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Business Intelligence Careers

A Data Analyst's Guide to Personal Branding

6 min readView all articles
By John Pauler
Jun 22, 2020

Are you early in your career and looking to elevate yourself to more strategic projects within your company? If you are, you are not alone. This is very common, and can be one of the most difficult challenges to navigate as a young Analyst.

To grow, you need to learn from being involved in key projects, but you aren’t getting pulled into as many projects as you would like because your coworkers don’t view you as having that “been there, done that” experience yet.

So how can you accelerate yourself through this situation?

This can feel like a tough spot to be in. How can you get the experience you need to grow if you don’t have enough experience to be included in the most strategic projects? I have been there myself, and a young Analyst at my company found himself navigating this same challenge very recently. He gave me the green light to share our conversation, in hopes it can serve as a guide to accelerate you through a similar situation.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll change the name of the Analyst to maintain some anonymity. Let’s call him Bill (not his real name).

First, let’s give you some background. Bill was hired as a Product Analyst at our early stage startup about six months before this conversation took place. He had a great interview, started a few weeks later, and quickly got up to speed. Bill rapidly became proficient in SQL, learned our business model and our data structures, and worked on his ability to convince key stakeholders to take action based on the insights he was finding in the data. He’s an absolute A+ player, who is already adding a lot of value to our organization. One of the best hires I’ve ever made.

As you might expect, Bill’s six month career check-in meeting was very positive. At the end of that six month career check-in is where the following (paraphrased) conversation took place....

John: Let’s think about the next 3-6 months. Is there anything in particular that you would like to focus on?

Bill: I want to try to get involved in more strategic projects.

I laughed. Not because it was a bad goal, but rather because it was a great goal. It was one I remember setting for myself. For me it was probably about a decade ago, but it felt like yesterday, so I knew I could help him.

John: You’re in luck. When the leadership team is starting to dig into a major strategic problem, one of the things we often say is “hold on, this one feels big. Let’s grab a 23 year old with six months of experience before we keep going”

Obviously this was a joke. Bill did not think it was very funny.

To my credit, I had the best of intentions. I was quickly summarizing the position Bill was in, and the problem he and I would begin to solve together. By the end of the conversation, Bill was very happy, and he had clear direction on how to keep moving forward to get what he wanted.

John: Unfortunately there isn’t anything you can do to add 10 years of experience overnight. But you can still get yourself in the room for important projects if you are smart about it. You just need to establish yourself as the _________ guy in the organization.

Bill: Okayyyyy…

John: When someone in our organization hears your name, you want them to instantly associate it with skills that the company desperately needs. You don’t want them thinking “smart 23 year old kid who’s going to be great someday”. You want them thinking things like “Excel”, “SQL”, “Metabase”, “Google Analytics”, etc.

Bill: Makes total sense.

John: Here’s the most important part… you want to pick skills that are valuable to the company, and which not many other people have. Ideally you get really good at one or two things that none of your coworkers has. You’ll become “the guy” for that skillset, and then anytime anyone needs that covered on a project, they’ll loop you in. This is the fastest way to get yourself involved in more projects, which will in turn give you more practice to hone your skills and to develop your general business acumen.

From there, Bill and I went on to discuss the various things that seemed within his general wheelhouse which he could work on to make himself more valuable to the company. Our list included SQL, Metabase, New Relic, Mixpanel, and Google Analytics.

Since that meeting, Bill decided to double down on SQL and Metabase, where he was already strong, and attempt to solidify his position as the go-to guy for all complex analyses which require using SQL on our relational database. We chose to focus here, because in our rapidly-evolving startup organization, there are so many needs for expert-level SQL analysis, and there are so few people in our organization who can meet those needs.

Bill has now become “the SQL/Metabase guy”. When you think of Bill, you think of SQL, and Metabase. When you think of SQL or Metabase, you think of Bill. He owns it, fully. Now, he works regularly with our CEO, COO, Head of Finance, and other senior leaders on key projects, because he has developed this rare and valuable skill set. As a result of being involved in more projects, his business acumen is developing more rapidly than his peers. As he outpaces those peers, he will continue to be looped in more, and will continue to grow faster from having more access to opportunities. Bill learned the lesson about developing rare and valuable skills early, and his career will have compounding returns as a result.

I should note that your personal list of development areas could look very different from Bill’s, and will depend on your natural abilities, the type of work you like doing, and your organization’s specific challenges. These are just examples from one Analyst’s growth opportunities. There is no one correct path.

The key is that you find some skills to work on, which will be fun for you, and which are both rare and valuable. Anytime you hear me giving career advice, you will likely hear this phrase, “rare and valuable”. From my experience, most people naturally focus on “valuable”, but a lot of people tend to forget about the more important part, “rare”.

The problem with valuable skills that are not rare, is they don’t set you apart at all. They don’t make you stand out, so they don’t get you into the room for those great projects you need to continue to grow. Let’s say you learned PowerPoint. Sure, that has value. But almost 100% of your coworkers and job applicant competitors know how to use PowerPoint too. I promise you will never get pulled into a key project, or hired for a job, specifically because you can use Powerpoint. It’s too common. Not interesting. Not special. Now, let’s say instead you become absolutely fantastic at Excel and can handle any dataset known to mankind. Yes, there are others who are good at Excel, but not nearly as many as PowerPoint. Excel mastery is far more rare. You can absolutely get pulled into key projects, or even hired for a position, strictly based on being an Excel guru. Same story for becoming a SQL whiz. This skillset is even more rare. Just like Excel, becoming a SQL master can absolutely land you a job or secure your place in the room for key projects.

This is all simple supply and demand. You want to find the skills that are the most in demand, where there isn’t much supply, and then become the supply.

Take a look around your organization. What are some of the areas that seem underserved? Could you learn more about those areas? What skills could you develop which are rare and valuable? Talk to your manager about this stuff. Given the opportunity to steer young and ambitious talent toward skills that the company needs, they will jump on it. But you need to own your career growth opportunities yourself. It is your job to force that conversation.

I hope you found this helpful. It can be really hard getting a career started and getting out of entry level work. I know because I’ve been there. If you’re willing to put in the effort, and can use the rare and valuable framework to think about where to spend your time building skills, it can make all the difference.

Keep learning!


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John Pauler

John brings over 15 years 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 15 years 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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