Falling 'Sideways' into Love, or How I Went from Bean Counter to IT Consultant in 20 Short Years

Written by David Crouch

Not surprisingly, some of our best ideas for blog articles come from students in our training classes and from consulting clients.  A few short weeks ago when I was teaching an ITIL Foundations class in Fairfax, Virginia, a student shared his professional background with me and asked for a little career advice.  Let’s call him George.

George, The Curious

George explained that he started working for his company doing financial analysis for the IT projects group – budgets, basic accounting, invoice tracking, time tracking, project accounting, and the like.  Recently, his boss noticed that he seemed to work well with business clients (internal business customers) and suggested that George might be interested in expanding his repertoire beyond financial management.  Specifically, the boss asked if George would be interested in becoming a business analyst and serving as a liaison between the IT department and internal business customers.

George asked me whether this made sense given the fact that he did not consider himself a technologist.  He did not know how to program or write code, how to hook anything together, or even the basics of how a computer works.  His specialty was financial management and George had a knack for setting business customers at ease.  Over time, within the IT department, technical staff came to trust him and respect his inquisitiveness.  Even if he did not always know the technical solutions to a problem, he was curious enough to ask a lot of good questions . . . and his questions got better over time.

Of course, the first question I asked George is whether he likes interacting with people – in this case, with both people on the business side and people on the technical side.  After all, not everybody likes working closely with people.  And there are some people who enjoy and thrive in a specialized field like accounting.  I’ve always thought that a good definition of professional success is working a job you enjoy and doing something relevant (and one that pays well is helpful too!).

It turns out that although George is a quiet guy, he enjoys meeting new people and would rather solve a complex and ambiguous problem than wrangle with an income statement.  I noticed a lot of parallels between George and myself.  So, I decided to share my story . . .

Bean Counting

About twenty years ago, I left managing an insurance marketing agency and joined the Central IT department of a prominent university-hospital.  I was never a tinkerer like many of my colleagues in IT.  Although I enjoyed and respected technology, I was not overly enthusiastic about any particular device or system . . . I just wanted to get the job done using whatever tools were at my disposal.

I started as a financial analyst working on the operating and capital budgets for several of the key infrastructure departments.  Although I was not a proper accountant (I did not have a CPA), I earned some business “stripes” managing a boutique insurance marketing agency.  In a general sense, I had some facility with numbers.

There was no lack of work to do at the “institution.”  At that time there were about five hundred central IT staff and one hundred distributed staff members supporting more than 60,000 employees and close to 40,000 students.  Although IT did plenty of good work and was staffed by competent professionals, an institutional culture that valued decentralization bled into the IT culture.  While this enabled IT to be flexible in meeting the needs of the business, it also meant that planning could be inconsistent and tactical rather than strategic.  There were times when the director that yelled the loudest got his or her way without being required to provide rigorous justification for expenditures.  Indeed, numbered amongst one of our most meretricious accomplishments was devising a more rational basis for capital budgeting that attempted to align IT expenditures with institutional strategies.

But it wasn’t only IT directors who made noise.  Business stakeholders were also prone to uproarious hoo-ha-ing.  This is where I step in . . .

Either because I have no pulse or maybe because I was too honest for my own good, I started to be sent to meet with key stakeholders; normally those who were angry at us.  Perhaps IT figured that they had nothing to lose by sending me.  Whatever the intent, the result was generally good.  When meeting with stakeholders, I would spent a lot of time listening (after the venting was over).  In initial meetings, I was always careful not to promise anything IT couldn’t deliver.  Instead, I would commit to an honest answer delivered within a short time frame.  Although stakeholders were sometimes disappointed when IT targets were different than business requirements, they appreciated knowing what to expect upfront.

Admittedly I was weak on the technical side of the house.  But over time, I earned the respect of technical staffers.  I started by asking a lot of questions . . . mostly the proverbial “dumb” questions.  Nevertheless, many of the folks on the technical side secretly enjoyed the opportunity to teach me (at least, I like to believe that).  While earning an MBA, I also spent several years earning a separate Masters Degree in IT and sat for both the certified associated project manager (CAPM) and project management professional (PMP) certifications.  I then embarked on taking the ITIL certifications and went all the way to the expert level (which is basically like earning a graduate degree in service management).  (As an aside, I first became acquainted with Beyond20 by taking ITIL Foundations with them.)  None of these certifications and degrees are quite the same as being able to architect a network or write a line of code, but they do show commitment to the profession and impart valuable skills.

So, I started in Finance and fell into IT sideways . . . and I fell in love with it.  Not with the gadgets and gizmos per se.  I enjoyed seeing how these tools could help people do a better job at what they do best every day.

