How to Provide Work Samples that Get You Hired for a Business Analyst Job

A business analyst with 10 years of experience in an informal environment shared how his work samples lost him a job opportunity. Work samples are powerful and dangerous at the same time.  Let’s first consider his story and then look at how you can provide work samples that get you hired.

Here’s the reader’s dilemma:

I’ve been the sole BA in my organisation for nearly a decade, only finally getting formal training in the past 8 months or so. The ‘Barely controlled chaos’ and lack of interest in formal methods has been incredibly frustrating. I’ve now been made redundant, and would like to share what happened with the first job I applied for.

For info, I have a BSC in computing, a diploma in systems practice, a diploma in business analysis, and I’m a professional member of the chartered institute for IT.

I went through the recruitment process for a firm about a month back. I passed two interviews and a group exercise with flying colours. The feedback was all very positive. However, they commented that they’d have liked longer to talk about the specific tasks I’d completed. At their request I forwarded copies of some deliverables I’d produced from various projects. They were very aware of the informal setting I work in, and lack of exposure to other BAs.

The final feedback I got was that the content of the deliverables was good, but not ‘strong’ enough, so I didn’t get hired.

I feel frustrated, as anything more complex than the examples I’d sent would be inappropriate in my current role. By their own admission I was a ‘Great fit’ for the organisation, and I hold qualifications that they hope to have their other staff pursue. I feel I’m in the same catch 22 as the original poster, though; can’t get experience of using formal methods extensively until I get another post. Can’t get another post because I can’t evidence long-term use of formal methods!

Recruiters need to stop equating ‘does not currently do’ with ‘is not capable of doing’…

Thanks for sharing your story and that sounds like a really unfortunate situation — to be so close to a job that’s the right fit and have it fall through. In what follows I’ll describe the problem with work samples and give you some practical tips for using them to your advantage.

Why Interviewers Request Work Samples

Often it is very difficult for an interviewer to assess the quality of a business analyst in a job interview. The fact that you engaged in the interview, but your interviewers did not yet feel quite confident is evidence of this. They had a good conversation, but it still wasn’t quite enough.

Work samples are seen as hard evidence of what you’ve accomplished in previous roles and interviewers expect that past performance is the best predictor of future success.

However, as we’ll see next, there is an inherent problem with using work samples independently as an assessment of the capabilities of a business analyst, as you rightly point out.

The Problem with Work Samples

Although we should be packaging our requirements well, the package itself represents a small portion of your work as a business analyst. For example, I’ve invested days or weeks of effort in eliciting and analyzing requirements that were specified in one wiki page. The deliverable doesn’t necessarily show the complexity of the process before you simplified it, the diversity of personalities amongst stakeholders, the politics you negotiated, or the challenges you overcame. It’s simply a representation of what you created after you worked through all the messiness of the BA process.

Because of this, it’s very difficult for someone to review a work sample and get a good sense of your work as a business analyst. Without the context of the project, they are going to make some assumptions about how that work sample would fit into their work environment. And since the environments are different and stakeholders are different and it’s our jobs as business analysts to create deliverables that meet the needs of specific audiences, those assumptions aren’t likely to fall in your favor. It becomes very easy to say, well, if he’d done that in our organization, it wouldn’t work because… and then because hiring someone is such a difficult decision to make, a hiring manager talks themselves out of the decision to hire you.

Luckily, there is a solution.

Provide Work Samples with Context

Since work samples only present a small slice of your work as a business analyst, I strongly suggest that you do not provide work samples without context. Preferably that context is included in a live setting, so you are showing your deliverable while describing the contributions you made and the problem it solved.

Since you had already been through 2 interviews, suggesting a follow-up phone discussion or 3rd interview would not have been out of line. If they were serious about you being a “great fit” then they would be willing to invest that time. It’s imperative to take some ownership of the job search process to ensure you are presenting yourself in the best way possible.

In this discussion to review your work sample, you could speak to why you included the elements you did, the stakeholder needs your document met, and how you were fitting your work within the circumstances of the project. You could also choose to speak to how, in a different environment, you would have handled things more formally.

If a discussion is not granted, but you still feel your work samples will strengthen your positioning, a second best approach is to provide work samples along with a written narrative describing the context I’ve recommended above.

You Can Rework Informal Work Samples

There is no rule that says you have to submit work samples exactly as they were created in your last work environment. I’d suggest updating your body of work samples using more formal methods of documentation you’ve learned about in your training. A few past participants in Business Process Analysis have decided to create new work samples or update current ones using our templates and following our examples. And I’ve made my repository of business analyst templates available to those who would like to do this work on their own.

By updating your body of work, you demonstrate what you are capable of doing and not just what you did in an informal environment.

For more information on exactly how to do this, check out How to Present Yourself as Capable of Doing Requirements Specifications (Even If You’ve Only Created Informal Documentation).

Use the Interview to Your Advantage

Although we’re talking about work samples today, there are things you can do in the job interview to help avoid the request for work samples in the first place. For example, you mention that they didn’t have time to talk about your specific tasks. I would take this feedback to heart and consider how you could adjust your approach during your next job interview.

Every interviewer is going to want to hear specific and concrete details in a job interview. Don’t wait for a behavioral interview question to share those details. Incorporate an example into every answer. That way even if the person doesn’t get to their full list of questions you are able to leave them with concrete details that demonstrate what you are capable of.

Thanks for sharing your story and I hope my advice helps you and other job seekers create and present work samples to your advantage. Remember, only you can decide how to best present your skills and qualifications. Sometimes a little push back shows how you can use influence to get things done, another valuable BA skill.

