Thursday, September 30, 2010

Managing up: even your boss likes the idea

My apologies for the lack of posts--between traveling, a doubling of my workload, and internet problems at home (from whence I write my posts), I haven't been able to rub two brain cells together to make a coherent post. However, I did want to pass on some good news from the mentoring front. I recently gave a guest lecture/seminar/discussion for the AIA East Tennessee chapter, and the roomfull of partners, firm VPs, and project managers showed me that there are some folks out there who are actually concerned with how well we train and mentor the future of our profession.

There were a lot of great comments and discussion during the seminar, due in no small part to the interns and college students who were also present. I wanted to share one comment here briefly as a helpful pointer in managing your boss:

At one point in the seminar, I asked the crowd how they would respond to an intern if it was 5pm and the manager still wasn't done with something they wanted the intern to plot for them. One of the firm partners in the crowd piped up, "You know, it's really all about communication. Interns should understand that it's okay for them to come up to us before that 5pm deadline and ask how it's going or say 'hey, it's 3 o'clock already, are you going to be ready soon' or whatever. And they can ask about the deadline, ask if it's okay to come in at 6am instead of wait around until I'm done at 6pm."

Essentially, this firm owner said that it was okay for interns to manage their bosses, to manage up. It's helpful for everyone in a firm--interns all the way up to partners-- to be reminded occasionally of a deadline or checked up on. The entire team has to be accountable to each other, in both directions, and knowing that you can check up on your boss to make sure that his/her work is on time and provides the information you need is pretty motivating...and probably a relief when you're at the bottom of the pecking order.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What not to ask in an interview

I apologize for the lack of posts lately; while I've become really busy in the past month and a half, this week has been extra busy. I have to travel for work during the early part of next week, so I'm having to work extra right now to make up for the lost time. Meanwhile, I love this article on six questions you shouldn't ask in an interview and wanted to share with all of you. Even I learned something in this article--it never crossed my mind, for whatever reason, that it might look rude and even lazy to ask about working from home in an interview.

We're seeing the market come back very slowly here in Denver. A friend of mine at a Denver firm put an ad for an intern on one job website and received two hundred resumes in less than one month. Some firms here in the larger markets in Colorado are hiring a couple of folks here and there, but there hasn't been a rush of hiring. How's work in your area? Are many jobs being advertised for in your city? Have you or anyone you know been able to get in for interviews?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back to school...or at least to learning something new

I got an email recently from an intern who was leaving her architecture job to go back to grad school (for an M.Arch) full time. She described to be the ups and downs of being at her firm, and one of her comments really resonated with me:

One other issue I noticed is how the managers give out work. I noticed many times [they] would give certain work to interns that they thought knew the programs or that had done the work before. This would often leave some interns overloaded with work and others stuck in a rut of drafting. I think it would be good for the managers to understand that most interns coming out of school are able to learn new programs very quickly and will probably be able to complete the task in roughly the same amount of time as someone that has done it before. If they did keep this in mind, they would be able to utilize more of their interns and they would also be providing the interns with a more well rounded work experience. Perhaps someone could go around to the interns and at least ask them what programs they know and what tasks they would like to do that they haven't done yet and that information could be shared with the managers.

The reason this observation hits so close to home for me is that I've been a victim of this myself. Early on in my architectural career, I did a couple of code studies in short succession on three different projects. My manager was really impressed with how well I did them. He was also impressed that for whatever reason, I was able to get the folks at various code boards/building departments/health departments to call me back quickly (after I'd called only once) and give me good information each time. After my code-review successes, my manager began assigning me every code question that came down the pike and asking me to check nearly every code review on his various projects. On the one hand, it was an honor that he would trust me with something so important--research and interpretation of building, accessibility, and healthcare codes!--but at the same time it was a burden. I was in the middle of two deadlines when he asked me to call a code official with whom I had a good rapport to ask a question on a project that my manager wasn't even working on. At this point, I had to push back on that manager (with a little help from the manager I was actually working with at the time) to get him to leave me alone and get someone else to call this code official. Someone else on the project's team made the call, got the info they needed, and now a new person had established a good relationship with the code guy. Good news all around.

