With The Data School set to welcome DS3 students in a few weeks’ time, we wanted to share the thoughts of past students for an insight into what life is like at The Data School. We chatted to Niccolo Cirone about his time at The DS; what he’s taken away from his experience and the advice he has for anyone thinking of taking their interest in Data Analytics to the next level.
Thanks for speaking with us today, Nicco. To start with, what appealed to you most about joining the Data School?
“Oh, the learning part for sure, the opportunity to have four months of training was pretty unique. A year ago, I was back in Italy and I was looking for a job here in the UK because I was planning to move. And while I found some good opportunities, this was the only one that promised to actually train me, to boost my skills before I started working, and that was the thing that really interested me and pushed me to apply. I’m so happy I did.”
So once you got started, what was an average week like for you at the Data School?
“At the very beginning we started with a lot of training. We had hands-on classes and exercises and creative projects. We were assigned projects aimed at learning a specific feature of Tableau or Alteryx, or some other aspect of data analysis. Then [later in the program] we started the client projects. In the middle – between maybe month two and three – the pace was very fast, because we had a lot of training and a lot of projects. After a while, the training became less day-by-day, but the projects became more difficult. It’s great because at the beginning what we want is to be trained, but eventually our aim is to work on real cases, real data and business problems from clients”
Putting what you learned into practice, right?
“Yes, exactly. So, this shaped our Monday to Friday. We did a presentation every Friday. Sometimes we’d spilt into teams if it was a big project, but mostly it was fifteen minutes each. A great part of The Data School training is the soft skills you’re taught – like delivering effective presentations, which really is so helpful, because in a business environment very often we are asked to present our work. We had the class with Brian Prestidge about effective presentations and it was a massive help.”
What was your favourite thing about being a part of DS1?
“My favourite thing about DS1? I guess the fact that all of us are so diverse. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, from business school, physics, and lots more that I can’t remember right at this moment! (Laughs) And also different levels of working experience – some who had never worked before, and some who had worked for ten years. This created a very effective environment for learning and for collaborating on projects. There was freshness, different angles, and work experience as well.”
Seems like it’s quite a collaborative environment, then?
“Yes, it is definitely a collaborative environment – even a, let’s say, positive competition between us. But never at a level that hindered us helping each other. We always helped each other out when we had difficulties, or if we didn’t understand something, without being overly competitive. Of course we wanted to do great, to go the extra mile, but we all helped each other to succeed.”
What were some of your biggest challenges?
(Pause) “I think you will have to come back to that question. I can’t think of it right now, and it’s a very important question!”
No problem. How about, what was the best piece of advice given to you by your Data School coaches?
“Put your data into context! This one is so true. Sometimes analysts show the data, and think it has a meaning, but while it might to them it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. So by putting it into context, you help people understand why one specific figure is important; why something is high, why it’s low, why it’s a problem for a business, or why there is an opportunity here, behind the data, etc.”
With the blogging being quite a big part of the learning process, how rewarding did you find that side of things?
“Well, a lot, because, that was a window into The Data School for the outside world. We got comments, we got exposure on Twitter, on social media, into the Tableau community. And that was because of our blog. At the end of the first month, everybody in the Tableau community knew The Data School, and that was the most rewarding part.
“Okay, I know my challenge now!”
Excellent! Go for it, what was your biggest challenge while at The Data School?
“To me, we had these weekly presentations, on projects where we were either learning or working on actual business projects. The biggest challenge was we had limited time, like 5 days, where we had classes – lessons, exercises and training – and moreover we had to do the project on top of that. The biggest challenge of that was eventually, on Friday, you had to present. So, it doesn’t matter if [your project] isn’t perfect, and you learn that because of the deadline: you’re forced to deliver, you learn to work by an iterative process – you know that a piece of analysis you are presenting may not be perfect, some aspect may not be working, but this rationalised the process.
“This eventually becomes an attitude – you become less anxious about your project, your deliverable. At the beginning we were looking to deliver something that was perfect – that was a big hurdle to get over, that mind-set. But we realised that perfection doesn’t mean everything is exactly how you want it. Perfection is that there is some valuable insight in what you are delivering and that you know what has to be improved.”
The Tableau & Alteryx community is a pretty active one, how have they helped you?
“In two ways: first, from a knowledge perspective – the Internet is full of stuff about Tableau and Alteryx. If you have the time and willingness to learn (and we had four whole months just to learn), you can do so at a really fast pace. There is so much stuff around, people are so keen to help you. From all over the world; one of the most active users [of Tableau] is from India – and he helps people everywhere. All the Zen Masters in the United States; basically there’s help from all over the world. And [the motivation] is less from a technical perspective, it’s more like you feel challenged, seeing what people are producing outside, and you feel passionate about the power of analytics and visualization. You really want to get better. They really welcomed the community. When we did something of value, we got lots of feedback; the congrats, tweets, email, etc. I received an email from Jeff Shaffer – who is a Zen Master in the United States – about one of my visualizations, like, a page-long email! Of comments like ‘you should do this better’ and the like, which meant this guy used his time to do all that. It’s amazing, it’s an honour for me.”
