What to look for in a business analyst

Learn about the skills to look for when you hire a business analyst in this Q&A and book extract with Barbara Carkenford, author of Seven Steps to Mastering Business Analysis.

What made you decide to write your book, "Seven Steps to Mastering Business Analysis"?

Barbara Carkenord: The reason from a business analysis perspective is that there really haven't been any books written specifically for people doing that type of work. There are a lot of books on techniques and analysis techniques, but not anything that says here's everything you need to do analysis work. There are people just coming into the role who really don't know what they need to do, and this book is for them.

If someone is considering becoming a business analyst, what skills are considered necessary?

Carkenord: I would say the number one thing is communication skills -- both verbal skills and written skills -- documentation -- because the main job is to be a liaison between two groups who don't communicate well.

They also need skills around understanding how technology can solve business problems, which means they need to know about the business and what's technologically possible.

They have to be people who can logically break down problems and think things through -- just very analytical.

What challenges should new business analysts be prepared to face?

Carkenord: I think the biggest challenge when you're assigned to a project is really trying to figure out how to get started. There's a lot available to you and a lot you need to find. You need to figure out whom to talk to in order to get the information you need.

When it comes to software requirements elicitation, elaboration, and validation, what are the biggest problems business analysts have?

Carkenord: The biggest challenge is business people don't always recognize what they need or what is capable for them. So they have trouble communicating with IT. And IT doesn't understand the business side, so they give them an elegant solution that doesn't do what they need.

Business analysts need to help business people figure out what they really want. The BAs really need to sit down and talk with them.

I think the development environments continue to be more and more productive. Developers can build things very fast, but we don't know what we want them to build. They can build a lot of things, but are they meeting business needs?

What techniques and strategies serve business analysts best when it comes to working with stakeholders?

Carkenord: We have a lot of techniques. There are actually hundreds of analysis techniques. Part of the challenge is learning which works, because each project might necessitate a different way.

Read an excerpt from Barbara Carkenord's book "Seven Steps to Mastering Business Analysis"

Chapter 1: Possess a Clear Understanding of Business Analysis is for those new to business analysis or who want to learn about the business analyst role. It explains what business analysis is, its role in software development, the role of a business analyst, and the traits of good business analysts.

For a new BA starting out, we encourage using a real structured scoping technique to get the business people to agree what the objectives are. You can determine what are we doing and what are we trying to accomplish.

Data requirements are also very important. And we encourage new BAs to use Entity Relationship Diagramming (ERD) to structure data. It's a really good way to elicit requirements of what the needs are of the business.

Use cases are a very popular requirements technique right now. We also do prototyping and storyboarding.

In your book you talk about business analysis certification. Do you think that type of certification is necessary?

Carkenord: It's become popular because the role of the BA is very challenging to define, and companies don't have good job descriptions. So, they're looking to certification to help them figure out if this person really knows how to do this work.

Certifications are very popular. So I suspect this will be as popular as, say, the PMP [Project Management Professional] certification.

Certification in many IT industries, such as testing and project management, is a controversial topic with many saying certifications don't guarantee a level of expertise. Does this controversy seep into the business analysis realm?

Carkenord: I do think there's always going to be that challenge of whether the certification really means something. The IIBA [International Institute of Business Analysis], which certifies business analysts, is aware of those kinds of issues and has worked really hard to design a program that would assess people's ability to do the work rather than just pass a test. The work experience aspect is very high, and the questions are very analytically based. You need to think analytically to answer the question.

What's the difference between a project manager and a business analyst, as a lot of project managers have been responsible for requirements?

Carkenord: We see them as two completely separate roles, at least on large projects. I think the personality traits for project managers are different than BAs. PMs are managers; they push things forward, and they get things done. BAs are analytical and like to explore, but they can get stuck. They'll get all the details up front to make sure they don't miss anything.

If you have both on your team you're covering all your bases. If you have that team, your likelihood of success is much higher.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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