Business Analysis as a career choice: Tips to make you succeed
How do you become a business analyst and where do you begin? As a BA myself, I get asked this question often by my work colleagues. This article is my humble attempt to contribute towards answering this question.
So you want to cross over to the land of analysis? A land of ‘schizophrenic’ people who need to possess multiple skills and make meaning out of ambiguity. You'll need to break down complex problems into bite-size chunks that can be easily understood. You'll also need to manage different stakeholders and break down knowledge barriers formed by these stakeholders. (Most having been in their organisations for decades) Finally, you'll need to develop a thick skin to stand in the firing line.
It is a people's business
For starters, before you can know where to begin, you need to understand what business analysis is. In my line of work, I interview business analysts frequently, and sadly, the view of a BA as ‘bridge between IT and business’ is still ingrained in most of them – especially the junior and the intermediate. Needless to say, this is a myopic view of what a business analyst is. To me, business analysis is a practice that requires an insatiable desire to always learn and understand how small pieces fit together to form the bigger picture, and equally so - how to break the bigger picture into smaller pieces.
These skills may include:
- How to figure out where the pieces of the puzzle should go to complete the picture,
- How to identify when some pieces are missing,
- Whether the pieces have been put together incorrectly, leading to a distorted image.
- This puzzle analogy talks to the possession of two skills by one person – the ability to zoom in on the detail when the situation dictates, and also the ability to adopt a helicopter view. When and where each skill is used becomes contextual and is based on the methodology applied, but it is vital that a business analyst be able to toggle, with reasonable ease, between the two skills.
Business Analysis is about being able to have the confidence to ask and probe. It is about having enough courage to voice your objection when the pieces of the puzzle are placed together incorrectly - especially if you can see that the process being followed will result in a waste of time, a disastrous end product, and ultimately a costly re-do exercise. How many times have businesses wasted millions of rands on projects that ended up nowhere, and yet a business analyst saw it coming and was not courageous enough to raise his objections? The crucial BA skill is being able to raise the alarm without alienating your stakeholders. Remember, you still need to work with them going forward.
Undoubtedly, business analysis is about people skills. The end product of what we do are systems and processes. This is the visible aspect of our efforts. However, a considerable amount of our efforts is made up of some intangible input elements. If you get these elements wrong, you are likely not to get the end product you were hoping for.
Business analysis involves dealing with people at various levels of the value chain - the uptight, those highly under pressure and with extreme targets to meet, the IT techies (with never-ending business demands to satisfy) and the customers (who are getting irritable by the day and demand seamless and instantaneous service). No matter how good you are on the techniques of business analysis, and all the tools that you can use to model – if you do not have the people skills – you are missing out on a critical component. At some stage in your business analysis career, if not at all times, you will be pulled in all sorts of directions by these parties.
Being a BA is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It is for strategic individuals who have perfected the art of dealing with people. These are people who understand that at the core of delivery is collaboration. The ability to work with and through other people is a non-negotiable skill. Do you think you have that capability or are you making efforts to perfect it?
Being in the firing line means that your work will be scrutinised, criticised and thrown back at you. You will be challenged by the developers, other stakeholders and peers in the systems development lifecycle, even if you are in a Scrum team.
I always compare business analysis to teaching for one simple reason – most of us have sat behind a desk as learners. Therefore, we have an idea of what makes a good teacher, even though we are not qualified teachers. Similarly, because almost all of us use systems in one way or the other, we have an idea of how a good system should be designed for user-friendliness, even though we haven't developed a system or written a single line of code.
Take a simple example; when a poorly written application is deployed in production, and it doesn't meet the business or user needs, these comments usually arise: 'The requirement wasn't clear enough', or, 'the business rules weren't clearly defined', or, 'the analysis wasn't done correctly'.
In contrast, these comments are hardly ever made: ‘The code was badly written’, or ‘testing was not done properly’. So, yes, a business analyst is in the firing line, all the time. Are you ready for that? Can you handle being criticised? If you can, then you are well on your way to becoming a business analyst.
Again, no matter how good your people skills are, they can only take you so far especially if you cannot back them up with your BA technical skills. By technical skills I am not referring to scripting of SQL statements (although these do come in handy from time to time). I am referring to knowing what makes up your business analysis toolbox. These are some of the questions you should be able to answer:
- What skills do you need to elicit and manage requirements? How do you guide business to identify and define business rules?
- How do you write business cases?
