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6 Traits Of A Great Business Analyst (And How To Interview For Them)

Whether or not you have ever been a Business Analyst yourself, if you work with enough Business Analysts over time you learn what sort of characteristics make a BA successful.  Regardless of the Business Analyst’s skills, experience, domain knowledge or certifications, there are inherent traits that will more often than not help a person succeed in accomplishing business analysis tasks. 

Over the years I’ve come to recognize most, if not all, of these traits in individuals whom I and many others have recognized as great Business Analysts.  These traits are valuable because they help one thrive in a role that often comes with no authority (but lots of responsibility), can have constantly shifting demands and priorities, a lot of environmental ambiguity, and yet is one that plays a key role in the success or failure of projects, initiatives, and even overall organizational performance.

These traits are not meant to determine whether a person is a competent Business Analyst.  Competency in business analysis tasks is something that typically is tied to the ability for an individual to perform BA tasks at a certain level of complexity and autonomy.  Usually Business Analysts improve their competency over time with experience and ongoing professional learning.  That said I find these traits can partially predict a person’s inherent ability to rapidly improve their competency in business analysis through on-the-job and classroom training and experience. 

The neat thing about these traits is that you can structure interview questions and scenarios to actually try and bring these traits to the surface.  If you look for these traits while you’re interviewing you will definitely have a leg up in determining if the candidate will be able to work well as a BA in your organization.  While you will still want to assess the BA based on their skills, experience, etc., I would highly recommend looking into setting up scenarios during your hiring process that will help you establish whether these traits are inherent in the individual or not.  I’ve put some suggestions on how to search for these traits during interviews below.

1.       They are engaging

Business Analysts need to do something that is inherently tricky; convince people to commit their time and effort to working on activities that often aren’t their top priority.  Rarely does a BA have the project with stakeholders who can commit their full time to requirement elicitation and validation, or have an unlimited amount of time to follow the schedules and priorities of their stakeholders and have requirements gathered when it suits them.  Business Analysts often learn how to cajole, coerce, beg and otherwise convince stakeholders to help them accomplish their tasks, but the process is a whole lot easier if the Business Analyst is engaging.  A great Business Analyst makes you want to work with them, even if you’re the Director of Sales and they need you to help define performance metrics for the CRM database upgrade. 

A Business Analyst that can communicate the value of a project with passion and dedication will inherently pull people in without needing to list off the million reasons you need to be involved.  Instead, you’ll want to be involved (or at the very least be willing to be involved more than you otherwise would).  Having an engaging Business Analyst can bring everyone to the table and help groups focus on achieving meaningful results in a short amount of time.

How to interview for this trait: Look for the most boring looking project or accomplishment on the candidate’s resume and ask them to describe to them how they were able to perform <insert relevant competency you wish to assess>.  Ask them a similar question for what looks to be an interesting or exciting project.  Listen to how they deliver their responses.  If you feel like you want to hear more from the candidate regardless of the project being discussed, then there’s a good chance that the BA knows how to be engaging regardless of the environment.

You can also ask them about how they’ve dealt with situations where stakeholders were not committing sufficient time/effort to accomplishing tasks and how they overcame it.  If the first thing out of their mouth was “I talked to the Project Manager” then you probably have someone who does not believe they can inherently engage stakeholders.

2.       They aren’t easily ruffled by conflict

Business Analysts are often faced with unruly or disagreeing stakeholders, unrealistic timelines and potential or actual shifts in scope.   Sometimes all their hard work that has been put into gathering, validating and presenting requirements turns out to be completely useless as soon as the sponsor sees the report and says “but I thought we were supposed to build X.  That’s what I really need, regardless of what the charter says”.  Top that off with trying to get stakeholders to return your calls and e-mails, evaluate the relevancy of 200 business rules in the current software, and fighting with the new requirements management tool and it’s a surprise there aren’t more Business Analysts with frayed nerves.

Like Project Managers, I’ve found that great Business Analysts cannot be easily perturbed.  They realize that most of their environment is out of their control, and even though they can often be held accountable for things beyond their scope they take as much as possible in stride.  Business Analysts have to be able to handle constantly changing goals, priorities and whims of many stakeholders.  While they shouldn’t be simply trying to accommodate everyone without question, they need to realize that it’s all part of the process and that inevitably there will be delays or issues that will impact deliverables and timelines.

