Top 10 skills Data Analysts need to succeed

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As the world of technology continues to evolve, data-driven decision-making has become fundamental to the success and continuous improvement of organisations -- and the skills of a data analyst have become increasingly indispensable.

Businesses rely on data analysts to transform raw data into actionable insights, steering strategic initiatives that enhance overall commercial performance.

Here, I want to pinpoint the top 10 skills Data Analysts need to succeed, particularly on a freelance or contract basis in 2024, exclusively for Free-Work, writes Rupert Ronca, technology manager at leading STEM recruitment specialist Matchtech.

What is a Data Analyst?

Before looking at the 10 most sought-after skills of a data analyst, let’s first establish the definition of a data analyst.

Believe it or not, defining a Data Analyst isn’t that straightforward! That’s because the role is multifaceted and demands a diverse set of skills to succeed. But let’s attempt a definition nonetheless.

A data analyst is a professional responsible for collecting, processing, and analysing large sets of data to help organisations make informed decisions.

What do Data Analysts do?

On a freelance/contract basis or not, the role of a data analyst involves utilising various tools, techniques, and skills to interpret complex datasets and extract meaningful insights.

Besides being problem-solvers, data analysts are often critical thinkers, meaning they are well-versed in facing complex challenges and using their analytical skills to develop a solution.

As AI continues to develop and reshape the world around us, data analysts play a fundamental role in technology development. Alongside deciphering large amounts of complex data, analysts can use the information gathered to write and execute programming languages, including Python, R, and SQL to manipulate data and create automated scripts for more efficient processing.

Top 10 Skills Data Analysts need to succeed

1. Statistical Analysis

At the core of a data analyst's skillset is Statistical Analysis.

Ultimately, data analysis involves taking a business question (or a need), and then analysing relevant data to come up with an answer, in which key trends that could bring value to the business are identified.

Proficiency in statistical techniques allows a data analyst to draw meaningful conclusions from data, identify patterns, and make predictions. Due to their analytical mind, seeking patterns in data means data analysts can identify complex patterns, which in turn may lead to an opportunity to decrease costs or increase growth.

For a freelance data analyst, understanding probability serves as a foundation for their skillset. The key adds-on of hypothesis-testing and regression analysis allow them to extract valuable insight and utilise that information to drive a business or organisation forward.

2. Data Cleansing and Preparation

Before analysing data, a data analyst contractor primed to succeed understands the importance of starting with a clean slate. For some freelancers, data cleansing isn’t always the most exciting, but it is crucial to guarantee the best possible outcome!

Data cleansing involves conversions to more useable formats, handling missing values, and ensuring all data is relevant and fit for purpose.

From there, the data analyst will use their unparalleled attention to detail to prepare the data and make sure it is fit for purpose.

In preparation, a keen eye for detail and the ability to ensure data quality are paramount to producing accurate and reliable results.

3. Data Visualisation

Data visualisation is a fundamental role for a data analyst.

It helps you to understand, and communicate complex data to business-owners, and identify trends and patterns.

Typically, a good freelance data analyst is proficient in data visualisation tools including Tableau, Power BI, or Matplotlib in Python. These are specially designed software applications that render information into more visual formats to aid presentations.

Communicating insights effectively is a key aspect of a data analyst's role (whether freelance or otherwise), meaning they must be confident in presenting their findings.

And as us humans are visual creatures, most people are likely to understand a chart or a graph more quickly than a spreadsheet! For the freelance data analyst who actually wants to be understood and resonated with, that means creating clean, visually compelling charts that will help others understand discoveries, and it means explaining clearly and concisely.

4. Programming Skills

To succeed as a data analyst on a contract basis, you may at some point be expected to demonstrate proficiency in programming languages such as Python, R, and SQL.

These languages enable you to clean and manipulate data efficiently, perform complex analyses, and create data visualisations to present findings to your colleagues. You may also be required to understand how to write and understand code for automating tasks and handling large datasets.

5. Machine Learning Basics

While not every freelance data analyst you’ll come across needs to be a machine learning expert, a basic understanding of machine learning concepts is becoming increasingly important in 2024.

In the last few years, AI has changed how many businesses work. Machine learning is a subset of AI that uses algorithms trained on data to produce models that can perform complex tasks.

As a data analyst, familiarity with algorithms, model evaluation, and the ability to implement simple machine learning models can enhance the ability to derive deeper insights from data.

6. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

From incomplete data to coding language, data analysts are often faced with complex problems that require critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills.

As a data analyst who freelances, your problem-solving skills are highly valuable and will help you find a logical solution to any given problem.

7. Domain Knowledge

Having domain-specific knowledge is a significant advantage for contractor data analysts, as it helps to understand exactly what you are analysing, with a view to asking relevant questions, choosing appropriate metrics, and providing insights that align with the client’s goals.

While this is something you will learn ‘on the job,’ domain knowledge is the understanding of topics specific to the industry/company that you’re working in.

For example, if you’re a freelance data analyst working for a company with an online store, you might need to grasp the nuances of e-commerce to help analyse specific sets of data and find solutions that will aid growth moving forward.

When it comes to progressing in your independent data analysis career, if you know a specific industry or area you’d like to work in, then it can pay (literally) to build as much understanding as you can upfront, in that niche. Ultimately this will make you a more attractive data analyst candidate, potentially able to command a premium.

8. Effective Communication

The ability to communicate in multiple formats is another key skill that helps data analysts to succeed on a contract and freelance basis.

Writing, speaking, explaining, and listening are fundamental in collaborating with your colleagues. When you start a new contract or opportunity, you will likely be required to listen carefully to understand the exact analysis needed and desired outcomes.

Once you have begun analysing, you will soon be required to explain complex topics to non-technical colleagues.

Be clear, direct, and transparent in your communication, and be patient if your colleagues do not understand you right away! Communication may be a ‘soft’ skill when it comes to data analysis, but the best data analysts I know never underestimate it.

Be aware, once you have completed a specific task, you may be required to present a written summary or analysis of your findings. This means written skills are incredibly important. Well-presented, clear information is key in convincing the client’s staff (or other independent consultants like you), to act upon your discoveries.

9. Database Management

A fundamental skill for freelance data analysts to acquire is the ability to work with databases efficiently.

Knowledge of database management systems, such as MySQL or MongoDB, is crucial for extracting and storing data securely, as well as for optimising queries for performance.

10. Attention to Ethical Considerations

As a data analyst operating on a temporary basis, you will very likely (and potentially often) be expected to handle sensitive information.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you are aware of and adhere to any ethical considerations and understand data privacy regulations like the GDPR. You will also be expected as a data analyst contractor to ensure you’re using the data collected ethically and maintaining confidentiality – areas also specified under the UK’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Final need-to-know -- now you know you want to become a freelance data analyst

In the ever-changing and competitive field of data analytics, mastering these top 10 skills is essential for independent career growth as a freelance contractor specialising in ‘DA.’ Whether you are dealing with statistical analyses, programming tasks, or communicating your findings, a well-rounded skillset will help you extract valuable insights and contribute to informed decision-making and organisational success. And it won’t hurt your day rate one iota either!

Written by

Rupert Ronca

Matchtech

With over 15 years of experience in technology recruitment, Rupert Ronca has gained a deep understanding of various industries, from multi-national engineering and finance firms to tech start-ups looking to disrupt the norm. Throughout his 15 years at Matchtech, he has continuously strived to be a trusted partner who can guide organisations toward success in an ever-changing technological landscape.

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