Thursday, May 28, 2009

Back in a moment...

I'm in the process of preparing for and traveling to a guest lecture gig across the country, so AI101 is going to be quiet for a few days. In the meantime, the AIA is conducting a poll on renaming the title of "Intern" in architecture. If you think being called an "intern" after 4+ years of schooling is insulting and inaccurate, then go-go-go to the link I've provided and let your voice be heard.

Tell me in the comments as well: what would you rather be called than "intern"?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The art of verbal diplomacy at work: disagreeing without being disagreeable, Part 1

Let's face it: at some point at work, someone is going to say something, and you're going to think it's incorrect/slightly off-base/ridiculous.  Depending on what the issue is, you may decide to let it go; picking your battles is a huge first step in disagreeing with others.  Use your energy wisely.  It's probably not necessary to get up in arms if someone misquotes who won the NBA Finals in 1986 (it was the Celtics, by the way) or who designed the World Trade Center Towers (Minoru Yamasaki).  However, if you decide that you should call someone on a misstatement, there are a few things to keep in mind.

As we discussed last week, inappropriately framed criticism at work makes you look bad.  If you want to be heard, keep it civil and remember the following:
  1. Any statement generally falls in one of three categories: True, Partly True, or Not True.  All you have to do is address the amount of truth in the comment/statement/criticism--no more, no less.  If Patrick has a history with more than one project manager of missing deadlines, then saying "Patrick gets his work done late" is True.  If Patrick missed the last couple of deadlines but is usually on time, then saying "Patrick gets his work done late" is Partly True.  If Patrick is rarely if ever late with his work, then saying "Patrick never gets his work done on time" is Not True.
  2. Deal with the problem, not the person.  For example, your statements need to be more "when we miss deadlines, it makes us look unprofessional" versus "When you slack off and don't get your crap done, we look stupid."
  3. Keep your tone of voice even.  This can help keep the conversation from getting heated, which is when people take things personally and say things they don't mean (or do mean but aren't meant for anyone else to hear)
  4. Keep your disagreement in the service of the job (or relationship).  You want Patrick to be on time so that the project team has enough time to review everything once more before the work goes out, and that makes your office look good.
  5. Choose your words carefully.  "Always" and "never" are loaded words, so either throw them out or use them sparingly.  Very few things happen always and never.  The sun always shines during the day, and it's never out at night...unless you live above the Arctic Circle.  Also, see the statements in #2 above; words like "crap" and "stupid" have more emotional (and insulting) meanings than "miss deadlines" and "unprofessional."  Again, this is a good place to avoid profanity.
Having said all this, what do you do?  First of all, be clear as to what your objection is.  Is the other person misquoting a fact (e.g. she says that it will take a week to get the drawings done, but it will really take two weeks)?  That situation is easily resolved: a simple, "Actually, Mark, given the rest of the work we're having to do on the site plan, it's going to take us about two weeks to get all that done" will make that happen.  Some folks (more women than men, I'd say) are reluctant to correct someone in front of a group, but that is exactly where you need to disagree and set the record straight.

More difficult to deal with is when the other person makes a decision or states an opinion, and you see a better or different way of doing something.  For example, your design team is working on a restaurant located on the corner of a four-lane street and a two lane street.  Jill wants to locate the service entrance and loading dock off the four-lane street.  However, Cody believes that locating it there will put an icky blot on a major street frontage, which should be reserved for the nicest-looking facade.  

Cody could be a jerk and curtly say, "NO.  That's gonna be nasty on the main street.  We gotta put it on the back side."  He'll be much better served if he says, "Hm, the thing about that is that now we have a not-so-pretty service entrance on a major street right where we want our nicest face to be.  However, if we put it on the other side, where this two-lane street is, we can save the facade and still have street access for the delivery trucks."

Now, it's Jill's turn to disagree without being disagreeable.  It's also her turn to stick up for herself if she really believes in what she's saying.  If she realizes that Cody is right, she can utter the two sweetest words in the English language, "You're right."  If not, she needs to present her side of the situation: "Well, you make a good point, Cody.  That is the major facade, and it's the place to make the building look good.  Problem is, the owner of this restaurant gets several deliveries a week from tractor trailer trucks, and those trucks will have a hard time making this curve and parking decently on this two-lane street.  However, big trucks can come right down this major street and either use the whole street width to back into a dock or only take up one of the two lanes going south while it unloads."

What if Cody didn't know how the owner gets his deliveries, but Jill did because she gets to go to client meetings and Cody doesn't?  Jill needs to share that in the interest of having the whole team on the same page, and Cody needs to accept that information without getting all offended that he wasn't at the meeting.  What if Cody is a better designer than Jill, which always leaves her feeling a bit jealous?  Cody needs to use his good design sense to make a better project, and Jill needs to acknowledge and use Cody's abilities and observations without brushing him off or allowing him to design at the expense of function.  As long as Jill and Cody are speaking to each other without hostility, this is a chance for them to work the bugs out of a design, make a great project, and disagree with each other without later branding each other with "what a jerk".  

