10 things you should know about hiring a business or systems analyst

Hiring the right business or systems analyst can be a tricky undertaking because the necessary skills and experience are often hard to define. Justin James offers some basic ways to help identify the best candidate for the job.

Business and systems analysts (BAs and SAs) fill an interesting role in IT organizations: They straddle the gap between the users and the IT department, taking an active role in the development of IT solutions without performing much of the hands-on work of the users or the IT team. BAs and SAs often catch a lot of heat from the IT department for "not knowing what we do," and users often point the finger at them when the IT department's solution is well executed but does not meet their needs.

Navigating this interaction between IT and users can be a huge challenge for BAs and SAs. But hiring someone to fill that job can be equally challenging. While technical know-how and experience are a big help, it can be difficult to determine what will be useful for the job and what won't. The same can be said for understanding the business end of things. Here are 10 tips and interview ideas to help you pick the best BA or SA candidate for the job.

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1: Experience in an analyst role

There's nothing wrong with bringing in someone who is considered entry level for a particular job role. After all, that's how we all learn. But keep in mind that the "A" in "BA" and "SA" stands for analyst. No, that does not mean you are expected to lie on a couch and tell them your feelings. It means that they need to be able to examine the facts and information given to them, ask the right questions, perform research, and distill this mixture into a combination of documents, charts, workflows, technical specifications, and presentations. Even if your prospective BA or SA has never held this role before, he or she should be experienced in some sort of role that requires similar skills.

2: Experience in the right IT discipline

This may sound obvious, but there is a world of difference between a programmer and a system administrator and a desktop technician -- and the dozens of other IT job roles. Plenty of developers can't fix a PC and lots of system administrators know nothing about programming. Within the IT department, everyone knows the roles and what they do, but it's easy for those outside the IT department to lump them all together as "IT." Technical experience is helpful in a BA or SA candidate, but it's even more important that it be the right kind. Talk to the IT people who will be working with the BA or SA. Learn exactly what kind of work they will be doing and then look for candidates with that kind of background. A non-related IT history is helpful too, but it's not worth paying a premium for.

3: Internal candidates...

Every organization has some quirks in its process. These quirks are often handed down from one employee to another, never written down, and are lurking in the grass ready to surprise newcomers. Those who are already working for you know your organization, and this will give them a huge advantage in ramping up quickly and understanding the unique needs of your organization.

4: ...Versus outside perspective

Unfortunately, internal candidates are sometimes so experienced in the current process, they can't see the problems with it or areas for change. This is doubly true if they have had any kind of role in shaping the process as it currently stands. Just as we all think our own kids are the cutest kids on the planet, people who have a hand in the current process tend to think it makes perfect sense. Someone who is not familiar with the current way of doing things is much better able to see where improvements can be made.

5: The ability to document effectively

One of the biggest problems I see with some BAs and SAs is that you can talk to them and see that they know what is needed -- but they just can't get it out of their head and onto paper. I have seen too many process documents that were written by someone who couldn't write things in a fashion that could be followed. One of my favorite examples was a flowchart showing a process. Entire sections were completely orphaned (no way to get to them) and none of the "exit conditions" was reachable. Needless to say, this document wasn't worth the drive space it took up. During the interview, bring paper or a whiteboard and have candidates do some samples on the spot, such as creating a flowchart for a process. If they can't handle simple examples in the interview, it is likely that they will struggle on the job too.

6: Problem-solving skills

In the IT realm, it is common to see interviews where candidates are given a variety of brainteasers, math questions, and other tests of analytic capability. The BA and SA roles require similar abilities, albeit in a different area of knowledge. Some of the classic IT examples can be easily adapted (or even used as-is) to take out the technical knowledge and still test the analytic skills. For example, the classic river-crossing question is a great way of assessing someone's ability to solve problems.

7: Industry knowledge

All too often, the candidate whom people want to hire is simply impossible to find. The only person who fit the bill is the one who recently vacated the position. It's tempting to think that the ideal candidate has in depth knowledge of your industry and understands it completely. This is a trap. The fact is, that mindset greatly shrinks your candidate pool. By the time you find and hire the "right" person, you could have taught someone else how to do the job! That being said, there are some fields where industry knowledge is crucial, such as those that are highly regulated. But before you insist that your candidates have a ton of time in your industry, ask yourself whether that's truly needed or whether someone from a related or unrelated field would be fine as well.

8: Basic skills

I have been quite surprised by the lack of basic skills in many BAs and SAs I have worked with. By this I mean things like the ability to put together and conduct a presentation, use calendar systems to set up meetings properly, and understand Web conferencing software. These basic tools are the bread-and-butter of the BA and SA role. An "analyst" who can't use a spreadsheet to perform data analysis is about as useful as a carpenter who doesn't know how to use a hammer. Don't be ashamed to give prospective BA or SA candidates a simple computer literacy test to ensure that they can handle the job.

9: Self-directed and self-motivated attitude

These kinds of jobs typically require workers to guide themselves. It is up to them to get the right people in the room at the right time, to call others and get information, and so on. Someone who needs to be micromanaged to do these tasks -- or who does not know when to ask questions -- is not going to thrive. You will want to ask questions that evaluate how well they work on their own. Asking them to describe their typical workday will give you more useful information than asking them, "Are you able to manage yourself?"

10: Communication and people skills

Above all, the BA and SA role is about working with others to craft a solution to a problem. Someone who can't work well with others is not going to be effective. Ask your candidates to describe how they go about handling friction with others. Ask them to describe a conflict in the past. You're not looking at how they claimed they solved it as much as you're trying to get a handle on their ability to let the past be the past and to let business be business. The last thing you want is an analyst who holds grudges or turns differences of opinion on work-related issues into all-out war.