The Surprising Keys to a Successful Career in Data

27 August 2018

By Dave Hendrick

As the value of data explodes across industries, the need to hire personnel to produce, decode and model is evident.

Four of the Top 10 emerging positions in LinkedIn’s fastest-growing postings of 2017 explicitly involve the use of data in some way — including data scientist and big data developer, among others. In response, data and analytics courses have become popular and growing parts of MBA program curricula, with the University of Virginia Darden School of Business no exception.

Darden has added robust data and analytics courses to its offerings in recent years, and recently welcomed the second cohort of the MBA/Master of Science in Data Science dual-degree program.

At Darden, the focus is on the intersection of data science and leadership skills. While a facility with data and specific tools like R, Python and Tableau is important, career advancement may be capped without the ability to connect data to business goals, according to a recent panel of Darden alumni working with data in a variety of industries, including technology, retail and consulting

Speaking to packed room of First Year students as part of the Darden Career Development Center’s (CDC) career exploration sessions, the alumni panel moderated by CDC Senior Director Jenny Zenner (MBA ’03) encouraged students to develop people skills and business acumen alongside the data tools.

Zhdan Shakirov (MBA ’17), a business manager at The Boston Consulting Group, encouraged students to consider the full spectrum of data-relevant careers — from business analysts with strong visualization skills and the ability to drive actionable business insights from data to data engineers who are focused on processing and modelling. The role of data scientist typically falls somewhere in between, he said.

Data panelists

From Left: Jenny Zenner (MBA ’03), Saul Yeaton (MBA ’08), Zhdan Shakirov (MBA ’17) and Mansi Agarwal (MBA ’13).

“The data scientists who we hire, we expect them to be able to answer the question: ‘So What?’ Not just to be able to build models, but drive better business decisions and create a real tangible business impact,” said Shakirov.

It was a point echoed by REI Data Science Product Manager Mansi Agarwal (MBA ’13), who said advancement beyond an analyst position depends in part on the ability to “take the data to the next level and tell the business what to do with it.”

Answering the “What’s in it for the business?” question is where the MBA equipped with data skills can add value, Agarwal said.

Metis Machine COO Saul Yeaton (MBA ’08) likened data-model building to developing a rocket ship and launching it into space. The rocket ship itself draws the attention, but it is of limited value without the operational capabilities to launch it. Without fuel, mission control and a launch pad, it will never leave the ground.

“It’s easy to make neat models, but it’s really hard to make them matter and connect to business,” said Yeaton. Charlottesville-based Metis Machine offers businesses a machine-learning platform and bills itself as “the bridge between data science and engineering.”

Expedia Senior Program Manager Ellen Zienta (MBA ’08) urged students to hone their listening and relationship skills along with their data capabilities.

“The tech skills are important, but without the ability to tell a story or make recommendations with your findings, they are going to be moot points,” Zienta said.

The data analytics panel was one of 15 career exploration sessions offered by the CDC during the first week of Darden’s 2018–19 academic year. The panels — focused on sectors including consulting, marketing and investment banking, among others — are intended to introduce First Year students to the wide range of internship and career opportunities available to them.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Darden School of Business
University of Virginia