If you get really good at something, chances are high that you'll get pigeonholed for doing that thing a lot--detailing, setting up Revit projects, rendering, animations, Illustrator, code review, special project type, whatever. Chances are also really high that whatever you get pigeonholed into doing will likely involve software--after all, that's what younger interns have the most experience in, and it's what mystifies older architects (and sometimes I'm one of those oldsters that gets mystified!). Getting stuck on the same task or type of task over and over again is especially likely during tough financial times--putting the person on the job who can do it fastest (and therefore cheapest) becomes standard operating procedure. Even as times start getting a little better (like they are right now in Colorado), that pattern of work assignment stays because firms are still a little gun-shy about hiring and just ask their existing employees to work more. What ends up happening, as the intern noted above, is that some people who are really good at something (like rendering) stay crazy busy while everyone else is barely busy.

And wouldn't it make sense to have more people be good at more than one skill? As the intern above points out, absolutely yes. If you have two or three people who can render and do animations, suddenly the firm is more productive because you don't just have one guy completely wrung out and exhausted, working 70-hour weeks trying to get renderings knocked out for four different project proposals. Instead, you have two or even three people working manageable 30- to 40-hour weeks knocking out the same renderings. While this process makes all the sense in the world, don't wait for managers to pick up on this and solve it. It's not because their heartless or mean, but rather it's because they have so much going on that they may very well not be fully cognizant of what effect this is having on the interns. (Again, it's the Boss' Paradox: s/he may not know what all you're doing right now, but s/he knows how well you do it.) Solving this will be up to you and your colleagues in the office.

You may decide to learn some new software on your own, either by taking a class somewhere or even futzing around with the software in the office during your lunch breaks or before/after hours. However, it may be just as helpful to have someone in your office who is really good with whatever kind of software to do a couple of lunchtime tutorials for those interested in that software. S/He could take everyone through the basics (import this, here's how you mirror and copy and fill in with color, change properties, etc.), and then everyone can practice together or on their own. After getting a little experience with the software, you can then let all the managers in the office know about the new skills on the office. For example, everyone involved with the lunchtime tutorials can send out an email to the managers to say, "hey, we've been practicing together and now you have four people you can ask to do this for you," or you can let your manager know that you've just completed a course in Illustrator and would be glad to help him/her with the next project proposal layout that comes along.

The other part of this is the simple act of asking or even volunteering. During a not-so-hectic moment in the office, mention to your manager (and maybe some others) that you're looking for a chance to do some task that's getting piled onto some other poor intern or architect in the office. It's very possible that the managers in the office have simply never thought to ask someone else to do the code research/building department review process/bubble diagram in Illustrator/whatever. If you hold yourself up and out as someone who can and is willing to do that, then you may be able to lighten the load on your managers as well as your colleagues.

If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here or a question you'd like answered, feel free to ask in the comments or via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Informal poll: do you have a need for LEED?

I may have asked this before, but if I have, then it's been a while, and we have a bunch of new readers here at Intern 101. So I'll ask again:

  • Are you a LEED AP?
  • How many people in your firm are (percentage-wise) LEED APs?
  • Was/is passing the LEED exam a factor in your employment, achievement, or ability to get a promotion at work?
  • Does your firm value having LEED APs? How do they reward or show value to someone who passes the exam?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Architecture would be easy if it weren't for the people

I was making small talk with one of the partners at the firm at which I work recently when he apologized for yawning so much. “A client called me late last night,” he said. “I was awake because I was working on a proposal for a project that we’re so close to landing, and then there’s that client on my cell phone. I hardly got any sleep.” This client also called him at midnight the previous Saturday…a Saturday? At midnight?! What kind of crazy client does that sort of thing?

“A lot of them,” was the partner’s reply. “You’ll find that a lot of really high-ranking people in each of your clients’ organizations has some kind of personality disorder or mental illness.” He wasn’t kidding; I myself have worked with some really strange people as the decision-makers or points-of-contact for my clients. Sometimes, my point-of-contact is perfectly normal and easy to work with, but those who make decisions above his/her head have a thought process usually only attributed to ferrets on meth. Sometimes the client is great, but they hire someone to manage the project and work with you who is stark raving mad. (And every now and then, I’m the crazy one. That’s the scariest part.)

