How to Position Yourself as a Business Analyst even if there are few Global Standards

By Laura Brandenburg, CBAP,

Few professionals take a harder hit from the reality that there is little in the way of standards for the global community of practice than aspiring business analysts. Starting a business analyst career is a bit like trying to hit a moving target. Just when you think you’ve got it, a new job role or requirement surfaces that holds you back from another job as a business analyst. Even though you might be pursuing business analysis because you’ve heard the skill set is relatively timeless, you feel like you are chasing your tail looking to get your start.

Here are a few questions from last month’s webinar, You’re a ____, and You Want to Be a BA that we didn’t have time to answer. I think they do well to illustrate the impact of varying standards within the global community of business analysts or those seeking to enter into our profession.
  • For starting as a BA can any of the roles be assumed (generalist, specialist, hybrid) or must you start from a specific role like generalist and then move to specialist or hybrid? 
  • I have started my career as a payroll executive and am currently working as a payroll and tax consultant. I am interested in a BA role and have been learning and also performing the tasks of a BA. I would like to know is there anything like "Payroll Business Analyst"? 
  • Is specialized knowledge in an industry required for a BA role? For example, I have 13 years of technical experience in bioinformatics. Would it be difficult for me to work in the financial industry without taking business-related courses? Or is it better to focus on IT-related industries? 
  • How important is specific tool knowledge? Or, knowledge of specific types of deliverables?
Let’s take these one at a time.

As Maureen McVey reviewed in the webinar, IIBA lays out different BA roles or patterns (generalist, specialist and hybrid) in the BA Competency Model. These roles reflect the actual types of roles that current business analysis professionals fulfill in their organizations. They are not a career path. Professionals can start their careers in any one of these roles and then proceed along their path to any of the other roles.

Often it makes sense to start in a role that plays to your strengths. So for example, if you have a strong technical background you might start in a specialist Systems Analyst role. Or, if you have deep experience as an Agile Tester, you might start in an Agile Business Analysis / Quality Assurance role (a role that’s both hybrid and specialist).

The question about the Payroll Specialist helps illustrate this possibility. Professionals with business backgrounds often have functional or industry domain expertise that helps them transition into a specialist business analyst role where that expertise is highly valued by the hiring organization. While you might not find a job with the title “Payroll Business Analyst” (although it wouldn’t surprise me if you did), you might very well find a Business Analyst job requiring payroll expertise. Your past business experience would be highly valued in this context.

While expertise (if you have it) can help clear your path to business analysis, it is not a requirement to starting a career in business analysis. However some industries tend to require expertise – the financial industry commonly does – and others do not. I often advise mentees to pick one “must have” – either finding a BA job or finding a job in a particular industry – not both. If industry wins for you, then invest your time learning how professionals most commonly break into that industry. Then, once you are successfully employed in that industry, begin carving your path to business analysis. In the absence of industry experience, focus on generalist roles or roles specializing in areas of expertise you do have, such as technology, process improvement, or a functional domain.

Similarly, knowledge of specific tools can be a leverage point when finding your first job as a business analyst. Business applications used by process workers tend to have a common set of requirements, even across varying tools. For example, I would imagine all accounting systems have the ability to create invoices and customer service applications (even home-grown, proprietary ones) have the ability to log customer issues.

Business applications used by business analysts as part of the requirements development process can be a factor for certain positions. But because, again, there is little in the way of standards, often organizations are more interested in your familiarity with certain methodologies or deliverables than the tools themselves, unless they are hiring for a BA to be responsible for managing and customizing those tools.

So yes, knowledge of specific types of deliverables can be important for specific BA roles. An organization that prefers use cases will be looking for a professional that knows how to write use cases. Or, an agile organization would likely prefer a BA with experience crafting user stories. However, deliverables like “Business Requirements Document” and “Software Requirements Specification” tend to be more general in nature and vary more from organization to organization – by comparing your work samples to some standard templates you may just learn you’ve created something very close to what the hiring organization is looking for. Don’t underestimate the value of your past experience under a different name.

Laura Brandenburg, CBAP, hosts Bridging the Gap, is the author of How to Start a Business Analyst Career and is on a mission to help 50 professionals start business analysis careers in 2012. To learn more about making the BA career transition, join her free email course.