How was it sharing your learning experience as part of a group? Did you find yourself helping other members and vice versa?
“Yes, I found myself helping each of the other Data Schoolers. And I found myself learning so much from each other Data Schooler. It was such a collaborative process. We were all on the same boat. Which I didn’t expect before I joined.”
How did the Data School set you up for success?
“Well I learned a lot of skills, the technical skillset in Tableau and Alteryx, but in particular, a lot about data visualisation, data analytics, and the soft skills like presenting, consulting, Business Intelligence, etc. And also I really found a space in which I want to develop my career. I already knew that this was an interesting path for me, but the four months in training and now that I’m in placement, working, I really feel I have found something that I am passionate about. And I owe that to The Data School.”
Lastly, for someone undecided about applying, what would you say to them?
“If you’re a curious person, if you have a passion for solving problems, and if you like working with numbers, any of that – you definitely have to apply, because you will love this job.”
After graduating from The Data School, Nicco moved onto a placement where he could apply his Tableau and Alteryx skills in a live working environment. We got in contact with Virgin Atlantic’s VP of Revenue Management Insights, Eddie Sloan, for his insight and thoughts on the role The Data School’s consultants can play when it comes to effective Data Analytics. He spoke to us specifically about the impact Nicco has had on his team and on the company as a whole.
So, in terms of Nicco at Virgin Atlantic, how well would you say the Data School prepared the consultants for their placements?
“Well, we found that [Nicco] had some of the strongest Alteryx and Tableau technical skills that we had seen. And that was really good. He seemed like he could fit in and get up to speed in an industry that he didn’t really previously know about. I don’t know if that’s something The Data School has instilled or if that’s just what he’s naturally good at!
But we definitely found his technical skills to be very strong – which is really valuable to us because we had quite a bit of industry experience in our team, but we were trying to upskill technically, and what he’s been able to do is impart his knowledge with the whole team. So much so that several of the team are now getting to be at a similar level of skill.”
Is this the first time somebody with that level of Alteryx and Tableau knowledge has come into the team?
“Yes, we only started with Alteryx and Tableau in May, 2015, and no one on the team had that experience, prior to that.”
Once you started working together, how immediate would you say Nicco’s impact was?
“In our case, really fast – within the first month. I think that was because we were fairly new to Alteryx and Tableau, and we had the whole team trying to do things for the first time. So, because of that, the challenges were actually very technically orientated in nature. He came in to an area where we really needed help. In this particular situation [the team being new to the software] it was very effective.”
Is there one thing he’s done that has been particularly helpful?
“In the airline industry we like to look at booking curves – it shows when our bookings come in up until the day of departure. This is really important because you want to track yourself against what you’ve done in previous years. It’s a snapshot of every single flight every day, so the data size can be very large. We weren’t able to get anything close to work [with the amount of data]. But he managed to help us figure out how to make it [analysing the data] actually work at hundreds of millions of rows in Alteryx and Tableau, and he managed to do it in a way enabled it to run really fast.
It took him up to a month to get it to work, because the data had lots of holes and nuances. But now it’s the most used dashboard within Revenue Management.
When you were looking for new consultants, was there anything specific that made Nicco stand out? Any differences from other consultants you could have hired?
“Well, one thing we got from The Data School when we did a one-week project with them was that we found them to be generally an energetic and intellectually curious bunch. And that’s really what we needed for a couple of reasons:
- Because that’s sort of the culture here at Virgin, and
- Because our business is changing very rapidly and we’re upgrading a lot of our systems and tools and capabilities; we needed somebody who was going to go in and find out answers and be able to work on their own.
We didn’t have a specific list of things, say like, ‘you need to go and do this’, so it developed over time. And so I think what he’s produced now is something we weren’t even talking about when he started.”
A proactive approach?
“Yes, that’s right. We needed someone who was going to be really proactive and figure out what needed to be done, and also that was flexible. Because we change a lot – we’re learning as an organisation all the time.”
Would you look to use the Data School again in the future for new consultants?
“We actually have already. In fact, we did, and another department has as well.”
Oh, right! Who have you brought in from DS2?
“We have Benedetta, she just started with us. And our Sales group is taking someone from DS1.”
Is that as a result of Nicco? As a result of the work with The Data School?
“Yes, I think that’s out of the experience we’ve had. We were the first to start with Alteryx and Tableau, and now other [departments] are starting to get involved – so they’ve got a team ready and are spending more time using these tools. They’ve seen how fast we’ve been able to get [our] team up to speed. We were really able to speed up the process of improving our data and reports and capabilities – it wasn’t about just bringing in one person, it was about getting the whole team to work faster. I think bringing in people with those hard skills really helps speed things up.”
For more information on life at The Data School, you can find our other interviews with current and past attendees here.