Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Speaking of dress code...

In case you're all wondering what you should be wearing at work (and everywhere else) these days, here's a handy little graphic to help you understand.  I received this from a recently-licensed intern at my firm, and I only wish I'd known about the Prada glasses earlier.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 4: finally, being the part

I realize I've been harping a bit on this topic lately, but it's for good reason.  My firm has hired a large number of interns in the past six or eight months, some with several years of experience and some fresh or almost-fresh out of school.  And lo, I now watch them make some of the very mistakes that I was trying to fix when I started this blog two years ago.  Some of them make mistakes out of sheer enthusiasm--they're so excited to finally be working and even have a job in this economy, so they do too much or the wrong thing.  But strangely, I see some of them make mistakes out of sheer...what's a good word for it--mediocrity?  It's as if they do not fully understand the world into which they've stepped and perhaps hope to stay in for a long time.  But if they continue to do the things that they're doing now, they won't be.

At the aforementioned happy hour, a colleague of mine at another firm lamented about an upcoming deadline.  He was trying to find a polite way to ask his interns to work some overtime; he hated to ask people to give up their weekends, but due to the deadline that his boss had dropped on him, he couldn't see any other way of getting it done.  As he chatted with his interns, one of them piped up and said that she "would never offer to work overtime."  My friend facepalmed for a moment and said, "How can you be an architect and never work overtime, or even be able or willing to do it now and then?"

A longtime friend of mine visiting from Chicago snorted, "I have an intern fresh out of school, and he managed to set his own hours!  He's in 6:30am to 3:30pm, which would be fine if he had four years' experience.  He knows so little about what he's doing that he doesn't even know what he doesn't know, and I'm constantly having to fix or review or re-review the stuff he's messed up in the hour and a half before I get in.  And if I suddenly need help getting something put together before 5 because a client calls with some sort of emergency?  It's all on me.  I swear, sometimes it's like not having any help at all."

I try on this blog to be honest and optimistic at all times, because life is dark enough without having old and cranky people tell you how bad the world is.  Sometimes I lean more heavily towards optimistic because I know that whatever crappy thing I'm explaining is going to pass, such as this economy.  For now, I'm going to lean a little more towards honest, because some (though surely not all) of you may need this information for your present or future job.  And here is the honesty: we cannot just show up to architecture; we must be architects, and first, we must be interns.  This means doing the crappy work and the sometimes-unfulfilling work.  This means sometimes working late nights and weekends and through lunches.  This means scrambling for three deadlines in a week now and again.  This means being open to learning how to do something, and being open to learning more than one way to do anything and everything: ceiling plans, code studies, flashing details in a wall.  This means learning how to manage up, how to deal with odd or volatile or strange or moody bosses.

It means that the late nights and long hours don't disappear just because we have our degrees--we still have work to do and clients to satisfy and deadlines to meet.  Longtime readers of Intern 101 know that I'm repulsed when a firm has its interns constantly working 45+hour-weeks, because those hours mean that someone isn't managing the project--or perhaps the firm--very well and the interns are picking up the slack for that bad management or project planning.  But the other side of that coin is that every project--every project--will require some overtime here and there.  If nothing else, extra effort will be needed during the week or two before a major deadline, as everyone on the design team is making sure that all the details have been drawn and checked and everything is coordinated.  And because you a) are on the team, b) are good with the documentation software, and also c) need to learn this stuff, you will occasionally have to pitch in on a weekend or early morning or late evening.

It also means that we don't start out in this field making the rules and on our terms.  The less experience you have in architecture (or the worse your initial work experience was), the harder it is to face this fact: you don't know how much you don't know.  That fact has nothing to do with age and everything to do with experience.  (Remember: architecture pays you for your experience, not your education.  Your diploma is the cover charge that gets you into the nightclub of the architectural profession.)  Because you are still learning unbelievable amounts of information and concepts and problems and solutions, your managers and bosses will look over your shoulder more, want you to check in more often, want to review your work constantly, and yes, will want you in the office when they're in the office.  Why?  So you and they can correct for errors before the problem gets too far along, and so they can answer questions and not leave you in the lurch.  Again, there's wiggle room here and there, depending on the boss, project, firm, etc., but you will still for a while have to go along with certain rules while you're still learning.

