Friday, November 27, 2009

No more all-nighters in Studio?

Reader Matt found an online article regarding changes to the requirements of an architectural education, which would include interdisciplinary studies and an easing of the pull-three-all-nighters-in-a-row studio culture. The reasoning, says the article is that architecture as a profession does not necessarily jive with architecture as an education in terms of actual knowledge required and time spent doing one's job.

Everyone, all together: DUH!

I don't mean to be sarcastic. Well, perhaps a little, but it's only because the disconnect between school and work for us is so glaring and so well-known that it's inexcusable. Yes, there are certain concepts and skills you can only teach when you have a real project being built (such as CA), but the culture of architecture school and studio makes that leap even more of a shock. After the labor that was 6 years of school, I found work almost to be a breeze. First of all, if I worked after "studio" was over, I got paid for it. Second of all, "studio" was usually over by 5 or 5:30, and I had no homework. I was thrilled to have the time after so many years to investigate so many interests and hobbies and creative ideas for which I simply, honestly did not have the time in college, which ironically is supposed to be a time of self-discovery and learning.

Of my nearly ten years in this profession, I've only spent a total of about nine or ten months working studio-esque hours (and again, I got paid for it). I got about 4 hours a night (worst case) in undergrad, and I got 6-8 hours a night (worst case) in grad school, and my grades were actually better in grad school. Why? I think it's because I made the best use of my time when I was present in the studio space--I didn't go for a coffee or go out to talk to someone while they had a smoke every half hour, and I didn't goof off nearly as much as many of the "all-nighter" crews did. I came in, made good, solid use of a 7- to 9-hour Saturday at my drafting table, and then I left to go either do homework for another class or do...anything else. Overall, the work world has been rewarding--the skills that made me a B student in Studio have made me an A+ employee...and I'm still employed after five rounds of layoffs at my office. Nowadays, the people in my office who work at work like they're still in Studio rarely have profitable projects; while that time spent is perhaps useful in school, it's a financial drain on a firm, and a firm does have to make money in order to keep folks around.

Have a look at the article and sound off in the comments: which was easier for you, work or school? What were your work and study habits like in school? What's your take on revising the requirements for architectural degrees, including cross-disciplinary courses?

By the way, happy belated Thanksgiving to everyone out there, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The AIA: what's the point? Part 2 of 2

We've talked about how the AIA is structured and what each of its components do, but there's more to what the AIA does. Firstly, it provides professional support to its members. There are many more small firms than large firms in the U.S., and the AIA provides a networking and peer-to-peer support group for the members of these smaller operations. In a larger firm, you have plenty of people (generally speaking) to turn to and ask "how are we going to keep the firm afloat during the economic crisis?" or "what's the best way to work in a design-build relationship?" But smaller firms can feel more isolated, so being a member of a larger community helps provide a sounding board as well as a source of research, support, and resources for smaller practitioners. Being able to meet with your peers from different areas of your state or region, from different areas of the profession (architectural law, public work, contractors, developers, other special fields of architecture, and even future clients), and even from different firms can be invaluable, regardless of whether you're licensed.

Membership in the AIA also helps professionals get and stay educated and on top of issues of importance to them. AIA's wide range of committees and groups get together to discuss, debate, and learn about issues ranging from the environment to building codes to professional development and the ARE/IDP process. Joining these committees provides a forum for acting on issues that are important to you as well. If you want to know how to make a difference, joining one of these groups can help you learn more about the topic as well as direct some kind of action (hopefully).

Furthermore, the AIA provides ethics and standards for professional practice. The AIA helps ensure that not just any yokel with a copy of AutoCAD LT can hang out a shingle and slap together some plans and elevations for a building, and it ensures that there are ethical standards for making sure that architects aren't being dishonest or playing both sides of a situation in order to get paid either way. The AIA promotes qualification-based selections of a firm, not cost-based selection. (It was because of this that they were sued a while back for price fixing, but their heart was in the right place.) And it's important to remember that the AIA is a professional organization, not a union. A union is for a job; an organization is for professionals. A pipe fitter or auto worker will do that one job, or one of a narrow range of jobs; an architect can do a much wider range of jobs within their profession and their field (and related fields).

