Web Analytics Career Advice: Statistics, Business, IT & Mushrooms

violetA “aspiring SEO & online Marketer” in Germany asked a interesting question via email and I as I replied to the email it seemed like one of those things that others might be interested in. Then I got another one from someone here in the US and that was a good one too. Net net here's a blog post!

The first part of this post are the two email exchanges and the third part is a realization I have come to recently about a key ingredient that every great Analyst I have met seems to have.

Does a analyst need to know statistics?

Here is a excerpt from the reader’s email and my response…..

If I want to become solid at web analytics, will it make sense for me to learn and become very proficient at the bases of traditional statistics (while Im in college)?

I would absolutely recommend getting a solid grounding on basics (and maybe just a smidgen beyond basics) of statistics. This is helpful for two reasons:

    # 1 Great analysts will know how to leverage the awesome power of statistics in their analysis, such as I have outlined in these two posts:

    Both posts outline how you can apply even the simplest of the statistical principles to great benefit in doing analysis of your web data.

    # 2 Increasingly traditional clickstream analysis is becoming less and less insightful (because of the inherent complexity of the web and customer behavior is increasing with every passing day).

    Experiment smallFor this very reason I have often recommended a focus on customer experience and on experimentation / testing, because both are the keys to unlocking the insights that are truly actionable. To truly exploit these options for your business you’ll need to be good at statistics.

    As an example in my past life I have used the ACSI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) model for doing surveys and it is essentially a complex multivariate regression model on top of your survey data. It helps bring hard core quantitative power to something so qualitative as survey responses.

    Likewise I if you do multivariate testing (or even A/B) you will need to know the basics of statistics as well as you analyze the data and make decisions based on when the result set has reached the desired confidence levels.

You don't have to be a PhD in statistics, but being a smart person with a familiarity of statistics (basics and just a bit more) will be greatly helpful in your career in web analytics.

Perhaps the most critical skill, IMHO, is your ability to do analysis, your ability to think analytically and look at every problem differently. Anything you can get exposed to in order to become a great analyst will be awesome for you. This post might be helpful : Top Ten Signs You Are A Great Analyst.

Are you on the “business” or “IT” side?

Here’s the second interesting question….

My silly question is that do you see yourself as on the "business" side of Web Analytics or the "IT" side? Should there even be separate "sides"? The reason I ask is that my interest in Web Analytics is mainly on the what to measure, how to read results, how to present and communicate the result, and how to influence changes based on results. But then I want to have good understanding of the capabilities of the different tools and data quality, etc. It's a dilemma to have to choose to be on one side or another.

choice From my experience if you want to be a Analyst then you are on the "business" side automatically. I have spent a few years as a part of IT but IT is not business and there is something core about the integration and mindset that is quite different. That's based on my experience. So if you want to read data and analyze data and present it then it is better to be on/in the business side.

That said the best analysts have a deep technical side, in the sense that they need to be comfortable understanding javascript tags and urls and parameters and redirects and web pages etc so that they are good at one singular thing: How does the data get collected and then how it is interpreted by the analytics tool. That will ensure your long term success.

So in summary, get your salary and comp aligned to the business side and keep your friends, and smarts, on the IT side so you’ll can understand what's happening behind the scenes. Then you are set for success. :)

The common trait that great analysts share.

Writing that last paragraph in the first email made me think of all the people I had thought were great analysts, and what did they have in common. One obvious thing was that they were good most or all of the things mentioned in the Top Ten Signs post. But after a bit more thought it struck me.

All great analysts I had ever known had amazing (maybe even crazy) formative life experiences.

They had done ok in school, they were not even remotely straight A’s (in terms of grades). But they had rebelled and had a crazy youth. Or trekked through the woods of Laos on a whim. Or had studied to be geologists or forest rangers. Or never finished college. Or had lived in four countries (mostly on very little money). Or had gotten into trouble with the law (in minor ways). Or… and I had a bunch of these examples.

unique

Each person was, perhaps even unknown to them, a masterful student of life after having lived it very richly, and that had imbibed a ton of common sense and reality in them. They had observed the true complexity of life.