If you want to be the boss and/or make your own rules and terms, which was point #2, then you're going to have to spend some time doing point #1, which is pitching in and going the extra mile while also learning and retaining that knowledge.  And that is the ultimate point of these four recent posts: it's not just about showing up but rather about being here.  That's kind of Zen, even for me, but it's the truth.  I have colleagues at my and other firms that complain about how poorly they feel they're being treated at work, but when I observe or ask questions about their performance, I'm not surprised that they feel like their companies don't care: they often behave as if they don't care about the work.  It's one thing to warm a desk for eight or nine hours a day, but it's another to engage in the work and the learning process and really get something out of it and grow even more from what you got out of it.  That, at the end of it all, is what I hope for all of you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 3: acting the part

Some of my architecture friends and I met for happy hour recently, sharing our triumphs and tribulations.  (Note:  I shouldn't say "architecture friends" but rather just "friends"; most of my friends are architects.  Sad, I know.)  One of my friends, an architect I've known for seven years, was fretting/complaining about an intern on her project.  "He has four or five years' worth of experience and does good work, but sometimes it seems like it's pulling teeth to get him to to anything.  He waits for me to call him or see if he needs something else to do, and he acts like he can barely tolerate what he's working on.  I mean, we're doing a bank, and I know it's not the most exciting thing to do, but can he not act like it's leaching his soul?  Am I asking too much?" usual, my answer is yes and no.

It's a lot of ask of anyone to sublimate all their emotions about everything at work and act like all is well and life is wonderful, like every project you work on is heaven and magic.  Not every project we work on is going to be what we like doing, nor is every task we do to our liking or using our strengths.  You're allowed not to be ecstatic at all hours of the workday--work should be fulfilling overall, but not 100% of the time--it just can't be.

At the same time, I think back to a reference letter written about and for me by my favorite undergrad studio professor.  A grad school that turned me down accidentally sent his letter to me, and among many nice things, he wrote: While Lulu is not the strongest designer, her energy and enthusiasm make her an integral part of any Studio.  Being 22 years old, I only focused on the "not the strongest designer" part.  Ouch times one million.  I shared the letter with my godfather, who also happened to be an interior designer.  "Lulu honey," he replied in his delightful Southern drawl, "that's a bigger compliment than you think."

"Projects in the work world go on for months or even years," he explained.  "Keeping a good attitude and enthusiasm and energy and a positive outlook can be hard on a project, and if you can do that, it makes a long project go a lot better.  And the people you work with want to work with you again, and they're more willing to go along when you need them to change lighting or move a deadline to a week earlier or whatever.  Good energy on a project touches a lot of folks."

It's that part of working on a project team, the energy part about which my godfather was speaking, that make me say to my friend: No, it's not too much to ask that someone not roll their eyes or sigh heavily or complain about the client every time you hand them some work to do or ask them to print this or research that on their behalf.  We architects and managers know that you don't always like what you're doing, and we know that doing SD renderings in SketchUp is way more fun than checking a door schedule in CDs.  But being able to greet those requests with a "sure, let me see what I can do" or a "no problem, consider it done!" makes all the difference on a long and arduous (or short, furious, and crappy) project.  And to be sure, I don't mean that you're delirious with joy to look up ADA clearances in a building's toilet rooms--that's not having a positive outlook but rather suffering from a dangerous mental condition.  Acting willing, ready, and able to take on any task or challenge, no matter how cruddy, tells your boss or project manager that you're on this team and at that firm for real.  You want to be there, and you want to be useful and productive.  If you want that, your manager can teach you Revit, CAD, building codes, whatever competencies you're missing in order to do your job better.  But if you don't want those things...good luck hanging onto your job when so many other interns--and some architects--are willing.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 2: talking the part

I find it interesting that college prepares us--not just architects, but most if not all professions--with nearly every skill necessary to their job except that of communication.  In architecture, we learn some communication skills, of course, but they're mostly visual and very trade-specific.  We learn how to draw and build models of what's happening in our heads and how to get that point across to the jury in school, and then we learn how to explain visually to the contractor how to build our vision. But we spend a lot of time learning how to speak an insular language, that of architecture, and then find ourselves unable to speak to the average person about how what we're doing is important and why we're doing it and what it means and so on.  Further, it seems that we spend so much time learning how to speak--or refuse to speak--our insular language that we forget how to speak to any other human being about anything.  I could write a hundred pages on my  issues with archispeak, but I'll spare you because 1) you seem like decent people and 2) I want to focus a bit on everyday communication in the workplace.

