Jobs on Generalists

This post originally appeared September 29, 2011 on

One of the things I look for when hiring a business analyst is a good grounding in liberal arts. That might seem odd, given that business analysis regularly lives at the intersection of business and technology. Yes, those skills are vitally important and it is difficult, but not impossible, to be a good BA and not have both. But a great BA is something else entirely.

You know how to put together the most perfect requirements document? An administrative assistant could probably fill out the template if given the words.

You know how to interview people to find out their problems? Yeah, a psychologist gets paid to do that as well.

Can you follow someone around the office, watch what they do and report all that back to a developer? Its called a video camera.

We prize hard skills in a BA. Its difficult, if not impossible, to do the job with at least some rudimentary understanding of these skills. Some of them seem to the outsider to be nothing more than basic problem solving skills, and when practiced at the entry level, really are not much more than just that. As we progress in our career, we recognize that to really be great at what we do, we have to move beyond just problem solving.

That’s where it pays to be a generalist. That’s why this quote resonates with me:

It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.
—Triumph of the Nerds, PBS, June 1996

One of the best ways to become great at being a BA is to shamelessly steal from everyone. The more knowledge you have packed away for a rainy day, the more likely you are to have the necessary nugget of information that is the only solution to the given problem.

So that’s the secret sauce, a wide and varied experience. The more you travel, the more you read, the more you study, the more you experience, the more likely you are to have the foundation for a killer business analyst. Open your mind, broaden your horizons and reach beyond your grasp.