Be very careful in writing and emails.  I cannot stress this enough.  When you need to disagree with something that has been written or stated elsewhere, be very careful with how you go about this.  Acknowledge that the other party has made an assertion, and acknowledge any amount of truth in it that you can.  Bear in mind that most people make assertions based on something they have learned through their experience, so they're not trying to be wrong (and they may not be wrong at all).  That's why acknowledging any truth that you can is so helpful--it shows the other party that you're trying to understand how they see this.  Then, make a statement of disagreement such as:
  • "Given that, we have yet to find any evidence to support/disprove..."
  • "In light of this, we have found..."
  • "However, it has been my/our experience that..."
  • "My/Our experience of this has been different."
  • "However, we think/believe...because of...."
  • "Regardless, it is our recommendation that we...because...."
  • "After reading your email, we felt some additonal research was necessary, so we called the state inspection board/went back through the 2006 IBC/shook our Magic 8-Ball, and found that..."
The final statement in that list is especially useful.  When you disagree on a factual point, have the resources to back you up handy, and send them along with your email.  This cuts short any back-and-forth between the parties and keeps the discussion moving forward.  Be sure that you frame your disagreement in such a way that it is in the service of the job.  You want to make sure everyone's on the same page, or you know that this contractor or enegineer does great work and you want to make sure that this one little thing doesn't trip them or the design team up on the project, etc.  

It may seem like we're doing a bit of fancy footwork and almost being extra nice to others, but that's hardly the point.  Think about it: do you like being told that you're wrong?  Do you relish someone verbally gut-punching you with "No, moron, that's not how we do that"?  And do you like being told that by someone who knows less than you or is way younger than you?  Then why should it be any different for how you treat others?  Remember that as an intern, you may be disagreeing with electricians who have been wiring buildings since you were in third grade.  You'll be challenging architects who are licensed, and you're not.  You may be telling a world-class brain surgeon what he has to have in his surgery center, whether he wants it or not.  Speaking a correction respectfully to others gets you much farther than just being right ever does.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Workplace informality and the false sense of security

How many of you reading this call your boss Mr. Swenson or Ms. Patterson?  That's what I thought.  Up until the past fifteen or so years, calling your boss by their surname was the norm, while now it's the exception.  Mr. Swenson and Ms. Patterson become Dave and Joan.  Suits and hats give way to polo shirts and khakis.  The nice sit-down dinners you invited your boss to at your house (prepared lovingly by your stay-at-home wife) turns into happy hour after work or a cookout with a group of your colleagues.  Your boss is less of a stiff stranger in the office; you feel more comfortable coming to them with a problem on a project, and you don't feel like you have to hide the fact that you have a life outside of work either.  Your boss is a human, just like you.

The decrease in formality that we've seen since the 1980s is refreshing, but it has its drawbacks.  While it's helpful to remember that your boss and your colleagues are indeed human and have good days and bad days, it's important to remember that you're still at work, and at work business comes first.  That means keeping water-cooler/coffee machine chat to a minimum, providing civil but clear constructive criticism, and getting your work done comes before socializing and cutting out to do extracurricular activities.  To be sure, work is easier when you get along well with your colleagues, and it's vital to take mental breaks during the day.  It's how you go about these interactions that makes the difference.

A rule of thumb is to edit yourself on the side of caution.  Providing a few details about your hobbies or your weekend makes you human and tells your colleagues about your interests, but no one needs a five-minute description of the Star Wars theme party you held, what your cat's facial expressions mean, or just where you got sunburned at Burning Man.  And no one--no one--needs or even wants to hear how drunk you were or how hungover you are this morning.  Ever.  Please spare us all that visual.  Not only is it too much information, but it can also paint you as unprofessional.  You're 25 and you still don't know what your limits are regarding alcohol consumption?  Someone needs rehab.

In college, architecture students get really colse to each other.  You're not only classmates, but you also truly become friends.  Friends talk to each other in a different way than coworkers.  You can tell an architecture school friend, "Dude, put a sock in it--your floor plan looks like a dumpster fire."  That kind of criticism is sure to offend and/or alienate your colleagues, and forget saying something like that to a boss unless you enjoy looking for a new job.  You'll have to learn the skills necessary to disagree with others and say no with clarity and civility.

