Too Good to Be Ignored: The Recipe for a Fulfilling BA Career

Author: Adriana Beal

Sarah* got her first IT BA job 18 months ago. Even though she already had several years of experience in the workplace, this is her first job as an analyst. Soon she started to get frustrated with many aspects of her job (lack of training, very little guidance, no control over the type and volume of tasks, etc.). With plenty of downtime on her hands, she spent months reading books and taking online courses. Little by little she started to become quite knowledgeable in concepts such as use cases and business requirements. However, often she would get bored and frustrated with the lack of opportunity to practice her new skills. Sarah got involved in testing and troubleshooting system issues, provided support for users, and finally started to be asked to do more analytical work and write requirements for new software features. Throughout this experience, many times she seriously considered looking for a different type of job. Sarah quickly lost her motivation after reaching a plateau–achieving an acceptable level of performance, but failing to get any better with her strategy of reading and watching webinars about requirements elicitation and analysis.

Jeff* started working as an IT BA about the same time as Sarah, switching from a developer position. Like Sarah, Jeff didn’t receive any training, and had to figure out on his own what type of work he was supposed to be doing as a BA. Jeff also got frustrated with routine and repetitive work that was initially given to him, but differently from Sarah, after getting some practice with use cases and functional specifications, he started to look for opportunities to do more varied and challenging work. Jeff offered to lead requirements sessions for smaller enhancements, write database queries, and help with various challenging tasks his IT group had. He constantly sought feedback for his work, and spent significant time identifying new valuable skills that he could build in order to grow his responsibilities and career opportunities.

Sarah and Jeff have many points in common: both want a fulfilling career and are willing to work hard to get there. However, their approach to career development is different. Jeff intuitively knew that volunteering to take on tasks that were beyond his current comfort zone would get him closer to a fulfilling job. He is systematically and patiently stretching his abilities and asking for immediate feedback from expert coaches. Through deliberate practice, Jeff has started to develop superior performance, and get noticed. Meanwhile, Sarah is still struggling to find meaning in the work she does.

In the book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport describes how important it is, for job fulfillment, to become excellent at something valuable. As explained by Dan Pink in his TED talk about motivation, there are three factors required for us to feel intrinsically motivated for our work:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery— the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The two first aspects are connected: in most jobs, as you become more competent at what you do (mastery), not only do you feel better about your work, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities (autonomy). I have little doubt that both Sarah and Jeff would feel happier about their work if, instead of being told precisely which use cases to write, or which template to use to capture requirements, they were allowed to plan the requirements work themselves, and contribute with ideas of what requirements models to use in each project. For most people, passion for the work grows along with expertise precisely because competence leads to more control, which in turns leads to a happier, more successful, and more meaningful work experience.

Since autonomy is mostly a result of excellence, it doesn’t come without a price. In order to give your career an injection of creativity, impact, and control, you must have something of great value to offer. But building rare and valuable skills requires hard work. As explained in Newport’s book, the key is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come — that’s the hardest phase. You must work hard and be patient, rejecting shiny new pursuits that would only derail your efforts before you acquired the competencies you need to excel at the job you do.

But working hard is not enough. One must develop laser focus, carefully choosing to stretch abilities where they most need stretching, and seeking immediate feedback for improvement.

“How do I do that?”, you may be thinking. As Newport points out in his book, hundreds of studies have shown that deliberate practice provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields, in particular for “knowledge work” such as business analysis. Deliberate practice can be defined as an activity or series of activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance. Courses such as Crafting Better Requirements are specifically designed to provide a valuable opportunity for deliberate practice in areas where high performance may lead to having more control over what you do and how you do it.

Most professionals are capable of working on their performance until they reach an acceptable level of competence, like Sarah did. But many people fail to incorporate deliberate practice into their career development strategies, and are quickly left behind by peers who, like Jeff, dedicate their time to systematically getting better.

If you are frustrated with a limited BA role, try thinking of opportunities to become more “intentional” about how you build new competencies. Read more about deliberate practice and start developing a strategy to identify and build rare and valuable skills that will make you so good that people will want to elevate your role to a more influential level in the organization. I’m sure your degree of motivation and fulfillment will grow on par with the increased amount of control over your work life that comes from becoming too good to be ignored.

* Names changed

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Comments

  1. Hi, J,

    I’m glad you found the article useful. About your question, when the organizational structure doesn’t allow you to take work independently — both “Jeff” and I have been there!

    The first step is to ask your manager for additional work that can help you stretch your skills. Sometimes, management is not interested in allowing you to go beyond your normal duties because what you do (say, document process flows, update use cases, map data, etc.) needs to be done– even though it makes your work limited, repetitive and not conducive to learning new skills.

