If you’re interested in data and how it relates to business processes, a career as a business analyst (BA) might be for you. Business analysis will enable you to spend your days burrowing into numbers and emerging with nuggets of insight. You will need to really know your data to succeed. But as experienced business analysts will tell you, there’s much more to it than that. The ability to make data come alive for human beings — particularly those in management — is crucial.
We spoke to a range of BAs (and those who work with them) about what differentiates a superior analyst from the pack. The answers will help you set your priorities for advancing in your career, and will provide insight into what day-to-day life is like in this increasingly in-demand job.
1. They know their data
Data is at the foundation of what a business analyst does: You’re expected to provide data-driven advice on how your business needs to grow and adapt. That doesn’t mean just throwing numbers into a spreadsheet; it means understanding where that data comes from and how it was gathered before digging into it and looking for insights.
“Business analysts should understand how data are collected and what they represent,” says Marcio Tabach, lead analyst with technology research and advisory firm ISG. “Sometimes the way data are collected brings an intrinsic bias. For example, invoices are not an appropriate dataset for forecasting demand, as they are limited by what the company can supply.”
“Business analysts should understand data engineering, as this is the ‘data foundation’ layer to prepare, sort, catalog, and ingest data from across different sources,” says Gowtham Kumar, ISG’s principal. “The challenge is the abundance of data (mostly unstructured), the variety of sources (databases, file formats, technology, platforms, etc.), privacy and security concerns, and interdepartmental challenges over who owns the data and whether it can be exposed to third parties. Business analysts should be able to identify these nuances, as they are in primary contact with business stakeholders and IT.”
To handle all that data, business analysts must be conversant with modern analytics tools, Kumar continues. “Business analysts should train themselves with platforms and tools with the ability to crunch billions of data points from IoT sensors, as well as video, audio, or emotion-based analytics,” he says. “In some cases, these are extended to result-oriented self-service use cases involving service chatbots and the like.”
Data scientists are in such high demand that they’re difficult to come by, but data science platforms can help business analysts get useful results from big data sets.
2. They know their business
But data is only the beginning of what a business analyst does. The real heart of the BA’s role is understanding how their business works so they can apply the lessons from data to improve things, and it’s important not to lose sight of that as you dive deep into data science.
“Frequently, business analysts focus on adding techniques and methodologies to their capabilities: learning predictive modeling and advanced visualization, coding in Python, and so on,” says Alan Jacobson, chief data and analytic officer at Alteryx. “However, the most impactful analysts tend to have two differentiated skills: domain knowledge and problem formulation. If you are supporting a sales team, spend time learning about how the team works. If someone asks you to pull the percentage of widgets sold last month, understanding why they want to know — and potentially creating a better analysis that shows why things are changing — would be the most valuable thing to your business partners.”
A business analyst needs to know the specifics of what’s important to their specific organization and the teams they support. “A good business analyst should determine what functions of the organization give the company a competitive advantage in the marketplace; those are the areas that may require customization during the software development lifecycle,” says Diane Davidson, owner of Clever Fox Advisory. “Business processes that do not provide the company a competitive advantage should be standardized and not involve customization.”
BA’s need to keep an eye on the bigger picture of their organization as well — you need to understand overarching concerns, even if they aren’t the main focus of the team you’re working with. For instance, Collen Clark, a lawyer and founder of Schmidt & Clark, LLP, says that “one of the best things to do is to get thoroughly acquainted with the legal constraints of the company. A competent business analyst will guarantee that the solutions he or she delivers are the best that can be done while staying within the confines of the law.”
And an analyst who moves from team to team, or from company to company, needs to stay humble about what they do and don’t know, and defer to the domain knowledge of the teams they’re working with.
“Business analysts I have hired in the past often refer to other industries to showcase their talent and experience in the field,” says Lucas Travis, founder of Inboard Skate. “There’s a huge difference between the industry I am in and those they have handled — and they’re not always comparable. Business analysts should understand that they’re working the strategic plans for that client’s business and not upselling themselves by bragging about previous projects in different fields.”
