Q&A with Helen Anderson, BI Data Analyst and Technical Consultant

Helen Anderson
Interviewed on 24th February 2019

This interview in the Analysts Assemble series is with New Zealand-based BI Data Analyst and Technical Consultant, Helen Anderson. I first ran into Helen while she was writing an excellent series on SQL on Dev.to.

I’ve since found her to be one of the most helpful and approachable members of that site and a great proponent of helping encourage everyone in the community. I’m very pleased to say she’s agreed to share her story and data journey with us here at Analysts Assemble.

Over to Helen…

Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into the data space and what does your data journey look like so far?

Hello! I’m Helen Anderson and I’m a Data Analyst and Technical Consultant on Xero’s Data Services team. I support Xero’s Analyst Community with code review, building datasets they need, maintaining the database they use for their work and providing guidance for junior analysts.

My data journey so far hasn’t been the most traditional one.

I didn’t study computer science or even IT at university. After graduating with a Business degree I landed in the world of Supply Chain Analysis. I really enjoyed solving the puzzle of how to get the right stuff to the right people at the right time.

Putting together a plan based on the customer’s needs, the shipping timetables and in the case of my first job shipping apples from New Zealand around the world, what the growers estimated they would harvest. Even though we did everything using Excel it set me on the path to where I am now.

Since then I’ve worked for the Royal NZ Ballet working on revenue projections based on theatre seating configurations, Timex in London planning manufacturing of watches for Europe and Icebreaker balancing stock between locations around the world.

Making the move from working in Excel to coding in SQL happened when I joined Xero three years ago. I started in the Marketing team as an analyst pulling lists for email campaigns and doing post-campaign analysis. I was pretty late to the game when it came to using SQL, but was hooked. Now I am working in the BI team in a role that allows me to support those junior and not so technical analysts, who were ‘me’ three years ago while growing my technical skills working on projects to build data models a new database platform.

What’s a typical day look like for you in your current data role? (Which tools and languages do you use? Big team/small team/lone wolf? Office-based or remote?)

For the first time in my career, I’m on a big team of analysts, developers and engineers. There are almost 30 on the Data Services team. A big difference from being the lone analyst in most of my roles so far.

When I first joined the team the imposter syndrome hit me pretty hard.

When you are the lone analyst you do what you know because there’s no one but StackOverflow to ask. I’ve spun those feelings around and made a point of asking for help and learning from those around me with many years of experience. We have an incredible team culture, everyone is happy to help and we celebrate success with a monthly Awesome Award to celebrate everyone’s good work.

We have a team of analysts who work on ad-hoc data requests, a BI team that build models that are used in reporting, a Data Engineering team that maintain the data pipelines and platforms and MicroStrategy consultants who make sure the self-service visualisation platform is user-friendly.

Because my role is to support Analysts in teams across the business I get to do a little bit of everything. Some days I’m building a custom data set in Redshift to support analysts work, showing them how to use Microstrategy to present their reports or troubleshooting the Airflow jobs that move data to the dedicated Aurora database we maintain to support their work.

You’ve built up a large following through your blogging. How important do you think it is for data professionals, at all stages of their career, to share publicly what they are doing and learning?

I began blogging on my self-hosted WordPress site the last time I was on the job hunt. To no surprise, it wasn’t exactly flooded with new visitors.

After seeing a colleague blogging on Medium, I weighed up my options and decided to take the plunge on Dev.to. I’m really glad I did. I’m not a traditional web developer or software engineer like a lot of the community, but I still have something to offer.

My first few posts were ‘listicles’, easy to read, but felt a little too Buzzfeedy. I reassessed the tone and found a more conversational voice. The same way I’d talk to a colleague about a technical subject, but without recreating technical documentation.

Blogging is beneficial in so many ways.

You’re reinforcing your learning or understanding of your chosen technology or tool. So even if you only get a handful of views, you have still done something worthwhile.

This is all about your unique point of view. Which doesn’t mean you have to know everything on a topic. That’s why you are writing a blog post, and not rewriting technical documentation.

Even if you are beginner explaining how you are learning how to use a new tool, your perspective is important. You never know who may stumble across your post and find your explanation of a topic helps it all click into place for them.

Where do you see your own data career going next? Building on your technical skills as an Individual Contributor or moving into a more management-based role?

I’m incredibly lucky to be on a team that encourages both. Right now I’m building up my knowledge of the quirks of PostgreSQL, as that’s the flavour of Aurora database the analysts I support have moved to. I’m working on gaining more of an understanding of the data pipelines that load the data in and the AWS services we use to build the infrastructure for my own interest and to get to know more about what our DevOps and Data Engineers do.

I’m looking forward to supporting the junior analysts more as the analyst community grows and will be giving public speaking a go with my first tech talk really soon. Even though I’m not making the career change to Management I’m still able to support and teach those around me.

If you had a list of “best-kept-secrets” (websites, books, coaches), which would you recommend?

I put together a list of resources I think are great for Junior Analysts recently that cover not only the technical side with SQL but the human side too – requirements gathering, visualisation and communication.

My favourites blogs at the moment are:

Data36 – for tutorials and hands-on learning.

Simple Analytical (a previous incarnation of AnalystsAssemble.com) – for commentary on being in the data world and the ups and downs of being an analyst.

Mode – content for analysts by analysts.

Soft Skills Engineering – my favourite podcast advice show about non-technical topics.

6) What is the number one piece of advice you give to aspiring data scientists?

Being a great data analyst or scientist is more than just churning out SQL and knowing your way around the database. It’s important to learn how to listen to stakeholders and determine what it is they need from a report or dashboard. Put equal amounts of effort into learning communication skills, interpreting the story behind the numbers and presenting data in a way your end user finds the most digestible.

By honing these skills, as well as building models and your technical skills, you’ll go far.

Where can readers find you online?

You can find me blogging regularly on Dev.to, on Twitter, on LinkedIn or my own personal site.