Career Story with Tatiana Tikhonova

Success is about making the reality match your expectations, Career Story with Tatiana Tikhonova

Meet Tatiana Tikhonova, a self-made Senior Business Analyst who works the data as well as the ambiguity of everyday life with equal enthusiasm. Living in New York for the past 10 years, she continues to pursue the never-ending path to growth and to develop herself and her skills. She is a firm believer that everyone can be successful as long as they manage to make their reality match their expectations. Read more about her journey and how she went from a career of wearing office admin hats to a person whose work is referenced when big decisions should be made.

In 2-3 sentences, please tell us a little about you! (your background/story and anything you feel you’d like to share)

I’m a self-made Senior Business Analyst who has been living in New York for the past 10 years. I have a Masters in linguistics, a Pace University certificate in bookkeeping and a couple online degrees in analytics. With practical skills ranging from Python to PowerBI to SSRS, I elevate executive decision-making through data insights, bringing transparency and accountability to the table. In my spare time, I take pleasure in reading philosophy & psychology and making peace with discomfort: surfing ambiguity while moving to another country, overcoming bureaucracy while registering an S Corporation for online sales & IT services, conquering the fear of heights with paragliding, etc.

Why did you sign up to be a part of OneUpOneDown?

As you’ve probably already guessed, growth, novelty, and contribution rank high among my core values. I derive deep fulfilment from sharing what I’ve learned and lending a hand to others. I’m thankful for the privilege of guiding and being guided from the comfort of my home (and as someone working in the data realm, I look forward to the launch of your AI-based optimization algorithm – exciting!).

What does success mean to you? How do you align with your definition at the moment?

To me, success is about making the reality match your expectations,* or shaping your perception in a way that it does**. 

* I aim to set clear goals aligned with my values, and the fact that I’m working towards them already feels like a success. Seeing the real impact of my work in day-to-day business decision-making is the cherry on top.

**There’s this innate insatiability that we all share, especially when it comes to measuring success in terms of external achievements or materialistic goods, so sometimes I like to remind myself of what Shaun, my friends’ son, once said while holding his dinner plate: “I want what I get” (a future Zen master, no less).

What prompted you to pursue the career or business you’re working in/on now?

Ambiguity, challenge, and a never-ending path to growth. While it’s true that the last two apply to every skill, especially if you’re pursuing mastery, data analysis brings both to another level. You can see it as a broad highway, with many individual paths flowing into it: from back end data engineering with its Machine Learning models to front end visualizations presented to business stakeholders. You can take any and all, and it’s both freeing and overwhelming in its ambiguity: you can set your own direction and create road signs as you go, or familiarize yourself with maps previously drafted by other travellers.

How did you know this is what you wanted to do?

The more I studied and practised data analysis, the more I came to realize how fortunate my position was. Being well versed in finance and having access to all of the company’s data, I was empowered to build models and dashboards that brought real value. The executive committee would reference my reporting to make decisions on which market to prioritize or whether we’re on track to achieve our strategic goals; team leads would check my dashboards to see how their squads are performing against the benchmarks they had set, etc. It was a success loop, where I’d deliver results to the company I was part of and then feel inspired to do more and better.

How did you do it?

While the heavy load of learning was carried out by yours truly, I was lucky to have met brilliant people who motivated me to do my best: from women in leadership who helped me grow and be seen to founders who never settled for mediocre and taught me the value of urgency & momentum.

Have you made any big transitions or changes in your career? What were they?

I started out my career wearing office admin hats, with some bookkeeping here and there. Going full force on accounting felt like the logical next move, and while I loved working with numbers, something was amiss. My eventual arrival at analytics and business intelligence happened only naturally: years ago when I was still working in finance, I realized that we as a company were not keeping track of customer churn, so I took that upon myself. What started out as a concise list of customer names grew into a substantial repository with tonnes of data points. Once we implemented PowerBI across the org, I had the opportunity to turn my treasure trove of data into presentable business insights through graphs and forecasts – and that’s how it all began. Seeing how much value can be derived from pure numbers piqued my curiosity and observing the immediate impact of my work got me hooked. 

What is something that has been particularly challenging throughout your career?

Bringing my authenticity at work. It takes a very special company culture, one that cultivates trust, for people to feel comfortable to bring theirs. The moment someone I worked with told me to “stick to accounting and leave analytics to other people”, I knew I was going to persist. There’s a gender bias that you may have to face at some point, and you need to have the strength to ignore it. You may also find yourself in situations where your manager is happy with your work to the extent of wishing that you stay in place so as to avoid the discomfort of change and the mental load of finding a replacement. Then there is information overload, leading to overwhelm and lack of focus. 