Having said all that, I have to admit that I'm a somewhat reluctant member of the AIA. I get a ton of emails and flyers from them for things I really am unable to participate in because I'm either a) working or b) doing another hobby or vocation that I find really rewarding. Moreover, I find that, for being advocates of my profession, they're not terribly good at serving the newest of our profession. For whatever reason, we're still calling interns "interns" instead of "architect interns" or "AITs" or something else that makes them sound a little more advanced and educated than a high-school kid volunteering to schlep around an office over the summer. If we're going to continue to treat them as nearly disposable, then architects can have their professional organization as long as interns can have a union that keeps them from working for $35,000/year based on a 55-hour week. That's professional slavery in my book (a little over $12/hr for a master's degree). As Matt Arnold has noted, there's a huge foggy chasm between graduating from school and getting licensed, and there's not a lot of good advice and direction in that void. Being an AIA member can give you a place to develop leadership skills, but where's the leadership for a population that is so desperately in need of leadership...and whom the AIA desperately needs? My fear is that the AIA will, at the end of the day, become an organization made up entirely of committees full of fifty-somethings who occasionally throw a few crumbs towards the young'uns. If, as Mr. Arnold has discovered, they don't have good records of the dropout rate for interns, how do they know who is inheriting our profession and guiding our future?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The AIA: what's the point? Part 1 of 2

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is a not-for-profit professional organization for architects that serves it's members and provides a voice for the profession. That's their story on the website, and it's a good summary of all the activities in which they engage. I've realized in the last year or so that more interns than not aren't members, so i thought I'd at least present for my readers a summary of what the AIA does so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to join. After all, if you don't talk to your interns about AIA, who will? The following post is compiled from interviews and discussions with long-time AIA members in my community.

The AIA operates at four levels: national, regional, state, and local. Some responsibilities overlap between the levels' chapters, and the levels have certain activities in common. The national AIA monitors federal governmental activities and laws that are being debated so that it can step in to educate and inform congressional members (commonly known as lobbying) on issues that are important to the design and construction industry and especially to architects. The national AIA also produces a fair amount of resources that all architects, members or not, can benefit from, such as contracts and specifications. Masterspec is an AIA creation, as are all those A201, B141, and so on contracts that are typically used by firms when starting or amending a project and its scope. Finally, the national AIA sets a tone and direction for all the other AIA chapters to follow and concentrate on.

The regional chapters are like the national chapter but at a smaller scale. For example, Colorado is in the Western Mountain Region chapter, which includes Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona. The regional chapter concentrates and speaks out on issues that are important to our region, such as water rights and BLM land use and so on. Also, the regional chapter can help provide support for states or areas that have sparse populations and need professional support and advice.

Like the national AIA, the state AIA chapters monitor and speak out on state legislative issues that affect architects, and they provide input on licensing laws (remember that every state gets to decide its architectural licensing requirements). They also organize chapters and various components of local AIA opportunities such as education or environment or design and provide statewide networking opportunities for its members. When the state of Colorado's licensing law was up for renewal in 2008, some folks were pushing to relax the licensing requirements. For example, there we some design-builders who wanted to be able to take someone with a two-year drafting degree and allow him/her to be a licensed architect so that the design-builder could cheaply churn out houses. AIA Colorado stepped in and successfully lobbied to keep some requirements on what it takes to be licensed and even further added that licensed architects had to obtain continuing education requirements in order to stay licensed.

