What Does a Data Analyst Do?

You’ve probably heard of data analysts nowadays. It’s becoming an increasingly popular - and crucial - job in a digital-first economy. But what do data analysts really do? Besides analyzing data that is. We break down all aspects of the career so you can see if it’s a path you want to pursue.

What is a Data Analyst?

Data analysts examine data sets with the intention of drawing insights about things that have happened, and presenting coherent stories through visualizations. In other words, data analytics is about creating meaning from disordered information.

Data analysts look for patterns, relationships, and other insights so they can help businesses propel their ideas forward, stand out from the competition, and make changes within the company. The process of analyzing data typically moves through five phases including:

  • Asking The Right Questions
  • Data Collection
  • Data Cleaning
  • Analyzing The Data
  • Interpreting The Results

As a data analyst, you can do any number of these tasks on any given day. Keep in mind that a large part of the job is critical thinking and working with numbers, so make sure that you enjoy both of those. Not sure if data is for you? Take our interactive skills gap quiz to find out the skills best suited for you.

The Difference Between a Data Analyst and a Data Scientist

Differences between data analyst and a data scientist

You may have also heard the job title data scientist lately, and, although they sound similar they actually have different roles within various companies.

To put it simply:

  • Data analysts examine data to better understand the past
  • Data scientists use data to make assumptions about and build out projections for the future

Although these roles both work with data, they use them in different ways. It’s important to understand the difference so you can enrol in the right programs to educate yourself and set yourself up for a career as either a data scientist or data analyst.

For example, data analysts typically receive an undergrad degree in science, technology, engineering, or math, and sometimes earn their masters in analytics or other related fields. Whereas data scientists often pursue a master’s degree in a related field, although not absolutely necessary, or have a number of years of experience in the field. It is possible to become a data analyst and then work your way up to becoming a data scientist as well.

Typical Tasks of a Data Analyst

The data analyst tackles a range of activities in their day-to-day life. Anything from working with technology teams, mining data, pinpointing trends and patterns from data, and fixing code or data-related problems. You might be working on a project that takes months to complete, interspersed with smaller tasks that fill up the majority of your day. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the specific tasks a data analyst might do on any given day.

1. Creating reports, visualizations, and dashboards

Data analysts spend a lot of time producing and maintaining reports both internally and for clients. The reports can give management and other team members insights about certain trends, forecasting, and areas where the company needs to improve. Each report has to decipher the information from the data and present it in a way that someone who is not a data analyst would understand. That means that you really have to understand your findings and be good at communicating as well. Part of their role is to understand the different ways that the data needs to be segmented and create dashboards that enable multiple views depending on the individual stakeholder needs.

2. Spotting patterns

One way that helps set the skilled data analysts apart from the rest of the pack is their ability to to use data to tell a story. For a report to be successful, you have to be able to recognize patterns that will be helpful for your client. When you study data and update reports on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly period, you’ll notice patterns that can help figure out trends and weaknesses.

3. Collaborating with coworkers

Being a data analyst doesn’t mean you only interact with data. You’ll work with many other departments including marketing, executive team members, and the sales department. As a data analyst you’ll also work with people in other data related jobs to put together a full picture of the information you're analyzing.

Further, data analysts need to understand the business questions that need to be answered by the data and ensure that the right variables are displayed before beginning analysis.

4. Collecting data

The most technical and obvious part of a data analyst's job - collecting data. As this is such a big part of your job, it’s very important to streamline and automate these systems as much as possible and many data analysts use specialized software and tools to help with this process.

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Data Analyst?

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Data Analyst As a data analyst you’ll put to good use your programming skills and your communication skills very frequently. But what are the specific skills you need to become a data analyst? According to Marie Gallagher, data analyst at La Presse, one of Quebec’s largest newspapers, and instructor at Lighthouse Labs, you’ll need to be able to effectively communicate with others both to understand the context of their situation and what they need, as well as to present information to them. This combines three skills: analytical skills, technical skills, and communication skills.

1. Data cleaning and preparation

Perhaps the most important skill for anyone entering the data profession; data cleaning and preparation accounts for 80% of a data analysts job. Here’s where you’ll spend time polishing the data to ensure it’s in tip-top shape. This process, called data cleaning, consists of amending or removing incorrect or superfluous data, as well as checking for incompleteness or inconsistencies. For instance, you might clean spaces in front of letters or symbols or remove duplicates.

2. Data analysis and exploration

Although this skill may be a little more obvious, it’s important to state that mastering your analysis skills is critical to being a data analyst. If you want your valuable discoveries to be implemented, you need to be able to present it to decision-makers and stakeholders in a manner that’s compelling and easy to comprehend. The best way to do this is by turning your data into a compelling narrative.

3. Statistical knowledge

Having a strong understanding of probability and statistics will help you better understand the data you’re working with. Understanding stats will also help ensure that you’re analyzing data correctly and avoiding common errors. The amount of stats you need to understand depends on your role and the project.

