Finding a Career Direction as a Business Analyst

One of the biggest challenges I hear from business analysts is that they want to get better at what they do and take on more advanced roles, but they are not quite sure what direction to take. In fact, in a recently poll run here, 78% of you answered “no” to the question “Do you have a clear next step for your career?” Unlike a road trip, there’s no clear end in site. Mapping a career is not as simple as finding the quickest route from point A to point B.

The career direction challenge

Finding a direction has been a challenge for me throughout much of my career. In the early part of my career, I would consider myself opportunistic. I took advantage of job opportunities as they came up and made the most of them. In retrospect, each experience helped get me where I am today. But overall, my career lacked a coherent direction. I never really knew “What’s next?” Although I consistently took on new challenges, I took on new challenges more because they needed to be taken and they seemed interesting than because they fit into a career plan.

And then I got stuck. Actually I got stuck in multiple small ways along this path. But then I got stuck in a big way. You get stuck in a big way when you find yourself in the wrong place with no way forward. Where each small step you might take is somehow the wrong one. I was stuck in charge of a 15-person team that I respected dearly and had a passion for leading. But the role I had was not right. Each day I worked at my job I felt like a bit of me was being siphoned away into the abyss. When I realized the steps I needed to take to advance my job (and those of the employees relying on my leadership) were inconsistent with who I was, it was an easy decision to leave. (A hard decision to act on, but an easy decision to make.)

Realizing my job is not my career

I got unstuck by focusing on me and what I wanted. Then I got further unstuck by learning what services other people would actually pay me for. In the intersection of these two sets of activities was a path for me — my career direction. Something I am living and breathing today.

The key principle behind getting myself unstuck was realizing that my job was not my career. All of my opportunistic efforts to this point had been focused on becoming better at my job and increasing my value to my employer. While this is an important attribute of the career-minded business analyst, it’s not enough to create a fulfilling career. My direction was focused solely within my organization and what was needed to make it succeed. I didn’t really spend much time looking outward towards what others were doing. And I did not have a big picture plan that centered around me and my career.

Job success is a good thing, it’s just not enough

I imagine a lot of you are in this situation as well. And it’s not a horrible situation to be in. If you can manage to make your job a success, then you are much more likely to make your career a success. You might even consider job success a precursor or dependency for career success. But stuckness happens when we can’t see the forest of our careers for the trees of our jobs and day-to-day tasks. That’s where I was stuck. And that’s where I’m hearing a lot of you are stuck too. You are a successful business analyst, or really darn close, but are looking to plan what’s next in your career.

It took me awhile to figure all of this out. And it took me longer to learn how to actually apply these principles in a proactive way to decisions I make about work. I’m sure I still have a lot of learning to do. But now that I am finally in a place where I have a direction and am working toward something. It feels good. It feels so good to say “yes” with confidence when a new opportunity presents itself and to say “no” with equal confidence when the wrong or not-quite-right opportunity is sitting in front of me with a ready paycheck.

Career directions create unexpected opportunities

Since finding a direction, I have had so many opportunities. It’s only been 2 years, but I feel about 10 years smarter. It’s amazing what can happen when you open your mind and listen. When you establish a vision for yourself and then set out taking steps in a concrete direction. Things have a way of falling into place. Opportunities come up where you least expect them. Each small step forward builds positive momentum. I see it happen to participants in my courses all the time.

I want business analysts everywhere to find this reality for themselves. You see, while my career direction includes being a business analyst, it also involves helping other business analysts. This is something I believe in and am passionate about. As I wrote in the Business Analyst Manifesto, I believe we build our profession one BA at a time. I’m doing my best to make a contribution to our profession by sharing what I’ve learned thus far on my career journey as a business analyst.

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Comments

  1. Laura, this is a really interesting post and one that I hope finds its way to the leaders of IT organizations at large companies. There are lots of stranded BAs out there looking for advancement with no where to go. Organizations need to understand this need within their employee base and start thinking strategically about how to leverage the skills of BAs in upper management roles. It turns out I was recently forced to do some soul searching related to this topic.

    Your point about realizing a job is not a career is the key in my mind. For me it was the decision that I am choosing to be a professional in the field of business analysis. So when I look at opportunities that are before me the question is, “Does the role the company is trying to fulfill need a professional BA?” Its also important to keep in mind that the job title might not always be ‘Business Analyst’ or ‘Solutions Analyst’ even though we have careers within the field of business analysis.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Leslie. I agree that there is a lack of awareness amongst management about how to fully leverage BAs. I think the answer starts both in raising awareness at the management level, but also with individual business analysts having a clear vision of what it is they want out of their careers.

    Also agree that job titles are misleading, often ridiculously so. You can be a business analyst whether or not you hold a job with that title. To me, being a business analyst is about associating yourself with a career in business analysis, not necessarily having a job with a specific title.

    Laura

  3. Amey Gharse says:

    hi Laura..interesting article..I fit into “My job is not my career” bracket and I am going through a phase where I am working towards changing that. The BA field is where I want to be but there are limited opportunities in India as of today and also in my current role but I am hoping new opportunities open up and I can put my BA learning into practice!

