Evolving From SQL Monkey to BI Pro

The notion that business intelligence (BI) developers are no more than SQL monkeys who crank out reports is outdated. Companies need to handle increasingly complex data flows, so they’re looking for candidates with cross-discipline skill sets. If you want to distinguish yourself, you’ll have to do a lot more than produce a daily Crystal Report.

Overlapping Roles

According to David Yang, co-founder and lead instructor at Fullstack Academy, the increasing overlap between business intelligence and evolving fields such as data science and machine learning is driving that need for a cross-disciplinary outlook. “As those fields have grown,” he said, “understanding the statistics and computer science has become [more] helpful.”

It’s no longer sufficient to know how to generate a report by clicking a few buttons; now anyone involved in BI beyond a certain point should understand the underlying techniques that produce the final analysis. Strong math skills, and awareness of the latest in Big Data subjects such as pattern recognition and computational learning theory, can differentiate you from the growing pack of BI candidates.

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As datasets have outgrown traditional SQL databases, knowing how to write queries in Hadoop or Hive/Pig has become increasingly important, Yang added: “It goes hand-in-hand with being able to write code because rolling up your sleeves and getting access to the data is now a larger part of the position.”

Candidates for BI positions should also understand how to access data from legacy systems and modern APIs, as most corporations maintain multiple systems. How companies acquire, move, transform, load, and warehouse data has become increasingly complex.

Business Savvy

James Beresford, director at consultancy Agile BI, also agrees that a strong familiarity with machine intelligence can help a BI candidate actually land a job. But knowing about the latest and greatest technology isn’t quite enough; he stressed the importance of understanding the whole “stack” of a prospective employer. Candidates who can talk business on terms that others can understand will have the upper hand.

“What I am seeing,” Beresford said, “is that there is an increasing bifurcation of BI developers into those who stay on the pure developer track and hit career stagnation and those who ‘get’ business, who then become the leaders in the field.”

Business savvy is not something that can be acquired readily. But by talking to those executives and employees who use BI analyses in order to implement strategy, it’s possibly to build an understanding of how data affects an organization. You can use that knowledge as a base, and gradually expand on it as you work on various projects. Some BI experts even opt to take MBA classes, just to brush up on their knowledge (and especially if their company will pay for it).

As Beresford noted, quantifiable business experience and/or a degree such as an MBA or Ph.D. can elevate a BI employee’s salary by a significant amount—over 30 percent, in some scenarios.

Soft Skills

BI developers tend to be independent thinkers who excel in agile environments and can adjust to new challenges at speed. According to Brian Flynn, a product manager at SolarWinds, the best people for BI work are often detail-oriented influencers with great communication skills. “They’re likely to suggest as many requirements as given and will motivate the business to alter original plans,” he said. “They can’t resist rocking the boat to make sure all the angles are assessed.”

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