    If, even after you reassuring management that helping another group or tackling a different task won’t interfere with your normal duties, you don’t get approval to start practicing new skills, what I would do is to try to find some opportunities to integrate new techniques into my normal duties. For example, if your work involves data mapping, and you would like to learn how to create process flows, you could start to create data flow diagrams (which models the process aspects of the data flow through an application). Find someone with experience in this type of diagram to provide feedback, so you can gradually get better at this skill.

    No one can rely on their managers to find opportunities to develop new skills and get better at the ones you already know. If not possible at all to find opportunities within your job, look outside (professional associations, NGOs) for volunteering opportunities that will allow you to start learning and practicing useful skills. Just make sure your volunteering activities do involve one or more relevant skills you are trying to get better at (e.g., speaking in public, web technologies, facilitating meetings, etc.) and seek out mentors who are already good at these skills so you can show them your work and receive feedback. Immediate feedback is one of the most powerful tactics to elevate your skills. Good luck!

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  2. Hi Adriana,

    A very interesting article and I really liked the three factors presented. I do sympathise with both Sarah and Jeff, especially Sarah despite coming from the IT background myself.
    My question is how does a BA follow Jeff’s example if the organisational structure disallows them to do so? For example, the BA’s manager disallowing them to take any work independently unless it is assigned by the manager.

  3. Hi, Maruf,

    Thank you for the compliment and contributing your valuable thoughts. I like the quote, “if you don’t have a plan for yourself, someone else will”. As a coincidence, I have a new post ready to go live in the next few days in which I focus precisely in this need to set and pursue career goals. Like you mentioned, initiative-taking is a key strategy to improve your skills and become a star performer.

    Stay tuned for the next round of conversations around this topic!

  4. Hi Adriana,

    Beautifully thought out blog. The part about autonomy, mastery and purpose was the best exert to me. As for my personal experience towards doing something more fulfilling, I found out that what you mentioned is a resonance of the fact that If you dont have a plan for yourself, someone else will. What I mean by that is taking initiative on your own during the downtime shows that you are a true champion and want to learn more. Just a thought.

    Regards,
    Maruf

  5. Hi, Om,

    It’s a pleasure to share my experiences and learnings with the BTG community, who is always so receptive and determined to help each other.

    Regarding the BA role being very abstract, I think it depends on the type of environment you are working. In the IT project space, regardless of industry, it’s more common to see a clear set of responsibilities for the BA role: elicit information about the business need, ensure business and IT develop a unified understanding of the business problem to be solved, define the requirements for the solution, manage the requirements as the situation evolves, make sure the solution truly meets the identified requirements.

    I agree with you that developing technical knowledge is valuable for BAs working in the IT space. The competencies I believe are most useful for an IT BA are understanding how data is organized in a database, how systems components interact with each other, what limitations and opportunities exist to use user interface elements to provide users with what the need, etc. This type of knowledge definitely helps with the translation of the business need into a viable solution that isn’t limited by a lack of understanding of what the technology can provide.

    Thanks for leaving your contribution to the thread!

  6. Adriana ,
    Thank you for the post and thanks to experienced BA for bringing in suggestions from there experiences.
    The role BA is a very abstract term as far as I am concerned since I am from a IT Services background.With most of the companies adapting Agile model of development and Scrum based practices I believe BA’s should enhance themselves more with Technical expertise as an Application evolve based on technical enhancements.Understanding the Enterprise Architecture (System Level) and is it System Oriented Architecture or a Resource Oriented Architecture or any other form.He/She will be able to identify the elements/entities/character/attributes/behavior of the system, Reasoning the changes required and brainstorming it with Enterprise Architects helps to understand the solutions and provide better solutions to help the applications to evolve, despite of persons knowledge background whether its inclined towards technical or business area.Moreover an IT Polymath.

  7. Adriana,
    I am an outlier in that I have a blue collar job driving a truck (semi-tractor trailer). So my “office” output is limited to what I post on the Internet and what I do for homework in class. Hence being enrolled in Creating Better Requirements 🙂 And for my mentors (which reminds me…)

  8. Hi, Doug!

    Great to hear from you and know that you will be speaking in Chicago on this important topic.

    “There is no one way to achieve success and what success looks like is different for everyone. However one thing that I would like to tack on to your thoughts is the fact that each of us is accountable for our own success and figuring out the path that suits us best.”

    Amen to that. What I like about Jeff’s story is that he didn’t sit around complaining about how little autonomy and creativity his job provided him. He took upon himself to figure out what valuable skills he could be adding to his profile in order to grow into more meaningful work.

    Like you said, there are many paths to success. No one but ourselves can decide which path will take us to a fulfilling career. However, no matter which career path one chooses, as Newport explains in his book, quoting also from Gladwell in Outliers, there are no shortcuts. The “10,000 hours to mastery” still remains the key to success in any field — BA not being any different.

    So the key message here is to roll our sleeves and get to work, rather than passively wait for greatness to happen on its own ;-).

