When Art Meets Science

BI professionals are in demand, but the job takes a rare combination of business and technical skills

For IT professionals interested in career advancement, a scan through the help wanted ads could pique their interest in the booming business intelligence arena. It's no wonder there are so many new BI positions: With increasing competitive pressures, companies have to make smarter decisions, which BI systems can support. And with the growth in Web-enabled systems, BI is no longer cost-prohibitive.

But be warned -- according to people who observe or inhabit the BI profession, it's one of the more challenging areas to pursue, requiring computer science savvy, business knowledge, analytical acumen, creative thinking and even social charm. It's also not unusual for companies to look for individuals with undergraduate degrees in quantitative areas such as engineering, statistics, natural sciences or economics, and for developers with specialized technology skills, such as experience with SAP AG's NetWeaver.

It seems that the high demand for BI professionals is equal to the high expectations of businesses looking to hire them. "There are positions in business intelligence that never get filled," says Cindi Howson, president of Analytic Solutions Know-How, a consultancy in Sparta, N.J. "But it's one of the toughest roles to play, because you can't just major in computer science and expect to succeed."

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In fact, the most important skill, according to Bill Hostmann, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., is understanding the kinds of decisions that businesses need to make, the questions they tend to ask and the types of data that will answer those questions.

"It's not just knowing the tools; it's having a feel for the business processes the tool supports," observes Jason Pashko, senior director of database, reinvestment and analytics at Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which uses BI heavily throughout the organization. "It's knowing what the person in marketing is really after when he says, 'I want to pull a list together because we're giving away a Corvette this weekend.'"

A business foundation also helps BI analysts know how to present the required data. "What sets a BI analyst or developer apart is knowing what information should be presented and the format of how it is presented. Bombarding the customer with too much information is just as bad as not enough," says Andy Wojewodka, director of business systems and decision support at Del Monte Foods Co.

Wojewodka's background is in IT, and he gained his business and BI experience during the past seven years through collaborating and networking with peers, attending industry analyst summits and doing his own research.

Presenting BI data is where creativity comes in. "It's an art," Wojewodka says. "You have to present data in a fashion that's easily understood and digestible and enables the business owner to quickly assess varying performance in key performance indicators." The presentation should also supply subsequent analytics so that users can easily navigate to root causes, he adds.

Data security/privacy57%
Disaster recovery/continuity planning54%
Antivirus protection46%
Data management/business analytics45%

Base: 300 respondents

Source: Computerworld's Quarterly Vital Signs survey, May 2006

Not that software engineers and SQL writers aren't highly valued; their computer science understanding is crucial to all three parts of a BI system: extracting, transforming and loading data; consolidating, standardizing and organizing data; and query, analysis and reporting, according to David Foote, founder of Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn.

Technology prowess is also essential to building a BI infrastructure, choosing the right analytic applications and tools, building data models and queries, choosing a data delivery approach, accessing relevant systems and databases for needed data, and ensuring data quality, Hostmann says. "They need to know where the data quality hot spots are so that if the BI tool is giving you the number 42, you know that's an accurate number," he says.

BI professionals also need a strong understanding of metadata and structured design techniques, Foote adds.

Moreover, technology know-how can help you avoid writing bad queries and reports. "Power users will do whatever they have to in that moment to get their information, and they might put a gazillion calculations into a report or have 30 different definitions for a particular metric," Howson says. On the other hand, IT professionals would know to create standardized calculations and make them centrally available.

Companies with highly sophisticated BI needs, such as Del Monte and Harrah's, also look to hire candidates with mathematical and statistical training. That's essential to performing predictive analysis and optimization, says Wojewodka.

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