By 1843, with the advent of lacemaking machines, prices collapsed, and factories employed women and children for a pittance. Most wages were barely enough to live on, and many families were thrown into subsistence living. (Ivy Pinchbeck, 1977.)
The Eastman Kodak Company dominated the sales of camera film, employing thousands of people through much of the twentieth century—until digital technology arrived in the 1990s and unable to adapt fast enough or target the right products, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 in 2012.
Automotive parts manufacturing workers are now in the same situation. What was once a job that allowed men and women to support their families, barely pays a living wage and has a high degree of injury associated with it. (Waldman, 2017.)
And on a personal note, my great-great-grandfather earned his living as a wheelwright. That’s a person who builds and repairs wooden wheels and is a profession that had been around for centuries until the arrival of the modern automobile. In a few short decades, the craft of the wheelwright had nearly disappeared.
It seems that about forty years (or less) is all it takes to destroy a formerly secure job. The question is, could it happen to the role of the business analyst, and when?
This isn’t a strange question when even coders are experiencing a shift in how their role is perceived.
In February of 2017, WIRED magazine published an article asking if coding was the next blue-collar job in America. The article pointed out that coding had become a two-tiered career choice. Silicon Valley only employs eight percent of the USA’s coders and programmers. The rest are in other business sectors. “These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java-Script for their local bank.” (Thompson, 2017.)
In an interview with NPR, Clive Thompson, the article’s author, noted that a huge number of available coding jobs don’t require the high-level skills that would get a person a gig at Google. “But the truth is, you know, an awful lot of programming doesn't require or need that type of, you know, crazy pouring out of creativity. I guess it is more like maintenance or the slow stable making sure that a company is sort of moving along, that its software is working.” More importantly, this sort of coding doesn’t always require a college degree. There are plenty of self-taught coders that are gainfully employed, and there are more and more courses available where a person can get a junior level position after completing the syllabus.
If you look up the definition of blue-collar via Wikipedia, the page says that a blue-collar worker is a person who performs non-agricultural manual labor that can be skilled or unskilled. Examples of blue-collar jobs include firefighting, manufacturing, and mining. But why would Clive Thompson compare what’s an obviously non-physical profession to a blue-collar job? I think if it’s viewed in terms of the changes happening now, more and more blue-collar jobs will shift (and have shifted) from the purely physical. Many blue-collar jobs are already there. Working on a car assembly plant in the 21st century means working with, and alongside, technology. Modern mining operations require a similar level of understanding about the machinery once the person in the entry-level position wants a promotion. However, the primary identifying characteristic of the jobs will continue to be the requirement to produce the same things over-and-over-again. Viewed from that perspective, assembling code in the future could wind up like assembling a car. Everyone tackles a piece of code that they repeatedly produce (without much variation), but they never do more than that.
This brings me back to the role of the business analyst. Viewed from the blue-collar perspective, the role of business analyst shares much of the same characteristics as ‘every day’ coding. It’s rare that we work on a project that’s inventing something new, and it’s also rare that we need a vast amount of creativity to get the job done. We perform a lot of the same actions on every project, with minimal variation on the theme. Even the BABOK states that the job can be done by many different roles. “A business analyst is any person who performs business analysis tasks described in the BABOK® Guide, no matter their job title or organizational role. (…) Other common job titles for people who perform business analysis include business architect, business systems analyst, data analyst, enterprise analyst, management consultant, process analyst, product manager, product owner, requirements engineer, and systems analyst.” (BABOK v3.)
There are many people performing business analysis, under many guises, and more joining the field every day as the demand increases. We come from a variety of backgrounds (like coders) and don’t need a specialized college degree. Much like the coders Clive Thompson talks about in his article, we’re the workers, “making sure that a company is sort of moving along.”
And this creates an issue because this means that there are many factors that could disrupt the role of the business analyst in the future.
The most obvious one is supply and demand. To date, there’s always been a demand for business analysts. The market is currently in an equilibrium where supply and demand appear evenly matched, and the price the market is prepared to pay for business analysis skills means most people in the role can maintain a solidly middle-class existence.
However, the law of supply and demand also says that if ever the time arrives where the demand side decreases because the economy is forcing organizations and businesses to cut back on spending, or an oversupply of business analysts means the price can be lowered for the service, then the role becomes far less attractive.
The role can also be disrupted by technology and methodologies. Agile already attempted to do this with a focus on developers and the business working directly with each other. With AI on the horizon, it’s entirely possible someone will figure out a way for a customer to answer a series of questions and the AI will synthesize the answers and produce a decent specification or set of user stories as an output.
The only thing that may save the business analyst’s role in the near future is that the role also falls into the pink-collar job classification. Originally used to denote a group of service jobs predominantly performed by women in the 1970s, the term has slowly morphed into a way to classify jobs that require social skills and consists of interacting with people and customers.
“For an office worker, that could mean being able to communicate across departments. For someone in customer service, it's interacting with another complicated human. For a care provider, it's the empathy to help someone vulnerable and in need. These are all skills robots are really bad at—at least for now. And they have, over the last three decades, become increasingly vital in the labor market.” (Greenfield, 2016.)
But as we all know, industries change quickly and roles and jobs that were seen as necessary, suddenly become unnecessary.
So, for now, and in the near future, our jobs as business analysts might be safe. Our social skills and certifications may save us. But as plenty of people have found out the hard way over the centuries and decades, disruption in an industry comes swiftly, and the effects are devastatingly immediate.
Clive Thompson, “The Next Big Blue-Collar Job is Coding”, WIRED (2017): https://www.wired.com/2017/02/programming-is-the-new-blue-collar-job/.
IIBA, BABOK v3 A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge: (International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2015).
“‘Wired’ Declares Coding As Next Blue-Collar Job Boom,” NPR (2017): http://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514566974/wired-declares-coding-as-next-blue-collar-job-boom.
Rebecca Greenfield, “Forget Robots—People Skills Are the Future of American Jobs. You might call it pink-collar work. Experts call it the future of the labor market”, Bloomberg (2016): https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-07/forget-robots-jobs-requiring-people-skills-are-the-future-of-american-labor.
Peter Waldman, “Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs. The South’s manufacturing renaissance comes with a heavy price”, Bloomberg (2017): https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-03-23/inside-alabama-s-auto-jobs-boom-cheap-wages-little-training-crushed-limbs.
Ivy Pinchbeck, Woman Workers in the Industrial Revolution: (Frank Cass and Company, 1930, 1969,1977).