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.


  1. Internships don't have to be so miserable. I have just done one and recently joined Intern Avenue which only finds paid internships (www.internavenue.com)... you should come to the uk.

  2. I don't believe in mandating overtime but rather delighting responsibilities to the interns. As a intern at my office I know what I am responsible for and when it is due. If I need to work for three days without sleep so be it, if I can coast for a week working only 40 hours all the better. Our office likes to use unofficial flex time or put another way if you work 60 hrs one week then take a day off the following week and no PTO time is required. I think it comes down to giving the interns much more responsibility and stepping back to see if they sink or swim. As my IDP hours will attest, I have averaged 64 hrs per week over the past 20 weeks. This shows we are crazy busy at work and that I am dedicated and get my tasks done. I also don't mind the long hours because my IDP is getting completed faster and I get to take my up coming two week vacation without using a single PTO hour!

  3. will there ever be a work/life balance in the field of architecture?

  4. 1st Anon: The fact that interns sometimes have to work overtime and can't call all the shots in the first couple of years of their careers isn't miserable--it's life. It's no different than any other career, really; you get out of college and learn the ropes, and by learning how to do all the things that need to be done, you earn autonomy by demonstrating competency. It's good that Intern Avenue finds paid internships for folks in the UK; is it frequent that people aren't getting paid there? Here in the US, if an intern does any work from which the company directly benefits, they must be paid--it's law.

    2nd Anon: I presume that you meant "delegating responsibilities", and I agree. One of the things I do with my interns with some experience is explain to them what I want, when I need it by, and what it needs to look like at the end--how they get there between now and then is up to them. Good on you for getting through with your hours and taking some initiative. I do hope that you can find a way to take time or change up your hours if you ever need to do so. I hope your bosses don't come to depend on you working overtime all the time and taking occasional comp time days off--at some point that goes from efficient staff to poor project management. They could be employing another intern at least part time now and again to help you out.

    3rd Anon: There is always a work/life balance in architecture for those that seek it. I don't always work 60 weeks, and I don't always work 30 hours a week and travel. Work-life balance in today's architectural profession is best thought of as a tidal pattern instead of a scale. Instead of aiming for a perfectly-symmetrical equilibrium all the time, think instead of the ebb and flow of water advancing and retreating on the shore. Sometimes it's in, sometimes it's even, and sometimes it's out.

  5. Be careful of that "unofficial" comp/flex time. When the market took a downturn locally in the past year and half, the firm I was at started making cuts, unsurprisingly the interns were by and far the most that were cut. Leaving very few interns remaining to pick up the slack. At the same time we were all asked to cut our hours. Unfortunately for the interns remaining the workload actually increased because while I used to have 2 to 3 projects to work on (or 1 large) now with all the other interns gone - I had 4-6 projects to keep up with. My hours which should've been cut like everyone else were actually increased ... but with no increase in pay. I was working close to 50-60 hours a week for 32 hours worth of pay. Management encouraged us to take those extra hours as "flex time" - though they never opening encouraged this, and would never put it in writing (not surprising). That all sounds well and good if you're actually able to take that time off. From personal experience I would put in 50 hours and then tell (one of) my boss(es) that I would be gone on a certain day. That day came - I stayed home. Only to come in the next day and get lectured for not being in the office ... why? Because apparently I was slated to help on another project and I was supposed to continue banking my comp hours.

    What I'm saying is be careful with the flex/comp time. It might sound good ... but seeing as its un-official and under the table - when times get tough management doesn't have to acknowledge those hours even exists ... because they shouldn't.

    PS. I had friends laid off from that firm who had banked numerous hours of comp time. When they were laid off they asked for compensation for that time ... they were given nothing for that time. I thankfully left that firm last year voluntarily for a better position elsewhere. I've been told things have improved - so maybe they have.