All of them ended up in Web Analytics more by chance than design. But their experience made them particularly adept at solving mysteries (and web analytics is more a mystery and less a puzzle). 

I think their experiences encourages them not accept obvious answers, but rather look below the surface. They are very good at unstructured environments and don’t get paralyzed when all the questions don’t have answers.

I find that they are great learners and rather than being satisfied with being report writers they dig, they probe, they make noise, and hence are amazing at analysis.

life experiencesSo if you want to be a great analyst then take a detour or two in life, you don't have to backpack through Laos but you can volunteer at a local shelter or start your own business or participate in a study abroad program or… well you get the drift.

If you are looking to hire a Analyst look a bit beyond the stand resume entries and look at the "life entries", look beyond the nineteen years of experience with WebTrends or Omniture or HBX. If you have a choice then choose someone with a life experience because you can always teach them how to press buttons in a web analytics tool or write a formula in Excel.

[In case Damini or Chirag are reading this: Daddy is not saying that education is not important or that you should not shoot through school, college and university with straight A’s. It is important, and I am just sharing my a observation that might encourage you all to stop and try bungee jumping. Ok maybe daddy would strongly discourage that particular activity! :) ]

What do you all think? Do you agree, both on the value of statistics and aligning oneself to the business side and mushrooms? What's been your path to Web Analytics? Any interesting stories you would like to share? How about some insightful career advice? Please share your feedback via comments.

Comments

  1. 1
    Rahul Deshmukh says:

    Avinash,
    It is always a pleasure to read your posts.
    I think the best analysts have the following key qualities:
    1) They have diverse work experiences and skills
    2) They are not afraid to poke at things randomly
    3) They are not afraid to question items that seemigly look correct
    4) They are risk takers
    5) On an ideal day – they want to be left alone with a cup of coffee and access to information :–)

    Thanks,
    Rahul

  2. 2
    Matt Hopkins says:

    Avinash,

    Coming from a techy background I think this is a strong influence on my ability to analyse problems to find solutions.

    I wrote a very short post on the qualities I think a web analyst requires however I didn't think of a crazy life history as one of them.

    I wonder do you have any crazy life stories of your own that turned you into Google's very own web analyst?

  3. 3

    I think your post goes essentially in the same direction of the replies I sent to the Yahoo forum:
    – no need to have strong background in statistics, but the basic is essential
    – analytical skills are very important
    – general knowledge of the web, and deep knowledge of the site you analyze…
    – strong business acumen

    The interesting twist you bring is about our crazy lives (either past or actual!). What I wonder is which one influence the other: our crazy life brought us to web analytics or we're living a crazy life because of it? :)

    S.Hamel
    http://blog.immeria.net

  4. 4

    Very interesting Avinash. Is there something you want to tell us?

    I would add that, as my Mother says, 'common sense is in no sense common'.

    I didn't learn statistics in a mathmatical/school situation, but to fully appreciate the nuances of web analytics, I do feel that I was at a disadvantage. That said, Google 'basic statistics' and there are reams of helpful sites to start you off.

  5. 5
    chuckarinosf says:

    Everyone (not just analysts) needs to know basic statistics. Period. We are bomarded with stats daily and we need to be able to separate the good insights from the bad (sorry USA TODAY, I'm talking about you).

    I agree with the lists of traits of successful analysts laid out by others, but feel two more might be missing. First, the ability to ask GOOD, RELEVANT and FRESH questions (think Steven D. Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame). Second, the ability to SELL and CONVINCE others. I've seen truly insightful work be neglected because it wasn't championed and also a good deal of wasted resources chasing the wrong answer to a badly defined problem.

    As far as the life experience goes, I hadn't really thought about it, but 2 of 3 people on my 'Top Analysts' list fit the bill – they're brilliant AND crazy. Just need to figure out whether its causal or simply correlated :-)

  6. 6

    Frankly, the three skills that distinguish good analysts from people who report results are:
    1. solid insight of statistical analysis – not just being able to download and run spreadsheets but being able to tell a proportion test from a z-test and being able to explain it in plain English
    2. ability to pose the right questions – good analysis provides answers and you get the answers to the questions posed; hence, good answers come from good questions
    3. financial knowledge – at a minimum, the ability to classify expenses and to tell what goes in an income statement and in a balance sheet as well as to what is cash flow management

    Anyone can manipulate spreadsheets and macros, these are not core skills for an analyst.

