Identifying top analytics talent in a competitive environment

One of the biggest challenges of working in the digital marketing analytics field is finding quality talent. Much of what we do day-to-day still isn’t taught in universities. Standards for credentials are generally low, so most certifications don’t carry much authority.

As an industry, we’ve scarcely agreed on what to call anything, so it’s difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons across resumes and experiences. As a result, we often resort to pulling talent from the sources closest to us, but this doesn’t work well in an industry with a shortage of talent; after all, there are only so many competitors, consultancies and clients from which to attract new colleagues.

So how can you cast a wider net in your search for talent, without compromising on the quality of candidates you interview and ultimately bring into the fold? After interviewing dozens of candidates for roles ranging from entry-level to director-level over the past few years, here are some key lessons I’ve learned.

1. Don’t worry too much about the tools

Hiring in analytics has often boiled down to a candidate’s perceived level of expertise in the relevant set of tools. At Cardinal Path, my employer, that often meant a focus on web analytics platforms like Google’s and Adobe’s, audience management systems and testing and optimization tools. Unfortunately, true aptitude with a given piece of software is both difficult to assess and only weakly correlated with long-term success.

For example, imagine you’re looking to hire a new digital analyst. Of course, all other things being equal, you’d like to have someone with more experience in Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics. But take a step back — it’s easy to teach someone how to use tools like these.

For the right candidate, it’d be well worth your time to put them through your own internal training program to ensure they’ve got the right level of technical skills. And in most cases, you’re going to do that anyway. So, even if do find someone with a wealth of experience in the tools, if that’s your primary focus, there are a series of important attributes you’re likely to overlook.

2. Focus on the soft skills

You can teach any smart, ambitious person how to use Adobe Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Blue Kai and so on. So when you’re interviewing candidates, focus on the attributes that are much harder to teach. These tend to be non-technical skills.

Is it obvious that they’ve come to the interview well-prepared? Are they confident when they speak? Do they offer concise, relevant answers to questions? Do they respond constructively to pushback?

The answers to questions like these offer a window into the future. If they don’t seem well-prepared, how confident can you be that they’d be better prepared for that key meeting with the VP of your organization? If they lack confidence in an interview, how might they do when they’re sitting across the table from your most important client?

No amount of handiness with a tool can compensate for major red flags in areas like these. So, above all, it’s crucial to focus on a candidate’s capacity for critical thinking.

3. Show, don’t tell

I’ve led way too many interviews that essentially went like this.

Nick: So, are you good at analytics?

Candidate: Yes, absolutely.

Nick: But are you really good at analytics?

Candidate, warming to this line of questioning: Yes, absolutely. I’m even Google Analytics certified!

Of course, you can poke and prod a fair amount into a candidate’s experience, and that’s well worth doing. But what I’ve found to be much more valuable of an exercise — because it’s much more predictive of a candidate’s future success — is to have them show me what a great addition they’d be, rather than to simply have them tell me in a variety of different ways.

You can do this with candidates who are applying for both technical and non-technical (e.g., analyst) roles. What I like to do is present the candidate with a real-world challenge that I’ve worked on in my previous experience. Often this comes from a recent client engagement that’s top-of-mind. I’ll outline the key business problem I was trying to solve, and simply ask a candidate how they would go about solving it.

Asking how a candidate would answer a question is much more illuminating than asking them to provide the correct answer to a question. When you ask them to show you how they’d go about answering a question, you get a clear window into their thought process.

And it’s the process that is critical. In fact, I generally care very little about the answers that candidates come up with. What I do care about is how well they use logic to structure and justify the answers that they come up with.

Strong candidates won’t necessarily be able to solve the mystery right away, but one thing they will do is begin to identify the kinds of information that are key. They’ll be able to explain why that information is crucial to solving the problem. They’ll be able to identify red herrings when you try to distract them with irrelevant pieces of information. They’ll stay on-task and focused on the question you posed to them, rather than falling back on what they know best.

In sum, don’t get wrapped up in how much experience a candidate has with the relevant tools; you can teach them what they need to know.

Instead, focus on those soft skills that will be much harder to teach if you find out that they’re lacking. To get a deep understanding of those skills, make the candidate show you how strong they are — put them through their paces using real-world examples of the kinds of work they’re likely to be doing if they join your team.

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