How to Become a Business Analyst (And Profit Off Tough Business Problems)
March 10, 2021
Technology and best practices change rapidly in the business world, and some organizations struggle to keep up. Business analysts earn their keep helping organizations find technological and practical solutions that empower them to outpace the competition.
Do you love to solve problems? Do you find business systems, processes, and policies endlessly fascinating? If you answered 'yes' to both questions, you are a born business analyst.
Simply put, business analysts are professional problem solvers. They evaluate an organization's processes, workflows, structures, technologies, and goals to find and fill in performance gaps using data to back up their recommendations. These days, they often provide technological solutions and serve as a bridge between business and IT departments. However, depending on the problem, they may be just as likely to suggest cost-effective low-tech strategies for enhancing performance and meeting specific business goals.
Want to learn how to become a business analyst and why some people find this role so rewarding? In this article, we'll cover:
- What does a business analyst do?
- What does a business analyst's typical day look like?
- The skills needed to become a business analyst
- Education required to become a business analyst
- Certifications for business analysts
- Is becoming a business analyst right for you?
What does a business analyst do?
When you become a business analyst, your job will involve showing organizations how they can:
- Improve efficiency, profitability, and productivity
- Streamline production and workflows
- Update other aspects of the business
What you focus on will depend on the needs of your employer. You may be asked to tackle issues related to operations, systems, finance, HR, engineering, or technology… or all of them. You need to be versatile to succeed in this career and open to learning about new business functions. Your primary expertise will be in problem-solving, not in the granular details of any single function.
How specifically you are expected to specialize will depend on the size and business of your employer. At one company, you might be in a very technical role, monitoring the hardware, software, and IT services for a department or the entire organization. At another, you might spend the majority of your time defining and adjusting process flows for maximum efficiency.
And, you might work at both of these hypothetical companies simultaneously, because it's not unusual for business analysts to work as outside consultants. Some business analysts work as independent contractors, specializing in a specific field like insurance, finance, marketing, HR, or health.
Many, however, are generalists employed as full-time salaried employees by business consulting firms. In both cases, your job will be to identify an organization's pain points and design a solution that eliminates or greatly reduces that pain.
What does a business analyst's typical day look like?
When you become a business analyst, you'll spend much of your time working with data to identify problems and design solutions. However, business analysts also need to be comfortable working with others who can provide insights into the causes of inefficiencies and barriers to growth.
A business analyst's typical day could include:
- Talking with managers and stakeholders to identify pain points
- Reviewing business requirements related to IT
- Looking at product analytics, channel analytics, financial analytics, customer behavior analytics, marketing analytics, etc.
- Identifying quantifiable areas of weakness (e.g., old equipment, outdated policies, communications gaps)
- Selecting metrics that should be tracked as performance indicators
- Strategizing and modeling improvements
- Assessing the impact of those improvements
- Determining the feasibility of the proposed changes and adjusting as necessary
- Standardizing workflows
- Validating that all business requirements are accounted for in proposed changes
- Crafting reports and presenting them to stakeholders
- Overseeing the implementation of proposed enhancement strategies
- Leading system- and user-testing activities
- Monitoring metrics and recommending additional changes
The solutions that business analysts propose might involve anything from updating or redrafting business plans to ordering new hardware, to taking steps to improve employee engagement.
Travel will also be a part of your life when you become a business analyst. Whether you're an independent contractor or you work for a consulting firm, you will be required to go to each client's location. Sometimes clients will be local, but you may end up spending a lot of your time on the road. You will likely work long days, especially as deadlines approach. This is not a 9-to-5 job.
Skills needed to become a business analyst
You don't need to have an in-depth IT background to succeed as a business analyst, but an aptitude for tech and the ability to pick up computer concepts and jargon quickly are definitely helpful in this role. You will also need a combination of hard and soft skills; communication is just as crucial as tech-savvy in this role. A business analyst has to be able to talk to everyone, whether they're trying to identify roadblocks or sharing their findings with a group of managers from different departments.
You'll do well as a business analyst when you have:
- Communication skills: You will work in groups frequently, sometimes collecting information from stakeholders and sometimes collaborating with colleagues to serve a client. You must be able to present your recommendations and to justify them to any audience.
- Critical thinking skills: To come up with feasible solutions to organizational challenges, you have to understand every facet of how that organization functions. That means understanding the contributions of employees, departments, technologies, and processes.
- Tech skills: Your job will involve sorting through vast quantities of data. You may use a range of tools and applications to crunch numbers, sort data, model processes, manage requirements, and share your results. Having programming and data science chops may boost your employability.
