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Biz & IT Liaison a Hot, and Safe, Career Choice

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Enterprises are hungry for workers who understand the lingo of both

business and technology, and can translate one into the other to make

sure IT projects remain tightly focused on business benefits.

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.

The question is, how do you land such an enviable position? Do you have

to spend years in night school getting an MBA? We spoke with liaisons,

recruiters and other experts to find out.

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, 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.

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