As an MSP what skills do you need today?

Karl Palachuk

What are the “big” skill sets you need to be a successful technology consultant? I’m not talking about specifics like setting up up a RAID array or cleaning up viruses. I mean the broader categories.

Traditionally, the broad categories of skills we’ve needed have been:

  • Troubleshooting
  • Networking
  • Software Maintenance
  • Hardware Maintenance

Let me propose another skill set that will serve you well going forward: Analytics.

You’ve heard lots about “big data” and how it’s changing everyone’s business. Well, like many areas of technology, either you’re introducing this topic to your clients or someone else is. In the US alone, the federal government has made available more than 189,000 databases via www.data.gov.

Companies are finding ways to connect these databases, combine them with their own information, and build decision-making tools based on the resulting data mash-ups. Whether your clients are in healthcare, natural resources, finance, or 180,000 other fields, there’s relevant data flooding into and out of their field.

You have probably heard the terms Anayltics and Business Intelligence (BI). Analytics consists of statistics and mathematical models to tease out relationships from data. The term is obviously related to analysis. When you think of analytics, think of data mining, and data forecasting.

But the actual analysis takes place in what we call BI. BI looks at the real world of the client and attempts to bring meaningful understanding to the numbers. It’s one thing to say that the cost of training employees is down; it’s another to determine whether that’s due to less hiring, lower turnover, or a policy of not adopting new software.

Whether you like it or not, Analytics and BI will be part of the business environment going forward. You will be asked about BI tools and Analytic tools that your clients can use in their businesses. Very often, these terms are lumped together. We are already seeing tool vendors at some of the conferences.

Just as you learned to set up Exchange, SQL, and hosted storage, you will need to choose the BI and Analytics tools you use and recommend for your clients. And just like many other software packages, you will have the opportunity to use these tools in-house before you deploy them. Yes, you have to learn a few things. But this is a very exciting development for small business consultants.

Step One: Go Slow
You need to learn about BI, but you also need to make sure you know what you’re talking about. You’ve heard the old line that there are three kinds of lies: Lies; damned lies; and statistics. There are even books on how to lie with statistics. The worst thing you can do is to mis-understand the data you’re looking at and help your client come to the wrong conclusions.

That means you need to start out slow and understand where you’re going. You can analyze meaningless data and jump to all kinds of conclusions. In order to help you avoid that, the best BI tools will limit the kind of reporting you can do. The trade-off is that you can’t analyze “everything” as you would with raw data and a regression calculator. But you CAN analyze the most important information that can be culled from your client’s system.

The bane of our existence for many years has been old line of business applications. These have stalled upgrades and made our lives miserable for decades. That tradition looks set to continue as almost none of those systems are going to plug into the new BI tools. To be useful, your client business applications will need open APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow data to be exported in a usable format.

Virtually all modern systems have some kind of API, even if it’s clunkier than you’re like. But there are APIs for everything from basic SQL to Salesforce.com and QuickBooks. And with modern RMM tools, you will soon be able to mash-up data from client databases, your monitoring system, and public databases.

Luckily, you have some time to take stock of where you are and where you plan to go as this field evolves.

Step Two: Decide the Role You Will Play
It’s definitely not too late to decide what role you’ll play in the world of Big Data, analytics, and business intelligence. You can learn a software package. You can learn to program just enough to connect some APIs. You can learn statistical packages. You can develop software. You can choose a niche and become the specialist who ties all that together for your clients.

You will have to learn something about the world of Big Data, analytics, and business intelligence if you want to continue to be a consultant in the 21st Century. The tools are getting easier to learn and more powerful every day. Some you’ve owned for a long time (eg, Microsoft Excel), and many more are emerging every day.

Whatever you decide to do, tuning up your brain on basic statistics and business processes will help a lot. After all, the goal of all this data-mining is to help your clients. You can help them make money, save money, and maybe even enter a new field.

As the “Internet of Things” explodes in the next few years, there will be an almost unlimited potential for new opportunities. Everywhere you turn, someone will be generating gigabytes of data that don’t speak for themselves. No matter what people say, the data never speaks for itself. It always needs a human being to make sense of the noise.

Just remember that you have a huge advantage simply because you’ve already got experience monitoring and making sense of information within your business. The explosion of Big Data, analytics, and business intelligence is literally just the next step forward.