep going.

Happy learning!

-John

PS: Maven's first ever Career Bootcamp will be launching in September. It's a fully immersive 12 week program designed to help you land your Analytics dream job.

Learn More about the Bootcamp here.

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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