Finally, the local chapters, which can be just one city (like Boston, whom I I understand is also the Massachusetts state chapter and a small northeastern regional chapter as well as a local chapter; or like AIA Denver), or it can be made up of a couple of cities, like AIA Colorado North, which is a local chapter for Denver and Boulder as well as Fort Collins and a few other smaller cities in between. These local chapters provide opportunities for continuing education, member networking, and taking action on a specific focus. For example, AIA Denver has really embraced a focus on the environment and has worked towards improving the design and construction industry's impact on the environment and our natural resources and towards educating the public about ways to help the environment. Denver's zoning code is up for review right now, and the local AIA is providing input on ways to make the zoning laws allow for responsible construction and remodeling/renovation without squelching business. Along with AIA Denver, the group of people working on the new zoning laws include the Urban Land Institute, the Homebuilders Association, and the Downtown Denver Partnership, among others.

On Wednesday, we'll talk more about what's the point of having an AIA and how it might be losing its own battle. In the meantime, if you have comments or questions, or if you'd like to see something discussed on Intern 101, feel free to make a comment on this or another post or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lulu's Mailbag: Is our profession in trouble?

I received a great email from Matt Arnold, the architect who also runs Stairway to Architecture (a great site--I love his "Dear Boss" letter). At the end of his provocative and interesting email, Matt asked: As I look at the landscape surrounding schools, internship, and practice, I'm very distressed for our profession. I'm wondering what your perspective is.

his email was so interesting that I felt compelled to turn my response into a post. (Matt, I will also email you back personally.) My short answer to your email is this: to me, the glass is half full, but I'm not sure what it's full of just yet.

Matt's website points out that though roughly 7,000 graduates from architecture schools each year, it appears that only about 4,000 are getting licensed each year. That means that we're not replacing the licensed architects that retire, die, or leave the profession to start a new career or maybe just hop in and out of rehab. While I've always known that in the back of my wee little head, I'm especially startled by that fact nowadays. Between the economy being in the tank and the continued hazing that interns endure (but probably not at Matt's firm--the "Dear Boss" letter makes me want to work there, even if he doesn't like headphones), I believe our profession is going to lose some really good people, and that 3,000-person gap will become wider not just in quantity but also in quality.

The quality of interns--and therefore architects--is of utmost concern to me. Project managers and bosses, in general, continue to give interns a "you need to pay your dues" attitude instead of truly integrating them into all levels of the practice, not just the drawing and the occasional site visit to go field measure something. There are managers who believe that because they were hazed they must haze the new kids in the office infuriate me. News flash: we don't have time to relegate an intern to three-plus years of CAD Jockey or Revit Jockey status--s/he needs to understand specs, go to meetings, deal with consultants and clients, help you put together proposals, and so on. The future of your firm and indeed your profession relies on this.

Matt mentions that his research shows that the average length of internship in New York (the state, I presume) is 11 years. There may be several reasons for this, but I'm betting that one of the reasons is that firms who need good staff will pay top dollar in a town that has a high cost of living and lots of competition for the best interns. And oddly enough, those who do this are on my list as well. Yes, we all know that interns (and architects in general, up and down the ranks) are underpaid, but when you pay an intern mad amounts of cash, where is the incentive to take and pass the ARE? So interns spend years not getting licensed, just making money hand over fist, and suddenly they find themselves unemployed in this economy, pushing 40, and unlicensed. You know how that concerns me. My husband has a friend who is a good architect with coveted design skills. He hopped through firms in a major city for most of the 2000s (about one every 12-24 months) until he was making $82,000 a year, unlicensed. Guess who's unemployed now? (And the fact that he still complains about "how poorly architects are paid" makes me want to stick a drafting pencil in his eye, but I'll spare you that rant.)

My hope for the future of architecture as a profession is that we do a few things, primarily:
  1. Stop talking, designing, writing, and speaking for other architects and start doing all those things for the public, for average everyday people who use the spaces we make and don't understand what the word "architectonic" means and don't really care. As I've said before, architecture the profession is about everything but you. Remove your ego from what you design.
  2. Shift our thinking from an industrial-era workplace to an information-age workplace. Interns are not disposable, replaceable widgets--they're people. Consider the advantages of a ROWE workplace.
  3. Bridge the gap between the generations and their skill sets. Managers need to include interns in all facets of running a project and running a firm--sharing that knowledge is the only way to truly gain their respect. Interns need to include managers in how technology is changing the way we produce our work--in many ways for the better. For example, many of today's project managers that worked in CAD back in the day have no idea how Revit works today, and many of their demands on interns are based on how CAD used to work. Revit solves many of the problems we had in CAD, but it also makes a few things more difficult.
That's a short list, but I think it sums up my outlook on the profession so far. What about you? How does the profession look--and feel--to you?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Enough already!: pushing back when the economy (and your job) pushes on you

