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A New Guide for the "Accidental Analyst"

Just shop online a few times or watch the stock market and you will witness signs of heavyweight data analysis. Data's always with us, a constant influence. Into this surging tide stumbles the accidental analyst.

The marketer, the salesperson, and even the alert, young generalist each try -- sometimes straining to recall basic statistics -- to answer questions with data. Whether motivated by need or nudged into analysis by others, the task can be intimidating.

Now along comes help. The longtime Tableau training duo and co-authors of Rapid Graphs with Tableau Software 7 Eileen and Stephen McDaniel will publish The Accidental Analyst: Show Your Data Who's Bossthis June (Freakalytics, LLC; 2012).

The McDaniels have been showing people how to be the "boss" for three years. They've hopped all over the U.S. instructing new analysts at all levels of the corporate ladder.

They've structured their new book around "the Seven C's," a metaphor that alludes to sinking or swimming -- apt for explanations that never go too deep and seem designed for the urgent read. The accidental analyst they have in mind, I assume, has to learn fast: choose questions, collect data, check data, clean data, chart data, customize it all, and communicate the results. For that, this book cuts water like a champ.

One of the hardest and most important lessons is the first C: choosing questions. It takes more than simple technical adeptness. The real questions may be obscure. The executives meeting at the big table may sigh over declining basket sales, but the savvy analyst recognizes the real question: "How do we improve marketing to women?"

The next few C's sound like much less fun, but the book makes quick work of them. Several dozen or so sparse pages breeze through topics such as identifying data and matching it to questions, inventorying data, dealing with data that's unavailable, dealing with large volume, and merging data. There's much more to the subject, of course, but I assume that the McDaniels by now have a well-honed sense of beginners' needs.

The sections on cleaning data go deeper. The newbie analyst gets quick fixes for common problems such as outliers, missing data, and issues with calculated fields.

That brevity suddenly ends. The chapter on customizing the analysis makes many brushed-over points come alive.

Take filters, for example. The breeze that touched this topic earlier now carries along a context. "Maria" the analyst tries to show how many luxury items a store offers -- showing not just filters but knowledge of the business and her ability to sort through the data. The drudgery of collection, cleaning, and checking suddenly brightens as several concepts and techniques combine. Summary values, sorting, filtering, and relationships among data become a story. With that, of course, we sail into the final C, communication.

Accidental Analyst is a book that any reasonably bright, perceptive knowledge worker can absorb over a few days. I began to think of it as the "executive" manual, like an "executive MBA," created for the student with a rich background who already knows the basics.

What's next for the truly ambitious? The "accidental" whiff of the C air will be just the next step of a long trip -- perhaps whetted by a sequel. The Accidental Analyst Sees the World might go from port to port asking the big questions about data analysis, such as the philosophy of framing questions, how to spot analytical talent, and strategies for using data to convince others.

Even now, accidental analysts are everywhere and becoming as ordinary as do-it-yourself typists -- not as skilled as the elite but good enough, and proliferating.

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist with more than 20 years' experience explaining, analyzing, and researching how people use technology. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, who says "It's not about the bike," Ted says, "It's not about the computer." His current research focuses on business analysts, including the tools they use, the roles they play, and their careers. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist in the business intelligence industry. He’s looking for anyone who tells stories with data or even thinks about it, and those who receive such stories. He’s researching best practices for storytelling with data, careers, reactions to storytelling with data, and possibly other issues. He asks that you contact him at [email protected] with a line or two about your involvement with data stories.

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