Monday, August 23, 2010

Nice article on BA-Tech vs. Non-Tech

Why do we see technical skills in business analyst jobs?



Why do we see technical skills in business analyst jobs? We, as members of the business analysis profession, know that to be a business analyst, you don’t have to be an IT person. Doug Goldberg has covered this topic thoroughly and I don’t have anything to add to his angle.

But this doesn’t resolve what many experience in the job market. New and experienced business analysts alike will start researching jobs, only to discover that an overwhelming number of positions require specific technical skills. Or, they speak with a recruiter who has a myopic view of the role, and are told that if they can’t write code [or insert your favorite technical skill here], they’ll never make it as a BA.

Why we see BA jobs requiring technical skills

In the real-world job market, business analyst roles are messy. There are a specializations, unique qualifications, extensions, and partitions. “I want to be a business analyst” is not an adequately defined career goal. You’ve got to dig a bit deeper. This is a process I lead mentees in my current resume evaluation program through and also address in The Promotable Business Analyst. I’m also developing a comprehensive mini-course to help individuals prepare for a job search or a career change. (To receive notifications about this new course, be sure sign-up for the eNewsletter.)

The short answer is you can find a BA role that does not require technical skills. Prepare to wade through and ignore those jobs with technical qualifications. As soon as I find a job with an absolute requirement for SQL or a coding language, I stop reading and move on. If you don’t want to be doing those things, applying to jobs that require those skills is just a waste of time. So is fretting over their existence. Remind yourself that BA roles are messy and set them aside.

Sorting through the technical skills requirements

You may notice that not all jobs with specific technical skills listed require the ability to use those skills. Sometimes these skills are preferred. Sometimes they are not mapped to any of the job responsibilities in the description. Sometimes you can ascertain a bit about the position by looking for the context around the qualification. Consider the following two hypothetical examples:

  • Write SQL reports. Requires SQL report writing experience with deep knowledge developing complex queries across multiple tables.
  • Prior experience in SQL preferred. Understanding of database concepts and information models critical.

While the first requirement indicates day-to-day SQL responsibilities, the second does not. Vague or “preferred’ requirements often indicate a desire for a business analyst to think logically and understand big picture technical concepts. Other times, they have seen business analysts trampled by developers because they don’t ask the right questions. The assumption becomes if you can write code now or could write code in the past, you are less likely to be trampled by the developers.

When technical skills are couched in conceptual or communication-related contexts, the technical skill may be less important than system thinking competencies. And as a business analyst, IT-focused or not, you must have good systems-thinking skills. Read the comments in this discussion about the difference between a business analyst and a systems analyst for an insightful separation of systems knowledge from systems thinking.

Technical understanding vs. technical skills

While we are starting to see a growing number of jobs focusing specifically on business process and organizational changes, the reality is that most business analyst jobs involve working on IT projects. By an IT project, I mean that a larger part of the solution is implemented in software. To perform BA work on an IT project does not require the ability to write code. I’ve spent most of my career working on IT projects and I haven’t written a line of programming code since high school when I took a class on PASCAL.

As a business analyst on an IT project, it is important to have a general understanding of software systems. Basic knowledge of servers, databases, and client side technology, augmented with solid logical, systems-thinking will do. Combining both will lead to more effective communication with the implementation team.

Quick Test: Select a software application (client or web-based) that you use often. Select 2 or 3 activities you use it for. Can you identify the main sub-systems and interactions that are in place to enable these activities? If yes, you probably have enough software knowledge for a pure BA position on an IT project. If no, or if this test confused you, find an introductory book to read.

The final word.

My advice to you as a job seeker or career changer is to pick a direction for your business analyst career. Decide with some certainty if technical activities are part of your target position. If yes, then go about discovering the coveted technical skills and positioning yourself to build these qualifications. If no, then start ignoring the positions with these requirements. Focus on discovering the gems for which you are qualified and interested in.

What are your thoughts? Why do you think we see technical skills in business analysis positions?

By Laura Brandenburg. Laura Brandenburg is an independent business analyst consultant. She is passionate about the BA profession and is committed to contributing by supporting this blog as a forum for business analysts to build on each other's experiences. View more blog posts by Laura Brandenburg