Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Stress, Relief, and Benefits

Every single person I have worked with, as a BA, battles stress and anxiety.  Really, anyone in I.T. has probably experienced an acute case of either or both once in their work career.  How we handle stress is important.  It's important to us, as individuals.  We need to take care of ourselves so that we don't get sick or burned out in our jobs.  Acute stress and anxiety in a team are counter productive and can destroy a team, if it carries on long enough to become chronic.

I personally believe that we American Adults are not generally well taught how to handle stress and anxiety.  We are told to buck up, shake it off, and/or cope.  No one ever tells us how to do those things.  As a result, we just carry stress around with us as it builds and builds until you either have an explosion or you just burn out and stop caring, stop trying, and freeze up.

I believe that is why there is suddenly a great interest in Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and other disciplines which aim to make us more aware of our bodies and our minds.  They also generally focus on relaxation even in the midst of exercise.  This focus on relaxation in the face of doing new and sometimes challenging things is instrumental in helping a person learn to calm themselves and relax when in the presence of stress.

With this in mind, I have made it a goal to practice Yoga and yoga-ish exercise every day.  I have blocked out time in my workday (no more than 15 minutes) in order to unplug and do some yoga.  I also have the intent to do this type of break at home.  Now, it's not possible to be able to do this every day; we get smothered in work or sick, or just have no will.  Here's the important part, THAT'S OK.  What could be more horrible than heaping more stress upon yourself for not doing your de-stressing practices?  The thing that I am striving for is the concept of perfection.  As I am a mortal being, living in the mortal world, I will never reach perfection.  That's fine.  As long as I am always moving toward it and looking to the hope of future improvement, I'm reaching my goal.

Maybe we all should find our de-stressor, un-stressor, anti-stressor; pick your term.  Then, allow for that activity every day. It needs to be something small, that doesn't require a lot of special equipment or preparation.  Something that you can do upon need and at regular intervals.  What is your best way of relaxing in the face of stress?  Only you can find out.

If we can obtain the goal of a less stressed work environment, collaboration and innovation are more possible.  Those positive energy activities cry out for an unstressed environment.  Therefore, I am coming to believe that an unstressed workforce is a collaborative and innovative workforce.  I'm not saying that there should be no challenges.  I am saying that having a high level of stress on a continuous basis works against those two essential business needs and is therefore highly detrimental to any organization experiencing it.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, March 14, 2016

You Are A BUSINESS Analyst

I am a Business Analyst.

What I do is so much more than the title implies.  Systems Analyst doesn't do it justice either.  In my line of work, you must either know the business inside and out or get the skills that allow you to elicit a client's needs, wants, and pain points quickly and with a deep understanding.  Furthermore you need to be able to take those items and translate them to features and functions that the development team can create, inside the known framework and architecture inside your organization.  You need to know the up-stream and down-stream impacts on other systems and you also need to plan for the future.  When you put it all together, it's an intimidating amount of knowledge and skills.  At the end of the day, however, it's the business and their needs, wants, and pain points that drive our jobs as Business Analysts.

I have heard many great and not-so-great technical team members grousing about "If it weren't for the stupid users, our jobs would be so much easier."  In my youthful cynicism and life as a developer, that was something I could get behind.  I just wanted to get the software done. All these wants and needs and nitpicking was holding up my ability to deliver.  As I have gotten more experience and a well rounded sense of what it really takes to build good software offerings for my clients, I have come to realize that internalizing that statement and making it your battle cry is a short road to failure.

If you sit down and really think about what we do as I.T. professionals in general, it should be a very short while before the truth smacks you in the head like the cold fish of reality.  Our jobs exist, our careers exist, and really our technology exists, expressly to support the day to day processes which are needed to run a business.  Sure, a business could try to function in this day and age without technology, but I believe even the smallest of businesses would struggle to survive and definitely struggle to grow without some investment in I.T. to support and promote them.

Too often, we techie types forget these important concepts.  We just want to get the job done.  We lose sight of the fact that without the business, our jobs and our very skill and knowledge wouldn't exist.  The earliest analog computers were not created as an abstract exercise.  The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known analog computer that helped compute astronomical positions and therefore aid in ships' navigation.  This navigation was not undertaken for fun.  Around A.D. 100, sailing great distances was a very risky commercial and/or military activity.  Knowing where you were at any given time was the difference between loss of a ship and its cargo or a successful commercial venture.  Having the ability to understand where you were going was the difference between reaching the beach on the shores of your enemy or accidentally invading the shores of your closest ally.  When the people who built this device, and others like it, sat down to work on them, you can safely assume that business and/or military interests were on their minds.  They had to take into account all the issues and concerns associated to them while designing their mechanism.  Otherwise, their mechanism wouldn't have served any purpose except of an idle curiosity to play with and then set aside.

