BI Careers: Knowing Technology Isn’t Enough

BI veterans give tech workers advice on getting ahead in the industry without burning out first

Tony Politano starts his classes on BI careers by holding up a package of supermarket meat. "This is your tech career," he says, then points to the "use-by" date.

Tech knowledge has the shelf life of meat, he observes, while business knowledge is like macaroni and cheese, which lasts forever.

This is the "soapbox" Politano steps onto every chance he gets, most recently at the TDWI World Conference in Orlando with TDWI’s Jennifer Hay. He’s also author of Chief Performance Officer: Measuring What Matters, Managing What Can Be Measured (2003, iUniverse) and a consultant to executives. Politano shares this passion with several other BI veterans I talked to -- all of whom agree: technical skills are no longer enough to succeed in business intelligence.

"I see these kids -- 25, 28, 35, whatever age they are -- and I just want to shake them," he told me. He hears many of them downplay the need for business knowledge, saying they can keep learning new technology. Politano thinks they’ll burn out that way.

They would be smarter to learn the business side of things, he tells younger BI workers. He points to executives who measure an employee’s worth do it mostly by the person’s understanding of the business, and explains that the people who will open career paths are more likely to be on the business side. "The connections you’re going to make to move up are not the DBAs you know but the users you support."

"I’m a poster child," Politano explained. Back in the ’80s at Prudential Insurance, he was about the best IDMS programmer around. "I thought I was the hottest thing." Now he looks back to a lot of technology that’s diminished, declined, or disappeared and regrets having ignored paths that opened into business. "If opportunity faces you, take it. I didn’t and had to play catch-up."

"Eventually, all the tech stuff is going to go offshore," he said, "and what we’ll have left are the people who interpret the business."

Offshoring and outsourcing, he said, are "eating the business from the bottom up." Those who last will be the ones with knowledge the guys in China and India -- or even some closer -- can’t match.

Dead-end or not, the 2007 TDWI Salary Roles and Responsibilities Report indicates that BI jobs are still better paid than most IT jobs. In 2006, total compensation across a broad range of industries increased by 3.2 percent, which was in line with ComputerWorld’s survey of all U.S. tech jobs. However, total average compensation in BI was much higher. IT jobs averaged $81,094 versus $94,615 for BI jobs.

Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI Research, said BI still requires considerable analysis of business requirements and insight into business needs and strategy. That work is not so easily offshored. He expects greater involvement by the business side in BI. One sign is the slightly higher number of business respondents in the 2007 TDWI salary report.

"BI doesn’t work unless the business drives the solution from design to deployment to revision," he wrote in an e-mail message, "so as programs mature, more business people are getting involved in an intimate way."

That requires what Mark Albala calls "soft skills." Interpersonal skills are becoming ever more important, said Albala, vice president at CS Solutions in New Jersey. "You have to know how to engage stakeholders, how to communicate ROI to keep them engaged, how to facilitate gab sessions, how to steer the initiative with total participation, [and] how to listen."

Master data management and data governance issues are on his mind these days. "When I look at it in the past, the architectural issues were solved in the back room with IT folks," he said. Now it’s different, as the discussions end up being collaborative.

Every one of the issues touches organizations outside IT, he noted. "Everywhere you turn, those soft skills are required to solve those architectural problems."

Sam Hammond, a 22-year database developer, former assistant vice president at United Savings Bank in California, and twice a CTO, knows exactly why tech people need to understand the business. "A naive engineer might think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution because they think it’s all data, but the relationships between pieces of data are subtle. Data relates to itself in very different ways depending on the business you’re in. The good engineers understand the business details."

Take the difference between supplying nuts and bolts to hardware stores and supplying medical supplies to hospitals, he suggested. "On the surface, you’re delivering products to a customer, but the devil is in the details. It’s always in the details."

Both situations include the same basic questions: Did I make a profit? Did I deliver on time? With the medical supplies, however, the company also has to deal with the Food and Drug Administration and medical professionals, as well as ensure suppliers are reputable.

"You don’t worry about that with the hardware store," he said. "That’s really different engineering, really different database structure, and really different business logic. It’s no longer one-size-fits-all."

One thing did fit all four in this handful of BI veterans. Eckerson expressed the excitement and passion about the industry that they all seemed to feel. "It’s a lifelong profession helping organizations become learning organizations that make fact-based decision making and use information as a competitive weapon. It’s a great profession."

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP, is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco area. He can be reached at