‘Soft’ Skills Every Data Pro Needs

Sam Wood

May 16th, 2016

Your technical data skills are at the top of your game - you've mastered machine learning, are a wizard at stats, and know the tools of the trade from Excel to R. But to be a truly top-notch data professional, you're going to need some exceptional 'soft' data skills as well. It's not just enough to be good at crunching numbers - you've got to know how to ask the right question, and then how to explain the answers in a way that your business or clients can act upon.

So what are the essential soft skills that you need to know to ensure you're not just a good data scientist - you're a great data scientist?

Asking Questions, Not Proving Hunches

As a data analyst, how many times have you been asked to produce some figures that proves something that your boss or colleague already believes to be true? The key to good data analysis is not starting with an assertion and then looking for the evidence to support it. It's coming up with the perfect questions that will get you the valuable insight your business needs. Don't go trying to prove that customers leave your business because of X reason - ask your data 'Why do our customers leave'?

Playing to the Audience

Who's making a data request? The way you want to present your findings, and even the kind of answers you give, will depend on the role of the person asking. Project Managers and executives are likely to be looking for a slate of options, with multiple scenarios and suggestions, and raw results that they can draw their own conclusions from. Directors, CEOs, and other busy leadership types will be looking for a specific recommendation - usually in a polished, quick presentation that they can simply say 'Yes' or 'No' too. They're busy people - they don't want to have to wade through reams of results to get to the core. Instead it's often your job to do that for them.

Keeping It Simple

One of the most essential skills of a data wrangler is defining a problem, and then narrowing down the answers you'll need to find. There are an endless number of questions you can end up asking your data - understanding the needs of a data request and not getting bogged down in too much information is vital to solving the core issues of a business.

There's a saying that "Smart people ask hard questions, but very smart people ask simple ones." Still feel like you keep getting asked stupid questions, or to provide evidence for an assertion that's already been made? Cut your not-data analyst colleagues some slack - you've got an advantage over them by already knowing how data works. Working directly with databases gives you the discipline you need to start asking better questions, and to structure questions with the precision and accuracy needed to get the big answers. Developing these skills will allow you to contribute towards solving the challenges that your business faces.

Delivering Your Results

Your amazing data insight isn't going to be worth squat if you don't present it in a way so that people can recognize its importance. You might have great results - but without a great presentation or stunning visualization, you're going to find your findings put on the back burner or even ditched from a road-map entirely. If you've managed to get the right message, you need to make sure your message is delivered right.

If you're not the most confident public speaker, don't underestimate the power of a good written report. Billionaire tyrant Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos notably requires all senior staff to put their ideas forward in written memos which are read in silence in order to start meetings. Presenting your results in writing allows you to be clear about the 'story' of your data, and resist the temptation to attempt to explain the meanings of your charts on the fly.

Why Soft Skills Are Essential

You might think you'll be able to get by on your technical mastery alone - and you might be right, for a while. But the future of business is data, and more and more people are going to start seeking roles in data analysis; people who are already in possession of the creative thinking and expert presentation skills that make a great data worker. So make sure you stay on the top of your game - and hone your soft data skills with almost as much rigor as you keep on top of the latest data tech.

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