Business Analyst


Business Analyst, Mortgage Company

Date of Interview: February 23rd, 2017


Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: So I currently work at a company called First Guarantee Mortgage Corporation, and my current job title is business analyst, human resources and corporate enterprise services, and it has been about nine years since I graduated college, and then I did a master’s degree, which it has been two years.

Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Primary job function would be developing financial models and analysis that connect all our different departments together. I also do some forecasting with the budget and our main revenue driver, which is loans.

Q: Perfect, okay.

A: What was the rest?

Q: Oh, just primary job functions. Does that cover it?

A: Okay, yeah yeah.

Q: Perfect. Okay, that’s great. How frequently are you required to write? If possible, could you sort of estimate what percentage of a given week might be taken up by writing?

A: I would say probably 20 percent. And that would be a) fielding emails and then b) making bullet points on finance models that I develop to say, “From year 15 to year 16 we had a 16.4 percent increase in revenue,” or  “Our loan profitability went up in these different sectors.” So I make little bullet points underneath the Excel models that I develop and they’re short, concise, mainly numbers with just little finance terms thrown in there, but it’s really small writing. Then the other portion would be writing emails.

Q: Perfect. And just to clarify, like in these models you’re building in Excel, is it all numbers?

A: It’s mainly all numbers, and some of them don’t have little, cute bullet points underneath it. I just do that so it’s a quick look-in for someone like our CFO who I forward them to, so he could just look and see that, from year 2015 to year 2016 our revenue went up by a margin of x amount of dollars or x amount of percent. So it’s not a whole lot of writing, but it’s very concise, to-the-point writing.

Q: Right, okay. So you mentioned a CFO, are there other primary audiences that you’re typically writing to, or primary purposes that you’re writing to?

A: My other primary audience would be my boss, who’s the VP of HR. I write some emails and stuff to him and correspondence, and then models will also go to him, and then go to the CFO or CEO. I try to make sure that they’re clean and buttoned up before they get to that point, but, yeah, that’s my main audience. I also work with other outside consultants – right now we’re working with the company Corporate Executive Board, and then we’re working with Gala, and I’ve worked hand in hand with those consultants on developing metrics and looking at different portions of our company. So I write a lot of emails, reaching out, asking for clarity on little tidbits of information with different templates that I’m filling out. So that would be another area where I write actual sentences [laughter] would be in these models, templates, which is different than a model created from scratch. A template would be, say, I work with a company called McLagan, and we basically benchmark our company against the whole mortgage industry. So I have to write a little brief synopsis on what I entered in and what I think about the data. But it’s not real long writing, it’s just kind of a couple sentences about changes or things that I’ve noticed.

Q: And what’s the purpose of that? Is it to be persuasive or just informative?

A: It’s mainly an informative one- our company and things that I’ve noticed over the months, or related to the template that I’m filling out. Then they use that to actually write white paper pegging us against all other companies in the mortgage industry to see where job title correlates with salary, and see where– and it changes demographically, so they do all different companies and all different areas, and then they’ll do analysis comparing all of, let’s say an accountant in DC would make $60,000 whereas in Florida they might make $40,000.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with these very specific writing types when you were a student?

A: Can you clarify that?
Q: Sure. I was going to go by age but that doesn’t really work – like as a student, were you familiar with the genre of a professional email? Probably. But were you familiar with the sort of writing that you do in these models when you were a student?

A: I think– that’s a good question. The thing that I had to make a big change with with the models was being short and concise, because no one wants long, flowery, literature-type questions. I started out as an English major, so at the infancy of my writing in college, it was based around trying to be a little bit more, not persuasive, but descriptive and, not flowery, but now with the business analysis it’s more short, concise, to-the-point. I have to do that in emails too.

Q: Could you describe your writing process, as in, how do writing tasks or assignments sort of land on your desk, how do you prepare, and what steps do you take from the start to completion?

