From Software Developer in an Informal Environment to Business Analyst: Michiel Erasmus

Michiel Erasmus is the host of the Business Analyst Podcast and has recently found his first business analyst role. I’m honored to share his story with you — the ups and the downs — and I hope his story inspires you as you create your own path to business analysis.

The Career Before Business Analysis – Time as a Software Developer

Laura: I’ve been consistently impressed by your enthusiasm about and dedication to becoming a BA. I’m excited to share your story because I think you will inspire others who might be having rocky transition paths. What was your job role before you started on your path to business analysis?

Michiel: Before becoming a BA I was a 100% software developer in BlitzMax, C#/ASP.Net and getting to grips with the Android SDK in Java programming. My current job is BA at an international company with offices in Amsterdam, Brussels and London.

Since I was a kid I always wanted to program my own computer games. The main reason being that buying games was prohibitively expensive, as we lived in a small farming community with no computer shop within 250km. My only option, so it seemed, was to learn how to program. Besides, it would be really cool to play your own games. However, one thing lead to the next and after graduating from college in South Africa, a company recruited me to work on a financial bookkeeping software system. Since 1996, most of my time was spent professionally programming in Microsoft & Java, mostly at very small (about 30 people) companies in both South Africa and now in the Netherlands. My primary interest was programming, and learning everything there is to learn about it.

With me mostly being a theoretical rather than a pragmatic programmer, I started noticing that the pragmatic programmer, the guy who (often) has screwed up code, usually is loved most by business users. Initially that caused me to have irritation, then frustration, then eventually I realized that the nice, really interesting jobs are on the business side. About the same time, one evening I dumped about 30 Java/SQL/DotNet programming books into the trashcan.

I thought about getting into the business side but had no experience, no knowledge, nothing. Having only seen job ads for BAs made my mouth drool, and my heart sink to my feet. There was just no way for me to become a BA. Ever. Forget it, never going to happen. I dreaded spending the rest of my life at a cubicle in the IT-department.

Laura: Why did you decide to become a business analyst?

Michiel: The short version first: I was tired of not knowing the WHY of my assigned programming tasks. The other reasons were:

  • A great BA can summarize advanced quantum mechanics in 5 words which even a 10 year old can understand.
  • BAs know the WHY of a particular piece of work assigned in a programming task, because they are in physical close proximity to the business users.
  • BAs are close to where business ideas start, and have more ready access to the strategic direction taken by a company.
  • I felt that as a developer I was regarded as non-functional worker bee with no other real interest in work life except the latest Linux Kernel release.
  • As a techie it was functionally difficult, if not impossible, to understand the WHY, WHO, and WHAT of doing a particular section of program code. Only that a BA has specced it, or a business wants a custom financial report.
  • My employer(s) saw no benefit in training me from being a C#-programmer to becoming a BA. Why? They already employed a BA.

However I did visualize leading requirements workshops and sitting in on board meetings. Visualization is more daydreaming than anything else, but heck, one has to start somewhere. At the time, about 4 years ago, it was only a dream. I realized that knowing the latest Linux Kernel compile isn’t getting me closer to the ideal of understanding the WHY of it all.

Meanwhile, by reading some books about RUP, SCRUM and Writing Effective Use Cases proved to be the gateway into becoming a BA.

The Challenge of an Informal Software Development Environment

Laura: I know you were partially a BA before you were fully a BA. Can you describe that role? What were some of the challenges you faced in a partial role?

Michiel: My last role was about 80% programming.  Real life came knocking on my door. I needed to pay the bills.

Challenges mostly encountered (in programming jobs):

  • Management voiced an idea and then lost interest.
  • Financial constraints, i.e. my desktop computer was already 8 years old.
  • Nothing documented. Absolutely and utterly nothing, same for the actual C# programming code.
  • One knowledge holder who holds the business ransom; he knows everything but is not willing to share.
  • Squashing bugs, putting out fires all the time is considered cheaper than rewriting code.
  • No project methodology followed, no projects.
  • Lack of support for testing and pressure to put code right into production without review.
  • Lack of support for creating documentation, such as use cases.
  • Etc.

