Famous BAs in history: Mark Twain on interviews

I stumbled on a letter from Mark Twain where he comments on “the interview”:

Inteviews are pure twaddle

Controversially, he claimed that interviews are appalling and should be completely abolished … which would seem to be a strong position for a business analyst to take these days. But then Mark Twain was around at the beginning of last century and we have learned a lot since then. Maybe he just didn’t know any better.

Since Mark Twain’s time, we have invented computers and the whole IT industry. We even invented the term “the business” so we could blame someone else if what we built turned out to be stupid rather than brilliant.

Then we invented the role of the business analyst to make sure that we actually understood what “the business” needed, rather than just blaming them.

The business analysts came up with the obvious idea that they should interview people to find out what they want before we build things. We hope this will result in us building something valuable instead of just allocating blame when we do something dumb.

A century has passed since Mark Twain wrote the letter I refered to and given how much we have learned since then, can’t we just ignore his outdated views? Sadly I think he turned out to be right.

Mark Twain claimed that the written word and the spoken word are fundamentally different. He claimed that if you interview someone and write down what they said then you will produce twaddle . In fact he said:

“The moment “talk” is put into print you recognize that it is not what it was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it.

That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands”

Later in the letter he says he would not talk in his sleep if he could not talk better than the wording found in most (reported) interviews. He claims that to capture the meaning of what someone said, you can never merely write down what they said. In doing so you will lose all the meaning that they had in their tone, their body language, the conversation before and after the part you wrote down and so forth.

This is exactly what I have seen happen when a business analyst writes down what someone said and calls it a set of requirements. You are left with “nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands”.

A good author or (if they exist these days) a good journalist does not interview people and simply write down what they said. Insteadthe author collates information from multiple discussions and then interprets it and compares it to other information they have gathered from research or even their own analysis. Then they go back and confirm their understanding, not just of what was said, but what the implications are and whether what was said was what they stakeholder really meant.

In the same way a competent business analyst does not simply write down what someone said – even if they can do in in Agile stories, UML or some other clever form of stenography.

Rather, a competent business analyst does what the job title implies.  He or she analyses, interprets, validates and chalenges what was said. Through this analysis they discover  the meaning of what has been asked for and the implications of delivering it.  They can then go back and talk to people or write down what they understand – in a written form that is effective rather than “twaddle”.

In other words they write requirements and do not simply quote what people said without the “soul” or meaning of the conversation.

So I would expect the requirements written by a BA to be in a different form to “talking”, or I would expect the BA to go back and read what Mark Twain wrote.

If you agree with me then lets write good written requriements and have good spoken discussions and lets make effective use of the written or spoken word when we do.

On the other hand if you disagree with me then blame Mark Twain – it was him that said you write twaddle and produce nothing but the carcase of the conversation you are meant to be analysing. All I did was quote him. I actually think you are a nice person and not at all a murderer of requirements.

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About James King
I am a consultant who specialises in helping IT and project teams to improve their delivery capability through improvements to processes, individual capability and leadership capability. I live in Sydney with my wife and daughter and have no real hobbies beyond the usual boring ones of reading, writing and watching tv.

3 Responses to Famous BAs in history: Mark Twain on interviews

  1. Shane Hastie says:

    So many times I’ve seen the requirements document that truly is the “a dead carcass left on your hands”.

    Thanks for finding these gems!

  2. Pingback: OODA Loops for fighter pilots, business analysts and testers « James King

  3. sachu says:

    I totally agree to Mark Twain’s words, but it’s weird that most of the big employers just screen out UML, Agile, etc. skill set profile, and hence some of the Twain’s followers like me, are waiting for our resume’s to be selected out.

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