Five Questions to Ask When Starting Out in Dataviz at a Consulting Firm

Within the Data Visualization Society we frequently talk about the growing availability of full-time data visualization opportunities, including working as a data visualization consultant. If you’re new to the world of management consulting, how can you set yourself up for success as a dataviz professional?

Many jobs will, at some point, require you to build a basic bar chart or other visualization to share information. Whether it’s in a presentation, a report, or another deliverable, many professionals who wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘data visualization designers’ do, in fact, make charts as part of their jobs. For others, creating data visualizations is a full-time pursuit (or you’re looking to take your career in that direction). This article is for you.

Eight years into my career, I moved to a new firm, shifting from working at a public health company to a tech consulting firm. The move into tech was exciting, interesting, and intimidating. In both environments, my job involved creating data visualizations for clients, building and leading data visualization teams, and playing an active role in hiring and onboarding new developers. One of my biggest reasons for saying yes to the opportunity was to learn from other developers, designers, and agile coaches–from new tech stacks to better ways to manage data projects. But I remember entering my new job with concerns that I wasn’t technical enough or about being able to maintain some semblance of work-life balance (thanks to the reputation that ‘consulting’ can have). I had to make sense of why the job title on my offer letter (Managing Consultant) was different than the title on my business card (Data Visualization Lead), navigate complex supervisory structures that could change depending on my client assignment, and learn my way around the highly structured advancement criteria and annual appraisal rating scales.

Recently, a DVS friend asked if I had some advice for another friend changing careers from an internal IT position over to working as a data visualization consultant with a large management firm. They asked some great questions and I wanted to share some of my advice here.

Going solo or working for a firm?

Within the data visualization field, many full time roles fall in the category of consultant. I’ll use ‘consultant’ broadly here to include any role where you’re delivering work for a client who is paying you or the firm you work for in exchange for your work. Ultimately, they approve your deliverables and decide when a project is complete, whether those are infographics or enterprise dashboards. That ‘client’ could even be other internal teams or projects.

Consulting roles in data visualization typically take one of two forms: either as 1) a freelance consultant where you’re working for yourself, or 2) as a consultant in a firm where a larger team of folks, often including managers and business development professionals, are involved in what assignments you take on and your career growth. Firms vary dramatically in size, from small teams that have grown–thanks to the success of one incredible designer now managing more client requests than is reasonable in a work week–to international management consulting firms now hiring for dedicated data visualization roles.

Working as a freelance data visualization consultant can be an immensely satisfying career path, but requires you to build your client base, do the work, run your consultancy, and hone unique data visualization offerings, which can be challenging early in your career. Resources and reflections on working as a freelance data visualization designer have expanded dramatically, but even some of the most sought after freelance designers often have roots in working for larger firms. 

Consulting firms hire data visualization experts across all levels of experience, from new business intelligence developers to skilled managers who can oversee a team of Agile developers. Working as a consultant can be a great way to stretch your skills, learn from peers, and gain experience across a wide range of project types. You’ll often have opportunities to work with different tech stacks, encounter many industries, and gain exposure to a broad swath of experiences to help you hone in on the kind of work you want to do. 

Working for a firm can be particularly valuable for those changing careers to focus more on data visualization or shifting from having dataviz as a nights and weekends hobby to your 9-5 job. In the best kinds of firms, you’ll have a community of colleagues supporting your continued growth and gain hands-on experience with big, sticky enterprise data challenges.

Five questions to ask before you start

If you’ve already said yes to your first job as a data visualization consultant at a tech or management consulting firm, congratulations! As you work through your onboarding, consider asking the following five questions about your project load, expectations, and career paths. If you’re still searching for the right opportunity, any of these would be fair to ask in an interview.

If you’re joining one of the many growing, dedicated dataviz firms where all of the projects are focused on creating data visualizations, or a small firm where you have more autonomy over your clients and projects, these considerations may shift a bit, but are still worth exploring with your manager.

1. What does a typical ‘project’ look like?

Consulting firms often have a range of projects with different levels of collaboration and time boxes. I’ve worked in all of the following capacities in my time as a consultant:

  • Sole dataviz consultant on a larger team, often with support from other data experts like data engineers or data scientists, business analysis, and software developers
  • Dataviz team lead, responsible for managing a team of data visualization developers creating enterprise dashboards or supporting a visual analytics modernization project
  • ‘Lone wolf’ design or development working solo on a project for a client, like creating a single dashboard of survey data or a suite of visualizations for a report
  • Capacity building and training design, where the core deliverable is building the data visualization capabilities of a team or organization
  • Advisory roles related to data quality, data governance, data strategy, and other facets of how to help organizations more effectively use data visualization as a tool for more data-led decision making
  • Data communicator responsible for sourcing information from across various sources to synthesize and communicate complex information to a variety of audiences

The size, scope, complexity, and team size working on a project can vary widely. Understanding your role on a project team and the types of projects your firm has available can help you strategize about how to make an impact for your first client. Consider the types of projects where you work best and communicate about those with your managers.

Bonus question: if you’re part of a small project team or in a lone wolf role, where you’re the only person from your company supporting the client, ask your manager what the company’s goals are for the project and identify how you can support those goals. Those goals are often more strategic and outside the formal scope of work, like positioning the firm for new work with the organization or growing the project size.

2. What are the possible career paths I can pursue with the firm? 

Find out what kinds of career opportunities the firm offers for a data visualization consultant. This could include opportunities to honeycomb outside of the data visualization role or path where you start! Remember that career paths are not synonymous with title changes: you can progress and learn in your career without a formal change.

In some organizations, you can grow increasingly senior and continue to deliver data visualization products as your primary workload, while other firms or teams will expect you to diversify your skill sets (perhaps towards becoming the famed ‘data unicorn’) or shift into more people management and business development. 

