In the series “Job Profiles”, we talk to various members of the InterNations team about their position and the work they do.
For this entry, we interviewed Marek, a Polish expat and part of our Business Intelligence Team.
Which position do you hold at InterNations? And how long have you been working here?
Actually, it’ll be five years next month. I started in July 2014, just after moving to Munich. I came here to join my girlfriend, who was then doing her Ph.D. in neuroscience, and started working at InterNations the following day.
Now I’m a senior manager in the Business Intelligence Team. In a business intelligence environment, the users — that is, our colleagues from other teams — have a need for some numbers: KPIs or key performance indicators. It’s up to us to provide them.
Can you maybe explain your responsibilities in greater detail?
To illustrate what my job is all about, I will use a popular metaphor for what we’re doing: Let’s say that you want to eat out at a restaurant. You pick a venue, book a table, and choose a dish from the menu; after waiting for a short while, you can enjoy some tasty food and hopefully have a nice time there. You may wonder what my role in this story is. You haven’t even met me, at least not directly: I was hiding behind the kitchen door and preparing your meal. I was the chef.
The Business Intelligence Team has two parts — business analytics and data engineering. In the restaurant analogy, the diners or customers deal directly with business analytics. They answer all data-related questions and prepare ready-made dashboards or reports for the most common KPIs. The main tasks of data engineering — where I work — concerns the steps before that.
We collect the necessary data, clean it up, and finally model it into tables that are fast and easy to access. In the imaginary restaurant, my part of the team would be responsible for keeping the kitchen and pantry in order: It starts with providing all ingredients, processing and combining some raw materials, and making sure everything is healthy and safe to work with, as well as pleasing to the eye. And all of this should be done relatively quickly! That’s the main idea.
So, first there is a business need. Let’s assume there’s a team or department interested in getting additional data. For example, the Editorial Office Team might be interested in which articles are the most popular in our content section this month; our developers would very much like to know how our new native apps are performing; the Community Experience Team wants to find out which events attract the highest number of sign-ups or in which communities members delete their account most often, or InterNations Business Solutions would like to monitor the traffic on their new landing pages.
After gathering their requirements, we identify the data source from where to retrieve the KPIs and create a process to download the data automatically. We then have to make sure that the data is transformed properly, as there may be many challenges. Data might be duplicated, it may be available in different currencies, or there could be different naming conventions involved. We address all those potential problems to come up with clean and concise tables that’ll answer our colleagues’ questions.
What kind of skills do you need to work in business intelligence?
I graduated from the University of Wrocław with a master’s degree in mathematics, and having a math background has helped me a lot, especially set theory. — Sorry, what? For the non-mathematicians among us… — Set theory is a subfield of mathematical logic that studies, well, sets.
A set is just a collection of objects — it could be anything, really. The first thing that comes to mind is a set of numbers, for example, all even numbers, 2, 4, 6, etc. You can perform a variety of operations on a set, like, a union or an intersection. Basically, data tables behave just like abstract sets, and you can apply all those rules and operations to them.
More generally speaking, you need an analytical mind and good problem-solving skills. Nowadays, the background information and practical knowledge for business intelligence are easily available: there are so many online courses and books to dive into! First of all, you need to be familiar with databases and SQL, the programming language used to communicate with and perform tasks on them. Here at InterNations, we use MySQL, a database management system based on this language, a specific dialect, if you will.
In our part of the team — data engineering — you should also be familiar with the concept of a data warehouse, where integrated data from many sources is stored, and with designing so-called ETL processes. ETL means extracting, transforming, and loading data to get exactly what we want.
What’s a typical day at the office like for you?
We work on a weekly rather than a daily basis. Typically, we start by reviewing the previous work before planning our tasks for the week ahead.
These tasks might be very different: It can be a new request for data from a source we’ve never used before. Maybe our Online Marketing Team would like to launch a few more advertising campaigns and are working with a new partner for this purpose. Then we have to integrate this source into our usual environment in order to automatically get our daily numbers.
Another big part of my job is optimizing what we already have. This means rewriting existing SQL queries. As our database is getting bigger and bigger, some of the original queries may be getting slower and slower, taking several minutes to perform. There are some tips and tricks for changing the SQL code, so that they’ll be executed within a few seconds again. I think it’s a lot of fun to analyze such problems and find a way of working more efficiently!
Lastly, it might also happen that we have to fix something. As I’ve mentioned before, some data might be duplicated — or missing — and in this case, we have to address the problem and do some troubleshooting. Those would be the main types of tasks we work on every week, but it also depends on bigger projects.
Right now, we’re trying to bridge the gap between the two parts of the Business Intelligence Team, business analytics and data engineering. We use different tools: For example, we, the data engineers, work with a software called Pendaho Data Integration for getting all data in one place. Our business analysts set up reports in a different environment, in Power BI. Currently, these tools are sort of independent from each other, but we’d like to refresh the Power BI dashboards from Pentaho, as a last step of the ETL process.
How has your career at InterNations developed, and what have you achieved in the past five years?
I started as a business analysist and kept getting more responsibilities over time. On the people management side, I got the chance to supervise some of our interns, conducting interviews, onboarding and guiding them. I also liked that part a lot, and I still have the privilege of working with a junior manager — who incidentally started out as an intern at InterNations, too.
As for my own tasks, in the beginning, it was more about helping with some ad hoc queries — but soon the need to build a data warehouse emerged.
I had previous experience in business intelligence. After getting my math degree, I worked in the finance sector in Poland for a few years. Actually, InterNations is a much smaller company compared to my other employers, but I like it a lot. In a bigger company, you usually have a much narrower set of responsibilities.
What I appreciate about InterNations is that I can work far more independently and try out many different things, especially in the beginning: I had to start literally from scratch with an empty database, and now our team has built an entire data warehouse that includes over 300 tables! It’s a huge personal satisfaction for me that we’ve managed this with a comparatively small team — at the start, I was even on my own. Everything’s now working, as stable and quick as it should be, and this makes me really happy and proud.
Doing this was a bit like several jobs rolled into one: data warehouse architect, ETL developer, business analyst, data engineer, and data scientist at the same time. This is really something cool about InterNations.
Tell me something about you that your colleagues might not know yet.
I once organized the European Championship in speedcubing — solving a Rubik’s cube as fast as possible. It used to be one of my hobbies at university: being a student is definitely a good time to start such things! Everyone is probably familiar with a Rubik’s cube and has at least tried to solve it. There are also people who like to figure out ways of doing this as fast as possible. Some other enthusiasts and I, we started organizing competitions for this in Wroclaw.
There’s even a World Cube Association, so we had to find out about their official requirements and to get more volunteers, for instance, to keep track of scores or act as judges. It was such a fun project, and I organized the Wroclaw Open on a citywide level, the national championship for Poland, and finally the European one, the big one: it was a three-day event with 300 competitors from 28 countries.
How long does it take you to solve a Rubik’s cube?
Well, that was nine years ago, and I’ve probably forgotten half of the algorithms by now. But my official personal best was 14.41 seconds. The current world record is less than 3.5 seconds, though! I’m no longer into speedcubing, but I’m still in touch with a few friends I made that way and I have very fond memories of that time.
I do still love playing board games. I occasionally attended some chess games with the InterNations Munich Chess Players Group, but at the moment, my main hobby is reading or listening to audiobooks. I’m the proud dad of an eleven-month-old baby girl, and currently she doesn’t leave me too much time for games or socializing… But I definitely enjoy this time!
Photo credits: InterNations/iStockphoto/Unsplash