Monday, August 30, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: What's in a name?

During my recent haphazard attempts to recuperate from a busy winter, spring, and summer, I got the following email from Julian:

My main question is what job title should recent graduates apply for. For example, what is the exact difference between an internship (non-summer) and a junior designer position?

Also, when firms list X amount of years of experience does this include summer internships? In my opinion, I believe summer internships really do not qualify as substantial work experience but then again I'm eager to hear your opinion.

There are two great questions in here, and I'm really glad Julian asked about the importance (or non-importance) of what your job position or experience is named. Let's address the first question about non-summer internship vs. junior designer. I suppose a firm might decide internally that there's a difference between the two, but it's unlikely. If a firm advertises for an "internship", that to me sounds like the position is for an unlicensed person and is available with a definite start and end date (6 months, 12 months, etc.). It would be worth applying for the position, and if you were to get an interview, I would definitely ask what this "internship" involves: is it a set amount of time for a specific project?

The word "junior" in "junior designer" implies (to me, anyway) that the position is for an unlicensed person with an architectural degree or experience. It's the word "designer" in the title that strikes me as interesting, though. Some firms don't like to use the word "intern" to describe an unlicensed person with an architecture degree who is actively working towards licensure. They will find other names for that position and that person, such as "coordinator" or "designer". On the one hand, using a name other than "intern" for that position feels like someone's blowing sunshine up my skirt. On the other hand, having lived through the Monica Lewinsky trials of 1999, being called an "intern" makes me feel like someone has other plans for my skirt, possibly involving more than sunshine. (Every few years, the AIA debates changing what we call "interns", and I really wish they would change the name. Every other profession uses the word "intern" to refer to someone working as a high school or partway-through-college employee who's working part time and just barely learning the ropes. The "interns" I know in architecture do a helluva lot more than that.)

Speaking of interns and summer/holiday internships, let's address the second half of Julian's email. Should you count your summer jobs in architecture as "experience"? My short answer is yes--you've seen a work environment and have been around architectish people while they were doing architecty things, which puts you ahead of where I was before June of 2000. The longer answer is this: whether you include your summer job at a firm in your experience is based on a) if you worked there after your junior year of undergrad and b) what you actually did there. Did you stamp big stacks of drawings, take drawings to the city, make copies of documents, and pick up bagels for the morning meeting? Then including this job as "architectural work experience" might be kind of a stretch. But what if you did redlines, took as-built measurements, walked a job site, and/or did a little product or code research? Then the job is worth mentioning, especially if you list with a couple of bullet points the kind of things you did during that time. The after-your-junior-year thing means that you had a couple of years in school to understand design issues and even take a couple of architectural history and means-and-methods classes. Having three years of design school under your belt before entering the workforce, even for only a couple of months at a time, implies (rightfully or not) that you kinda know something about the job before you start doing it for real.

Thanks again for the question, Julian. If any of you have a question or comment or would like to see something discussed here, let me know if the comments or email me at my email address in the sidebar.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Does architecture influence pop music's development?

David Byrne, musician, writer, and lead singer for the seminal rock/pop band Talking Heads, seems to think so. He puts forth a great argument for it here in his talk at a TED convention in Long Beach, CA.

I don't talk much about design and design philosophy here, as I know there are plenty of other blogs and websites that take up those discussions. However, I think it's good to remember occasionally that the spaces we make really do affect people and the ways they change our culture and lives in general. Remember that everything you do affects how people function and move and even think each day--it's why I decided to do what I do for a living.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Architects, experience, and resumes

Anonymous commented on a recent post about content and length of resumes:

As one of three principals of a growing architectural practice, I take issue with this post. Normally your info is quite good, but this one falls into the heading of 'What is Wrong with the Architecture Profession'.

Like you, I have about 10 years of experience. Seven of those years were before the 3rd year of a 4+2 MArch degree. I have two more exams to become licensed thanks to the new early testing rules.

So tell me, is your experience more valuable than mine? Is your list of accomplishments more relevant because you are licensed and I am not?

I know plenty of Principal and Senior Associate people who, had they passed a two page resume to you, would have been denied review because they are unlicensed.

Lastly, we need to set the record straight. You have been an architect for four years, not 10. An architect is someone who has passed the ARE and received a license to practice architecture, something that happened 4 years ago.

Anonymous makes some interesting points here, but I wonder if s/he missed the intent of my original post. Commenter JD asked about what to include on a resume if one's previous careers were non-architectural. Prevailing resume advice for business in general says that a candidate must fill their resume with lots of action-type bullet points about how s/he "increased sales by 15%" or "did X and Y W times faster." But architecture is...well, architecture. You're certainly welcome to allude to your previous careers in your architectural resume, but I recommend that you edit that information very strictly by keeping this in mind: how did what you used to do affect how well you can do the job of an architect or architectural intern?

