I'm a firm believer that the demand for quality business analysts will continue to rise as more companies focus on data. There has never been a better time to start a career as a business analyst. The demand is at insane levels and continues to rise.
In this post I'm going to answer the question, how to become a business analyst.
There are 4 steps to build a career as a senior business analyst and I'm going to walk you through each of them.
In this post you'll learn the following:
- How to decide if becoming a business analyst is the right choice for you.
- How to start learning the skills needed to become a business analyst.
- How to find a great company to work for as a business analyst.
- How to set personal goals as an aspiring business analyst.
Step #1 - Understand the role and decide if it's for you
I led a team of 5 business analysts at my previous company. Each of my analysts had to navigate a challenging and stressful environment. Not everyone is suited for the role and before you decide to invest years of your life on this career path, you need to decide if it is for you.
What makes a business analyst?
A business analyst needs to be strong in a number of areas. These areas include:
- Data - A strong analyst can read, manipulate, extract and work with data. This may mean building pivot tables in Excel, or writing SQL or Python to build custom data sets.
- Business - A basic understanding of business is a necessary requirement for a business analyst. This is a broad topic in of itself but just for example I'll mention the role of different departments, funnels, life-time value and retention.
- Customer support - A business analyst is a service provider. Depending on the size and structure of the company, a business analyst may have a single or dozens of colleagues that rely on their services.
- Math and statistics - A business analyst needs to be good with numbers and at the very least, basic statistical concepts.
A business analyst needs to be a natural problem solver and highly technical. This doesn't mean you need to necessarily study a technical degree (even though that would help tremendously), but it does mean that you need to be comfortable in technical environments.
I studied business administration but was teaching myself how to code before my degree. You can get away with not having a technical degree if you're willing to put in the work. Below are a list of highly technical skills I developed through self teaching. If I can do it so can you.
What are the responsibilities of a business analyst?
Now that you've determined that you're the right fit for the job you need to understand the exact responsibilities of the role.
The exact responsibilities of a business analyst will change depending on the company but in a nutshell a business analyst will be responsible providing the following services:
- Reporting - A major part of the job as a business analyst is to report on the numbers of the business. This may involve manually running analyses to calculate key metrics, or to simply copy and paste values from a dashboard.
- Analyses - As a business analyst you'll be required to run complex analyses to help identify key metrics. This is a fun part of the job, especially when the analysis has never been conducted before. Your job is to help the company understand itself better.
- Help with decision making - A data-driven organization will lean heavily on their analysts to help with decision making. Since you'll be living in the numbers, there is no one better at helping to guide decisions with data than you.
- Dashboard development - You may be required to learn new tools like Tableau or PowerBI in order to help develop and update dashboards. My team became experts at Tableau and this gave them the ability to provide insights significantly quicker and to multiple "customers".
- Data collection - A business analyst will be involved in the data collection efforts of the company. This may involve testing out new tools and systems, working on projects with data engineers, or connecting different systems used by the company.
If I had to sum up the responsibilities of a business analyst in a single sentence it would be; "A business analyst is responsible for helping the company improve its' performance". A business analyst is essentially a data-driven consultant that works full-time for the company.
As a business analyst you'll be running around like a chicken without its head. As you show people that you can help them do their jobs better (data becomes a valuable resource), the higher the demand for your time will become.
One of the toughest parts of the job is disconnecting your emotions from the day-to-day. As a business analyst you'll have incredible power since you'll know what's working and what's not working. This includes who is doing their job and who is failing.
I remember being asked by my manager to provide him with a list of employees that the company should fire. I had to forget that the people on my list were my friends and rely on the data to tell the story.
Step #2 - Learn something technical and then don't stop learning
If you want to be a business analyst you'll need to get an undergraduate degree. The best degrees for someone that wants to build a career as a business analyst are:
- Computer Science
- Industrial Engineering
- Information Systems
I wrote earlier in this post that I studied business. The reason business is not in this list is because a typical business degree is not going to give you enough technical and problem solving skills. I only studied business because I failed to get into the computer science degree so I consider myself an outlier when it comes to my career path and my studies.
