Twenty years as an analyst has taught me...

I've been an analyst for *shudder* 20 years, and for the last couple I've been mulling over some thoughts on what I think makes a good analyst and a few recommendations for those starting out on the journey. Some things are pretty obvious, others maybe less so. Worth noting that this only relates to being an analyst. I'm sure the last 20 years has taught me a bunch of things about all sorts, but I need to keep things focused! That said, I'm sure this list could have been twice as long. Rather than being finished it was abandoned when I felt I'd spent a long time on it. As Da Vinci said, "art is never finished, only abandoned". Or maybe it was George Lucas. More pretentious quotes to come, just read on.

  • There isn't a template. Some styles work well for some people, others for other people. First thing to learn is that just because you don't approach the job in the same way as someone who is considered a 'good' analyst, doesn't mean your way is wrong. The only important thing is that your clients see value in engaging with you. That might be in many different ways for many different reasons. I appreciate the irony of putting this up front. The below are things that work for me. 
  • You don’t know everything. You will find yourself frequently sitting in rooms with people who know the topic of conversation much better than you (it’s typically their day job after all). You can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. In such a scenario a healthy dose of humility is useful. It’s OK to defer to their greater knowledge. You can provide value by offering insight that they might not otherwise have, such as perspectives on competitors, and alternative views of the market. In some cases you’re just a sounding board to sanity check what they’re doing.
  • Your guess is better than anyone else’s. Your predictions, opinion or forecasts will never be perfect, but you’re better placed to do it than anyone else. People will value that.
  • Do your homework. The reason people pay for your opinion is that you have the freedom to spend your 9-5 doing research. Your clients don’t have that freedom. They have a proper job to do. Hence why they outsource the activities to you. So you’d better go deep into the subject and think to yourself “what wouldn’t my client have the time or the ability to look at?”. With that in mind you need to specialise in sub-topics. If you go deep into a topic the value will follow.
  • “I don’t know” is OK. You won’t have an opinion on everything. Better to admit that you don’t have an answer than to invent an opinion where none exists. Usually this provides a spring-board for a discussion that might reach a useful conclusion.
  • Not everything in your reports etc. needs to be actionable. I know firms obsess about it but really, credit your clients with some intelligence. No one will be better placed to apply generic analysis to the company’s spectific needs than that company. For instance I wrote a report on 2/3G switch off. In a report like that you can’t hope to tell everyone what to do. But you can give them the tools to make the decision themselves.
  • Always have the commercial angle in mind. Most analysts focus on the technical without due consideration for the client making money. The ‘right’ answer often isn’t the right answer.
  • Be wary of spending other people’s money. Pretentiously I would sometimes kick off a project with a client with a quote from Aristotle: “Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves and politicians. All three need supervision”. I added analysts/consultants to that. My point was that I wanted to show that wherever I recommended spending money it was really justified. It’s easy to get carried away with recommendations of “build x” or “buy y” or “deploy z technology as fast as possible” or “cut prices” or similar, all of which have substantial costs associated.
  • You are not a moral arbiter. I’ve seen many analysts arguing for things such as open source, free services, or heavy investment just because it’s the ‘right thing to do’ (my words, not theirs). Your role isn’t to make the world a better place. Sometimes the client needs to come up with spurious marketing bullshit to cover a lack of product. And you’re there to help them with that, whether you like it or not.
  • Never say no to a chance to meet people. I’ve worked at analyst firms where it was unusual to get briefings or go to conferences. You get far more insight into what’s going on by talking to people than by reading any number of reports or even formal briefings. Face-to-face all the way. It’ll make you a more knowledgeable analyst, and improve your network. People work with people they trust and you only build trust meeting face to face. And who knows, you may make a lifelong friend or two along the way. Bring people into your confidence and they will bring you into theirs.
  • Companies invest 20% of their time in marketing; you should try to do the same. So this applies to speaking at events, journalists etc. Perhaps 20% is a bit much unless you’re an independent or boutique firm. But spend a decent chunk of your time raising your profile.
  • Take every opportunity to speak in public. Whether it’s client presentations or chairing a conference or whatever. It’s an excellent discipline for focusing you on developing narratives around your work. It will also help you get much better very quickly at public speaking. I’ve done training on public speaking and really the only thing that helps is practice. The practice doesn’t even necessarily need to be work-related either. I’ve recently joined up with a Toastmasters group. It’s great for honing the speaking skills.
  • Don’t be one of those analysts. There are a few who are ‘prickly’. You don’t make yourself any friends, you don’t get better access to the client, and you don’t look big or clever.
  • Don’t criticise other analysts, either individuals or firms. It shows that you think their opinion is more important than yours. If your opinion was more important you’d be giving that, rather than commenting on theirs. This particularly applies to forecasts where you don’t know the definitions or methodology.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to travel. Try to avoid the airport-taxi-office-taxi-airport dynamic as much as you can. Stay on for a day, see the world. I was about to give a list of “unless you’re visiting...” cities but that would be undiplomatic in the extreme. Everywhere has something worth experiencing. My personal faves were Stockholm, Mexico City, San Francisco and Tokyo. I feel like I should have dozens of tips for frequent international travel, but oddly I don’t other than the regular stuff. Check in early, register for the air miles with every airline and so forth. I don’t sleep on planes really so jet-lag has rarely been a problem. I just needed to keep myself awake long enough on arrival. A few little things that I found though:
    • Hanging a shirt in a steaming bathroom does not get rid of creases. No-iron shirts don’t really work, but they tend to look slightly better creased.
    • Put a power adaptor (and whatever you need for A/V) in your laptop bag and never remove it except to use it abroad. Ever.
    • Lipton’s Yellow Label Tea is a poor excuse for tea and it’s everywhere.
  • Have fun. This is genuinely one of the best jobs in the world. Other people should be envious of the extent to which your job is intellectually challenging, provides access to the upper echelons of business and gives the opportunity to see the world.  


Anonymous said…
Very interesting article. I agree with most of these and, in particular, there isn't a template. Another way of putting that is work out who you are and just be yourself. The sooner you do that, the better it is for you.

After being an analyst for a long time myself here's two I would add:

Make sure you're not just an analyst all your career. When working as an analyst, I have always drawn of my experience of being in 'proper' jobs within companies. Experience in jobs where you have to make things happen in challenging circumstances is really useful.

Make sure you do something outside work where you can make a difference. A challenge faced by many analysts I have met is the concern whether they are really making a difference or being listened to. If your life is full of other interests including voluntary and charity work, you always know you are making a difference.

Carrie MacGillivray said…
Outstanding Matt! I’ve often thought of doing something like this so I appreciate your perspective. I agree 100%. Only thing I’d add is that no matter who you’re talking to (market intelligence person or CEO of a major corporation, even an airline gate agent) treat them all with respect...they all have something you can learn. We all put our pants on one leg at a time...
Matt Hatton said…
Three more for the list from Mark and Carrie. Completely agree with all of them. Can’t believe I didn’t think of how important it is to have done a proper job. Moving from Yankee Group to work at 3 was a proper eye-opener to me and made me a much better analyst.
Rishi Tejpal said…
Awesome... Being an analyst myself for major part of my career, I can relate to almost everything on the list. And my two cents to the hand-on experience bit. I have worked for telecom operators, vendors and then research firms. There is nothing else than hands on experience in real-life that can make you a great analyst. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Unknown said…
Great post Matt. I agree with everything here and always interesting to see how other analysts approach the Job! This is certainly one of the best (enjoyable, interesting, etc.) ways to earn a living that I've ever come across...