Big Data

5 interview questions aspiring data analysts must be able to answer

Your big data studies and training are complete, and now you're ready to enter the job market. Here's what an interviewer might ask a candidate for a data analyst position.

In 2013, academic institutions like George Washington University began responding to industry demand for big data analysts by developing undergrad and graduate programs in data analytics. Very quickly, classrooms filled, as more and more students read that big data skills could lead to high-paying jobs.

If you're a newly minted data analyst job candidate, you might be unsure how to prepare for an interview. Here are five opening interview questions that you're likely to get from prospective employers hiring for a big data analyst position.

SEE: How to build a successful data scientist career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1: How do you define big data?

It's likely that you'll be interviewed by an HR rep, an end business user, and an IT pro. Each person will probably ask you to explain what big data is, and how the data analysis discipline works with big data to produce insights.

You can start your answer with something fundamental, such as "big data analysis involves the collection and organization of data, and the ability to discover correlations between the data that provide revelations or insights that are actionable." You must be able to explain this in terms that resonate with each interviewer; the best way to do this is to illustrate the definition with an example.

The end business user wants to hear about a hypothetical case where a specific set of data relationships uncovers a business problem and offers a solution to the problem. An HR rep might be receptive to a more general answer, though the answer is more impressive if you can cite an HR issue, such as how to look for skills areas in the company where personnel need more training. The IT pro also wants to hear about an end business hypothetical where big data analysis yields results, but he also wants to know about the technical process of arriving at the data postulates and conclusions.

SEE: Quick glossary: Big data (Tech Pro Research)

2: You develop a big data model, but your end user has difficulty understanding how the model works and the insights it can reveal. How do you communicate with the user to get your points across?

Many big data analysts come from statistics, engineering, and computer science disciplines; they're brilliant analysts, but their people and communications skills lag. Businesses understand that to obtain results, you need both strong execution and strong communication. You can expect your HR, end business, and IT interviewers to focus on your communications skills, and to try to test them with a hypothetical situation.

3: Can you describe a big data project you worked on?

Companies understand that they have to train and orient you to their business and technical environments, but they also expect you to bring skills, experience, and fresh ideas to the job.

The end business user and the IT interviewer will be especially interested in your project work. For the IT person, be sure to go into the data quality, analysis, publication, and actionalization processes, covering both the end business and the technical enablement details. For the end business person, review the project from a business results perspective, but avoid using technical jargon unless asked.

4: What challenges have you encountered while working with big data?

Big data doesn't always work as advertised, which is why your IT interviewer will likely probe you about big data setbacks or limits that you've encountered, and ask how you worked through them. Be prepared to answer this question in a straightforward, factual manner, and cap your answer with a discussion of what you gained from the experience and how it benefits you now.

5: What are your technical competencies?

Before the interview, do your homework on the analytics environment that the interviewing company uses. During the IT interview, you will be asked to review your technical competencies and skillsets. How well the company feels your technical skills fit with the data analytics approaches and tools they use in their environment can have a make-or-break effect on whether you get the job.

What would you add to this list?

If you've been through the interview process for a big data analyst job either as a candidate or as an interviewer, what would you add to our list? Tell us in the discussion.

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Image: iStock

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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