Spotlight: Jennifer Volk, Business Intelligence Manager, SRUC


Tell us a fun fact about yourself.


I love learning languages – both programming and natural ones! I am currently learning Gaelic and Python.

Tell us about your career journey so far.


I studied German and Linguistics at Glasgow University, and was planning on doing a postgraduate course in librarianship.


At that time I didn’t know much about computers, and the internet was in its infancy (1997). After doing an internship I discovered I didn’t really want to be a librarian, but I was inspired by the power of databases!


I then spent a few years trying to learn more about IT and databases “on the job” and became quite good at programming in Perl and Unix. I was hitting the limit of jobs I could do without any computing qualifications, so I did a Masters in Applied Informatics. This proved the charm, and I went on to work as a Database Administrator, Incident Manager and Technical Project Manager. I then made the move to becoming a database programmer, and was promoted to Business Intelligence Manager in 2021.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?


My favourite subject was German – I liked the logic of learning a language, discovering the patterns of grammar, and then of course having to learn when the rules got broken!

Although people think “Arts” subjects like languages are very different from working as a programmer, there are a lot of similar skills.


Ultimately it is about trying to find a solution to communicate with another entity – whether that entity is computer or human!


What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?


You need good communication skills and the ability to empathise with someone else’s position - you have to be able to work with non technical users and make sure that what you produce meets their requirements or solves their problems.


You need to know how to write SQL to query databases. But even if you don’t have SQL skills, knowing how to use Excel or Power BI is very useful too because you can use it to create visual tools to help people understand their data better.


Creativity is key – thinking outside the box and considering all options to produce the best solution.

What is your favourite thing about your job?


I often work with users who are spending a lot of time doing repetitive, manual work to try to understand their data, or who are spending time creating reports manually for their managers.


When I can develop a solution which automates that effort, or which give people more instant, clear views of the data they need, that is very satisfying.

I love to hear that a report or a process I have created has made someone’s life easier or better.


What is a normal day in your role like?


Every day is quite different so it never gets boring. For instance, I might work with people in the college who need to understand how many students have applied for different courses, then with a manager who wants to understand income and costs in their department. Or it could be researchers needing help with processing scientific data gathered as part of their research.


Once I understand the user requirements, I can write the database code which pulls the data from one or more systems or files.

This step also changes the data so it is stored in a logical way and automatically fixes any errors which exist in the source – this is called ETL – Extract, Transform, Load.

Once the data is looking good, I can output it using the method the users have requested - for instance an online report, a data transfer, or a scheduled email notification.


And what does your job title mean?


Business Intelligence is about analysing data so an organisation can make good decisions.

For instance, let’s say you are a fundraiser for a charity, and you create events such as marathons, tea parties and quizzes.

You want to understand things like how much does an event cost to put on? How much money was raised? Which ones are most popular? What is the best time of year for the event?


I manage a team who work with users in the college to produce answers to these types of questions.


Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?


Power BI Pro desktop can be downloaded for free, and you could use it to try creating a report with charts, tables and graphs. Start here: https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-gb/getting-started-with-power-bi/ . You could use a dataset from the Office of National Statistics website (https://www.ons.gov.uk/) , e.g. the census results, or unemployment data – just download one of the datasets as a csv file, then import to Power BI. Then you can try out different charts to visualise the data set. You can even display results on a map if you have postcodes or map references in your data.


Even simpler would be going to one of the interactive covid tracker websites such as John Hopkins University and trying out the different visualisations: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases