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Data Analyst Interview Questions

13 min readView all articles
By John Pauler
Aug 25, 2020

You may have already read about the WOAT, the worst Analyst interview of all time.

This time, we are going to talk about what a really great Analyst or Business Intelligence interview looks like. We will walk through the interview process, the traits companies are looking for in a good Analyst, how those traits are typically assessed, and what you can do to best prepare for the interview so that you will walk away with a job offer.

For this discussion, we are not going to talk about how to secure an interview, and we are going to skip past the initial screener with the recruiter or HR person. Here we will focus on your big day, when you will meet multiple people at the company you want to work at, and need to convince them you’ve got the right stuff to join the team.

Before we jump in, it is worth noting that we will be talking about in-person interviews, where you are visiting the office of the company you want to work for. Of course, as I write this, mid-pandemic, a lot of interviews are being conducted via phone or virtual meeting platform. Some of the minor details we talk about here clearly do not apply, but generally, you can expect a similar experience whether interviewing in-person or virtually.

How many people should I expect to meet with?

You will likely meet with between two and five people, plus the Recruiter or HR person if one is involved. It is possible you would meet with just one person, the hiring manager. This is pretty rare. Companies usually want multiple people to weigh in on hiring decisions. You could also meet with more than five people(I was once interviewed by eight people), but again this is fairly rare. In my experience, the most common format would be four people interviewing you, in addition to the Recruiter or HR person, if applicable. Each of these people will be interviewing you to assess your abilities in one or more key areas (we will discuss these later).

What should I expect when I first arrive for the interview?

This section is for people relatively new to interviewing. If you’re a pro already, feel free to skip past it. Again, this will obviously be different for a virtual interview.

Hopefully you are arriving in the office about five minutes early. You definitely do not want to get there any earlier than ten minutes before your scheduled interview. Showing up half an hour early is weird, and if you are a nervous person, sitting in a waiting room for a long time is a good way to pysch yourself out. I recommend you aim to arrive at the building around 15-20 minutes early, kill some time, and then pop in about five minutes before the interview is scheduled to start. You absolutely cannot show up late. This would send a terrible message about your reliability and your enthusiasm for this opportunity. Whatever you do, don’t be late!

Alright, so when you show up five minutes early as I now trust you will, one of two things will likely happen.

  • You will be immediately greeted by the Recruiter, HR person, or hiring manager (whoever is orchestrating this interview process…we will refer to them as “the coordinator” going forward)
  • Someone else will greet you and ask you to take a seat in the waiting area. And then after a short time you will be met by the coordinator

Once you have connected with the coordinator, they will most likely give you a quick tour, which might consist of a tip to the kitchen to offer you some water, pointing out the bathrooms in case you need one, or just a short walk through rows of desks to the interview room. Just try to be friendly and relaxed. Offering you water isn’t “your first test”. The coordinator just wants you to be comfortable so the team can make a good assessment about your fit for the role. All you need to do here is be friendly and polite.

What happens after I get to the interview room?

After you are sitting in the interview room, this is when the core assessment process will start. The coordinator may have some questions for you, but it is also likely they just sit you down and tell you to hold tight, especially if you have already had a good conversation with them over the phone.

Next, the core interview team will start to show up. It could be one at a time, or you might get two people arriving together. Different companies have different methods here. Each of these people is likely assigned one or two key attributes they will be assessing, and will likely spend between 30 minutes and an hour with you. For interviewers assessing technical skills it will probably skew toward the longer end. Interviewers assessing cultural fit and general business acumen will probably be able to cover it in half an hour.

What are the major attributes interviewers are assessing?

This next part is the most important to understand. If you can put yourself inside the mind of the interview team and wrap your head around these attributes they want to see in a great candidate, that you can better prepare for your interview, and perform well when you are in the room.

These core attributes may vary slightly from role to role or company to company, but in general, this is what the interview team will be looking for. We will start with an overview, and then we will dive into each one and talk specifically about why they are important and how they are assessed.

  • Cultural fit
  • Technical skills (Excel, SQL, R, Tableau, python, etc - varies by role)
  • Quantitative problem solving ability
  • General business acumen
  • Ability to self-learn
  • Communication
  • Enthusiasm for the opportunity

What is ‘cultural fit’ and how is it assessed?

Cultural fit is basically just a fancy way for saying ‘we would like to work with this person’. The biggest thing here is assessing if you are generally a kind person...or more of a jerk. We spend an enormous amount of time with our coworkers, so making sure those coworkers are pleasant, accepting, and generally good human beings is huge.

Sometimes this is done by general feel from your discussions, but there are also some questions that interviewers may ask to try and tease out what it would be like to work with you. These are just some examples...

“Tell us about a time when you and a colleague disagreed. How did you resolve it?”

“What is something you did not like about a previous job or working relationship?”

Do this: try to seem positive, friendly, and like you are a good person who has been generally happy in previous roles and with prior working relationships.