I polled a couple of people in my firm who have been doing hiring recently, and they said that regardless of a candidate's licensure, s/he has five seconds to get a firm's attention, especially in the wake of the recent recession. And typically--certainly not all the time, but typically--interns are not managing projects, especially an intern with less than ten years' experience. What I want to caution interns against is potentially padding their resumes with extraneous information, especially at a time when there is so much competition for a position at a firm, and you want to make sure that your resume gets read. And here's the double-edged sword of having lots of experience in other careers: while it shows that you've worked for a living before and you're competent, it can reveal your age to a firm and they'll decide not to hire you because of your age. (Which is illegal, by the way, and it's a dumb reason not to hire a person, but I'm sure it happens.) One of the managers to whom I presented the "how do you talk about other careers on your resume" question had this to say: "If someone writes a ton of stuff on their resume about how awesome they were in their last career, then why aren't they still in that career?" I told him that was kind of a mean/nasty question, but there's a grain of truth in it--be careful how you sell your past careers. At the very least, have a good, positive reason for leaving a career at which you were really good--maybe architecture was always your passion, etc.

(Note: if you were in the military, just say it and say what position you had there. You don't have to elaborate; the fact that you could hold your own in the military is proof enough that you're tough, efficient, and effective.)

Having hopefully clarified that, let me address Anonymous' comments: you're absolutely right. My sidebar information should in fact say "I've been in the architectural profession for ten years, licensed for four." However, by Anon's own admission, s/he is not licensed, so s/he cannot call him/herself an architect even now...and I can. And here's the truth about this profession: passing the ARE is not just an attempt by our profession to maintain some minimal threshold of competency, but in the end it is also a rite of passage and, in a way, a form of dues-paying and proving oneself. Anonymous may be a principal in a firm, but (and not to belittle Anon's efforts) anyone can be a principal in a design firm...actually, in any kind of firm. All you need is a business license. Any intern out there right now can start a one-person consulting company and call themselves a principal. And this is good, in many ways--if you were a victim of this cruddy economy, you can hang out your own shingle and work as a contract employee for another firm or even do drawings yourself for residential projects....

...but, as Anonymous him/herself pointed out: you cannot call yourself an architect if you are not licensed.

Plus, depending on what you design, someone else may have to stamp and sign it if you are not licensed. If you are in fact licensed, you answer to yourself (and anyone that sues you); the glory and pain are all yours. But if you are unlicensed, you are still beholden to someone else. And here's the inequality of that situation: you could have spent your time doing some amazing projects and learning a lot of really useful stuff about designing and building projects and learning your craft through the school of hard knocks (crazy clients, argumentative contractors, recalcitrant consultants), and someone with same number of years' experience maybe just did really crappy work and spent most of their time sheltered by their project managers and really nice, easy-to-work-with clients, but if that cheesy person gets licensed and you don't...they have more prestige than you. The principal of an architecture firm, typically speaking, wants to be able to put you in front of an owner and hold you out as the best of the best and as a competent and talented professional...and that by-and-large means a licensed architect. And that architect may have less experience than you do as an unlicensed person, but they got the gig and you didn't. And it sucks. But that's the truth.

And it used to make me angry. But then, I looked around my office and saw some of the gooberheads that were licensed...and suddenly, my fear of the ARE dissolved. I realized, "Mary, Joseph, and Rem Koolhaas! If that dumpster fire of a guy can pass the ARE and get licensed, then so can I!" And I did. I got licensed in ten months while working 60 hours a week--that's how motivated I was. And that's why I encourage all of you to get licensed--it's a minimal standard of competency as well as a hoop to jump through that, at the end of it all, isn't actually that hard to jump through. If you go through college in a fairly typical manner (i.e., not long after leaving high school) but then wait around and still aren't licensed at the age of 40, nearly everyone interviewing you will wonder, "What's the effing problem?" That is, if they even make it through your resume and decide to call you.

I don't know if the following true confession makes any of you (Anonymous included) feel better or worse, but here it is: My resume, with ten years' experience and licensed for four, is...




Even though I've done some really cool projects and done some really fantastic things in the past ten-plus years of my life that might make me look even awesomer (not that that's even a word) if I included them, I've edited and edited that information to one page of an actual resume. I have a one-page cover letter, and then I also have a one-page document that is optional to send that talks about my the event that someone actually wanted to see it. (I made the document more for myself, so I could remember all the stuff I've done in ten years.) And my husband, a licensed architect with 18 months more experience than me, plus a stint in the military, plus having worked on some really big and amazing projects that were bigger and more involved than any of my projects, has only a one-page resume.