4. Creating data visualizations

The majority of people aren’t data analysts for a reason, so creating data visualizations can help everyone understand the trends and patterns you’re discovering. Data visualization software is an integral part of working in data whether you’re a data scientist or data analyst. By effectively visualizing data, you can draw meaningful insights, patterns, anomalies, outliers, and much more. Creating data visualizations is a key responsibility in every data analyst job.

Popular data visualization tools include Tableau, Power BI, Google’s Data Studio, Plotly, Matplotlib, seaborn, and Leaflet.

5. Putting reports together

The whole point of your job is to help find ways to improve problems and discover new information. You have to put the information you discover into a report so stakeholders and executives can make informed decisions about their company. The size of the report will vary depending on the project. It could just be a simple chart and table or it may be a large dashboard filled with hundreds of data points.

6. Strong writing, listening and communication skills

Having adequate communication skills will 100% help make your job easier. You’ll constantly be collaborating with co-workers and talking to people to find missing information, but you’ll also be writing your analysis and recommendations in a proficient way. Additionally, taking time to listen to understand your stakeholders needs and wants will ensure your analysis provides relevant, timely and actionable insights.

7. Domain knowledge

Domain knowledge is having a solid understanding of the industry you’re working in and what’s important to them. Depending on where you work and the projects you work on, you may be working within an industry that is unknown to you. You’ll have to do quick research to gain a solid understanding of the industry so you can properly analyze the data and do your job more effectively.

8. Problem solving

As a data analyst, you’ll run into problems every day. Whether it’s technical issues, missing information, unknown information, or roadblocks, you’ll have to solve problems quickly and efficiently. Developing this skill and finding ways that help you problem-solve better is a key skill as a data analyst.

On top of these skills, these are some common programs that data analysts use frequently:

  • Microsoft Excel
  • Google Sheets
  • SQL
  • Tableau
  • R or Python
  • SAS
  • Microsoft Power BI
  • Jupyter Notebooks

Do Data Analysts Need to be Good at Math?

Do Data Analysts Need to be Good at Math If you have a background in math then you’ll have a leg up on some of your competitors, helping you stand out in the long run. Even an adjacent industry, like finance, can be advantageous.

If numbers aren’t your forte, then a career as a data analyst probably isn’t the best route for you. That being said, you don’t have to be a math wizard to have a successful career as a data analyst. Much of what data analysts do involves following a set of logical steps and having a solid understanding of business and the business world will be much more valuable than being a mathematician.

Is Being A Data Analyst a Stressful Job?

With never ending deadlines, miscommunication, and constant new information, being a data analyst can be a stressful job. But it also depends on your employer, the company culture, and your stress triggers. As with any job, there are aspects of your role that can cause stress. Below are some common stressors that you should be aware of if you’re considering becoming a data analyst:

1. Continuously learn on your own

You have to be comfortable working autonomously to be a data-analyst. Especially when it comes to problem-solving, as that will take up a lot of your time. You also have to be willing to put in many hours to improve your communication skills, business knowledge, understanding of data, and ability to balance tasks.

2. Little direction on how to do tasks

As data isn’t something everyone can easily understand, you may get tasks thrown at you with little direction on how to actually achieve that goal. If you like a lot of structure and specific direction in your job, you’ll probably find being a data analyst quite stressful.

3. A constant state of problem-solving

Data is confusing - and most of the time it’s poorly put together and hard to understand. You’ll spend a lot of your time deciphering puzzles, gathering missed information, and trying to understand topics enough to talk to people that aren’t in data so you can get the information you need. Trying to problem solve this much can be mentally exhausting if you don’t like that challenge.

4. Lots of patience needed

Until you get to a point where you understand the data you’re analyzing, a lot of patience, attention to detail, and trial and errors are necessary to complete your job. Make sure you work well under this type of pressure to ensure a successful career as a data analyst.

5. Responsibility

Although a lot of people don’t think about how important data is on a regular basis, it’s actually key to propelling any business forward. Any task you get to analyze a data - small or large, is very important to that company's success, especially when stakeholders are relying on your findings to help them make decisions.

6. Communication is key

It can take a lot of digging to find the right piece of information, and a lot of time will be spent talking to a variety of people to gather new data. Being able to talk to people outside of your field in an effective way will definitely make your job easier. As a data analyst, you also have to talk to stakeholders and other executives, who may be under a lot of stress so it’s important to have patience when communicating with them as well.

Start Your Data Analytics Career with Lighthouse Labs

Learning Python For Data Analysis During this 6-week online data analytics course, you’ll learn how to think and present like a data analyst. You’ll have real world datasets to analyze and will learn how to master commonly used programs such as MS Excel and Tableau.

On top of dedicated instructors teaching you, you’ll have access to a mentor that you can contact any time on Slack, so all your questions can be answered in real time. This course is for anyone from executives to early stage professionals who want to better understand data for their business decisions.

Have questions about the program? Talk to one of our alumni to get an insider’s perspective on the Lighthouse Lab courses.