  9. Hi, Helen,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment! It’s always great to hear from readers. Regarding the “gender and IT background divide”, I’ll admit I did have the same thought of mixing up the genders for the precise reason you describe. But these are real people, and in the end I didn’t think it would be appropriate to change their genders while leaving the other details intact.

    I must say though that the message here has nothing to do with “males with a developer background make better BAs than females with a non-IT background”–in my experience, it’s quite the opposite! Soft skills, and understanding the business problem from a non-technical perspective, are such important competencies for the business analysis work, that often people (men and women) with zero or little IT background end up becoming much more successful BAs than IT specialists.

    I hope it also becomes clear to everyone reading the article that the point here is not that “Jeff” chose the right type of skills to develop, but rather that he was making a deliberate effort to stretch his abilities, find strong mentors, and obtain direct feedback so he could continuously improve.

    While Jeff chose to take advantage of his educational background to develop technical skills that could generate valuable career opportunities, this is definitely not the only path to mastery and autonomy in the IT BA field. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Sarah” became even more successful than Jeff as an IT BA by starting deliberate practice in skills related to effective requirements elicitation, solid knowledge of the business domain, and successfully influencing people.

    The problem was that Sarah was trying to get better by just repeating the same experience, reading books and watching presentations about the same BA topics over and over, without seeking new experiences or opportunities to get immediate feedback–things that could help her reach a new level of expertise, and consequently more control over her work.

    I’m happy to know that you are working on a development plan for next year — that’s a great starting point to avoid getting stuck in a performance plateau. By identifying the competencies that can help you systematically get better at your work, and creating opportunities for deliberate practice in these areas, you will be making great progress toward developing a fulfilling BA career. Good luck!

  10. Doug Goldberg says

    Ms Adriana:

    Nice to read your thoughts about our world again. It’s been too long! In reality, this excellent post could not have come at a better time for me. Next week I will be speaking at the ProjectSummit/BAWorld conference in Chicago. The topic revolves around taking accountability for you own career as the examples in your post suggest.

    There is no one way to achieve success and what success looks like is different for everyone. However one thing that I would like to tack on to your thoughts is the fact that each of us is accountable for our own success and figuring out the path that suits us best.

    There is no given fact that what we seek will be provided to us proactively, and there is no given fact that the quality of what we seek will be there if it is provided. If you want the best for yourself, take ownership of your goals and the tasks to achieve them as the examples Adriana has laid out.

    Many thanks for this.

    Doug

  11. Hi Adriana
    Thank you for an insightful article, and I will make use of your suggestions as I write my development plan for the coming year.
    I’m not sure if this was what you intended or not, but your examples foster a gender and IT background divide I have noticed during my 5 years in BA roles. That is, the assumption that males with a developer background will automatically make better BAs than females with a non-IT, subject matter expert, backgrounds and that the latter group will find it difficult to understand the technical side. Needless to say, this does not counter your recommendation that in each case each person will have specific skills that they must target and develop, but I just wish you had mixed the examples up somewhat.
    Kind regards
    Helen

  12. Hi, Tom,

    Thank you for the kind words! I think that feedback about your performance may not be as difficult to get as you think even when your job keeps you away from people. I don’t know what type of work you are currently doing, but someone must be using the results you produce, right?

    Sometimes, even when we work directly with people, it’s hard to get objective feedback by just asking. For example, the business stakeholders may say they are very pleased with the requirements a BA wrote (because they reflect the business needs in business terms). And the dev team may not complaint directly, but begin to ask questions to clarify the intention behind the requirements. If the BA is getting a lot of legitimate questions about the requirements statements, then it’s a sign that there is room for improvement in the documentation produced.

    Likewise, we can collect other metrics, such as number of late change requests submitted due to overlooked requirements, number of defects found in requirements by the dev or QA team, schedule variance (actual duration of requirements work vs. planned duration) etc. All these can become good indicators of whether we are making progress, when systematic feedback from experts are not available.

    If the numbers aren’t getting better with time, it’s a sign that the person may be stuck in a plateau. That’s good information to have in order to plan a strategy for “deliberate practice” to go to the next level of competence.

    “Behavioral modification” sounds like an intriguing area of study! You should write an article for Bridging the Gap to share some of your knowledge in this field :-).

  13. Adriana,
    I have long wondered but now I am sure. You are a “thought leader”. You write and present about an important topic (business analysis). You mentor others. And you have a exceptionally well organized work system that lets you juggle a huge volume of work (paid and un-paid) without any apparent slowdown.
    —————————snip—————————————
    This is from the “deliberate practice” URL/hyperlink above.

    ” 3. You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance. ”

    For a person who is mostly not interacting with people because his/her job keeps them away from people, its going to be very hard to implement this. My training in behavioral modification (ancient bachelors degree) supports this enthusiastically but it still going to be hard to setup.

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