  7. 7
    MJay says:

    Go Street Smarts!

  8. 8

    Well, I came to the web consulting business 11 years ago, back from 7 years of "trekking" in the Far East. I graduated in sociology in the early 80's, was an assistant researcher in sociology of economics, taught English to kids, was a Japanese-English-French translator, and found myself in web analytics 5 years ago on a hunch that it would be the next big thing.

    Thanks so much Avinash; this is the first time in ages I have felt normal…

  9. 9
    Oliver says:

    Avinash,

    I think you are absolutely right about your assumptions on the necessity of a great view angle and a complex atittude to problems (riddles) such as life and web analytics.

    In my experience it has always been good to not stay on one side of a fence between IT and business side or even try to ignore the fact that most IT and business associates you meet will always pretend there is such a fence or try to build one.

    In Web Analytics you can not try and optimize business goals without IT knowledge and you will never be able to get your data and parameters right without really understanding and caring about the business needs for them.

    So my advice would be to challenge or ignore as many fences as possible, never go the straight way (career or lifewise) and to always keep up a willingness to look at things from as many different angles and positions as possible.

  10. 10
    Michael Notté says:

    Great post! I echo your post and above replies that Web analyst are somehow "in-between" the IT mysterious and business. But I tend to believe that in order to be able to provide good analysis, raise the good questions that the business "abilities" and expertise can become more important. That's just my opinion – from someone who's formerly from an IT background.

  11. 11

    I apologize for not replying to your wonderful comments, travel and jet lag and my schedule in London is jam packed (on purpose! :)). I really appreciate all the comments and I'll try to reply to some of them here.

    Meanwhile I have received many of your wonderful "crazy" stories, they are so wonderful and touching. Thank you.

    I will share one of them that made me smile, here is one analyst's story:

    I love this post. I never thought that playing drums, studying literature and linguistics without finishing, being a film critic and an assistant
    producer for movies, working in IT for 7 companies before I was 24 and then founding my own company would bring me on my way to be a senior web analytics consultant or project director for WA and Targeting. But your post proved that it had to be this way, thanks :)

    Can you see why this person might be a fantastic analyst? :)

    Thanks again,

    Avinash.

  12. 12
    Patrick says:

    Hi Avinash (and everyone else),

    nice you found my question not too absurd and even turned it into a blog post hehe.

    As for the being a bit crazy and having done multiple things in life…does having played 10-15 different sports, while being very (overly?) much into coding small computer games at the same time for years, then into the stockmarket and then about learning foreign languages before graduating from high school count?

    I've done the college drop-out part, too already..partly, because I had spent more time during the first 2 years after high school trying to find a career I'd truly like than I spent in college… (I've asked professionals tons of questions about their jobs in every field under the sun: air pilots, bioinformaticians, computer linguists, translators for japanese and so on)

    But anyways, I'm pretty focussed now and know I'm gonna have to stick to something ^^. So I'm going back to college to get my necessary paper qualification (in marketing) while learning all the stuff about the web on the side (until now it's been mostly SEO & web development).

    I'll see whether I'm gonna be an SEO, an online marketing generalist or a web analyst after college :-). But the analyzing stuff is what I like best, I guess.

  13. 13
    Patrick says:

    Oh and of course thx for your reply to my e-mail, Avinash..and also thx to Stephane who replied to me when I asked a very similar question on the yahoo newsgroup forum, because I was still a bit too curious, how other web analysts would feel about that question ;-).

  14. 14

    I completely agree about being on the business side but keeping in touch with the technical side. This is also what's needed to be a good product manager.

    Bad product managers are either too technical to understand the real purpose of their products in solving customers problems or too "visionary" to make the necessary trade-offs between what you want and what you can get soon enough.

    Straddling the divide is where the magic is.

