Graduate Careers in Business Intelligence
About the Author
Jason Dove is the author of 'Crystal Reports Formulas Explained' and a Business Intelligence expert who has worked as a consultant for over a decade providing top notch assistance for the world's leading companies.
Three reasons why business intelligence is the only option
Getting that first, all important, foot-hold in the IT industry is the most important thing in the world for a new graduate. And if some time has passed since graduation, despair and disenchantment can easily set in.
But there is an option which many do not even think to explore: Business Intelligence.
A sub-sector of the IT industry, Business Intelligence is the extraction, summarising and formatting of data for informed business decisions and monitoring. As the title of this article implies, there are three very good reasons why Business Intelligence may be your only route into an IT career.
1. Business intelligence is the only growing area in IT
I personally started in the BI industry when it was just called "report writing", since then it has boomed. Employment agencies who didn't know what BI was (and some still don't!) now have dedicated departments just to deal with supplying BI consultants.
- Even during times of hardship, like a recession, all the big companies and corporations turn to BI to aid their survival.
- And during times of plenty, BI is used to expand and grow.
- Whatever the economic climate, Business Intelligence is needed.
2. Business intelligence needs less experience
This is not to diminish the value of Business Intelligence, far from it. Because it is so powerful and can have such a huge impact even a minimum of knowledge goes a long way. The big paying jobs will always go to the best and most experienced specialists, but there is a realistic starting point where minimal experience is not a deal breaker as long as the basic knowledge is there. The more experience the better, as is always the case, but there is a starting point for the beginner in Business Intelligence which is missing from mainstream IT.
3. Business intelligence is a new sector
Business Intelligence, in one form or another, has been around ever since computers were first used in business, but somewhere along the way it was forgotten that a computerised system is only as good as the information it can provide.
Then, about ten years ago, a very quiet revolution started and companies started to get interested in all the data they had collected since the first IT revolution. This sector has been steadily expanding ever since. At the moment it is just the biggest companies and corporations which use BI, but as you are reading this Business Intelligence is spreading to companies of all sizes as the benefits become clear. As this new sector grows, IT savvy people are needed to fill the void. And because of this rapid growth all the existing Business Intelligence experts are already taken.
Business Intelligence is not only the easiest route into the IT industry, it can be the only way in for those with little or no experience.
Three more reasons why business intelligence is the only option
For those hoping to turn their education into a career in IT, these are hard times. That feeling of "the hard work is behind me" has turned into "there is a brick wall in front of me", and that is just to get a job to start proper work!
- Business Intelligence is an alternative route into the IT industry which many graduates will overlook but should consider.
- Business Intelligence is the fastest growing sector in IT and centers around extracting information from existing databases to allow informed business decisions.
1. Existing business intelligence experts are busy
Whether companies are trying to expand or just survive, Business Intelligence experts are needed. There is literally not enough expertise to go round. This shortage is ideal for anyone wanting to get into the industry. Potential employers do not have the choice to hire someone with experience because there aren't any available.
2. Business intelligence has less competition
How many letters/emails do you think HR departments get from graduates enquiring about Database Administrator, Programming or Web Designer? Lots!
It is easy to get lost in the pile, and even harder to stand out. Declaring yourself to be interested in Business Intelligence really sets you apart. Especially in the case of smaller companies, a business will already have the standard IT employees but not a dedicated Business Intelligence expert. All this aids in getting an all important foot in the door.
3. Business intelligence software is easy to master
Ok, that is not strictly true! But the software used for Business Intelligence (Crystal Reports is the de facto standard, though there are many more) is written in such a way that a lot of basic, though powerful, analysis is possible without the in depth knowledge. But do not be misled by this easy start! To actually get the most from BI software a great deal of skill and knowledge is needed.
This secret of the IT industry will come to the attention of the masses at some point and have the dedicated degree subjects it deserves. But at the moment it is the back door into one of the best industries in the world. Due to the desperation in the Business Intelligence, with the correct base knowledge, even the most minimal experience is enough to secure a starting point in the IT industry.
Yet three more reasons why business intelligence is the only option
Business Intelligence is the only sector in IT which has survived the recession relatively unscathed. And with good reason. In hard times companies need all the information they can get in order to survive. Business Intelligence centers around extracting information from existing databases to allow informed businesses to evaluate the state of their finances at any point in time and plan future strategies.
1. Business intelligence is relevant for all business sectors
There is not a business in existence which cannot benefit from BI. Personally I have used it to sell paint, analyse exam results, monitor repair work done on government houses and have even worked on counter-terrorism using the exact same skill-set for each. I have worked in banking, retail, insurance, healthcare, education and government. There really is no limit to what you can do or where you can work.
2. Business intelligence is an easy platform to other IT areas
There is so much to learn to be a productive employee in the IT industry that it is not only overwhelming to those starting out but is also in the mind of any employer looking at a graduate's resume. And it is not just the 'what' to learn, as this may have been covered at college, but the 'how'. How to actually apply this knowledge in a business environment.
