In this interview we feature Rachel Drinkwater, a Senior Business Analyst, who tells us about her career and the sage advice from her father that started her journey as a BA!
Can you give a brief summary of your career path to date?
It’s 1997 and I’m standing outside the school gym with my parents, wearing a long black skirt, New Rock boots and a black velvet blazer. As it is 1997, I’m also wearing rather too much black kohl eyeliner, which is currently mingling with tears and making a bid for freedom, leaving tracks down my cheeks. It is ‘A’ level showcase night at my sixth form college and I have discovered two very important lessons about myself; firstly, I am terrible at making decisions and secondly, I have no idea what I want to do for a career.
Later that evening, my father offered me an absolute gem of advice, which also turned out to be a pretty impressive prophecy about the future of technology; “If you don’t know what to do, go into IT. Computers are going to be absolutely everywhere, so you’ll be able to work in anything”.
I took a very traditional path into my career. Taking my father’s advice, I took Business, IT, Communications Studies and Geography (the latter for the field trips) at A level, then joined the BSc in Business Information Systems at De Montfort University. This was an accredited British Computer Society (BCS) degree, specifically designed to bridge a skills gap in the market – that being the communications gap between traditional business stakeholders and IT teams. This was increasingly becoming an issue as IT systems became more and more pervasive in business users’ day to day working lives. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was essentially a vocational degree in Business Analysis and I still use techniques I learnt all those years ago in my day to day work. It was also a sandwich course and I spent an inspiring year on placement with Mars Inc., travelling Europe, eliciting requirements and rolling out new systems. I was hooked. I returned to Uni and aced my final year, inspired by my year in industry. I wanted to continue working in a global organisation and upon graduation joined the graduate scheme at Jaguar Land Rover.
I believe that my placement year was the springboard to what has been a successful career to date and I advise any student to gain industry experience and, if the choice is available, to do an industrial placement year on their course.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, so this is the slide I always use to open any talks I do to students on the subject of careers. It shows the companies I’ve worked for and some of the (very varied) job roles I’ve held. It’s no coincidence that I’ve borrowed the design from the London Underground, as it’s been quite a journey!
Completing my graduate scheme is where my traditional approach to my career ended and I initially spent a number of years trying to find my place. In many ways my industrial placement had placed the bar very high and I struggled to find a similar culture and role, where I had as much development, involvement and responsibility as I’d had on my placement year. Even to this day Mars remains one of the best organisations I’ve worked for.
The TL;DR version is that I worked in a number of large corporates in the Midlands, gaining a breadth of knowledge of different industries and cultures. It wasn’t until I joined NFU Mutual however, that I truly started to gain an understanding of the BA role – and very importantly – to realise that there was a community of other BAs out there. I got involved in the BCS, took my ISEB International Diploma and ran a community of practice for Midlands-based BAs – the ‘Midlands Business Analysis Forum’, sponsored by Ian Huke. Life moved on and I eventually ended up in an agile, digital BA role with Severn Trent, working in their ‘AppSquad’.
I had always wanted to continue to progress academically, so in 2014, I decided to reduce to part time hours at Severn Trent and undertake a Masters in Creative and Media Enterprise at Warwick University. Here I studied digital disruption, the convergence of the creative and digital worlds on business and innovation and creativity in industry. I focused my research on the psychological and neurological impacts of device use and addiction on attention, memory and learning. Upon graduating I joined Coventry University’s IT Services department on their digital transformation journey and am currently working on a number of strategic enterprise-wide projects; one rolling out a CRM system, another focusing on improving our digital teaching and learning platform and a third identifying opportunities to improve the student experience. As such customer and user journey mapping is featuring very heavily in my role at the moment.
I also have a ‘side hustle’ as a writer. In addition to writing about business analysis and the digital world on my own blog at www.racheldrinkwater.com, I also guest-write for other blogs and have recently been invited to write for the British Computer Society’s digital channels and print publication, ‘ITNOW’. I also provide copywriting and content services to clients in the technology and gaming industries.
In your view what is the core role of a Business Analyst within an organisation?
From my experience, the role tends to differ depending on the organisation, but there are some core elements that are always present. Stakeholder engagement, requirements elicitation and documentation, process analysis and workshop facilitation have all featured heavily in every role I’ve had as a BA.
As regards the core objective of the role, I believe that a BA charter would look something like this:
- To provide a link between the business and technical teams, by building relationships with stakeholders
- To identify opportunities for improvements and the root cause of problems
- To facilitate the required business change to deliver a defined outcome with a clear business benefit which is aligned to business strategy
What would you say is your proudest achievement so far?