If you’re not interested in managing people, ask specifically if there’s a path to grow as a progressively senior individual contributor, in a role like an architect, subject matter expert, or a technical badass (perhaps the most direct title I ever saw on a business card at a big data conference in 2012).

Where I currently work, we have consulting tiers with progressive responsibilities, including expectations to work autonomously and eventually manage others. In addition, consultants can pursue leadership roles leading internal communities, serving as subject matter/technical experts, leading teams as technical architects (who can set a broad technical vision and roadmap), or in managing client relationships.

By identifying the kinds of career paths of interest, you can be thoughtful in your networking across the organization, too. Ask questions and seek out insights from folks from different departments and specializations – particularly those adjacent to data visualization, like UX design. Once you’re staffed on your first project, make sure you continue to meet colleagues outside of the team delivering on your client site. These connections can be forged over virtual coffees, through internal community meetings, or even on entertaining community Slack channels (our puppy pics channel is quite popular). Meeting others with similar technical interests or who can advise on career paths (because they have the job you want!) is another path to valuable connections.

3. What makes someone successful at the firm?

I’ll tell you a not-very-well-kept secret: anyone who has been at the firm for a while probably has some advice on this question, not just your manager. Success and growth can come in many forms including, but not limited to:

  • Promotions to new levels, which are typically defined tiers within the consulting organization that come with progressive responsibility (and pay)
  • Growth in data visualization and related skill sets, with increasing levels of technical complexity in the client projects and autonomy in how you work
  • Opportunities to lead a team or coach others in your area of expertise, including serving as the technical point person for a client

Ask about what expectations you’re accountable for at your current level, and what advice your manager, mentor, or peers have about what makes someone successful in growing a career with the firm. Are there clear expectations you need to meet to be promoted to the next level? What opportunities are there to continue in the kind of role you’re interested in – particularly if you are keen to remain an individual contributor rather than a manager?

If growth and career paths are more focused on consulting tiers, also ask who you should connect with on technical skill development. Is there a center or excellence or community to connect with to practice new skills, share resources, and identify professional development opportunities?

As you learn about opportunities, consider what the firm offers for advancement and engagement, and also what you find motivating. If titles and recognition help motivate you to get involved and continue to learn, map a promotion path. If you feel engaged through learning, join the internal dataviz community to share resources and tools. In those communities, don’t just consume information – be someone who shares, too!

4. What are the expectations for firm contributions beyond my client work?

Consulting firms are reputed to thwart work-life balance. You’ll certainly find stories of road warriors living out of hotels and airports Monday through Thursday or working 60+ hours a week on client projects, new business development, and other firm activities.

Some firms kick off a new hire’s experience with a week-long orientation on their approach to all of the ‘soft’ skills of consulting–a rapid introduction to client management, presentation design, new business, and more. These can be invaluable opportunities to learn expectations. Other firms operate on a more as-needed basis for trainings, but should at least cover basic expectations in new hire orientation.

You can have work-life balance as a data visualization consultant inside of a firm, but doing so requires that you find out up front what the expectations are beyond your client delivery. Are you expected to contribute to proposals and new business development? If so (and it’s likely), is there any training to prepare? Are there billability targets you’re expected to achieve within certain periods and an associated number of hours spent on firm activities?

Many of the hallmarks of these consulting environments, with heavy travel, after-hours events, and more, have shifted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether expectations will swing back and clients will expect folks to work on site is yet to be determined in many cases.

5. Who decides what my next project will be?

You’ll likely want to get this clarity once you start at a firm, rather than in an interview. Different companies have different management structures and ways new assignments are made. As new project wins come through, who decides on the staffing approach?

In most cases, your direct supervisor will have some input into this decision, but it will also be driven by factors like:

  • Promoting resumes that give the firm the best chance of winning the new work (since you can’t staff work you don’t win!)
  • Needing to staff a mix of established consultants who understand the firms’ structure, culture, and approaches (and who are established as successful consultants on similar projects) with new hires
  • Aligning technical and subject matter expertise with new opportunities
  • Timing of when current projects and assignments are slated to conclude so that consultants can transition gracefully, particularly when they’re beloved by their clients for delivering awesome work

In firms that truly invest in employee growth, your own career goals and ambitions are taken into consideration.  Early expectation setting and learning how careers at the organization work can help set you up for success, ensuring you get the most out of your experience, whether you stay for a year, five years, or the better part of your career.

We need to demystify the career paths in data visualization as our field continues to grow. My advice is based on my experience leading data visualization teams both internally and on client sites, and talking to friends and colleagues who work at other firms. Being able to get advice on changing careers and shifting into dataviz (including consulting) shouldn’t depend on who you know, and it’s a big motivator for our work at DVS to have dedicated early career programming.

My hope is that articles like these give a few new consultants ideas for what to think through as they take on a new role; while these questions can be a great starting place, there is also so much more to being successful in a consulting role. Listen and make sure you understand what problem you’re solving for your client. Over communicate and over document (Kelly Martin described this as the ‘if I get hit by a bus’ rule) so someone else can update your dashboard in your absence. Spend time learning how to be a good manager or team lead, if your career goes that direction, when the ‘soft skills’ will matter just as much, if not more, than your technical ones. And don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all remember different points in our learning journeys and career paths, and many in the data visualization community are keen to help others do this work.

Amanda Makulec is a health data visualization designer, teachers, and speaker based in Washington D.C. who volunteers as the Executive Director for the Data Visualization Society. She holds a Masters of Public Health from the Boston University School of Public Health, and worked in more than a dozen countries leading teams and developing user-centered data visualization products for federal, non-profit, and private sector clients.