Business Intelligence usually requires the knowledge of one piece of software which is designed to do one specific task: generate reports. This really narrows the scope of what you need to learn. At the worst, there is also a distribution application which also needs to be mastered, but this is usually not very involved.
3. Many IT professionals are not cut out to be business intelligence consultants
The question you may be asking yourself is: "Why aren't other IT people just switching jobs to Business Intelligence if it is so great?"
The reason is twofold:
- a. Many of the programmer community just do not have the interpersonal skills to be a BI expert. Working in Business Intelligence requires a great deal of interaction with people at all levels of a business. This is the scariest thing in the world for many programmer types.
- b. BI is not seen as "proper programming", and to be honest, it is not. The formulas and macros that the more advanced BI Experts use are still only a few lines long. And of course, it is possible to have a successful BI career and not be able to write any code (though it will be a struggle!).
Whichever of these cause existing IT expert to stay clear of Business Intelligence (it was 'b' which was my initial concern, but I do not regret my choice for a second), it all works to create a fertile ground for the newcomer to IT.
The mix of these points makes an ideal combination for anyone hoping to break into the IT industry. Between the rapidly expanding Business Intelligence sector and the lack of prospective employees (even from within the IT industry itself!) this is an opportunity not to be missed. Like all things, the market place will level itself out over time, but now is the chance to be at the forefront of this exciting new development.
Have you got what it takes?
Getting started in a Business Intelligence career may be the easiest way for a graduate to break into the IT industry, but it is no free lunch and a level of competency must be reached. Getting a job is only the first step, being well prepared to build a successful career is something else.
Here are the five main areas a Business Intelligence specialist needs to be proficient in. All of them are important, but none are deal breakers. Even if you only have one or two of the items on this list, the rest can be learnt.
1. Relational databases
- Understanding how relational databases work is one of the most important things in Business Intelligence. Working blindly to the table schema provided by the database developer will drastically limit what you can do.
- SQL, Structured Query Language is the programming language used exclusively for extracting information from databases.
- SQL does not change much between different databases, so learning one version is enough to apply to all databases.
- It is possible to have a successful Business Intelligence career and never be able to write a line of SQL, but it can certainly make it easier when trying to solve more complex problems.
3. Basic programming skills
- Most reporting software has an underlying scripting language similar to how Excel has macros. All these languages have their own quirks and take some effort to learn, especially as many do not have many resources to refer to.
- But once learned, it is usual for reporting programmes to only ever be a few lines long and not the hundreds that application software needs to function.
4. Reporting software
- Just like the programming languages, it does not really matter which reporting software you learn, it is more about understanding the theory.
- That said, it makes sense to learn the most popular and that, by far and away, is Crystal Reports.
- It is my software of choice, but more importantly, it is used by virtually everyone everywhere and has huge support in the form of both documentation and user base.
5. Analysis skills
- This is the trickiest of the five to define as Business Intelligence analysis is different to what is usually considered to be analysis in the IT industry.
- The other problem is that no materials exist to learn this specific skill set. It is one of the problems of Business Intelligence for the beginner: it is such a new discipline that the books and courses have not been written yet!
None of the above are essential prerequisites to starting a Business Intelligence career, but the more you know, the easier it will be. Every single one of these skills can be learnt in a reasonable time frame, and I would advise learning them all to a comfortable level before going after any Business Intelligence position.
With the exception of number four, most of these subjects are covered as part of any computer/IT relate degree, and if you have had the advantage of this level of training it is usually enough to get you a solid start as a Business Intelligence analyst.
Three steps to getting experience
1. Know your stuff!
The first step is to make sure you have all the basic knowledge to do the job of a BI analyst. Suffice to say that it makes sense to be able to do the job you are trying to get practical experience in. At the very least, be comfortable with the reporting software you intend using.
2. Let businesses know who you are
Advertising in your local area may seem overwhelming at first, but if you target smaller companies you will be pleasantly surprised by the feedback.
Because Business Intelligence is a powerful tool which will help any company and is a new miracle cure to smaller businesses. And advertising does not have to mean paid advertising. Most areas have local business networks which can provide you the access you need to boost your local economy.
3. Make the most of any opportunities
The whole point of this approach is to gain experience, so every opportunity to increase your experience should be seized with both hands. As obvious as this sounds, when faced with new challenges or work which may seem pointless, it is too easy to make excuses and avoid things which are challenging.
At this point in your career everything is an opportunity to learn, whether this is talking to a potential client about what data they store electronically and how it can be used to aid their business…or creating a new type of report for an existing customer.
Everything is a challenge, but should be seen as an chance to grow your career and get an edge over the competition.
Lack of experience is the number one culprit which can ruin all the years of study and lay waste to your technical knowledge. As such, it should be given priority as a problem which needs solving. With this handled, everything else will fall into place and the benefits which should be part and parcel of an IT based career will be available for the taking.
Also see our Computing Careers page
Last fully updated 2012