Hiring an Analyst: Inside Scoop

In a school district business office there is usually a position called Budget Analyst.  When I first went to the Pretty Big School District I needed to fill a Budget Analyst vacancy.  I started by talking to current staff to see who would be interested in applying.  One (I thought) promising employee asked “do you need to know accounting?”

Over the years I’ve interviewed many internal candidates (all have to be interviewed per union contract) .  This was sometimes an excruciating experience.  These experiences led me to two actions:

  1. Establish an accounting test
  2. Change the name of the position to Accounting Analyst.

Why the emphasis on accounting in a “Budget” position.  Because if you can do the accounting you can do the budget.  I have found through experience that the opposite is not always true.

Even so, I still find that there is lack of clarity about the job. So here’s the inside scoop:

Applicants MUST:

  • Have a strong accounting background that includes actual on the job experience, or, if you don’t have paid experience, be able to describe some pretty awesome college projects or internships,
  • Read the job description thoroughly
  • Really understand what the actual job entails. Talking to current job holders would be one way to achieve this.
  • Be able to describe the job and its challenges and requirements and be able to describe how your skills and experience are a match
  • Explain why you want to work for us.  Be genuinely enthusiastic about our district.  Know something about us

What I’m looking for:

  • A person who has enough technical knowledge to close the books on a grant.  Be able to calculate earned revenue.  Be able to accrue expenses appropriately.  Know how to calculate and book an indirect cost. Understand the balance sheet. (If you haven’t taken a class on governmental accounting, read up on it.  Review the California Schools Accounting Manual)
  • A person who has chops with Excel.  At a minimum that includes vlookup, conditional formatting, and pivot tables
  • A person who is well-balanced emotionally and socially, and who communicates well.  Someone who does not have a hidden agenda, who does not hold grudges, who likes to help others
  • A person who derives great job satisfaction in buckling down and cranking out accurate work when handling our many deadlines

During the interview, listen! if I ask for specific examples then that’s what you need to give me. If I say give me a specific example of an Excel spreadsheet you designed and how did it improve productivity, do not answer with:

  • I love excel. I use it every day
  • Excel is such an important tool
  • Oh there are so many – how could I choose

And especially, I am not looking for someone who “hopes to take a class soon”. A lot has been said about hiring for attitude and training for skill.  I have done that and then unfortunately have found the person unsuited for analytical work.  It is true – not everyone has an analytical way of thinking.  At least if I can hear you talk intelligently about an Excel project I will know that your brain works that way.

If I asked for a specific example you need to give a specific example. If you hesitate and explain that you really have developed many and are trying to choose one, that’s OK if you then go on to choose one and describe it in detail. And don’t forget the second part of the question.  I am not going to prompt you. This is a test of your listening and communication skills too.

Another question I often ask is to give me an example of how you improved a process.  Try not to give me the same Excel example.  Otherwise I will think you have only done one great thing. I am looking for a person who has:

  • Reduced the number of steps in a process, or
  • Figured out what we are really trying to accomplish and has achieved the underlying goal through a completely revamped process, or
  • Automated a manual process, or
  • Eliminated doubled effort, especially by understanding there may be duplication of effort in other departments

If you haven’t done this, start now in your current job. An “I just do what I’m told” attitude is a career killer.  If you can’t show initiative you won’t be promoted.

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