After spending some years working back and forth between IT Finance, billing, and “special projects” (in other words, angry stakeholders), I began to work almost exclusively on projects, which involved even more direct contact with business customers who wanted IT to build something for them.

I served as something of an internal business consultant at the university-hospital for years and eventually decided to apply those skills here at Beyond20.

Through trial and error (a lot of error), I learned how to deliver consistent (if not always perfect) results for stakeholders.  I have recounted what I consider to be some of the most important qualities of a good business analyst and consultant below.

Qualities of a Great Business Analyst & Consultant

So, do you have what it takes?  Although there are many intangible qualities and industry-specific skills to consider, here are a few of the common attributes that top-notch business analysts and consultants share.

1. Active Listening Skills
Great business analysts and consultants listen much more than they ever speak.  When meeting with the internal business or client, the goal is not to put your ego on parade and blabber away.  We get it . . . you are clever!  Instead, listen and understand to what the client is telling you.  Few problems are truly unique, but your business customers experience problems within their own organizational culture and environment.  Thus, while problems are not unique, some aspect of the solution is likely to be unique or require tailoring.  Active listening means more than parroting-back what the client says.  It means listening with the goal of comprehension.  Active listening means listening in order to formulate the right questions.

2. Ability to Ask the Right Questions
When I worked in the insurance industry, I was trained to ask for the sale at least five times.  In that world, the purpose of asking was to convince a customer to buy.  For the business analyst and consultant, asking is essential in order to understand.  You ask to understand the client’s problem; but also to learn the nuances of the client’s culture, history, and capacity to address the problem and implement your eventual recommendations. 

Another reason you ask is to gather requirements.  If you are developing a new system or feature or revamping a process, exactly what does the business customer need to accomplish?  What do they actually need to get done?  In many cases, the internal business or external customer does not have a well-developed notion of what the final solution should look like or even what are the outcomes they are trying to achieve.  Active listening combined with asking the right questions helps to draw out latent or un-elicited customer requirements.

3. Honestly Communicate
There are times when IT cannot address all of the customer’s requirements.  More than that, there are times when IT “drops the ball” and fails to deliver to the customer’s expectations.  Communicating the right information to the right people early on and in an honest and open way helps to make the situation better; and in some cases, it can help you to take your relationship with the client to a deeper level.

As a young insurance agent more than twenty years ago, veteran agents were amazed when, at times, I surpassed them in sales.  They would ask, “What did you tell the customer?”  The implication was that I lied to get the sale.  In fact, the exact opposite was true.  I spent a lot of time listening to understand the customer’s situation.  And if I had a product that would help, I shared as much information as I could about it. If they asked a question I couldn’t answer, I would take the question to the back office and promise a speedy and honest response within one working day.  If I didn’t have a good product for the customer, I would concede this as well.  On one occasion, I had to admit to a bank executive that I didn’t have anything that would suit his needs.   He was so taken aback by the honesty that he still decided to purchase an inexpensive policy as an example to his workers.  He was concerned that the employees did not have insurance and really needed it to protect their families.  His example along with his encouragement of the employees enabled me to sell many policies and earn many more thousands of dollars than I would had I pushed the executive to buy something he didn’t really need.  In this case, honesty was almost literally the best policy.

Other keys to communication include communicating early and often.  This is especially true with bad news.  If after a customer meeting IT says that it cannot deliver on customer requirements, ask IT for alternatives and go back to the customer right away to explain the situation and determine whether alternative solutions are acceptable.  When IT drops the ball, don’t hide this from the customer.  Address it head-on.  You may have a few uncomfortable conversations, but most customers will ultimately appreciate the honesty and would rather learn in the beginning that something is not working as planned.  It is much easier and less expensive to correct a problem at the beginning of a project than to let it fester.

4. Develop Business Savvy
The biggest reason George was hesitant to become a business analyst was because he possessed few technical skills.  As it turns out, IT exists to support the business (and not the other way around).  Business-focused skills like finance, accounting, marketing, product development, and many others can take an average business analyst to the next level.  The business will appreciate having somebody who understands them and speaks their language.  They will also appreciate having somebody who can translate their requirements and unspoken needs into something IT can understand.  In other words, you are like a “spy in both camps” who seamlessly navigates two worlds.

