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.
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).