How to interview for this trait: It is one thing to say “tell me a time when…,” it’s quite another to actually see someone’s reaction when faced with a situation.  After a candidate has responded to a behaviour-based question, one of the interviewers can pretend to become rather rigid and start making assertions that the Business Analyst did not do the correct thing (e.g. “I don’t think you should ever contact the sponsor directly, you should always go through the Project Manager”).  Have the interviewer continue to insist on their point as the candidate tries to explain their reasoning or position.  Don’t get into any unprofessional conversations such as name calling, but be stubborn.  If there’s a hint of a defensive response, then that’s a bad sign.  If they take it in stride and are able to accept the interviewer’s opinion, then this is a very good indicator.  Business Analysts should expect everyone to have an opinion different from them and know when to move the subject along and acknowledge the person’s point of view.

While I don’t think this technique is suitable for every interview process, I think it can yield insightful responses in many circumstances.

3.       They are multi-disciplined

A lot of Business Analysts have expertise and experience in IT and their domain.  While this could be considered multi-disciplined I am looking for individuals who have experience in performing tasks in completely unrelated fields across multiple industries.  I find that Business Analysts are able to more easily relate to capture information, interact with stakeholders and identify opportunities if they’ve worked in many industries, either as a BA or in an operational role.  Great Business Analysts can leverage their knowledge of several disciplines to take techniques and information and apply it to their current project or duties.  I find Business Analysts who have been in several industries to be more versatile and less susceptible to believing that certain analysis tools, techniques or work products are what are needed for any and every situation.  Business Analysts with an academic background that crosses several disciplines (for example, a degree in Sociology but a Master’s or Doctorate in Math) also demonstrates a multi-disciplined mindset and experience.

A great Business Analyst realizes that all their activities and methods need to be adapted to the specific environment and situation at hand.  Multi-disciplined Business Analysts can often find innovative ways to deliver value to their projects and organizations with their wide range of knowledge.

How to interview for this trait: Few people stay in the same field for their entire career, so ask the candidate to discuss a time when they’ve applied knowledge from a job in one field and used it in another field (even if it’s what they learned flipping burgers before heading into investment banking).  If the candidate has always been in the same field but has an education in a field that is more or less unrelated to business analysis (Arts, Chemistry, Real Estate, etc.), ask them how they feel that education can help them in a specific BA situation (e.g. “What did you learn with your <degree/diploma/etc.> that would help you be able to ensure that you have a complete set of requirements?”).

4.       They are inquisitive

I’ve never met a great Business Analyst that didn’t ask more questions than they answered over the course of a project.  Great Business Analysts realize that they are merely a conduit of information and are always asking as many stakeholders as needed to help elicit, refine, validate and implement requirements.  A Business Analyst should always be thinking “What, why, how, where, when, who” when they’re communicating with stakeholders and analyzing solutions.

Often Business Analysts won’t get the real information they need the first time around.  Whether it’s determining the root cause of a problem, identifying the core need, or ensuring that all the bases are covered when reviewing a potential solution, great Business Analysts realize that while they’ll probably never have a complete set of information they can ask timely and relevant questions to get as much information as possible so effective decisions can be made.

How to interview for this trait: Tell the candidate a little about the project or operational role they will be performing, but keep it high level.  If they don’t ask any follow up questions, that’s a major red flag.  The more questions and follow ups they ask that are pertinent and relevant, the more likely they are naturally inquisitive and know how to search for important details and considerations.  (Note: if they start asking questions like “what’s my vacation pay” and “what are the benefits of the company” before asking for a lot of details about the role, you’re probably looking at the wrong person for your job).

5.       They think (and action) strategically

Business Analysts need to always be asking questions about the value of their work.  Work that doesn’t relate to the strategic goals of the organization doesn’t just have little value, it’s really fake work. Great Business Analysts understand why what they’re doing has value and can articulate that to stakeholders.  In addition, they are always looking for ways to uncover value for the organization by thinking about the organization’s strategic goals.  This may lead the BA to recommend the merger of two overlapping projects or highlight the opportunity for process re-engineering that will reduce costs.  Great Business Analysts show their companies that they are not simply the “IT guys who don’t just talk tech,” but are people who understand the needs and goals of the organization and can find ways to help them realize their objectives more efficiently.

Great Business Analysts also know how to action on strategic thinking.  Rarely will the Business Analyst have the authority to act on an opportunity themselves, but they are willing to develop compelling arguments for superiors to take action.  Doing so may place them at a slightly higher level of risk (since they may be going against popular or conventional thinking), but they also do this altruistically for the greater good of the company.  I’m not advocating that Business Analysts should be mavericks, but they should know how to communicate the value (or lack of value) in recommendations to superiors.