5. Establish Credibility with IT
One downside to working closely with the business customer is that IT may see you as “playing for the wrong team” or as a technological amateur.  If you do not have a technical background, start by respecting IT professionals, encouraging them as subject matter experts, honestly admitting gaps in your knowledge, and asking lots of questions.  Ideally, take this a step further by taking some basic classes in systems architecture, programming, IT security, or another technical domain.  The key here is that you do not need to develop expertise in a technical domain.  Instead, you are trying to learn another language to give you something in common with IT.  You are hoping to learn some of their challenges and what technical opportunities they can exploit to improve.  Educating yourself in a technical domain will also send a message to IT that you are making an effort to be part of the team. 

Another good area to learn is project management.  The Project Management Institute offers a number of traditional project management certifications as well as agile project management.

6. Value Humility
One of the reasons why the business needs analysts and why clients need expert consulting is because, well, we are “experts.”  But degrees and certifications, knowledge of domains, and even years of experience do not provide license for hubris.  Recognize that your business customer has probably been running the business just fine for many years before you stepped onto the scene.  Even if there is major room for improvement, this in no way means that your client is stupid, lazy, or incompetent.  I recall once having a boss who liked to call everybody stupid . . . business customers, other IT professionals, team members.  Although there were times when I encountered seemingly blunderheaded people, labelling them as “stupid” did nothing to improve their understanding nor did it boast team morale (in fact, quite the opposite).  Being humble has three benefits.  First, it guards you against offering prescriptive solutions.  In other words, avoid being stuck in your ways and assuming that you know the solution before really understanding the problem.  Second, humility opens your mind to new approaches and solutions.  Most problems are not entirely new, but usually some aspect of the solution needs to be tailored to the organization.  Third, humility is, for lack of a better word, endearing.  It makes you relatable.  It shows your humanity.  Being “likeable” is important to being professionally successful.  It is not just a “nice to have” quality.

7. Exude Confidence

jack-palance.pngJack Palance
“Confidence is Sexy”

Remember the old Jack Palance “Skin Bracer” commercial?  “Confidence is Sexy!”  Having confidence in yourself and in the approach puts the business at ease.  As the “expert,” the business or client is looking for you to either validate their current approach or propose an alternative.  Excessive “thinking on the podium” or indecision reinforces risk aversion and change resistance in the business and hinders forward progress.  As an aside, confidence and humility are antonyms in the dictionary, but in this context, they are not opposing forces.  It is entirely possible to be confident in your approach but humble enough to recognize that there is still room for incremental improvement, and on occasion, drastic change.

8. Maintain High Energy and Stamina

robbins.pngTony Robbins,
Motivational Speaker

Not everybody is the Tony Robbins type.  You know the kind.  Jump up on the table, rip off their shirt, and yell, “Step up!  I will lead, not follow.”  I certainly am not that Tony Robbins type (and teams everywhere are grateful).  Not that there is anything wrong with Tony Robbins’ passion-driven approach; it’s just that I am different.  But that level of passionate boisterousness is not always required.  What is required is a sustainable level of energy.  Your business clients need to understand that you want to be in the room and are bringing your full physical and mental capacity to the job.  We have all probably experienced what it is like to be around a person who has a pessimistic outlook, who complains, nags, always has a cynical comment, who seems like they would rather be convalescing than being on the vanguard of change.  They are energy vampires.  Not satisfied with being miserable themselves, they bring others down into their psychophysical mire.  A good business analyst or consultant has a positive outlook and calm state of mind even in the toughest situations.  Moreover, their physical appearance mirrors their state of mind.  If calm is called for, not only are they calm internally, they also look calm on the outside.  If spirited is in order, their bodies convey their inner enthusiasm.  In addition to high energy, physical and mental stamina is critical.  Problems can be complex, meetings long, emotions running high.  The ability to maintain a consistent state of mind and level of energy helps to reassure the client and prevents people from giving up when things get tough.

9. Ability to Build and Nurture Relationships
There are a lot of people who can charm somebody on a one-time basis.  But business analysts and consultants are brokers in trust.  Building trust requires developing relationships with the business.  This goes beyond superficial niceties.  It means understanding the deep-seated values of the business and even anticipating what is needed.  The concept of being a “trusted advisor” comes to mind.  At Beyond20, we like to think of ourselves as Sherpas – we are there on the mountain with you to make sure that you don’t fall off and that you get to the other side.  Just understand that relationships don’t develop overnight; often they come to fruition over years.

10. Be a Forever Student
Over time, as your skills develop, as your experience matures, the business will value your expertise. Remember that the set of solutions is seemingly limitless.  Even a great plan has room for improvement. Yesterday’s solutions don’t always play well today.  Be committed to constant learning, continual challenging of your own expertise, assumptions, and experience.  Be a forever student.

“The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.”

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Originally published June 06 2017, updated January 01 2019