Careers in Business Intelligence: Getting Started

Many people have asked me what it is like to have a career in business intelligence. I love it! It’s exciting, it’s rewarding, and it really challenges me. So what does it take to really get started down the road of having a BI career? Let’s go through some questions and see if a BI career is right for you.

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Join us today, May 3, at 8 PM EST for our webinar on Business Intelligence (BI) and how to get your first BI job.

What is business intelligence?

Business intelligence is all about helping business users. Typically they know that things can be improved, and they want to make those improvements, but they are unsure exactly what needs to be changed. This is where business intelligence can help. All organizations (or I hope all organizations) should have data collected over time. By looking through the data for patterns and signs we can help the business users determine what behaviors need to be changed. So if a specific demographic has been most interested in a product, maybe specific marketing campaigns should be launched for that demographic. Or maybe the product is too niche, and business users want to expand the awareness of those outside the niche. Without the data, business users can only guess what the problem is. Without looking at the data, they really can’t make data-driven decisions.

This is where business intelligence is a real winner for businesses. Most business users just can’t handle all the data they collect. They need summaries. They need dashboards. They need someone who has the skills and the time to sit down and comb through the data for them and then deliver the story that their data is telling them.

What skills do I need for a BI career?

There are a lot of different jobs within the business intelligence world. There are generic jobs that ask you to be good at all of these skills, and there are specialized jobs that ask you to be an expert at just one thing. Below are some of the skills that will really help you succeed somewhere within the BI process:

  • Understanding business processes – This is key regardless of what BI job you land. When you sit down and talk with business users, you need to understand what processes they want to analyze. When querying the system, when moving data to the analytical system, when finalizing a dashboard of the business process, your understanding of the process is really going to impact what behavior changes the business user is going to be able to make. So being able to clearly communicate is key. It is also very helpful to be able to take in a vague request, ask great questions, and determine a concrete objective.
  • SQL querying – This really is the foundation within BI. Being able to query the organization’s data is a must. Some positions will require you to be an expert with your queries. Others will just require you to be familiar with them.
  • Data modeling – Once you have spoken with the business user, have queried their data, and have an understanding of what is available, you need to create a data model. Being able to create and read a data model is very important for most within BI. Sometimes this can be hard to get practice in. Sometimes the best way to practice is to look a transactional system, come up with a couple of business questions, and then determine what model would be required to answer those questions.
  • ETL – Extract, Transform, Load. This is where data is moved into our new database for analysis. It may seem like it would be easy to move data from one place to another but it can actually be very tricky! Getting practice with some ETL tools is usually very helpful for anyone looking to get a BI career.
  • Visualization – This is mainly report writing and dashboard building. Once the data has been moved and is ready for analysis we need to turn it from a boring table into a meaningful visual of some kind. Remember, the goal of BI is to help business users make decisions that will result in positive changes for the business. A graph is often more helpful to the business user than a bunch of numbers are.
  • Storytelling – This is really part of visualization, but I think it is important to give it some limelight here. A good BI developer can do all of the above, but a great BI developer will do all of the above and be a great story teller. When the business user comes in with their concerns or possible problems, the BI developer evaluates what they are saying, looks over the data, determines what solution is appropriate, makes the visualization, and then helps the data be as impactful as it should be for the business user. The data tells a story. If you are good at helping everyone understand the story and the importance of the story, you will be very useful to any BI team.

How much money can I make in business intelligence?

Getting a BI career has many benefits, salary being one of them! I looked up some information on and found some nice charts with potential salaries:

Payscale image

Really it comes down to what area you live in. In my market the average salary for a business intelligence developer is $105,000 a year. In bigger markets it is more than that and in smaller markets it is less than that. So you can definitely have a pretty high ceiling for salary within BI.

How can I prepare for a business intelligence interview?