If you've been working throughout this economy-from-hell for the past 12-24 months, you're likely seeing the effects of the economy's stress on your coworkers. Perhaps you're experiencing it yourself. It often manifests itself as reflexive irritability at little requests and the tiniest criticisms, anxiety about your present workload and tasks and your future job stability, fear elicited by every minor mistake, and even physical symptoms and ailments such as headaches and migraines, stomachaches, heartburn, and even dizzy spells. A bad economy takes its toll on pretty much everyone up and down the food chain in a company, but it can especially wear on the newest folks to the profession. Because interns have only a few years of experience in their profession, they may feel as if they have few or no options if they are laid off or fired. They feel backed into a corner, so they tolerate a lot of demands and allow their project managers to lean extra-heavily on them.

It's completely understandable--and acceptable--to be angry and annoyed and furious and cranky after having to work more for less money for so long. After a while of acquiescing to each and every demand, even the most balanced person will snap. The goal is to open the pressure valve on your stress levels before you engage in a scorched-earth policy with your boss and firm (and possibly your career). The main things to do are 1) help your bosses and coworkers manage their expectations of you, and 2) give yourself a break.

Managing expectations
People often don't realize what they're asking of you when they assign you a task or make a request. By highlighting for them in no uncertain terms what the cost of compliance is, you hold them accountable for either the unreasonableness of the request or for the poor outcome. For example, if your boss has given you three major things to do by Friday, and on Wednesday she walks up with yet another major task, remind her that she's given you this, that, and the other to do by Friday--is this task more important than those? If she pushes back that "they all have to be done by Friday," it's on you to express just how realistic that deadline is. Just saying "okay" and then falling short is a much worse deal than pushing back on her--more than once if you need to--that what she's asking for is not possible. Even if she insists and then walks away in a huff, you've spoken up, and chances are someone else heard you too.

One intern I know of has a boss who constantly tells her that she can't spend a lot of time on certain projects because there's little fee left on them. Then, when he needs her to put together a plan or update a drawing on those projects, he'll redline them and fiddle-fiddle-fiddle with them, causing her to do the very thing he didn't want her to do. She began calling this to his attention: when bringing him the drawing after the second round of redlines and changes, she would tell him how much time she had spent so far on the project ("Okay, Marco, here's the plan with your changes, and I'm at two and a half hours on this so far."). It might seem a little like hardball, but she wanted to make the cost of compliance very clear to someone who is extraordinarily obsessed with the bottom line.

You may not feel like asking for questions and details when someone is in a hurry and acting extra rude to you at when they assign you a task, but it's more important than ever to do when this rude person's request is setting you up for failure. You also may feel nervous turning down a request at a time when you're easily replaceable. My advice: don't. If you know you won't be able to do the job right in the time allotted given the resources you have at hand, then let the person know. Maybe they want you to finish a code study in three days that someone else started a month ago and now they're gone on maternity leave and you've barely cracked the spine on the 2006 IBC. Maybe they need some nice marketing graphics done today and your knowledge of Illustrator is prosaic at best. Whatever the reason, tell them in the service of the job: "It would take me longer to do that than you have, and I wouldn't do the job it deserves with my limited skills. Perhaps so-and-so could help you better? Or I could help you if I had six days instead of three?"

Give yourself a break
Seriously. Give yourself a break. You're living through the worst economy in the past 30 or so years. There are people your parents' ages that haven't seen an economy this bad. No wonder you're feeling blue and anxious. Take a deep breath. Get a massage or spa service at a local spa school (they do just about as well, and they're way cheaper). Get away from your desk to eat your lunch. When my deadlines were extra stressful but I didn't want to go out to eat every day, a few colleagues and I would go eat lunch in a conference room just to get away from the phone and have a good laugh.