I was working in a small, four-person company and my employer thought writing documentation, any documentation, was a complete waste of time. He had things which needed programming, and basically that was the scenario. My ideals of working out UML models and doing proper requirements analysis was smashed to pieces. Spending time on planning and organising was another waste of resources. Mostly my job was to quell fires, fix bugs in code or create ad-hoc financial reports from the SQL-Server database.

One of the many challenges was that management would have ‘another great idea’ but when I wanted to put it into a plan, it would be ignored to die a silent death. Implementing a new back office architecture was just another idea which, after having invited and evaluated potential suppliers, nothing would happen. As a small company, finances were tight and this put a constraint on the opportunities.

Finding His First Business Analyst Opportunity

Laura: How did the opportunity surface for you to take on a full BA role?

Michiel: It all happened much like a dream. I was called by a consulting company who wanted a designer with UML knowledge to work in a travel reservation company. Arriving at the interview we had some small talk when he laid an A4-paper with a job description in front of me. There, was my perfect job. A BA job!! Then he said, “This job, it’s yours if you want it, and we’ll pay you a nice salary + 13th month + training + bonus + company car.” I silently thought that it was a joke! My previous job was basic salary and that was it.

I yelled, “Yes I want this job!” The guy looked at me strangely, then asked me to wait a few minutes while he printed out my employment contract. It was thinking, “Oh my, how incredible! No, this must be a dream!”  I signed the contract still subconsciously thinking it was some kind of candid-camera prank.  It wasn’t. A few weeks later my company car arrived, and I went for on-the-job BA training while involved in an offshore project using RUP + UML. Incredible! Over the top.

Laura: What were your first few weeks like as a full-fledged BA?

Michiel: One day I was doing hardcore SQL-Server Transact-SQL programming and three days later I was in my new reality – sitting in with business users at a requirements workshop. The odds were against me 10,000 to 1. I only needed the 1 to get there. That was enough. To be honest, I hadn’t even spoken to an end user ever in my life, and didn’t even know about the existence of requirements workshops, nor how they are run.

Keys to Success

Laura: Looking back, what do you think were the keys to your success?

Michiel: If you want something, you can achieve it. I somehow had a spate of luck. Call me crazy, but I would write out on a little paper my innermost desires, then speak them out aloud, and leave the paper somewhere out in the open where the universe can see it. Sometimes, the wishes take years to get fulfilled, sometimes only weeks. My current job matches 24 out of 25 points to those specs written out on 3 post-it notes.

My success may be partially due to some invisible forces helping me. But some other things that are important are to work up a plan, communicate the plan with your management, and act with integrity. Be honest with yourself and to others around you. Admit mistakes without being negative. Mistakes are needed to grow. When you say you’re going to do something, keep the promise. If not, have a good positive reason why you’re not able to keep the promise.

On Friday afternoons, I always reflect back and ask myself, “What was my contribution to this job/family/situation in the past week?”  Also, sometimes threats or dull jobs may seem dull but those are important in building your career. The dull job might just be a piece of the overall BA puzzle you’re trying to achieve. Never discount opportunities; however experience will let you know when to say “No.” Try to be as good as you can be, and share your success with your team and manager.

I made loads of mistakes, and had a situation where I was nearly 5 days from being homeless. Some people are born with the right attitude, right situations; I had to learn the above stuff to get to my current situation. The challenges go on non-stop. Those are the keys to my success.

Lastly, have a good mix of learn + value. Businesses don’t just want learners; they want people who produce useful stuff. Use 10% of your time to read/study, another 10% of time to talk & reflect about what you learned and read, and the remaining 80% to do your job, what you are being paid to do!

Laura: How did your career background help you make this transition?

Michiel: Looking back, it’s as if a giant puzzle is coming together. Each job, each project or task is an important key to build your future. I look at job ads, then at my assigned task and see if I can learn and contribute towards the company’s goals while working on my CV.

Laura: Anything else you’d like to share?

Michiel: In order to become a BA you have to read, listen and look at as many case studies as you can get your hands on. Sometimes I would read a book of 450 pages, in which a sentence of 10 words proved invaluable to my situation. Of course, your experience may vary.