What have been your go-to tools and strategies to overcome challenging experiences or people in your career?

Couldn’t resist turning bits of my experience into a bullet point list:

  • If you feel held back by your manager: studying on the side and working overtime gave me independence as well as leverage. I learned the skills I needed to further my career without sacrificing my work time and inconveniencing my manager. Thus, not only did my main responsibilities stay prioritized, my overall day-to-day was optimized and elevated through acquired knowledge, which in turn incentivized my manager to give me more relevant projects. 
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed: enrolling in long-term prepaid courses helped me deal with informational overwhelm, by forcing me to narrow down my focus and take one step at a time. (Bonus point: we tend to go too hard on ourselves, and sometimes an external permission to take it easy is all it takes to slow down and avoid a burnout.)
  • If you’re feeling lost: acknowledging the presence of unknown unknowns prompted me to search for data science mentors who helped me create a sense of direction and set priorities (there are online mentorship platforms you can use). 
  • If you’re dealing with an uncertain job market: data science is a relatively new scientific field, and a potential hire is frequently expected to know it all just because there’s a pressing uncertainty on what exactly will be needed. A framework that helped me in the past involves 1) understanding that you don’t have to be a perfect ‘fit for all’, sometimes all you need is to educate the company on what your data role typically entails, and 2) using an analytical approach to job searching, when you create a table of opportunities, skill gaps, and their corresponding rankings.
  • If you’re not getting project opportunities aligned with your new role: while your work should speak for itself, self-marketing may still remain the missing piece to unlocking those opportunities. I spent a good amount of time consciously constructing a new work persona that I was trying to adopt (an easy to disregard piece when shifting your careers). I became more active on LinkedIn, wrote a couple blogs on Medium’s Towards Data Science, joined data communities and started networking with fellow analysts. It’s helpful to be mindful of what image you portray to others and what narrative you construct. After all, “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”-Muriel Rukeyser.  
  • If you’re feeling a lack of encouragement from others: don’t wait on it. I learned to raise my hand all_the_time. Don’t be afraid to speak up, ask to be invited – the worst that can happen is that you face rejection. Learn resilience, be it from your sales and actor friends or through reading. There’s a quote I love by Eric Greiten who wrote a book on the subject: “The aim in life is not to avoid struggles, but to have the right ones; not to avoid worry, but to care about the right things; not to live without fear, but to confront worthy fears with force and passion. What you become is a result of what you are willing to endure.”

What is one personal or professional skill you’re working on at the moment and why?

My current role involves in-depth data modelling so I’m learning more about data warehouse implementation, data mart structures, fact/dimension modelling, etc. both at work and on the side. I’m also trying to become a better listener.

What is something you wish you’d known when you were first starting out in your career?

A good habit to adopt early in your career is to see the world through the eyes of your manager and spot opportunities to make their life simpler while being a couple steps ahead in the future (e.g. what can you start doing now that will make a big difference to your team and management a year from now?). This is the lens that you’d want to keep wearing throughout your career, raising it a notch from your manager to their manager to the department and the entire company.

Even if I could, I wouldn’t change anything in my past as I believe that knowledge comes to you when your mind is open to it, or, as they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. That said, perhaps sharing here could save someone from making some mistakes that I made.

  • I used to seek validation more often than your average Joe, and that’s fertile ground for undertaking too much glue work instead of focusing on deepening my skill. Doing a bit of extra never hurts, but looking back I realize that 110% would’ve been enough as opposed to 250+%. Here’s a quote from a Wall Street article, “Women Put Noses To the Grindstone, And Miss Opportunities” that resonated when I first read it: “…a big factor holding women back is their good-girl, or good-student, behavior. “Women will work themselves to death in the belief that if they do more and more, that will get them ahead, when it isn’t so,” says Terri Dial, former vice chairman of Wells Fargo, and president and CEO of its Wells Fargo Bank. “They think, ‘If I do the work, my bosses will see it and reward me. That may never happen.” 
  • Another obvious thing I’d want to call out is that learning by doing is underrated. I could’ve reached where I am sooner, if instead of asking what my ‘true purpose’ is (a useless question in and of itself), I simply started doing and trying things out. You can always switch paths, and if the first one turns out to be a poor fit, at least you’ve learned something new about yourself and gained experience – this is worth so much more than staying immobilized by analysis paralysis.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone who is about to embark on the journey that you have been on for the most recent period of your life?

If I can only give a single piece of advice, I’d say pay attention to how you think. It all starts with our thoughts and assumptions, and sometimes we’re the only ones standing in our way. Being clear on who you are and what you want offers a good foundation to build on. Once there is awareness, change can follow: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”-Murakami.


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