Take a mental health day. You heard me--call in well. As long as you're not playing hooky on an important day, like the day before or day of a major deadline, or on a day where your boss has meetings and will very likely need to handy to help out, there's nothing wrong with taking a sick day and sleeping in, going to a coffee shop and reading the paper for an hour, browsing in a bookstore or library, volunteering, even doing some housecleaning and laundry (unless you like that sort of thing, or as long as you do something else fun that day). If you're so angry and anxious that you constantly find yourself snapping at people or barely able to contain your anger or annoyance, then take a day. You may not be physically or visibly sick, but I guarantee that you are not well and need time away. Take an afternoon or a whole day, either way it's good for you.

If you have a question or a topic you'd like to see covered here, let me know in the comments or email me at the address in the sidebar. Thanks!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Is it worth it to get licensed?

I usually encourage people strongly to get licensed as fast as they can, but the economy actually has me reconsidering my position on this slightly. One of my interns mentioned me that he was going to have to put test taking on hold due to lack of funding. After two years without a raise, being at reduced pay and hours for all of 2009 (and having to take unpaid days during December), and the cost of the exams going up to over $200 per test, he just wasn't able to afford the tests right now. There's a good deal of sense in this, really. Having to choose between taking the ARE and making the rent or mortgage is one of those choices that you shouldn't have to make, but if you make it, choose the housing payment.

There should never be a "good" reason to put off taking the ARE, but not having the money is a fairly acceptable one, especially right now. I recently spoke with an intern who had been laid off but just got a new job. I congratulated her and mentioned that now she could afford to take the ARE. Turns out her mother was going to give her the money to take the tests--she couldn't stand the idea of her daughter being so close to getting licensed and then getting thwarted by a financial issue. If you can borrow the money (interest-free, of course, is best) or get a gift from someone to take the tests, then I encourage you to keep going. After all, if you're also working fewer hours, what better time to study?

But there's another reason that I wouldn't throw stones at you for waiting a few months until the cash comes back before starting up on the exams again. If you're already employed, getting licensed can get you a good raise, which sometimes will kick in as soon as you get your license in your hot little hands. I was given a nice raise mid-year after passing all my tests, and then I got another raise at the end of that year, for example. This year, four people in my office got licensed, and they did not get that same benefit of a atta-boy/girl raise for jumping through the Flaming Hoops of the ARE. I felt really bad for them; they'd worked so hard to achieve this goal, and there was no tangible reward at the end of their efforts. That's not to say that personal satisfaction alone isn't a good reason to do something, but it's nice to have other people recognize what a pain in the butt that testing process is. So, I could see holding off on charging through the tests right now, maybe for at least a few months during the holidays. Taking a breather and then trying to time the completion of your tests with an upturn in the economy--while a little risky--could make your success fresh in the minds of those who dole out raises and might score you a little more. Again, it's a risky, but it could be worth it. I personally would keep going with my exams as long as I could afford them financially, but that's also my personality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Working in the coal mine: how soon is too soon?

I recently got an email from a college freshman asking if this summer (after one year of college) would be too soon to start working in an office. The short answer is no; I've had high school students work at my office (for high school class credit, not for pay), and it gives them great insight into what the architectural work world is like (as it's quite different from the architectural school world). Just don't set your sights too high for this early foray into a firm's environment.

Drawing is a task that takes a great deal of an intern's time, and if you come into a firm with little or no CAD, Revit, Microstation, ArchiCAD, or whatever kind of software experience, they may not be interested in getting you up to speed on it if you're only going to be there for a few months during the summer. However, some firms may indeed put the time in to teach you the software (usually by having you learn from another intern) so that you can help out. More than likely, though, your daily tasks will be varied and random--you'll do some filing of large drawings one day, then take a set of drawings and specs down to the city the next day, then build a model for another couple of days, then stamp a set of drawings for one of the owners to sign the next, and so on. No matter what you're asked to do, just do it well and without rolling your eyes and sighing. Someone wouldn't ask you to do it if it wasn't important. If it's not important, it just won't get done. There is something to learn from every task you do.

