Career Compass

HR Data Analytics with Davida Smart

Episode Summary

In this episode of Career Compass, hosts Vernon Williams and Aly Sharp speak with Senior People Analytics Analyst at DocuSign Davida Smart to discuss everything from day-to-day responsibilities to what courses students should pursue to excel in the field of HR data analytics.

Episode Notes

Data analytics is one of the most popular and growing focus areas within the field of human resources. HR was once reliant on instinct and intuition, but today, successful organizations are using complex information gathering tools to implement informed business decisions. In Career Compass' Season 5 finale, hosts Vernon Williams and Aly Sharp speak with Davida Smart, Senior People Analytics Analyst at DocuSign, to discuss everything from day-to-day responsibilities to what courses students should pursue to excel in the field of HR data analytics. 

Follow/subscribe to Career Compass however you listen to podcasts; rate and review on Apple Podcasts. Hear more podcasts from SHRM. | Facebook | LinkedIn | Twitter | Instagram

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Vernon Williams: Welcome back to season five of Career Compass, a podcast from SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Foundation. Career Compass prepares future leaders today for better workplaces tomorrow.

Aly Sharp: As the voice of all things work, SHRM supports students and emerging professionals with advice, information, and resources for every step of their career.

Vernon Williams: Designed for the student or emerging professional, Career Compass delivers timely, relevant, and critical conversations about work to help succeed in your career journey. Thank you for joining us for this episode. My name is Vernon Williams and I will be your co-host.

Aly Sharp: And my name is Aly Sharp and I will also be your co-host. During this episode, we will be joined by senior people analytics operations analyst, Davida Smart, who will give us a behind the scenes look at one of the hottest and most strategic HR career pathways. Also, just so you know, this episode is valid for professional development credit or PDCs for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP. We'll provide the code later in the episode. And with that, let's get started.

Vernon Williams: Aly, we're wrapping up the season. You made it.

Aly Sharp: My first season, we did it.

Vernon Williams: So, with all of the episodes that we did this season, people analytics was probably the one, at least for me, that I knew the least about. As we were preparing for today's show, what things stood out to you?

Aly Sharp: Honestly, ever since I found out we were going to be doing data analytics, I have been chomping at the bit to get this episode recorded. I know I've talked about this on the podcast before. I am in a marketing analytics program at West Virginia University, so nothing really surprised me, but I am super excited to get into the world of HR analytics.

Vernon Williams: Well, I won't slow you down. I won't hold you up. Let's jump right into today's speaker. Davida Smart is a senior people analytics operations analyst at DocuSign in San Diego, California. As a senior analyst, she leads projects in multiple people analytics, functional areas including employee listening, consulting, data engineering, and systems management. Davida has a master's degree in industrial organizational psychology from the University of Georgia. She enjoys using analytics, data science and psychological theory to maximize productivity, increase collaboration, improve the employee experience, and cultivate a healthy work environment for people at work. With that, Career Compass would like to Warmly welcome, Davida Smart.

Davida Smart: Thank you for the invitation. It's my pleasure to join you all and share some stories and insights.

Vernon Williams: We appreciate you taking the time. And I wish I would've known beforehand that you were out in San Diego, because we were just out there not too long ago for SHRM's inclusion conference. I certainly would've looked you up. That's on me. My bad.

Davida Smart: I know, I wish I would've known earlier, I would've attended. And we're at the top of our quarter, so things have been so busy. So, I would've loved to meet in person, honestly.

Vernon Williams: Would've been great, but here we are virtually. Let's take full advantage of things. So, we went through your background a little bit. Could you tell us a little bit about, or tell the audience a little bit about why you decided to pursue a master's degree and perhaps a SHRM certification, which you are a SHRM certified member, after being in the HR space for a few years already?

Davida Smart: Yeah, that's a good question. So, prior to my career in people analytics, I worked as a human resources specialist in recruiting benefits and payroll in a variety of industries, including education, manufacturing, and government. And so, over the years, I realized that I wasn't passionate about the work that I was doing in HR. I also felt like it was an uphill battle for me to obtain more senior level opportunities without a strong network or at least a master's degree. And so, as someone who is highly motivated to succeed, this was a very frustrating moment in my career. However, I knew that I was purposed to do something greater and have a larger impact. And so, for many years, I had always known that I wanted to pursue higher education, but was unsure which direction I would take, which is why I started with what I considered to be the easiest path forward. And that was to obtain my SHRM-CP.

