The Path to Your Best Self

What a year it has been! Or, for some of us, where did the year go? Were you nice or naughty, healthy or toxic, progressing or regressing? Whether you made big strides this year or you hit a big slump and are hoping for a kick-start January 1st, it is important to understand that – positively or negatively – you are in control of your own destiny. And you cause your own momentum and influence, so be kind to yourself.

As you go through this next month (or year), it is best to start planning now how you will make a better-version-of-yourself for tomorrow and beyond. In this post, I will talk about some things that I used throughout this past year that took me from a typical analyst to an advanced analyst. You can use my examples (and the accompanying road map and milestones!) all while using Alteryx as your guiding light.

And have no fear – we all go through changes. It always feels like staring up a mountain, but little-by-little, we will get there. So have faith in yourself and cast fear aside…

Definitions

So when I say I was your “typical analyst”, what I mean is that I was doing standard reporting on sales & profit and this was typically being done in a manual fashion – pull the data down, load into excel, create a manual chart or pivot table, pull out some insight (highlights/low-lights). Then, this was manually sent via e-mail to one or two persons who might or might not read what I sent over. You can see how this might be frustrating as there are a lot of manual processes that take hours to put together and get just right before the report is completed. Even then, it might not be read, which goes back to overall confidence (more on that in a second).

So what is an “advanced analyst”? An advanced analyst is one who does everything above – pull down data, load into a readable format, create charts or tables, highlight or low-light insights, and distribute to the proper audience – but with automation and confidence.

First, on automation, you need to have a tool like Alteryx that can pull down data and do the blending for you. For those of you in the higher realms of analytics and computer science, you can use R and Python to accomplish this task, but Alteryx makes things extremely easy to use from this standpoint. And if you currently use Excel, almost everything you do in Excel can be done in Alteryx. If it truly cannot be done, then you can still use Alteryx as your data prep tool to load into an Excel template for things like pivot tables and charts.

Now, for confidence, this is not something you get overnight. In fact, it can sometimes take months or years to get where you want this to be. Confidence doesn’t just mean with yourself, but it is a holistic approach to your data career – do you have confidence in your abilities and the data you are receiving, and does your intended audience have that same confidence in you and your reporting? For instance, if something in your process was to break, do you feel you could rebuild it? Could you explain your process fully to a new hire? Can you also explain it to someone who might not understand how data works? These are all key characteristics to not only confidence but also competence in your work and what you do as an analyst.

Too often there are posts about someone who is a Subject Matter Expert but has no advanced analytical skill set or vice versa. It is important that in the realm of analytics, you need to be constantly working the trifecta – business acumen, mathematics, and computer skills (or hacker skillz for those that read other pop DS blogs) – and two main components of this trifecta is simply being able to automate lower-level, everyday tasks and having confidence in your abilities.

The Path

Transitioning from one of the many neophytes of analytics to someone who will help transform their company is a long-game. In fact, I am only slightly ahead in the game, but I am nowhere near my end goal. However, I was able to learn a lot rather quickly. So how did I do it? Some of previous posts explain my tools of the trade, but the overall methodology is listed here:

  1. Define your goal using concrete language. (Think SMART goals)
  2. Envision what that version of yourself looks like and does on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
  3. Define the difference between your present state and your future state.
  4. Build a realistic road map to get from point A to B. Just to reiterate, be realistic, not wishful. Also, think outside the box of what this looks like. You don’t always have to go to formal university to get an education, and you don’t always have to jump companies to get new experiences.
  5. Define monthly goals to measure progress
  6. Work the process. Embrace the misses. Reward the successes. Most of all, be kind to yourself.

Define your Goal

This a little bit of a mastery all on its own. When I was younger, I would set goals and feel frustrated that I wasn’t achieving them. From my music days, I would say “I am going to learn this song in two weeks!” Sure enough, two weeks would be up and I had maybe the fundamentals of the song, but not enough to play it up on a stage. This is where we have to use specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely language to make our goals a worthwhile endeavor. Change my simple statement of learning a new song in two weeks that would easily take a month for someone of my skillset to learn, I can make it a little more concrete. “I want to learn this song in 4 weeks by doing a dry run-through on week 1, practicing chunks at a time week 2, putting them altogether by week 3, and polishing it all up on week 4. I will also need to make sure I practice my fundamentals like scales, chords, and finger exercises so as to upkeep my ability.” Now, I went a little above and beyond, but the idea is that your goal is crystalline clear to not only you but anybody else who might want to know what the goal is (aka Your Boss).

For our following examples, let’s all pretend that we want to all become data scientists. Our goal might look like:

I want to become a data scientist in the next 2 years by studying advanced mathematics and statistics as well as programming languages, by building advanced reporting, by automating low-level reporting, and by presenting my findings to the executive board. By December 2019, I will have done at least 2 advanced statistical reports and presented these to my direct manager. By December 2020, I will have done at least 5 advanced statistical reports and presented at least one of these to the executive board.