Keep in mind that if you're trying to get hours out of the way for IDP, you can't count any hours worked before you've been in school for at least three years. (More specific information on this is available here.) There are also rules on NCARB's website detailing how much you can count--for example, if you work fewer than X number of hours for less than Y number of continuous week, the time may not count. However, all is not lost if you work a summer or Christmas break and can't count it. Experience is experience, and firms pay you for experience more so than your education. And yes, they should pay you. Even if you're only working for $12/hour for the summer after a year in school, get paid. When you work for free for a company that's not a nonprofit, you've shown them just what your going rate is; don't sell yourself short, and don't let anyone else shortchange you. I don't care how bad the economy is, at least make sure you break even working the job.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Managing Up, Part 3 of 3

Part 1 is of this discussion is here; Part 2 is here.

So now you have some grasp on your manager's work style, and you are figuring out how to anticipate needs, which is a form of providing value. To some extent, however, these discussions are taking place with the assumption that your boss will be nice, polite, clear, predictable, and reasonable with your workload and with critiquing your work. What happens if your boss is cranky, forgetful, impatient, demanding, or annoying? In order words, what happens if your boss is human?

First, whenever your boss--or your coworker or the barista at Starbucks or anybody--acts rude or juvenile towards you, don't take the bait. Don't trade nasty barbs, don't look wounded, just don't react at all. The first rule of dealing with other people from here to eternity is to remember that you have no idea what they've dealt with today, this week, this year, or this lifetime. They may be unfairly taking out bad news or a bad day on you. Also, they may just be jerks. Regardless of the reason that someone, especially someone in charge, may act like a jerk, that does not give you license to be a jerk right back at them. Remember: if a monkey flings poo at you and you fling poo back at the monkey, it's generally not the monkey that looks foolish. Take a deep breath and keep in mind that jerks are usually equal opportunity, so their behavior towards you is nothing personal.

But even if your boss isn't a jerk, you still have to take the high road and help them help you, as Jerry Macguire might say. It's part of the Boss' Paradox: they may not remember what you're doing but they know how well you do (or don't) do what you've been given to do. Hence, it becomes imperative that you highlight for your boss the consequences of compliance with his or her requests. If they have asked you to do something that you know will take three days but they want it done in one, you have to bring that gap in reality to their attention, and you may have to repeat yourself.

Boss (Eva): Okay, so, get me these elevations by noon tomorrow.
You: Um, actually, Eva, the elevations haven't even been started yet and there are a lot of them. It's going to take me three days to get them done.
Eva: Ohhhh, not with this software! It'll bust those elevations out in no time!
You: The software's fast, but not that fast. If you're wanting these for user group meetings, that takes adjusting the viewports of the elevations, getting in casework where none has been drawn, and putting in some basic notes, and that's going to take about three days.
Eva: I don't need notes on them, just casework and sinks.
You: Do you want equipment too?
Eva: No, the owner will tell us what goes where in the meetings.
You: Well, that might save a little time--
Eva: Good! Get to it.
You: --but if you're going to want to see these elevation sheets before you take them to the meeting, and you may have some changes, then I'm really going to need three days to make these look good.
Eva: [sighs heavily and glares at you]
You: Are there some that you need more than others? I can do those first and you can review them while I do the rest.
Eva: No! I need them all at the same time...but I should review them first. [sighs heavily]
You: I can only do about the first floor by noon tomorrow. If you'd like, I can print them out and you can review them then. Otherwise, we could pull on someone else to help me get these done, perhaps Ray might have some time?

