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Life as a Contractor: Business Analysis

Have you ever wondered what life as a Contractor is really like? What does it take to become a Business Analyst Contractor and to stay top of the game?

Senior Business Analyst John Tierney has been contracting for two and a half years – most recently at Muddy Boots Software. If you’re wondering what it means to be a contractor, are considering a career within Business Analysis, or planning on adding a contractor to your team, some first-hand insight for you here.

John graduated from the University of Cambridge with a civil engineering degree. In the middle of a construction downturn. Rather than waiting for the economy to start moving, he directed his energy into catering management, ultimately owning and operating his own restaurant business. A sidestep into an operations manager role in wine logistics leads to an IT career. That progressed to managing the back office SAP team at Dyson. Since leaving Dyson, John has been using his experience in contract BA roles in a range of industries.

ADLIB: In approx. 30 words what does your role as a Contract Business Analyst generally involve?

John Tierney: I help people make decisions. Often hard, complex & risky decisions. I do that by creating and gaining consensus on software strategy. And making sure the teams I work with are able to deliver what we’ve promised.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what is a typical day like for you? (…if there is such a thing)

John Tierney: The one constant is being woken by an enthusiastic toddler at 5:30 am. I do my most important work before dropping him at nursery at 8. I’m usually in the office by 9 for one or more stand-ups.

From there it really depends on the stage my projects are at. In the early phases, I’ll be preparing and delivering workshops. That’s about making sure I have the materials and pre-research ready to make it engaging and get the answers we need. The question might be how to set up our SaaS system in China, open a warehouse in India, successfully underwrite high volumes of online vehicle credit applications or anything else my client is trying to achieve.

Then it’s onto helping development teams create solution options, recommend the right ones and generate high-level estimates to lead into agile or waterfall planning. I’ve never really worked as a pure BA or a PM – most roles have a bit of both.

On a good day, I’ll have time to get out for a 40-minute lunchtime run. That marathon isn’t going to run itself and I find a little fresh air makes me so much more productive in the afternoons.

I love leading refinement sessions. I usually have a couple a week per scrum team I am working within the early afternoon. These include an equal mix of crisp requirement and solution debate, some healthy chat and steering the team towards outcomes that make commercial sense. I’ll often come out of these with more questions than answers. That takes care of the rest of the day – checking in with stakeholders on finer details so the build can progress quickly the next day.

After that, it’s home time. I’ll squeeze in a run if lunchtime didn’t happen. I also offer online run coaching and organise a local park run so there’s usually a bit of that to fit into the evening. Most importantly it’s home to that toddler. And the dinner, bath, book, bedtime routine. Might even talk to my wife, friends and family before my own bedtime if I’m lucky!

I joke, but agile software teams have embraced flexible and remote working to drive awesome team performance. I’m equally productive working from home as in the office once I’m established in a contract as long as the client has invested in good technology to connect it’s people.

ADLIB: What is it about being a contractor that you enjoy most?

John Tierney: Being brutally honest it’s back to that balance. The buoyant market for my skills means I can take on challenging contracts, then take a little time out before the next one. I’m very fortunate. In 2018 I took time out to go travelling with my wife and then six-month-old son. We got our tent as far as Bosnia and then back up the spine of Italy. I’ve since been working 3 days a week so that I can support my wife’s return to work as well as be a dad. I love the variety of work and the chance to work with a wide range of awesome people as well.

ADLIB: What has been your biggest “stepping stone” moment during your career?

John Tierney: At direct wines, I spent 3 years in operations roles focused on improving a complex and problematic SAP warehousing implementation. I was also managing a production control team shipping out thousands of cases of wine a day. With the systems working well, I’d reduced the need for my role and was at risk of redundancy. At the 11th hour, I was very lucky to be offered an IT role for 6 months. I never looked back. Without people seeing potential in me and being prepared to do something about it, I may never have worked in IT. I’m very grateful for the chance I was given.

ADLIB: From your perspective, what are the top 3 soft skills that it takes to succeed as a Business Analyst?

John Tierney: Listening. Not just for what people are saying, but for what they are trying to express and what they are not saying. A good BA asks the right questions. A great BA listens properly to the answers and doesn’t fill in the gaps with guesswork.

Explaining complex things in the right way for each individual. “If we have two supermarket customers we will need two of these SQL thingys and they cost £25K each” may be enough detail for a director, but certainly not for the Database administrator!

Being a calming influence & resolving conflict. Whether it’s a heated solution discussion, senior leaders disagreeing on priorities, the pressure to meet deadlines for external customers or complete lack of clarity making everyone nervous. A successful BA needs to facilitate difficult decision making and keep everyone calm in the process.

ADLIB: What key lessons has contracting life taught you?

John Tierney: Believe in your own abilities. There’s a lot less feedback week by week and you need to put time aside to reflect, review and coach yourself. When you finish a contract you get more feedback than you ever did as a permie though. That’s great.

Also, don’t be afraid to be yourself and make friendships. Yes, some people will treat you differently because you’re short term and on a healthy day rate. But there’s no reason to isolate yourself. I’ve made some great friendships and working relationships. IT projects can be tough. Going through a full lifecycle, with all the problems, stresses and emotions that that entails bringing great teams closer together.

ADLIB: Finally, can you share a key piece of advice for those who are looking to transition from perm employment to the world of contracting?

John Tierney: Contact me on LinkedIn! I’d love to help you explore the idea. I never thought contracting would be for me, I was happy in permanent roles. But a surprise redundancy gave me a chance to try it with nothing to lose.

I was told by a contractor friend to make finding roles and marketing myself part of my job. I needed to take the emotion out of it and apply my management skills. I have a mini CRM system (spreadsheet) of recruiters and other contacts. When I’m between contracts I spend up to two hours a day – no more – doing specific things towards finding my next role.

Thanks so much for sharing!