- Analytical skills: Business analysts need to be able to evaluate challenges from all angles—at the business level, tech level, human resources level, and data level. To do this requires seeing how different and sometimes seemingly unrelated factors are contributing to those challenges.
- Decision-making skills: You need to be confident in the solutions you're proposing. If you don't exhibit strong judgment, clients won't take your recommendations seriously.
- Problem-solving skills: Part of your job will be quickly untangling all the various threads contributing to business issues, and then coming up with workable solutions that will keep those threads straight in the future (or eliminate those that have no value).
- Negotiation skills: There are no perfect solutions because everything comes at a cost. Management may want better tech, but the annual budget doesn't support it. New workflows will increase efficiency, but employees resist change. A great business analyst can draft solutions that are mutually acceptable to stakeholders with competing interests—or convince everyone of the value of accepting proposed changes as presented.
Education required to become a business analyst
A bachelor's degree is typically all that's needed to become a business analyst. Because the nature of this role can depend so much on the needs and wants of an employer, there's no one specific bachelor's degree pathway for aspiring business analysts. Popular majors among business analysts include:
- Business administration
- Computer science
- Data science
- Information systems
- Information technology
- Management information systems (MIS)
Regardless of your major, you should learn some computer programming and database administration as an undergraduate. The more technical skills you have, the more attractive you'll be to potential employers.
Once you have your bachelor's degree in business or in another discipline, you can enter the workforce or continue on to earn a master's degree or MBA. There are many master's programs for business analysts, and generally these include courses in:
- Analytics tools
- Business data analytics
- Business intelligence
- Database analytics
- Machine learning
- Mathematical optimization
- Operations research
- Predictive analytics
- Project management
A big part of your studies will involve learning how to deal with unstructured data and how to identify trends. That said, there are no standard curricula for master's degree programs for business analysts. Some programs are more focused on business coursework, while others are focused solely on analytics technologies and techniques. Always read program guides carefully.
Some of the best master of science in business analytics programs (MS-BA) can be found at:
- Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business
- Boston University Metropolitan College
- Duke University Fuqua School of Business
- Georgia Institute of Technology - Main Campus
- Johns Hopkins University Carey School of Business
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Business
Other master's degree options you should explore are the MBA in business analytics or the MBA in information systems. Earning either of these degrees will give you the knowledge and qualifications you need to transition from business analyst to business analyst manager.
At every stage of your academic career, consider pursuing a business analytics internship. You'll learn a lot during these internships about the practical side of becoming a business analyst—and you might even get paid. Large companies like Amazon, Target, and Starbucks offer paid summer internships that are appropriate for aspiring business analysts.
Certifications for business analysts
You can work as an entry-level or mid-level business analyst without any business analyst certifications, but if you're interested in senior business analyst roles (or boosting your salary across levels), it's worth pursuing one or more professional certifications. The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) offers four certification levels specific to business analysts:
- _The Entry Certificate in Business Analysis (ECBA)_ is for recent college grads and professionals changing careers. It covers the foundational knowledge of business analysis. The ECBA+ adds a practicum to provide hands-on training.
- _The Certification of Capability in Business Analysis (CCBA)_ is for business analysts with two to three years (or 3,750 hours over the last 7 years) experience. It demonstrates that you have the skills and knowledge to take on large and complex projects.
- _The Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP)_ is for business analysts with at least years of experience and demonstrates that you are a leader in the field.
Is becoming a business analyst right for you?
To answer that question, consider that while business analytics is a lucrative field (the average business analyst salary in the United States is $74,612, according to Salary.com), it's also an evolving one. Business growth is increasingly dependent on data analysis technologies, so becoming a business analyst will probably mean dealing with a lot of tech and tech challenges. In other words, the line between business analytics and business intelligence is slowly eroding. You may have to study advanced computer science and database systems to keep up.
If that sounds more interesting than intimidating, you'll enjoy plenty of opportunities for employment and advancement. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, employment of management analysts—a category that includes business analysts—is expected to grow much faster than average. And after a few years as an entry-level analyst, you can transition into a more senior analyst position or move laterally into project management, sales, IT, or consultant roles. You can improve your chances of promotion or an advantageous lateral move by taking on projects in different domains and industries instead of specializing.
The main downside to becoming a business analyst is that you'll never be done proving your worth. Business analytics isn't a new field, but the responsibilities of business analysts are rapidly changing. Not everyone you work with will understand what you do or the value you bring to the table. The key to ongoing success will be your ability to explain that your superpowers are improving efficiency, streamlining workflows, reducing costs, and generally making it easier for businesses to make more money.
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