Next week: the art of verbal diplomacy at work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What up, dogg? Losing the attitude in speech and writing, Part 2

Email is an easy form of communication, but that ease is a double edged sword.  Simple, one-button functions like Reply, Reply All, and Forward makes it so easy to exchanges ideas and responses with one another and keep everyone on the same page.  Each of those buttons makes these discussion easy, but they can bite you.  It's easy to see how Reply can get you in trouble.  Anytime you get an email, you have to read it and take a breath before you respond.  Even the simplest statement or request can have big repercussions, so take a moment before responding.  Take two or three moments when you get an email that sounds obnoxious or rude or seems to be asking something that you're not qualified to answer.  This is when it's especially important to forward the email to your project manager (if they weren't copied already) and ask him or her what the right course of action is.  Reply All can be a problem when you just meant to email one person.  That's usually a problem when your response was meant as a private joke to one person and suddenly everyone's wondering where the profanity or snark is coming from.  Guess who looks unprofessional?

Forward gets you in trouble not because of you forwarding something on but by someone else forwarding your email to others.  Any email you send can be forwarded on to anyone, and you should write them with that possibility in mind.  The reason people love Forward is that the recepient can send information to others without having to do a lot of typing or translation.  Back in the day, exchanging and sharing information with others was a little more arduous.  For example, with phone calls, you either had to call other people and tell them what the first person said on the phone, or you had to type up a phone memo and fax it to everyone.  Either way, it was easy to make a mistake and either mis-hear, mis-remember, or mis-translate what someone else said.  Email makes it easy to ask a question, get an answer, and then distribute that answer to all parties without losing anything in translation--that's the beauty of Forward.  The ugly side of Forward, of course, is when someone emails something unprofessional--profanity-laced, sarcastic, accusatory, whatever--to other parties, especially to those about whom the email was writted.  Yikes.  Guess who looks really unprofessional?

Every email you send is a written (albeit electronic) document that could be used against you.  Every email you send from your office email account belongs to your company, not you.  That means that your company has the right to search your email at any time, and every email you send can be used in court.  While helping with a court case about a year ago, I had to do dig through some old files from a project I worked on when I first started at my job.  I saw some faxes and emails I sent when I was only a year out of college, and I was embarassed.  I'm sure the contractor to whom I was writing found my casual, sometimes silly messages amusing, but I shuddered at the thought of any of these documents being reviewed by a jury.  What would they think as they read these documents, something like What kind of architecture firm would allow such teenage behavior out of their employees?  Where they supervising her?  How shoddy!  Would the informal, sarcastic nature of my communiques hurt us in a court of law?  Again, yikes.

Informal speech such as dude, likeyo, holla, y'know, stuff, and whatever can be misinterpreted in emails, and they can be just as bad in spoken interactions.  Every filler word in a spoken language (such as like and y'know) trips up a listener and postpones the point of a sentence.  This is the opposite goal of workplace communication.  People have things to do and places to be, so the clearer your sentences are, the better.  Workplace informality may put employees at ease, but you should never let your guard down.  Avoid filler words and profanity (even if your boss uses it constantly), and think through your statements so that when you speak them aloud they come out clearly and as quickly as possible.  Your boss, consultants, and coworkers will thank you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What up, dogg? Losing the attitude in speech and writing, Part 1

One of the greatest struggles of the 21st-century workplace is that of good communication.  Many interns have grown up with email and PowerPoint and have spent some of their formative college years using instant messaging and text messaging.  Familiarity with these forms of high-tech communication would make one think that interns would be especially good at workplace communication--they're all good at exchanging information briefly, clearly, and quickly.  Or are they?  My experience has shown me that there's a little something to be desired in workplace communication, but with a little practice the gap can be crossed.

The thing that interns need to keep in mind is that your bosses almost invariably are old enough to be your parents, or at least a youngish aunt or uncle.  These people came up through school learning a lot more about essay writing, whereas many of you may have learned more about passing tests so that your high schools could maintain funding.  (I'm not saying you didn't learn something in English class about how to write clearly, but the input I'm getting from all the college professors I know is that the emphasis on good writing in high school isn't what it used to be.)  Also, these people didn't grow up with email--they're more accustomed to using a phone to ask someone a question or a fax to exchange information--they're not used to scanning and emailing documents.  Why is this difference important?  Not because it means that your boss is a fuddy-duddy (though they may be, I don't know your boss personally), but it means that the previous standard mode of communication has something that email does not: nuance.  When you hear someone speak aloud, you can tell if they're reticent or enthusiastic, sincere or sarcastic.  Not so with email.  You can email the words "you look nice today" to someone, and depending on the person's mood, they could read it as if it's a compliment or as a subtle jab at the new slacks they bought last weekend.  Keep this in mind in when sending an email.  Whatever you write could be read more than one way, especially depending on the words you choose.  