A: So I’ll usually write something and then I’ll kick it off to like a director of something and ask for feedback, and just see if that makes sense. Then I’ll ultimately get it back, or they will make changes to it. It basically goes through one revision, and then it’s off to the CEO or CFO or VP of HR.
Q: Got it. And is that sort of an informal, “Hey, tell me if this makes sense, give me a little feedback,” or it a more formal, sort of mandatory review process?

A: It’s informal but we’re also– I’m collaborating with the directors on these projects so we kind of both work on it together. It’s not so much– it’s both of our work and we’re both collaborating and putting different pieces together that make up the whole thing. So we kind of revise each other’s work.

Q: Perfect, that makes sense, great. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, and you’ve said really only one revision, is there a specific approach that you take to improving it from that first draft to the final version?

A: Yeah, I look at what ultimately makes intuitive sense, and then make sure its kind of grammar as best as I can, and that’s about it. I don’t really have any other source or person to tap on to review it, unfortunately.

Q: Okay, great. How long, and I’m sure this varies project to project, but how long do you typically have to complete a writing project? And I know that’s different in email to the writing that goes along with these models, but–

A: Yeah, some of the templates I’ll usually have about a month or two, and the reason for that is it takes many weeks to synthesize all the data and collect it, and collaborate it, and basically make heads and tails out of it. So the writing really comes at the end of that portion – I don’t know what I’m writing about until I actually aggregate all the data and aggregate all the spreadsheets to see what it looks like and maybe do a graph or a separate model out of it, and then I write from that. So I’m writing what the input saw.

Q: Got it, interesting. What is at stake in your writing?

A: What’s at stake would be not clearly addressing what our true numbers are at the company. So I have to really be diligent and clear and concise on saying our revenues went up, because everyone wants to get paid every week [laughter]. So we have to make sure that those are accurate numbers to the best of our ability and, you know, upholding our fiduciary responsibility to the clients and stakeholders.

Q: Perfect, okay. You sort of spoke about this, but who oversees your writing? You said the CFO eventually and also your VP of HR? Does that sort of– ?

A: Yeah, that’s kind of the overseeing. A lot of times I do projects for separate directors and different people within the company, that they don’t even see my work. So it’s not– for instance, I don’t really bounce the majority of my work off of my boss, the VP of HR, because I’m writing for the director of compensation and benefits or training and organization or customer engagement, so all these different audiences. So I really don’t have any– I kind of am my own revision, revise my own work, which can be scary because it’s always nice to have a separate set of eyes on it.

Q: That makes a lot of sense though.

A: But I’ll often do a revision or two myself, and maybe sleep on it a day or two, and then come back and revisit it and do other work, just to see if it makes sense and see if that’s what I really want to get to before I send it. Now if it’s a deadline, then guess what? It’s going out, that’s just the way it is [laughter].

Q: How would you say the success or quality of your writing is judged?

A: I would say it’s judged by a) if it initially looks kind of neat and clean. Other than that, a lot of the people have finance backgrounds so they’re not really astute on all the commas and periods and stuff. If it makes sense and you’re getting good points across, that’s the main thing. So they’re the ones that really judge it.

Q: Yeah, okay. Have you had any writing training or education since finishing your undergraduate degree? You mentioned your, is it MBA?

A: Yeah, MBA. So I did a lot of writing for that, for my master’s. I hired a tutor to really read over the papers. She was a professional writer, so I kind of hired her to revise all my papers before I sent it, but it was varying. You had some difficult professors and then some easier professors, but I think my writing there– you go through so many different statistics. I had to write a 34-page paper on statistics and a lot of it was Excel sheets and graphs that I had to plug into it, but then you had to do a explanation of all of what everything means. Statistics – is it correlated? Is there positive correlation? Negative correlation? And really spell it out. The nice thing with statistics is, they have a basic format, like a scientific format that you can use and refer to online, so there’s a way of clearly expressing the correlation of different statistical data points, which is nice. Because you kind of use that as like a rough template.

Q: Got it. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Are there other things that you’ve felt you learned as a writer as a graduate student?

