With fifteen years in corporate finance, Rob had a great deal of experience with numbers, but was in the midst of a career change to data analytics. The Data School, for him, is more than just a cutting edge learning environment, it is a platform to his dream job. So let’s hear from the man himself…
Hi Rob! So, tell us, what were you doing before you started at the Data School?
“Hi, thanks for having me. Well, I should start from the beginning – which is a long time ago! I’m the oldest of all the Data Schoolers so far. I’ll be 35 in three months (wow, that’s depressing). I did A-Levels back in 1999 – business and accountancy, skipped university and went straight to work for a local accounts practice, where I remained for 3-and-a-half years. From there I moved into a company to do accounts, then on to a bigger company, and in 2006 I found myself working for Vodafone UK and was ultimately there up until 2014. I worked in the head office for the regional CFO for Europe focusing on planning and forecasting, analysing and signing off budgets, basically making sure region was hitting the right numbers and targets.
Eventually, I began to get a bit bored. I’d lived abroad for a while – in Dublin, in Milan – and I was now settled in London so didn’t want to move, but there weren’t very many opportunities [at Vodafone], so I ended up leaving – without really being sure about what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with smaller companies and get a bit more hands on. As opposed to working in a large corporation; I wanted to be in the nitty and gritty a bit more.”
Had you been involved in data in any capacity before?
“Oh, yeah. From my first day working in finance. I’ve always been working with data and working with numbers. I’ve always enjoyed working with and playing with numbers. That’s actually why I got into finance in the first place. That and the promise of good pay!” (laughs)
Were you relying on Excel?
“Yeah definitely, every company I’ve worked at has been primarily operating on Excel. We’ve always had data systems to manage stuff – to keep the data, but we always analysed in Excel. A sad fact is that pretty much every company in the world is reliant on Excel for everything.”
When was it that you first came across Tableau?
“So after Vodafone, I worked for a small software company as a finance business partner. For them I did some dashboard reporting, help set forecasts, reviewed business actuals. One of the main things I did for them was pipeline management.
Then, one day, I was tasked with building a reporting dashboard – basically a suite of reports to help management. That was supposed to be built in Excel, but [the company] had just bought a license for Tableau so they wanted somebody to understand it. So I had a play around with it and thought, wow, this is cool, and just as I was starting to see its possibilities my contract came to an end.
So I started looking at Tableau Public, teaching myself and came across an awesome community. I came across a guy on Twitter named Neil Charles, a marketer with an interest in Sports Analytics – which is one of my big passions! – and he wrote these blog posts about how to use Tableau for football analysis. Trying to figure out how he worked on that data had me hooked!
Unlike Excel – which is going to be redundant in the next five, ten years as Big Data gets even bigger – Tableau gives you the power.
What was it about Tableau that was so appealing?
“It was just how quick and easy it was to do stuff. You can do just about anything super, super quick. And also having that drill-down functionality is amazing as well. When I was at Vodafone, one of the complaints people would make was that data was static – reports, etc. So if you see something interesting, you can’t really do anything with it. You would have to go away and do a load more analysis. Whereas with Tableau, you can put together a simple bar chart just like in Excel, and if you want to drill down on that all you have to do is click a couple of buttons and see all the data behind it. So, that’s a huge benefit straight away.”
What made you want to join the course?
“So as I mentioned, after leaving Vodafone I didn’t know what I wanted to do – that’s why I was contracting – I only knew I wanted to get out of finance.
I’d been exploring ways to get into sports, and I came across a girl on Twitter who did a Masters in Sports Performance Analysis, and had gone on to work at Manchester City. She had some transferable skills but not exactly experienced in sports and I thought wow, she’s got similar skills as me and she’s gone on to do this. I can do this. I applied for University and got accepted in April last year. Then prior to starting that in October I got a job with a professional rugby team in London. Having never watched rugby it was a very new experience!!
I was helping two days a week and on match days. But at the same time I was also doing a lot more reading about data and analytics. I spent time looking at different things like Tableau, R, and SQL. Suddenly, I thought that maybe I had made a mistake – getting into the performance side of things when really I was clearly more interested in analytics.
So I started doing some online courses and started speaking to people in the community. That’s when I discovered the Information Lab, and the Data School. I spoke to Ravi (who was part of the first Data School class) over Twitter which was great. I also spoke to Neil Charles who recommended the Data School as a way into Sports Analytics. So I pulled together my application, having nothing to lose. Came in to chat with Andy, and he seemed impressed and asked me back for a second interview.
In the meantime, I spoke to a few people and they all said [in the Data School] you’ll be learning from the best of the best. It’s fun, you can go out to brilliant clients – the first Data School class were about to get placed. When I came in for the second interview I heard the place they were going: big airline companies, pharmaceutical companies etc., and I thought, wow, okay. Here’s a chance to learn all the stuff that’s transferable to what I want to do, it’s fun, it’s great experience, a lot of it is numbers based.
They offered me the job by the end of that day. Suddenly after planning things like University I thought, this is what I want to do.”
Having been on such a journey, could you impart some advice to anyone who is thinking of getting into data?
“I’m trying to think of one that’s been particularly impactful. There’s been so much. Just put yourself out there. Embrace the community, find a dataset you enjoy and put it out there. Getting involved in the community. Forums, Twitter, there’s a big group out there. Just get involved as much as possible. That’s the best advice I was ever given.”
The Data School blog gets waves of posts at times (“Tip Week”/ “Dashboard Week”) – were those weeks high intensity? Was it a good learning experience?
“Definitely, it is very high intensity. My experience helped, I was kind of used to it after working for Vodafone with very senior people through some tough times. But it’s a different kind of intensity. The week we did Tableau tip week was the same week we learned about Tableau server – a really technical thing, really tough. So we also wrote…40 blogs, it was a real challenge, trying to be original.
But it’s what it’s like in business. Yesterday for example, I had a shadow day for my placement next week and I ended up staying to help the CFO with an issue he’d been having. He estimated it would take around four hours and I was like, I can sort this in twenty minutes. He said if I could get it done by the time he drove home…then go for it! (laughs). But really he was sure he’d be relying on his plan [to work on the problem all that night]. So I rushed outside and did a few things, nothing fancy, and he got on the phone and he was like, oh, and you’ve managed to do this and this as well. He was very impressed.
If you were fazed by the pressure you might not see what you needed to do in that situation – this environment [the Data School] has really set people up well for that.”
What are your feelings on leaving the Data School now you only have a couple weeks left? Sad? Excited?
“I realised yesterday how much I’m going to miss it. Although, I’m excited to put it to work. I’m really keen to go out and work on my own. Sort of carve my own name and stuff, so I’m excited about that. But yeah, I’m really going to miss it.”
Finally, Rob, what would be your perfect role upon graduating the Data School? Sports Analytics for Arsenal?
“(Laughs) Yeah that would be nice. Although maybe not at the moment! Actually a couple of weeks after we started, a job came up at Columbus Crew. they were looking for a Sports Analyst, someone with data viz experience, specialist software like Tableau and Alteryx, sports analysis experience, data analysis, etc. I thought, oh, in a few years I’ll be able to tick every box.
Performance Analyst at a club would be the dream. Ideally at Arsenal (laughs)”
Before we finished the interview Rob had one last thing to say…
“One last thing! People say what an incredible opportunity this is. But it’s only when you get here that you realise how true that is. We have so many intelligent people here, with such varied experience. You really are learning with, and from, the very best.”