In this edition of the Analysts Assemble interview series, I speak to South African digital nomad and analytics specialist Justin Butlion. I started reading articles last year on Justin’s blog ProjectBI and was immediately struck by how practical and knowledgeable his advice and insight was. Not just in the theory of data and business intelligence but where it really matters – in the real business world.
We’ll find out more about Justin’s background, why he decided to take his BI consultancy services out on the road and where he plans to take his business and data career next.
Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into the data space and what does your data journey look like so far?
My name is Justin Butlion and I’m 34 years old. I was born and raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. At the age of 19 I immigrated with my family to Israel where I live for 14 years before becoming a digital nomad last April.
I’ve always been a problem solver, critical thinker and interested in computers. These interests got me interested in entrepreneurship and the online world. After a failed shot at starting my own startup I got extremely lucky to join an incredible company called Yotpo.
I was the 12th employee at the company and spent 4.5 years in a number of roles in the company. By the time I left Yotpo had grown to hundreds of employees and is today considered one of Israel’s best startups.
My data journey started at Yotpo. In the early days I was constantly looking at the data and the management took note. After 2 years working as a marketer and product manager I was given the opportunity of leading a new team in the company called the Business Performance Team.
I took the job and over the next 2 years my team and I built out Yotpo’s internal business intelligence infrastructure and analyst team. This period was a crash course in everything BI for me. I soaked up everything like a sponge and saw the power of BI and how a data-driven mindset can help a company in all areas.
After 4.5 years at Yotpo I decided it was time to say goodbye and start a new chapter. I believed strongly that other companies could benefit from my skills and decided to become an independent consultant. I’ve been doing that for 18 months now and have worked with 15 different companies around the world.
2018 was a great year for the business but I wasn’t 100% committed to the idea of building out a large operation. This year is different. In January I decided to go all in on growing my business and brand (ProjectBI). I’ve started scaling my operations both in terms of number of clients and resources. I recently signed my first sub-contractor and assistant and I’m aggressively chasing new clients.
My goal for 2019 is to bring in 5X what I did last year. It’s a big goal but I’d rather aim high and miss than aim low and hit.
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? Remote/office based/co-working space?
My typical day starts with a few hours of work in my apartment. I’m currently in Medellin, Colombia and all my clients are in Israel or Europe so the time difference is not in my favor. I therefore start the day answering emails, going over Slack and jumping into calls.
By around lunchtime I’ll leave the apartment and head to gym and then the co-working space. I’m currently working out of Selina which is a great space.
All my work is done remotely using your standard set of tools like Slack and Gmail. I use Asana for task management and Slack for communicating with my team.
The work itself is quite varied but there is a heavy focus currently on Tableau. I also write a lot of SQL and spend a lot of time in tools like Google Analytics, Firebase, BigQuery, Intercom and CRM systems.
You’ve built up a good following through your own blog and newsletter. 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 started my career following people like Seth Godin and Gary Vaynerchuk so I’ve been thinking about personal branding for a long time. I also started out as a marketer and know how powerful a quality blog and other web assets can be to a business.
I know it’s not for everyone but I’d highly recommend that anyone that works online consider investing in a long-term strategy which aims to build their personal brand. There are many ways to do this, writing content for a blog is just one way.
Where do you see your own data career going next? Building on your technical skills or moving into a more management-based role?
For now I’m focused on building out ProjectBI. I see a growing trend towards being “data-driven” and I’m well positioned to take advantage of this wave. I have a lot of ideas for ProjectBI and excited to see where I can take things.
I’m extremely hands on as a consultant which forces me to constantly learn new things. I hope to structure my schedule in the future to allow for more structured learning time.
There is no way I can scale ProjectBI without transitioning from 100% hands on to a more balanced split between hands on and manager. For now I’m doing both but this isn’t optimal and I’m working on making the transition.
If you had a list of “best-kept-secrets” (websites, books, coaches) that have helped you, which would you recommend?
I was very fortunate to get paired up with an amazing mentor when I became the Director of Business Performance at Yotpo. This individual worked with me for 2 years and was an incredible resource of knowledge in all aspects of the job. If you can find someone that has done the job before and done it well that can train and support you it will make all the difference.
Honestly I don’t have a list of resources which immediately comes to mind. My secret is I like to learn and I’m determined to solve the puzzle. One good example that I can share involves me being hired by a client that used Firebase. I had never worked with this platform before but I didn’t let that get me down.
I sat on my own dime for many hours working out how to use the platform and today I consider myself an expert on Firebase’s data capabilities.
I think it’s all mental in the end of the day. It’s a matter of being resourceful, determined, patient and hard working.
What is the number one piece of advice you give to aspiring data scientists?
Be true to yourself. I know that sounds very “new age” and philosophical but I really believe it. You need to know yourself very well and build your life around your strengths, interests, and preferences. This might mean working for a small startup because you like the high-paced environment, or focusing on building out your own training site because you like the idea of doing your own thing.
Where can readers find you online?