Let's say you need a CAD background for your project so that you can do some coordination a week before the CDs are due.  The backgrounds were due on Monday, and everyone sent them to you except for the electrical engineer.  It's now Tuesday, and you need his backgrounds, end of story.  You're annoyed, almost angry, because this guy keeps doing this to you.  So what do you do?  You could handle it by phone, but let's say you decide to use email to school this slacker.  Fair enough--you can copy your boss on the email to let her know that the engineer is underperforming and leaving you hanging.  But you still can't be a jerk.

At first, you think you should just lay it out:
I asked for everyone's backgrounds on Monday you didn't send me yours. Where are they?  Everyone has sent theirs to me but you.  I need them now.  This is the second time you've done this.  Is there a problem?

Okay.  That might work, but it could be construed as obnoxious and wagging a finger in Mark's face "Everyone has sent me theirs but you," like you're saying "all the other kids are good, why can't you be good?"  Please note that I'm not saying how you feel is invalid; you have every right to be annoyed with Slacker Mark.  But if you convey any attitude, Mark gets to ignore you.  No, I didn't respond to Lulu's email--she's a jerk!

So let's try again:

I still need your backgrounds so I can do final coordination for next week's deadline.  Please let me know if you cannot get them to me by noon today.

Better.  The request is in the service of the job--" I can do final coordination."  Also helpful is a finite deadline, which is now noon today. Furthermore, this email puts the onus on Mark if he can't get them to you in a timely fashion.  He has to let you know if he's going to be later than noon.  Now let's say Mark emails you back to say that Paul, his draftsman, emailed you the background yesterday afternoon.  Your email back:

Now you're just messing with me.  What email did he use?  Try it again, dude.  I'll call you at 11 if I haven't seen them yet.

Hm.  It's brief and to the point, but again it could read as a sudden attack of snarkolepsy.  "Now you're just messing with me" could be delivered with a laugh over the phone, but in email it can be read as a dig.  The same goes for "dude;" with the wrong tone of voice (spoken or interpreted), it can be snide.  Let's try it again:

What email did Paul use?  Please have him check the spelling (or forward him this email) and have him give it another shot.  I'll check my spam filter to see if it caught his email, and I'll call you at 11 if I haven't seen it again.  Thanks!

Again, better; problem solving is combined with civility and less room for interpretation.  Whenever you write an email, pause and reread it slowly and carefully for any possible landmines.

In the next post, we'll talk some more about "dude" and why you should always write as if your email is going to be forwarded to the New York Times.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The paradox of the boss: what s/he sees versus what s/he knows

Most of the conversations I've had with interns over the past three or four years have related to signal checks.  An intern explains a situation or pattern of behavior to me and asks if they ought to be angry about it (because they usually are) and how can they rectify the situation.  The questions I get generally boil down to communication issues.  What is okay for me to say?  What's legit and what sounds like whining?  What problems can/should I bring to my boss and what should I handle on my own?  The answer to their questions begins with understanding the boss' paradox: your boss doesn't always know what you're doing, but they do usually know how well you do it.

Your boss has a lot to do, and most bosses (especially the ones that are effective as well as efficient) delegate the various tasks required to get the work done.  Sometimes a boss has more than one project to manage, so they have even more to delegate.  Many bosses unload the work and forget what they've given you.  They might remember some of the stuff, but likely they won't remember all the stuff they've given you to do/manage/take care of/chase.  There's a couple of reasons for this:  First, bosses (like human beings in general) are affected by what psychologists call recency effect, a phenomenon to describe how well humans remember the last thing they saw or the last thing that happened to them.  Because the ultimate outcome of your work on a project is the last thing the boss experiences with you, then that's what they tend to remember.  Let's say an intern's boss gives her a code study to do on a new bank.  She asks a lot of questions, some of them really good and insightful, and she even calls the local code official and gets a response, which she documents in a memo to her boss.  Sharp gal, right?  But when she presents the final code study to her boss, it's not thorough, and it's incomplete; it doesn't even account for exiting path widths.  The final product did not live up to the process, and the final product will be what the boss remembers for the next code study, or product research, or punchlist, or whatever.  Second, bosses (like human beings in general) learn through repetition.  If our hypothetical intern does her job the way she did the aforementioned code study over and over, the boss learns that she can do whatever you give her but you've got to stay on her and be extremely clear regarding expectations when it comes to the final product.  The boss learns the intern's pattern of performance; he learns how she does her job.

