20 years an analyst

josh-bernoff spainFor 20 years, I did the same thing, mostly. I was a technology analyst at Forrester Research from 1995 until last month.

If you do one thing for a long time, you should learn from it. My job at Forrester molded my ways of thinking more than anything else I’ve done (save becoming a parent). Perhaps you can benefit from hearing what I learned. (Please note that Forrester Research has not approved and is not responsible for anything you read here.)

In my view, an analyst at Forrester or similar companies is dedicated to finding out the truth about what is happening and what will happen in technology-influenced markets. While financial analysts serve investors and focus on valuations, technology analysts focus instead on predicting the best strategies for its clients, who are buyers and strategists in companies that use technology and the vendors who sell to them. While journalists focus on what happened today, analysts concentrate further out, on positioning for trends over the next few years. Tech evolves quickly and disruptively, so you must track startups and fast-moving developments even as you predict the future.

Here are a few things I learned from being an analyst.

  • Ideas matter. And names matter, too. Businesspeople are eager to hear about ideas, not just nuts and bolts about how products stack up. Developing ideas is a noble purpose. You do better with them if you name them well. The consummate Forrester analyst John McCarthy named client-server; there’s an idea with legs.
  • It is better to be bold than right . . . up to a point. I’ve made bold predictions. In 1995 I predicted that advertising would be the business model for online content. I predicted that downloads or streaming would replace discs for distributing music and movies. I also wrongly predicted that HDTV would fail and that interactive TV would make billions. Businesspeople value bold predictions, because they want you to challenge their thinking. They don’t much value “well, it depends.” And you’d better be able to back up your bold predictions with solid research.
  • Ask the next question. If you don’t understand something, ask about it. If a company gives an answer that doesn’t make sense to you, ask about it. Ask the question that they probably won’t answer (“how much do you typically discount the price?”) because you’ve got nothing to lose, and you might find out something nobody else knows. Listen a lot. Ask “why” a lot. An analyst is never satisfied, is always curious, and is always toting around a few big, nagging questions for which he’s seeking answers.
  • Triangulate relationships. The CEA ran an influential conference on HDTV and had no place for my ideas on it. But I noticed that a reporter friend was speaking, slipped him my report, and got my ideas onto the agenda that way. I called people after they quit companies to get the dirt on what was actually happening. I asked customers about vendors. I asked suppliers about vendors. I asked financial analysts. All markets are ecosystems, and you’ve got to know all the players to see the whole picture.
  • Reinvent yourself regularly. You can do the “same” thing for 20 years without getting bored if you keep changing it up. Do that for 20 years in an idea-focused company and you get a pretty diverse set of experiences. I moved from analyzing CD-ROM (yup, that was big in 1995) to television to social media to mobile. I launched Forrester’s consumer survey business (Technographics) and corporate intranet. I cowrote three books and edited two more. And I invented a discipline called “idea development” to help other analysts with big ideas. I was able to do all this because Forrester produces ideas, not things, and there’s endless variety in identifying, developing, and producing ideas. (And also because enlightened senior managers and intelligent colleagues felt it was worth supporting me as I attempted these reinventions.) While you can reinvent yourself at new jobs, doing it in the same company allows you to take advantage of your existing reputation and relationships, which is a great base to build on.
  • Editing creates power. All idea development is evolutionary. You toss out the lame, generic ideas and challenge the good ones until they’re better. All good writers write a mixture of brilliance and crap — the editor’s job is to line out the crap so the brilliance can shine. Greatness requires vigorous resistance to thrive. Good ideas result from choices far more often than they do from compromise.

I’m not far enough removed from my experience yet; I’m sure there are things I learned that I don’t even realize. It was a thrill ride for 20 years, and it put me in the position I’m in to do what I do now.

Photo: Network World Spain.

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  1. “Ask why a lot” I love that line. mainly because I do and I have found it to be one of the single most important things I do. I also chuckle because when you ask that you can often tell 1) they don’t hear that often 2) they usually don’t know why 3) the reason why has never even once occured to them. It simply is and how dare you question it. 🙂

  2. Look for proof you’re wrong.

    If you look for proof you’re right, you’ll always find it…even when you’re the last person in the room to realize you’re wrong. You can’t be confident in your assertions until you give a good, honest search for proof you’re wrong, and can’t find a compelling case.

    My biggest professional mistake — supporting OS/2 long after it was clear it was dead — was based on finding evidence here and there that it was hanging on. Hell, I might still be supporting it, saying “see, it’s still running on ATMs,” if I was really stubborn. Conversely, one of my biggest research successes, positing the existence of what became Windows 95 not long after Microsoft launched NT (saying NT would never be the volume leading OS and that what we called NT Lite would be launched and would be the volume OS), came because I looked for evidence that NT *wouldn’t* succeed…and I found ample evidence.

    This approach makes you really annoying to colleagues and clients at times but hey, that’s the cross a really good analyst has to bear.