A business analyst is the fulcrum of any IT project, providing the interface between business and IT function. Their goal is to understand how information flows around an organisation, to determine what happens to that information at each processing stage and then decide what should happen to that process.
Given the pivotal nature of the role, it’s no surprise that the successful business analyst can enjoy a stellar career, and earn on a par with the project manager.
The business analyst’s star hasn’t always shone so brightly. In the past, when waterfall projects were in vogue and IT projects implemented sequentially, much of the business analysis was done up front and the person doing it became expendable. In fact, the role of business analyst was frequently handed to the member of the user team who was most analytical – and willing.
But the fortunes of the business analyst are on the rise, aided and abetted by tough economic times, which has seen a parallel rise in Agile projects. With the new fashion for IT to be delivered in iterative lifecycles that are constantly being retuned, a business analyst has to be around at all times.
The new prominence of the role accounts for the growing ‘professionalisation’ of the business analyst - but there’s still something of a knack to being good at this job: “I’ve seen newcomers who are naturals and senior people who struggle,” says Kevin Brennan, of the International Institute of Business Analysts (IIBA). That’s because it’s all about the soft skills and the dearth of these in the industry explains why business analysis is rapidly becoming one of the top jobs in IT.
What type of person should you be?
Most people become a business analyst with very little training and so the right mindset and capabilities are all the more important. Among these are the ability to: ask the right questions, figure out why things are done the way they are and how they could be done better; synthesise a lot of information; have fantastic attention to detail, in order to spot errors or inconsistencies; be methodical.
The ability to listen well and communicate in a non-technical fashion goes without saying, as does a thorough understanding of what is important to the business. This person is on the frontline, talking to business users, executives and IT managers, coders and other technical specialists. All these conversations are necessary in order to craft a solution, and feeling comfortable presenting to a mixed audience is also important.
Panellist’s view: Understanding the language of the business users is more important for success, than any database code language.
What’s the best first job?
There are many possible routes into this role and previous jobs include project manager, coder, developer and tester. The most common path remains from developer or analyst-developer. Quality assurance makes for a good fit as people will have developed a good eye and method for handling detail but are coming at it from the other end of the problem.
Increasingly, graduates are going straight into this role, primed by a business analysis degree or general business studies degree. Students could consider applying for a degree course that offers a blend of technical, business, management and interpersonal skills. E-skills’ ITMB degree has been designed with IT vendors in order to offer this blend, plus internships.
Panellist’s view: There’s no substitute to acquiring on-the-ground experience and a first job or a summer job can be a fertile training ground.
What are the recommended professional qualifications and institutes?
For second or third jobbers with some business analysis experience, accreditation is the next step to consolidate and gain a kite mark of recognition that helps define capabilities in this still maturing role.
The International Institute for Business Analysis (IIBA) is one port of call to beef up credentials. Formed in 2003, the youthful institute offers the Certificate of Competence of Business Analysis (CCBA) for those with two to three years’ experience while the Certified BA Professional (CBAP) offers accreditation for those with five to 10 years under their belt.
More established is the UK’s BCS’ Information Systems Examination Board (ISEB), which offers a qualification at foundation, practitioner and professional levels for business analysts. Approximately 4,000 business analysts hold one of these qualifications.
The IIBA has its own UK chapter for business analyst members to meet, network and swap ideas while the BCS has specialist groups in business change, requirements engineering and consultancy.
Panellist’s view: Networking is increasingly important as the more strategic decisions require an appreciation of wider trends that takes time for a business analyst to build up.
What additional skills are useful?
Facilitation is a core skill as the job is basically about meditating between different stakeholders in order to reach a consensus. There are quite a few training courses on the open market that support this essential soft skill. More general business skills, such as basic understanding of accounting and the regulatory environment are also important.
Extra creative flair will always come to the fore in this role, and a scholarship for film screenwriting and a drama course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) helped one panellist to develop his business analyst career.
Panellist’s view: My hobby for screenwriting helped develop my story-crafting and creativity; both of these are necessary for developing a vision and agenda setting.
What are the job prospects?
Demand is increasing, despite the wider economic background, particularly at more senior levels such as business analyst manager or internal consultant. This is coupled with the evolution of business analyst pools or business analyst practices, as opposed to business analysts attached solely to a particular project or functional area.
Nonetheless, there remains a significant ‘subject matter expertise’ bias, despite the fact that many projects only demand a minority of true specialist knowledge. However there will always be a call for mix of generalists and specialists.
Panellist’s view: We seem to have reached tipping point where the old maxims of having to become a project manager to get ahead are breaking down.
What is career progression?
The accomplished business analyst in search of a larger salary can fairly easily move over to pre-sales, where a salary is supplemented by sales add-ons of commission and a bonus. Project management beckons to others: the skills sets are similar but with a greater requirement for people management in the project manager.
In-depth knowledge gained of the business can lead to strategy roles, too, and an accompanying exposure to a wider portfolio of tools and techniques. The job titles to aim for here are business architect and portfolio manager, plus senior management positions.
There’s growing recognition of both business analyst practice manager and internal consultancy roles – there are now cases of people managing 50-plus business analyst departments, and still calling themselves business analysts.
Panellist’s view: BA is a great milestone for an executive career combining facilitation, strategy and negotiation skills.
Our business analyst panel
Miles Barker: Director of the IIBA UK Chapter, responsible for Professional Development and Certification
Kevin Brennan: IIBA, former BA with CIBC
Karen Price: CEO E-skills UK
David Bloxham: managing director of IT recruitment firm, GCS
Alec Selvon-Bruce: Hitachi Data Systems’ chief eco business analyst, former BA with Shell