April 13, 2023

How to Become a Business Analyst

The business world is desperately in need of business analysts. A few simple facts can help quickly explain why:

  • The world is expected to produce 120 zettabytes of data this year. (One zettabyte is one billion terabytes).
  • Businesses that can collect and understand large amounts of data can gain a competitive advantage. Netflix, for example, estimated that its data-driven recommendation engine was saving it $1 billion per year (and that was back in 2016; that figure is certainly higher now since the company has grown substantially in the years since).
  • Worldwide, businesses are already spending well over $200 billion per year on data analytics, and that number is projected to grow by more than 12% each year for the near future.

In short: the world is generating huge amounts of data. Companies want to be able to analyze and understand that data, as it might hold the secrets to billions in revenue.

But data that’s simply sitting on a database is worth nothing. To unlock its value, companies need people who can translate data into actionable business insights — things the company can do.

So, that’s why the world needs business analysts. We’ve already talked about why it’s a great career opportunity right now and why you should become a business analyst.

Now let’s take the next step. Practically speaking, how can you do that? How can you actually become a business analyst?

Step 1: Learn what business analysts actually do

The first step in your journey should be to build a deeper understanding of what being a business analyst involves. Sure, it’s a career that pays well and has low barriers to entry, but is it a career you’ll actually enjoy?

A business analyst is a professional who uses data analytics and visualization skills to help companies solve problems, streamline operations, and improve products and services.

This work involves both technical and interpersonal communication skills. You’ll need technical skills to analyze and understand the data, and communication skills to communicate your findings effectively enough that company leaders act on them.

On a practical level, this means that a day in the life of a business analyst can be quite varied! Some of your time would be spent analyzing and visualizing data using tools such as Microsoft Power BI. Some of it would be spent preparing reports on your results. Some of it is spent in meetings with key stakeholders, presenting data and helping them understand the meaning of the results.

Often (especially at smaller companies), business analysts are asked to use data to answer business questions and provide recommendations for a variety of different teams. This means that the people with whom you would be working would also be varied; you might spend a month digging into data to help the marketing team with marketing data before switching to spend the next month helping the product team understand the implications of user data.

Business analysis is a great career for folks who like some variety, both in terms of day-to-day activities and in terms of the problems you’re tackling.

But don’t take our word for it — during this step, you should get out there and do your own research about what being a business analyst is really like. If you know anyone who works in the field, talking to them would be a great start. There are also lots of videos on Youtube in which business analysts talk about their careers and their day-to-day work.

Business analyst vs. data analyst — which is right for you?

At this stage, it also makes sense to consider other, similar careers like data analysis. Although there’s no formal definition of either term — and job titles and descriptions can vary — in general, the following are true:

  • Data analysts are more focused on the data itself, and the role tends to be more technical (some coding skills in languages such as Python or R are often required)..
  • Business analysts are more focused on mining business insights and the required hard skills are typically limited to tools such as Excel and Power BI.

However, that’s just a quick, surface-level comparison. We have a full blog post on the difference between data analysts and business analysts that’s definitely worth a read if you’re not already sure which of these options is best for you.

Step 2: Identify the skills you need to become a business analyst

The second step in starting a career as a business analyst is to identify the skills that the position requires.

Keep in mind that you don’t need all of them to start applying; some will be essential, but others you can learn on the job.

Remember, also, that there are a wide variety of specializations and focus areas within business analysis, so (for example) the requirements for an Information Security Analyst position will be different from a Marketing Analyst or generic Business Analyst position.

With that said, here is a basic list of the core skills that most business analysts use. (Don’t worry if you don’t have all the skills listed below; employers know that entry-level specialists will learn as they progress. However, the more you know, the better your chances of landing the specific role you want.)

Business Analyst soft skills:

  • Active listening skills
  • Time management and organizational skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Analysis and critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Team management

Business Analyst hard skills:

  • Research skills to identify problems and opportunities
  • Project management
  • Data analysis skills
  • Working with databases using SQL
  • Managing data with Excel
  • Convey insights using Power BI

Job posting examples

One way to understand the skills required for business analysts is to browse job postings in your area. But to get you started, here are some “skills” lists we pulled from real business analyst job postings in March of 2023:

Major tech company:

  • Experience in Power BI, including DAX and Power Query development, star schema data modeling, building visuals in Power BI Desktop, and implementing security concepts.
  • Proficiency in SQL and Excel.
  • Experience translating customer requirements into solutions, including communicating designs through wireframes, defining Minimum Viable Product, and managing change requests.