  4. Hi Amey, Great to hear your energy! Becoming a BA really is about seizing opportunities that come your way. You never know exactly where they will pop up, but if you keep your eyes open for them, you will find them.

  5. Henrique W says:

    Hello Laura, great article! And I feel that today I am on the ‘stuck phase’ of finding what I should do with my career.

    I work for a large IT Organization, where I have always been involved in doing requirements analysis for large/complex projects. My main responsibility is to check on the quality of the business, functional/non-functional, and system requirements, always making sure that the proper requirement traceability is in place (i.e., to guarantee that what the client is requesting via business requirements will be properly delivered). So, I work very closely to the Business Analysts who write the requirements. However, I never got a chance to actually write any of these requirements.

    I have good knowledge on how to handle requirements elicitation, and what it takes to write good requirements. Now, I am looking for an opportunity to put this knowledge to work, i.e., to be the Business Analyst for the project. And I guess that is where I am stuck: how to make it happen. The way my work environment is currently setup today, I am not sure how I will be able to get unstuck… So, I guess I need to figure out the best way to sell the ‘requirement’ experience/knowledge that I have today, in a way that I can get my first opportunity to be a Business Analyst, eliciting/writing requirements.

    Maybe if you could share a little on how you got started in being a Business Analyst, it would be great. Or, if you have encountered people in your career life with similar situation/’dilemma’, if could share how these people dealt with it, it would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank You!

  6. Thanks for sharing your story Henrique. It sounds like you have many business analysis competencies but now it’s time to find the right role to tie them altogether. I suggest you hop over to the interviews section — many of the BAs I interviewed shared their stories of how they became business analysts. The stories are all unique. There is no one path.
    http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/category/interview/

    I do also share mine in my book and have rehashed it in a few of the IIBA call-in shows as well. I’d be happy to share it, it’s just longer than will fit nicely into a comment. 🙂

    One question I had from reviewing your comment is, are you currently working at an organization that has a defined BA role? If so, then that is the best place to target in terms of building a short-term career direction that will help you enter into business analysis.

  7. Kimberley Heath says:

    This is my favorite article in the catetgory of career direction and stuckness! In fact, I like it so much I’ve booked marked it to my iphone to remind myself to step back from time to time and look at the big picture of my career direction. I do this often anyway because of my passion for professional development, but there is something inspirational in this article that reminds me that although I’ll have bad days and challenges in my job, but my career is for the long haul. Thanks, Laura!

  8. Ah, thanks, Kimberley!! It was a nice reminder for me to read back through this one today as well. Sometimes I forget the lessons in my own posts! 🙂

  9. Chintan says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for the great article. I am still struggling with my career direction.
    Little background :
    I have done of Bachelor of Enng (Computers). After Enng, I worked as Software Developer for 3 years for Banking projects in HSBC. i decided to pursue further studies. I did my MBA(2 years full time specializing in Finance). At present, i work as Business Analyst in Oracle,India for Retail Banking Projects.

    I am still asking myself…what next….i am unsure of next career path in IT… i am always looking for bigger and challing roles.

  10. Chintan,
    It sounds like there are many options for you and career momentum does start by always looking for bigger and more challenging roles. Because BA is such a varied role, there are probably options for you to stay in BA but grow personally and professionally. When you look at the work you’ve done previously, are there aspects that stand out in terms of areas you’d like to build on (or responsibilities you’d like to eliminate)?

    You might consider Career Paths in Business Analysis as this eBook provides some examples of senior-type roles that BAs build in their careers:
    http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/business-analyst-career-resources/career-paths-for-business-analyst/

  11. Srila Ramanujam says:

    Hi again Laura,

    While I can hear myself speak through your words sometimes, I must say, I am not quite sure if I entirely fit the tag of a “Business Analyst”, and I say this because there is really so many flavors to being a BA, and each so specific to each industry or domain…..I am also not totally sure if am even ready to climb the next rung in my career ladder, while at times I feel I must, there are times when I’d really like to hone in more skills, add more value to what I am capable of doing right now. So really I just do not like the indecisive phase that I end up creating for myself, but nevertheless there is always room to improve and there will always be a saturated point when I will feel that strong urge to scale up to the next level. And when I do so, I shall pay attention keeping your points in mind, thank you….

    • Hi Srila,
      How wonderful to hear that you can sometimes hear yourself speak through my words…wonderful feedback for any writer! I would say that if your current goal is to hone in on your BA skills then that is a perfectly valid career direction. Chapter 2 of Professional Development for BAs focuses on just that – selecting some key competencies to work on. Then subsequent chapters help you build plans to develop those key competencies.

      A direction doesn’t have to be about moving “up” to a certain place, it can be about solidifying the place you are at. I’m at a similar point right now where my career direction is all about helping BAs. I’m obviously doing that while at the same time implementing changes to get better at it. I suppose I am both “there” and “moving” at the same time.

