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Geeks with Empathy – The Key Traits a Business Analyst Must Possess

I recently participated in a Panel Discussion on the state of the Business Analyst Profession held by IIBA of Austin. One of the questions we tackled was the following:

“What are the key traits that a Business Analyst must possess?”

There are many qualifications and abilities that a good analyst must possess. The ability to think analytically, be detail oriented, have good interpersonal skills, understand the technological environment and business concepts come to mind right off the bat. However, for me, it comes down to two key traits that I believe Analysts must possess. It is the presence or absence of these traits that distinguish the great Analysts from the rest of the pack.

1.  Empathy

I was once asked for a “one sentence” description of a Business Analyst. I came back with “Geeks with Empathy”. This one sentence embodies for me the two key traits an Analyst must possess. A Passion for Technology. And Empathy. Let me first elaborate on Empathy. Analysts need to fundamentally have the ability to “empathize” with their constituents. On the one side, we need to be able to empathize and truly understand the business users’ motivations, needs and pain points driving specific requests. Absent this ability to truly understand their expectations and aspirations we cannot really be a champion of their interests.

On the other side of the fence, we need to truly understand the motivations, constraints and issues faced by the Developers. Software development is an art and the great Developers are artists. We are dealing with highly skilled individuals who take abstract concepts and convert them to bits and bytes that manifest on our screens. We need to really appreciate what they are doing to ensure that we give them the best possible information in a way they can consume to help them create great solutions for us.

Stripped of Empathy, Software Requirements definition becomes a mechanical implementation of techniques and methodology. Simply put, it lacks soul and passion. Empathy translates into a passion that the Analyst brings to the task at hand. This passion is infectious and profoundly impacts all the project constituents.

Empathy adds a layer of understanding to requests from business users and developers that is hard for me to quantify, other than to say it is real and meaningful. The Analyst instinctively understands the importance of certain requests that goes beyond models and methodology. They are better able to handle the interpersonal dynamics of the project that are ultimately critical to project success.

2.  A Passion for Technology

The “Geek” in the sentence “Geeks with Empathy” is a proxy for “A Passion for Technology.” I truly believe that Analysts should genuinely like software and technology. It may seem like a strange thing to say but I have seen a lot of Analysts who are not passionate about technology. I want to make a clear distinction between technological “knowledge” and “passion.” There are many Analysts who are extremely technical savvy and knowledgeable but not passionate.

Technology has become such an integral part of our daily lives that we seem to be jaded in many ways. We have lost the sense of wonder that a lot of us had in the early days of the Personal Computer and Internet Revolution. The kinds of things we take for granted today like the Web, Email, Facebook, Twitter, Ecommerce, Smartphones and instantaneous communication software and devices of all kinds are really objects of wonder. A tremendous amount of thought, genius, blood, sweat and tears has gone into making these things an integral part of our lives.

All of us are very lucky to be part of this incredible revolution that is changing humanity itself. We need to bring this sense of wonder and passion to our projects. We are not just moving around bits and bytes. We are all contributing via our efforts to make the world we live in a better place for everyone. If the software solution we are working on increases productivity, it enables the money saved to be used to make better products. If it increases sales, it enables more people to be employed who would otherwise not have these opportunities.

We need to bring this passion for technology and the things it enables to our work. We all make a difference in our own ways. Our individual talents, genius, efforts and insights makes things a little better than they were. Great Analysts have this love and awe of the efforts they are a part of. They are doing their best to make a difference – one requirement at a time.

These two traits I have highlighted cannot be “trained” or “taught”. You have empathy. Or you don’t. You have a passion for technology and software. Or you don’t. Everything else we do can be taught. Passion is inherent in the individual. You cannot teach it. You can only recognize it in the people who already have it.

So, the next time you are looking for Analysts in your organizations, look for these two key traits – Empathy and Passion for Technology. Your teams and organizations will be better off for it.

13 Responses to Geeks with Empathy – The Key Traits a Business Analyst Must Possess

  1. Victor February 24, 2015 at 1:00 am #

    I’d like to emphasize that a BA may not deal with technologies at all. Some types of BAs are focused primarily on improving business processes so they don’t care much about what kind of IT system will be used.

  2. David Wright February 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

    Victor adds an important aspect of Business Analysis : “some types of BAs”. What we are talking about here is Requirements Analysts, even if the IIBA stuck with the BA tag. In any case, I am trying to determine how empathic I am. If you just asked me out of the blue, I would have said “not very”. I would say I know to collaborate with other people/areas to meet common goals for the org, I.e. “teamwork”. Maybe its a different way to say the same thing, or maybe not…

  3. Talina Lambeth March 6, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    I think this was very well stated and agree they must be at the top of the list along with patience and logic.

  4. Adriana Beal March 7, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    Empathy is at the top of my list of characteristics of a great BA (and great product manager as well), so I like your first bullet point, Ajay. I’d argue that curiosity and a passion for learning and solving problems is more important than a passion for technology, though. (If you have the former, it’s very likely you also have the latter, as technology tends to be at the core of solving challenging problems, but then you’re also prepared to go beyond technology to make sure your solution fully addresses the problem or opportunity.)

    David, I don’t believe that empathy and teamwork are the same thing, but I also don’t believe when you say you probably aren’t very empathic :-). A good way to tell is to look at your behavior–does it demonstrate that you have a genuine care for your customers and users, as well as for the people you work with?

    To use some examples from the product management world, if you see yourself blocking time in your busy schedule to explain to the customer support team about a change that’s coming in the next release (so they can be better prepared to deal with questions from users, thus benefitting both your colleagues and the customer community), or taking time to explain in detail to an engineer that the reason his code needs to change is because of product evolution, rather than a reflection on the quality of his work, then you can say you do have empathy.

  5. Sarah April 7, 2015 at 2:09 am #

    I absolutely agree about empathy but not the technology point. As another comment points out, BAs don’t just deal with technological change but also things like process change.

  6. David Wright June 15, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    I am back with a more substantive view. I work with subject matter experts to elicit requirements, but I don’t work for them, I am not their “champion”, nor do they need one. We all work for the same organization, and it is its overall success that counts. If you work in organization that requires such championing, it is dysfunctional at a basic level.

    Lack of empathy (or understanding it is not needed) does not automatically mean a lack of passion in doing the work I do. I am driven passionately to succeed: individually, in a team, and in the whole organization.

  7. Ajay Badri June 16, 2015 at 12:41 am #

    David:

    First off thanks for your comments :-).

    I think you are putting too fine a point on “empathy”. As you state, you are driven passionately to succeed. Simply put, you care deeply about what you do and want excellent outcomes for your organization. In my world, anyone who takes this amount of professional pride, is by definition empathetic :-).

    The only point I am trying to make is that we as professionals should care at some fundamental level about what we do and take pride in it. One of the desirable characteristics of such a person is empathy. it may manifest as professional pride, drive to succeed, care for the outcomes of the users and so on.

    Where I do diverge from you is that we should never be a “champion” for our users and any organization that needs such a champion is by definition dysfunctional. All organizations, especially well run ones always compete for resources. in such an environment, it is up to us to make articulate arguments on behalf of our stakeholders to convince people in positions of power that the project we are undertaking on their behalf is actually worthwhile. One of our core skills is the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively to a wide range of constituents. Our stakeholders may not have this ability while they may be very capable at what their core competencies are. In these situations, the success or failure of a project will depend on our ability to be effective spokespeople on behalf of our stakeholders.

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