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Making the leap from accountant to analytics engineer

· 9 min read

In seventh grade, I decided it was time to pick a realistic career to work toward, and since I had an accountant in my life who I really looked up to, that is what I chose. Around ten years later, I finished my accounting degree with a minor in business information systems (a fancy way of saying I coded in C# for four or five classes). I passed my CPA exams quickly and became a CPA as soon as I hit the two-year experience requirement. I spent my first few years at a small firm completing tax returns but I didn't feel like I was learning enough, so I went to a larger firm right before the pandemic started. The factors that brought me to the point of changing industries are numerous, but I’ll try to keep it concise: the tax industry relies on underpaying its workers to maintain margins and prevent itself from being top-heavy, my future work as a manager was unappealing to me, and my work was headed in a direction I wasn’t excited about.

I took on an initiative within the firm to use Alteryx to speed up some of our more labor-intensive but relatively consistent calculations. In the process of learning the software, I realized I really liked working with data and making processes more efficient. I mentioned this to my brother, David, and he said something to the extent of “the company I work for makes software that does that, and they are opening up an apprenticeship. You should apply.” David got me connected with a few people from the industry (including Sung, a Solutions Architect at dbt Labs), and I had the opportunity to poke their brains about what it is they did. After becoming increasingly more interested, I started taking a SQL class on Udemy and applied for the apprenticeship.

What ultimately motivated me to apply for the Foundry Program was the logical exploration involved in data transformation. Rather than working backward from a predetermined solution (e.g. tax work), I was working forward from source data toward something I could create! Not to mention, everything I had heard about the dbt Community, both internally and externally, seemed to be significantly more rewarding and satisfying than my at-the-time trajectory.

The Foundry journey

The Foundry Program is an apprenticeship designed to turn data newbies into fully-fledged analytics engineers over the course of six months. As one of the inaugural Foundry apprentices, I’m here to share my journey into analytics engineering, along with the takeaways I picked up along the way. We’re continuing to improve the program with each iteration, but the curriculum for my cohort was split into two parts—three months of training followed by three months of hands-on work.

Getting started

As I got started with the apprenticeship, did my expectations play out into reality? The answer to that is yes and no, but maybe not for reasons you expect.

I was able to enjoy coding like I thought I would. I was definitely challenged logically, and I got to build things without a clear right answer in mind. In addition, the company and culture were better than I had anticipated. This manifested itself quickly when listening to the company talk about profits; of course, profits are important to dbt Labs, but they aren't the only way we measure our success. Spend five minutes in a CPA firm and you will find out how untrue that is for that industry.

On the flip side, the most surprising part of the job was what I would actually be doing. Truthfully, I never really understood what “analytics engineering” meant throughout the interview process, so I was going in a bit blind. I knew SQL was involved, and I had read many dbt articles talking about Analytics Engineering, but none of that made a ton of sense to me without actually putting it into practice. I will always remember being so confused when I installed dbt for the first time and there was no icon on my computer. Download complete! Okay…. now… how do I open this? In a panic, I called my brother and asked where in the blazes the app was on my computer!

I was also surprised by the number of tools and languages I had to learn; it was difficult and intimidating to approach the command line, git, YAML, and SQL all at the same time. At times, it caused imposter syndrome: the idea that I shouldn’t be here and somehow tricked my way into getting this apprenticeship.

There would be these moments, however, when I would do something I couldn’t have done two months ago, or I held a conversation that would have sounded like a foreign language when I was working in tax. These moments helped put my imposter syndrome in the back seat. Not to mention, my managers and mentors were so supportive and great at giving positive feedback and constructive criticism. My manager, Jess, would constantly say “Can you believe in x number of months you are talking about this intelligently?” as a reminder that I was indeed learning a lot.

The last stand-out bit about getting started was Coalesce. Never have I ever experienced a virtual event with such a strong sense of community. Of course, the speakers were great and I learned a lot throughout the week; there is no doubt about that.

The thing that stood out to me the most was just how excited dbt users were about the product and community. Honestly, at times I forgot I was supposed to be listening because I was having such a great time just interacting with community members in Slack. I think for someone new to dbt interacting with the community is just as important as learning the software—the Community is the backbone of dbt; people had been saying it since I had started the apprenticeship, and in that week I got to see it come to life!

Client work and teaching

By the time I was assigned to client projects, I was itching to learn by doing. The nerves and imposter syndrome were very real at first. Those feelings quickly dissipated as I got coaching from my development partners and was able to assist our clients. I started with the most wonderful clients who were grateful and praised our work. It was really reassuring that not only could I do this, but that it was something I wanted to do. Again, I got to tackle real-life problems and find the solutions myself. I got to learn what a development cycle looks like and how it might vary from customer to customer. I began learning certain BI tool intricacies like LookML, which was incredibly challenging at first, but eventually I started getting the hang of it. I went from learning, to learning and having opinions! “Wouldn’t it be great if this tool did this…” is a mark of someone that has moved beyond simply absorbing knowledge and has started to challenge it.

While my work in the CPA world was a form of consulting, it never broached training. Teaching others how to use dbt Cloud was way out of my comfort zone at first, but I found it to be one of the best ways to learn the product. We got the opportunity to teach the fundamentals of dbt through Group Training and Rapid Onboardings. Our Director of Training, Kyle, walked us through what we would be teaching and some best practices, and gave us the opportunity to practice with real-time feedback. That feedback gave me the confidence boost I needed before my first attempt at training a real client. It took a few times of actually doing it for it to feel natural and tailor my style to something that worked, but with the help of my team members, I eventually felt pretty confident teaching!

Post-program

Hey, I got hired! Woohoo! My experience since then has been genuinely wonderful. Of course, there have been times of difficulty or stress, but that is literally every job. I’ve had the opportunity to continue to work with different colleagues (spoiler alert, literally every one of them is someone I would love to grab a beer or coffee with).

Most of the work I have done so far has been training others on dbt Cloud, and the work has had a lot more variety than I thought it would! Every project that I help while training is unique, every data team is distinctive, and every single client has taught me something awesome about dbt Cloud by asking good questions.

As a full-time team member, my input is highly valued, even though I am new at analytics engineering. Even before I came on full-time, I offered my input and people would take it seriously. At times, they would even ask for it. But now that I am a full member of the team, I am actually getting assigned tasks that require a lot of personal input and managing the input of others. It feels so good to be immediately valued as a team member. I have never felt that I was a burden, or getting in the way of the Professional Services team. Rather, it has always felt like they are ready and excited to work with me. It is a small difference with a giant impact.

Going forward I will be moving away from training (although not entirely!) and moving towards more hands-on consulting work. Our team continues to expand with more and more wonderful people. I have several goals going forward: getting Snowflake certified, getting dbt certified, and learning Python. Every single one of these goals is being encouraged by my managers and peers. I truly feel supported in this work and that as long as I stick with these people, put in the effort, and keep an open mind, I will find my career in analytics engineering deeply fulfilling!

The best part is: I’m not alone. I was lucky to have Wasila Quader as a fellow Foundry Program apprentice. She was a constant source of support, knowledge, and camaraderie. Wasila also wrote about her experience which you can read about here.