Lastly, don’t go chase things, they just run away! Don’t chase being a BA, have a plan. Work the plan. Write your life and career goals on paper, then keep them in your mind every day. Ask the universe to provide you with opportunities. When an opportunity is presented, go proactively after it with a honest smile, a good heart, and good intentions. If you want your BA career to get anywhere, you have to give it a hand.

One last note. I am on a learning path. One can never learn enough!

Laura: Thanks Michiel for sharing such an honest and heart-felt story. Congratulations on your new role. I wish you all the best possible success in your career as a business analyst (and beyond!).

Are you looking for support paving your path into business analysis? We can help. Check out our step-by-step BA career planning course (it’s free).

Bridging the Gap. I’ve been consistently impressed by your enthusiasm about and dedication to becoming a BA. I’m excited to share your story because I think you will inspire others who might be having rocky transition paths. Thanks so much for your offer to share your story on Bridging the Gap. I’ve been consistently impressed by your enthusiasm about and dedication to becoming a BA. I’m excited to share your story because I think you will inspire others who might be having rocky transition paths.

21 thoughts on “From Software Developer in an Informal Environment to Business Analyst: Michiel Erasmus”

  1. Hi Michiel,
    Thanks for the wonderful Blog…U seriously made my day:)
    The situations you had been in, is same as mine.
    Even I was a 100% Software developer ( C#) before being BA.
    Thanks a lot Laura, Its because of you my passion for Business Ananlysis grew every day..
    1 fine day i asked my Senior Manager for my role change as BA. Initially he was doubtful thinking How Developer can manage Business Ananlysis…But now he is very happy and confident about my work…
    Thanks again Laura..ur guidelines helped me to choose my career path..:):)

  2. Michiel,

    Your story makes for an interesting read.

    Your last post sums up the BA role neatly and highlights the fact that a good BA does not necessarily have to come from either a dedicated programming background or a dedicated business user domain; it is very much a multi-hat wearing role.

    Programming skills certainly add value in that you can immediately relate a business end problem to the technical solution. Equally, a solid business domain understanding will help set out realistic requirements and avoid wasting time solving problems which don’t really exist or provide solutions which add little value.

    I am embarking on this journey from the opposite end of the spectrum with little technical knowledge. I hope my experience as a business user can add contrasting but equally useful insights to a BA role.

    I totally agree with your “make a plan” advice. Planning is the core skill of a good BA and why wait until you’re a BA?

    As for luck – I think you create your own luck!

    1. Wynne,
      What a great comment. Thank you for sharing. You have an inspiring mindset. I agree you make your own luck and your business background can be just as powerful of an asset as an IT background. We see great BAs coming from both camps and everywhere in between. Good luck and keep us posted! Hopefully we’ll be able to add your story to our Registry of BA Career Transitions (see the 50 BAs tab) sometime this year!


  3. A typical BA wears many hats.

    My current role is a mix of the following;
    1. Operations.
    Dealing with frontend user queries about system downtime problems. Assisting analysis to offshored support teams by quering Oracle databases in SQL.

    2. Functional designer.
    Writing system specs for changes to current arictecture, in order to solve bugs.

    3. Project manager.
    Coordinate release of new technical infrastructures, communicate those back to higher management, verify tasks, participate in projects as required by our German headoffice. Loadsa telco’s.

    4. Test- and changemanager.
    Technical test of new releases, enusring system interfaces are online before users are using the frontend. Keep track of system changes.

    5. Analyst.
    Delve into tech issues, dig up processes, understand how A gets to Z and everything inbetween. Then summarize the 500 pages of research into 100 words for digestion + decision by management.

    My average day is spent writing/replying to <=45 emails per DAY ;).

    Tips to get you going;
    1. Find a job in a big international company that uses standardized processes. it cuts down your learning curve. You learn to do things the right way. *Avoid* small startups early in your career!
    2. Avoid consulting/contracting unless you're a seasoned pro, or getting mentoring from the consulting company.
    3. Learn, grow and execute. Management wants people who gets the job done.
    4. A business-related tertiary education is usefull, though not required.
    5. Join a Toastmasters chapter, usefull for presentation + leadership skills.

