You’ve probably noticed that you can’t scroll through Twitter or read the news without hitting at least one chart, model, or visual explainer. The world runs on data, and we’re paying more attention to it than ever.
But looking at a chart or spreadsheet and deriving useful, meaningful information from it are actually two different things: The latter is a skill. And in the eyes of employers, it’s an incredibly valuable one.
“Data literacy isn’t just being comfortable with the information that’s in front of you. It’s having the ability to analyze it,” says Jim Johnson, a Senior VP at Robert Half Technology who has 20 years of recruiting experience. And, he adds, “Data skills aren’t just for analysts and scientists and folks in the C-suite. When you understand data, you can leverage it in your day-to-day to help you add value to your team and to your company.”
Every industry has big questions and problems to solve. Whether you work in service, hospitality, human resources, or your local grocery store, it’s likely that data plays some part in the success of your role—and your career path in the long run.
Here are three key reasons it’s important to be data literate, and how you can develop these must-have skills—starting today.
1. Data Literacy Is the New Standard Business Skill Set
Back in the 1990s, Microsoft’s suite of office tools revolutionized the workplace. “Suddenly you have word processors, spreadsheets, PowerPoint—all these tools to do your job differently. Data is that now,” explains David Harris, senior product manager for Udacity Enterprise, which supports corporations in providing in-demand technical training for their employees.
“In the same way that we had to learn how to work in a new environment where everybody has a computer, then the internet, now everyone has data,” Harris says. “Understanding how to parse through it all and make decisions in an environment where we almost have too much information is the new skill set that defines the standard of working in the 21st century.”
You don’t need to jump into a coding bootcamp or audit a course on SQL to develop strong data skills. In fact, “the real skill of learning data is approaching it as an ongoing process,” Harris says. And as with any other skill set, data literacy is something you refine and improve over time.
2. Numbers Add a Sense of Purpose to Your Role
A loop of never-ending to-do lists can leave anyone feeling uninspired, unmotivated, or worse, unnoticed. “There’s the whole idea of being busy, or being purposeful—and data can take you from busy to purposeful,” Johnson says.
When you appreciate what data means for your role, your department, and your organization, you can begin to find efficiencies and opportunities in your own work that could ladder up to potential gains or cost savings for your company as a whole. Understanding the numbers helps you identify how you can be more effective in your job, and “that translates across the organization,” Johnson says.
3. Data Is King on Resumes and in Reviews
“Every project and every role has an ROI (return on investment),” Johnson says. So, how do you articulate what you returned to your employer’s investment in you? You guessed it: Leveraging data is the best way to show your managers and future employers where and how you’ve added value to the company.
As a recruiter, Johnson says that the candidates who have a better chance at getting in front of hiring managers are those who articulate how they’ve solved problems, driven results, or identified new opportunities—and they can do that by using data on their resumes (without giving away confidential company info, of course). Similarly, always leverage data—and highlight your data skills—in your reviews to help build a case for a promotion or a raise.
How to Get Started
If you’re interested in developing specific technical data skills and have the means, consider taking an immersive online course or complete a certificate program at a respected educational organization. Other things you can do to start honing your data skill set immediately:
1. Look Internally
See what training or mentorship programs your company offers, or if they have funds for learning and development courses.
2. Tap Into Your Own Network
Connect with someone within your org (or even on LinkedIn) who works with data. Ask if there’s a way to partner together on a project or receive guidance on something you’re working through. Most people are super willing to lend a hand.
3. Start With the Data That’s Available to You, Then Explore
It could be your own work or your team’s performance. Whatever you’re measuring, try to find efficiencies (what if we automated x, or did y in batch form?) and look for trends (are there any tie-ins that might lead to more profit or better efficiency?), then bring your findings to your manager.
4. Track Your Numbers Outside of Work
We have apps and tools for everything from budgeting to fitness, providing plenty of ways to gather information that you can use to start practicing these skills.
5. Learn, Learn, Learn
Explore sites like Stack Overflow and GitHub, too, which offer free access to communities that are happy to share their expertise and what they’re working on.