Monday, June 27, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: Starting up and over as in intern

I received an email recently from an intern who graduated from architecture school just as the economy tanked.  The intern managed to find a position working in marketing at an architecture firm, in which she worked with project managers who were licensed architects and help them create project proposals and other marketing materials.  She wondered what would be the best way to transition from being the marketing person to being a project manager.  After all, it seemed as if the project managers don't do a lot of CAD or Revit now, mostly Microsoft Office and various graphics programs (though they all started out as drafters, CAD jockeys, and interns back in the day).  Since she had been working with them for three years, and she had joined them on so many walkthroughs of buildings and projects and had worked on so many of these presentations and proposals with them, she has a good idea of how to do a PM's job, right? So what's the best way to become a PM?

My response: become an intern first.

I'm pretty sure this isn't the response she wanted to hear, and I don't blame her a bit.  It's hard as hell to be told that all the architecturally-related stuff you've been doing for the past two to three years isn't enough to help you get the job you want, and now you basically have to start over as if you just got out of school yesterday.  But the truth is twofold: 1) there's a lot of very necessary skills and information to be learned by working on projects as an architectural intern; and 2) not everything you just did is a waste, both in terms of architectural and IDP experience.

Let's take the first point first.  If you are two to three years out of school and haven't been doing redlines or CAD/Revit or researching products or figuring out details or doing code reviews for projects, then no one is going to make you a project manager.  The reason that project managers don't do a lot of drawing and CAD work but rather do more directing, managing, and even marketing is because in general, they've spent a lot of time doing the code studies and CAD drawing and product and detail research already.  They've worked side by side with engineers (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and civil to name a few) and followed multiple projects from early SD through to turnover to the owner, and they've learned a lot along the way.  These PMs now have years of experience understanding what it takes to put a building together, therefore they know what it takes to put a project together, and therefore they know what it takes to put a proposal for a project together.  PMs understand some aspects of marketing because they understand so much of what makes a project happen and how to make it happen.  And they learned first by doing.

Going from marketing (or a contractor's laborer or carpenter, or architectural product sales, or admin staff at an AIA office, or any related field) to a project manager position without first getting some good, solid experience as an intern/coordinator--doing redlines, research, code studies, flashing details, working with consultants to understand how the mechanical systems work in the building, etc.--is practically impossible without having serious repercussions for you and your firm.  Promoting you to a PM position without you having been an intern/designer first would put you in a position of having to walk around an existing building and look up at walls and ceilings and ducts and doors and so on without really knowing what you're looking at.  

That lack of construction knowledge would eventually show, and it would put your job/career and your firm in a bad position.  Furthermore, it would put you in a bad position with your colleagues: "Look at this green kid who went straight from marketing to being a project manager, never did a redline in his life.  What the hell does he know?  Whose nephew is he?"  Or worse (of which usually women are victims):  "Who did she [insert obscene activity here] to get that promotion?"  I've seen this happen, and it's ugly and demoralizing for everyone in the firm, regardless of the gender of the person, by the way.

I completely understand how what PMs do looks like just a bunch of marketing, and I thought the same thing in my first three or four years of working: "What the hell does s/he do anyway?  Crap, I could type all day on a Word document!"  However, the reason their job looks so easy is because they've done lots of hard work before this moment that makes all the right answers sit on the tips of their tongues.  The things they learned during their years as architectural designers and CAD monkeys makes those marketing and project walk decisions easy because they learned those answers the hard way.  The only way there is through.  You don't need an architecture degree or architectural experience to do marketing for an architectural firm (or be an architectural product/material rep, or work in the field with a contractor), but you do need it to be a project manager.

Now, let's address the second point, which has some good news.  As I've said here recently before, NCARB is changing the rules on IDP to allow for some less-than-traditional conduits for gaining credits in order to help the many interns whose employment paths and prospects have been derailed and detoured due to the economy.  Review the new requirements for IDP 4.0, and you might find that some if not all of the time you've spent working in an allied field may count for IDP credits.  But there is a deeper core to the experience you've gained in your related-but-not-exactly-architecture gig: everything helps.  

For example, if you are working in marketing for an architecture/engineering/construction firm, ask questions like "why did we ask for a 9% fee on this project but only a 7% fee on that other one?", and even "what do you consider when you're putting one of these together--schedule, complexity, the building's function, etc.?"  Those are great questions that you can learn from and apply as you advance in your career.  If you're working with a product or material rep or a contractor, ask questions there: what makes this hard/easy/fun/frustrating?  Which of these products/materials is best for what application?  What if you used this product/material in a spa/kitchen/hospital/prison?  

So few interns ever get to deal with the front end work of getting a project, and just as many have a hard time getting the chance to pick materials and fixtures or even do on-site CA (which is the best way to learn), so that gives you an additional advantage when working on projects (or applying to other firms to be an intern/designer there).  So learn from whatever your present workplace is and bring that knowledge to a firm once hiring starts up again.  Been working at a restaurant?  Look for firms that do food service and hospitality.  Been working at a clothing store or a bookstore?  Look for those that do retail and commercial.  The best education you could get would be to work on a project from the real beginning (marketing) to the real end (punchlist and closeout), and all the skills you've learned at other jobs and other places can put you ahead of the pack.  You can use those skills to excel as an intern, then get licensed as an architect and eventually be a PM.  

But you have to do the architectural work first.

Have a topic you'd like to see discussed or a question you'd like answered here on Intern 101?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks, and remember: this blog works best with your feedback!

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