It’s not what you know; it’s the questions you ask: Interview with Cecilie Hoffman

Cecilie Hoffman Senior Business Analyst

Check your ego at the door.

Laura: Tell me about the best manager you ever had.

Cecilie: His name was Denny Brown and he recognized that I think differently than most people. He encouraged a diversity of thinking. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was and I didn’t realize that I approach problems differently than most others.

At the time the notion of a business analyst wasn’t really formalized. Systems analysts were still king. Denny encouraged me to continue my approach to taking initiative and solving problems. He enabled me to go around standard communication problems. It wasn’t like I didn’t care about the lines of authority, but I had a specific way of solving a problem and I knew how to go about it. It’s a gift of the American culture that I was able to do this.

Denny had a philosophy of apology instead of permission. He encouraged me not to worry about what other people were thinking but instead to think for myself. I would go to the VP and ask questions when things didn’t make sense to me. I was so innocent that it didn’t occur to me that I might be challenging someone’s authority by talking to their manager.

Laura: That’s a great story. So much of being a BA is experience and it sounds like Denny provided the environment in which you were able to create great career experiences for yourself. Would you recommend that other BAs follow in your footsteps?

Cecilie: I would like BAs to consider the possibility of talking to whomever they think they need to talk to, regardless of the person’s title.  But you have to start by checking your ego at the door. Ask the question and get an answer. Then express your concerns if you have any. I didn’t think I should not ask a question. This manager recognized that I had an intellect to do this job. He never gave me the impression that I didn’t know something that I should have known.

But it’s not always this way. The biggest problem in our profession is that people expect the business analysts to be the experts. Over time in the same role, business analysts build more domain knowledge and become narrow. Managers need to balance their expectations for business analysts — expecting them to become the expert and increasingly effective in a domain and at the same time developing their enterprise analysis skills. Many BA become too narrowly focused and begin to become applications analysts. A senior manager should look at a business analyst and ask “What can this intellect contribute to our organization?” thinking about both the near and long term needs of the organization.”

Laura: I can see what you are saying about checking your ego at the door. To be successful in an unfamiliar domain you have to be willing to not have the answers. I see a discomfort with this a lot as I mentor new business analysts and can admit to having experienced it myself a few times lately.

Cecilie: The question to ask is do you become broad or deep. There is danger in both realms. Too deep and you can only work effectively in a limited number of domains. Too broad and you become irrelevant to your organization. At this point in my career, I’ve developed an ability to work very broadly and can be successful in multiple domains.

Laura: Any tips for business analysts looking to become better communicators in a broad set of domains?

Cecilie: The 5 second rule is a good one. Whenever you ask a question, wait 5 seconds for an answer. It takes that long for people to process the question, decide if they want to answer, frame the answer, and take themselves off mute. Only after 5 seconds, if there is no answer, state what your assumption will be. Oftentimes someone will jump in with their input. Five seconds of silence can seem like a very long time. Tap one finger at a time in your lap or under folded hands to make sure you wait long enough.

Laura: I think I’m often guilty of jumping in way too soon. This is a great tip that encourages active listening. Thank you.

Switching gears a bit, with this idea of broad knowledge helping a BA be successful, would you recommend an educational path like an MBA for a business analyst?

Cecilie: From a skill set perspective, in addition to developing the Underlying Competencies identified in the BABOK Guide, an MBA would be extremely helpful. Take a senior-level business analyst and give them an MBA — that’s a foundation for an enterprise-level business analyst. But a BA with an MBA is not going to command the salary that MBAs in other positions can. If a BA wanted to become something like a product-line manager, business analyst experiences with an MBA might be a good career path into that role.

But there are a lot of people, like me, who want to remain a single contributor.  I would expect an MBA to also be able to create a business case. I would not expect a BA with 5 years of experience to be able to do this.

Laura: Thanks for your time this evening Cecilie and thank you for sharing your BA knowledge and experience with the rest of us!

Cecilie: Laura, I really enjoyed talking with you. You have a great column, and I look forward to your new book.

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