Avoid this: coming off as a complainer, or sounding like someone who is hard to get along with or has been generally unhappy in previous roles.

How are technical skills assessed during an interview?

First, I want to make sure we are clear on what ‘technical skills’ means in this context. When we talk about technical skills here, we are talking about mastery or, or at least exposure to, the actual tools that an Analyst will be using on the job. These include, but are not limited to…

  • Microsoft Excel
  • SQL
  • Tools like Tableau and Microsoft Power BI
  • Modeling tools like R or maybe python
  • Web Analytics tools like Google Analytics or Mixpanel

Of course, the specific technical skills will vary by role. These are examples, which are very representative of a typical Analyst technical stack.

There are a number of ways these skills might be assessed in an interview. These can include…

  • Discussing your experience with the tools, conversationally
  • White boarding
  • Direct question and answer
  • Problem solving using the actual tools

Regardless of how the interviewers will be assessing your technical skills, you can be certain that they will be assessing them. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. This is one area where you will be tested. Show up ready.

You might be asked to write SQL queries on a whiteboard. The interviewer may hand you a laptop and see if you can quickly pivot data in Excel and make a graph to tell the data story. They might ask you some direct questions about how you would tackle a predictive modeling problem using R, or python. Regardless of the precise form it takes, the core of this process is the same...someone who is an expert in this technical skill is going to be testing you. They are not just going to ask you if you know the tool. They are going to make you show them that you can use the tool. You cannot bluff here. Again, you need to show up prepared.

It’s okay if you do not have expertise with all of the skills you will be tested on. You are being assessed. That does not necessarily mean the interview team is going to require you to be a 10 out of 10 in each of these skills. They are going to assess where you are at, and that assessment will be part of the overall decision making process. So don’t freak out if you think you did poorly on one technical skill. It’s just part of your interview. However, if you can prepare enough to look great when they test these skills, it obviously helps...a lot!

Do this: prepare, prepare, prepare. I’ve just told you that a test is coming and that it is important. It’s up to you to show up ready to nail it. If you do, that’s a huge win for you in this interview process.

Avoid: bluffing. If you tell me you are a SQL expert and when I hand you my laptop connected to our company database you cannot do a simple JOIN, I promise you are not getting the job.

How can I prepare for a technical skills assessment if I am not already an expert?

Hopefully, as soon as you start looking at the job description of an opportunity, it is clear which technical skills you would use on the job. If for some reason this isn’t clear, ask the Recruiter or HR person as soon as you start talking with them. The sooner you understand which technical skills are needed for the role, the more time you have to pick up a book or enroll in an E-learning course to start mastering the skills you will need for the job. Not only will this help you get the job, but it will help you ramp up faster after getting the job. You will need less training. You will look competent and bright to all of your coworkers. And you will be fast-tracked for the best opportunities. Don’t wait until your first day to start your training!

After you have figured out which technical skills you’ll need from either the job description or the Recruiter, it’s time to get to work. Any free time you have before the interview is time you could be spending increasing the likelihood that you will get hired. Do not waste this time. Grab a great E-learning course (they are very reasonable, incredible bang for your buck) and dig in.

Quick, useful, and somewhat funny story about this…

I was hiring a Product Analyst at a hot startup. A candidate came in. He seemed solid. Excel was good. SQL wasn’t great, but I knew I could teach him. Nice guy too. I was ready to make him an offer, and I know he would have worked out. However, we also had a second candidate coming in that day.

When the second candidate arrived, the interview went similarly well. He handled the Excel assessment about the same as the first candidate. He was a good quant problem solver. It seemed like everyone would really get along with him. Then we got to the SQL test. I gave him my laptop and fired up the company database. He cut through the questions I had planned like butter. I threw some more complicated stuff at him which I wasn’t even planning on testing him with. He handled that too. At this point I forgot the name of the previous candidate. This guy was doing the job in the interview. No training needed. The only problem is he wanted to get paid more than we had budgeted for the role. We talked about it with HR and Finance. Because this guy was already trained and the cost of my time for training was considerably lower than expected, we agreed to bump up the salary for him. Talk about having the skills to pay the bills!

He accepted our offer, hit the ground running, and became a fantastically successful employee. As expected, he had one of the fastest ramp up times I had ever seen, was immediately contributing to the business, and has developed into an absolute star in the organization.

Wait... I promised this story was ‘somewhat funny’. Well, six months into his tenure with the company, in one of our one on one meetings, the Analyst tells me…

“I have a confession to make. The week before my interview, I took your online SQL course. I had one of my friends buy it so you wouldn’t see my name show up. I went through the whole course and that’s why I did so well in the interview.”

Ha! There is so much to unpack from that...

First, no one should ever apologize for self-learning and taking the initiative to develop skills. If anything, this is something to boast about. I wasn’t mad at him. I loved the guy even more!

