Good question: What I wish I had known back then…

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I recently gave a talk to a group of engineering students at Duke University, located just down the road from our headquarters in North Carolina. A couple of days later, one of the students sent me an email asking a very good question: which skills should I build up to be successful on the job market for business analytics?

I can't claim to have the definitive answer to this question, but I hope this motivated student will benefit from hearing about my own experiences. So I asked myself, what have been the most valuable things learned during my own education? And what would I choose to learn if I were to attend university today?

I received my diploma in applied mathematics some time ago in Germany. In hindsight, I’m most grateful for being introduced to wide range of quantitative methods, ranging from linear algebra to complex analysis and numerical analysis. But overall it is my strong belief that I have benefitted the most from lectures that dealt with applied analytical techniques. Examples are statistics (for example regression techniques), operations research (such as nonlinear optimization techniques), and engineering methods (solving differential equations).

Besides the mathematical topics, the skills I developed during university that I still consider valuable include:

  • Skills in one procedural programming language. In my case, that language is Turbo-Pascal.
  • Skills in one programming language for statistical computing. For me the introduction to SAS worked out extremely well.
  • An understanding of spreadsheets and word processors, such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.
  • Basic understanding of IT topics, such as communications protocols used for the Internet and other similar networks, understanding of hardware architectures.
  • Basic understanding of databases, addressing questions like: what does database normalization stand for?

Today I would also try to add to my studies topics like this:

  • A better understanding of databases: how to work with relational databases and an understanding of concepts like online analytical processing (OLAP). Databases are everywhere, so one needs to be able to work with them.
  • Coding in an object orientated programming language (such as JAVA), which I had to learn on the job later.
  • Knowledge of modern IT architectures that allow parallel computing and their impact on algorithmic thinking. This was not a big deal back then, but today it is mandatory.
  • Presentation and communication skills, especially how to present complex topics to an audience of non-experts.

In a nutshell, if you plan to enter the exciting world of analytics – and I would certainly encourage you to do so – I believe these three things are most important:

  • Quantitative skills (such as statistics and operations research).
  • IT skills (such as programming and data bases).
  • Communication skills – being able to translate complex topics in layman’s terms.

Your recommendations might be completely different. Feel free to comment on my biased view of things. What education advice do you offer to the analysts of tomorrow?

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About Author

Udo Sglavo

As Director of Forecasting R&D at SAS, Udo Sglavo heads up a team of statisticians and midtier developers working on the award-winning software for large-scale automatic forecasting called SAS Forecast Server. Sglavo helps to define the specifics of the forecasting product portfolio at SAS and the integration of forecasting technology into solutions and visualization products. He enjoys public speaking and talking to customers about how to apply analytics to solve business problems. Prior to SAS, he spent more than five years providing and consuming advanced analytical content and solutions to enterprises ranging from Fortune 500 companies to Internet startups. He received his diploma in mathematics from the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany. Sglavo is also a member of the practitioner advisory board of Foresight magazine, published by the International Institute of Forecasters. In 2010 he received the SAS CEO Award of Excellence.

2 Comments

  1. Michelle Homes

    Hi Udo,

    I don't think your view of things is biased at all... I had a similar education at university and am very grateful and fortunate of the paths that I have taken since (one of them being offered a job as a graduate at SAS Institute Australia).

    One aspect of my degree that I did, voluntarily, was to do statistical consulting work. In my final year, our lecturer offered students an opportunity to do statistical consulting work for students in other faculties and it was our responsibility (guided by the lecturer) to explain in layman's terms what analysis we undertook and the results (both written and verbal). This gave us some experience before stepping out into the "real world" whilst also putting what we had learnt into practice.

    My advice for the analysts of tomorrow is to jump at any opportunity offered (or seek it) to gain "real world" experience whilst at university.

    Cheers,
    Michelle

    • Udo Sglavo
      Udo Sglavo on

      Hi Michelle -
      Many thanks for your feedback and confirmation - definitely agree that hands-on experience is most valuable!
      Cheers,
      Udo

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