If you really don't want to do one of the degrees I've listed above but want a career as an analyst then just accept that you'll need to do a ton of work on your own to improve your technical and math skills.
Don't wait until after your degree to start working as an analyst
Don't make the mistake of thinking that by simply finishing your degree you'll get a job. I'll tell you a little secret. As a hiring manager the degree the candidate has holds very little weight. I see the degree as table stakes. You either have one of the degrees I've listed, and then you move forward, or you don't, and your chances drop significantly.
Once I see that the candidate has the right education I focus on past experience. You want to do everything you can to get some runs on the board (and preferably with the right team). Try and get an internship or part time job with a startup and use your free time to learn some of the skills I listed earlier in this post.
Udemy, YouTube and blogs are great resources that you can use.
It is critical that keywords like SQL, Tableau / PowerBI, Google Analytics, etc appear on your resume. I had to learn all of the main tools on my own but hopefully part of your degree included introducing you to technologies like SQL and Tableau.
Step #3 - Start applying to the right companies
If you've made it this far, congrats, you're close to becoming a business analyst.
The next step is to start applying for a job at the right companies. Don't make the mistake of just sending out your resume to as many companies as you can. You'll get a few interviews and be tempted to take the first offer you get.
You want to be strategic about it. Your goal at this point is to get a job at a data-driven company. If you have some luck on your side you'll be paired up with an awesome manager who can help you grow quickly. The difference between being in the right company vs. the wrong company is massive. I've come across dozens of senior analysts which have the years behind them but lack basic skills because they were stuck in environments which didn't challenge them. Don't make this mistake.
Do your homework and short list the top 20 - 50 companies in your city in the three industries which catch your eye. Speak to your friends that are working to improve your list.
You want to look for companies which are clearly data-driven. Below are some ideas on how to determine if a company is data driven:
- Go to LinkedIn and see if they have analysts on staff.
- Generally speaking more mature organizations with a lot of employees are more likely to have a data / BI team than smaller, younger startups.
- Look at their jobs page. Is the company hiring data scientists, or data engineers? If yes then you know the company is investing in data.
- Use your network to find connections at companies on your list. Reach out to the connections and ask them about the "data culture" at the company. Make sure to mention that you got their contact details from X. This way it comes across as more friendly. Alternatively as your network to make some introductions.
- Does the company post a lot of data-driven insights? Visit the company's website and blog and see if the content contains a lot of numbers.
Now that you've got your list, start sending out your resume. Now go and read my post on how to prepare for a business analyst interview.
Step #4 - Set "6 month" and "12 month" goals
Congrats, you just got your first job as a business analyst. Once you've finished celebrating take out a pen and paper and start writing your 6 and 12 month goals.
You don't want to be a drone going from one day to the next. You want to work towards specific goals. Goals that will help you build an incredible career as a business analyst.
For the 6 month goals I'd recommend the following:
- Learn the business model of my new company
- Feel confident enough in the data of my new company that I could train a new analyst that joins my team
- Learn at least one new tool / system / technology
- Work harder than anyone else on my team
For the 12 month goals I'd recommend the following:
- Master at least 2 new tools / systems / technologies
- Take on more responsibility so you become indispensable to the company
- Gain the trust and respect of both my team and "customers"
- Optional: Put yourself in a position to lead your own team
To become a business analyst takes years of hard, focused work. The process I've mapped out in this post has 4 parts. First you need to decide if you really want to be a business analyst and if it suits you.
Next you need to start learning the skills needed to provide value as a business analyst. Getting a technical degree is the best way to check off this box but it's not the only path that's available to you. Once you've started the degree you'll need to start filling up the resume with work experience and skills, most of which you'll need to learn on your own.
Once the degree is behind you it's time to start looking for the right company which can help you grow into a senior business analyst. I've listed a few useful tips to find the right companies. You'll need to be strategic and patient. You'll need to take an unconventional approach to finding a job so you'll end up with the right fit.
Lastly you'll want to set goals for yourself and work really hard to achieve them. You'll start out as a junior analyst with limited skills and experience but if you work hard and are in a good environment 12 months is all you'll need to make the jump.