Simon Johnson, Head of Business Intelligence, on how football coaching helped him to be a better consultant, manager, and public speaker.

I grew up in a small Northumberland village so there weren’t many kids to socialise with. I also didn’t get my first computer until I was sixteen. My dad’s a mechanic, and engineering was what I wanted to do originally. Then in university, my degree was multimedia – computer graphics, visualisations, and lots of maths… I didn’t really like it.

So, it’s quite surprising that I ended up in a maths-heavy consulting role for data analytics and visualisation software.

Career Beginnings as an Analyst

After university, I worked for a housing organisation as a Management Information Analyst to build reports. They had no reports, but they also had no software either, so we worked on Excel. They had 80,000 different properties with up to 8 gas boilers each, and I had to analyse data and find the most cost-effective contractor. I worked there for 4-5 years and gave me a grounding in reports and how to solve problems logically.

The reason I left there was because I’d done everything we could – the only thing was, I moved to the other housing association at the wrong time. I was only there for 6 months before our team was restructured out of the business. At that company, I was building monthly reports. I didn’t meet clients, I just ran reports and sent them out. I had no say in what happened. I was doing Crystal Reports and BusinessObjects and SQL based reports, so when we talk about the 1st generation of BI reports, that was it.

Then one Friday night I found out I was being made redundant. I had a telephone interview with Perfect Image on the Monday morning and the next day I got a call asking me to come in for my second interview. That afternoon, I was offered a job at Perfect Image.

Job Title Changes and Progression at Perfect Image

I started April 2013 as a Level 1 Business Intelligence Consultant and I had to learn everything from scratch. I’d worked there two weeks when my manager, Rob Hankin (now CEO) took me to a client to do a proof of concept. I had to meet with the clients then get a proof of concept ready for the next day. Rob checked what I’d done, and demonstrated it back to the client, and we won the deal.

One of my biggest achievements is about a year after I started, I was sent to go down south for a few months to cover a developer for one of the big 4 accounting firms on their Qlik analytics solution. Those few months turned into two and a half years. While I was there, I moved from a Level 1 Consultant to Level 2, and not long after I was promoted to Level 3 – all in three years. I’ve had a few job title changes, too. From BI Consultant, to Principal BI Consultant, to Solution Architect, to now being Head of Business Intelligence.

I enjoy computing, but I was never one of those people who could sit at a computer for twelve hours a day. I prefer to go and talk to people, which helps as a consultant. For example, at the accounting firm, we’d have someone give us complex calculations to figure out. Other consultants would sit there for eight hours trying to figure it out, whereas I’d sit and talk to them for five minutes to learn how to do it, get the right number, and build the rest. I’d do it properly and in a short space of time.

Balancing Football Coaching, Consulting and Managing

I didn’t always prefer talking to people, though. I used to be painfully shy. Football coaching taught me how to deal with a wide range of people. It changed me a lot. My dad saw me coaching for the first time and said he liked the way I interact with the kids because I don’t dumb it down. And I explained they’re smart, I don’t need to dumb it down they just need to be shown. I’ve done coaching for about 10 years. I’m currently coaching an under 14’s team and it might be the last I take through the season. The reason I’m coaching this team is because one of the kids I used to coach in the under 8s is now coaching with me. I’m mentoring him through coaching, he’s doing his coaching badges. He’s better than me now so I’ve taken a step back to let him get on with it.

I couldn’t do the job I’ve got if it wasn’t for football coaching. I’ve learned the difference between managing and coaching. I can take a kid through from playing in the team to becoming a coach, and they might coach and do drills very well, but they might not know how to manage people. They don’t know which kids to have a quiet word with, or the ones you can talk to on the pitch etc. There is something very similar about working at Perfect Image – you have to know how the right way to treat different members of staff.

As a coach, I also need to keep people positive. When we play against the team who’s top of the league, it’s my job to get them out of negative thinking. That happens with the BI team, too. It’s amazing how much it lends itself to work. I got a Mr Happy mug from my stepsister. It’s weird because the project management team think it’s ironic, the sales team would tell me it depends on what I’ve got on, and my team thinks it fits. I try to be very happy with the people in my team; I’m generally positive.

The Life of a Business Intelligence Consultant

One downside of the job is that sometimes I don’t see projects out from start to finish. But that’s because the BI team are good at enabling people and training them on analytics tools. Then they build everything themselves, and we might just help them with a few things. I get proud of my clients.

We also get to know lots of interesting information about companies. I was working with another client and I found a bug in their system where one person was repeatedly taking 2 hours off a day and it wasn’t getting subtracted as holidays. Another company understated its profit and loss by £50,000 because their Excel sheet was wrong.

As consultants, we get a whole range of different projects and that’s the same for the grads, too. I’ve seen people with 6+ years of experience with Qlik and because they’ve never needed to use certain parts of the technology, they don’t know half the stuff it can do. Some members of our team might have two years’ experience, but they’ve used every single component. And because our clients come from a range of different industries and want different things, it’s not necessarily the years of experience but the range and number of projects you’ve done that’s important.

Public Speaking About Analytics Solutions and Perfect Image

This year I’ve presented at Qlik Meetups and at Newcastle University for DataJam. It was terrifying to stand in front of 150 people including analysts and lecturers and data scientists. My talk was about how to choose the right software. As consultants, it’s what we do for customers, but in a lot of cases people are just given a product to work with and they don’t know the pros and cons of it. I also talked about the projects we’ve done, for example, Nexus using Qlik for sentiment analysis on Twitter.

When I got to the end of my talk and asked if there were any questions… there was nothing. Silence. And I thought well, either I’m good or incredibly bad. Then a customer of ours asked a question and from there I got a whole load more. Then the very next day I was giving a keynote presentation at the Qlik Analytics Tour. It was about Qlik Sense and its use of Augmented Intelligence, and a lunchtime session on NPrinting. That was with 60 people, but it was Qlik’s script, not my material, so I had to learn all of that. It all went very well.

The Future of Simon’s Career: Making the Role His Own

Being Head of Business Intelligence feels like a natural progression of how long I’ve been here and what I’ve been doing. Now that I’ve got it, it’s an achievement but my future plans are to really make it my own. For me personally, I want to apply for the Qlik Luminary program this year. I just need time to work on my BI blog. I also want to get us in front of even more people to promote Perfect Image.

It’s funny because I see our grads, and I look back at when I was in their position compared to where I’m at now, and it makes me want to help them through. I’ve enjoyed working with different people and mentoring them, like Andrew Dinning who’s now a Senior Solutions Architect. The graduates coming through now, Josh Coulthard and Holly Hinson, the work they do is phenomenal, and I want to develop them and give them a chance. Going back to the best manager I ever had – it was because they gave me the opportunity to grow, and that’s what I want to give.

About Simon Johnson

Simon began his analytics career by working for nearly four years as a Management Information Administrator. He then moved on to be a Performance Analyst for a housing association, before joining Perfect Image as a Business Intelligence Consultant. After stints at Perfect Image as a Principal Consultant and Senior Solutions Architect as he worked his way up the career ladder, Simon is now Head of Business Intelligence. He manages a team of experienced data analytics specialists and talented graduates. The team designs and delivers value-add BI solutions using their expert services and a range of products including Qlik Sense, Alteryx and Microsoft Power BI.

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