Why? Because, ultimately resume length is not about licensed versus unlicensed, but really about content: all you need are the simple truths about your skills and your experiences, and too much else will be picked up on the radar as fluff. The architects I've talked to recently who have been conducting interviews and reviewing resumes for the past month have been unanimous on one point: they can read between the lines and see if you're B.S'ing or making yourself sound better than you are. They have a thick stack of resumes to read, and you have five seconds--sometimes less--to make your point about you, your education, and your skills. Be short and to the point (unlike this post, hyuk hyuk hyuk!), don't make them work hard to understand your strengths, and make sure your resume fits the job being offered (write yourself two resumes that play up different strengths and focus on different things, if it helps). The whole point of a resume to highlight your strengths and experience--licensed or not!--and to find a firm that is the best fit for you (and you for them), so give it the attention it deserves so that you look your absolute best on paper and get your foot in the door.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A quick word on resumes (or, please don't try this at home)

I recently had lunch with an architect friend who brought me a handful of resumes to look at: the good, the bad, and the what-were-they-thinking. One resume she showed me that made me do a spit take, and while I didn't get a copy of it to post here for your viewing, I had to tell you what turned me off about it.

The candidate combined his cover letter and resume into one two-page document. The document had two columns, one narrow one that included basic info about where he worked and went to school, and another wider column describing his skills, talents/abilities, and qualities. I don't even know where to start on this, but I'll start here with my cardinal rule of intern resume writing:

If you are unlicensed, your resume should be no more than one page. Period.

And the corollary to that rule is this: if you decide to combine your cover letter and resume, it still should be only one page. Combining two documents into one is a risky move that could pay off, depending on what kind of firm (and person) receives and reviews your resume, but remember how different those two documents are: one is written in paragraph form and reads like a letter, while the other is written in bullet points and sentence fragments and meant to highlight skills into an easily-read and easily-comprehended form. This candidate's resume looked verbose and unwieldy and was frankly confusing. I was overwhelmed by all the text on the page that I stared at it for a good half-minute before I realized there was another column on the page which told me where he went to college.

I could forgive this, except that what also blew me away (and not in a good way) was that his entire resume/cover letter was written in third person. As in, "Mr. Smith spent a semester in France, where he worked extensively with restoring a medieval cathedral." Let me be very clear: your cover letter and resume are meant to be in first person. I know that after spending four to six years writing essays and research papers in third person, but resumes and cover letters are not research papers. They are meant to be coming from you, so when your cover letter and resume read like someone else wrote it, you can guarantee that you confuse your potential employer at best and annoy them at worst. The only people that use third-person when talking about themselves are sports figures like Rickey Henderson and Junior Seau (search for them on YouTube and you'll see what I mean), and they annoy even sports fans.

I can excuse the resume/cover letter combo as just a daring move, but the third-person writing point-of-view? Skip it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Helpful hints for good CA

As I have started getting deeper into my own project's CA, I'm realizing how much I've forgotten by not doing CA for three years, and I realize how much I've never forgotten. In a way, the things that make you a good architect and designer also make you good at CA. Here are a few habits and tips I've picked up over the past ten-plus years of watching my projects get built through countless CA hours.

  1. Organize like you've never organized before--and stay on top of it. Architects have to be organized in every phase of their projects (as in life), but nowhere is this more important than during CA. Have a process for recording every shop drawing/submittal and RFI that comes in and out, who it has gone to or come back from, and when it is due. The due dates for these items is especially important--you don't want things to get piled up or be late because you've forgotten about answering or checking them...or let your consultants forget about them.
  2. Stay on top of your consultants, too. Remember that one project can keep you and one other person busy and profitable, but for your engineers and other consultants, they may need four to ten projects at any time to keep their business in the black. Therefore, it's easy for them to forget about you and your project's deadlines. If you have any kind of tracking software that can send an email to you and your engineers before something's due (or overdue), that can really help take the pressure off of you both to get things done. A couple of examples are Prolog and Newforma.
  3. Make sure everything goes through you in both directions. Generally, the contractor should send RFIs and shop drawings to you to disperse to your engineers and other consultants, and then the consultants send the answered/checked RFIs or submittals back to you to return to the contractor. This is so that you know what's going on with the project, plus you can review the response to see if it's going to affect another consultant (or you). On a design-build project, the contractor may decide s/he wants to send MEP RFIs and shops straight to the consultant, since those consultants work for them and not you. However, it's a good idea to get a copy of the RFI or submittal sent to you for your simultaneous review--you never know what you'll find that could affect the project down the road.
  4. Look at everything. I mean, everything. Because of #3, you really do need to look at and read and take a little time to think about everything you get from the consultants. A moment's pause can give you the chance to realize that something may be very amiss with the short, casual response a consultant gave an RFI.
  5. Think twice when reviewing and responding. Everything has a ripple effect and ramifications in a project, from moving a countertop (against a wall that is supposed to have equipment mounted on it) to changing the brand and model (and therefore size and depth) of a sink. Give yourself a chance to pause and flip through the drawings a bit, even when confronted with the simplest of requests. When I've done this, at least 50% of the time I uncover a huge problem that could occur if I say "yes, go ahead" to the RFI.
  6. Be clear with your responses. Understand what the RFI or note on the shop drawings is asking you, and reply in a clear and unequivocal manner: Instead of "Accepted," instead use "It is acceptable to move the countertop in Room A1-405 from the west wall to the north wall. Please see attached sketch AX-108 for the new configuration." Or perhaps instead of "Line these mullions up", use "Storefront window system mullion layouts are intended to line up from interior to exterior. Align intermediate horizontal mullions on interior systems with corresponding mullions on exterior." I realize that this is more writing that you may feel you have time for, but if a sub messes up something in the field and you catch it, you'll be glad you had something so crystal clear written on your shops--it will be on the sub to fix it at their expense. At the very least, they won't be calling and bugging you with questions when you took the time to be clear the first time.
  7. Relax--failure is inevitable. No one gets out of CA with a 100% success rate. Everyone botches something that costs money, but that's the nature of humanity. Being diligent and making as few mistakes as possible simply makes your mistakes look human, not careless. Besides, there's always the next project.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The paradox of CA