Envision Your Future

With a goal defined, we can now look at who we want to be. This can sometimes be difficult to imagine because, well, we don’t know what we don’t know. However, we have to get outside ourselves and our comfort zone if we want to change.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

-Albert Einstein

So, who do you want to be when you grow up? It’s not enough to say fireman or space cowboy, you have to know what you would do in that role. For me, I am an aspiring data scientist, so my imagined weekly routine might look a little something like this:

  • Develop a statistical analysis that explains something significant to the business like shopper behavior regarding dog food.
  • Develop presentations for business stakeholders to explain the analysis.
  • Develop my skill set in R, Python, Alteryx, and Tableau.
  • Develop my presentation skills by taking Lynda.com classes. Set aside time each week to watch great presenters.
  • Be able to wrangle data from Oracle databases.
  • Connect with fellow data scientists via LinkedIn or Twitter.
  • Keep up to date on the latest statistical techniques or analytical packages.
  • Mentor fellow analysts on methodology and analytical techniques.
  • Find a mentor and have a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meeting with them.

And I could keep going. Notice that at the top of my list is the core of what a typical data scientist might do, but as I go down the list, there are extra things that will help my career and that I might be expected to do. So often, we set goals thinking “I want to do that because I’ll get paid big bucks by the man to not do anything!” I have rarely seen that to be true. In fact, I think most folks who feel that way are disillusioned as they get closer to that role only to find out it’s way more intensive than they originally thought. By setting our frame of mind correctly for that job, we won’t be frustrated when we actually achieve it. Most importantly, if we decide we still want to go after this role, this type of list will help us to build our road map of how we can achieve it!

The Difference Between Me and Future Me

Okay, we have our goal and we know what all it should mean to us. Now, we just need to understand where we are at today to help us build our road map. So let’s say that this is us:

  • Manually reporting in excel
  • Familiar with limited programming languages. Or rather, I know how to pull data down, but I stay within my comfort zone on how I do it (saved queries, get code from others without analyzing it to understand, etc.).
  • Reports center around variances (This time frame vs previous time frame). No predictions or forecasting methods are being used.
  • Data Cleaning is my nightmare and I frequently only pull data from sources I am comfortable with.
  • Besides my internal team, I do not know anyone else who does a similar job to me. I have no industry presence.
  • Unless someone else tells me about it, I am unaware of new techniques or packages.
  • When someone asks me for help, I typically point them to someone else.
  • I have no mentor and I do not look up to anyone.

I managed to create an anti-hero in this case, but not long ago, this was me! So now I can see that to work towards my goal, I have to really turn things around. On each of my points, I need to be working towards more efficiency and to set myself in the right mindset everyday or otherwise I may not ever become a data scientist.

The Road Map and Milestones

With the introspection done, we can now focus on what is going to be our vehicle for the future. Without breaking down each of these, let’s say I am just going to focus on my programming language. In this case, I am going to make Alteryx my main programming language (I know, I know, it’s not really a programming language as it is a GUI, but it helps us to understand and manipulate data like a programming language would). So this road map might consist of the following:

  • Do two training videos a week.
  • Do a lunch-and-learn at least once a week.
  • Do a weekly challenge at least once a week.
  • Read a Tool Mastery article and apply it at least once every other week.
  • Plan on visiting the community at least three times a week to help others. Respond to posts, post my own topics, or be active within my local area User Group.

And this is just getting warmed up! So now let’s set some milestones:

  • By the end of Q2 2019, watch all training videos.
  • By the end of Q2 2019, have watched at least 24 lunch-and-learn videos.
  • By the end of Q1 2019, have completed at least 20 weekly challenges. This means that I have to do a couple of weeks worth of multiple challenges.
  • By June 2019, pass my Alteryx Certified Core Exam.
  • By June 2020, pass my Alteryx Certified Advanced Exam.

This can all be done within the Alteryx community and does not directly tie back to our main jobs, but it will pay dividends in everything we do. It will not only help us towards our goals, but our managers will be excited to see our progress.

Work It, Embrace It, and Reward It

Now that we have our goals set, we can use our planner to keep us on track. Set reminders, hang your goals up in your bathroom, do whatever you need to do to keep those goals front-of-mind and to continually work towards them. This is where the rubber meets the road. You will stumble and that is okay. You will have something completely de-rail you, and again, that is okay. If you have done the previous parts of this post successfully, even something like a major life change will not keep you from your goals because you have concreted them early on. The only thing we may want to adjust is our milestones. However, whenever you achieve one of your milestones, celebrate them. Tell them to your boss, to your friends, to your family. It is just as important to celebrate these hurdles you’ve jumped as it is to achieve the end goal because these are the boosters that keep you going. And you will not only build momentum as you pass each hurdle, but you will influence others to do the same as you.

So now you have the path. And a guide to the path. And a post on the guide that you can reference to the path. You know what you need to do, so let’s get out there and do it!

I hope you all had a wonderful 2018, and I look forward to hearing about your progress in 2019! Good Luck and Happy New Year!

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