Practical Concerns: The Analyst’s Plight

Tightrope_walking.jpg

(Image Wikipedia Commons)

Recently, the statistical analyst of an NHL team was let go in the aftermath of an underwhelming regular season and a puzzling decision involving one of the team’s most productive and iconic players. Rights and wrongs aside, the episode illustrated an uncomfortable fact: the analyst’s job is perhaps the most fragile one of all.

Imagine the tightrope walker, balancing him/herself atop a fine metal wire between two buildings. The job is a difficult one on the best of days, requiring a lifetime of practice and undivided focus. Randomness is not the tightrope walker’s friend. A gust of wind, a slight mis-step or even a meeting with an errand low-flying pigeon could yield deadly consequences.

While the physical stakes are different, an analyst’s career prospects (and personal well-being) are similarly affected by things out of his or her control. While job security in any field is dependent on market conditions, things are especially dire for the technical worker responsible for uncovering Truths, but ranked too low in the corporate hierarchy to effect real change.

If the analyst is wrong, he will be fired. (And deservedly so)

If the analyst is right, but bad results occur due to randomness at the player level (slumps, injuries), he will be fired.

If the analyst is right, but bad results occur due to randomness at the front-office level (lack of trust, inability to negotiate profitably), he will be fired.

Conversely, a correct analyst whose team achieves good results may receive a modest bonus and a one-year contract extension. The risk asymmetry is jarring.

There are a few ways for the analyst to mitigate those risk. The easiest is to go work (part-time) for a team which can’t possibly pay him/her a living wage. The best, to buy an NHL team and run it the way s/he sees fit.

Post-Scriptum:

Some very smart people who work in the game have written me to say that the same dynamic applies in all facets of hockey, whether you’re a player, coach or a manager. That is 100% true. However, being a player or a coach versus an analyst or a manager is the difference between being a dentist and being a stock broker.

When you play or coach or fix teeth, people can readily see whether you have good or bad process. If you can’t skate backwards, or run a practice, or drill a cavity, you will be found out immediately, whereas the process of an analyst or a manager is a lot more opaque and subject to “how much other people like and trust me” rather than real results.

***

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team (not his full-time job). He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

2 thoughts on “Practical Concerns: The Analyst’s Plight

  1. I read your piece. I think all is not so gloomy as you suggest. Certainly, there is risk for the analyst going to work for a team. But building trust is the most important thing that we have to do. It takes time. Also, analysts have to be careful to not overstate their case, either by overextending the available trust or by overextending their results.

    BTW, you should read these two definitions:

    Errand:
    http://www.dictionary.com/browse/errand?s=t

    Errant:
    http://www.dictionary.com/browse/errant?s=t

    • Hi Sandy. Thanks for reading.

      Your point about the tone of this article being overly gloomy is perhaps a valid one.

      The way I look at it, the industry’s ease of access, job security and financial remumeration are all below what a given candidate can expect to get in another field (medical research and banking, for example).

      Therefore people aspire to these types of jobs for non-rational reasons. “The love of the game” is certainly a good reason to do something, and that’s the basis of why Ive made certain career choices.

      I think what may play in you head (and mine) is that we were able to make a living out of something that many people aspire to, but won’t have the luck (and to a lesser degree, skill) to do. We may think that building trust and knowing our places is enough to stay employed, but we may already be suffering from survivorship bias.

      It’s a bit like when a professional athlete talks about working hard and being disciplined as the key to success. It’s 100% true, but they’re forgetting the things like having the right parents and not breaking a leg in your draft year.

      As for errand vs errant, nice eye.

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