Now the tricky part. You want to get a job in BI but aren’t sure how to impress during the interview. You are going to need to do a lot to get ready for the interview if you are trying to launch a new BI career. Here are some things to get you started:

  • Be confident with your SQL skills – It seems that no matter what you are interviewing for, SQL always comes up. It is really the foundation (from a technical perspective) so most companies use it to determine if you have a good foundation or aptitude. And I don’t mean that you need to be perfect with SQL. I just mean that you need to understand what you know, understand the kinds of problems you can solve, and be honest when there are still holes in what you don’t know.
  • Be familiar with BI keywords and tools – Sometimes I see people who say they know this or that and then someone will use a common word in BI and they get a blank face. It really hurts their credibility! So at least being able to talk about and understand what other people are saying is huge.
  • Network – Nothing beats good networking. If you know a lot of people at a company and they can vouch for your work ethic and aptitude, you could be successful even with a sub-par interview. So be sure to really use the network you have and build out your network more!

Ready to take the next step? Learn more by signing up for our webinar on Business Intelligence below!

Sign up for our webinar on Business Intelligence

Join us today, May 3, at 8 PM EST for our webinar on Business Intelligence (BI) and how to get your first BI job.

Launch Your Data Career – My Tips for Landing a Data Job

Hey there! Today I wanted to answer a common question I get from students:

What do I need to do to break through into the data world? How can I land my first data job?

I remember having this exact question not too many years ago. If you do a quick Google search on this, many sites suggest that you need to build your skills to get that job (this site included). But when is enough enough? When are you ready to go and get that first data job?

I want you all to know that I have been in your shoes. I remember cramming for SQL interviews and trying to do all I could so I could just get that first job. I never felt ready. I could have had months and months more time practicing and studying and still would not have felt ready for interviews.

So here are some of my tips – as a SQL coach, interviewer, and practitioner, for anyone who is looking to get their first data job.

Tip #1: Explore and Expand Your Network

This may seem silly. When I was younger I thought my skills would land me jobs. It didn’t take me very long to discover that what everyone says is true – It’s not what you know, but who you know. Just about everyone I know got their first data job through their network. I had a couple of friends working at a database company and they told me I should apply for a position. I had weak SQL skills, I had never worked with databases before, but over time they convinced me to apply. I’d like to say that I was amazing during my interview and it was my skills that got me the job (more on this later) but clearly it was their opinion of my abilities and personality that got me my first data job.

This also holds true now as I interview entry-level candidates. Hearing positive feedback about candidates from others really makes a difference (sometimes it makes THE difference). So use it! If you stop reading this now and just do this one thing, I think you will be so much better off than if you spent the next month cramming SQL.

Go to LinkedIn, find 5 or 6 people who work with databases and just let them know that you are interested in getting an entry level data job. Be honest about your skill level and see if they know of anything that would be a good match. The data community can be small and tight-knit. People reach out to me all the time asking me for suggestions for candidates, and your friends on LinkedIn are probably the same. You’ll be glad you did this.

Tip #2: Understand Data Principles

Now that you have gotten an interview, you want to do well. For a lot of my students they think this means answering their SQL questions correctly. Most companies have some kind of SQL test, and students feel if they can only get 100% of the questions correct that they will get the position.

I definitely thought like this when I was heading into my first interview. The interviewer sat me down and gave me a few SQL problems. They were actually quite difficult. I hate to say this (especially as someone who prides himself on his SQL skills) but I missed every single question. I wrote out the query, hit the submit button, and was wrong. And I tried, and I tried, and I tried, but I couldn’t get the answer right.

So there was no way I could get the job right? I needed 100% but I got 0%.

Luckily, most data people don’t really care if you get the answer right or not.

They are looking for instinct and understanding of data principles rather than if you ended up getting the right query.

When I interview people sometimes I ask them to find a query and I haven’t even sat down and determined what query I would write. If the point of a query challenge is to determine if someone understands how to join data from multiple tables, that’s really what I’m looking for. If they do something else improperly I’m usually not too concerned.

So here is what I want you to do. I want you to go to the following challenges on SQLPrep. DON’T WRITE A SINGLE QUERY! Just explain what SQL principle needs to be utilized. Is a GROUP BY necessary? Do we want to be sure to use DISTINCT so we can filter out the possible duplicates? Is an OUTER JOIN required in this scenario because we want to display rows even if no rows exist in one of the tables? Being able to talk about these principles is far more important than you getting 100% on an interview test.

We use a white board when we interview candidates. I LOVE IT when candidates talk about the problem before they even start writing a query. I could have two people side-by-side. One says nothing and gets the answer right. The other talks about the problem, talks about the data principles underlying the problem, and has some simple mistakes. I would feel much better about the one who is talking through the problem because I have a better grasp of their abilities than the one who is silent.