A: I learned that it’s better to be short and concise and not as flowerly and literaturian is the best I could relate it to. But I think that if you make sense and you’re to-the-point, a lot of professors appreciate that rather than kind of rambling on. Oftentimes we’d have a paper that had to be 15 pages and you’re thinking, “Well, how do not ramble on just to fill this up?” and a lot of professors would say, “Hey, if you’re a page or two below that, I’d rather quality not quantity,” is what they would say. So that was nice to kind of abide by that rule. But you have to make sure it’s good writing, too [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you first entered the workforce as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I would say some challenges would be I ask a lot of complex questions, and sometimes I have to really consider my wording with emails with my fellow coworkers. Especially when I first started, I had to reach out to a lot of C-level people because I was working on an org chart of the company. I would send our chief revenue officer, who’s been there for like 20 years, and say, “Hey how many people report to you?” and everything, and you’re a little nervous because they don’t know you from Adam and you’re new, so you really want to make sure that you address it quick and to-the-point. I found it was difficult to not ramble on and, you know, well, “Here’s a little intro about me,” or something. “Why are you asking me these questions?” [laughter]. “What’s your business?” So that was my thing, is trying to be to the point but also address what you want answered.

Q: Are you able to identify a change in your writing from say, college to now? And if so, what do you attribute that shift to?

A: I would attribute that shift to reading a lot more. I’ve read different types of scientific books and some literature-oriented books, so I think I’ve synthesized a little bit of those writing styles and genres into my everyday work. So I think my writing has gotten better because of looking at these different sources and trying to read a lot.

Q: Would you classify your writing as– it seems in many ways like it is scientific writing to a certain extent, is that a fair assessment?

A: It is. It is scientific, and then I do, you know, regular emails and regular writing. Some of the scientific portion I try to be – I don’t want to say clear and concise again – but I try to just state what needs to be stated, and no more, because that detracts and deludes from your main point.

Q: Yeah. Are there other ways, other than the sort of graduate school classes that we mentioned, that you think your academic background prepared you for your professional writing?
A: Prepared me for my professional writing, like my classes that I took?

Q: Yeah, yeah.

A: I would say that both undergrad and grad prepared me well in the sense that I was able to write for different audiences. So I had a marketing professor that was kind of lax and chill, and then I had a psychologist that I worked with and he was a very stickler and would never hand out any type of grades and everyone’s papers would come back red. So I would run my papers through my editor four or five times, and say, “Hey I got a B+ on my last paper. You need to up your game or you’re not getting paid [laughter]!”

Q: This was when you were in grad school?

A: Yeah.

Q: Okay, that’s funny.
A: Yeah, so I would say that writing in grad school for all these different professors that all came from different disciplines and backgrounds really– and I would talk to the professors and even talk to former students and say, “What’s this professor’s writing style?” – more or less saying, “What do they identify with?” – “Oh, professor Ed, he’s real easy, just make sure you turn something out.” And then other ones were a little bit more challenging so you really had to think twice about turning something in. But writing for all those different classes to statistics, marketing, psychology, organizational leadership, leadership classes, really developed different writing skills.

Q: When you think back to your first years out of undergrad, because there was some sort of career between that and grad school for you, right? Did you feel unprepared to write in the workplace right out of undergrad, or would you say you felt pretty prepared?

A: I felt prepared in the sense that I graduated college, but I also felt that my writing could have been maybe a little bit better than what it was and what it has become. So I would say I didn’t struggle, but had to dedicate– it took more effort and energy for me to turn something out versus now, I could maybe sit down and turn out a piece of work a little quicker.

Q: Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I would say successful in the sense that I’ve managed to make my writing, the little bit that I do, execute good. I’ve been able to pass along that work to our VP of HR and our CFO and CEO to make strategic decisions to drive the company forward. So we’re still driving forward, the train’s still going down the tracks, so that’s good [laughter]. I think that it’s imperative to keep making sure we’re concise and to-the-point.

