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Breaking Through the BA Mystique

You can’t work in IT and not have watched “Office Space.” I mean, it’s a prerequisite, isn’t it? It’s like being a developer and never having heard “Code Monkey.” It’s the type of movie where you sit and nod as you laugh, recognizing it is funny because it is true.

My favorite dialogue in the film is between Bob Slydell (one of the Bobs tasked with downsizing Initech) and Tom Smykowski (a targeted employee).
- Bob Slydell: What would you say you do here?
- Tom Smykowski: I deal with the customers so the engineers don't have to!”(paraphrased)

In many ways, that line summarizes the role of a business analyst. Or does it? 

It sounds like a simple question: “What do you do?” It’s the second most important thing that is communicated between two people when they first meet. And in most cases, the response is rather simple. 

Well, for a business analyst, the “what” can sometimes be difficult to explain. Following the words “I’m a business analyst” I tend to get wordy and I ramble on trying to find the right words to communicate what I do on a given day without going into the specifics of the project on which I’m currently working. Because, after all, it always depends on the project, doesn’t it? 

It’s easier to define the “what” in a complex software system than it is to explain what a BA does. It’s what a certain manager I know once referred to as “The BA Mystique.”

Now, that “mystique” can sometimes serve us well. It’s what gets people to our meetings. My theory is that we often fill conference rooms and conference bridges with user reps, project managers, developers, testers, etc., simply because they want to satisfy their curiosity about what is it the BA does here.

For the most part, however, the mystique hinders us. It prevents us from focusing on the project scope, the requirements, and the task at hand, because we spend so much of the time allotted to analysis proving our worth to the team – defining our role and its benefits, explaining our methods, our document templates. Even after 15+ years, I still find myself defining my role with the onset of every project.

The BA Mystique exists across many IT organizations. It is often seen in managers who are not quite sure what to expect from their BAs. However, what is somewhat surprising is when that uncertainty comes from business analysts themselves. Only ask a colleague from a different company – no, scratch that, from a different department in your own organization (and sometimes even within the same department) – what he or she does as a business analyst.


It is a common theme at business analysis conferences, blogs, BA communities and organizations - many business analysts look at the work they are currently doing and wonder whether they fit the BA mold. The business analyst role has become a mystery to them. So, how do we clear things up? Well, it all starts with you and your desire to investigate, to learn.

Read. Resources for business analysts are more accessible now than they have ever been, in large part due to the increasing interactivity of internet sites. Business analysts and managers who have broken through the BA mystique are blogging about it, chatting about it, teaching free webinars, and writing books about it. All you need to do is a simple Google search on "business analyst" and you have access to about 56,700,000 references of knowledge and experience. But it is even easier than that! Browse through the Modern Analyst site and pore through the articles, discussions, and advice posted by your fellow business analysts. Read. Tap into the BA resources and read. You will find others with the same concerns and will learn much about where you may fit as a BA.

Talk. Discuss. Elicit information from other business analysts. Ask them what they do. And not just those in your department or specific division. Reach out across the organization and see what others are doing. You may find that the work others are doing is exactly what you've been looking for - or perhaps not. Whether you find a place where you fit, or not, at least you know what is the current landscape.

And then, try it. Try doing the work and see how it fits you. When you talk to the BA leaders in your organization ask them to give you some practice work - a case study, if you will - that you can take and run with. I have always found other business analysts eager to help their colleagues, without exception; I am certain you will find them willing to provide guidance. Ask them for a sample project and write the requirements, draw the business process models and activity diagrams; take it upon yourself to feel what the work is like. Perhaps you'll find the work dull and unsatisfying. Or, you may find it challenging and enjoyable (yes, enjoyable).

After all, it is up to you. It is up to you to find out all you can about the BA path - take advantage of the resources, talk to others in the field, learn from them, and try on the work so that when you have that next career discussion with your manager it is one that will lead you in a direction in which you will be glad to travel. 


This entry was published on Oct 11, 2011 / palvarez. Posted in Business Analysis, Career as a Business Systems Analyst, Getting Started as a Business Systems Analyst. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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Mike posted on Saturday, November 5, 2011 7:32 AM
BA's certainly come in a variety of different flavours and their roles can seem vague at times. But I find that people often consult the BA before the subject matter experts because they have a better understanding of the context of the project as their knowledge stretches across delivery, workflow and the technical aspects. In my company the BA is pretty much the go to group as they know the answer to the question and if not who to go to.

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