Because of the boss' paradox, you as an intern do have to speak up in certain instances because the boss doesn't know what all you have going on.  The best (and possibly most frequent) example of this is when you have a ton of stuff to do, and your boss walks over and hands you yet something else to do.  When that happens, it's incumbent upon you to speak up: "Ah, so when do you need this by, Mark?  I'm going through the redlines from Monday's meeting right now, and I still have the exterior plan details that I need to do."  Or more urgently: "By the end of the day?  Okay, well, now yesterday you asked me to get these three exam room layouts together by the end of today to send to the doctors--which of these really has to be done first?"  It is up to you to tell someone that you can't do both (or all three or all four) in the time you've been given.  Even if the boss snaps back some nonsense about "well everything has to be done now", hold firm but polite.  Not everything can be done at once; most people know that, and repeating someone's nonsense to them can help them come to their senses.

So what's okay to tell/complain to your boss about?  Here's a small list of the biggest things:
  • That you're underemployed: Tell someone if you don't have enough to do.  While it's okay to ask around to other bosses and let them know that you're available to help, your boss needs to be in the loop as well.
  • That you're overemployed: Tell your boss if you have way too much to do.  They can help you prioritize or take something off your plate and give it to someone who's underemployed.  
  • That you're interested in a wider range of tasks: Again, because bosses often forget what they've given you to do, it's good to mention it if you see something that another intern is working on and want to do something like that when the opportunity arises again.  Speaking up on this is especially important with regard to gettin gyour IDP hours.
  • That you need more direction or don't understand: Sometimes it can be intimidating to "bother" your boss and ask for clarification.  You don't want to bug him or her, and you don't want to be thought of us dumb.  Remember though that the repercussions are worse when you don't ask and mess something up.  Save everyone some time and ask for clarification.  The best way to ask questions is to save up several to ask all at once; it reduces interruptions.
  • That there's bad news or a reality check due: If you're not being given enough time to do what needs to be done, you've got to tell your boss.  If you find a detail or issue that could possibly be a big deal, bring it up. Sure, it might not be a big deal, but if it is a big deal and you never mentioned it, woe is you.  Also worth mentioning are the constraints or benefits of whatever software you're using to to the job.  For a long time, we used AutoCAD to do lots of schematic presentation images in my office.  However, an intern started using Adobe Illustrator to take a PDF from AutoCAD and color and doctor it up.  It was much more effective for making presentation-quality images that AutoCAD, but it meant that we had to do things a little differently.  This involved giving our boss a reality check when he wanted something in too little time.
Ultimately, anything you bring to your boss should be done in the service of the job.  Some of you may be too young to remember the movie Jerry Maguire.  One of the best lines in the movie is spoken by Tom Cruise as Maguire, in which he is trying to get his one remaining client to clean up his act in order to have a better career, one that Maguire can promote.  The line is "help me help you."  Whenever you approach your boss with a concern or question, do so in the spirit of moving the job forward.  Show or explain to them how the information you need affects the end result and makes them or the company look good.  Keep your boss in the loop on how the project is progressing and let them know whenever you need information or additional resources to get the job back on track, moving forward, or wrapped up.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The good news for interns in a crappy economy

Yes, it's a crappy time economically right now.  No, I don't know when it's going to improve, but I know that it will.  At some point--perhaps next month, perhaps even next year--companies will start investing in their built environments again, and the work will come back.  You know that I want you all to stay in the profession, but there's more to it than just my impassioned pleas for you to stay in the fold so you can help me change it as we age and take over as the Boomers leave.

First off, let's consider what this economy is doing to those Boomers.  Their retirement investments are in the sewer, and many of them can't retire as soon as they wanted.  If you're in an office right now, you might be working near them--cranky fiftysomethings and maybe even sixtysomethings with a condo or small house in a warmer climate or a side hobby that they wanted to turn into their next chapter of life, but they're having to hold off turning that page, and they're annoyed.  Really annoyed.  They were done with the intensity of this profession, and now they're not gonna be done for at least a few more years, maybe even ten years.  Dammit.  

These older professionals have something you need, and you have something they need.  They have lots of experience from which you can learn--they've drawin details that leaked water and nearly got them sued, they've designed buildings and projects that work like a charm for the clients, they've handled tough building owners and cranky contractors with aplomb and calmed panicky clients and furious consultants with a few words.  Learn from them; ask questions and probe them for lessons learned.  People love to talk about themselves, and the longer you live, the more you want to tell people what you've seen.  Even shy people will tell you a little something if you coax them.  So ask them how would they do x or y, how have things changed since they started in the profession, what's gotten better since then and what's gotten worse?  Meanwhile, you have a technical proficiency that many older architects lack.  You know how to use the drafting and rendering software, and you know how to use simple graphics software to plop some color on a plan or pop a shadow on a graphic.  Share your knowledge with them and make suggestions on how what you know could improve what they're trying to do.