From a career perspective, achieving a Distinction in my Masters from Warwick University in 2017 after returning to academia after 11 years and my recent invitation to write for the BCS.
Have there been any low points in your career and how did you deal with those?
I began to feel like I was stagnating, becoming somewhat jaded and stuck in a bit of a career rut around 2014 – roughly ten years after graduating. My father was diagnosed with a terminal illness around the same time and my mental health suffered as a result of this. I re-evaluated what was important to me and after filling a notebook with ideas and notes one weekend, I concluded that I wanted to return to academia, broaden my knowledge and gain a new perspective with a different subject.
I reduced to a four day working week and applied for a Masters in Creative and Media Enterprise at Warwick University. The degree certainly gave me a fresh perspective, a new view on ‘the art of the possible’ and allowed me to explore a lot of ideas around digital disruption, innovation and the convergence of creativity on traditional business practice. It encouraged me to start writing and to share my ideas with my wider network. I also gained a great deal of confidence and a global network of peers.
What do you think are some of the particular challenges that a BA faces in today’s business world?
The BA role is changing and diversifying. The introduction of Agile has raised questions as to where the BA fits into the development lifecycle and BAs have had to adapt to these new ways of working. As with all professions, the onus is on a BA to keep their skills and knowledge up to date.
An ongoing challenge seems to be a lack of understanding around the BA role with business stakeholders and even within project teams. Often a project will request a business analyst, when actually they need a project manager, or a project support role. Internal promotion of the role and BA team is a necessary activity that rarely seems to be implemented.
Finally, particularly in large organisations, there are often pockets of business analysis. Whilst there is often a centralised BA team, there may be individuals around the company who are carrying out the BA role. This can lead to further confusion with stakeholders, inconsistency in practice and a sense of isolation for those outside of the core team.
Do you have any career aspirations for the future that you would like to share with us?
I would like my next step to be leading a team and having the opportunity to shape a BA function. I’m passionate about personal and professional development and I enjoy coaching and mentoring so would like to combine these in supporting my team in their professional development journeys.
I’m also gaining momentum as a writer in the field of business analysis and would eventually like to write or contribute to a book on the subject – if anyone is reading this who would be interested in collaborating, please do get in touch!
Finally, as a theatre practitioner, I do enjoy being the centre of attention, so I’m quite at home on stage and doing public speaking. As such I’d love to speak at some conferences over the next year.
What advice would you give to anyone who is early into their career as a Business Analyst or considering a move into the profession?
Check out job specs for the business analysis role online and find out what skills and experience employers are looking for. If your current employer has a business analysis team, arrange a chat with one of them (we’re usually a friendly bunch – getting on with people is one of our core skills!) and find out what they are looking for in a potential candidate. If possible arrange to do some shadowing – attend a workshop to see how a practicing BA facilitates such sessions or go along to a stakeholder meeting.
Once you have an idea of what skills and experience you need, consider how the transferable skills from your current role or your existing experience map across to this and how you could demonstrate this link on your CV or in an interview.
Consider how to gain experience of any areas where there are gaps. There may be opportunities in your current role to start carrying out analysis activities, or you may be able to gain relevant experience in a volunteer role.
Finally, go for it! Apply for business analysis roles, even if you’re not sure that you have the full set of skills required for the role. Often employers are looking for individuals who have a passion for the role, a sense of curiosity and an eagerness to learn and develop. Technical skills can be learned and developed later.
I’d also highly recommend attending networking events and conferences, such as the IIBA Chapter meets, or the IRM Business Analysis Conference to gain an understanding of current thinking, trends and practice in the profession and to develop your professional network.
What about your life outside of work, can you tell us a bit about that?
I love the arts and I am involved in a theatre company as an actor and a member of the Board of Directors. We are also an outreach charity who seek to give disadvantaged children the opportunity to build their confidence and gain experience of acting and theatre practice.
As I live in a rural area, I spend a lot of time walking and running around the local countryside, unless it’s cold, wet, muddy or otherwise inclement, in which case you’ll find me at the gym instead.
As I’ve mentioned, I love writing and blogging and have quite a few projects in hand at the moment. I also love reading and am a complete Harry Potter geek.
When I’m not working in one form or another, I love travelling. My husband and I try to visit America every 18 months or so to go trekking in the National Parks, in addition to exploring Europe whenever we get the chance.
You can connect with Rachel via LinkedIn