The Data Professional Lifecycle

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⸻ Beyond Data

How skills focus moves as you progress through your career

Prompt: Team of people communicating, digital art (created with Stable Diffusion)

Welcome to Beyond Data – actionable advice for building data and analytics teams for the week ahead.

The initial title for this issue was The Communication Game and I’m still not sure if that’s better. You be the judge.

This week: skill focus and seniority in data and analytics

After some great conversations this last week with the data community I wanted to write a piece on what I think people should generally focus on as they develop as data professionals.

This can be used either as guidance for your own career or for managers and leaders to consider how they develop their own teams. Learning how to shape the growth of a multi-disciplinary team can be hard but these guidelines have helped me achieve great success over the years.

While this does apply to most technology roles, I like to frame everything from the context of the data and analytics teams because that’s what I know.

Starting out

Focus: Develop your technical skillset for depth in your core tools.Career level: Associate | Graduate

Make no mistake, when you’re starting out in a new role or career in data you need to develop your technical skills. In the early stages, everything is uncomfortable. You’re still figuring out your workflow, haven’t picked a favourite IDE, still think Jupyter notebooks are good (shots fired!😉) – the list goes on.

You must must must get as much exposure to the core technologies of your craft as possible and trudge through the bugs and mistakes you’ll make until you get confident. This is how you develop expertise. Don’t spread yourself too thin either, focus on what you’re going to use 80% of the time, you’ll get time to branch out later.

Don’t neglect the stuff I’ll suggest later but get competent and confident with the very core technical part of your role above all else.

Speed this up with good mentors, pair programming, and a strong peer review process. If you’re running teams, think about how you can line up the right opportunities for early-stage data professionals so they can get these experiences.

On the move

Focus: Gain mastery in your core skillsets and begin to explore those adjacent that are important to your role and team.Career level: Practitioner | Developer

So you’ve made it. You can go more than a day without breaking everything, you’re confident picking up tickets and taking ownership of your work. You’re even taking on projects autonomously and people sometimes come to you for tips on certain things.

Life is good.

Continue to deepen your experience and move to mastery of your core skillsets.

This is also the point at which I think you should really start to explore the peripheral stuff that’s relevant to your role. Or perhaps tools that adjacent roles use.

Learn that new language. Explore that BI tool your colleagues use. Build that ETL pipeline that’s eluded you.

You’ll quickly learn what you like and what you don’t. A sense of where you want to specialise might start to develop.

Outside of the technical, you should begin thinking more about your soft skills and leadership. You can start light, just take note of how others do it.

Who’s a good communicator or leader in your team? Why?

Who isn’t? Why?

Start assessing your own approach. Seek opportunities to write and speak wherever possible. Think about how you’ll adjust your message for non-technical stakeholders.

If you’re running teams, consider putting blog posts into quarterly objectives. This has worked wonders for my teams by not only honing their communications skills but also producing valuable content for the organisation to share (internal blogs are just as valuable as public ones).

Spreading your wings

Focus: Apply your hard-earned skills and show others the way.Career level: Senior | Principal | Staff

Once you have reached seniority in your role a few things change. People will progressively look to your lead more and more. You should go from following best practices to defining them for your organisation.

You’ll be the go-to person for the more challenging work and you’ll start to be pulled into more meetings with a wider group of stakeholders than just your team.

At the most senior levels for an individual contributor, the organisation should seek to maximise the value they can get from you by exposing you to as many of the other teams as is sensible. Your experience and oversight, even foresight of potential outcomes is invaluable for any team tackling complex work.

You’ll get less and less time to code and develop solutions – instead being tasked with either showing others how it should be done or literally defining the plan for achieving the larger goals the team has.

At this point, your soft skills start to take over. How you communicate becomes as important as how you code or problem-solve. You’ll be put in front of mixed audiences of techies and non-techies alike. You’ll be making design decisions with the team and then justifying them to your stakeholders.

Start to learn about leadership and communication. Add good books and blogs to your regular learning material. I even advise reading up on some classics in negotiation and sales!

Again if you’re running teams, this point can be the most challenging – giving the individual enough room to grow and breathe but still helping them. You should enable and empower them to grow these soft skills wherever possible. Learning to lead is difficult.

Such great heights

Focus: Enable and empower others, unblock the road and optimise for their growth. Career level: Head of | Director

At this point, life is very different. In most organisations, you won’t be doing any direct coding or problem-solving on the business-as-usual work that many others do.

Your role now is to lead.

What does that mean?

I view it as:

  • Setting the path, goals, and strategy for what you’re trying to achieve in the medium to long term.
  • Breaking that up into manageable, iterative steps.
  • Lining up the right people to take on each of those steps.
  • Unblocking any of the teams as they tackle these tasks.
  • Aligning multiple teams and wider stakeholders to work together effectively.
  • Managing performance and outcomes from those teams.

Ultimately, the more senior you get the less well-defined a role becomes (in general). Things will vary from place to place but this is what I’ve seen and following this advice has helped me and those I’ve mentored take the transition to higher-level roles.

You will notice at this stage, your tech skills might begin to rot. That’s OK. Try to stay fresh wherever possible but accept you may not be the best coder on the team for much longer.

Look to grow your soft skills as your new tool of choice. And begin to expand your circle of influence throughout the organisation. Show others how best to contribute and embody the culture you seek to create.

Good luck.


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