Q: And the last question: what skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: I would say not overanalyzing basic data, because it’s easy to look at things and get caught up viewing it differently, but you also have to just look at what you really want out of the data, and what your goal is. You set out a goal before doing that, and then try to achieve that. So for me, it’s maybe even just doing a little bullet outline. Outlining what you want out of a model, and then clearly going after developing those type– not developing a model to go right after what you want, but developing in the sense that it may produce or lend information that you don’t really want [laughter]. So you have to look at the good and the bad. And then be honest in your writing too, because sometimes it’s easy to manipulate with our growth, company growth, and I look at retention and do data analysis and see what our cost-per-hire is and everyone wants the cost-per-hire to be low, but sometimes it goes up. Costs for everything is going up, so you have to be real in your data.

Q: Okay, thank you.

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Certified Public Accountant


Certified Public Accountant, Currently freelance

Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016


Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: I’m a CPA and where I was working I was a manager. I graduated from college in 2007, but technically I finished classes December of 2006. And what else, what was the other thing?

Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?

A: There are many. Let’s see. So as CPA– so I would prepare, I would review tax returns, train staff on that, and client interaction – emails and phonecalls – on a daily basis for whatever questions or issues that come up with their business. With staff, would be as I mentioned training, but also any other HR issues and pay rate, you know, salary, evaluations. I meet with them once a week. Clients, on a daily basis, and then some of the issues that might come up would be tax notices, and so forth.

Q: What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete?

A: Types of writing – many, mostly kind of casual emails between with clients or staff on status of projects. Also, as I mentioned, IRS notices. So, writing responses to IRS or whatever other taxing authority might have had a question. Sometimes it’s just a notice and sometimes it’s a full-on audit, where you have an agent coming out to go through some documents. What other forms of writing..not sure [chuckles]. Oh, I guess with the stuff– so that’s with my employment, and then where I volunteer with the Virginia Society of CPAs and the Northern Chapter, I’ve been tapped to write a couple of pieces for them. Mostly writing informational pieces on a certain issue in the field.  Research and development credits would be one. That might be another thing, is presentations – but I don’t know if that’s so much writing. And then writing articles on those topics. And then a couple times it’s like a more personal piece on “why you’re a CPA” – that sort of topic.

Q: How frequently are you required to write, and if you’d give an approximate estimation on average, per week, what percentage of your job would be writing-involved?

A: You mean, would you count like, emails?

Q: Sure.

A: Okay, sixty percent.

Q: And that’s on a weekly basis? How frequently during the week?

A: Daily.

Q: Daily. Could you describe your writing process, including how like assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from the start of a project to its completion?

A: It depends very much on the project. I’d say if it’s just a new client coming in, it’s a sit-down meeting with them. Where writing comes in, you know, I’d take notes on what they’re– about them and their history and what issues they have, and take a look at their, you know, prior tax returns, prior financial statements, look at their history and then talk about what needs to happen in the future. Many times, some sort of research project will come out of that. So we will look into that; either me personally or staff person will look into it. I’ll have them take the first stab at it, and then I’ll sort of clean it up and give to them our conclusions to the client our conclusions. And then from there we can make decisions on how to handle whatever the issue is. If it’s just preparing a tax return, then it’s pretty straight forward. If it’s like a tax audit or something, then we start gathering documents and creating our deliverable.

Q: Could you describe the primary audience or audiences to which you are normally writing and for what purpose?

A: When I talk about like sixty percent of my time is a lot of emails, and those are with clients. So those are generally owner-managed businesses, so either directly to the owner who is managing it, or perhaps a CFO or controller who is taking point on the financial matters. So that would be the primary audience. When it’s something a little more involved with like an IRS notice, then the audience would be that taxing authority or perhaps directly to an agent. Where I’m writing articles, that is either geared towards CPAs and teaching them more about that issue and that would be the audience, or else it might an article where the audience is maybe prospective clients or other owner-managed businesses in like a certain field.

Q: Can you talk a bit about, like, what’s at stake in the writing that you do?

A: My relationship with my clients and their trust in me. Being able to communicate clearly is kind of– I mean, anybody can prepare a tax return – like literally, you don’t have to be a CPA to do that – but you need to have a good foundation relationship. We don’t just prepare tax returns, there’s more to it than that. But if a client is just thinking about it from a compliance point of view like, “I just have got to get this form completed”, then I’m not doing my job in conveying the value that we can provide.

