I see variations on this question a lot and it inevitably brings me back nearly two decades to when I was really getting into web and software development (the precursor to my data analyst career).
I’d studied Accounting at university but lost any interest for that midway through second year and by the time I graduated I had barely managed to keep my scores high enough to scrape into a 2:1.
At age 17 I’d thought Accounting was a sound choice as I was good at Maths and Economics and there was a professional qualification path afterwards that could lead on to other areas in business and finance.
I wasn’t wrong there but with little life experience of what the job or degree path offered beyond the UCAS handbook it turned out to be a poor choice at that time. It wasn’t what I was looking for and with a little hindsight (and a lot of years in between) my advice to myself then would have been to do the Finance degree I’d really had my eye on and make a shit ton of money in the City before 2008 hit (disclaimer: may or may not be joking about this).
I enjoyed the Statistics and Economics modules we did, a throwback to my A Level days in Mr. Scott’s Maths and Mr. Christie’s Economics classes, but beyond a couple of other random classes in Financial Market Theory and an Economic and Social History comparison of Britan and Japan in the 20th Century I was bored and, worse still, struggling massively with anxiety.
Panic attacks and avoiding tutorial classes for fear of being put on the spot and not knowing an answer were increasingly common occurrences to the point where I barely went to class at all in third year. I was getting increasingly close to the big bad world and real life and my introverted nature and anxiety was not making it easy for me to take full advantage of what university should have been about.
The only thing I left QUB with, other my BSc Accounting degree and a burgeoning state of depression, was a deep held knowledge that I never EVER wanted to be an accountant (sorry accountants, you do a fine job and have served me very well over the years but it’s just not for me).
(READER: I’m sure that’s been very therapeutic for you Alan but what does this have to do with the pace of technological change and my nervousness about an unknowable future?)
Stick with me, I’m getting there, I promise.
I graduated in June 2000. The Dot Com Bubble had already started to burst a few months earlier and pretty soon it would lead to complete carnage in that sector. At that point, all I’d used the internet for was getting guitar tabs off OLGA and chatting to friends on MSN Messenger.
My band at the time had a webpage but our drummer was the only one who knew the dark arts of HTML and could maintain it. I’d dabbled in BASIC when I was a kid, typing programs out of the manual of my Commodore Plus4 but had never considered IT as a career in any way.
The world was a different place then kids, round here it was all green fields as far as the eye could see. The web was simpler, more homespun, more personal.
Before any of the modern tech giants took off and hit that hockey stick growth period. Before Facebook. Before Google took off. Before Twitter. Before Amazon sold more than books.
So fast forward a year and a bit. I’d killed time working in the Civil Service, filing paperwork and, foreshadowing the future, even did a few months on secondment in a Financial Analyis Unit, loading stats and figures into Excel spreadsheets. They even offered to put me through my CIMA Management Accounting exams but that freaked me out and I started looking for an escape rope to climb out on.
It came in the form of a Government funded scheme called the Rapid Advancement Programme (RAP) which was kind of a bootcamp that fast tracked graduates from non-IT backgrounds into IT.
My first day at the course was particularly memorable as the internet went down at one point and someone eventually came in to tell us that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. Much like how everyone of a certain age knows where they were on the day JFK was shot, my first day at RAP will be equally easy to remember, if only for the very worst of reasons.
I went out on placement for 3 months at a very prestigious financial software development house and was shown up for the know nothing wannabe I really was. I bombed big time, totally out of my depth and very much aware that they thought I was a clown.
I got my head down when we went back to RAP after placement and got two Microsoft exams in VB6 (pre Dot Net days of course) and used those, along with a welcome family introduction, to get an interview and eventual junior developer job at a local web and software development company.
I could fill this whole site with tales of my (often sordid) working life but (finally) getting this back on track, my point is this.
The brief excerpt of my life above covers about a 5 year period between 1997 and 2002. The pace of change even then was frightening in how quickly things moved on.
Between then and early 2007 when I started working as a data analyst at my current employer, things moved on even further. They didn’t slow down, they accelerated and continue to do so. There is no getting away from that.
If I had panicked about an unknowable future at any of those stages and jumped onto every new platform, technology or programming language that put itself in front of me I would be no further on than I am now.
Maybe the most future proof option would have been the Accountancy professional qualifications but then accountants are under threat from automation these days as much as factory workers were in the recent past.
If I’d worried when I was a software developer working in VB6 and ASP and then Dot Net was launched, I would have freaked out and dropped everything to jump on that band wagon. (Note to all, I did start learning it a few times but my own world changed again and I’ve never had to use it professionally).
When I started in data and analytics we were using MS Access to create standalone small database apps to link into data warehouses and run reports and analysis into Excel. If you wonder how I’m qualified to answer the question “Can I use Microsoft Access For Data Analysis?” then remember I’ve built more data solutions in Access than Pele scored career goals.
When the jobs I’ve worked at didn’t really exist back when I was flipping desperately through that UCAS Degree Handbook back in 1996 in the Careers library at school, how could I possibly have future proofed myself for twenty years down the line, never mind forty or fifty?
Simple answer: I couldn’t. You can’t. Not fully, not completely. There is no insurance you can buy that will stop the world moving on beyond you. IF. YOU. LET. IT.
What you can do is stop focusing on the tools and technologies and thinking that the bleeding edge you read about is what is suddenly being used everywhere and without it you will sink like a stone to the bottom of the nearest (virtual) mill pond.
Your value as a data analyst is in learning how to apply your tech skills to extract value for the business you are working in, based on the knowledge and experience you have built up over your life.
Keeping your tech skills sharp is important but don’t get distracted by every bright new language or platform that comes along. Industry, especially at large corporate level, is INCREDIBLY slow to change and move away from their existing stacks or established analytical environments.
Build up your skills in your current role especially the soft skills. If you want to get used to a new language then do a side project. Something with an end goal and result you can write about or put online to show people.
There will always be people who are better than you at a certain skill but that doesn’t mean that your own skills Venn diagram intersection won’t still be incredibly valuable for a long time to come.
It may not feel like it when reading the tech news or mainstream media tolling the death knell for anyone but our new automated robot machine overlords but remember scaremongering sells for them. It doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about.
We are in on the ground floor of this thing. Change is coming quickly but if we are adaptable and concentrate on applying our knowledge to business problems using data and analysis, there will be a place for us for a long, long time at every level of business in every industry.
That thought lets me sleep peacefully at night. When it comes to your place in the future workplace, it should do so for you too.
Take some time now to write a list of the skills you have put together over your working life or through projects you’ve completed in your studies. That doesn’t only mean technical proficiency either, all of the soft skills as well e.g. working with other people, extracting business needs from stakeholders, planning etc.
Be honest with yourself and if you see holes in that, think about how you can fill those holes. Drop me a mail if you want to chat it out, I’ll be happy to help anyone who really wants to help themselves. And remember to breathe deeply. Always. It’s all going to be fine.