While protesting to Eva about what she's asking you to do, your tone of voice is calm, medium, and well-modulated. You're not raising your voice, you're not getting super-quiet, and you're not using profanity or insults or a snide tone. You're simply stating the facts and calling her attention to those facts, and you're doing it more than once--you're not letting her push you back just because she's the boss. If you only protest once and let your boss back you down, or if you just say yes immediately, you run the risk of not fully helping your boss understand that what they're asking for is a waste of time, impossible, whatever. Being the boss doesn't make you right, it just means you're in charge. Also, you're adding more value by presenting solutions: are there some elevations that should be done first, can Ray help us with the elevations, and so on. Pushing back on your boss is easier when you can frame it in the service of the job: I want to make these elevations look good and be useful for your meeting, and in order to do that I need three days, or we can get some help to get it done faster.

By calling your boss on his or her requests when they are unreasonable, you ensure that your future work for that boss is timely and of high quality. You make it clear to your boss what you need in order to satisfy the request in such a way that they can use the outcome. You help them help you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Architect is experiencing physical difficulties; please stand by...

Folks, I can't figure out if I have a cold or the flu or what, but I've been run down for the past couple of days and have been just functional. I'll get part 3 of "Managing Up" on the site by Monday morning, but in the meantime I need to go take some of my own advice and some Advil and go to bed.

Thanks for continuing to check in here at Intern 101, and major thanks for sharing your comments and insights--I appreciate all suggestions and feedback!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Managing Up, Part 2 of 3

(The first part of this conversation is here.)

So after working with a boss for a few weeks, you've figured out their management style and their standard care for most tasks. You're now at the point where you're having to ask questions, follow up on issues, and generally do the work that will make them look good. In order to do this kind of work though, you'll often have to ask questions or get clarification or feedback from others, including the boss. We all know that our managers are busy people--if they weren't they'd do everything themselves--but that doesn't excuse them from providing you with the information you need to get your job done (which makes your boss look good too). Again, find out how your boss likes to be contacted when you first start working for them. Do they prefer phone call, email, or in-person visits? I recommend that you save questions up and ask a few to several at a time so that you minimize interruptions to your manager, but some tasks don't allow for that. And some bosses prefer to answer the question as soon as it arises because it keeps you from going to far down the wrong path on a task.

Regardless of how your boss wants you to ask questions, any boss worth their salt wants to you ask, so whenever you go up to them (or call or email them), don't apologize for bothering them. It's more bothersome for you to go along your merry way all day and screw up your task than to bother them a few times and then do the job right. Ultimately, you're just doing your job, so quit apologizing for doing your job. Get rid of the following phrases:
  • "Sorry to bother you, but..."
  • "This may be a dumb question, but..."
  • "I hate to bug you, but..."
  • Or anything along these lines.
Instead, replace them with something a little more useful, like:
  • "I have a few questions for you regarding x..."
  • "I know you're getting ready for a meeting; when's a good time to go through a few issues that have come up in this codes study?"
  • "I feel like I'm going to be peppering you with these questions all day--is there someone else I should ask these of or would you rather handle them?"
A question I did not include above is "Do you have a moment?" or "Are you busy?" Your boss is always busy, so the last question is moot. I had a boss that would always sigh passive-aggressively and say "no" when I asked her the first question, but her response was moot and rude. Moot because I needed a moment of her time to get answers so I could keep moving on my tasks, and rude because she was making me feel guilty for just doing my job. Don't buy it for a second. Answering questions and keeping people busy comes with being in charge, and it's their job to help you with that.

