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Analytics Magazine

Profit Center: Hiring Analytics Professionals

September/October 2010

E. Andrew BoydBy E. Andrew Boyd

I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation at the Disney Analytics and Optimization Conference. Attendees largely hailed from Disney and its corporate affiliates, but the conference was open to all, and I’d encourage readers to consider attending in the future. Management at Disney strongly supports analytics and is continually finding new ways to employ it.

Of the many questions the audience posed to the speakers, one in particular stood out: How do I hire and retain analytics professionals? Managers in charge of established teams were looking to expand, and managers who wanted to press forward with analytics weren’t sure where to start. I was delighted to see so many business units looking to improve their operations, and equally delighted to witness firsthand how bright the future is for analytics professionals.

Experience is essential

Finding and hiring analytics professionals can pose challenges, but none are insurmountable. The key to starting an analytics team is locating a good, experienced leader versed in analytics. Experience is essential, though not necessarily in the industry for which the individual is being hired. Talented analytics professionals can usually transition from one industry to another relatively quickly. More important is experience in industry. Academicians and students fresh from school rarely appreciate the intricacies of working in a business environment.

Finding the right individual can be a challenge, but as with all jobs, if a position offers a good opportunity for career growth qualified candidates can be found. Recruiting firms specializing in analytics can be helpful, but there’s no substitute for the networking opportunities that present themselves at professional meetings. Often, these meetings are associated with a particular area within analytics. Pricing and supply chain management conferences, for example, are two specific areas where experienced analytics professionals can be found.

An experienced team leader can in turn draw upon his or her professional network to help locate other experienced analytics professionals. Once the core team is established, which may require as few as two to three people, the challenge becomes that of scaling. It’s no longer necessary to hire for experience, since technically trained but inexperienced individuals can be mentored by the more seasoned members of the team. One advantage to hiring less experienced people is that they bring energy to an organization, though that energy needs to be carefully channeled. Another advantage is that the pool of analytics professionals without experience is surprisingly large.

Each year top universities in the United States and throughout the world bestow degrees in analytics-related fields. The individuals who receive these degrees are looking to practice analytics. While good analytics professionals are in high demand, tremendous talent is nonetheless available. Academically leaning professional organizations such as INFORMS hold job fairs and maintain job-related Web sites. Analytics professionals, like engineers, typically maintain ties with one or more professional societies. The core analytics team should be familiar with these societies, and should be encouraged or even required to draw upon them for building the team.

Whether experienced or inexperienced in business, good analytics professionals should have some graduate education in an analytics-related discipline. Operations research or management science degree recipients tend to have the most broadly based problem solving skills, but analytics professionals come from many backgrounds. A good criterion for evaluating an individual’s resume is the depth of mathematical coursework. To be truly effective, analytics professionals need to blend technical and people skills. But without the technical skills, without training in optimization, random processes, statistics and the way of thinking that accompanies these skills, an individual simply can’t apply the tools of the analytics trade.

An alternative to building an analytics team is to work with consultants. Consultants can be invaluable, though they tend to be expensive. And while good consultants put the needs of their clients foremost, they have a financial incentive to perpetually generate new work. Still, working with consultants can be a safe and cost-effective way of gaining exposure to analytics and analytics professionals. At some point, however, an organization needs to take the further step of building its own analytics capabilities, if for no other reason than to properly evaluate the work performed by consultants.

Hiring is important for building an analytically enabled organization, but growing and maintaining such an organization requires a plan for developing and rewarding talent – a topic we return to in the next “Profit Center.”

Andrew Boyd served as executive and chief scientist at an analytics firm for many years. He can be reached at e.a.boyd@earthlink.net.

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