Business Analyst Interview Techniques for Non-BA Recruiters, Managers and Leads
The other day I met with a prospective client to talk about an upcoming project. During the meeting it became clear that he was not a Business Analyst and had no real idea of what one should be like. To make matters worse, he wasn’t even a good interviewer. Unfortunately, I see this far too often.
He made some rookie mistakes as far as the interview and really didn’t ask appropriate questions for the role.
Rookie Interviewer Mistake # 1: Closed-Ended Questioning
The first rookie mistake he made was not asking me open-ended questions. You can’t get enough information by asking some if they have ever worked with a particular tool or technology. Asking closed-ended (yes or no) questions will only get you what you want to hear and you won’t be able to make a sound choice in hiring.
You have to ask questions that make the person describe when and where they used it and how they used, or what issues they encountered with it. Only then will you know they actually did work with it.
Non-BA Interviewer Mistake # 1: Asking Inappropriate Questions for Resource Calibre
The next mistake he made focused on my skill set. After asking me if I had ever created any use cases (see rookie mistake #1) and I responded affirmatively, he asked me what goes into a use case. This is a mistake, because for someone with over eleven years of direct experience, you don’t want to ask about the elements, you again want to ask them to give an example of a use case they have created and some of the challenges they faced. You would ask them to tell you why the deliverable is important to a project (why they are created).
Rookie Interviewer Mistake # 2: Incomplete Questioning
Another mistake the potential client made was to ask incomplete questions. At one point there was a pause while he collected his thoughts. Suddenly he asked, “What about functional requirements?” My response (I really wasn’t intending to be cheeky, I swear) was, “What about them?”
I’m a seasoned professional, I’m not about to ramble on answering what I THINK his question is, I’m going to ask for more clarity. What exactly does he want to know about functional requirements and my experiences with them?
Non-BA Interviewer Mistake # 2: Asking Buzz-Word Questions
The other mistake he made was focusing on buzz-words. It was clear he wasn’t an analyst himself because nearly every question he asked used a buzz-word of some flavour or another. That tells me, there was no real depth to his knowledge. Worse, with his closed-ended questioning it was clear he was content with a simple yes or no, so he didn’t really take the opportunity to learn anything new about what an analyst does and improve his ability to interview or recruit new ones in the future.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. It used to frustrate me because where I really wanted the role and felt I did a great job winning the interview, the roles went to more junior and less capable resources. In consulting as a manager placing other analysts, I faced trying to educate the clients about why the analysts I sent them to interview were the right choices.
If you want to know find out if they know any buzz-words (flavour-of-the-week technologies and methodologies), ask them what they think of them and to describe the pros and cons, not if they’ve ever used them.
Rookie/ Non-BA Interviewer Mistake # 3: Interviewing Inappropriate Calibre for the Role
I have to tell you that one of my biggest beefs is fielding calls and emails from recruiters asking me to apply for their roles. Most commonly they are looking for junior, intermediate and senior business analysts to work in a non-team lead capacity. The fact is, I rarely do these roles anymore and my resume screams that fact. So why are they calling me? Quite simply, because they don’t know what they are looking for and one analyst is as good as another. Unfortunately, this forces analysts to compete on price, and with the down-turn in the economy, this has not been pretty.
How much are you willing to pay for quality? Are you willing to bet 70 to 80% of your project budget, that you’re making this mistake?
To put it into perspective, would you scan the resume section of Dice.com or Craig’s List to find a chef if what you really want is someone to cook hotdogs in a vendor cart down-town? Ummm…. My guess is no way! First of all, they’d hang up on you for even asking. Once they get through laughing with their friends about how you made their day, they’re going to pull or dramatically change their resume. Now, you and I know that you can’t possibly ask a chef to be a hotdog vendor anymore than you can go to a Mercedes dealership expecting to spend $5,000 on a new car (unless that’s a monthly or bi-weekly payment!), so why is it so hard to figure out that if a Business Analyst has more than three projects and years of experience they are more intermediate to senior and might be looking to advance their career instead of staying where they are?
You need to ensure that you select the right calibre for the role and quality you expect. Let’s face it you invest in quality and opting for lesser qualified resources without also opting for a senior lead is nuts.
Bad Interviewer Mistake # 1: Showing Intimidation
When you interview someone and it’s clear they have a lot of knowledge in an area, even if it’s an area you share with them, it can be intimidating. The last thing you want to do is show it.
It’s bound to happen that at some point in your interviewing career, you are going to interview others that are more senior than you are. Get over it! Don’t gush in the interview. Don’t suck up to them. Be professional and ask them the same style and line of questions that are appropriate for their calibre.
Ask for more details and examples, even if you don’t know what they are saying and have little way of validating their responses. Look at it this way, by asking for more and more details and clarity to their responses they are one of two things: genuine or really great liars. Since, in reality, really great liars are hard to come by, when you ask for more details and ask the same question in different ways, you will quickly know the difference.