And then in 2020, I decided to pursue my master's degree in industrial organizational psychology. However, it wasn't until I got halfway through my master's program at UGA that I quickly realized that I enjoyed people analytics a lot more. And more specifically, I enjoy using statistics and research to solve people related issues in the workplace. At that time, however, I knew that I did not have enough years of experience to pursue a full-time role in people analytics. So, I decided to apply for internships during the fall semester of my first year. Then during the summer, I had the opportunity to take an advanced analytics course. This course is what really opened my eyes to the world of data analytics, data science and machine learning.

I learned how to use data science and statistical techniques in combination with people data to develop predictive models that could affect business outcomes. And what was so fascinating about this moment or pivot in my career was that I had just started working in my people analytics internship while taking this advanced analytics course. It was literally the perfect opportunity for me to apply the knowledge I was learning in class to the projects I was working on during my internship. And I quickly realized that there was this whole world of data analytics in HR that I could pursue as a career, and that was when the light switched for me.

Aly Sharp: I feel like we're living in a parallel universe because the class I'm in right now is audience segmentation and my job is associate specialist audience segmentation. So, I totally understand what you mean, taking the classroom right to work and it helps you understand the information so much better as well, because you learn that application. But our next question is, during our mentorship events, and when we talk with CHROs, data analytics is always a hot topic, but for some of our listeners that may not actually know what data analytics entails, could you give our audience a sense of what this HR career path is and what an average day looks like for you?

Davida Smart: Absolutely, and that's a great question, Aly. So, simply put, people analytics is also known as HR analytics or talent analytics. It's a data driven approach to using organizational people and talent data to improve business outcomes. People analytics teams help HR, business and people leaders make data driven decisions to maximize employees' potential in business results. So, there are a variety of career paths one can pursue in people analytics, including people analytics consulting, employee listening, data science and research roles. I would consider myself to be more of a generalist in people analytics. I have had an amazing opportunity to manage a variety of projects in all areas of people analytics, including data science, internal consulting, employee listening, data engineering and systems management. And so, for me, no two days are the same and I am always learning something new, which is really the beauty of my role.

And the people analytics industry in general is a growing industry and there's a lot of room of opportunities for future careers and people who are interested in this field. Some days requires me to work my project management muscles and lead the implementation of data sources into our people analytics system. Sometimes I'm laser focused on survey development and design or managing or always on an ad hoc surveys. And then most days, I am enabling our business and HR leaders to make data driven decisions through the creation of automated reports and dashboards, which includes drawing insights and developing and communicating a data story.

Aly Sharp: It's probably pretty evident that I love data, so you're making my mouth water talking about dashboards. But I did have a follow-up. You've mentioned employee listening a few times, and because I'm more on the marketing side, I'm not quite sure what that means. Could you explain that for me?

Davida Smart: Employee listening, okay. So, really, employee listening is taking surveys and implementing those surveys into the workforce to really get at the voice of employees. So, you're going to be pulling insights from these surveys to understand culture, to understand how employees feel about leadership, to understand whether or not an employee feels like they belong to an organization. And there's this really nuanced way of analyzing the data by looking at the comments. So, you can do a topic model analysis where you're looking at the sentiments of the employee's voice.

And you can really get at why an employee answer a Likert scale or rating question the way that they did, because again, everyone's interpretation of the survey questions are going to be different. And it also give context to how do they feel, how do they really feel about the organization? So, employee listening is basically what it says, you're listening to the voice of employees. And we do that by analyzing various sources that we have, more specifically though our survey data.

Vernon Williams: So, I want to go back a little bit on what you were talking about in terms of your day to day function or what your day may look like, and to drill that back or pull that back a little bit for our students. Talk to us a little bit about what skills, because I'm thinking a lot of schools don't have HR programs maybe at the undergrad level. So, what skills or what courses should folks be focused on in their undergrad programs if they're maybe a general studies major or something like that, that they want to look into that would prepare them for a future HR career in people analytics? So, what do you need to be good at or what translates, what courses are going to translate to a successful career in HR, specifically in people analytics?

