Business intelligence is an extremely competitive field, and only the applicants with the most impressive resumes can expect an interview for a position. However, there isn't really a unified degree path or college curriculum that everyone agrees makes people into a BI expert. Those that want to break into the business intelligence industry usually have to hone their skills in different roles before they make the jump.
That begs the question - what skills should prospective BI experts be prioritizing? What skills will make you stand out from the field, and which ones will get your resume put on the 'rejected' pile? Our guide can help you make sense of the BI industry and figure out what roles to take on to boost your professional qualifications.
Our BI experts have decades of experience both working for BI vendors and consulting businesses trying to implement BI solutions. Here are the skills that they say will set you up for BI success:
- Data literacy
BI professionals need to have a solid understanding of data to make the most of a real BI role. Not only should a BI professional be able to understand data, they should be able to help others to understand data. One of the most important things that a BI professional does is help others at their business to understand the implications of their data and its analysis.
To really excel in a BI role, a BI professional really needs to understand every aspect of the data process. In many BI roles, an essential part of the job is explaining what's happening within a BI tool or other statistical process, and how that process will help that business leverage their data towards insight.
Data literacy also helps BI professionals get buy-in on their plans to leverage data in new ways. The skill helps data analysts to craft data stories, which are data-driven presentations that help convince stakeholders in a project to view their data in new ways.
- Coding skills
With the rise of modern BI tools, data analysts and other BI professionals don't necessarily need to come from a coding background to be useful in a data architecture or data engineering role. However, technical knowledge of BI tools and the code they're written in is still very useful.
All business intelligence tools use SQL to manage their databases. As such, knowing how to query a database in SQL is an essential skill for most professional BI roles. You don't have to be a SQL expert right away in your first BI role; but a basic understanding of how to structure queries is important.
There are some other coding languages that BI tools commonly employ in some way or another. Most BI tools use R or Python to code the systems that exist on top of their database, like automations or integrations. At larger organizations, a data analyst might not need to interact with that sort of stuff, but it can't hurt to develop some general knowledge about those tools.
- Industry knowledge
To properly interpret the data that a business collects in a BI tool, a BI analyst needs to have a general understanding of the industry that the business is in. This way, the analyst will know what 'right' looks like when they analyze the data that comes in. A BI expert needs to understand industry trends and market forces and how they might impact their data.
Just as some basic examples, margins differ wildly from business to business and industry to industry. Some industries have healthy margins and can afford to build in some slack into their systems, while others have to fight for every dollar possible and need to run as efficiently as possible.
Some industries are going to focus more on manufacturing and product management, while others are more focused on customer relationships and marketing. BI professionals need to stay aware of the things their industry focuses on and the industry-specific challenges that their business faces to provide the most valuable insight possible.
- People skills
Basically every recruiter is looking for candidates that have 'people skills'. Good communication skills are important for any BI professional, even in roles where they won't be interacting directly with clients or customers. These skills help people to work better as a part of a team; at most companies, a data analyst will be working as a part of a larger data engineering team and will need good interpersonal skills to get the job done.
In many roles, especially more senior data roles at larger businesses, BI experts might spend more time in meetings with other managers and senior staff than they will staring at a spreadsheet or poring over Tableau reports. To minimize the amount of time they spend in meetings talking about nothing, and maximize the amount of time they have to actually do their jobs, BI experts need good communication skills.
One important dimension of communication is persuasion. Data analysts need the ability to convince others of their opinions, especially when they're talking about data. Even though data analysis is your area of expertise, there will still be those, especially in upper management, that think they know better about what the data means than you do. Data experts need to be their own advocates, so that they can more easily convince others of the implications of their data.
- Presentation skills
A central part of advocating for your data implications is presenting them to other people. In most cases, that's going to take the form of a slide deck or some other visual presentation of the data. Presentation skills aren't just some subset of communication skills; they're a crucial skill that make up a large part of the job description, especially in more senior roles.
Explaining the implications of complex data analysis isn't usually an exciting topic for a presentation. Without good presentation skills, other employees that don't have any sort of expertise on or interest in data will quickly tune you out. This could make your presentation backfire, with employees standing against you just because you bored them.
Good presentations on data-focused topics often use a data story as their core. A data story cuts down on technical explanations and lists of numbers and focuses on the narratives that the data suggests. They usually utilize many data visualizations, the simpler the better. The goal isn't to help a layperson to understand the underlying data analysis; all they need to know is what the data means to them.
Breaking into the BI industry
Beyond these essential skills, finding a BI role is a lot like finding a professional role in any other industry. Build professional networks and make friends in influential places, make sure you have competitive qualifications and that any certifications you carry are up to date, and so on.
In many professional roles, it can be very tempting to hang out in a comfortable role that's below your skill level for years. However, in a space that's as competitive as BI, stagnation can be a death sentence. To land the best BI roles across the industry, it's best to seek out roles that will challenge you professionally. If you're starting to feel like there's nothing left for you to learn in your current position, it might be time to look for something else.
The BI space can be very competitive, and job candidates need a good skill set to be considered for the best roles. The best candidates will have a mix of job-specific talents, like data analysis and coding know-how, plus more general skills like industry expertise, communication skills, and presentation acumen.