In the 10 years since the Harvard Business Review declared data science the sexiest job of the century, the demand for smart data wranglers has exploded. But as folks eagerly jump into data careers, they’re hitting an unexpected snag.
Once you get that first job, what comes next? 🤔
To answer this question, Jessica Cherny, senior data analyst at Fivetran and founder of Data Angels, hosted a session titled, Lessons from the trenches: Advice for women early in their analytics career during this year’s Summer Community Days.
As someone who really has been there, Jessica seeks to empower women in data, so she covered everything from tips to building your brand to the best way to set your boundaries.
Early data career DIY
In the data industry, we’re pretty much building the airplane while flying it, making a data career a build-your-own adventure. That sounds great from the outside, but once you’re in it, you can find yourself longing for a role model or peer group to turn to.
“The problem for a lot of early-career data folks is that the career path is still undefined,” Jessica started. “It varies from company to company, which leaves people confused. Many entry-level data folks feel lost navigating their careers.” 🧭
Data leaders come from a variety of non-data backgrounds, so even managers might not know all the options available to their teams.
“When I first started my job, I felt really lost. I had all these questions percolating in my head, and there was no person several years into their data career to navigate me through them,” Jessica said.
To combat this, she started seeking out senior data people outside of the Ironclad organization. And over the years, she’s been able to tap into the wisdom of more than 50 data pros. She distilled their career advice, along with the lessons she’s learned along the way, into a few key tips for building the data career you want. 💡
Data Career Tip 1: Build your brand
A personal brand is the currency of the modern job market. 💰 People in every industry need the ability to tell their story so it leaves an impression.
“Work is theater in a lot of ways,” Jessica said. “The world we live in, for better or worse, is concerned with image. Having a brand gets you ahead in life and opens you up to more opportunities.”
So, how can a data analyst build a brand? Start by showing off your work. Publicizing your projects helps them reach more people, so you can pop up on the radar of people who can help you down the road and make a bigger impact. 📢
“If you created a really useful dashboard for the product team, show it off at a product all-hands meeting,” Jessica said. “If you coded up a really accurate churn prediction model, present it to your customer success execs. If you set up important data models and infra in dbt, publish those updates in Slack.”
Along with sharing what you did, provide context. Explain why it matters. Your business stakeholders might not understand all the technical details of your project, but they will appreciate how it impacts their workflow. Even people who do understand the technical side will have an easier time remembering the outcome you achieved rather than the process you followed.
But don’t stop at internal channels. Share your best work on social media, in external Slack communities, or on a portfolio blog. It might feel awkward and braggy at first, but it gets easier with time and practice. Now, when people see all the cool things you do, they’ll remember you as someone to contact when they have a great opportunity that needs your skills. 😎
Data Career Tip 2: Network
“Networking before you need it is the best thing you can do for your data career,” Jessica said. “Building relationships and curating a network of senior data folks before you need your next job works like compound interest – the benefits just grow over time.”
People early in their careers come up with a lot of excuses not to network:
🤷 “It feels awkward.”
🤷 “It feels sales-y.”
🤷 “I’m not important enough for people to want to connect with me.”
Regardless of your preferred networking evasion technique, it’s time to ditch all those excuses and get out there. 👋🏻
The most basic rule for connecting with people you don’t know is: Do your homework. 📝 Before sending an email or LinkedIn message to someone you’d like to learn from, research their career. In your invitation, mention where you heard of them, tell them you’d like to learn from them, and ask a personalized question. If you noticed you have something in common, there’s an easy conversation starter.
But if connecting through cold email and LinkedIn feels too scary, start with a more low-key approach by joining Slack communities. Once you’ve virtually met someone by chatting on Slack, sending a LinkedIn invitation doesn’t feel so awkward. Plus, some groups have internal channels that randomly match conversation partners, so you don’t even need to drum up the courage to approach someone. 😮💨
Jessica’s Top Slack Communities for Networking
The Operational Analytics Club
Jessica also suggested not limiting yourself to fellow data folks when building your network. You can learn a lot from people in other roles (and gain some unique perspectives, too). In fact, Jessica credits her work on Ironclad’s customer health score to knowing a member of the customer success team who advocated for bringing her on the project.
“Putting yourself out there can open up doors that aren’t even on your or your manager’s roadmap,” she advised. “So be curious and ditch your timidity.” 😁
Data Career Tip 3: Take Charge of Your Career
Opportunities to grow won’t just fall in your lap. (But wouldn’t it be nice if they did?)
To develop your data career, you have to take charge of it. That’s right – you have to play offense. 🏈
Ask for opportunities to grow
After Jessica got her first promotion at Ironclad, she wasn’t sure what to do. She felt like her career had hit a plateau and she didn’t know what should come next. Finally, after wrestling with the guilt of complacency, Jessica went to her manager. They talked about her goals and created a plan to put her on projects that interested her and stretched her comfort zone.
“If you feel like you’re not learning the things you want to learn, speak up,” she said. “Say yes to opportunities outside your comfort zone. Take a class to improve skills you’re not confident in and ask your manager to support that. It’s worth it to shoot your shot.” 🏀
Ditch the imposter syndrome
Even early in your career, you probably know more than you give yourself credit for. If you view yourself as a shy novice, that’s how everyone else will see you, too.
“After you find your footing and get your first couple of wins, you have to start asserting yourself,” Jessica urged.
Take opportunities to present and lead meetings when you can, even if it scares you. When other people are presenting, ask targeted, thoughtful questions. Instead of asking, “How did you do this analysis?” go for something specific like, “Have we thought about how including just power users in this analysis might bias our insights?”
The more you do this, the more people will think of you as someone with valuable thoughts to share, and the more confident you will become.
Don’t get so focused on advancing your data career you forget to have a life. No one knows your limits unless you tell them. So, if you always push to give 110%, people will see that as your normal and have no clue you’re burning out. 😫
“It’s really hard to say no to things, but it’s better to focus on big rocks than small stones,” Jessica said. “It’s better to do really big, impactful projects well than answer a lot of small ad hoc tickets. Answering tickets is not the work that gets you promoted.” ⭐
At the end of the work day, log off and go do the things that bring you joy. The work will always be there, and you’ll be better at it if you approach it healthy, rested, and refreshed.
As the data industry matures, there are lots of opportunities to blaze your own career path. But everyone can benefit from talking to people who have done it before and people who are blazing trails right beside you.
✨ Watch Jessica’s full session and more Summer Community Days talks here. Then head over to the Operational Analytics Club to share your view and join the conversation (plus some added goodies like networking, guidance, and resources).