Want to become a successful data professional? Do these 5 things

This data engineer explains how she got started in data engineering and how she's bolstering her experiences.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Talented data professionals are in huge demand and business leaders have told ZDNET they're looking for technically capable professionals who are curious and flexible.

Moving into a data-led role in this age of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning -- all the evidence suggests -- makes good sense in terms of present demand and long-term career opportunities.

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That sentiment resonates with Clementine Whitcomb, data engineer at energy company EDF, who recently explained to ZDNET how she's transitioned seamlessly from being a student into a data professional.

Whitcomb joined EDF on a technology graduate program after she left the University of Bath in the UK two and a half years ago.

The program exposed her to different responsibilities across four business functions. Her permanent role is in the company's Wholesale Market Services department.

"What I've been working on for the last year is building our data capability to improve our energy trading insights and analytics," she says. "Our work is about helping the business make sure it's on the right side of the market, having better insights, and developing an overview of what's going on and what decisions we're making. It's about building the foundations so we can start doing cool stuff with data."

Whitcomb is already grabbing fresh opportunities and offers five tips for other young and upcoming professionals who want to build a data career.

1. Get with the program

Having reaped the benefits of EDF's approach, Whitcomb is a big advocate for graduate programs.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do after university. I studied chemistry and then decided I wanted to go into tech," she says.

"A graduate training program is a brilliant way to get to know different tech roles in business areas. So, I would recommend a graduate program for anyone who's not certain exactly what role they want to do."

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Whitcomb says EDF gives graduates in its program a career manager, who stays with young professionals during the initiative, regardless of where their placements are in the business.

"I was lucky that my career manager is someone in data science and a woman in a senior leadership position. Having her as a mentor and role model has been beneficial to the early part of my career," Whitcomb says.

"Even now it's still useful to have her around. We catch up and it's useful having somebody who has shared experiences, good advice to give, and who understands where I'm coming from more than somebody who hasn't had that experience."

2. Don't be scared

Whitcomb says it's important young professionals don't feel too anxious about moving into a new and fast-moving area.

"I think tech can be quite scary from the outside, but no one knows everything in technology," she says.

Young professionals will quickly learn everyone has gaps in their digital knowledge base -- and that's a good thing because people in IT want to learn more.

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"That's the brilliant thing about it. Even if you're an expert in one thing, you'll know next to nothing in a different part."

Whitcomb says the key to success for new graduates is seeing every obstacle as an opportunity.

"Going in from square one is quite intimidating," she says. "But if you have that mindset of, 'I want to learn, I'm willing to learn, and I can think logically' then you'll be great. So, don't be put off because you don't know how to code at the start."

3. Embrace the creativity

The prevalence of data across modern business processes means interest in technology has peaked during the past few years.

However, some young people might still see technology as a dry and stuffy career -- and Whitcomb says that's a misconception.

"That always bugs me a little bit. I think IT is incredibly creative. The things you can do with tech are amazing," she says.

"And it frustrates me that people don't consider it as a career because they think they're a creative person and tech is not going to suit them."

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As a data engineer, Whitcomb is helping her team to develop its technical tools and human capabilities.

"I feel very strongly that the people are just as important as the tech," she says. "It's all well and good bringing people these brilliant tools. But you have to bring the people with you and upskill them to get the most value. So, I think it's a bit of both. I don't think you can have a successful data capability project without bringing the people along."

Whitcomb wants to help people in the department feel empowered to use the tools that the data team is building -- and it's a challenge she relishes.

"If you enjoy the logical side of things, you can bring brilliant, creative solutions together."

4. Ask questions

If you want to get ahead, don't be afraid to probe people, says Whitcomb: "I know everyone says this the whole time, but asking questions is the best way to learn."

That attitude chimes with Andy Moore, chief data officer (CDO) at Bentley Motors, who explained to ZDNET last year how his company runs an apprenticeship program to create a "digital pipeline of future talent."

As well as its apprenticeship initiative, Bentley runs a data literacy program, which ensures everyone across the company knows how data should be used, why it needs to be governed, and how to use information assets effectively.

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Both Bentley and EDF are keen to get their professionals to ask questions about data -- and Whitcomb says it's an approach that can pay dividends for recent joiners.

"On the flip side, if somebody asks you a question, be open to that. Sometimes, it's quite difficult to know who to ask questions. If someone asks you something, you learn yourself," she says.

"So, make sure you're asking questions and be the person other people feel they can ask questions to."

5. Grab fresh opportunities

Young professionals should also consider putting themselves in what might be perceived to be uncomfortable situations.

ZDNET spoke with Whitcomb at the recent Mesh-AI Data & AI Symposium in London, where she joined a panel on stage to discuss the role of women in data and the benefits of a diverse workforce.

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"My career manager has done a lot of public speaking herself. And so she encouraged me to do that one year into my grad scheme. It wasn't something I'd ever considered doing before," she says.

Whitcomb says she enjoys speaking about her work, sharing learnings, and contributing to tech communities.

"Even now, it's not a comfortable thing, but I think it's good for career development," she says. "It's good to tackle things that are a little bit scary. And I enjoy the benefits that come from sharing my experiences."

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