Communication and conflict resolution aren’t really taught in schools, but psychology is. If I ran the world, I would make at least two psychology classes mandatory for architecture students—Basic Psychology and Abnormal Psychology—and I’d follow them up with a required class on good written and verbal communication, conflict resolution, and understanding nonverbal communication. Since most of you reading this are likely already out of school, though, I recommend paying a great deal of attention to how your team members—architects, consultants, clients, and contractors—communicate over the phone and in person. Observe your first impressions about them, and then make a note that this is your first impression only; what are they like the next time you meet them? And the next time? And the next? Are they better over the phone or in person? How do they sit (arms crossed, leaning towards or away from you)? Do they speak kindly or harshly to you, only certain people on the team, or to everyone? How do they react when they’re asked for their opinion or are asked to accept something that’s less than ideal (an extended or rushed deadline, the second-best product, etc.)?

Communication is one thing, but mental illness is definitely another. Remember that everyone you come in contact with on a project is human, terribly and gloriously human. And some of those humans have been scarred by life—heckled in junior high and high school, told they weren’t good enough by their parents, left wounded by one or more sad or traumatic events. Some of them were torque in the head the moment they showed up on earth; there is no set/agreed-upon cause for a narcissistic personality disorder, and there is most definitely not a cure for it either. I remind everyone about how important psychology is in your day-to-day dealings because everyone’s bringing their mental illness to work every day, and they’re bringing it to your OACs and site walks and user group meetings. It’s important—for your own sanity—that you don’t take other people’s behavior personally. You can take it seriously, just don’t take it personally. If you’re working with someone who seems like they’re a flaming maniac, it’s good to check your observations with others’ to see if perhaps you’re inadvertently rubbing someone the wrong way, or if indeed they’re just out of their minds.

Architecture is a team sport, and each team has to function exceptionally well together to pull off a decent project. Knowing how to deal with everyone firmly but assertively—and acknowledging their humanity—can make that process a little (or a lot) smoother.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The magical world of contracts

I recently asked the interns at my office how many of them had actually ever seen a contract for a project on which they were working, and only one of the ten I asked had in fact done so. This is unfortunate (and as usual, inexcusable, I think), because contracts help everyone on the team more deeply understand a project and understand roles, rights, responsibilities, and deliverables. When even interns are able to read the contract for their project and understand how it affects their day-to-day work and tasks, that knowledge actually can improve how they get things done.

The AIA writes standard form contracts that everyone can buy the rights/license to use, not just AIA members. Even a developer or building manager can buy the rights to the contracts. The best reason to use the AIA's form contracts is because they've been well-researched and well-vetted by a ton of lawyers, and they're generally fair to everyone involved in the contract. The contracts clearly delineate what each party's responsibilities are as well as what rights they have. For example, in the standard contract between architects and owners, the architect must regularly survey the project as it's being built and is required to inform the owner of any variations in the work. However, the architect does not have to make an unreasonable amount of visits to the site, and s/he is allowed to make minor changes in the project without telling the owner, as long as the changes are consistent with the intent of the drawings. Also very cool--and important to know--is that the typical contracts include the stipulation that the architect is the final word on matters of aesthetics, as long as the decision is consistent with the intent of the drawings.

These are just a few of the many things in a contract that affect how an intern operates every day on a project. If an owner starts pushing an intern doing CA on a fairly simple project to visit a site 45 minutes away three times a week when the project is still three months away from completion, the intern doesn't have to immediately say "yes sir!" to such a request. They can know that the request is possibly/probably excessive before they even get back to the office to ask their boss how to respond to the request. They can also know that if they're in the field and have to make a judgement call on "what looks nicer" on a soffit or a kneewall or something, they do indeed have the authority (within reason) to do that.

I'll talk more about contracts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have a question or a topic you'd like to see discussed here, let me know if the comments or via email in the sidebar. Thanks!