>>More Easily Create Your Own Work Samples

TemplatesWould you like a starting point for approaching common business analyst work scenarios that you can use to rework your work samples? Check out the Business Analyst Template Toolkit – all of the requirements templates are fully annotated and editable by you, giving you a great starting point for starting your next business analyst project or formalizing your work samples.

Click here to learn more about the BA Template Toolkit

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Comments

  1. Good discussion here. Pam, Jake has also provided some good suggestions for removing proprietary information and I don’t think there is any easy way around it but doing the work of cleaning up a sample so you can provide it with a clean conscience.

    Jake – great suggestions on how to position this third meeting as not an interview. Many times job seekers do not put themselves in a position to present themselves from a position of strength. The conversation you suggest sounds more like I would expect from a consultant, but I do think it would work well in a job search too…and that kind of push back is just as critical in a job search as when landing a consulting gig!

    Agreed that the BABOK does not contain best practices and the last time I checked it did not have templates or very detailed examples either. But referencing the BABOK and informing yourself about what might be expected or “standard” is a good idea as it will help you be able to speak with authority and confidence. As I prepared for my CBAP I was pleasantly surprised at how well my more informal experience ending up matching up with the principles in the BABOK. There’s a little bit about that in this post: http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/lauras-cbap-journey-reading-the-introduction-to-the-babok-week-5/

  2. Jake Calabrese says:

    Careful with the BABOK… it is not best practices. It is generally accepted practices. Unless something changed here? [Kevin you out there] Although you would not be able to tell that from a search… (yikes that is scary!)

  3. Good feedback….thanks

  4. A lot of organizations utilize some sort of requirements capture software such as Caliber, RequisitePro, and I think Jama Contour… this is usually proprietary and confidential and if it is provided outside the organization, it is grounds for termination. No one wants that to happen – from that perspective I think it is wrong for companies to ask for samples of work you did for other companies especially if it is a competing company. What I typically do is keep some remnants of various documents on a flash drive – a sort of work in progress set. I can then refer to them and change details so as to protect the owning companies information. The point is not the content so much but the process of capturing certain types of data – again if you look at the best practices from the BABOK, you are certain to provide an intelligent response without revealing real proprietary information. My suggestion is to capture the ‘templates’ being used and then you can provide some made up info utilizing those templates that you may have used at a prior organization (of course removing the logo’s and organization identifiers). In the past I leveraged the templates in other organizations as a starting point if the new organization was not that advanced. If the organization has similar documentation templates, they may be able to compare the structure of what you are providing.

  5. One problem with providing work samples which is hard to get around is much of the hard copy deliverables a BA and/or PM is responsible for is private and confidential information. One solution is still remove personal information with made-up names & info. Any other suggestions on how to work around this?

  6. Jake Calabrese says:

    Interesting post Laura. I like where you are going here. I would add a few more items as well.
    – I NEVER send work samples, IMO there is almost no way around the context issue via email. I love the idea of suggesting a 3rd interview – and I would take it a step further. I would suggest being bold and just saying “it sounds like there is just one area you are looking for more information on, what is a time we can meet this week that I can review that information with you. As I am sure you understand, while I have removed any confidential information from the samples, I am still not comfortable emailing the information out.”
    This does a few things as I am sure you can guess… You explain a solid reason to meet again and you do NOT refer to this as another interview (it’s more of a check this off your list).
    -Save samples as you go, or if you have to go back, use “change all”! There is no reason why you can’t change words on diagrams and documents to other words – even generic ones. In some cases, you may have to modify things to a point they may not be as valuable in real life – but this is just a review.
    -Get a nice notebook and clear plastic pages you can insert your samples into. Then you can page through the notebook WITH THEM. You can watch what they do and how they act. My idea has always been to overwhelm them with information. I don’t leave that, so I am still in control of the context.
    -All that said, if the organization is making a hiring decision based on pieces of paper, you may want to question if you want to work there! This can be a good opportunity to ask more questions and talk more about what you do in a analysis role. Paper should never be a reason to hire someone into an analysis position – unless you do not want analysis, and just want a “requirements documenter”. (PS. If you just need to land a job to pay the bills, which is reality in many cases, having a great pile of samples can get you there quick – since most people do not have them- but don’t leave them there.)
    -I’m not sure why companies don’t do real analysis interview situations. It sounds like that was done, but there were still questions – that seems odd.

    Keith’s point on the profile is very true – having a discussion about what they really want is key – remember, they may NOT know what they want! Does that sound like anything? Treat the entire process as if they are a customer you are meeting with on a project – because that is what is happening. Can you elicit and communicate what THEY want, to THEM? Are you a fit for what they actually need? You may be surprised what happens!

  7. I have had this request for BA and PM roles in the past. The problem is, at most companies the documentation is proprietary. It is actually illegal to provide this type of info to other companies. I have had vendor firms ask the same thing who represent the hiring firms. I think it is a good thing but at the same time just a means for a weed out when the request is before the actual interview. As you mentioned – the context in necessary. Sometimes I think this level of detail is just ‘fluff’ on the part of the vendor or hiring firms – the intent is not to see if your documentation is a predictor of future outcomes; rather, as I mentioned, just a ‘weed out’ tactic. From the perspective of the BABOK and PMBOK, I typically respond with leveraging standard procedural steps / best practices and indicate that a lot of firms are very formalized and some not. Based on best practices though, company culture, etc. the idea of creating repeatable and sustainable processes that produce ‘value’ to the stakeholders is the ‘real’ goal. I have experienced a lot of dim wits through the years on this subject. Typically they have a profile they are looking for and want to match you up 100% to this profile despite whatever you prepare is valid or not in the ‘real’ world. If your profile does not match up to their culture, you are dismissed without any further discussion; if you even get that far.