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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

5 Minutes with an Analyst: Ruben Ugarte of Practico Analytics

The founder of Practico Analytics spoke with Upside about the people skills that analysts need in order to create reports that will truly help their colleagues succeed.

Ruben Ugarte is the founder of Practico Analytics, a consultancy that helps companies set up and use analytics tools such as Google Analytics and Mixpanel. He recently spoke to Upside about the skills and technology he uses every day.

UPSIDE: What's the one thing you wish people knew about your job?

Ruben Ugarte: Data analysis is more than just crunching numbers. I believe the best data analysts are able to do two things very well: understand business goals and help colleagues use data to make better decisions. These two things may sound obvious but they are actually hard to get right.

For example, most companies focus on what data needs to be collected without giving much thought to what reports they want to see. They go through complex implementation projects and collect all the data they could possibly need, but no one ever looks at it! A good data analyst would have figured out what metrics or data points were actually needed (based on business goals) and then focused on properly collecting only those points.

Good data analysts also act like coaches. They talk to their colleagues and try to understand what data they need to make better decisions. If business users have all the data they should need, then the analyst might need to figure out why they aren't using or trusting the data.

Whether it's the latest Python build or a 50-gallon drum of espresso, what's the one thing you can't do your job without?

I would say Excel. Even as analytics tools get better, Excel is something that always comes up during a regular day or project. Once you know how to use Excel, you realize that you can do quite a bit with it. Maybe I have learned to rely on Excel too much, but I still consider it a crucial skill for any new data analyst. All analytics tools have limits to what they can do, and you're bound to find yourself inside an Excel spreadsheet sooner rather than later.

What's a personality trait you think people need to succeed at your job?

I would say people skills. You need to be able to talk to other teams inside your company and figure out what data they need and, more important, what data will help them make better decisions.

On top of people skills, learning some basic psychology could also be very helpful. Sometimes people have all the data they need, but they simply can't make the right decisions. Maybe it's because they are worried about the consequences of their actions or their decisions, but this is an opportunity to use data to provide certainty and peace of mind.

What's your biggest pet peeve (abused buzzword, overhyped idea, etc.) and why?

The biggest pet peeve for me is the overreliance on numbers. I see companies all the time obsess about collecting more data, but very few spend the same amount of time trying to figure out how to use that data. Instead of focusing on a handful of metrics that matter and that will help their business, they end up collecting every possible metric under the sun.

A second, related pet peeve is an obsession with tools. I love playing with and using tools but some companies take this to an extreme and spend an enormous amount of time looking for the best tools on the market. Sometimes Excel can get the job done just as well, but this is overlooked in favor of shiny objects.

What's the most common roadblock you hit in your work? How do you deal with it?

The most common roadblock is trying to turn reports into actions or decisions. This means working with executives or managers, helping them take the insights from the data and make changes to their team or product. Report generation is also an ongoing process where I'm constantly trying to distill reports to show only the most important metrics.

Removing irrelevant metrics or replacing them with better metrics is a crucial process, but it's one that sometimes gets pushed back by decision makers. They just want a report in their hands and don't particularly care how it gets generated, but data analysts need to work with these decision makers to understand what data is important to them.

In terms of dealing with this problem, it all comes down to earning trust. I usually start with a short phone call or interaction that gives me enough to generate a solid first report. This report gives them some useful insight, which earns me the trust needed for longer and more in-depth conversations about what metrics matter to their business.

About the Author

James E. Powell is the editorial director of TDWI, including research reports, the Business Intelligence Journal, and Upside newsletter. You can contact him via email here.

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