How to interview for this trait: Give the candidate a scenario for a proposed project.  Ask them if they believe the project is a good one to undertake given your company’s goals (assuming the BA could have found these goals on your website or in provided materials prior to the interview).  Good candidates for any position should review those goals prior to going to a job interview, and a great Business Analyst should know how to measure a project against those goals.

Also ask the candidate if they’ve ever been on a project where they didn’t think the project was that valuable to the company.  Start off by asking them something about the project (how was it run, how did they know it wasn’t valuable, etc.).  After they’ve done describing the project, ask them what they did to let others know that the project wasn’t valuable.  If they didn’t do anything or very little, then this makes me question whether they can really action on strategic thinking.

6.       They care about the details

Most of the above traits are things you want to see in other roles, particularly business leaders and salespeople.  One of the things in my mind that sets the Business Analyst role apart from some of these other roles is the need for attention to detail.  You can’t be an Analyst without being a little bit anal J Great Business Analysts know the importance of having precise and clear details documented and communicated properly, and are adept at managing large amounts of detailed information. 

This also means that a Business Analyst must be able to scale their message and thought processes. A great Business Analyst can give a compelling presentation to executives on the value of a project and then turn around and discuss with a Quality Assurance member why a change to requirement R-1938 impacts test cases T-321 and 329.  Without proper attention to detail the Business Analyst can’t ensure that the actual solutions developed or procured will meet the needs of the customer, or even that those needs are sufficiently articulated to be able to adopt solutions.

How to interview for this trait: The best indicator of this trait is to review work products that were exclusively developed by the candidate, although this is often difficult to acquire.  Instead you can get the candidate to play the equivalent of Where’s Waldo.  Ask the candidate to review a sample deliverable and point out potential issues in the content (e.g. imprecise/ambiguous verbiage in requirements, lack of traceability, etc.).  Make sure you give them sufficient time to review the document; this is typically a good activity for a 2nd or 3rd interview.  The more issues that the candidate uncovers the better (bonus points if they spot stuff you didn’t even intend to be an issue).

I would also evaluate how detailed the candidate’s questions are when asking about the job, the work environment, etc.  Again great Business Analysts want as much information as possible, particularly when they’re looking to commit to a position that will take up the majority of their waking hours. 

Finding Great Business Analysts

Finding great Business Analysts can take time and effort; hopefully these traits will help you identify individuals with the potential to be great BAs even if they’re in different roles or don’t have the experience yet. 

What are some traits of great Business Analysts that you have worked with?

Jarett Hailes
Larimar Consulting Inc.

http://www.larimarconsulting.com

posted @ Monday, October 18, 2010 10:18 PM by Jarett Hailes

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COMMENTS

Jarett,

U article is really helpful in analyzing the BA according to the need of the organization. But i have 1 doubt,
if the BA candidate who is being interviewed has served in different business (i mean in service or pre sales) and has applied job in any product based organization then assessing his skills in interview might not be possible? What do you suggest in such cases?

posted @ Wednesday, October 27, 2010 12:48 AM by Ravish


Thanks for your comment Ravish. I think there's a difference between a skill (which is a learned ability to do something) versus a personal trait (which is something inherent to the individual). If you're interviewing a BA that doesn't have specific BA experience, then you're probably looking at that person for a junior position, in which case interviewing for BA skills is not appropriate. However you can still identify whether the candidate has the traits I mentioned above; instead of using scenarios or ask questions that relate to BA experiences you can frame the questions around more general scenarios that would be applicable to more diverse backgrounds. When interviewing for junior positions I think determining whether the candidate has these great BA traits is even more important, since I've found that these traits can predict (but not guarantee) the individual's likelihood to acquire solid BA skills over time and succeed in the role.

You can use the same approach when interviewing for intermediate/senior positions, although in those circumstances I'd want to be assessing skills as well as identifying whether the candidate has the desirable traits, so you can mix in both general and BA-related questions and scenarios into the process.

posted @ Wednesday, October 27, 2010 9:39 AM by Jarett Hailes


I like how you've framed up what the traits of a good BA include. Thanks for the great article.

posted @ Friday, October 29, 2010 9:59 AM by mkalliney


Right on target. I've looked for those traits when hiring and have demonstrated them out in the field.

posted @ Wednesday, November 3, 2010 4:34 PM by amthurmond


I would paraphrase something a PM said to me once 'anyone can be a Business Analyst' as long as they are smart and engaging. I tend to agree. Give me someone who has charm, can listen, can leave their ego out of it and has the ability to absorb masses of knowledge quickly and spit out the salient points. They are hired.

posted @ Saturday, November 13, 2010 12:35 AM by 42something


This is a great article and very timely - I am just starting to interview for a new BA position. Thanks so much for taking the effort to put it together!

