Don’t Listen to Your Business Analyst

I’m a partner in two companies – an IT consultancy Farata Systems,  and SuranceBay – a 3 year old startup where we’re creating a software for insurance industry. Brian Morton, my partner at SuranceBay who knows everything about insurance wrote a blog delivering the message that Steve Jobs formulated in one sentence: let’s give our clients not what they want, but what they need. The wording may not be 100% accurate, but the message is.

When three years ago we created that startup our software engineers knew nothing about the insurance industry. Brian knew nothing about software. Actually this is not true. He knew how computers were used by the small insurance agencies. He knew intuitively that these processes could be improved, which he explained in a 200-page long business plan. We’ve created a partnership using a tiny initial amount of an investor’s capital, which was not even enough for the first year of operation.

Our business analyst Brian didn’t know about Optical Character Recognition, digital signatures, PDF forms inside Flash Player, what’s full text search, how to pull publicly available data about people,  how to lower the number of questions in a questionnaire from 40 to 10 while getting 40 answers, and what’s single sign-on. He didn’t know how to make it all  work together seamlessly in the state of the art process that is few steps ahead of anything people want to do. But Brian  unconditionally trusted our software expertise, and was ready to nuke any section from his business plan. Needless to say that we’ve trusted his understanding of the insurance business. 

Farata’s engineers  entered the world of small insurance agencies having years of experience working on large-scale enterprise applications. To our surprise, we found a monopoly in existence. A couple of big firms serviced hundreds of thousands of insurance agents using outdated technologies. Insurance agents didn’t see any better and assumed that this software was the only way to run business.

We’ve created our version of the software, which was not exactly what Brian was envisioning in the beginning, but our customers loved it. Need a proof? Today we serve about 300 agencies (50,000 agents) that pay for our services on the subscription basis. And we are growing.

I titled this blog “Don’t listen to your business analyst” not to offence Brian – he’s one of the key people at SuranceBay. I just want to stress that when there is an unconditional trust between the business and IT personnel, the results can be amazing.

Unfortunately, this model won’t work in larger enterprises where the project life cycle is overly regulated, and software developers operate under the false assumption that the product has to be done exactly to the specification provided by the business analyst and by the approved project plan, where only minor deviations are allowed. Pleasing the business users and meeting the deadlines are the ultimate goals there. Technologists seldom change the way users do business in large enterprises.

How did we managed to be where we are after the initial investor decided to stop financing this company two years ago? Farata Systems was making money doing IT consulting and part of the earning was investing into SuranceBay. Today, we’ve reached the point when we know how to multiply the streams of revenues, but we need a lot more money. Ready for the train station spiel like “My house burned down. Do you have a couple of dollars for the ticket to Philadelphia where my brother lives?”

Our house didn’t burn down, but we need a couple of mils to implement new functionality during the next two years. Last week we showed the spreadsheet with the numbers to a person who’ll be talking to potential investors tomorrow. But he warned us, that these investors will require complete transparency and well defined plans showing a substantial return on investment. This won’t work for us, sorry big guys.Several times over the last three years we’ve been drastically changing directions. This wouldn’t be possible if a big brother would be watching us.

I offered the guy who will try to find the money an elevator pitch: “Back in 2009 one angel gave SuranceBay a chunk of change and left. Three years later he came back expecting to see no money and no survivors either. But somehow, he found a bunch of hard working people and fifty thousand happy customers.” Transparency shmanparency…The chances are slim that my elevator pitch will work, but we will survive even though without extra cash we won’t be able to build everything we plan within two years. No biggies. Remember what Gloria Gaynor, the fearless leader of the startup movement sang?

At first, I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking, I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking, how you did me wrong
And I grew strong and I learned how to get along
I will survive, hey, hey!

2 thoughts on “Don’t Listen to Your Business Analyst

  1. Hey Yakov, I’m currently job hunting and looking a number of business analyst roles. I’ve had a few interviews so far and things haven’t been going too well. Basically the people interviewing me expect me to know EVERYTHING without spending some time working with them. Just wondered what your advice would be, because being honest in my interviews doesn’t seem to be helping me get the job. But even then, would I want the job if the expectation is to know everything on day 1?


    1. Manage your expectations. If you have no experience in this job lower your salary requirements. If you are young – try to find the intern’s position. If you’re not that young – stop looking, enroll into a training, learn to talk the talk, and then hit the market again.

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