Defining Analytics Engineering

No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going!

Chazz Michael Michaels

Context: This is the first of a series of posts looking at Analytics Engineering as I’ve lived and breathed it since 2014, largely in the SaaS industry. This is not meant to provide universal truths, but rather give insight into one way to make sense of the data roles around us and how analytics engineering fits into them.

Definition and why the role matters

Analytics Engineering is the process of transforming raw, unaltered data into well-structured, governed datasets that enable meaningful analysis and measurement of operations.

This is a fairly recent title, popularized by the data transformation tool dbt in this writeup by Claire Carroll. It didn’t really take off until the advent of cloud data warehouses

At first, this role doesn’t seem necessary. Can’t people just … export data into Excel and do analysis? Haven’t data analysts been working for decades without “Analytics Engineers” existing?

Two replies:

  1. Yeah, you can. Which works … until it doesn’t. But eventually scale becomes a problem as people waste time as Excel jockeying instead of whatever else they should be doing
  2. Data analysts and others were already doing this work, it just didn’t have a name yet or was tool-specific (e.g., data munging in SQL Server Integration Studio)

I found myself doing analytics engineering in my very first data job 10 years ago. My title was “data analyst” and I described myself that way, but my work was curating datasets for executives and other business teams to leverage for decision making. The prior Excel-export model was running into scaling issues and I was able to save everyone time by automating data availability.

Analytics Engineering is both old and new. People have been doing the work for a long time, even if the title is relatively new.

How Analytics Engineering fits within the data ecosystem

A simplified view of the three main pillars of the data world

Analytics Engineering fits roughly between two types of data roles many are familiar with: Data Engineering and Data Analytics/Science. The far-too-simple dividing line between the roles is:

Data Engineering: Brings raw data from disparate systems into a single data warehouse

Analytics Engineering: Transforms the raw data within the warehouse into something useful by cleaning, adding business logic, etc,

Data Analytics/Science: Leverages datasets created by analytics engineers to produce analyses, dashboards, models and more for stakeholders across the organization

Reality: Things aren’t that clear cut

Life is never as nice as a graphic of an over-simplified view of the world. Analytics Engineering is no different, it’s a messy role in the middle of messy data. Here’s a closer representation to how these three categories fit together:

I could make this a lot messier. The lines between data teams are incredibly blurry.

Data engineers typically do some analytics engineering. Data analysts typically do analytics engineering. Analytics engineers do some of both.

Which makes sense! With the roles ill defined at most companies (including Analytics Engineering missing entirely!), you’ll get a mishmash of people doing a variety of these tasks. Often times, people are indirectly incentivized to blur the lines in their role to get a task or two done.

What’s next?

We’ll dive deeper into the core value prop of an analytics engineer: transforming raw, unaltered data into well-structured, governed datasets that enable meaningful analysis and measurement of operations.

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