Breaking into your First Data Role: Tips to Tackling the Cold Start Problem
Tips for the Aspiring Data Scientist, Data Analyst, Machine Learning Engineer, Data Engineer or Analytics Engineer
Post was originally published in October 2019 and has been updated in May + September 2020, and December 2022 for relevancy.
Question: What can I do to break into -- or transition careers into -- my first role as a Data Scientist, Data Analyst, Machine Learning Engineer, Data Engineer or Analytics Engineer?
Answer: ...it depends. It mainly depends on your interests, technical and soft skills, and your application strategy.
Advice on how to improve your technical skills also depends... on how you learn best, how much coding is required for the role, how much you're comfortable with, what you're looking to get out of the class/blog, etc. Having said that, here's my step-by-step guide that can help you break in:
Determine how you learn best:
self-paced: through books/videos/blogs?
instructor-based: through college/university/bootcamp? If so, please see my tips for continuing education here.
application-based: by developing your first, proof-of-concept data-centric project at your current job, or on your own?
Have the end goal in mind. What would you (ideally) do in the role? What's the (approximate) breakdown of responsibilities by business, technical and statistical expertise that you'd prefer to do?
e.g. Would you prefer roles that are more internal/external client facing than technical? Or vice versa?
e.g. If you're looking for an Analyst role, would you prefer to be a BI Analyst, Data Analyst, Product Analyst or an Analytics Engineer? Or other (less mainstream) roles entirely?
Determine what industry/industries you want to get into.
Research (ideal) job postings and figure out what (if any) skill gaps you have.
Decide on what business question in industry from Step (3) you'd like to answer.
(Easier said than done) I highly encourage you to develop a demo (project, tutorial, talk, notebook, etc.) -- that answers the key business question in the industry from Step (5) and fills-in 1+ (if any) gaps that you've identified in Step (4).
Bonus if the business question relates to -- or is explicitly mentioned in -- the job opportunities you've identified in Step (4).
Bonus if you can this as 20% time in your current role, to try out proof of concepts that use data to bring value to your current company.
Bonus if you're transitioning careers and "can leverage your existing expertise on a domain you understand well", recommends Jason Yamada-Hanff.
Bonus if you add a link to this demo to your resume.
Bonus: if you also follow Rachel Tatman's advice and avoid topics and datasets she mentions for your demo.
Then, as part of your application strategy:
Then, in an interview, your portfolio/demo will give you an edge by showcasing your communication skills, business knowledge, and technical expertise.
Show up (virtual/in-person) -- even if it's once per month -- for meet-ups focused on your ideal industry and technical role(s) (from Steps 3 + 4 above). Please note: these may be different meet-ups.
When you reach out to prospective employers, you do so with a tailored message.
Please note: If you change the company name/industry/etc. and the content is still relevant, then the note is too general.
Avoid 7 mistakes you might be making before your job interview even happens
If you need additional support, please check out:
Leach Teach Code's study groups and monthly mentoring nights;
Women Who Code's meet-ups and workshops;
SharpestMinds's or MentorCruise mentors; or
Schedule a (fee-based) session to "pick my brain" on what next step you can take now to get closer to your next role.
Keywords: Data Science careers, breaking into data, data products
You may also like:
Talk: Tell me what you want, what you really really want: How to identify the real business question
How to Break into your First Data Role as a Non-Analytics Manager
Understanding different Data roles:
Data Science is Different Now, by Vicky Boykis (Feb 2019)
Goodbye, Data Science by W.D., on their transitioning careers from Data Science to Data Engineering
Tips on How to pick a data job, by Jacob Frackson
Emerging spectrum of Data and Analytics roles, by Gartner via Laura Ellis
Getting into Data, by Matt Arderne
Interview Strategy that Landed me my First Data Science job, by Kate Marie Lewis (Feb 2020)
Pandemic Job Searching: How to Get an Offer and a Raise in 30 Days, by Yangyang Herrera (April 2020)
6 Principles to Guide my (Startup) Job Search, by Mansi Kothari (April 2020)
What no One will Tell you about Data Science Job Applications, by Edouard Harris (Feb 2019)
"What would make an employer excited to hire you for the types of jobs you’re applying for", as recommended by Alison Green of Ask a Manager (#3 on list) and Reddit
How I Got 4 Data Science Offers and Doubled my Income 2 Months after being Laid Off, by Emma Ding (Sept 2020)
How To Keep Moving Forward In Ambiguous Times and reframing your goals, by Crabwalk (March 2020)
You're more free than you think: Employee liquidity: what it means and what to do, by Product Lessons -- on how to think of your career as an external product
Don’t Focus on Your Job at the Expense of Your Career, by Dorie Clark for Harvard Business Review
How to Build a Career in a New Industry, by Dorie Clark for Harvard Business Review
Manager's perspective on Upskilling Analysts, by Erika Pullum (Swartz)
Recording of panel discussion: Academia to Industry, hosted by Locally Optimistic (July 2021)