  12. I never thought I will be a Business Analyst in my career or job. I started my career as a ‘typical sales representative’ for a manufacturing company in after my post graduation in management. After worked for couple of years ,an opportunity knocked through one of friend working in IT organization. It was a star-up organization and with NO prior IT experience, I was taken as Pre-Sales Analyst. Working in a start-up organization gave me an edge where I was able to go through the SDLC cycle in product development.

    After that, I joined a mid-sized organization (IT Services) as Business Analyst 4yrs back. Working in a IT services organization exposed myself into different systems, technologies, processes and domain. Here I was able to gain domain knowledge in US healthcare Insurance. But, the work I get here is very limited and specific.

    Now, when I think of next steps or career direction, still I am not clear or do not know where to focus.

    • Ganesh,
      It might help to look at what you enjoy most about your current work and what you enjoy least. Then start crafting a general direction by focusing more on what you enjoy most.

  13. Boy, did this post resonate with me! I am dealing with being stuck right now, compounded by working for an engineering firm where the BA role is not clearly defined. Yet, there is definite opportunity for me; I started as the receptionist to get a foot in the door and now some Project Managers (who understand my skill sets) are using me in a BA capacity on their projects. Now I just have to leverage that momentum and get completely out of the admin lane.

    Direction is a beautiful thing – finding that clarity is a challenge.

    • Jen, Your comment is music to my ears. I can just hear the direction oozing out of you. It takes a big mind to see the opportunity from receptionist to BA – nicely done!

      If the PMs have any pull in your organization, I say do whatever you can to win those project managers over and make their life easier. Hopefully they will eventually be in a position to help you make your case for a new role.

      I know what you mean about clarity being a challenge. It tends to come in small bits for me. But in between there is lots of ambiguity and fuzziness. But I find if you keep moving in the right direction through the rough spots, sometimes just trying new things for the sake of trying them, clarity typically emerges.

      Good luck and keep us posted!

  14. This is a great article and your blog is great! I recently made a big change; moved overseas and managed to get a Business Analyst position coming from a more Service Delivery in IT/Telecommunications background. However the job hasnt been what I expected so far…

    I have been here for almost year and while I think I have done some good stuff here like writing training and other documentation as well as testing some pretty complex solutions I haven’t really had the opportunity to do any of the core BA activities. And the other thing that has disappointed me is there is frequently little work for me to do and I end up either sitting around or being lumped with odd jobs and things I feel are irrelevant and don’t do anything for my motivation.

    What advice would you have for this sort of situation? I think because I havent had the chance to get many essential BA skills under my belt it will be hard to find a job externally and because my current employer is quite small (10-20 people) there isnt really anywhere to move.

    I know I can probably use the time I have as a learning opportunity but I can only take so much I suppose. Any advice would be very welcome 🙂

    • Thanks, Mike!

      You might want to check out Adriana’s recent post on improving your organization’s requirements practices:
      http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/help-a-ba-how-do-i-convince-my-team-to-adopt-better-requirements-practices/

      There are some great tips in there as well as links to a few other articles we have that might help you out.

      In a small organization, it is going to be difficult to make a case for a pure BA role and wearing multiple hats is not uncommon. However, before you give up on this opportunity, you might want to look for ways you can improve it and leverage it to inch further into a more concrete BA role. It seems like you have an important asset — a bit of free time — and finding creative ways to use that free time to do BA-type things could be the right direction to head in.

      It also strikes me that you might get a lot out of our April course on choosing business analysis and building a preliminary career change roadmap.

      http://www.mybusinessanalysiscareer.com/ba-career-change-3/

      • Hi Laura.

        Thanks for the response. I think coming to your blog and seeing a few other BA related things around the internet has piqued my interest again and I am using my downtime to read through the BABOK and try and get my hands on some other BA related books that were suggested to me such as “Seven Steps to Mastering Business Analysis”.

        I think if I get some core knowledge and skills on my own I can then apply them here, even if they are out of scope of projects here it will give me a chance to at least get into it a bit more.

        The many hats thing is fine with me; I have done everything from website building and design to social media marketing. I enjoy the job when I have things to do…

        Thanks again for your reply!

      • Good luck and let us know how it all goes!

  15. Srila Ramanujam says:

    Sure enough, I am indeed breathing a lot easier after the read……cause I know am not gripped by a phobia that probably has inflicted me alone to be left with an increased feeling of being marooned in an island of nowhere-to-go!!

    Its not just what’s next that sometimes bugs you? Its also about what matters if I took this road, and not the other, and what predictable risks am I able to foresee with a fair degree of safety, so as to be able to know that it’ll lead me somewhere……a “destination” these days is almost a BIg thing, leave alone if you got to where you precisely wanted to get to!

    But I think Laura, a lot of all that you’ve shared helps, in a way to know that when you are living in a sort of confusion, it is not “entirely” a bad thing and that somewhere along the line you are bound to meet that little path, the less traveled road albeit, but a road that’ll lead you somewhere.