  15. 15
    Patrick says:

    I used to always think the whole technical people dont understand business goals (and business people don't understand technical stuff) was a bit overblown. I heard it about data mining, about e-commerce, …

    That was until, I started learning a bit about web design, asked my friend who's a computer science major how to create forums and polls, he told me php was more like a 'language for babies', so I could learn it very easily and that it's 'always better if u can code the forum yourself'.

    Then I found out it would take me years to be able to put together a decent (possibly) hack-safe forum or poll together and that from my perspective it's really just better to use an existing one, implement it & learn some *basic* php to be able to edit some things.

    From a business perspective, it would be a pretty bad decision to invest that much time into learning php if my main goal is becoming a SEO/web analyst/Marketer, I guess.

    I still have that line in my head 'well it's always better if you can code it yourself…' and I thought I should just believe it as usually I ask too many questions instead of just accepting stuff.

    That experience really coined me, especially considering such misunderstandings are probably an everyday thing in big companies, where business people and tech-people don't understand each other's needs and goals.

  16. 16
    Joe Teixeira says:

    I just want to say that I'm a huge fan of your blog, Avinash. I'm a "long-time listener, first-time caller" here, but I've only been reading for a short while (unfortunately). I remember when I was first looking at some of the Analytics-Based Blogs, and when I read the title "Occam's Razor", I instantly knew I'd really like it. I was right :)

    Sorry I don't have much to add to this current discussion, other to say that this is another very insightful post and a good read. Thanks!

  17. 17
    Aurelie Pols says:

    Dear Mr. Kaushik,

    I think you are very naïve in thinking that your children, once they get to the age of reading and understanding this, will actually listen to you.

    I do however hope they get great life experiences as well as straight A's.

    I'm not sure I qualify as a web analyst. In any case, here go.

    The word I use the most is why. Ask René, he'll confirm, I drive him crazy ;-)

    At university, I loved the knowledge, never seemed to do well in "easy" classes, always scored better where others didn't and was generally considered as the ugly little, weird, Dutch duck. I've grown out of that shame, thank God!

    Seriously, I can totally relate to the first quote in your post. That was me 4 years ago! Since then, I've set-up a handpicked team and help out others while assuring a fun place to work for some 20 people inside OX2.

    What more could one ask for?

    I suppose I'm more business but if I think of Julien or Siegert, I wonder in which box they should be put. It would be an over simplification to say right or left, IT or business.

    Start small and educate yourself in the direction you feel most comfortable with and try to get others interested in what you're doing, in order to cover multiple angles.

    After all, not everybody can cover all aspects of WA, it's team work as there is more in multiple brains than in one.

    Kind regards from sunny Brussels, a pleasure, as always,

    Aurélie

  18. 18
    Liara Covert says:

    This is a fantastic post along with meaningful replies. It goes to show that each of us has potential to do anything we set our minds to do. Perhaps one of the most important skills to develop is the art of persuasion. Having been a trapeze artist for a summer, a space law policy analyst, MBA lecturer, dream analyst, freelance writer and business consultant, you might say I'm versed in the benefits of versatility. At the same time, I grasp the challenges it brings when proof of experience and competence is often assumed by others to be revealed by consistent role-playing in an area for long periods. Thanks for sharing all the inspiring stories!

  19. 19
    shiva says:

    Its quite good to learn these concepts and i found them to be very much useful.

  20. 20

    Avinash,

    Very useful stuff here.

    I have started learning statistics to help me with my analysis at work. I am using "Applied Business Statistics – Making Better Business Decisions" by Ken Black as a text along with stats 101 offered by coursera.

    Are there any online certifications you would recommend for getting certified in statistics ?

Trackbacks

  1. alphalytics says:

    What type of person makes a great analyst?…

    Good people are rare. And good analysts are really rare. It takes a strong, all-rounder to get to grips with the technical complexity of tracking and connecting datasources as well as the business acumen to know what is worth measuring or what drives business value.

    I've been reading Occam's Razor and there're some great points on there about how life-experience of all sorts can be the key to a strong analyst. Someone with broad horizons and an open mind. Wise to the world. Read the full thing below: ……

  2. [...] Another post by Avinash about some of the traits that great analysts share [...]

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