Healthcare company:

  • Experience with report writing and research tools, including Crystal Reports, MS SQL, Power BI, SSRS.
  • Knowledge of HL7 and or FHIR standards.
  • Excellent customer service, communication, and organizational skills.
  • Must be self-motivated and able to work independently and in conjunction with team members.
  • Ability to think out-of-the-box to create new solutions as needed.

Major entertainment company (edited slightly for length):

  • Strong communication skills, with the ability to distill complex information into easily digestible formats with confidence.
  • The ability to collect, organize, analyze, and disseminate significant amounts of information with attention to detail and accuracy.
  • Adept at running data queries and workflows, report writing and communicating findings.
  • Proactive and results-oriented.
  • The drive to work as part of a successful team.
  • Experience of using reporting tools (e.g., Tableau, Business Objects, Power BI or similar), data wrangling software (e.g., Alteryx, Data Brew or similar).

As you can see, although these jobs are different and they ask for different things, they come down to a simple list:

  • Critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Communication skills
  • Proficiency with data-related business tools, particularly Excel and Power BI
  • Proficiency with SQL (which is often required to pull data from company databases)

Step 3: Start learning the skills you’re missing

At this point, you know what you need to know, and the next step is to find the right way to learn it. And while it’s possible to learn these skills on your own, most people find it easier to enroll in a curated learning program of some kind so that they don’t have to build their own curriculum.

There are many courses on business analytics online, but it's not always easy to pick the right one. Moreover, many of them offer pretty limited interaction, and will have you watching video lectures instead of getting hands-on with data to build experience.

If you’re serious about entering the profession without any knowledge or experience, your biggest challenge is going to be acquiring the hard, technical skills like SQL and Power BI. The best way to do that is to find a program that does the following:

  • Covers all of the necessary topics in a logical sequence (with no gaps you’ll need to fill in yourself).
  • Gets you hands-on and working with data using the skills and tools you’ll need on the job.
  • Can take you from zero experience to job-ready.
  • Includes projects you can showcase in your portfolio when it’s time to apply for jobs.
  • Has an active learner community that can help you out if you ever get stuck.

Personally, I followed the Business Analyst Career Path at Dataquest because not only did it tick all the boxes above, it was also affordable. I found the path very well-rounded, comprehensive, practical, and perfectly designed to take me from “zero to hero" in business analytics. The curriculum is entirely online and self-paced, and it covers all the technical skills we discussed earlier — and it offers plenty of exercises and portfolio-ready projects based on real-world data.

Step 4: Build a portfolio to showcase your skills to employers

When you’re looking to enter the industry without prior experience, you’ll need some way to prove to potential employers that you’re capable of doing the job. Certifications can help (we’ll talk about that in a moment), but they’re not going to be enough on their own. Most employers will want to see examples of actual work that you’ve done.

If you want to work in a specific industry, create projects that are related to the field. However, if you aren’t sure which sector you would like to work in, create projects that address diverse business problems — it will show that you’re adaptable.

Your projects should demonstrate your skills with the technical tools of the trade — Excel, SQL, Microsoft Power BI, etc. But don’t just focus on the hard skills. Your portfolio should showcase your soft skills as well — rather than saying you’re great at communication on your resume, demonstrate it in your portfolio through clear, easy-to-follow writing and data visualizations.

You can also use the portfolio to demonstrate other soft skills — for example, to demonstrate teamwork, design a collaborative project with friends. Get creative! (But be sure you’re very clear about who did what, and remember that first and foremost, employers are looking at your portfolio for a demonstration of your skills).

Step 5: Get certified, build your resume, and start applying for jobs

Once you’ve learned the skills you need, you’re ready to put together a new resume and start applying for jobs!

It can also be a good idea to get certified with some of the tools you’ve learned if there’s an industry-recognized certification. While many certifications are relatively meaningless in a job hunt, specific ones such as Microsoft Power BI’s PL-300 certification are recognized and can be used to demonstrate your skills with the tool.

Once you’re certified, all you need to do is write up a new resume — one that highlights your new and old skills in a business analyst context — and start applying to jobs!

Start learning with our Business Analyst Path today.

Charlie Custer

About the author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is a student of data science, and also a content marketer at Dataquest. In his free time, he's learning to mountain bike and making videos about it.