Monthly Archives: January 2013

4 Inexpensive Ways to Keep Learning

The late motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” As professional analysts, most of us have at least one college degree, which for some people may have been completed many years ago. However, not only do the tools and methods analysts use continue to evolve, but organizations are expecting even greater contributions from those skilled in data analysis. As a result, I believe it is imperative that analysts participate in continual learning on a regular basis.

While formal education is certainly valuable, it is expensive, and in most cases doesn’t easily fit into the schedule of a working analyst. As someone who is devoted to the concept of lifelong self-education, following are my four favorite ways for pursuing continual learning with maximum flexibility and minimum (or no) cost:

1. Online methods

The internet is the most obvious place to find up-to-date and relevant information, and here are three of my favorite ways of learning online:

  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are, in my opinion, one of the best ways to continue your education, as the format closely resembles that of a traditionally directed college course. Sites like Coursera and Stanford Online offer several courses in areas of interest to analysts. I completed the Computational Finance and Financial Econometrics course through Coursera last fall, and learned several techniques that I can apply in my job.
  • Webinars are often a great way to learn about new trends, new products, or best practices. As a user of the statistical program JMP, I frequently attend their free live one-hour webinars during which JMP users present specific features of the software and how they can be utilized within analysis projects. In addition, many of their webinars are also available on-demand.
  • Blogs written by professional analysts and analytic companies can also be quite useful. For example, if you are in the process of learning R (as I am) or wish to improve your R knowledge, the R-Bloggers site contains a wealth of information related to the program.

2. Books

Nearly any topic you can imagine has had at least one book written about it, and the best ones can serve as both a way to learn a new skill and as a reference source once you have become fluent in the material. Over the years, I have built a personal library covering such topics as data mining, statistical methods, business analytics, and survey research, as well as books that focus on specific software programs (and I am still in the process of building my R library as I continue to learn it!). I view my library as a customized learning resource that I can tap into at any time.

3. Self-paced courses

Several companies offer self-paced training materials (typically delivered on a DVD) through which you can learn a specific skill or set of skills. I recently heard about a data science program offered by EMC Education that looks particularly interesting. In a somewhat different vein, The Great Courses offers several programs across multiple disciplines that could benefit working analysts.

4. Teaching others

It’s been said that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, as to do so effectively requires that you have a complete understanding of the subject. Several years ago, I was asked by my company to conduct a series of training sessions covering various topics in Microsoft Excel. As I prepared for each session, I not only strengthened the knowledge I already had, but inevitably discovered new ways of doing things, which was a benefit to me as well as the class participants. Look for opportunities to share your knowledge with another person, and you will find that your mastery of the material increases as a result. In addition, you will become known as the resident expert in that area.

Planning Your Learning

Like any other endeavor, you get out of self-education what you put into it. Abigail Adams, wife of U.S. President John Adams, once said, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.” To ensure that you are obtaining the maximum result from your efforts, follow these steps:

1)  Determine what you need to learn (i.e., what skill gaps do you need to fill?). This information may come from a performance review, from the description of a job that you aspire to fill, or even from a self-evaluation. If you have more than one need on this list, prioritize them and focus on the most important one first.

2)  Research several possible methods for obtaining the knowledge. Read reviews of the methods if possible, and evaluate the level of the material and the time commitment necessary to complete it.

3)  Schedule time each week for learning the material. This is very important, as it is very easy to say “I’ll get to it when I have time…” Make self-learning one of your priorities.

4)  Evaluate your level of mastery upon completion. If you’re participating in a MOOC, you will get this feedback from quizzes and exams. For other methods, you can do such things as identify at least one real-life application for the material, apply for a professional certification (if the material was designed to support one), or find a way that you can teach the material to someone else.

Best of luck in your self-education efforts, and be sure to let me know what works for you!

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5 Questions to Ask Before Responding to an Analysis Request

In any organization, time is at a premium—especially for managers. As an analyst, it is likely that you have received at least one brief and hurried call from a member of management asking for information of some kind, but without taking the time to give you much background because of their busy schedule. When this happens, don’t simply say “OK” and hang up! Instead, take a breath, kindly ask if you could have just a couple of minutes of their time to gain some additional insight, then ask the following questions:

1. Can you give me a brief overview of the situation?

When I was beginning my career as a young analyst, I didn’t feel it was my place to ask this question out of fear that management would think I was overstepping my bounds and venturing into higher-level issues that were none of my business. However, I soon realized that gaining an understanding of the “big picture” helped put what I was being asked to do into context so that I could approach the request from the proper perspective.

2. What’s the objective of this particular analysis?   

Once you know what the situation is, determine specifically what the person hopes to accomplish based on your findings. Not only will this help you focus your efforts, but may also lead you to recommend alternative methods that you believe may address their request more appropriately.

3. How should the results be summarized or presented?

Monthly or quarterly? For the last two years or last five years? By customer group or by region? For all products, or just for a certain line? Clarifying upfront how the person needs the information to be summarized will save you from having to repeat all or part of your analysis if you are unable to segregate the final results in that manner.

4. Do you know if anyone else working on this project or something similar?   

In some cases, another person is asked to work on the same analysis from a different perspective, or to address a separate (but related) part of it. If possible, find out who that person is and coordinate with him or her to prevent duplication of efforts, as well as to avoid providing different results to the same question (which can occur if multiple people each approach the same request using a different dataset or by specifying different parameters).

5. What’s your time table?

This is by far the most significant question of all, because in most cases the overall project (or a significant part of it) cannot proceed until you’ve completed your analysis. But make sure you get a specific (and realistic) answer! Many managers like to say “yesterday” or “ASAP”, but the first response is impossible and the second is vague. Evaluate how long the analysis will take, find out exactly when the results are needed, and mutually agree upon a specific date and time. Keep in touch with the person as the project proceeds, being sure to notify him or her if any issues arise that might delay delivery of the results.

In practice, most managers will eagerly comply with your request for additional information, but there’s always a chance that the person might initially be annoyed with your request. If this is the case, assure the person that you will be as expeditious as possible, but that their responses to your questions will help you deliver the results they need as efficiently and accurately as possible. What’s more (as has been my experience), practicing this technique shows the manager not only that you are capable of thinking at a higher level, but that you are interested in helping that person achieve his or her ultimate objective—and isn’t this what every manager wants?