The next level of managing up involves anticipating needs. Anticipating a boss' needs and requests may look like something akin to being psychic, but there's nothing mystical about it. It's about observing and remembering what your boss' standard of care generally is, and it's about making note of the kinds of questions they ask you or the kinds of things they note when they mark something up or say aloud while reviewing something with you. It's about remembering what kind of drawings you've been asked to print in the past as well as thinking about what might be useful in a meeting depending on who's going to be there. Let's say it's Monday, and your boss has a meeting on Thursday. It's your job (as soon as you know about the meeting) to ask what kind it is and who's going to be there. So you hear your boss say "I have a Cascade Falls meeting on Thursday." You ask her:
  • What kind of meeting is it? (pricing? user group? permitting and code review board?)
  • Who's going to be there? (clients? contractors? consultants? finance people?)
  • What drawings would you like? (plans? elevations?)
  • When do you need them by?
By asking these questions, you find out that it's a user group meeting with the clients as well as the mechanical and electrical engineers, and she wants 1st through 5th floor plans and exterior elevations by Wednesday at noon because she's going to be out of the office from then until after the Thursday meeting. So you prepare to print these plans and exterior elevations, but you also think, hey, if the engineers are there, we might need the basement plan too, since a lot of their equipment is in the basement, and they might need a site plan as well, since that shows access to the building as well as where the transformer is going and where the sewer pipe comes in. So you get those drawings in good shape, and you have them ready by Tuesday afternoon, at which point your boss can review the drawings once more before and give you time to make any changes on Wednesday morning. That way, she's walking into the meeting with drawings she's familiar with and that pass muster, and she has a little extra info on hand if she needs it in the meeting.

On Friday: how to help your manager help you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Managing Up, Part 1 of 3

One of about eight million things no one tells or teaches you in college is how much you're going to have to manage your boss. To be fair, there's not a lot of advice or information regarding managing your boss in any field. Go to the human resources or business/management/career section of your local library or bookstore and skim the titles on the shelves: voluminous tomes on managing, confronting, motivating, or rewarding employees, but precious little if any on how to deal with and manage those above you in the food chain. Sadly, this is information that people really need. How can I confront a crappy boss without calling him/her crappy? How can I get this person to realize how their behavior affects me? Is it even my job to keep this person straight and on track?

Oddly, yes. It is in fact your job, in part, to keep your boss in good shape, because your job depends on his/her job. If s/he looks like a fool time and again in meetings based on information you gave him, guess who's not going to last long at the company? I've actually seen this happen; one of the earliest rounds of layoffs--before the major layoffs, even--at my office involved eliminating people with follow-through and attitude problems. If you continually make mistakes and are unapologetic and don't fix or avoid the problem next time, say hello to the street.

So how do you manage your manager? There's no short answer, but the first thing to do is remember the Boss' Paradox: they may not always know what you do or what you're doing right now, but they know how well you do it. As cheesy as it sounds, remember that your work is your autograph; how you do your job (and the results that follow) is how people think of you. I have done a good-to-excellent job on tasks and projects and still made mistakes, but I haven't been penalized for those mistakes because of how well I did the overall job. You're not going to do everything perfectly, but there is a standard of care. This is the first step to managing a boss: learn what their standard of care is for most tasks. When your boss asks you to do something, let's say a code study, ask him if there's a good example around that you can use as a basis of comparison. If they say, "Yeah, base your code study on the one that So-and-So did for Ventura Pointe," then you have a starting point for your standard of care for code studies. If you usually work on big projects but the office interior designer needs your help doing interior elevations for one of her tenant projects, ask her the same thing; now you have her standard of care for tenant remodel interior elevations. After you have several examples of how your boss wants things done, you should have a good idea of what your boss (or bosses) wants on a regular basis.

Next you have to figure out your boss' work style. This is harder and more varied than standard of care with tasks, no doubt. Your usual boss may be a real micromanager and stickler for details, but then you get loaned for a couple of weeks to a manager whose style is so laid back that you expect him to roll into the office in a Hawaiian shirt with a pina colada. Often when you begin working with a new manager, it's best to start this conversation up front after asking about scope, deadline, and resources for the task at hand: when would you like to review what I've accomplished? If I have questions, how available are you? Who should I ask if you're not around? Are you better via phone, cell phone, or email? For example, one of the bosses in my office is rather introverted but very helpful, and he does better when I email him questions. On the other hand, an intern in our office has learned that the manager she's working for now only reads his email once a day at 4:30pm--not good if she has urgent questions to ask and decisions to be made.

On Wednesday, we'll talk about what's useful to say and why you should never apologize for doing your job. In the meantime, if you have a question or a topic you'd like to see discussed here, feel free to ask in the comments or email me at my address in the sidebar. Thanks!