How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to a former Data Analyst for the Liberal Party

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How'd You Get That Job? Monday, August 11, 2014 View Count = 2418

How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to a former Data Analyst for the Liberal Party

What inspired you to get involved in politics?

In my neighbourhood growing up, it seemed like I was one of a handful of kids from immigrant families on my block. So when I went to school, I felt like I had to consciously make an effort to be more "Canadian" - and that meant memorizing every Prime Minister, reading North American colonial fiction (yes, even beyond Laura Ingalls Wilder) and just generally devouring Canadian history. In high school, I was lucky enough to have a captivating history teacher who quickly showed his students that politics was history happening now. We visited Ottawa as part of a school trip and I remember feeling like Parliament Hill was where I belonged. I came to Ottawa to get involved on the Hill: enrolling at the University of Ottawa was mostly to appease my parents!

Through asking a friend in Ottawa to connect me with someone they knew in an MP’s office – networking! –  I ended up volunteering before I had any real partisan leanings: I just wanted to be on the Hill and see Parliament for myself before making any decisions. I'll admit that as soon as I found myself welcomed by the office and Hill staff, I saw the dedication of the staff in the MP's office and the sheer amount of work that the MP put in, I was so impressed that I took out a membership (and haven't looked back since). Eventually the volunteer placement led to a job because of my specific skill sets and I continued to move up quickly.

How did you become a Data Analyst? What path brought you to that specific role?

In high school, I also got very involved in GIS (geographic information systems): basically, the analysis and management of spatial data. Think digital cartography, remote sensing, satellite imagery, etc. When I took the volunteer position with an MP on Parliament Hill, I ended up on communication tasks: when I saw that the office computer had GIS software installed, I approached the Executive Assistant and let him know that I was comfortable using said software. It turns out spatial data analysis is a pretty niche skillset and in 2010 people were already looking towards the 2011 General Election. Nothing says "We have a plan!" like having a map! The Executive Assistant put me in touch with the Office of the Official Opposition at the time and as it turns out, I was in the right place at the right time. The Database Administrator needed someone with exactly my skillset (and apparently I was pleasant enough to get alongwith, also a requirement).

On my own, I started learning more about cloud GIS technology like ESRI Online, Google Maps and Google Earth. I also started getting my work done more efficiently as I learned to program my software in a BASIC language - which is awesome but also means you run out of things to do faster. I built a few personal projects with the Google Earth API and asked for guidance from my fellow digital colleagues. This caught the attention of our in-house web developer, who was passionate about sharing knowledge about web development and empowering people to start coding. I think he'd agree he was as excited as I was that I wanted to learn more about programming. Technology advances so quickly that any digital department always has gaps: I started carving out the role of web analyst on top of my GIS duties, which then expanded into designing and implementing experiments online to help optimize the website. Of course, once you get into SEO (search engine optimization) analytics you can't help but learn about SEM (search engine marketing) and then before you know it, you're also the online search engine advertiser.

What does a day-in-the-life of a Data Analyst look like?

You mean after I mass-marked emails as "read" in my inbox while sipping my morning coffee in a sad attempt to practice Inbox Zero? I'd check my reports and dashboards to see how our campaigns were doing: email marketing campaign, online advertising, social media shareables, etc. If there were any red flags or awesome breakthroughs, I’d declare them loudly to the floor (not an actual requirement, just for kicks), then proceed to investigate these anomalies and make adjustments to the campaigns as necessary.

Next part of my day might be looking over data requests from on-the-ground teams because they might need any of the following: voting result distribution maps, canvass efficiency reports, census analysis, etc.

Afterwards, I’d spend some time brainstorming with the content creators on new hypotheses to test on an email campaign, on the donate page, etc., and start designing those experiments.

The last thing I’d do would probably be reading up on ways to be more productive and then deciding that all of them require far too much time to implement. To be honest though, there was no such thing as a "typical day" because I basically created a brand new role and had to define it as I went, which often meant juggling a lot of different tasks (some successfully, some not so much).

What has been your favourite moment in this job?

For me, there were a core group of us on the digital team that had been advocating for a data-driven, results-based strategy for a long time. "Why? What does it matter? How will we measure that? Can you prove that?" were the questions we were always fighting to bring to the table. Implementing that kind of organization wide change is important but incredibly difficult because ironically, it's very complex to measure and say, "Yes, we've managed to bring this organization forward to a more lean, data-powered approach to tackling problems."

There was one particular moment though: I was sitting as the only junior staffer in a meeting with senior staff, top advisers and other Important People. One of the advisers was adamant on tracking a particular number: "how many volunteer sign-ups do we get a week?" After sitting silently for most of the meeting, I couldn't resist challenging this point, so I asked, "Why? Why does that number matter? How will that help you make better business decisions for this organization?" The room went silent for a bit of an uncomfortably long moment where I wondered if I had just managed to fire myself. Thankfully, people started speaking up and actually trying to answer the question. What impressed and reassured me was that everyone engaged with the question I had asked and we worked through the reasoning behind that volunteer metric together. The fact that the most executive people in the organization understood the value of a question that I advocated was definitely a triumphant moment in my digital career.

What skills or expertise are required for this job?

My job was a little unique in politics in that it has a very specific skillset. I am still working on a lot of these skills, but the list is ever-growing. You need to have an understanding of databases, both SQL and nonSQL; basic front end web development so that you can design experiments and a/b tests on the website; back-end web development, so that you understand how all your datasources link together; familiarity with CMSs (content management systems) and CRMs (customer relationship management); spatial data analysis skills; understanding web analytics concepts like SEO and SEM; etc. On top of that, there are the theoretical concepts that I've had to undertake on my own (that I probably should have studied in university): Bayesian statistics, linear algebra for decision models, programming algorithms for common engineering problems and so on.

But here's the big secret of high-tech jobs: yes, you need to start off in the job with core, hard skills. But more importantly, you have to have the discipline to continuously be learning. I think that's true of any profession but it's very obvious in technology: the languages, applications, software, technology that you know today could very well be obsolete a month from now. With tech you always feel like you've never learned enough: when I was in the process of learning R, I quickly realized to parse character strings I would need to be comfortable with RegEx, and to even get the data in the first place I would need to work on my Javascript skills ... Every time you think you've got your personal career curriculum figured out, it changes on you!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Volunteer! Absolutely, 100%, volunteer first. Most of the time, staffers are always on the lookout for responsible, quick-learning volunteers. If you prove that you have those qualities, you will be handed important tasks which further proves your responsibility factor, and the cycle continues. It seems to me like most people who have political jobs started by volunteering, but most volunteers don't necessarily get a job.

Also, particularly for an IT job like mine, do what I did: speak up about your skills! If there is an area that you have an interest and talent in, let the staff know. Specialized volunteers are incredibly useful and even if you don't get the political job you wanted, you'll be building your reputation and skills as a professional expert. If I had a great database volunteer, I'd recommend them in a heartbeat for a job to a friend. The truth is that the hiring process is arduous for your potential employer too and they really appreciate referrals and recommendations from someone they trust. Gotta build that personal brand.

 




Lucky Manku is a data analyst, munger and marketer. She worked under Liberal Leaders Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Justin Trudeau. Thankfully, everyone realizes how cool data science is these days so she got dusted off and helped push the Liberal Party to a leaner, data-powered approach to political campaigning, both online and offline.

 

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