(Note: This is part one of a two-part article)

It’s no surprise that data analytics is a hot topic in tech hiring this year, and the good news is that there are lots of really good young analysts entering the field. At least, that is the conclusion to be drawn from the annual Adobe Analytics Challenge.

Concluding this past Friday, with six finalists putting it all out there for eventual data dominance, the challenge is intended to bolster data analytics skills and experience among university students.

As Nate Smith, a former challenge winner, noted on the Digital Marketing blog, “This competition got me to where I am today.”

Adobe has hosted the event since 2009, with analytics students from dozens of universities across the nation competing for $30,000 in prizes, and more importantly, bragging rights.

“Perhaps more importantly, [they] gain real-world experience in digital analytics that isn’t possible within a classroom setting,” Smith noted. “Through the competition, Adobe has exposed thousands of students to real-world business situations and data from leading organizations, and I happen to be one of them.

Information Management spoke with Brent Dykes, an analytics evangelist at Adobe, who has been directing the challenge for many years. We asked how the Adobe Analytics Challenge came about originally and what the goal of the event is each year.

“The competition was originally started by the founders of Omniture at BYU (Brigham Young University) in 2005. Co-founders Josh James and John Pestana met at BYU, and I think they wanted to give back to the school by exposing BYU students to the fast-growing analytics industry. The competition has expanded beyond BYU to include 24 schools this year,” Dykes explained.

There are three goals for each competition, Dykes noted:

1. Expose more students to the field of digital analytics and potential career opportunities.

2. Offer an Adobe customer fresh insights and ideas on how they can optimize their digital marketing and properties.

3. Identify potential analytics talent for Adobe and its customers.

“For many students, the competition has been their first real exposure to the field of analytics,” Dykes said. “In the beginning, students had very few options for learning anything about analytics. Now I'm seeing more students who have an opportunity to take analytics-related classes or join analytics-focused programs.”

“I’m seeing more and more students who are excited about the field of analytics and bring a lot of raw potential,” Dykes continued. “The students who succeed in this competition are generally more curious and tenacious in trying to find meaningful insights in the data than their peers. You can’t teach that skill or trait—the students either have it or they don’t. While they may not have all of the polish or expertise employers may expect, what they’re missing is teachable.”

Each year’s challenge brings a new set of students with new experiences, expectations, and aspirations, and Dykes said he is especially encouraged by the caliber of students in the most recent events.

“One of the biggest surprises has been how quickly some of the students have been able to pick up the analytics tools,” Dykes said. “A few years ago we gave the students access to a more advanced segmentation tool in Adobe Analytics, but we didn’t train them on that particular tool. I wasn’t expecting students who were already time-constrained to invest much time in learning the tool on their own. However, many of the finalists in the competition that year actually ended up preferring that tool to the more basic one we trained them on.”

The competency and quality of students has not been lost on judges of recent events either.

“Each year we have representatives from a partner customer help judge in the final round of the competition,” Dykes said. “Every year the customer representatives have commented to me how surprised they were by the quality of the insights and recommendations made by the teams.”

“The students surpassed their expectations and impressed them with the innovative or unique approaches they used in their analyses. It could be anything from an interesting segment they uncovered to a campaign/website issue that nobody on the company’s analytics team noticed,” Dykes said.

(In part two tomorrow: The student perspective)

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