Let's consider another aspect of this uber-crappy economy: the thinning of the herd.  Layoffs during the first half of 2008 eliminated dead weight, as it's sometimes called: underperforming employees or employees who may perform okay but have issues with authority, behavior, or professionalism, as well as folks who may be okay but who are just paid too much.  The second half of 2008 (and some of 2009) were spent making deeper cuts and laying of better employees who perhaps just didn't have any projects going.  What this means is that the architectural job market is now flooded with really good applicants along with the mediocre applicants.  When the work comes back, chances are it's not going to be with a bang but with a sigh.  When the work comes with a bang, firms need lots of warm bodies fast, and they'll hire anyone with an accredited degree who can fog a mirror.  But when the work slowly comes back, firms can be a little more choosy, and they'll pick the better applicants over the mediocre ones.

But then, even more work comes back.  Projects are coming back and work levels are hitting pre-crash levels.  Who's going to work on this stuff?  Here's a wild guess on my part: you.  Here's why I think that.  Some of the mediocre architectural staff--not all, but some--will have grown weary of the fight for positions directly related to their field, and they will change jobs or even careers.  Many of those who leave the profession do so because of personal concerns; young single interns can wait out a recession while working at Target and living in their parents' basement and putting their student loans in forebearance, but older interns and architects with mortgages and kids cannot wait so long on a diminished income.  So when the work really comes back and the firms need warm bodies, younger interns are poised to step in and step up.  

First off, you'll be cheaper.  I hate to play the cheap card, but it's true.  If my mid-sized firm's billings have been at all-time low levels for the past 18 months and I've drained what little cash cushion I had, and now I need to ramp back up and complete some projects but also rebuild that cushion, it can be worth my while to hire an intern with only a year's worth of experience out of college than an unlicensed intern with six years' experience.  Second, you have the ambition and energy needed to do more with less.  My hypothetical mid-sized firm suddenly has a lack of experienced folks to work on specs and do construction administration, but I can't do it all, so it will save me time in the long run to have my younger interns step up and take on more tasks.  While these young interns are helping me get the work done on a skeleton crew (and yes, a shoestring budget), they're gaining valuable experience and skills that will allow them to ask for a lot more money in a couple of years, either from me or when they change jobs.  Additionally, this rush of experience can allow you to complete your IDP credits in almost record time.

Now bear in mind that I did not say this was going to be easy.  The first couple of years' climb out of the hole that this recession has dug for us all will be tough, but as Immanuel Kant said, what does not kill you makes you stronger.  If you can hang in there with us--with me--in architecture during these tough times, you will have a major advantage once things get better, and that advantage will follow you long into your architectural career.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Asking questions and providing value

Asking questions is arguably a sign of intelligence, but the questions themselves also matter.  There is such a thing as a dumb question (and believe me, you'll ask some), but as long as your intelligent questions outnumber your dumb questions, you'll be fine.  The main thing to remember when asking a question is to see if you can answer it yourself first.  Did you look through all the existing drawings to see what this building you're remodeling is made of?  Did you find some meeting notes in a project folder that you could read through to answer your questions, or to use as a basis of your question?  When you try to answer your own question first, it shows your project manager that you are self-sufficient.  Self-sufficient interns don't need constant attention, just periodic attention; they're more interested in learning and being productive and useful than in being fed every bit of information and just warming a seat for eight hours.  In any case, if you try to answer your own question and cannot, then ask someone.  Tell them what you've done to solve the problem so far, and then ask for direction.  Your more experienced colleagues are usually glad to help.

The difference between just doing a job and doing it well is providing value. It's easy enough to do some redlines and then print out a drawing as a PDF to be emailed somewhere.  The value comes in, again, asking the right questions.  Why is this document/drawing being created?  Who will see it?  This information is crucial because not everyone needs the same information.  For example, a PDF of a floor plan sent to a client for their sign-off on an office suite layout needs room names, casework, and plumbing fixtures shown.  Extra information that the client might find helpful is to see the names of the suite's occupants on their offices or workstations or locations of artwork on the walls; it tells them that the plan has a seat for every backside, and it will give them something they can pass on to an art consultant (or whoever is going to buy the artwork for the office).  However, if a contractor will be using the PDF for some schematic pricing, then they need different information.  They won't care whose office is whose, but they'll need to know what the finishes are in each room and if there are any features that exist but wouldn't show up in a simple plan: garbage disposal in the break room sink, wall-mounted toilet instead of a simple floor-mounted model in the office bathroom, a heavy flat-sceen TV mounted to the wall in the conference room.