Second, I felt really proud of my course. This guy turned out to be one of the best young Analysts I had ever seen. To find out that my course had taken him from total beginner to one of the best SQL interviews I had ever seen and an immediately impactful employee… that felt really good. I was genuinely touched by it.

Lesson: two bright young candidates walk into an interview. One prepared really well, and the other had to keep looking for a job. Be the one who prepares!

How is quantitative problem solving ability assessed during an interview?

This one is huge. While technical skills are important, it is equally important that an Analyst has the ability to use those skills effectively, and to apply them to solving relevant business problems.

In most analyst interviews, you will get some kind of a case study, which will be designed to make you think quantitatively about a problem, and talk out loud to communicate your process.

You may go to an Analyst interview where you do not encounter a quantitative case study at all. However, it is very common, and in my experience, this is a really important part of any candidate assessment. It is the best way to learn how a potential Analyst thinks, and to start to get a feel for what it would be like to work with them on real business problems. I weigh this part of the interview very highly, right up there with technical ability.

These quantitative case studies can take a number of forms. You could be asked to estimate how many light bulbs there are in New York City. The interviewer may give you a high level prompt and ask you to do a root cause analysis, like “the CEO says revenue just dropped by 30% from last week. How would you investigate to figure out what is going on?”. Alternatively, you might be asked to dig into and explain a sudden rise in complaints from customers of a commuter rail train line. These are just a few examples I have seen, and used myself. There are many more. While the form varies, they are all designed to assess very similar things…

  • Are you able to think logically and linearly to attack a problem in a reasonable order?
  • Do you have good intuition about which data points are valuable to use?
  • Are you able to use those data points effectively?
  • Do you make reasonable assumptions?
  • Do you ask good questions? Are you comfortable asking questions?
  • How well do you communicate what you are thinking?
  • How do you react when you get stumped? Are you persistent? Do you give up easily?
  • Do you get frustrated?
  • Is it generally fun and pleasant to solve a problem with you?

After you understand what the interviewer is looking for, it should be clear why doing these case studies is so important, and you should also have a good sense for the attributes you should aim to put on display if you are given a quantitative problem solving case study.

Do this: be positive, have fun, and over-communicate what you are thinking. Show that you are inclined to search for and use relevant data. Then use it well. Realize it is okay to go slow, and important to come off as thoughtful and logical. If you hit a bump...relax, stay calm, think through it for a while, and be okay asking for help if you feel truly stuck.

Avoid this: staying in your own head without communicating your process and assumptions out loud, giving up too early, getting frustrated, or being over-reliant on asking for help.

I could write an entire post just on how to prepare for these case studies. If I do, I will update this and link it here. For now, we’ll move on to the other key assessment areas.

How do employers assess ability to self-learn during an interview?

This one is pretty straightforward. If they care about this, which they should, they will ask you to talk about a time you needed to develop a new skill and how you went about learning it.

Hopefully, you have some great examples handy. If not, you should work on that! When you have good stories about self-directed learning, it shows that you have some passion for growth, and are able to pick new things up on your own. These are super important in any job. They are especially in an Analytics role, where you will need to learn technical skills, nitty gritty details of a company’s business model, and potentially wrap your head around complex datasets in order to be effective.

If a candidate cannot give me one story about a time they learned something on their own outside of school, that is a red flag for me. If they have lots of stories, and generally seem like these were times they enjoyed, that is a huge plus for them. Bonus points if any of the skills are related to our job description or if they learned them specifically for this interview in a short amount of time.

Do this: have some great stories handy about self-learning, and make it sound fun.

Avoid this: not having a good answer to this question. The next candidate will have one.

How do employers assess business acumen, communication skills, and enthusiasm for the opportunity?

In general, these are mostly going to come out conversationally, as the various interviewers are chatting with you. Business acumen may also be assessed with direct questions, and certainly can be highlighted in any quantitative case studies. One common way to probe for communication skills will be to ask you about a time you had to convince others your viewpoint. Ideally you have some good stories, and they involve using data to make your case.

This probably goes without saying, but just in case... your goal for these should be to display an ability to communicate well, excitement for the company and the potential role, and some solid business acumen while you are at it.

Alright everybody, this was a long one. If you read through it all, I’m impressed. Thank you. I hope you found it useful and it can help you prepare for your next interview.

If you like this type of content, you can see more of it here on the blog, or by following Maven on LinkedIn. Feel free to message, mention, or share us anytime, and please let us know if there are other topics you would like covered.

Onward and upward!

-John

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Author

John Pauler

John brings over a decade of business intelligence experience to the Maven team, having worked with companies ranging from Fortune 500 to early stage startups. As a MySQL expert, he has played leadership roles across analytics, marketing, SaaS and product teams.

John brings over a decade of business intelligence experience to the Maven team, having worked with companies ranging from Fortune 500 to early stage startups. As a MySQL expert, he has played leadership roles across analytics, marketing, SaaS and product teams.

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