Getting Down to Business
Published: May 15, 2023
Business analysts (BAs) are the general practitioners of the IT world. They are called upon daily to provide business expertise, analytical skills and technical fluency. They can turn on a dime, frequently putting aside what they are working on and joining with their fellow BAs to fix data issues, test coding changes, or track down the source of application errors – anything needed to keep business applications running smoothly and customers happy.
Business analysts ask questions, lots of them. They get a little info about what is needed, then probe until the people coding and the people using and supporting an application are on the same page. The BA role is critical to making sure requirements for new and enhanced functionality are captured and well understood before work begins.
“There’s a definite push to move quality checks up front by minimizing missed requirements and misunderstood requirements,” said Bambi Rands, a senior quality assurance analyst, instructor and coach. “For example, an app will provide a way for the user to scroll through a list of images. The business analyst is thinking there’ll be a caret to click to scroll one new picture onto the screen at a time. The developer thinks the caret will scroll ahead four pictures at a time, which he knows is the company’s user interface standard. The product owner is expecting a vertical scroll bar.”
It’s the job of the business analyst to ask questions that will bring all these visions together and resolve the differences.
“We want to ‘shift left’ and get to that shared understanding before development begins,” said Rands, “when it’s much less costly to correct errors.”
Mutual of Omaha’s Information Services operation uses the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to structure and coordinate work. A team approach to application development and maintenance is a big part of SAFe. Rands created an in-person “Requirements Activity Workshop” and a self-paced “Requirements Throughout an Agile Project” course to show business analysts and others how to do story planning and create stories as a team.
“Let’s say an app needs a login page. That’s the story. What does the login page need to look like and how should it behave? These are the requirements,” Rands explained. “Ask more questions to drive out the detail to get your acceptance criteria. Then you write your tests as a group to drive out even more requirements. And by using a given-when-then format for writing these tests, they transfer to many automated testing tools.”
Michele Spomer, a business systems consultant in the Senior Health Solutions business area, has a few decades of experience asking questions that drive out requirements.
“I started in Messenger Services 30 years ago,” Spomer said. “After a few promotions, I was working with Information Services on projects and they pulled me over into the BA role. I moved from BA to business systems consultant. Now I’m on a data team working on a new product. It’s challenging because I don’t have a background in data, but I’m learning!”
Spomer said this is the year of technical changes for her team.
“We’re transitioning into the cloud. I get to dig into the data and gain a better understanding of the product,” she said. “I share what I learn with the business stakeholders. Each stakeholder prefers to get their info a little differently and I do that. I also encourage collaboration within the team – our developers need to be ‘heads-down’ much of the time, but we also need to bring everyone together.”
Spomer focuses on helping the team understand the value of the work being done with system demos and team demos. She helps prioritize, plan and identify dependencies.
“We have to make sure we’re product-focused, not project-focused,” Spomer said.
Roughly half of all business analysts at Mutual are in Information Services and the rest work in the company’s business units. Rands’ time is dedicated to teaching and coaching them all.
“The BA’s role has evolved,” said Rands. “Some of the BAs also become involved in automated testing, which requires basic coding. They need training and development opportunities to continue enhancing their skills.”
Ashlee Worrall, Maddie Fox and Mike Pettigrew are business systems analysts in Workplace Solutions Systems Support. Worral and Fox moved to their BA positions from other business roles. Pettigrew came to Mutual from the banking industry where he worked in operations and lending.
“I’m one of the newer BAs on my team,” said Pettigrew. “It’s a good starting point for me, similar to what I was doing before, only in insurance.”
Despite having the same job, their work varies widely.
“I do testing, work on application releases, communications between systems, and reporting,” said Fox.
“I do day-to-day support on several of our larger front office systems,” said Pettigrew, “I learn 10 new things every day. Other BAs on my team are always available to mentor me.”
Worrall added, “There’s a lot to learn to be able to do production support. We tackle issues as a team and work on complex issues together.”
All three agree that the most rewarding days are those when they get to see their hard work come to fruition.
“We added a new product recently and it was great to see the data flowing through all our systems. We see in action the results of everyone’s hard work,” said Fox.
“Sometimes the most challenging day can become the most rewarding,” said Worrall. “When there’s pop-up work, we all just swarm it and get it done. At the end of the day, I walk away feeling grateful for my job and my team.”
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