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

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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.

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