Friday, May 8, 2009

Your job versus your career

When I chat with interns about how thing are going at work, a common lament is “did I get a degree for this?”  I ask them what they’re doing every day, and then I ask them what they thought they’d be doing every day.  And I sympathize, even empathize.  Here are these poor, bored interns, wondering what the hell they’re doing here, spending day after day doing redlines in CAD or Revit or Microstation and looking up product info and fiddling around with flashing details and toilet room clearances.  When will they get to meet with clients, work directly with consultants and contractors, visit job sites, do the really cool design stuff to make the insides and outsides of buildings look awesome?  Huh?  When?

Before I get to that answer, allow me to define the difference between a job and a career.  A job consists of your daily, weekly, and sometimes even monthly tasks and responsibilities.  A job is viewed in the short term: I’m doing redlines this week, and I’ll be checking these shop drawings next week when they come in.  A career, however, is a long term endeavor: I’m an architect, and I design buildings.  What some people—not just interns fresh out of school, but even people in their forties—fail to realize is that a career is built on your job(s) and your job performance.  Doing a job well over a reasonable period of time allows your supervisor to see that you are competent and are ready for a new challenge of for more responsibility.  Doing that next job well over another reasonable period of time allows him or her to give you yet more responsibility, and so on.  Doing well the tasks that make up your job allow more and different tasks to be added to your job, and all of these tasks plus the way you carry them out form, over time, your career.  What this means is that even when you are working on something that feels minor or pointless, you still need to do it well.  Chances are good that minor and pointless tasks are neither and how you do those things say more about you than the task or even the person that assigned the task.  If one project manager asks another, “What is Intern A like?”, the second project manager will describe how Intern A does their job, not what she does.  Your job is based on what you do; your career is based on how you do it.

I’ve discussed before how architecture work and school differ, and the first couple of years in the workplace can be demoralizing to interns.  Even so, it’s important to remember that at this point, it’s a job upon which your career will be built.  A career is built upon the knowledge gained through doing many jobs and tasks, and the best way to learn the basics of the profession is through what seems like mindless work—transferring redlined drawings into CAD, doing product research, and looking at/studying/copying details from previous projects.  Anyone can do CAD drawings—it’s a two-year degree earned at a technical school.  What shows project managers that you know what you’re doing is when, time after time, you pick up all the redlines and ask questions when something doesn’t make sense; for example, the door into a certain room is shown as 3’-6” wide on the plan but 3’-0” on an elevation.  Further evidence that you know what you’re doing is revealed when you ask not just what and how but why: why is that door 3’-6” instead of 3’-0” like all the rest?  Why is this room so big?  Why do we put the insulation on that side of the studs?

Sometimes, part of your job involves doing odd or trifling stuff—you'll be stamping the head architect's stamp on eight 40-page stacks of drawings, you're out taking pictures of an existing building or site, or you're dropping drawings sets by the building department.  Remember this first: if it wasn't important, you would not have been given this task.  That's not just sweet-talking you to make you feel better either.  If your boss or firm wants something done and they give it to an architectural intern, it's important.  It may not require lots of special knowledge, but as an architect-in-training you will give the seemingly simple-and-menial task the attention and brain power required to ensure that it's done right.  It's not an insult to be asked to do these things.  Remember this second: we can guarantee that whatever cheesy taks you're being given right now, we licensed folks have already done it ourselves—and some of us are still doing these things. 

If you're working in an office right now, you know all too well that sometimes the work you’re good at or the work you want to do just isn’t available to do right now.  Sometimes if you're on another project, you may find out that the work you wanted to do or thought you were going to be doing was given to someone else because you weren’t available to do it.  Don’t get offended.  Work in an architectural office is cyclical, due in part to the way projects tend to unfold and also due in part to the fact that architecture and construction are on the bleeding edge of the economy.  When things get bad or slow in the economy, our industries are two of the first to feel it. Sometimes you’re way busy and sometimes you’re barely busy; try not to let it unnerve you.

So how do you use your job to advance your career, other than doing every job to the best of your ability?  A few pointers:

  • Ask someone if you're underbusy.  If you don't have enough to do, tell your boss or even a colleague of your boss.  If you can tell that the work you've been given for the day is only going to last you five hours and you know you need to stay busy for the next sixteen, let someone know.  Ask how you can be of more service.  Granted, when the economy  or office is slow,  you might not be able to help much, but at least you're letting folks know that you're willing to be useful.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to use your skills or to learn new ones.  If you're a LEED AP, let folks know for future staffing concerns, or do a presentation for your colleagues on some aspect of green design and building.  In the first year I was at my office, I got to attend a healthcare architecture seminar at the AIA Convention (it was in my city), and I offered to present what I learned to the rest of the office. Are you really good at computer or hand rendering?  Are you really good at writing or editing?  Let the managers in your office know so they can use you.
  • Let your boss know or remind him/her of things you’d like to do or still need experience in to complete IDP.  Your first few years of working should allow you to complete the IDP process, but sometimes you have to be assertive about getting all your hours.
  • Find a mentor; they don't have to work with you now but it's usually someone you have worked with at some point, either on another project or at another firm.  Mentors can help you work through job and career problems and give you a sounding board.

1 comment:

  1. 100% agree with this; besides the great points about this being a career .. not just a job. I wanted to say how important it is to try to learn something from the most menial of tasks. Yeah it might just be detailing a toilet room, or helping write a spec for a urinal, but damnit theres something there to learn. For the first 8 months I worked at my current firm I did nothing but help process submittals, RFIs, and PRs. It was mostly brainless activity, and its true I could turn my brain off and get the task done. But I looked at it as an opportunity to really understand what I was doing, asking myself, "why is product A acceptable, but product B got the "reject" stamp?", or why did we change the layout of this room in this PR and alter the method of furring this wall out in that RFI. And many times I'd hit something that with my current knowledge (based on school and TV (This Old House, woot!)) I simply didn't understand, I was lucky enough to be paired with someone that was EXTREMELY knowledgeable and more than willing to explain something to me. So wrapping up this long winded point, NEVER stop trying to learn, never assume you know it all (which I've seen people at my level do), and always ask questions.

    I agree with the find a mentor point as well, I underestimated the importantance of having one, and being a naturally shy person I didn't bother really trying to find one when I first started out. I've realized that was a mistake and have been lucky enough to have 3 people I really look up to and have been great people to bounce my thoughts off of, or someone to go to for professional advice. I consider them all good friends, and I owe them all more than I could repay simply for the knowledge they've bestowed upon me.

    Enough rambling, I just wanted to comment from an intern perspective.