Caroline

posted @ Sunday, January 30, 2011 3:48 PM by Caroline Gallagher


Glad it was helpful for you Caroline, thanks very much for the feedback! Good luck with your interviews!

posted @ Sunday, January 30, 2011 11:05 PM by Jarett Hailes


it's a very good article, Jarett.

I was a technical person for 5 years, now moved to IT business analyst. The reason I moved division was because I saw "something's wrong" with my BA division.

And your article really opens up my eyes what i'm looking for. As a Junior business analyst, this article really helps me to find a path to become a Great one.

thanks for the share.

posted @ Saturday, March 12, 2011 10:49 PM by Iman


Wow Iman, thanks for the feedback. Glad it was helpful!

posted @ Sunday, March 13, 2011 8:50 AM by Jarett Hailes


This is a fantastic article. I see all of the mistakes that I made when I first began doing project work and laugh that I made it as far as I have. I will definately keep the information presented here in mind when preparing to interview for future project positions.

posted @ Thursday, July 14, 2011 11:23 AM by Ruthie


In response to the comment of 42something – sounds like the PM is hiring sales people instead of BAs. Absorbing masses of knowledge quickly and spitting out the salient points do not make you a good BA. We are not recorders that play back (salient) information.

While it is true that having a nice personality (and looks) helps, the attention to detail, a clear mind, strong logic, the ability to keep focused in a crazy environment, have passion and deliver quality work, be accountable, do the right thing – I find those invaluable traits which unfortunately can’t be found in every BA out there.

posted @ Thursday, July 14, 2011 10:32 PM by PanamoQA


Thank you very much for this article Jarett.

I have just been hired as a BA despite not having any previous experience in this sort of role and it is given me an insight into why I was employed and how I can improve to fulfil the potential that my new employers must have seen in me!

Many thanks,

Melody

posted @ Monday, July 18, 2011 2:31 PM by Melody


Thanks all for the ongoing comments - glad to see this article is still of interest to people!

Jarett

posted @ Tuesday, July 19, 2011 8:47 AM by Jarett Hailes


Thanks, Jarett for a great article. I am a BA and this helps me in analysing my own strengths and weaknesses. I now know exactly what to focus on to grow from a good BA to a great one. This article is definitely going into my 'Bookmarks' :)

posted @ Thursday, September 15, 2011 1:36 AM by swepaul


As someone who hires myself Jarett I have to say I concur with your points. One other trait of a really good business analyst in my book is one who self appraises, i.e. they are quite meticulous in QA'ing their own work before they put it out for review. You know, so that the artefacts are complete and accurate and make sense. This is related to caring about the details, but I've seen plenty of BAs who are good at, and enjoy, delving into detail but don't self appraise. I'd appreciate any advice on how you might test for this at interview.

GC

posted @ Tuesday, September 20, 2011 3:39 AM by GeeCee


Thanks swepaul, GeeCee for your feedback!

@GeeCee, I agree that self-appraisal and taking the time to review are important characteristics to have. I can't think of a straightforward way to test for this in an interview without asking the obvious, which is very leading and smart interviewees will know what answer you're looking for. There are a couple of peripheral questions that would give you some insight:

"Describe a time that you hit 'send' on a message too quickly or submitted a deliverable prematurely. How did you realize your error? What did you learn from the experience and describe a time it has helped you at a later date."

"Describe what you usually do to prepare a document for review by others." They should name review it by themselves as one of the steps.

posted @ Wednesday, September 21, 2011 12:24 PM by Jarett Hailes


Couldn't help noticing that this article is limited to traits that are valuable in a BA who works in a ICT Requirements Engineering space.

What of a strategic BA? Such a person would be valuable based on other characteristics such as his / her understanding of strategic enterprise goals, stakeholder expectations etc. rather than engaging social skills.

What of BAs in a financial space making strategic evaluations of enterprise progress based on balance-sheet audits and stock-takes?

At a business requirements elicitation / gathering / capture / documentation / validation level, it is hard to apply strategic thought or vision - rather, the BA would be apply others' strategic ideas to identifying business needs and obtaining agreement on such needs.

