Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Interview with Marshall Sponder - Part I

Continuing my series of interviews with Web Analyst, here is an interview with Marshall Sponder. I am sure most of you already know Marshall Sponder, he is on the Board of Directors of WAA and author of WebMetricsGuru.com.

What are your current positions and the name of the company(s) you work for?
I’m a senior web analyst who works at IBM.com. At IBM I have a couple of different roles within a team of Web Analysts that support IBM Stakeholders and Brands:

  • Analyst for IBM’s Virtual Business Center in Second Life (and I’ll be speaking about the Metrics Insight and Methodology of Analytics within Virtual Worlds and how it matters in this world at XChange).


  • Systems Group Web Analyst – About half my time is focused on support Systems Technology Group, which at IBM.com consists of both Servers, Storage and Printers.

  • Strategic Web Analyst for IBM.com new projects termed internally “1x2x”. Since June 2007, IBM’s Corporate Portals were improved to add several new features that now set the standard Dynamic Navigation, Cross Enterprise Advertising and Up Sell (Cross Brand) and Personalization. My role is to show specific 1x2x projects worked well (or not) via Web Analytics.


  • Search Area Expert – My experience with Search Optimization, Keyword Research, link analysis, algorithm analysis (both internal and external) is occasionally drawn upon, though much of my search work is outside of IBM these days.


  • Board of Director for Social Media at the Web Analytics Association – IBM supported my candidacy to the BoD of the WAA and now I head up a brand new committee that has 39 members (to date) and is working on defining Social Media Standards, building a Social Network for the WAA and working to increase value of membership in the WAA and the number of Members joining the Web Analytics Association.



How long have you been working in web analytics fields?

About 5 years. It depends on what role you’re talking about. Probably no one has 5 years of experience with Second Life outside of Linden Labs. On the other hand, if you look at my overall experience in Web Analytics, 5 years sounds right.

Tell me about your work, education prior to making a switch (in blog style, from current back to the past)?

I’ve had many careers in my life and it was hard for me figure out what “box” I best fit in. As a teenager I’d look at classified ads in the back of the New York Times and found I did not seem to fit into any box. As I age, like good wine, I’ve gotten better, ripened and learnt to accept my strengths and work on what I’m not so good at.

Before I got into Web Analytics I spent much of the 1990’s as a Unix System Administrator/Consultant working for Wall Street firms specializing in systems upgrades and Y2K compliance – that line of work went kaput after 9/11 and I re-invented myself in my current incarnation as Web Analyst/Blogger/Artist – Marshall Sponder.

My life and carriers in the 1980’s changed a couple of times; at one point I lived in Minneapolis for 5 years and worked as a Test Floor Technician testing high speed mainframes for Sperry (now Unisys) that were water chilled. I also worked in Computer Graphics, getting a Graduate Degree in Communications and Computer Graphics from NYIT – but I found I was no good at Computer Graphics and had little patience for it – so I was not able to monetize that training. I also spent a summer in Vermont painting and aspired to be great painter and still paint, and you can see my work and art musings at my Syntagma Network blog, www.artnewyorkcity.com .

And that’s as far back as is worth going. As far as my educational background it’s B.A. in Art with a minor in Psychology from Hunter College and a M.A in Communications from NYIT and more recently, a Certificate in Marketing Management from Baruch College in 2003.

Why did you decided to switch to Web Analytics?

I fell into it, to be honest. I seem to be able to “dream” up my life situations, and then they happen. I meet people that way too. I started to realize I had the ability to create whatever I can imagine – once I can see myself doing, being, knowing – it seems just a matter of time till I find myself there; and that’s how, I got into Web Analytics.

I looked at Jim Sterne’s book back in 2001, shortly after 9/11, and said to myself, broke and depressed….I can do this …thing that’s called Web Analytics. And today, I know Jim Sterne personally, sitting on the same WAA board that he helped create. You might say the Artist within me dreamed the person I became; Jim’s book on Web Analytics showed me I could be a Web Analyst and the rest just “happened” when it was ready to happen, unfolding, in it’s own way and time.

But it was not that much of a jump as Systems work is actually very similar in a way to Web Analytics, and while I’m a lousy shell scripter I’m great at diagramming and found that, throughout my life I took certain things from my life and synthesized them. In fact, my path (if one can call anyone’s life a path) is the Art of Synthesis and I found that in Web Analytics I could use my Art background to see overall patterns (Right Brain) while also using the systems work I did to approach work systematically (Left Brain). The jump I made into Web Analytics, from Systems Work, was significant but attainable.

I also worked with SEO starting shortly after 9/11 and absorbed much of what my Mentors Bill Hunt and Mike Moran taught me at IBM. Robin Nobles, also part of my Social Media Committee, as is Mike Moran, helped teach me SEO via her books and courses, and so I consider her a mentor of mine.

In many ways, my life often feels as if I “dreamed” it up. Now I’m working on Dreaming up my Social Media Committee and making truly groundbreaking work happen for the Web Analytics Association and for Social Media by presenting the first real set of standards my committee will draft.