Q: Other than clients, is there anyone that oversees the writing that you do? If yes, could you provide just brief description of their title and their role in your organization?

A: CPA firms are usually organized as partnerships, and so the [? 7:27.3] partners them. So the partner would be whoever– so every client is sort of assigned to a partner, like the partner is responsible for that relationship, and like, officially within the firm. And then they delegate me to handle the issue. So my role is– basically I’m the primary point of contact, and working with the staff to make sure the work gets done, and then review it and make sure it’s done correctly. And then any questions that come up, that goes back to the partner to decide on how to handle that, how to communicate that to the client if it’s sensitive. And so most of my career, any letters that went to IRS or taxing authority would go through one of the partners first. But as a manager, that doesn’t really need to happen. So it’s mostly just communication on how to handle an issue. But yeah, for much of my career, I write all these letters and the partner would like, red-line it and make it to his tone of voice, or her tone of voice, or whomever was looking at it.

Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: Not directly. I’ve taken a couple of leadership courses/seminars. But I don’t think writing was directly– communication was a topic for sure, but I think those mostly focus on verbal.

Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, or pre-drafting?

A: I mean, I’ll research it if there’s something that needs to be researched. But usually if it’s just a notice response or something like that, it’s kind of standard and it’s very contingent on the circumstances that the client was under. So I’d interview the client, what are the circumstances, and then you, as my bosses write: write the saddest story that the truth will allow. You know, so that’s one way to think about it.

Q: Can you elaborate on that a little bit [laughter]. That’s fascinating, can you elaborate a little bit about that?

A: If you’re requesting like an abatement of a penalty or something, then you know, the saddest story the truth will allow. I mean it’s, you know, “my dog died, my wife got sick, my car broke down, and I ran out of”– you know, it’s just whatever the circumstances are, you write it in a way that’s like, “it was so sad and it was so awful and they couldn’t possibly have filed that day. But look! They did it two days later and it will never happen again and they have reached out to a professional to ensure it will never happen again and we’re on top of it” – and that’s sort of how you write these things.

Q: So it sounds like there is some persuasion there.

A: Yeah.

Q: Outside of email as a form of writing, does revision ever occur in your writing and, if so, what kind of process do you go through to revise?

A: I try to be paperless, but I usually catch these things after I print it out and just read it cold, basically, if it’s important. Even with email too sometimes, if it’s sensitive at all. And I’ll just set it aside and come back to it and try to re-read it, as if, from their perspective.

Q: How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: Like an hour [chuckles]. Maybe. By the end of the day.

Q: Earlier you asked about types of documents that you write. Were you familiar these genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them coming into the workplace?

A: Which genres?

Q: The email, or informational writing, persuasive writing, even things like the things you write to the IRS, those sorts of documents.

A: Was I aware of them when I was in school?

Q: At least in the style in which you engage with them now.

A: Not really, no. I guess it’d be mostly like English classes, mostly like kind of reading comprehension, and “did you understand that?”, and then you sort of regurgitate it with a slant. And then history would be just kind of facts and writing it out. I’ll say that probably the most valuable class I had – and since I saw this notice I’ve been trying to remember and I just can’t remember – but I had a professor at Mary Washington who did– it was a business class on business writing, which I think was probably the most valuable in my career, about, you know, don’t– basically don’t use filler words and be as concise as possible, and just kind of the opposite of you know, “minimum of seven pages!”, for these other types of classes. So that was probably the most valuable in terms of business writing that I can see all of my staff need something like that. But, persuasive writing, I don’t think– no, we didn’t have to do any of that. IRS notices never occurred to me [chuckles] to write about that. Email I certainly was aware of.

Q: Are you able to identify any change in your writing style between college and your current time writing in the workplace, and if so, to what would you attribute this shift?