- How do you create presentations and take your 'difficult' stakeholders (business and IT) through them?
- How do you write use case diagrams and narratives?
- How do you distinguish between features, epics and user stories?
- How do you define scope and manage scope creep?
- How do you trace the requirements (forwards and backwards)?
- How do you create context for your projects?
- How do you model; how do you decompose business processes, how do you draw system flowcharts and activity diagrams?
- And most importantly, which technique should you use and under which circumstance?
No two environments are the same. Even worse, most environments claim to practice business analysis, yet in reality, don't. For instance, in some situations, customer support specialists or query resolution specialists are referred to as business analysts. I have often heard colleagues complain about not having the opportunity to do 'real' business analysis yet they are not standing up and taking the lead. They should instead educate their management team about what business analysis is or should be. Either they lack the confidence to do so, which talks to the first section of my article, or they are not sure of what business analysis is.
Confidence is a very fragile thing. All it takes to crush it is one ill-prepared presentation, or an ill-chosen approach to solving a business challenge, or poorly selected and ineffective tools and techniques. Therefore, the only way to make it less fragile is by honing your skill set. This is the same reason why talented sports people do not rely on their talent alone but practice consistently before playing a competitive match.
To improve your confidence as a business analyst, you need to upskill yourself. To know which tools are in your toolbox, and when and how to use them, you need to ensure that you receive both formal and informal training. This will complement your people skills and give you the confidence to command your business analysis practice.
A key challenge that confronts practising business analysts is stagnation. They attend one or two introductory courses to train themselves as business analysts. After that, they think there is no need for them to sharpen their swords and learn new skills.
When I talk of honing one’s skills, I would like to use the analogy of scheduled downtimes versus unscheduled downtimes. (I use this when I engage with our BA team through our Thought Leadership conferences.) Herewith the analogy:
We tend to accept that we need to take our cars in for a service. This is what I call the ‘scheduled downtimes’. In doing so, we want to avoid the ‘unscheduled downtimes’ which may manifest themselves through unforeseen breakdowns on the road. We understand what the inconvenience and cost implication could be, not to mention the danger if we do not plan for 'scheduled downtimes'. The routine service to our cars may include the changing of filters (oil, petrol, air), spark plugs, wear and tear items like brake pads or brake linings, and running of any other diagnostics to warn us of impending problems.
Now, let's bring this point closer to home and relate it to business analysis. Scheduled downtimes can refer to attending formal and semi-formal sessions (i.e. courses with or without assessments, BA conferences, seminars, Thought Leadership conferences, BA Community of Practice sessions, Lean Coffee Meetups and Webinars).
I am sure that some of you have worked with or are going to work with colleagues that have been practising business analysis for many years and tend to be set in their ways. They have never seen the need for 'scheduled downtimes'. The guaranteed outcome of having never subjected yourself to a scheduled downtime is the risk of never refreshing and updating your business analysis skills. Your scheduled downtime can give you the opportunity to check whether you still have the right tools and techniques necessary to keep you relevant.
When pilots lose awareness of where they are during a flight, they are said to have lost situational awareness. This has serious consequences, as it can lead to a plane crash which can result in a catastrophe and loss of lives. It is essential that as a business analyst you keep this in mind. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you are a person with tunnel vision, and only see or approach things in one direction, then business analysis is probably not a good career choice for you. Business analysis requires a lot of flexibility. It requires knowing what works for which situation. It demands an understanding that change is constant, and to remain relevant, you must be willing to change with it. If you are uncomfortable with change and prefer a routine, then you should rather consider being a support specialist or work in operations.
As a business analyst, you need to have the appetite and the ability to scan both internal and external environments. You need to be aware of where you are and where your organisation is regarding internal and external factors. Internally, you need to be fully aware of methodologies, processes, and compliance requirements. What is your organisation’s maturity level on these? What is working and where are the gaps? How can you contribute to closing them? What is needed for your team to move to another level?
On an external front, you need to be fully aware of who your competitors are and how far ahead or behind they are. What is on the horizon? Who is your target market? What sets your business apart from the competition? If you aspire to be a business analyst, you need to be able to answer these questions. This will ensure that you remain in control of your situational awareness, and your plane will not crash unexpectedly!
In closing, I have deliberately not mentioned the mastery of Agile or Waterfall, because I believe that regardless of the methodology you are exposed to – the fundamental soft and hard business analysis skills remain the same.
* This article was first published in Modern Analyst.