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!

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