Domain Knowledge is Overrated - Part 3
NOTE: This is Part 3 of a 3-part series:
Trying to secure a business analyst job interview in an area in which you don’t have prior experience can be a huge challenge. It’s common for recruiters and hiring managers to screen out applicants--no matter how accomplished they seem to be from their resumes--simply because the candidate’s job history doesn’t include work in the target industry.
I had first-hand experience with this negative bias a few months after my one-year consulting gig in healthcare ended. Some of my teammates had transitioned to work for a similar project in another healthcare company, and gave my name to a project sponsor who was looking for a proven business analyst to lead their BA team. At the time I was already engaged in a different assignment, and offered to put the hiring manager in contact with a colleague who had just become available. I explained that this BA was extremely talented, and would be a great addition to the team despite his lack of previous experience in healthcare. I went to lengths to explain that he’d be joining the team with the same lack of experience in healthcare I had when I started my successful one-year project. If she believed the positive testimonials from my teammates about my contributions to that project, it made sense to keep an open mind and at least schedule a phone interview with this colleague I was recommending.
My suggestion fell on deaf ears. The project sponsor ignored my recommendation to contact the colleague who was available and had the right profile to make her initiative a success. Even after rejecting candidate after candidate with experience in healthcare but poor track record, she stubbornly refused to talk to my referral. Despite clear evidence that this wouldn’t be an obstacle for getting the job done, she still considered my colleague’s lack of healthcare experience a deal breaker.
Luckily, not all hiring managers are so myopic as to not even consider interviewing a talented business analyst just because his experience is in a different domain. I lost count of the times I was told by the hiring manager after accepting a BA job, “we were between you and a person with tons of experience in this business domain, but the team unanimously decided that your problem-solving skills and positive attitude would be a better fit for our current needs”.
In fact, I’d have abandoned my business analysis career many years ago if the only jobs I could get were in business domains I already had experience on. Who wants to go to Bank 3 to create requirements for online banking after finishing online banking projects for Banks 1 and 2? Well, not me. Learning about new domains is a big part of what motivates me at work. On purpose, when I was finishing a project in one area, I’d filter out requests from recruiters looking for someone to work on a similar project in the same industry, and only respond to the ones with openings in a different business domain.
But how do you get your foot in the door when so many recruiters and hiring managers tend to ignore applications from a candidate whose background doesn’t match the role they are trying to fill? The following tips may help.
How to get the job without previous industry experience
Tip #1: As you submit your job application, try to find a connection who works for the organization or knows someone there
After you submit your application, ask yourself, who do you know who is connected with the organization you want to work for? LinkedIn is a great source to find direct or indirect connections to the hiring manager or someone who could be an influencer for the hire. Do some research, and see if you can find someone in your network who could put in a good word for you.
This was the approach I took when I was trying to change not only industries, but also roles (from senior business analyst to product manager). The job I wanted was being offered by a high profile startup, and I felt it would be difficult to get my resume noticed without some sort of referral. It turned out that a former boss had previously worked with the hiring manager of my target company. I asked if he would make an introduction via LinkedIn, and he did. I explained to the hiring manager that I had submitted an application and would appreciate a chance to discuss the role. Because of the positive testimonial from my former boss, I got an immediate response that led to a series of phone and in-person interviews and a job I thoroughly enjoyed.
Tip #2: Make sure you highlight in your cover letter the relevant aspects of your background that would be appealing to your target companies
A well-written cover letter that spells out how your previous experience can be of value to your target company is a must when you’re trying to overcome lack of industry experience.
Instead of trying to hide your lack of domain knowledge, address the objection forthrightly, and give the hiring manager a reason to believe you could still excel at the role. For instance, can you briefly describe how quickly you were able to learn a new domain in a previous job, or apply knowledge from one domain to another with positive results for your company?
Study the job description carefully. If it asks for someone capable of handling multiple projects, can you showcase the ability to juggle various projects, never missing a deadline? Can you highlight your experience with tools the company uses, or a technical skill listed as desired?
Because you are at a disadvantage compared to candidates with industry experience, you’ll have to be even more diligent about crafting custom cover letters that truly highlight what problems you can solve for your target organization in order to get your resume noticed.
Tip #3: If you can’t get the foot in the door of your target company, consider less prominent ones where you can gain industry experience as a first step toward your end goal
Let’s say you’ve done your homework studying your target companies and their job descriptions, and dedicated time to finding an angle to make yourself sound like an attractive candidate in your cover letter. You wrote a killer resume that focuses on your accomplishments, and made an effort to find connections to open some doors for you. If after all this work you still aren’t getting interviews, it may be time to change your strategy.
Perhaps there are some companies in the same or an adjacent field that may be easier to get into, either because they are somehow less appealing to BAs with industry experience, or less popular than famous brands who are attracting a large pool of candidates in response to their job postings.
Example: A former colleague was able to find a relatively unknown software company that offered analytics solutions to healthcare companies, and leverage his knowledge of analytics dashboards for the financial industry to get a job there. The mid-sized company, although profitable, hadn’t yet developed a well-recognized name in the market. My colleague had to compete with a much smaller pool of candidates applying to BA jobs than he was facing with more famous healthcare employers nearby. Once he started working there, he was able to quickly develop a good network of people working for healthcare providers and hospital organizations, and a couple of years later it was much easier for him to transition into his desired role of senior business analyst at a large operator of acute care hospitals.
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It’s easy to get discouraged when trying to get a job in a new industry, especially if you see application after application go ignored, without even a chance for a phone screening interview. But with a bit of persistence, and a strategic approach to job hunting, it’s entirely possible to overcome the obstacles imposed by lack of business domain knowledge and land a job in a new field.
And when you get there, congratulate yourself, and have fun! Use the tips in Parts 1 and 2 of this series to accelerate your learning curve, and enjoy your steep ascent toward knowledge, performance, and contribution.
Author: Adriana Beal, Product Management & Business Analysis
Adriana Beal has developed a successful career in business analysis and product management, having lead the investigation of business problems, defined winning solutions, and written requirements documents for a large number complex software projects. She is also the coach of Crafting Better Requirements, a program that has helped hundreds of business analysts improve their requirements documentation and communication skills, and the author of the ebook Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts, which has been adopted by dozens of BA managers interested in improving the performance measurement systems in their organizations. Her most recent ebook, designed to help BAs struggling with getting the right information to analyze and use to specify their solutions, is called Tested Stakeholder Interviewing Methods for Business Analysts.