3. They communicate well
Those analysts that Travis butted heads with seemed to be missing a key skill in the BA’s toolkit: the ability to communicate effectively with other team members. It’s not an uncommon gap, but it’s an unfortunate one.
“I meet many business analysts good at analytical thinking and problem-solving, which are important qualities in the profession,” says Mary Zayats, lead business analyst and banking IT consultant at ScienceSoft. “Still, not all of them are good communicators with strong interaction skills. I’m convinced that such skills are a game-changer for a good business analyst, as they help them pose the right questions at the right time.”
And it’s not enough to ask the right questions: You really need to hear to the answers, too. “I believe that a rockstar business analyst is also a great negotiator that really listens to the clients and their needs, which more often than not do not lay on the surface,” says Anton Derkach, delivery manager of Intellectsoft.
In fact, one of the main roles for a business analyst is to serve as a conduit of communications between various teams, particularly between IT and other departments. In that context, you need to improve your technical skills not just so you can implement the latest whiz-bang data techniques, but so you know enough to bridge those organizational gaps.
“Coming from the business side of the company, I understood the business requirements and priorities inside and out,” says Jan Erik Aase, a partner with ISG who was a business analyst for many years. “But I routinely felt frustrated when my IT colleagues informed me that our requirements could not be delivered due to technology constraints. I enrolled in a number of basic programming courses and soon found I could challenge many of those rejections and, more importantly, that I could suggest alternative approaches. This helped me earn the respect of my IT colleagues and together we delivered better outcomes.”
And, of course, if you speak tech to the techies, you need to be able to weave business narratives for the company leadership. “Much of an analyst’s job is looking at data and processes, which aren’t very warm and fuzzy,” says Baruch Labunski, CEO at Rank Secure. “A great analyst can present recommendations in a way that connects with your bottom line and with the way you and your employees experience your business every day. They pitch their recommendations in terms of results, not just data.”
4. They don’t make themselves indispensable
Remember that your goal is ultimately to help your team members do their job better, with a better understanding of the data that underlies their business, and better processes for acting on that new understanding. That means working directly with those team members to make sure you understand how they do their jobs — and they understand how those jobs will change.
“Great analysts realize that projects don’t exist solely as challenges for them,” says Kyle Crawford, who started his career as a business analyst and currently works as manager of information services at Bowling Green State University. “They take the time to understand the individuals whose day-to-day activities will be impacted by the solutions they create. The greatness of a solution is not defined by the creative genius of the analyst, but comes from finding the best solution for the end users. A good analyst will create a solution to any problem; a great analyst will create solutions that will be used long after they are gone.”
That last point is absolutely crucial, because a business analyst often moves from project to project within a company, or may leave an organization altogether for greener pastures. But if you move on from a project, you’ll want to ensure your reputation by leaving the team behind you better you than you found them — and with the tools to make the best of the analysis and suggestions you delivered when you worked with them.
“A great business analyst provides me with resources for further training, and for educating me and my staff,” says Rank Secure’s Labunski. “Just dumping a list of things we need to change on my desk doesn’t help me get started. Recommendations for training, certification, or simply coaching strategies that I can employ help me actually implement my analyst’s suggestions.”
5. They adjust when things go wrong
More often than not, business analysts will run into hiccups, and when they do, they need to learn to adjust on the fly.
“Mistakes happen and systems fail, so be prepared,” says one business analyst based in New York City. “Don’t be surprised if a ten-minute cadence report turns into a two-hour data hygiene scrub. When working with multiple software platforms and systems, it is not uncommon for issues to occur. Whether it be dirty data or system crashes, be prepared for the worst. Adding integrity checks to reports are great ways to recognize these errors.”
Ultimately, attention to detail and the ability to course-correct will earn you a good reputation and make you a better business analyst.
“Correction of an error found in the requirement specification costs zero,” says Alex Melchenko, co-founder and COO at Orangesoft. “But fixing it at any other stage of the software development lifecycle can cost enormous money and resources. So, considering various scenarios, anticipating mistakes and bottlenecks is what good business analysts rightly get good money to do.”