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Shay Cooper, Head of Visualisation and Analytics, Reach

What has been your career path to date?

I started my career working with data within the NHS, analysing data looking for insights to improve patient care and quality of services provided. I had the good fortune of moving into a consultancy-based role that provided more opportunities and the option to travel and work abroad. Working across multiple countries provided insights into the use of data and how people’s backgrounds and data literacy had a big part to play. It was this exposure to the same data, albeit from different organisations, that highlighted some of the systematic data challenges we all face.

 

I worked my way up from an analyst through to product management, solution architecture, eventually becoming chief technology officer within a leading BI consultancy. I started my own business for a couple of years, contracting out services geared towards business intelligence, GDPR and ISO27001.

 

I missed working within a larger team and growing a team, hence I joined Reach in October 2020 to expand its BI function. I am working within a wider data team that has some exciting upcoming products to facilitate improved data use within Reach. Currently, I have three core teams focused on building out business intelligence dashboards, creation of a customer data warehouse and a data product surfacing insights into the web behaviours of our readers.

What made you choose data as your career focus?

I have always had an inquisitive mind and a focus on analysing my surroundings since being a child. Studying business information technology at university was a segue into working across all three core pillars of an organisation: people, process, and technology. I enjoy solving problems and working with data provides opportunities to do so. Data volumes are ever-increasing. The methods required to provide accurate and timely insights that meet the business needs are evolving every day. I enjoy learning new skills and the pace of work within the data industry appeals to this sense of learning.

How aware were you of data as a career opportunity during your education or early work experience? Does this need to be heightened?

I studied at Northumbria University and the course in question focused on blending business problems with effective technology solutions to add value and solve problems. Since my time at university, data has only continued to grow in volume and velocity. Industries that may not have had a particular data focus in the past have now shifted to include this within their strategic decisions.

 

I would suggest a focus on the diversity of roles available within the data industry should be heightened. Some people can incorrectly assume to work with data you have to be a mathematical genius or able to code within multiple languages. Certainly, if you have an aptitude to code and have a mind for numbers, these skills are in demand within the industry especially within the data science, engineering and artificial intelligence/machine learning domains. There is a high demand for candidates that know Python, Java and Javascript, to name but a few.

 

There are many different career opportunities working with data – project management, business analyst, UX designer, social media, to name but a few. I would like to see more future students consider working with data that may have discounted it due to having no interest in coding. I have worked with people who have neurodiverse backgrounds and data can be interpreted in numerous ways. I have mild dyscalculia and this resulted in me having an initial focus on the visualisation of data to ensure clear insights were generated from charts which were much easier to read than tables of numbers.

 

I am keen to ensure that the data industry is seen as being open and provides opportunities to people from all backgrounds. It is a fun and vibrant industry with new challenges each day.

 

What are your key areas of focus for data and analytics in 2022?

The focus for 2022 for my team and myself is to build a reporting platform that empowers our users to generate their own insights based on accurate and governed data. I am reminded of the saying, “give a person a fish and feed them for a day, teach them to fish and they’re fed for a lifetime”. Obviously, the real world is more complicated than that, however, self-service access to data in a timely fashion is at the top of my agenda.

 

I am focusing on blending the traditional BI dashboards with AI/ML to provide more augmented decision-making capabilities. Keeping the human component at the centre is key for now, with recommendations of insights coming through ML as well as observations through dashboards and alerts against various KPIs.

 

Tell us about any ambitions you have in terms of becoming a data leader.

I have worked in the data industry for close to 16 years, yet I am conscious that I still have a lot to learn and enjoy doing so. My ambitions towards being an effective data leader are focused on transparency. I see my current role more akin to a conductor working with excellent teams to deliver value and provide insights from data that exists both within and outside of the organisation. Being able to stitch together the different outputs from teams to produce a service that is easy to use can get the answers you need to make an informed decision.

 

I believe data should be at the heart of any organisation to understand the key drivers of their customers as well as their inner workings. I have seen many organisations focus on improving their customer services with data at the cost of neglecting their own internal practices. I have caught myself doing this in the past and looked to rectify that via internal projects geared towards specific goals to improve operational efficiency.

 

What key skills or attributes do you consider will be essential your success in this role?

To be a successful within the data industry, I would suggest that first identifying which area you would like to focus on is key. For myself, I started with visualising data within dashboards and reports to show patterns and trends. Learning SQL to extract the data I needed from databases and then a visualisation platform to build out dashboards (QlikView at the time).

 

While I was able to code to an extent, learning Visual Basic, Delphi and JavaScript to a point, it did not come naturally for me and required a lot of focus. I switched tactics and began to look at platforms that augmented these skills. Automated data warehousing, visualisation and ETL platforms that enabled me to access data and produce dashboards and reports while doing some of the heavy lifting in the background.

 

Being able to analyse data and determine what possible causes of outliers there may be, speaking to the business stakeholders is key in my current role. Multi-tasking or appearing to do so is important as you move up the management structure. You will find yourself spinning numerous plates at once and need to keep an eye on them all as they’re delivered.

 

How did you develop – and continue to develop – your current skills or attributes?

I am always learning on the job. I dislike calling myself an expert on any given topic as I feel there is always more to learn. Having a key interest in data and its practical use cases helps me here. I enjoy reading up on new topics of interest within articles and blogs – this does not feel like work to me. Attending key data events was also an enjoyable way to speak to people and discuss current topics within the industry. I look forward to being able to do this again once we adjust to life after Covid-19.

How do you keep pace or stay in touch with your peer group? Do you see it as important to have an active professional network?

New technologies and approaches to data insights are being developed at a rapid pace. I am lucky in that most of my friends work within the data industry albeit in various areas. I think staying up-to-date with the current topics of interest is important, if only to ensure you’re aware of possible avenues of investigation for existing problems your organisation may be facing.

 

There are only so many hours within the day, yet there are a lot of new ideas within the data industry. Keeping track of them all is difficult. Deciphering which new areas could be interest and used in a practical manner is a skill on its own. An active peer group to have conversations with can help provide some focus and clarity here.

Shay Cooper
has been included in:
  • Future Leaders 2022 (EMEA)