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Six Secrets of Top-Notch Business Analysts

Six Secrets of Top-Notch Business Analysts

While a business analyst's responsibilities may vary by company and project, every IT employee and businessperson knows a good or bad BA when he sees one. Here's what the good ones do very well

Most line-of-business execs, project managers and software developers who have worked on application development teams can attest to the importance of good business analysts.

In many instances, in fact, today's business analyst can affect the outcome (good or bad) of a software project. "When business analysts aren't able to carry their weight, it's evident to everybody on the project. They usually know something is going on," says Carey Schwaber, a senior analyst of application development at Forrester Research. "I've seen projects where a bad business analyst was the critical failure factor."

Sure, executive boardroom support is key at the kickoff, but the CEO or CIO isn't down in the trenches every day, hammering out compromises, grinding out specs and pushing all involved toward the finish line. "It's funny," Schwaber adds, "we have a lot of prerequisites for success with software projects, and it's not just executive support. It's also good business analysts."

While most employees might have a sense of what a traditional business analyst does, not everyone knows how BAs do their jobs' effectively. "It's easy to understand what their role is," Schwaber says, "but it's hard to understand what makes them good at it or bad at it."

So what do the best business analysts do so well? Here are six critical skillsets and professional characteristics that make business analysts invaluable.

They understand the specific business problem that software aims to solve.
To Ron Bonig, CIO of George Washington University, the best business analysts have an ability to determine the actual business problem and then help figure out a solution.

"The ability to properly frame and structure a problem is 75 percent of the effort to discern a solution," Bonig says. "I see people attempting to solve the wrong problem every day, and it usually stems from an inadequate problem statement that either leaves them floundering among irrelevant details or confidently determining a solution that bears no relationship to the core issue."

Good business analysts should fall back on what Bonig calls the "old list of questions taught in Journalism 101" — who, what, where, when, why and how. "If one can describe the problem using these attributes," Bonig says, "a solution is generally well within reach." Business analysts who answer these questions at the outset of software projects (Bonig says he uses this method all the time) will have a better chance of success.

"So, bottom line, the best business analysts know how to structure the problem," Bonig says. "Some skills and common sense and a knowledge of the subject matter, if it is technical, are the majority of what is needed."

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