As Business Analysts, it is imperative to remember who drives your work.  You must listen to and empathize with your business.  A good analyst will sit down and watch users or potential users in order to see what their day is like, what matters to them, and what would make things easier.  A good analyst will work with the business to find the underlying problem(s) that are driving the request that put you there in the first place.  A great analyst will work with the business to determine and understand how best to solve those underlying problems and what mode those solutions should take.  A really great analyst will know when to suggest non-technical solutions that the business can implement with less risk and definitely less cost.  Any analyst worth their salt should then be able to take all their good business information and work with the technical team to design an efficient solution to meet all the needs and wants for the business.  Through out all this, the analyst will be an advocate for the business' interests.  Most importantly, they will realize that all of these processes, wants, and needs are the space in which your job is made.  It's where you add value for the business and help to ensure that it not only continues to function in today's world, it grows and thrives in the future.

I will grant it that there are folks out there who design write elegant code for their own satisfaction.  However, if they are paid for doing so, you can bet there was a business problem and a business process behind it all.  Remember, analysts, the business is your reason for being a Business Analyst.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Finding A Sense of Urgency In A Relaxed Environment

Finding Urgency in a Relaxed Work Environment

I am one lucky duck.  I work for an incredible employer who values each and every one of its employees.  We work in a relaxed environment where the I.T. professionals are treated well and where our business owners know our worth.  Not only that, they are a part of our teams, resulting in a high level of trust between the business and the technical sides.  That in and of itself is a rare occurrence.  Sometimes I think I’ve reached employment nirvana.

Other times, however, I have been beset by a nagging little voice.  That little voice probes and pokes me when I review our backlog or talk to our product owners about future product plans.  I can’t help but wonder “Are we moving as fast as we can or should?”

A little background here.  I come from a series of workplaces where I.T. had little to no control over timelines.  I come from a background where I.T. resources were treated as highly interchangeable assets in a cost center.  We could be replaced with little to no fuss or muss.  The business drove our timelines and I.T. was tasked with fulfilling their requests at the timeline specified or risk being replaced.  As a result, we were driven to work at a fast and furious pace.  As you may expect, we never lacked for a sense of urgency bordering on fear.

Coming to my new employer, I experienced prolonged cultural shock.  The pace at my new employer proceeded much more gracefully and I.T. was able to negotiate with project/product ownership to determine the timelines (unless they were driven by regulatory compliance).  This is when I started hearing that little nagging voice.

The sense of urgency that I was missing was mostly of my own making.  I was so accustomed to having the hammer hanging over my head, I didn’t know how to act without it.  I perceived my own work and those of my co-workers as proceeding at a snail’s pace.  I didn’t like this state of being, nor did I think that I or my team members deserved my own harsh judgement.  I had to find that urgency in the relaxed and respectful environment I found myself inhabiting.

To do so, I started by looking at the business.  I thought about what we deliver to them.  As an I.T. team, we deliver business value.  We may not directly make dollars for the company through selling our software, but we provide value to our company’s position when we give them quality software that meets their immediate business needs.  Therefore, it is extremely important to do the very best job we can to understand not only what they are asking for, but the context underlying the request.  It’s also important to understand what client requests and feedback is driving that request.  Often times, we can start coding early on and perform the requirements gathering as we work.  This can be costly, as requirements discovered later rather than sooner can cost time and money, and maybe even a client’s business.  I found urgency in the need to do the best business process analysis and requirements elicitation as early as possible. 

Next, I looked at the technical discovery and design process.  I wanted to work with my team to create rapid prototypes at a very low cost.  I pushed for use of wire frames and even hand drawn workflows to test out workflows with little to no developer time needed.  If these prototypes failed, it would be a matter of hours at most to revise them and present them anew to the client.  I found an urgency in failing rapidly with cheap prototypes rather than wasting developer time in creating a solution only to have it rejected by the business at a late date in the project. 

Finally, I looked to testing.  How could we as a team perform testing in a more efficient and time-frugal way?  I started looking at my own testing and how I may have been overlapping with the testing provided by our more than capable QA team.  I talked to the QA in my own team and discussed the matter with other Business Analysts.  This introspection and questioning helped me and channel my sense of urgency and help my team and the QA folks find opportunities for improvement.  It was incremental value, but value none the less.

My search ultimately led me to understand that you don’t need looming and unrealistic deadlines to have urgency.  You don’t need the looming specter of a highly competitive employee review process to drive you to new levels of heroics.  Urgency is there all around you to find.  Continuous improvement and reflection on how we work individually and as a team can fulfill that need.  Understanding the business drivers and the wants and needs driving requests adds to that sense of urgency and the need to please the customer, the team, and yourself.