Additionally, think about what you can do with any task to make it more helpful, clear, or useful in the long run.  Staying with the example of the simple PDF floor plan, perhaps some additional furniture, plants, or people in the plan will help the client understand how their office suite might function.  If you find out that the client will be using the floor plan in a marketing effort (say, to get someone to rent the office), you might bring the PDF into some kind of rendering software like Adobe Illustrator and put some color blocks and swooshes on the floor and casework to make it look a little more realistic.  (Yes, I said "swooshes."  That's a grad school word.)  Likewise, you might fin that it's easier to take the contractor's plan into Illustrator and use different color blocks in the rooms to indicate finishes: green means carpet and semigloss paint, a purple line along the wall indicates vinyl wallcovering, and so on.

Asking questions when you receive any task, even some with which you're already familiar and have done before, clears up a lot of confusion in the long run.  When handed something new, ask about three things:

  • Scope: "What all is involved here?  What should the final product be/look like? Do you want something quick and dirty or picture-perfect and presentation-ready?"
  • Resources: "Where is this document or drawing located on the server?  Has anyone worked on it before?  Who can I ask questions of if you're not available?  Are there other examples of this that I can use for reference?"
  • Deadline: "When is this due?  Is this a drop-dead date and time or is it malleable, depending on how this proejct is going?  When do you want to see a draft version?"
It's been said that most television sitcoms hinge on confused communication or a lack of it.  The same can be said of many problems on an architectural project.  Asking the right questions up front can reduce or eliminate confusion and increase your value.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Update on acquiring a B.Arch and M.Arch at the same school, plus a poll

A recent commenter hipped me to this link on the website for the NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board).  The list indicates what accredited degrees are offered at what schools in which states, and it appears that one can indeed earn an accredited B.Arch or an M.Arch at certain schools.  However, anyone wanting to attend these schools and trying to decide on what kind of degree to pursue should fully investigate the school's website and talk to someone (or someones) from the school. For example, it appeared on the University of Miami website that the school offered the five-year B.Arch as well as the two- to three-year M.Arch, but they do not offer a four-year preprofessional degree in architecture.  In contrast, the New School of Architecture in San Diego's website shows that they offer the B.Arch and a four- to five-year preprofessional degree that leads into their two- to three-year professional M.Arch degree.  They also offer a Masters degree for folks with a B.Arch, but that Master's is not an M.Arch.  

Again, be sure to do the research when you start thinking about a graduate degree.  I can share general advice and insight on graduate school, but I cannot tell you the specifics of each school.  The best way to learn about different schools is to talk to each other.  Ask your fellow interns and licensed colleagues about where they got their degrees: how hard was it? how good do they think their education was?

And that's the question I put to you.  Where did you get your degree(s)?  And how good do you think your education was?  (And what is your basis of comparison for "good"?)

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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An Architectural Education: To Grad School or Not To Grad School? Part 2 of 2

The question asked in the last post is, "what's the tradeoff between going to school for six years and working for three versus only going to four years of school and working for five?  I'm trading school for work, but it's the same amount of time.  What's the difference?"

The difference is that you have your entire life to learn how to put a building together, but you only have a few years to learn how to draw, to communicate with lines and form and light and space and color.  You only have a few years to learn how to come up with a parti and an overall design for a building, to learn how to think in three dimensions, and to think of more than one way to solve any design problem.  That’s what architecture school is for.  So the B.Arch and M.Arch illustrate that you have a grasp on design skills, and you’re not just a draftsman who understands flashing details.

            This may seem esoteric enough, but the other big difference between all these degrees is that each state sets its own architectural licensing requirements, and more and more states are requiring a professional degree in order to either sit for the exam or gain reciprocity if you’re already licensed in another state.  Colorado, the state in which I live, is one of the most lax with their standards.  Presently, it allows interns to take the ARE if they have the two-year associate’s degree and ten years’ experience.  At the other end of the spectrum is Massachusetts, which requires a professional degree (B.Arch or M.Arch).  What this means for future architects is that if you get licensed in a state with low licensing standards and move to a state with higher standards, you might be hosed.  You'll be even more hosed if you move to that state and you only have a two-year or four-year degree.

            So, back to the original question: Hey Lulu, should I go to grad school and get my M.Arch?  And for that matter, I only have a two-year degree, so should I go back and get at least a regular four-year degree?  Back to my original answer: the short answer is yes, but it ultimately depends on your situation.  I say yes because more education in architecture (if not America, really) increases your earning potential.  A colleague of mine has a B.Arch and I have an M.Arch, and while we’re both perfectly intelligent and competent architects with comparable skill sets, my starting salary out of college was 20% higher than his starting salary.  