A: Certainly I’ve had more practice at being concise and trying to get to the point quickly, even if it’s a client or you know, IRS agent or something. You have to state your point right away, or else they’re not going to be engaged. It’s not so much with the rules and English – you know, it’s like an introductory, a body, and your conclusion – you kind of lead with your conclusion. It’s like, “I’m writing in response to this, and we believe that this isn’t correct”. And then you state all of your reasons, and then yes, you have a conclusion, but you kind of have to get to the point right away, there’s no introduction really. Much less.

Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared to write in the workplace? How does that compare to the challenges that you face now?

A: In what ways did I feel unprepared– I mean that one class helped a lot with preparing and sort of having an idea of, okay, I’m going to try to be really concise here. But having practice in really doing it in practical ways – I did not feel prepared for that. So, basically the way I was trained is I would, you know, take a stab at it, write it up, and then they would, it would just get marked up and completely changed. What I found most interesting is these, even in emails or letters, is it’s very tonal. Like I think in school it was like, try to be as, I don’t know, third person and detached, almost. And in the writing that I do, it’s more personal. When I’m writing a letter for this person’s client, I have to lead off with “Ladies and gentleman!”, and I have to have a certain tone. And when I’m writing for this person, it’s “Dear sir or madam”, and it’s a totally, it’s a different tone. So it’s, people are very particular.

Q: How would you say that you learned to navigate the differences in those kinds of tones?

A: Practice, I don’t know. Just trying it over and over again until it got the point where he’d always be happy with the letters I write, to the point where he’s like “I don’t want to see them anymore, you sign it”. And so I was like, okay now I can do it, and then I could actually start writing them in my tone [chuckles]. So not as much of a “Ladies and gentleman!” sort of author. But it’s been interesting. Yeah, that’s kind of just helped me to develop, just like being exposed to the different [? 17:09.9] people have.

Q: What practical steps did you take in the office to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents performed by other writers or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: Yeah, I mean I might go online and just Google how to format something, or read a couple of samples. Or I’d go back in the work file and figure out how we had responded to something for some clients in the past. Fortunately everything was sort of paperless, so you could do a search, IRS letter or something, and try to just find other examples that he’d written before, or whomever had written. Can you say the question again? I feel like there was another piece to it.

Q: Any practical steps taken in the office to overcome early writing challenges?

A: Yeah, pretty much that looking at history and mostly just trying it and it being just totally rewritten every time, the first couple years.

Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?

A: Maybe average [chuckles].

Q: On what criteria are you making that judgement?

A: People usually understand what I’m trying to say. Not always [chuckles].

Q: How do you, or how does your boss, judge the success or quality of your writing that you do?

A: I guess if it’s like an appeal, and whether it’s successful or not. So those tend to get rewritten a lot more often and I’ll go through a lot of versions of that; usually pretty good success with that. Where I say I’m like average is usually with email correspondence, where if you’re writing it quickly, and then– email is so difficult because you can’t hear the tone, and so you’re trying to respond quickly, but sometimes the message isn’t always completely received, or if I could’ve written it in a different tone, it would go better. So that’s, those are unsuccessful communications where you didn’t, maybe didn’t fully explain it or assume they remember that email from two days ago that we already talked about this and just explaining further. But, by and large, it’s successful. The message gets across and I keep my clients.

Q: Last question. What skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific workplace and function?

A: I don’t know what you mean by that [chuckles]. Skills, like English, I mean, vocabulary? What do you mean?

Q: What traits that you think you have as a writer – or successful writers in your workplace – what do you find to be common? Any common traits or skillsets in writing that you think lead to success in writing in accounting?

A: Being able to get to the point quickly, and being concise. Keeping people’s attention and I’d say being really clear and keeping your tone neutral or positive. Like I have a partner in the firm who will get in trouble all the time for writing those nasty emails, and she didn’t really change what she typed, but she started just inserting smiley faces [laughter]. So, “this is my tone when I am writing to you in this manner, you know, I’m writing”, but you know, but it doesn’t read like that, but you throw in a smiley face. So I think that’s just crucial, is being able to keep it neutral or positive when you don’t intend to offend somebody but you, sometimes you do accidentally. Or knowing when not to put it in writing and when to have a conversation.

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