    Hope this helps someone.

    met vriendelike groet,
    Pretoria, Suid-Afrika.

  4. Thanks for the great encouriging words!
    Recently my career has tunded to the better. I am now in a combined role of Business Analist and project leader. Moreso the latter, as we hardly use any UML. My new employer is a huge international premium brand German company . Most likely some of you reading this are using their products :). As one can expect from the Germans.. its a extremely well organized, structured organization. Compared to the old 1-man show mentioned in my article of 9-March-2011 money/resources isnt (much) of a problem. Its utitlized against an IT-spending budget. All the software development, maintenance, website hosting are offshored to India / Deutchland.
    Training, coaching and support are provided by managers does 1-on-1 weekly meetings, projects are executed globally on a uniform method. All operations are standarized in the company doesnt matter if you are working in South Africa or in Holland. Everyone uses the same talk, methods and technologies. AND i dont feel like walking on eggs.. :). Though ofcourse the germans demands excellence..

    good luck to everyone with their careers. Its a slow process..

  5. Micheil, many thanks for sharing your story.. I am on a similar journey moving from end user and network support into Business Analysis. I´m currently working for a small software company and I can totally relate to you´re experience. Right now, I´m putting in some serious hours working for my ISEB Certificate in Business Analysis, and hoping that I´ll be able to put more of my skills to use..

  6. Kelly Quintero

    Hello All, I appreciate so much all your thoughts. I’ve found that I am not the only one in this transition, which is so great!!!. I’ve just started my first role as BA and also in a second language, it is like promotions, get 2 and pay for one :)…. I am finding very challenging the idea of writing formal documents that need to be clear as to what is expected. I would say that the big challenge is to actually place the right words. Even in my own language the use of words is difficult to manage because it can change the expectations, scope and intention of the document. I think reading is good tool but what I’ve just discovered is that words retention helps to feed your vocabulary, I am trying to keep new words and play with them so I can remember and use them in my talks and writings.

  7. Thanks for your contribution, this article really hit home for me as I am really desirous of becoming a Business Analyst but because of my technical background..employers often preferred to have me write code which I am good at but not as passionate as becoming a BA. Thanks again for this article as it sparked a renewed hope in me..

  8. Nick, thank you for the compliment!

    Nothing too interesting in my story; like many Brazilians I grew up with very little opportunity to practice English — our economy is so big that it’s not really necessary to have a second language to develop a successful career in Brazil. Then my husband decided to pursue a PhD in Computer Science in the U.S., and acquiring verbal and writing communication skills in English suddenly became a high priority, if I wanted to continue my business analysis career in our new country. I immediately stopped reading in Portuguese and only watched TV series that weren’t dubbed. It’s just a matter of focus, really — after we moved, because I wanted so much to start working with local consulting clients (as opposed to from distance with clients I still had in Brazil) I probably developed more English skills in a few months than in my entire school life :-).

    I didn’t actually wrote down my goals and wishes like Michiel did, but in the end it’s the same principle at work: once you get clarity about what you really want, and put your energy into it, things just start to line up in the right direction.

  9. Nick Panagopoulos

    Great Story, Michiel!
    I think that the largest step for you wasn’t becoming a BA, but learning a new language. I guess your desire to be a BA was so great, you stopped at nothing…amazing.
    As a BA, I feel that language is so important…not only to understand a new language, but also to learn the language of the region and the language of the business; and then, the BA has to understand, translate, and communicate that into a technical language. It’s an art form!

    On a side note, Andriana…English as a second language? I’m now even more amazed at your abilities. Where’s your story?

  10. Michiel, I loved your story! It’s hard to even imagine having to work with two different non-native languages. Another day I had a conversation involving Portuguese, English, and French, and almost went crazy :-).

    I am from Brazil, my native language is Portuguese, and I learned English as an adult mostly from cable TV programs (the only ones in Brazil that aren’t dubbed into Portuguese). To improve my writing skills, I simply shifted from reading in Portuguese to reading in English. I love to read, so it was no sacrifice to spend hours and hours dealing with the written word to improve my skills.