Earning an M.Arch also made financial sense for me.  As a good student and a Georgia resident, I got a myriad of scholarships to the state school of my choice, Georgia Tech, which offered a four-year degree followed by an M.Arch.  I had no student loans when I finished undergrad,, so getting two more years of education wasn’t a financial stretch.  Meanwhile, my husband is from Missouri, which doesn’t have its own architecture school but does have an in-state reciprocity agreement with Kansas. Missouri residents get in-state tuition rates to attend Kansas State University, which grants the five-year B.Arch.  The degrees we got were fine for where we were, geographically and financially, and they have been more than adequate for our careers.  Maybe your degree it was all you could afford at the time you got it, or you had to settle for a two-year because of family obligations.  Fair enough, but it may be time to further your education.

            I encourage interns to go back and get professional degrees (a B.Arch or an M.Arch) to future-proof their careers.  I mentioned that Colorado presently allows the two-year associate’s degree to sit for the ARE, but it could change its mind at any time.  And let’s face it; we live in a mobile society.  My husband and I live a one and two-day drive (respectively) from our original birthplaces, and we know we’re not the only ones who have moved away from home.  Most interns are married to people who do other things than architecture for a living (my husband and I are an exception), and some of those careers are mobile or volatile.  If the non-architect spouse’s job were to take them to a new state (or if an intern had to move back to their home state to care for an ailing relative), then having a degree that fits the requirements of more states is of benefit to them.  If mobility is not an issue and you’re willing to take the risk of having your state change the rules on you, then I say proceed as you wish.

            Note: much ado is made about what college or grad school you attend, and I have one word for those people: relax.  I know there are schools out there that have reputations for having amazing or elite programs and that there are some programs that are supposed to be a breeze, but I have found that what school you attended for your degree has little bearing on how good you are in the workplace.  Some of the best colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with were from good old state schools, and some of the most annoying and incompetent colleagues I’ve ever wanted to beat unconscious with a spec book have been from so-called “elite” architecture schools.  Your education is what you make of it, and there’s more to the workplace than what you learn in school.  All that design knowledge only goes so far.

Monday, May 4, 2009

An Architectural Education: To Grad School or Not To Grad School? Part 1 of 2

            I’ve been asked by a fair amount of interns in the past few years about whether they should go on to grad school and get their M.Arch.  My short answer is usually yes, but it really depends on a range of factors.  We should first review (very briefly) the options one has for architectural education, and then we should consider the ins and outs of these degrees and what they mean for one’s professional education.

Your options are these four:

  1. A two-year associate’s degree in an architecture-related field, usually architectural technology or drafting.  It’s a quick degree to get and usually pretty inexpensive to boot, as these are usually only available at a technical college.  Associate’s degree holders usually need to work and record their time for ten years before they can sit for the ARE.  An associate’s degree is considered a nonprofessional degree.
  2. A four-year bachelor’s of science in architecture.  Different schools know the four-year degree by different names: Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Environmental Science, and so on.  With a four-year degree, one has to work and record hours for as many as five or six years before sitting for the ARE.  A four-year bachelor’s is considered a nonprofessional degree.
  3. A five-year B.Arch, which is the only degree that can be called a Bachelor of Architecture.  With a B.Arch, one has to work and record hours for a minimum of three years before sitting for the ARE.  A B.Arch is considered a professional degree.
  4. A two-year to three-year M.Arch, Master of Architecture. Also with an M.Arch, one has to work and record hours for a minimum of three years before sitting for the ARE.  An M.Arch usually takes two years to earn if one already has a four-year bachelor’s in architectural studies (Option 2 above) and three to four years if one’s bachelor’s degree is in something else, like engineering, art history, pre-med, whatever.  An M.Arch is considered a professional degree.
  5. One can also get a Ph.D. in architecture, but it’s not necessary for professional practice.  Do it if you’re really into something and want to teach it at the college level.

            Speaking of teaching, if you’re really interested in teaching architecture at the college level, then a professional degree is usually your best bet.  Some schools will allow you to teach Studio with a B.Arch (or a four-year degree if you’ve been practicing architecture for twenty years), but with an M.Arch you can teach nearly anything.  Also of note is that a school can either offer a B.Arch or an M.Arch, but not both.  Why that is, me not know.

So what’s the difference?  Other than whether you can teach college, there’s not too much difference between the B.Arch and the M.Arch, other than one more year of schooling and doing a full-blown thesis with the M.Arch.  My husband has a B.Arch, and I have an M.Arch; both were good degree programs, and we both felt like we got good educations and were as prepared for the workplace as we could be, considering that architectural school is nothing like architectural work.  The biggest difference at first blush between the nonprofessional degrees and the professional degrees is the amount of time you have to work in order to sit for the exam.  To some extent, it seems as if you’re trading time in school for time in the workplace.  Well, hell, isn’t the point of being an architect to do work and design buildings that stand up and keep water out and so on?  Why waste the time on school?

Next post: why "wasting" time on more schooling might be useful, and why that school doesn't have to be Harvard GSD.