The Need for Employees Who Think Like Hackers-Or Are Hackers

Ann All

When I spoke recently with Andy Bookless, director of Government Services for Harvey Nash and project lead for the Harvey Nash CIO Survey 2010, which the recruitment consultancy produced in cooperation with PA Consulting Group, one of the topics we covered was CIOs' perception of an IT skills shortage. Bookless told me Harvey Nash expects to see an upturn in hiring in 2010, as more companies get comfortable spending in the post-recessionary environment, but "the types of skills that are needed are evolving."

 

Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents said they expect to face a skills shortage this year, and 65 percent of them believe shortages will affect growth. The skill most in demand among global CIOs is business analysis, named by 44 percent of survey respondents.

 

So assuming CIOs will be hiring business analysts this year, what skills should they seek? That's not an easy question to answer, since the role seems to vary widely from company to company.

 

When I interviewed several business analysts for a story in late 2008, Steve Kubick, a business analyst for AutoZone told me that in the course of networking with other BAs, he's "never found another person that can give me a definition of what they do as a BA that matches mine." Not only that, but Forrester Research analysts Carey Schwaber and Rob Karel found it difficult to define the duties of a "typical" business analyst even after reviewing 29,000 job listings and interviewing more than 300 BAs.

 

Still, there are three key skills any BA should possess, writes Brad Wray on his Enterprise Architecture and Business Analysis blog. They are:


 

  • Customer-service skills. Wray defines this as ability to make customers (clients) feel their needs are being met at every step of the process. He says:
That includes having their issues and problems understood and well defined prior to the design of the solution.

I think this includes the ability to speak the language of the clients. For most BAs, that means being able to communicate with both IT and business employees. As Kubick told me:

You have to be a translator between business and IT, to speak their language and relate to them on their terms. You don't throw out all the tech jargon when you're in a room with business users, but you use the jargon when you speak with TAs and developers. They won't know business jargon, so you don't inject lots of business terms they won't know.

Wray makes an interesting suggestion: Look for folks who at some point worked in the hospitality industry, particularly in fast-food jobs. They'll be used to dealing with demanding, assertive clients. (Gee, is Wray implying there are demanding people in most offices?) In another office parallel, most fast-food establishments have well-defined processes and procedures for their employees to follow to efficiently serve their high volumes of customers. BAs obviously need to be comfortable with standardized processes.

 

I'd also put the ability to get along well with others under the broad "customer service" umbrella. That's especially important for BAs because, as IT Business Edge contributor Loraine Lawson wrote, sometimes there is tension between IT administrators and business analysts. And as Mike Vizard pointed out, developers also sometimes butt heads with business analysts.

 

  • Ability to think strategically. Wray defines this as the ability to foresee how the future can look and envision the path taken to get there. A good BA should be able to think three or four tasks ahead of a project's current status, suggests Wray.

 

One caveat: Kubick told me as a technologist, he sometimes had a tendency to focus on possible solutions before thinking about problems:

At first, I wasn't a good BA because I'd lose sight of the business need and go right to the possible technology solutions. But I don't need to know you have a SQL database or an Oracle database running Crystal Reports 3.5. I need to know the business problem you are trying to solve.
  • Breadth of experience. Wray says he looks for BAs that have completed several different projects and worked with varied and diverse clients. He writes:
I believe that it is better to have some knowledge of several lines of business than to be an expert in only one business area.

I once cited a column written by Brian Cook in which he made the case that case that cross-functional business analysts are generally more effective in producing requirements than BAs with expertise in specific areas. Cook said cross-functional BAs lack the kind of biases that sometimes prevent more specialized analysts from seeing the "big picture."

 

Wray's list matches up nicely with one offered by Mary Gerush, another of the sources I interviewed for my story on BAs. Among the items on her list:

  • Ability to communicate well
  • Ability to collaborate with others
  • Analytical skills
  • Leadership
  • Customer orientation (customer service by another name)
  • Results orientation
  • Willingness to drive and embrace change
  • Curiosity


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