How did you find your job at IBM? How long did it take? Did you interview a lot?

In 2002, I started taking some risks and doing entrepreneurial work for next to no money just to get experience. One of those jobs ended up giving me the extra edge to win over my competition when I interviewed at IBM in 2003. Also, at the IBM interviews I found that being myself, being me was what they wanted. I decided acting naturally, being true to myself was the best way for me to interview. I don’t think I interviewed that much when I got a job at IBM, for that job, but at that time I was so broke and happy to have a job, I did not even mind the 2 hour commute each way.

As far as most of my job interviews have gone, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been a lousy interviewer – often talking way too much, mostly out of nervousness and shyness.

In the various jobs I’ve interviewed for, in all the various careers I’ve had, I usually had to interview 10 times to get one offer (sounds like a lousy “conversion rate”, maybe I need to “optimize” my landing page, or presentation, consult the Eisenberg Brothers at GrokDotCom.com) but the reality is that I still don’t fit into any “box” comfortably and seem to be better creating my own job and then fulfilling it.

What do you focus on when you are looking for a job as a Web Analyst?

If I were looking for another job (guess that happens from time to time), I’d focus on my relationships and who I know and what I can bring to the table that’s unique form what everyone else does. I want to avoid having my skills become a commodity and I think that’s what happened to my Unix Admin work and I don’t want it to happen to Web Analysts. We really have to guard against our work being commoditized and marginalized by increasing the value of what we do and bring to the table as Web Analysts to the businesses we report on.

In fact, that is why I don’t like books that try to make everyone into a Web Analytics Expert; not only is that not possible, but if it were possible and if Web Analytics were easy, we’d all need to find the next career, the next frontier, real quick. Web Analytics is not easy, that’s why we’re in it.

The more difficult the task or job, the more challenging the role, the more I tend to like it (that is, if the work is meaningful and not “rote” work). I’ve learnt that it’s precisely this that I’m good at. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to translate my strength into an interview that is looking for specific skills and competencies, and never have.

But maybe I’m getting better, with age.

I don’t relish interviewing and I dream up the next job, the ideal job for me, is one that someone influential begs me to take; a mission job. In other words, I’d rather not interview for anything, at this point. People already know what I do well …. I want to be asked to join the next job/mission. I’m done trying to interview because it usually ends up as another attempt to fit into someone else’s box when what I really want is to create my own.

What are you responsibilities? Describe your typical work day?
My work life is pretty good right now.

Typically I arrive at my Chelsea office in Manhattan and read my email in the mornings – often having several phone meetings, one after another. Most of my team is remote, so I’m in constant communication with my team mates, team lead, managers and peers all over the world, but with the main concentration in Raleigh, NC.

For Web Analytics work, I find I need chunks of time, usually 4 hours or more, where I can do a report and come up with the Insight around it, without being interrupted. I try to structure my roles at IBM to allow my work to get done in such a way that I don’t have to take it home with me.

Having said that, I often find myself working till 7PM, but often doing my work is spurts. I often have to take brakes and walk, or think about something else, to clear my mind. Once I settle on what I need to do, the tasks at hand, things come to me quickly, in flashes and I just speed to keep up with it.

What are the skills that you think are important for a web analyst?

A sense of abstract thinking and Art (seeing the whole picture at once) is important for Web Analytics work.

I think what a lot of companies are asking for has nothing much to do with what is needed to be truly effective. In order to be effective as a Web Analyst you don’t usually need a degree in statistics or be trained as a rocket scientist (yet that is what all the job descriptions I’ve seen ask for – like a big long laundry list) (Anil: I agree with you, actually I am thinking about doing a blog post on this very topic. ) you need the ability to understand what some one needs to measure, what the goals are, and a technical mastery to the tools, the web analytics platforms being used. The least important thing is to know the tools beforehand – because anyone can learn them fairly quickly who is not brain dead (yet this is precisely what most interviewers ask for first – knowledge of the tools)

The most important thing, in any job, is being effective in the job you’ll be hired for –being trusted, that you can deliver what say you can deliver on…and a lot of that is based on trust, on conveying confidence, conveying authority. The technical part is more like the icing the cake, as far as I’m concerned. I go for rapport, gut feeling, intuitive knowledge and visualization of what my clients want and need, and even what they don’t know to ask for, but which they still need…I try to give them…and this is not just at IBM, but all my work is done like this.

You know you’re effective when you’re allowed to work on the “big problems” in your organization. It’s a feedback loop. You need to get trust of higher ups so they’ll let you get the relevant experience that actually makes you valuable in the marketplace (so that you can “move up”). The paradox is, believing in your self first, is necessary in order to get any kind of trust and buy in so that you’ll be allowed to work on the big stuff.

You also need people to like you – and for some people, that’s easier to achieve than others. I won’t say that people that are disliked are not effective – they can be also, but they’re probably miserable and less effective than if they were liked.

But none of these skills is actually what is asked of you in an interview – yet some interviewers will make note of them, nonetheless and the one’s that do are the one’s to work for.

To be continued....Part II coming soon, stay tuned.

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