    Google is my friend: sometimes I do need to confirm whether an expression I chose to use truly means what I think it does. However, a few months into my first job in the U.S., my American bosses started to ask me to write important business requirements documents, or at least review them before they were published. The reason is very simple: by reading a lot you develop a keen eye for spotting wrong constructions or spellings. In the end, it’s all about practice, and being willing to constantly improve, like you illustrated so well.

  11. met vriendelijke groet = with kind regards ;).

    BTW, another challenge was.. learning 2 additional languages AFTER your 30th birthday, then working in professional environment authering specs, docs and emails in those languages, sometimes in English and sometimes in Nederlands (Dutch).

    Fortunatley most business users expects are forgiving of grammer mistakes, which are corrected during a peer review.

    Just wonderin’ if there are anyone else here who for example has English 1st language, emigrated to say.. France, learnt French at nightschool after work (an additional >=9 hours per week) and then work in a professional French/<> environment?

    I grew up in the Republic of South Africa, learnt English as 2nd language, recruited to The Netherlands, then learnt Nederlands as third language.

    met vriendelijke groet,

  12. Michiel:

    Thanks for expanding on your thoughts. Yes I agree, “squashing” bugs is only an ideal career for an exterminator. Again, I applaud you for wanting more!

    I have some Dutch in my ancestry, please translate your signature for me.



  13. Laura, please restrain me from writing a book here… 😉

    @Rick H.
    “As a programmer you’re writing the result of the work completed by a BA”.

    This may be true for some programmers. For me, it wasn’t like that at all. I had to crawl on my belly for along time before i could progress to the next level, crawl blistered elbows, in a figure of speaking. I know how tough it is, because i have been there. I am walking on my knees now. Running, its going to take a long time to be able to ‘run’.

    I had zero, zilch naddas formal programmer training. I had no contact with BAs. I was down in the basement squashing programming bugs. I despised my life in the cubicle.
    I was possessed by getting from cubicle to interacting at senior management level.

    My previous jobs, before being a BA, and after being a programmer was backbreaking to assemble >=770 bicycles per day on an assembly line. Being a BA was like.. Impossible. I had at the time a better chance of growing wings than getting a BA job offer..

    My ‘road’ to BA at the time (6 years ago!) was living like a rat of €40 per month (incl breakfest, lunch & dinner). You don’t have to live like this, but that’s the road that god/Universe laid required me to from there to here. Experiences may vary. Some people are born with high intelligence but doesn’t do anything with it. That’s their choice. Your road to becoming a BA is different than mine. There is no ideal situation.

    Correction, I have the ideal situation now;
    * I am being **mentored**!!! WOOOW :))))
    * I get paid decently
    * I work at a top location in Amsterdam, NL
    * Occasional international travel.
    * No programming. none. Zilch. Naddas.
    * (in)Direct contact with the Board of Directors.
    * Management explicitly stated that they me to become a Enterprise BA.
    * Management expects me to learn the business system, process and financial markets inside out.

    I mean, how lucky can one get? :))

    Write your ideals on a paper. Think it. Dream it. Breathe it. Do it.

    met vriendelijke groet,

  14. Hi Rick, Thanks for your comment. Hopefully Michiel will come back as well and address the question of the transition. From the developers I’ve talked to trying to make it as a BA, they face many hurdles…one is learning how to represent IT instead of be IT and to move towards the business. So, quite honestly, I don’t think it’s a natural progression at all as it takes a bit of unlearning and a huge shift in perspective in terms of how you look at a project.

    Here are a few stories of BAs from a non-IT Background: (just a small part of her story, but she is not from IT) (Kupe, read his answer to the first question in the interview)

    There are countless more, just unfortunately not documented!

  15. Michiel – Congrats on your success!

    Laura – First let me say that I do not want to take anything away from Michiel’s success. A career change for the better is always a huge win. I’m wondering though how much of a stretch it is for a programmer, or Quality Engineer, to move into the BA role? As a programmer you’re writing the result of the work completed by a BA, etc. , but you’re not involved in the steps leading up to the creation of this new application. To me, it seems like a natural progression for those programmers, with an ability to communicate, to take that knowledge to the “other side”. I’m wondering, is there is a story out there of someone who was not previously involved in IT and accomplished the same thing?

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