The top five skills that every data analyst needs to master

Eva Murray
- Leadership - Sep 03, 2019

Eva Murray, Head of Business Intelligence at Exasol. As Exasol’s Head of Business Intelligence and Tableau Evangelist, Eva  is responsible for executing Exasol’s data-driven strategy and developing its Centre of Excellence. She is highly passionate about bringing data to more people and creating educational content and collaboration opportunities for data analysts across the world to create a community of like-minded professionals who drive action and change. Here she shares her top five skills that ever data analyst needs to master. 


Businesses today rely heavily on data to help them identify challenges, capitalise on opportunities and make timely decisions that could impact their bottom line. Whether it’s data about their customers, products, processes or the general market, these organisations need talented and skilled people to extract information and glean actionable insights from the data.

But, in a landscape that’s evolving quickly and with more organisations than ever looking to fill roles that require a high level of technical knowledge, the skills gap in data jobs is becoming more apparent every single day. That’s why – as an employer – knowing the skills that will make the difference to your business is vital when hiring talent to work with data.

It’s tough to find the perfect candidate amid the talent drain, so knowing the skills and qualities that company bosses should look for in all applicants, regardless of position, is paramount. It means they’ll be better equipped to develop new recruits, sharpen their abilities via experience and practice, and ultimately start helping to plug the talent gap in their own organisation while the rest of the market is still playing catch up. 

And it works the other way around too – knowing the skills employers are looking for can help candidates hone their experience and work towards the most desirable attributes in today’s increasingly data-driven landscape. Let’s explore some of the top skills below. 


1. Solid business understanding

For a more impactful role as a data analyst, you need to get to grips with how the business works. Look beyond the KPIs and last month’s top selling products.

Understand the overall business strategy, its position within the market, and how it differentiates from competitors. What are the business-critical processes, and what connects the different products, departments and people? Where do dependencies lie, and what are the threats to success?

It’s impossible to know absolutely everything, but building your business knowledge through research and relationships will increase your value as an analyst. Ultimately, this knowledge will help improve your understanding of the company’s data, allowing you to identify early warning signs and seek out the right people to share relevant information and insights with.

2. Unleash your technical ability 

You will work with software, systems and of course data. But, combining these three elements in a meaningful way to extract insights from raw data requires technical skills. At the same time, these skills need to keep up with the pace and developments in technology. 

Technical understanding grounded in curiosity and interest will serve you well in this industry. Does the idea of using data and analysing, shaping and transforming it into visible insights excite you? Do you like taking the raw inputs and turning it into something meaningful for the business (or the public) that tells a story about a certain topic or discovery?

Understanding the data value chain will help you put everything into context. Many systems and touchpoints are involved in the end-to-end process and it will make it easier to understand how they are connected and who is responsible for which part.

3. Show an interest in everyone in the business – not just your peers

You don’t just communicate through and with data as a data analyst, but also with colleagues, other stakeholders, data suppliers, system owners and many others as you develop insights for business decision-making.

It’s important to consider the right medium when sharing information. Firstly, consider if your organisation embraces digital, interactive and exploratory dashboards for decision-making or if it prefers to deliver print-ready materials for ‘reading through.’

Secondly, understand who your audience is, what they’re looking for and how location, language and culture can influence the way findings are communicated to them.  And, finally, identify the timeframes for sharing information. 

Improving your communication skills – verbal, written and through the use of data – and showing an interest in all areas of the business beyond your own job role, will serve you well over time.

4. Always-on curiosity and critical thinking

Critical thinking involves going (and thinking) above and beyond the task at hand. When you question what something means and consider the impact it could have on process X, you need to dive deeper into the data.

Outliers should always prompt further investigation. For example, if there’s a spike in the data, you should consider what it means. Is it insignificant? Does it need more detailed investigation?

Visual analytics can support your critical thinking processes because it allows you to look at data from different perspectives. You can investigate an interesting data point quickly and easily using different charts, introducing time dimensions or details about other parts of the business. Consider yourself a researcher and an investigator.

5. data visualisation skills

It doesn’t matter what tool or platform you use and how you share these insights – whether it’s digitally or on a whiteboard. Being able to paint a comprehensive picture to showcase what the data is telling you is an important skill to have

You’ll often communicate your insights in a report, interactive dashboard or chart. Make sure you pick the right chart type for the data and design your work in a way that shows key findings clearly and quickly.

Reporting numbers in isolation can make them lose impact. How are they related to previous periods, to other departments, to industry benchmarks? Put results into perspective to guide your audience on whether they are good or bad, and whether, how or when action is needed.

Become familiar with data visualisation best practices and apply them where possible.



Ultimately, helping organisations improve their decision-making processes through the use of data is an exciting and rewarding field that offers many career opportunities.

To make a start on improving your skills, it’s important to set yourself realistic goals. Professional growth and development take time and you won’t reach the top overnight. It all starts with a single step. Meanwhile, for employers, the perfect candidate could be closer than you think; a great grounding in all of these skills can help to shape a data-driven workforce for the future.

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