If you're working in a architecture firm, the chances are extremely high that you have a college degree.  Your bosses, clients, and consultants know this: they know your degree is part of what got you in the door to this office in the first place.  And especially in this economy, they know that you must know your stuff.  With so many well-qualified interns and architects to choose from right now, you must be really sharp to be working right now.  So imagine someone's surprise when they open an email that's poorly-spelled or confusing, or perhaps they receive a slang-filled, profanity-laced, or sharply-worded accusatory email from you.  Suddenly, your credibility is gone (or at least damaged) with a few keystrokes.  I've seen it happen with architects, not just interns, and I've seen it happen in person as well as with email.  Again, I've compiled a few things I've learned in 11 years of practice and from my colleagues' experiences as well.

  • Don't just fire off emails; take the time to pause and understand them.  Are you clear with what you want the outcome of this email to be?  Is it something that might be better handled with a phone call first?  If you've received an email, do you understand what is being asked of you?  Is there an undertone to the email (whiny, bossy, belligerent, confused)? 
  • Don't just fire off emails; take the time to pause and reread them.  If you're sending out the initial email, is your request or question clear in the email?  Have you provided all the necessary information for the recipient to respond or make a decision?  If you're responding to an email, did you answer all the questions asked of you?  Is your response neutral and factual (especially important if the received email was nasty or cranky or accusatory)?  Again, might this be better served by making a phone call first? 
  • A one- or two-word response is rarely acceptable.  Every now and then, they're okay, but in general, use complete sentences to respond to a question or request.  If your client emails to ask if you would send them a color hard copy of a site master plan you've done, the best response is something like, "Absolutely.  We'll print it today, and you should have it via UPS tomorrow."  Not "okay" or "yup" (which I've actually seen in an email to a client).  If a consultant emails you to say that they need a ceiling lowered in a specific room in order to get ducts to work with beams, a good response is something like "Got it--we'll make that change right now, and it will be in the Revit model we post on Friday."  A real sentence shows that you've read the email and understand the request or information being presented.
  • Watch the slang--not everyone hangs with your crew.  I say this regardless of whether your favorite phrase is "holla back,g" or "git 'er done."  Slang implies a level of intimacy that you possibly don't have (and probably don't want to have) with your clients, consultants, or contractors.
  • Remember that everything you send or write on company email is fair game in a court of law.  I've talked about this before, but it's worth repeating.  If your email has an inside joke, profanity, or some sort of snide comment about a project or another team member, think about how that email would sound being read aloud in court...or having a belligerent client find it in your files and using it against you.
  • Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.  Some of the stuff you deal with might be better handled by your boss, or even your boss' boss. If you're ever unsure, forward the email to your manager and ask them how you'd like to handle it.  This is especially important when someone asks you about something in which you had no part of making, such as a contract, fees, or project schedule.
  • Pretty much all of these things apply just as much to verbal communication as they do to written communication.  We are often taught that being able to immediately say "yes" or "no" or "two weeks" or "blue" makes us look on top of things and highly competent, but it's not always the case.  Pausing in verbal communication to ask questions, check the drawings or code books, or talk to our colleagues and/or managers helps us make sure that we understand the problem or question fully. This understanding ensures that we're not revisiting the question later when our attempt to talk fast and go fast has forced us to give an incorrect answer or poorly-thought-out solution.  Email has the blessing of making communication nearly as instantaneous as speaking face-to-face or on the phone, but this can be a curse when we think we have to respond immediately. 
The bottom line here is that it's okay to pause and think before responding or acting on an email or a verbal request (or comment).  That pause gives you the chance to make sure you understand the situation and are reacting appropriately.  As a friend of mine says, "Don't mistake action for progress."

Got a question to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here?  Let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 1: dressing the part

(Note: I think I may have posted on this before, but I'm unable to find the post for some reason.  My apologies if any of this feels repetitive.)

Alas, summer is in full swing throughout the U.S., and we have finally had several 80+-degree days here in Colorado after living through some chilly-early-spring-like weather in June.  Because the weather is warming up considerably, everyone is dressing more relaxed and warm-weathery: cargo shorts, sandals and flip-flops, short sleeves and tank tops, and so on.  And alas, these garments are showing up at some workplaces.  Some warm weather gear is fine for the workplace, but some of it is borderline inappropriate even in a casual office.

Perhaps it's my old-school Southern raising speaking.  I'm 35, but I was raised by a Southern grandmother that lived through the Depression and World War II, and damn if she was going to leave the house and go into town in any less that a full complement of makeup, jewelry,  and a decent dress and jacket or at least a double-knit pantsuit.  (Part of how we knew she was declining cognitively was when she started going into town in her house dress and apron.)  I personally very rarely wear jeans in the office (more on that later), and I strive to look somewhat modest and business-y.  While I was raised old-school Southern, though, I am a product of my time: if other people wear a polo shirt and jeans every day, it doesn't bother me in the least.  But I have found that there is a line between casual fashion and "oh, whatever" that we in the under-40 crowd tend to cross, sometimes accidentally.   Here are a few general pointers that I've collected from 11 years in the office, both from my own experience and my colleagues sharing what they've learned at various firms over the years.