Davida Smart: And that's an amazing question. If you are an undergrad, definitely your statistics courses are going to be beneficial for you. In people analytics on a day-to-day basis, we deal with statistics 99% of the time. And so, you really want to get good at doing regression analysis and understand correlations. Another key class that you should take if you are a psychology major is your research methods class, where you're understanding how to conduct research on a specific topic, how to validate your data, how to make sure that your data is reliable. And I would say, more importantly outside of just that data science statistics research realm, is really understanding psychological theory. So, how do we affect culture in the workplace? There's like psychological theory around what you should be doing to affect culture in the workplace. And so, getting those key classes, more specifically research methods and statistics, psychological theory is really going to prepare you for a career in people analytics.

And then for the students that are going into a master's program, I would definitely recommend that they consider a program that offers a more analytics focus. So, with our UGA program, it's heavy on data science, analyzing data from day one of the program. So, we don't use SPSS in that program. We code in R, and you have to code in R from your research method course onto your advanced analytics course, onto your practicum. And so, I think having that skill and being a part of a program that is really pushing you to affect business outcomes, using data and analyzing data in that way is going to make you a lot more marketable and it's going to just set you apart from the crowd.

Vernon Williams: So, you mentioned psychological theory and how it impacts or what it looks like in the workplace. Talk to us a little bit more about that. Give us a sense of the theory, and again, I'm not asking you to teach the class, one or two minutes just so our audience can get a better sense of what it is that you're talking about.

Davida Smart: Okay. So, psychological theory is this idea of thinking about systems in a way that explains human thoughts and behaviors and emotions. So, let's take for instance, if you're thinking about Sigmund Freud, like you're thinking about how a child develops and the way that they communicate with their mothers and their fathers, and how that can play out into their livelihood, however. But when you're looking at it from a people analytics perspective, we want to think about it in terms of what does our psychological theory say about wellbeing in the workplace, about how people have to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace and how that can improve attrition or employee satisfaction. So, when I say psychological theory, it's thinking about those elements that really make a workplace great.

Vernon Williams: Thank you so much for that, for those responses. And for our listening audience, we generally give our guests a sense of what the questions are going to look like. Davida was doing that all off the top, so job well done. Thank you so much. All right, moving on to more of some of our prepared questions. So, when reviewing some of our most recent specialty credential data, more people wanted to earn their people analytics certification or credential over all of the other choices that SHRM offers. Why do you think people analytics is so important, HR professionals and for that matter, companies as a whole?

Davida Smart: And I agree, a lot of CHROs and companies are really talking about people analytics as this hot topic. And so, for me, I believe it's because the primary role of a people analytics team is to provide the organization with insights that allow them to make better business decisions. And what company doesn't want to improve upon attrition in their workplace or improve their customer satisfaction reports? And so, people analytics, it enables our HR leaders and organizations to make more data driven decisions about their strategy. And can be used to drive greater business value by enabling an organization to build a more inclusive culture, drive the employee experience strategy, and inform retention programs amongst a host of other things.

Aly Sharp: So, you mentioned that you worked with R a lot in your grad program, but what has been one of the most useful tools you have used while working for DocuSign or at a previous company? I'm just kind of curious to see what the tech is or the different software systems that are being used.

Davida Smart: So, one of the most powerful tools that I use daily is a people analytics tool called Visier. Visier is a cloud-based workforce planning and people analytics tool that allows teams to analyze and forecast people and organizational data. It enables our team and so many other teams to provide on demand dashboards, insights and analytics to our HR business partners and leaders. And if I'm not mistaken, when I looked at the research last night, they hold one in three of the market for Fortune 500 Companies. So, this is a growing people analytics tool and we love it.

Aly Sharp: That sounds extremely interesting. And my follow up with that is, what is some of the most useful or interesting analytics that you have compiled for a project?

Davida Smart: Yeah. This was a question that I really struggle with trying to answer, and I'm going to be very, very serious because I manage a lot of projects and I enjoy each and every one of them, I guess because I'm so new to the field and I'm green and I just want to learn. But if I had to think of just one interesting analytics project that I've worked on, I really enjoy diversity and inclusion analytics. So, on a quarterly basis, I am responsible for developing our D&I assessment across the entire employee life cycle, which includes the use of demographic, organization, talent and survey data. The D&I assessment takes a intersectional approach. And by intersectional, I mean we're looking at it from a gender perspective, from a race ethnicity perspective. We're looking at it from a leadership perspective. We want to look at it from a women of color perspective.

So, there's all of these intersectional approaches that we can take to analyzing representation, selection, retention, promotion, development, equity and employee engagement elements in the workplace. And this D&I assessment is instrumental in informing the D&I strategy of an organization.

