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Want a Career Change? Lean on the BABOK

By Keith Saddoris, CBAP, IIBA Seattle Chapter President

I was lucky enough to get my start as a Business Analyst (BA) 13 years ago when an IT BA Manager took a chance on someone from the business side, who had no IT or requirements background, but who had solid business knowledge. Over time, I learned the basics of business analysis and was able to differentiate myself in the role. I thought that what gave me the ability to differentiate myself was my confidence in the depth of my business knowledge. I knew if I asked a question or challenged the value of an idea that I was going to be on solid ground because of that business knowledge. I knew that if I proposed a way to communicate or implement something, that it was at least reasonable because I had firsthand knowledge of the user environment.

So, after many years with that same company and department, I started to consider looking for another job. For quite some time though, I was too afraid to apply for anything because it wasn’t in the same company or industry. I honestly doubted I could be an effective BA if I couldn’t rely on my business knowledge specific to the group I was going to support. Eventually, I ventured forth and discovered that I could survive outside of my safe little world by applying the skills I had developed. In short, I had something new to rely on and I hadn’t realized it was there.

I have since changed industries and companies a few more times and recently became a Certified Business Analysis Professional™ (CBAP®) recipient. Preparing for the exam reminded me about the underlying competencies as well as techniques essential for a BA that I have leaned on in my career. 

According to Chapter Eight of A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), the Underlying Competencies are:
8.1  Analytical Thinking and Problem Solving – includes Decision Making, Learning, Problem Solving, and Systems Thinking
8.2  Behavioral Characteristics – includes Ethics, Personal Organization, and Trustworthiness
8.3  Business Knowledge – includes Business Principles and Practices, Industry Knowledge,  Organization Knowledge and Solution Knowledge
8.4  Communication Skills – includes Oral Communications, Teaching, and Written Communications
8.5  Interaction Skills – includes Facilitation and Negotiation, Leadership and Influencing, and Teamwork
8.6  Software Applications – includes General-Purpose Applications and Specialized  Applications

When I started out, I was relying heavily on Industry Knowledge (8.3.2), understanding the competitive forces that shape the industry and Organization Knowledge (8.3.3), understanding the organizational structure, relationships and how profit is generated. But I had much to learn in the areas of Systems Thinking (8.1.5), understanding the components as well as the “system” as a whole, including people and interactions, and Specialized Applications (8.6.2), diagramming and modeling tools. When I made the move to a new industry, these strengths and weaknesses became reversed, but since I still possessed many of the underlying competencies, I simply relied on my applicable strengths in the short term and worked towards improving in my weaker areas over time. So, having come from the insurance industry, I may not have immediately understood the competitive and regulatory intricacies of a creative image company, but I did know how to consider impacts from all aspects, how to model a process, and create a prototype of the user interface. And, it was amazing how quickly I was able to pick up on the industry and organization knowledge—at least enough to feel more comfortable.

I also realized that the techniques I had practiced for years could be applied regardless of industry. Techniques like Brainstorming (9.3), Estimation (9.10) and the Lessons Learned Process (9.15) are pretty much the same everywhere I have been. A few more detailed examples of how being comfortable with a technique is enough to succeed follow.

Interviews (BABOK® 9.14) – While it is helpful to have some information about the domain you are exploring by interviewing someone, it is only one factor. I find that I can usually get enough to frame up my starting questions by reviewing some existing documentation beforehand—so much information is on company intranet sites now. Additionally, once you have mastered key success factors—the ability to identify the right people to interview, prepare by designing and organizing your questions, listen actively during the interview staying focused on the goal, and follow up for clarity and closure—you can apply these to just about any interviewee in any industry.

Process Modeling (BABOK® 9.21) – When I was on the business side, I knew all of our processes inside and out. At least that is what I thought at the time. As I became more skilled as a business analyst, I learned there was much more to our processes than I was aware of as a business user.  Once I became comfortable with the basic elements of a process—activities, decisions, events, flows, roles, terminal points—it became second nature to walk the domain experts through the process. Nearly every business user I have ever worked with on a process starts with:  “First I do this, then I do that, then I do that, etc.” To them, that is all there is to a process. They typically wonder why I think we need so much time to talk about process—they just want to hand me the document listing the steps. However, asking simple questions like “Why do you do that step?” or “How is that decision made?” or “What triggers that step?” can quickly get them to realize there is more to the process than meets the eye. This technique applies to so many industries and you don’t have to know that much about the process going into it. Sometimes I feel like the five year old that keeps asking “Why?”, “How?” and “What?”, but it works every time. 

We all experience some point in our career that we are faced with change whether it is our choice to change or our “opportunity” to change. Change usually comes with a good amount of fear attached and that leads to resistance or avoidance of the change. Years ago I put off making a change because of fear. If I had had the BABOK® Guide at that time, I might have realized sooner that I had plenty of knowledge to lean on even in an unfamiliar setting. If you are contemplating a change or doubting your skills, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the BABOK® Guide. You either come away with the confidence to move forward now, or you come away with a clearer picture of what you can do to enhance your knowledge to overcome that fear. It sounds like a win either way to me.