This is a good article, but I must also point out that the personal characteristics listed here are beneficial to roles that involve people-intensive activities.

posted @ Thursday, February 16, 2012 6:19 PM by undrkvabrtha


Hi undrkvabrtha,

Thanks for your comments! I feel that these traits are important for any BA in any setting, as they speak to the qualities needed to perform business analysis regardless of the domain they are in. Most of the examples I used were IT-focused, but I believe you could insert examples from other domains where a BA might work and have the same traits apply.

I think every BA must be a 'strategic BA'. If you don't understand the goals of the organization and stakeholder expectations then you can't add value by finding opportunities for improvement or properly conveying information to stakeholders, regardless of whether you are working in an IT project, a BPR project or developing a strategic plan. Being multi-disciplined and caring about details are not really social skills, but are still inherent traits needed to be a good BA.

Your comment about being able to interpret financial data if you're a BA working in finance is interesting. I agree that BAs need some level of domain expertise in order to be effective, but I am constantly wondering how much is enough. Is the BA meant to be performing domain-specific tasks, or do they simply need to be able to understand the processes and interpret the results in meaningful ways? As a base I think BAs need financial, management and IT knowledge in order to be effective in any industry so they can perform solution assessment and validation and enterprise analysis.

posted @ Friday, February 17, 2012 8:45 AM by Jarett Hailes


It is worth pointing out that a great business analyst should be something of polymath. The silod nature of most modern organisations and the tendency of the modern management to "shoot" individuals who display an interest outside the immediate area in which they are operating means that most business analysts are not able to build the generalised strategic and operational knowledge that they ought to in order to ensure ongoing "greatness". Further to this many organisations and industries refuse to consider those who have not got specific experience within their own industry even though many skills are actually common to multiple industries and capable individuals could gain the specific additional domain knowledge quickly. When you get to the world of finance this is often taken to an extreme.

posted @ Thursday, July 12, 2012 9:48 AM by Guy Pyetan


Good article, Jerret, I have just tapped into the BA fields ,and this article helps a lot about what a BA should be. Besides, I also agree with you that there are many instantly changing problems available for the analysts, and I'm interested in how to deal with them as an analysts.

posted @ Tuesday, September 4, 2012 2:00 AM by esProc


This article is a life-changer. Or should I say, a career-changer.

After reading it several times and reflecting on it, I realized I would not be happy unless I work in a position that requires the traits described -- because this sounds like me!

But I have not officially held the title of "business analyst." My positions have been titled something else, usually "technical writer," yet I have used many of the BA tools. From what I've read, moving from technical writer to business analyst is fairly common because of the overlapping duties and the transferable skills.

The more I learn about the soft skills required as well as the duties of the business analyst, the more I realize the BA community is the right place for me to be right now.

posted @ Thursday, December 13, 2012 8:30 PM by ValeriaB


Hi ValeriaB,

I am humbled by your comments; thank you very much for sharing! I am glad that this article has helped you solidify your desired career path.

If using these traits and your writing skills are what matter to you most, keep an eye out for positions that don't necessarily have the title of Business Analyst but list responsibilities and competencies that would give you an opportunity to leverage your skills and potential.

Similarly, some roles with the title Business Analyst may not necessarily engage all of these traits; I am finding that many 'IT Business Analyst' positions are really solution-focused and require technical skills that are not necessary if you are truly performing business analysis.

Best of luck to you with your career move!

posted @ Thursday, December 13, 2012 11:17 PM by Jarett Hailes


Great read!

posted @ Tuesday, April 16, 2013 7:23 AM by Erin Steve


Thank you jarett for this 'valuable' article.
I do have all the traits mentioned above by nature. All what i don't have is skills. I am ready to work as a fresher also though i have 3 yrs experience in various sectors. What are the basic skills i should learn??

Thanks
Kapil Hasija

posted @ Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:25 AM by kapil


Hi Kapil:

There are many BA training providers that provide good overviews of the skills needed, this one from B2T Training is pretty good: http://www.b2ttraining.com/curriculum/training-program/ (click on each course's course outline). The Business Analysis Body of Knowledge also provides a good overview of some of the essential skills needed to be a Business Analyst.

You can look for online resources to help you learn these skills and look for opportunities to perform business analysis activities in positions that are not titled 'Business Analyst'. Laura's site offers a lot of good resources on how to look for your first BA position: http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/.

Jarett

posted @ Thursday, May 30, 2013 1:46 PM by Jarett Hailes


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