Bad Interviewer Mistake # 2: Being Intimidating
Another common mistake I’ve seen interviewers make is trying to intimidate and challenge the person they are interviewing. If you go into an interview with the attitude that you’re going to catch them in a lie, or they’re not as great as they seem on paper, my best advice is to either sit it out and have someone else do the interview or just cancel it altogether. There is just no excuse for being a bully in an interview.
A couple of years ago, I met with a prospective client whose President only sat and made eye contact with me for about two minutes of the interview. As he paced around the room looking out the windows, he proceeded to tell me that he had hired MBA and PHD grads from Harvard and Oxford to come and work as Business Analysts. He blurted out that they had failed. He demanded that I tell him why. Now, I know his real question (snarky tone and all) was what makes you think you’ll succeed when they failed, but that’s not the question he asked.
I told him that I couldn’t possibly tell him why without more details. I needed to know more about the individuals and work they had been assigned, as well as the processes utilized and the environment in which they worked, and the support (or lack thereof) that they received from management. I didn’t tell him, I was starting to get a pretty good idea (some things you just keep to yourself), but when asked by the recruiter immediately following if I would take the role if offered and I flatly said “No way!”
First, I don’t bother working for such blatant bullies anymore because I know you’ll never be able to please them and succeed. Second, who needs the headache of trying to appease the ego of megalomaniacs over the needs of the business? I’m a business analyst and the needs of the business come first. That means I’m going to tell you things you may or may not agree with, or tell you how to do it better. That’s my job.
How to Interview Business Analysts and Find the Right One
The long and short of it is this, before you ever get into an interview with a business analyst, know the calibre of the person you are going to interview. Read up on business analysis techniques and deliverables and write down some basic questions using the guidelines below.
When interviewing a junior business analyst, you are looking for potential more than experience. That means you are looking more for personal characteristics and academic knowledge than detailed stories and explanations of where they have applied the knowledge.
The types of questions you want to ask are about the basic elements of the technologies, deliverables and techniques. You want them to be able to tell you the elements, as well as why the deliverable is important to a project (why they are created). They may not have examples of how they have used them and challenges that they have faced, so they need to know how and why you do them.
When interviewing an intermediate business analyst, you need to start blending your questions to include personal characteristics, academic knowledge and also experience. Remember though that you are considered to intermediate at the three to five years of experience mark, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate to specific levels of experience or even exposure to all deliverables, techniques and tools. You could have worked for three years on a single project and never performed a particular task or created a particular deliverable.
In order to compensate for this, try asking questions about their ability to learn quickly and think on their feet, because this will supplement their experiences thus far and still make them effective on your project.
When interviewing a senior business analyst, remember that you would expect that a senior can’t become a real senior without having worked on at least two projects, but in reality, most seniors have actually worked on an average of 3.5 projects.
Again, you don’t want to ask about the elements of a given task, deliverable or technique. Go in with the expectation that they must know these things if they are a senior. Instead, to ask them to give examples of deliverables they have created, when and why they chose those ones and then some of the challenges they faced on the project.
Let’s look at this way: if you were interviewing a technical writer, would you ask them if they could read and to tell you the alphabet, or what the elements of a good paragraph are? Of course you wouldn’t.
If you are using the junior line of questioning to challenge a senior, let’s face it you’re probably not going to select them anyway so why bother adding insult on top of it.
Above all, a senior must be able to explain the context of deliverables and techniques. That means you would ask them to tell you why the deliverable or technique is important to a project (why they are created). If you really want to challenge a senior in a positive way, don’t ask them the alphabet, ask them how they would improve the techniques or what they do that makes them unique and more effective than their peers.
Uber-seniors are those analysts that other analysts envy and look up to. They have worked on ten or more projects across three or more industries and domains, and can provide strategic advice to the business from an operational as well as technology perspective.
The types of questions you as an uber-senior are more strategy, process and business-centric. Don’t ask them if they’ve ever used MS Project and where, because quite frankly it doesn’t matter if they have or haven’t. What does matter is their ability to adapt and adopt new techniques, tools and technologies in order to get the job done, get it done effectively and efficiently and find ways to improve overall project along the way.
Look, it’s really important to make the right choice for Business Analyst resources because making the wrong choice can completely derail your project. That means going into the interview with the right frame of mind, a set of questions, asking for more details and finding out how well they will work with the team and business.
Depending on the complexity and criticality of your project, you will need to choose the right analyst(s) for the job, in the same way you would choose the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t choose a hammer if what you had was screws to put the shelving together, you’d choose a screw-driver, and you would make sure the screw driver fit the style of the screw, you would not try to make the screw fit the style of driver.
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Barbara Davis has pioneered requirements methodologies by creating the Comprehensive and Robust Requirements Specification Process (CRRSP), as well as methodologies for organizational change, resource management, project management, and building organizational capability. She is a published author and developed & conducted numerous workshops and training sessions with projects including the Requirements Toolkit and the BA Manager’s Blueprint.