How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value: An Interview with Diane Zajac-Woodie


Diane Zajac-Woodie sat down to discuss her upcoming presentation at Agile Development and Better Software Conference West 2014, why the business analyst role doesn't get the attention it deserves, how the BA role can make a difference on agile teams, and her alter ego as the Agile Squirrel.

Diane Zajac-Woodie will be presenting a presentation titled "How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value" at Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, which will take place June 1–6, 2014.


Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: All right, today we have Dianne Diane Zajac-Woodie, and she will be speaking at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, which is June to June 6. She is giving a presentation titled, How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value. Diane Zajac-Woodie has spent the last six years, redefining the business analyst role as more than a requirements dictator.

Through open and honest conversations, Diane guides her business partners toward creative solutions that solve problems and eliminate waste. She shares the same approach with her technical teams, resulting in communication, cooperation, and continuous learning to ensure success. Diane craves knowledge almost as much as chocolate, and we make question asking an Olympic sport. Her recent passion is to free those mired in the status quo even if she has to pull them out one at a time.

Diane's alter-ego makes her thought transparent on her blog, anything to add to that?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: No, sounds good.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, because you are doing a session titled "How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value", I'd like to ask you some related questions. The first question is: in your presentation you talk about how the BA role has fallen by the wayside. Why do you think the role isn't getting as much attention as it may deserve in agile methodologies?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Well, I think the BA role is definitely one of the newest role in software development, relatively speaking. In the beginning, you have developers that was pretty much all we needed. Then we saw the need for testers, and have a separate skill set there, and created that role. And eventually people started to see this need for someone to manage all the requirements. So, frequently what happens I think especially in small organizations is that they see the role as dispensable.

As if you'll only had enough funds to have one role. You're going to be pick a developer BA. You're going to pick the developer, you need software to be written. With larger teams, larger projects, I think you can't afford not to have someone, especially focus, I'm making sure the requirements are being met, making sure the best solutions are being generated.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, and you talk about how they're going to pick a developer over someone in the BA role. What are some of the best ways of BA can really make a difference on an agile team?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: I think the biggest impact that BA has, is ensuring my communication is right happening. One of my favorite quotes is by George Bernard Shaw. He said that the biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place, and people have this tendency to make assumptions that understanding has occurred. I think it's almost funny, because if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we only half pay attention when people are talking.

We're constantly thinking what we want to say, we're not really paying full attention. Yeah we expect to have this full understanding with what other people are saying. I think we're all guilty of filling in the blanks with some of our own assumptions. We fill in what we think other people are thinking, and then that's how misunderstanding happen. A good BA is focused on helping other people, share their knowledge whether it's within the team, or project sponsors on a broader scale.

And along with that, comes this kind of affect of uncovering better solutions. Because if we're really listening to what other people are saying, and asking questions and having open dialog, we can really elevate the quality and just the number of ideas that are being generated.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, and in your presentation you cover some real examples of how the BA helped in agile team. All those examples, the agile teams were falling prey to many of the mistakes and pit falls the agile team can succumb to. Does a BA still bringing off the table, when an agile team is firing on all cylinders. What can a BA do to improve on a project that is already meeting and exceeding expectations.

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Well, I really like your reference to the cylinders because I frequently compare BAs to the oil in an engine. We keep everything running smoothly and it's simply because of the skills that we bring, usually aren't present on a team. If a project were actually succeeding, I'm going to assume, that the team has all the skills that they need to deliver well. If I wouldn't make sense to add any role, you could say that about should be out of tester, if they're successful, if they have all the skills then you wouldn't need to add another role.

I don't think that situation is very common, especially as far as BAs go. Every role has this primary focus, a developer. A developer can have obviously, they can have excellent facilitation skills, that's not what I'm saying. But if there's some debate about a technical decision, her facilitation skills are going to take a back seat to her concern, about that technical solutions. She's not going to be at the forefront, she's not going to be thinking, "I want to make sure I hear what everyone has to say." She's going to be making a case for whatever it is, that her position might be.

A BA is almost neutral as a good facilitator, you can step back and just your whole focus is on communicating and sharing ideas. That’s where I think the benefit can be on any team, whether you are successful or not.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: I really love the quote that you said right there, that the business analyst role is kind of the oil to the Agile engine, that's phenomenal. Thank you for that. You make the argument that BAs can encourage team member to cross role boundaries. Why are they good leaders for this transition and role exploration?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: I think mostly because BAs are naturally curious. We ask all sort of question obviously, we want to know how things work, and why we're doing things. Generally speaking, BAs tend to be extroverts. We find it easy to approach people with questions which can just naturally lead to sitting together, working on a problem together. If we can make this feel safe, and productive to everyone else on the team, then other people can follow our example.

That's been my experience of how I have sort of lead that.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, and now I have some more general questions, obviously about your presentation kind about you as a person. You're a huge proponent, of asking questions. Why is that?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Mostly because, silence just doesn't get us anywhere. Everyone knows something that I don't know, and the only way to find that out is to ask. I know that we're on more time constraints, and most of our projects are, most of us work under deadline. It's easy to just go with the first viable solution. But taking those few extra minutes to explore options, can really help us to get better solutions in the long run.