Tip #3: Lean on Your Other Strengths

Data skills and SQL skills are really nice to have at the interview. But you guys have so many other skills. Don’t forget about those skills. For entry level positions, your data knowledge will be helpful, but not the most important thing. I have a colleague who values aptitude and hard work over initial data skills for entry level jobs. Data skills will qualify you for the job, but unless you are a total standout with your data skills, your other skills will probably be more important in landing you the job.

So while you are sitting in the interview, be sure to talk about what you can bring to the table now! Are you good at innovating? Do you thrive on process design and love to make companies work faster and better? Are you great with people? Will you help teams come together, be more tight-knit, and produce amazing results? Talk about it!

In fact, while writing about this I can think of very few entry level candidates who did this. You really stand out though if you play up your other abilities!

It is very easy to forget about this during the interview. You are getting asked lots of data questions and doing your best to talk through the questions and show that you have abilities. So please make a plan before you go into the interview. Think about what you want to say. Think about what is most important to the interviewer. Think about how you can provide a solution to those needs.

Bonus Tip: You NEED a Data Job

So many of you are trying to get a data job because of what it will do to improve your quality of life, because it is steady, because it is more worthwhile than what you are currently doing. There are so many good reasons to get a data job. I hope you are really using these reasons to motivate you forward. I want to give you one more good reason why you should get a data job – and why you need to get it now and stop waiting.

Before I got my first data job, I never felt ready. I thought I could study for years and never be ready to impress in the interview. It seemed like the SQL practice was good but there just wasn’t enough. After landing the job and working for about 3 weeks I looked back on the interview questions I had been given. It was amazing how things that seemed so difficult were now so trivial. They weren’t just easy – they were natural. Your first data job isn’t just a job – it is really the career training you need to have a full career. My skills grew like the hockey stick graph below.

All that cramming and studying and practice I had done here and there for years led to little gains. But after having a data job for a month or two really made a big difference.

It will for you too. So don’t think about getting that job in a year or two. Let’s work to get you that job in a month. It really makes all the difference.


In a recent survey we found that most of our students come to the site because they need to learn SQL for their current job or because they want to learn SQL so they can get a different job (sometimes it’s even both).

We made SQLPrep because we want to help people get from where they are at and into that first data job.

I want to talk to you about what you are doing to get that job. What it would mean to you. And what we need to do to make it a reality.

We are going to be hosting a Facebook Live on this topic this Friday at 8 pm EST.

Like our Facebook page here to get the alert when we are ready to start the Facebook Live!

Why are you learning SQL?

K, time for a breather. Great work!

I’m curious, why are you learning SQL?

Most of our students fit into a few categories:

  1. New career
  2. Job training
  3. Student

What are you? One of those, or something different?

Let me know by taking a second to fill out this form and click “Send”.

Now click “Next” to move on to the next module!

The Next Step

First off, congratulations on finishing the course!


Thanks Leo.

Seriously though, you should be proud of yourself.

In a week, you have gone from total beginner to being able to:

  • Select 1, multiple, or all columns from a table
  • Assign column aliases
  • Use the DISTINCT keyword to eliminate duplicates
  • Filter results by int, date, and string

Employers would be glad to see it. But to be honest, they will probably want to see more before hitting the “hire” button…

Which is why we are excited to tell you about our comprehensive querying course, The Ultimate SQL Querying Package.


The Ultimate Package follows the same teaching pattern of our Lite course, but goes much, much further.

In addition to the Lite course, the Ultimate Package covers the following major topics.

  • Aggregate functions
  • The other SQL clauses (GROUP BY, HAVING, ORDER BY)
  • Subqueries

To get really good at querying and get a job in SQL, you are going to need to thoroughly know and be able to apply all of these.

Specifically, JOINS and subqueries are very large, multi-faceted topics that you need a lot of practice and training to master.

We make it happen in the Ultimate SQL Querying Package.

Ready to learn more? Click here for more information.

WHERE (Filtering with Strings) – Part II

Just like with dates, make sure to have single quotation marks around your string values. In this case, adjust the query to show patients whose first name is “Ryan”.

Come back once you have submitted a query.

Please submit a query to see results here.