Requirements elicitation is one of three main disciplines of Requirements Engineering, complemented by requirements modeling and requirements management.
A key success factor for professional Requirements Engineering - and especially for requirements elicitation - are good soft skills. During requirements elicitation it is essential to ask the right questions, to verify the answers, to generate new questions from the answers, to identify conflicts and resolve them. All of that requires a good sense for people in professional situations. These soft skills must of course be complemented by sound hard skills like efficient and structured documentation of results in order to achieve best results in elicitation.
What does the literature say about RE skills?
Marcel M. Robles of the University of Eastern Kentucky (Robles 2012) described soft skills as those intangible and somewhat personality-specific qualities that are desirable in certain types of work. Centered on the ability to deal with people, these characteristics influence an individual's ability to negotiate, lead and get results.
Some of the skills Robles mentions can be considered as relevant for every professional, as they are very common, e.g., flexibility, positive attitude, or responsibility.
Others are indeed of particular importance when working in the field of requirements elicitation:
- Contextual awareness, to understand the context in which the business operates and adjusting one's approach.
- Ethical conscience and an awareness of negative effects on the environment and society.
- Intercultural competency, to have the ability to work with various domains, regions or cultures.
- Leadership, to be able to lead stakeholders for a certain purpose.
- Motivation and the ability to inspire.
- Neutrality, to serve stakeholder interests appropriately and equally, without bias.
- Reflection, to be able to receive feedback and evaluate situations and own behavior.
- Self-awareness, to know one's position in relation to the stakeholders.
Within the CPRE (Certified Professional for Requirements Engineering) education scheme by IREB (International Requirements Engineering Board) the Foundation Level syllabus teaches the soft skills, that are essential when working in the field of requirements elicitation: Methods and knowledge about good communication, analytical thinking, conflict resolution and validation, to name but a few. Sure, self-confidence and the ability to convince others are also important and with the right knowledge at hand this is way easier.
The knowledge acquired in the Foundation Level can be deepened in the CPRE Advanced Level module Requirements Elicitation.
In summary, communication skills are the most important soft skills for Requirements Engineers because the role involves dialogue and interaction with stakeholders, as a primary source of business requirements. In addition, virtues such as integrity, neutrality and leadership complement these finely-honed people skills in today's fast-moving and technical environments.
How can you personally develop your soft skills?
Insufficient practical experience is very often presented as a reason for not applying a specific elicitation or conflict resolution technique. This might be understandable in terms of project success; in terms of personal development, however, this attitude is not helpful as the Requirements Engineer would never learn unfamiliar techniques.
In order familiarize with a new technique, there are two good practice scenarios:
- Low-risk setting
- Parallel application
Low-risk settings have the advantage that any negative outcome has only a minimal effect. What constitutes a low-risk setting depends on the project context. Examples of low-risk settings include:
- Reduced subgroups of stakeholders.
- A limited time frame, such as planning a shorter than usual field observation (e.g., one hour) with certain stakeholders.
- Friendly environments, where the Requirements Engineer has previously established a good working relationship with the stakeholders.
- Non-critical areas or aspects of the system. As an example, editing optional or little-used features in profiles or using test data might fall outside the critical category. Consequently, Requirements Engineers might use an unfamiliar technique to elicit requirements for planned changes to the same.
Further, the Requirements Engineer may decide to apply these new techniques in parallel, either synchronously using subgroups or asynchronously using field observations as well as interviews.
- Synchronous parallelism: In case a large group of stakeholders must be addressed during requirements elicitation, a smaller subgroup of these stakeholders can apply an unfamiliar technique. For example, 30 stakeholders should participate in a creativity workshop. A subgroup of 6 stakeholders might be invited to perform an unfamiliar technique (e.g. 6 thinking hats), whereas the majority applies a familiar technique (e.g., brainstorming).
- Asynchronous parallelism: If it is not possible (or desirable) to split a group of stakeholders to perform two techniques in parallel, two techniques might instead be performed sequentially. For example, five end users of a new system are to participate in requirements elicitation by means of interviews. In such a situation, the Requirements Engineer might plan for an additional field observation right after each interview.
In all cases, it is useful to compare the results of both techniques and obtain feedback from stakeholders.
Previous Experience and Lifelong Learning
Personal and professional development is based on the ability to learn from previous experience. This, coupled with analysis and reflection, is an essential component of individual development. In this context, lifelong learning encompasses the following areas:
Measuring One's Ability
By using self-assessment questionnaires and discussions with colleagues and customers, it is possible to maintain awareness of one's strengths, along with any areas for improvement. For best results, balance observations and feedback against the skills profile for the role at hand.
In-house and external training courses, further education and coaching in elicitation and conflict resolution techniques ought to contribute to one's RE skills. For further information on self-improvement to CPRE, please see below. Also, leadership and motivational training is a useful complement for long-term personal and professional growth opportunities.
Practical Experience: Improving in the Workplace
On completion of training, it is necessary to apply the new skills through practice and thus achieve continuous improvement. Notably, optimal progress tends to result from following workshops and coaching sessions over extended periods of at least four weeks.
Finally, experienced mentors are valuable in imparting knowledge of new techniques and methods. A viable and useful alternative to intensive training is to work with a mentor and learn the technique(s) first by observation. Later, the mentor will take on the role of observer and monitor the mentee's performance to provide support and constructive feedback when necessary.
Your personal development path: the CPRE Certification
Whether you are a Software Engineer, Requirements Engineer, Business Analyst or a Project Manager – the Certified Professional for Requirements Engineering (CPRE) education will expand your professional knowledge in the fields of requirements elicitation, requirements modelling and requirements management and will help you to become more successful in your job.
A quick note on “agile”: Does the CPRE certification also contribute to agile work? – Of course it does, as the syllabi also teach how to apply RE best practices in an agile!
Discover more about the CPRE certification on the IREB website.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258126575_Executive_Perceptions_of_the_Top_10_Soft_Skills_Needed_in_Today's_Workplace (Robles 2012)
https://www.ireb.org/content/downloads/9-cpre-advanced-level-elicitation-handbook/advanced_level_elicitation_handbook_en.pdf (CPRE-AL Elicitation)
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