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Analytics Magazine

Profit Center: The analytics professional

January/February 2013

E. Andrew BoydBy E. Andrew Boyd

What does a typical analytics professional do? What is his or her background?

Interesting questions – questions that would benefit from the application of analytics. That’s what the company Talent Analytics has done in cooperation with the International Institute for Analytics.

Given that many people who practice analytics don’t have “analytics” in their title, finding an appropriate sample of practitioners wasn’t an easy task. Talent Analytics put together its sample through business contacts and through names gathered at analytics-oriented conferences. Individuals who said their only involvement with analytics was the use of spreadsheets were struck from the list of names, leaving a sample of just over 300 people.

A dyed-in-the-wool statistician wouldn’t be satisfied with this approach, and any conclusions based on the sample need to be placed in the context of how it was obtained. Nonetheless, it provides the only coordinated effort of which I’m aware to find out who analytics professionals are and what they do.

Talent Analytics examined the data in a variety of ways. I won’t seek to cover everything they shared with me – it was quite extensive – but a number of findings did stand out.

Not surprisingly, analytics professionals are well trained. Roughly half indicated their highest level of education was a master’s degree, 16 percent held doctorates and virtually everyone had completed college.

The backgrounds, however, were quite varied. Respondents were allowed to check multiple boxes describing their education. So, for example, an individual who held an undergraduate degree in liberal arts and then completed graduate work in business could check both “liberal arts” and “business.” Not surprisingly, mathematically oriented disciplines were well represented, with 120 respondents indicating they held degrees in the category mathematics/statistics and another 60 holding degrees in operations research/engineering. Other degrees made strong showings as well. Fully 108 respondents held degrees in business, though degrees in finance and economics were scant at 11. Interestingly, liberal arts degrees edged out those in computer science 71 to 69.

Young and Mobile

As is the case in many technical disciplines, professionals employed in the field of analytics are young and mobile. Of those who responded, 45 percent had been in the workforce for less than 10 years, while only 9 percent had been working for at least 30 years. A little more than half had been with their current employer for less than three years compared with 7 percent for at least 10 years. The data also supported the increasing recognition of analytics as its own discipline, since the time respondents had been employed as an “analytics professional” was, on average, far shorter than the time they’d been employed.

To determine where analytics professionals devote their time, respondents were asked how long they spent on various activities, from analyzing data to managing people. Based on the responses and, of course, employing analytics, Talent Analytics grouped respondents into one of four functional clusters:

  1. Data Preparation. Time largely spent acquiring data and preparing it for analysis.
  2. Programmer. Time largely spent developing software to perform data analysis.
  3. Manager. Time spent performing general management and administration, designing analyses, interpreting results and presenting conclusions.
  4. Generalist. Time spent doing a little bit of everything.

The clusters aren’t entirely surprising. Anyone who’s worked with analytics knows that programming and data acquisition/preparation are as vital as knowing the intricacies of various mathematical tools. And anyone who’s worked in a small firm knows you get to do a little bit of everything.

Educational Background

The educational background of people in the different clusters provided further insight into who analytics professionals are. Individuals in the data preparation cluster had more degrees in business than anything else (33) followed by mathematics/statistics (27), computer science (17) and liberal arts (16). Generalists were also led by business degrees (57) with mathematics/statistics coming in second (47) and liberal arts rounding out the top three (35). The fact that business degrees lead both of these clusters helps emphasize that data acquisition/preparation isn’t just about putting numbers in a database. It requires navigating organizations to discover data availability, uncovering the actual meaning of the data (is a sale an order or receipt of payment?) and arranging for the data to be prepared for analysis.

Interestingly, the No. 1 degree held by managers is mathematics/statistics (17) followed by business (10), with operations research/engineering and liberal arts tied for third (nine). Programmers are led by mathematics/statistics (29), with computer science taking second position (22) and operations research/engineering and liberal arts again tied for third (11). The strong showing by liberal arts degrees in all clusters begs the question of how these individuals find their way into the analytics profession.

The work done by Talent Analytics has given us a glimpse into the makeup of analytics professionals. And while there are some surprises, the overall picture that emerges isn’t a surprise at all. Analytics professionals have a mix of talents that span the technical to the interpersonal. They’re not afraid of numbers, and they’re not defined by a unique educational background. All in all, the medley of skills enjoyed by analytics professionals is a good thing. It’s just what you want from a group of creative problems solvers.

Andrew Boyd, senior INFORMS member and INFORMS VP of Marketing, Communications and Outreach, has been an executive and chief scientist at an analytics firm for many years. He can be reached at The author thanks the senior management team at Talent Analytics for taking the time to share the results of the study.

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