Vernon Williams: We get it. And we appreciate your response. Aly just sort of whispered over here to me, I think I just asked her to pick her favorite child. So, we know you love all your projects. Thank you so much for responding to that one. We want to pause just for a second to take care of a housekeeping item. Those of you who are listening to this podcast that are seeking professional development credit, this program is valid for point five PDCs for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP. The code to redeem your PDC is 23-4SWHF. Please note that this code will expire on November 30th, 2023. Again, the code is the number two, the number three, dash, the number four, the letter S as in Sierra, the letter W as in whiskey, the letter H as in hotel, the letter F as in foxtrot.

All right. Jumping back into the podcast, Davida, can you tell us how you determine relevancy when reviewing information that you gather for various data sources? And I know earlier you mentioned things like data integrity and different methodologies that you're using. Got my blood running just a little bit from my doctoral days, but tell us a little bit more about how you sort of decipher those things.

Davida Smart: Yeah. Well, when evaluating the relevancy of data sources, I always keep four common evaluation criteria in mind, which include always understanding the purpose and intended audience, being mindful of the authority and credibility of the data source. I'm always checking for accuracy and reliability of the information, and then the currency and timeliness to the current workforce climate that we're in.

Aly Sharp: So, I have a partial follow up on that one, in terms of, I guess that was data validation. Are you more commonly working with primary data where you're collecting it directly from your employees? Are you also taking into consideration secondary data from outside sources?

Davida Smart: I mainly use primary data where we are collecting the data from our employee populations on an ongoing basis. However, I do use secondary sources of data whenever I'm pulling in research, that where I really want to bring out this data story and really drive the strategy of what we're working on. So, a little bit of both, but majority of it is primary data.

Aly Sharp: Awesome. The last question that we have for you today is, do you have any advice for students and emerging professionals who want to enter HR data analytics?

Davida Smart: Absolutely. So, I have three sets of advice. My first advice is never be afraid of doing hard things and trying something new, because you'll be really surprised at how much you can learn and how quickly you can grow a new set of skills. Before I came into people analytics, I worked in HR, in the HR space as a specialist and a coordinator, and really not moving the muscles that I had in statistics ever since undergrad. And I quickly realized it blew my mind how much I could really learn on the job and develop these skill sets. And I also feel like I have a natural affinity for just thinking critically. And I enjoy statistics. I was a stats tutor in my undergrad days, so it was really like the perfect fit for me. But definitely, never be afraid of doing hard things. You will be surprised at how much you can learn.

My second advice is to begin immersing yourself into people analytics content. This includes research articles, podcasts, and expanding your networks with industry leaders and practitioners. I highly recommend that you follow industry leaders on LinkedIn, as many offer advice and insights for students in emerging professionals. This is also an excellent way to learn about the opportunities are available, as many people analytics leaders use their LinkedIn profiles to advertise open roles. And then this is a perfect opportunity to just put yourself out there and show that, hey, I'm an emerging professional in this field, here I am.

And then one of the recommendations that I really have relating to just putting yourself out there, is that when you're looking for opportunities, never be afraid to start over. Even if you have several years of work experience in the current industry or maybe something similar or maybe something completely different, that internship or entry level role could lead you to opportunities you could only dream of. And then my final advice would be to always focus on creating business value, learn the business, focus on the business, and ask the right questions.

Vernon Williams: What a way to wrap up our season. Davida, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share your HR journey and thoughts about the intriguing topic of data analytics.

Davida Smart: You're welcome, and thank you for having me.

Aly Sharp: And with that, we're going to bring this episode of Career Compass to a close. We'd like to thank SHRM and the SHRM Foundation for providing us with this platform. But more importantly, we'd like to thank you all for joining us and hope you stay with us throughout next season.

Vernon Williams: For more exclusive content, resources and tools to help you succeed in your career, consider joining SHRM as a student member. You can visit us at to learn more about being a part of a community of over 300,000 HR business leaders who impact the lives over 115 million employees worldwide.

Aly Sharp: And if you like what you heard, follow and subscribe to Career Compass on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And do you have a topic you think we should cover or a guest we should hear from? We'd love to hear it. Email us at

Vernon Williams: Lastly, are you looking from a work or career related podcast? Check out all things work and honest HR at Thank you for listening, and we'll catch you on the next season of Career Compass.