This does involve a little bit of courage, because you have to be able to admit that you don't know something, it requires us to be a little vulnerable with our team members which I suppose could even help you to be a better team if you can expose some of that. But it also let people know that you care about what they think. It helps build those relationships as you're asking people what they think about something and of course all of this just assumes that you're actually going to listen to what people say, which is definitely a key component to that.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, a lot of times, there are questions that don't get asked, that really should be ask with every project, or if most projects that often get left unsaid.

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Sure, there's definitely a few we could get better at. Namely how we will know if we're successful. So frequently that is left off, of projects that I've been on. We're getting better at defining a problem that we're trying to solve, which is stepping in the right direction. Knowing one will be successful, and really if you're delivering incrementally, I think it's important to define when should we stop.

What is enough, because if you have already achieved the objective, you need be able to stop and go, "Okay, we've done enough on that. Let's turn our attention elsewhere." On the flip side if we're not achieving the objective, how much time do we want to keep going down that path, before we want to pivot, evaluate our approach. Those questions could really help us, to make sure that we're building the right product, that's the goal of all of this.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, you've spent several years, trying to redefine, the perception of a BA from requirements dictator to a project and transition facilitator. What led you to try and make this movement happen?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: I think the more I spoke with people in the community, I would hear stories about BAs who cared more about preventing changes to their requirement spreadsheets than about adapting so we could really figure out the best solutions. I understand where that resistance is coming from. The sooner that we accept that, we can't possibly know all the performance at the start, and that they're always going to change, the sooner we can move on, to really providing the best value for our business sponsors.

That, I want to go against that stereotype, I want to redefine what people think of as BAs.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, and you also have a blog, and has a great title AgileSquirrel. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Sure, when I was on my first team, it was around the time that the movie "Up" was released. In that movie there's a dog who can talk, as he's talking if he sees a squirrel, he stop everything, and yells "squirrel" and he's completely distracted. This first team I was on, that was a common phrase, because we would often get distracted by things, we were learning so much, and it kind of stuck. Now that's my place where I share my random thoughts, and sometimes about sgile, and sometimes not.

Anything goes there.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay, back to the presentation a little bit. If you could make the attendees of your presentation walk away with one tidbit of wisdom, or one prevailing concept, what would that be?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: It's definitely the idea that your value is in the task that you do. I was guilty for many years, thinking my entire worth was completing all the deliverables I had to do, and getting everything done on time. Working with our first agile coach on that first team, really helped me to see that my value isn't in completing this checklist. We work in this industry, that requires us to think for a living. We can't just become, just robots sitting in our desk, doing what someone else tells us to do.

We have to be able to think and collaborate and really work together to get the best solutions. So, it's most definitely a bad idea that your value is not in the task that you do.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Okay and is there anything else you'd like to say to the delegates of Agile Development Conference adn Better Software Conference West 2014 before they attend the conference and, of course, before they attend your presentation?

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Well just the idea to really come with an open mind, be prepared to learn as much as you can, I'm a huge attendee of conferences. I love the agile community, I love talking with people. So have that courage to reach out, whether it's just the person sitting next to you, reaching out to a speaker I know that the best understanding I get of things, or when I am able to discuss those ideas after I've gone to a session.

Definitely challenge people to continue those conversation after they go to sessions.

Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: All right, well thank you so much. Once again this was Diane Zajac-Woodie and she will be speaking at the the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014 which is June 1 to June 6. She is given a presentation titled How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value. Thank you so much Diane.

Diane Zajac-Woodie: Thanks Cameron.


About "How Agile Helped a Business Analyst Discover Her True Value": 
As companies introduce agile practices, the business analyst (BA) role is often left by the wayside. The BA title doesn’t exist in Scrum and other agile implementations, leaving many BAs wondering where—or if—they fit in. But fear not! The skills of a good BA are even more valuable in an agile environment. Diane Zajac-Woodie tells the tale of a  new and struggling agile team, with no formal training, a resistant corporate culture, and unwilling team members. Diane shares how this team benefited from the communication, collaboration, and facilitation skills of an experienced BA. She highlights some specific shifts—using story maps and writing executable requirements, just in time—that BAs can make to help their team’s transition. Embracing their new roles, BAs can encourage team members to cross role boundaries. This leads to new skill acquisition and a more cohesive team, which ultimately lead to higher quality software.


DianeDiane Zajac-Woodie (@agilesquirrel) has spent the last six years redefining the business analyst role as more than a requirements dictator. Through open and honest conversations, Diane guides her business partners toward creative solutions that solve problems and eliminate waste. She shares this same approach with her technical teams, facilitating communication, cooperation, and continuous learning to ensure success. Diane craves knowledge almost as much as chocolate and would make question-asking an Olympic sport. Her recent passion is to free those mired in the status quo even if she has to pull them out one at a time. Diane’s alter ego makes her thoughts transparent on her blog.

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