People with this skill may carry the title of business analyst or project manager, but whatever they're called, they are in demand.
''We're seeing an enormous uptick in demand'' for business analysts, says Jeff Markham, branch manager of the San Francisco office of recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. ''It has doubled, maybe even tripled over the past few years.''
What's more, these liaisons are likely to stay in demand for the foreseeable future. That relative job security hasn't escaped the attention of IT pros who have grown weary of constant worries about mergers and outsourcing. Analysts and recruiters say the safest IT jobs to be in right now are the ones that involve communicating between IT and developers on the one hand, and lines of business or other departments on the other.
Training on the Fly
There is no single defined path to the business-analyst role. Some begin as pure IT specialists, and find that they are more adept than their peers at communicating with end users. They then use that advantage to get their foot in the door. Others are business professionals, perhaps ''power users'' of certain important applications, who learn just enough about technology to act as a much-needed translator.
In the latter category, Markham cites a Robert Half client -- ''a very large insurance company that got rid of its Web analytics group two years ago.'' That left the insurer without internal experts to analyze the performance of the company Web site. Now, with the U.S. business outlook improving, the company is restaffing the Web analytics group.
''To get the job, applicants need a solid marketing background,'' Markham says. ''But they also need the ability to do basic SQL Server work. They don't have to be a [SQL Server database administrator], but they need a fundamental understanding of report writing and triggers.''
Dominica Man, whose title is Custom Business Project Manager, plays the liaison role at Perseus Development Corp., a Braintree, Mass., vendor of survey and feedback software. With a business background, her job is to translate the needs of external business users -- customers who need to customize their applications -- so Perseus developers and IT specialists can meet those needs. Man says there's no great secret to the translation work: patience and the ability to ''learn on the fly'' are key.
''You've got to stick with the communication until business requirements are broken down into component pieces,'' she says.
Making your move
For IT pros seeking to become business analysts, the field is wide open.
''The issues IT is solving are strategic,'' says Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chairman of executive search firm Christian and Timbers. ''Some people in IT cannot translate [technology for business executives]. That's a problem for them, but it means those who do have business savvy and business knowledge are in high demand.''
He notes that 90 percent of Christian and Timbers' clients request that IT applicants also possess some business knowledge.
It's no accident that Ramakrishnan considers ''business knowledge'' and ''business savvy'' to be two different skills. Other experts refer to ''executive presence'' as an all-too-rare trait among IT purists. What this boils down to is the ability to communicate appropriately with senior business execs.
What not to do
Here's an example of an IT pro who'll never make the cut as a business analyst: ''I was meeting with a $17-billion client yesterday,'' Ramakrishnan recalls. ''The CEO made some statement about the company's technology. Well, a mid-level IT guy who was in the meeting turned to him and said, 'You have no right to say that. You're not qualified.' ''
Small wonder that Kim Batson, who coaches IT professionals at CareerManagementCoaching.com, says taking a course on effective communication is one of the most crucial steps toward a business analyst position. ''For programmer/analysts long involved in less communicative activities, such as coding, a course could boost the ability to relate and communicate effectively and persuasively,'' Batson says.
Her other piece of key advice is to ''know the business side of the house, not just IT,'' Batson adds. Gathering information on what's important to the company, management and customers can set you apart from IT colleagues who are happier keeping their head down in the coding. And the process can be informal and ongoing, Batson adds.
''This information can be gleaned from industry journals, business publications, articles, company information, suppliers, consultants and just networking with managers from various departments,'' she says.
Because the link between business and IT will continue to strengthen, universities are turning their attention to the business-analyst role, and formal certification programs will eventually form.
Marlboro College Graduate Center, located in Brattleboro, Vt., recently began to offer a Master of Science and Management advanced degree that forces students to combine business and technology skills. ''We're not necessarily pumping out hardcore engineers,'' says Kevin Bell, director of academic programs. ''We're offering a flexible program that produces businesspeople who understand [IT] systems.''
A recent, and typical, project for Marlboro students was to develop a business plan, marketing plan and Web site for a local federation of small businesses, collectively known as the Molly Stark Pathway. Marlboro offers ''fleshed-out business courses that many IT students don't get,'' Bell says, including foundations of management, project management, change management and classes on legal and ethical issues -- which are crucial in the Internet age but are often neglected in IT-focused study.
The emergence of the business analyst offers today's IT pros a golden opportunity to develop expertise that will only grow more important in the foreseeable future.