  • Guys, wear a collar.  Even if you don't have meetings and you never meet clients and your office doesn't insist on wearing ties, a collar on your shirt (like the aforementioned polo shirt) looks spiffy.  A t-shirt with no collar looks like you're about to go to the beach/club/car wash.  (Note: if your boss has you working in a dusty file room or moving boxes or the like, then the t-shirt makes some sense.)
  • Ladies, cover your shoulders.  Yes, there are occasional tops and dresses that are sleeveless that look good and professional, but use them with care.  Too-narrow straps make it hard to cover your bra straps, and the wrong material makes it look like you're getting ready to hit the club/bar/beach.  Which brings us to a couple of unisex points...
  • Everyone, cover your underwear.  Too-narrow straps, too-lowcut fronts or armholes on tops, too-low pants, too-thin materials...these are all telling me way more about your choice of undergarment than I ever want to know.  If you're ever in doubt, layer something under it or leave it at home.
  • Maintain your garments.  If something's been scuffed beyond recognition of its original material or has holes in it, it's time to mend it or save it for the weekend.  And I know there are some expensive-ass jeans out there that come with holes in them--save those for the weekend.
  • Wear work clothes at work, and party clothes at the party.  Cargo shorts, flip-flops, shiny metallic tops, gauzy/tight/shiny collarless shirts: quick, what do all of these have in common?  They're meant for wearing somewhere other than work.  They're meant for nightclubs, rafting trips, beaches, etc.  If the garment could immediately go from wherever you are now to a beach or nightclub, save it for later.
I'm sure there are a few exceptions to all of the above, but they're good general guidelines to keep in mind.  I follow these guidelines to the point that I don't wear jeans at work unless a) it has snowed eight inches and it's 10 degrees outside and my long johns need to fit under something, b) I'm really sick or physically injured but need to come in and do a few things before I go home and rest, or c) I'm in for a few hours before I get on a plane and go somewhere.  Notice a pattern there?  It's a similar pattern to the one running through the above guidelines: when I dress super-casual, it's because I want to be (and am about to be) somewhere else.  It's become almost a code now at my office; when people see me wearing jeans, they always take note, and some of them will ask, "Are you going out of town today?"

If you consistently dress like you're here to work, you send the message that you are ready, willing, and able to take on tasks and challenges.  If you consistently dress like you're too cool for the 8-to-5 with your hacked-up jeans, or just came straight from the club with your shiny halter top, or you're ready to be a lifeguard in your cargo shorts and flip-flops, then you're telling your colleagues (and bosses) that your mind isn't really here.  And this may seem silly or nit-picky, but remember: we are a profession full of people with a well-developed sense of aesthetics and details.  We critique design in part on the basis of whether it fits its surroundings and what kind of purpose it telegraphs.  These same skills will be applied, consciously or subconsciously, to the people we see.  And because we (and your colleagues and bosses) do this, thinking about the message you send when you put on your "exterior skin" each morning can really make a difference.

Got a topic you'd like to see discussed here or a question you'd like to ask?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For your consideration...a few interesting blogs and websites

The July 4th holiday found me in a lazy-as-all-hell mood, so I failed to post anything good or useful...well, at all, really.  So if nothing good is going on at Intern 101, perhaps you'll want to check out some other fun blogs and websites, such as:

The Hamilton Road Project: written by a civil engineer in training who's remodeling his own house, God love him.  (The occasional person in his remodeling photos tell you that he's not an architect--there are people in his pictures, for the love of Eisenmann!)  There's nothing like actually doing the work to really teach you how to draw the stuff you ask other people to build.

Ramblings of the small town architect: A good read, Small Town muses on the profession of architecture.  Though he hasn't posted much lately, his most recent post on the "value" of Architectural Record and similar publications actually made me spit iced tea on my laptop.  Good thing I have a plastic film over the keyboard.

Lovely Listing: Part of the I Can Haz Cheezburger group of websites, this site makes fun of odd, amusing, and sometimes downright terrible buildings, houses, furniture, and photos of real estate listings (hence its name).  Presently on its main page, they're paying homage to/heckling Frank Gehry.

Are there some other good sites I should post about here?  Drop me a line (via email in the sidebar) or tell me in the comments!