When Art Meets Science

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

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BI pros also need better communication skills than most computer workers have. Not only do they work hand in hand with business users, but they also work with many other constituents, such as data stewards and subject-matter experts, to ensure data quality.

"We want people who are analytic, technical and quantitative but also have business sense and lots of personality," Pashko says. "We're in a service-oriented business, and personality counts, as do customer service and interpersonal skills."

User interaction is a big part of the job, particularly because as business users discover the power of data mining and other BI functions, they tend to want even more capabilities. Plus, BI professionals are also often responsible for training users on the BI tools and helping them use the tools effectively.

"The biggest gap right now is that companies buy these tools and then no one knows how to use them," Hostmann says. "BI analysts need to work with users from the CEO level down to the line manager and explain to them why they're getting a particular result or how to get the answer to the question they have."

At Del Monte, the primary role for lead BI analysts and project leaders is to learn as much as the business owners relative to given business processes and disciplines and to be trusted business partners with front-line departments, Wojewodka says. "They can't be order-takers; they have to be more like advisers, presenting options so that users think out of the box," he says.

"They almost have to understand [the business] as much as the user himself," Howson adds. That's why so many people from the business arena enter the field. At Valero Energy Corp., for instance, Kirk Hewitt, director of reporting and financial systems, was a self-described power user in the accounting department with 20 years of experience in the oil industry before moving into the BI area.

Six years ago, Hewitt accepted a position in IT that involved consolidating the San Antonio-based refiner's many acquisitions onto a single SAP ERP system. Valero's main data warehouse is based on SAP software, and it has some data in an Oracle data warehouse. The company uses a single BI tool: Information Builders' WebFocus.

"The key is understanding the business processes that occur at Valero and translating that into a system design," Hewitt says. "That's the No. 1 priority -- understanding what the user wants to see and then figuring out how to get that onto a platform that allows the users to get the data and eventually use the BI tool themselves."

1. Disaster recovery/continuity planning2. Data management/business analytics implementation/upgrade3. Data security/privacy

Base: 300 respondents

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

Hewitt's group builds standardized queries and reports and enables some users to build their own queries. For instance, the marketing and wholesale groups like to look at data in different ways, he explains, so they're given more flexibility. But on the financial and reporting side, "we produce reports for them so there's no chance they can put in the wrong formula," he says. And in order to ensure the highest integrity of query results, IT collects requisite data from other sources and puts it into the SAP warehouse. "We go with one source of the truth," Hewitt says.

In addition, his group is responsible for financial data "from the time it's posted to the time it's reported on," Hewitt says, so that if a business unit has a problem with a report or a question about a number, there's one place to turn for answers.

Hewitt sees a growing need for BI professionals with experience in NetWeaver, as well as the ability to build Web portals for presenting management reporting data. It can take months to find good candidates with expertise in those areas, he says.

In addition to people with those specialized skills, Hewitt also looks for developers who are good team players and very design-oriented. "Once you know the business process design, you have to reflect that in the business intelligence system," he says. Generally, developers don't interact directly with business users. That's left to the project managers and function-oriented staffers. "It's almost impossible to find all the skills you need in one person," he says.

Others concur that -- given the number of skills required, as well as the nature of the job itself -- BI is a real group effort. For instance, at Harrah's, "it's something that comes together when marketing, finance and IT work closely together," Pashko says.

"BI can never be completely run by the business or by IT," Howson agrees. "It has to be a joint effort."

See the complete BI Home Runs special report.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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