Recently, an anonymous commenter said the following on a previous post:

A project I have been since it's inception is now under construction and my boss (licensed architect) has decided to make me project manager over construction administration. He talks about training me, but never makes time to do so, and I live in fear that one day the contractor will "find out" I don't know what I'm doing and "something bad will happen". (I know this sounds more paranoid than it needs to be, but I'm majorly anxious).
My boss makes me sign all the letters, transmittals, RFIs, Request for Change Orders, etc. The only thing I'm not signing are pay applications. I have repeatedly tried to talk to him about how I feel uncomfortable without being trained in this aspect of my job, even though I know the project, but his response is always "But you're doing well."

Maybe it's not the worst thing to have your boss trust you so much, but it makes me extremely stressed out and sick to my stomach to think I'm doing a job I have no idea how to do anymore, especially after he was so good at training me to do every other phase of architecture.

It's kismet that Anonymous is dealing with the anxiety-inducing construction administration (CA) process right now, as for the first time in almost three years, I'm finally getting to do CA again on a project for which I did the drawings. (Some of my projects since 2007 have been master planning, but the economy killed some of my other projects after DDs.) Even though I've been working in architecture for over ten years, and I've done CA at least a dozen times, it still gives me a twinge of anxiety. After all, CA is where the rubber meets the road; it's where the truth becomes clear about your drawings and even your abilities as an architect. Were your drawings and specs clear and thorough and well-coordinated? Are you able to make good decisions about RFIs? Are you really looking at an understanding the shop drawings and submittals? And are you able to do all of this in a timely and organized fashion? Even worse is that now your (and others') mistakes cost money and time. Ouchie.

The hardest truth about this process is what I call the paradox of CA: you only learn how to do it by doing it or having done it. When our anonymous commenter looks back on his/her CA on this project, s/he will have so much insight on how a building goes together and how to work with consultants and contractors and subs and so on. It's only after doing it that you know how to do it. And that's cold comfort for Anonymous and many others of you out there. Even though I can make a list here on the Intern 101 blog about what all the CA terms mean, there is no class in which I can teach you CA. You just have to do it.

Here's the thing about working with contractors on CA: if you're under the age of 30, your contractor probably already knows that you don't know everything and don't have much experience. But if s/he's any good, they won't rub it in your face and they won't abuse that fact. A good contractor won't insist that you give them an answer RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW because they know that you have to go back to the office and check the code and look at the drawings (maybe even open the CAD plans or Revit model) and make double-sure and triple-sure that your response is in line with the drawings and specs and isn't messing up something else down the line or going to cause yet another RFI/CCD/PR/OMGWTF down the line. And sometimes, checking on something and doing the research to get the contractor an answer means asking your boss if s/he has ever dealt with this question or problem before.

I completely understand Anonymous' concern, stated at the start of this post. S/He has been well trained and supervised on every other task, but now s/he feels adrift on this, the most important of tasks in which mistakes are magnified and the stakes are even higher. Here's what I wonder as I read Anon's comments: is the manager/boss at least looking these documents (RFIs, PRs, letters, shops, etc.) over before Anon issues them? If so, then the manager's confidence in Anon to get things done is appropriate, if unsettling. But if the manager is simply not dealing with CA at all and is letting Anon go loose, then I too would be nervous, even as a licensed architect. Doing CA in a vacuum is a good way to make mistakes. You're better off bouncing questions off of people on a regular basis and learning from them, and they might catch something on a drawing that you wouldn't see or know because you hadn't dealt with it before.

There's much more to talk about regarding interns and CA. But in the meantime, if you have a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here on Intern 101, let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks!