“Ambiguity brings out the best and worst in people.” – Luke Stanke, co-founder of Tessellation

What I Look For in When I’m Hiring a Data Analytics Consultant

What makes a good employee? What makes an outstanding data and analytics consultant?

As a leader who focuses on building teams of new analysts,  I think about this a lot. Whether I’m hiring internally at Tessellation and Data Coach or externally with our clients, these questions take up a lot of my headspace.

Reflecting on these hiring topics often makes me consider what I have been good at and what specifically has made me successful throughout my career. Of course, it’s also worth noting the skills and attributes that I did not have when I first started my journey into data consulting and training. I needed skills like agile project management, taking and receiving feedback, and effective communication, which I have cultivated over many years. Many of them I am still working on today.

In most interviews that I conduct, people will ask me some form of the question: “What do you look for in a consulting candidate?”

I have a lot of answers to that question. I like to select a response based on where the conversation is going: having organization skills, being “hungry,” or our intellectually humble core values, to name a few. 

But my most common (and favorite) answer is: “The best consultants thrive in ambiguity.

So, what does this mean, and why is it important? To me, thriving in ambiguity means you accept the reality that you can’t anticipate everything that will happen next. In fact, you enjoy that uncertainty.

Handling Ambiguity in Consulting

Let’s start on the consulting side of things. Managers and executives change their minds and redirect projects all the time. That isn’t anything unique- it’s the nature of the industry. New scope happens and consultants deal with this regularly. However, in my experience, this issue is compounded for consultants. 

As a project-based consultant, you are not plugged into the client’s team at the same level that a full-time employee might be. You don’t hear the day-to-day gossip. You aren’t the first to hear about executives’ new initiatives. You don’t necessarily know about how other projects affect your own assignment.

Because you are not part of the client’s team, you may feel blindsided by the changes. They can feel like they are coming out of nowhere. It is understandably stressful, mainly if the sudden pivot means you are letting go of good work that is no longer relevant.

But here is a very wise, important clarification for you: If a client pivots, it usually isn’t a reflection of your character, ability, or the work you have done in the past. It is simply a sign of a changing business environment.

What differentiates good consultants from just okay consultants is the ability to go with the flow of these changes. It’s okay to mourn lost work, but what is arguably most essential is providing what a client needs right now. Pivoting and changing directions quickly is a big part of the job. As an early-career consultant or even a leader at a consulting firm, this may be a skill that you need to consciously grow and improve.

Handling Ambiguity Throughout Projects

At Tessellation, we specialize in project-based consulting. These are strategic client projects that have an objective, but the steps to get there are unclear.

Before getting into the details of project-based consulting, let’s discuss the common alternative in consulting: staff augmentation. Staff augmentation is when a client hires a consultancy or staffing firm to supply an individual with a specialized skill set. In this case, let’s say Tableau.

So this Tableau developer, in a staff augmentation situation, would generally execute against a detailed list of backlog enhancements for creating visualizations and dashboards.  We do some of this type of work at Tessellation, but we vastly prefer and more often pursue project-based strategic work.

With project-based work, clients give you a set of objectives and the constraints to get there. These constraints could be the timeframe, tools, and people resources you have to accomplish the goal. There is a whole lot of ambiguity on how exactly you will get to the objectives. It’s up to the consultant team to figure out how to get from A to B.

This ambiguity generally means that even analytics consultants who are doing project-based work have to focus on more than analytics. They need to understand project management best practices, agile development methodologies, and change management techniques. These critical topics make a strategic project successful and often lie on the consulting team to figure out themselves.

I personally find these projects more fun. They are challenging and very rarely dull. In fact, they are rewarding to me. However, some people don’t like solving the puzzle that is a strategic project. There are a lot of moving pieces. It can be stressful for some individuals.

Here is the secret: an excellent strategic consultant isn’t told what to do. They aren’t there just to execute against a list of tasks in a backlog. Instead, they work with the client to determine the best solutions to their problems and help architect the plan to execute on that vision.

Handling Ambiguity in Data Analytics

It’s also important to note that we as data folks know that we don’t have all of the answers going into a project or solve a problem. We look to the data to help guide our decisions and next steps.

This underlying ambiguity affects how we work in practice. The first visualization we make can gleam new unseen insights that influence the second visualization we make on a dashboard. Our predictive model could tell us that our standard practices don’t have significant value to our organization and need changes. We automate our repeatable data preparation tasks so we can focus more time on answering new exciting questions. 

Data and analytics is an inherently ambiguous domain. We use data to improve our decision-making. A great analyst doesn’t assume what the data is telling until they do the actual analysis. This analysis directs us to the next question that needs answering.

Why Thriving in Ambiguity is an Essential Skill

Thriving in ambiguity is essential to be a successful consultant, a successful employee at a startup, and thriving within the analytics domain in general. However, though it is my favorite attribute, it is not the only attribute we look for in employees. 

In my next Career Insights post, I will talk about another essential career skill near and dear to my heart: giving and receiving feedback. Spoiler: I like talking about it because I struggled with it for a long time. Most people, including myself, could still be better at it.

About Alex Christensen

With more than eight years of industry experience working in business intelligence, Alex Christensen brings an encyclopedic knowledge of self-serve analytics technology to the data analytics community.

Alex is truly a strategic thinker and a remarkable Data Coach. With specialization in both Tableau and Alteryx Designer, he helps clients kickstart their team’s data literacy and streamline their analytics systems.

His professional background as a Tableau and Alteryx educator, senior business intelligence engineer, and analytics consultant span across industries. He has worked in healthcare, retail, insurance, manufacturing, consumer packaged goods, human capital, and the public sector.

To strategize your team’s data transformation, Alex implements best practices, process optimization, strategy maps, and customized training.

As the co-founder and partner of Tessellation and Data Coach, Alex champions our data engineering, data governance, and software training practices.

You can connect with Alex personally on Data Coach by signing up for our Tableau or Alteryx courses.

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