Monday, February 4, 2013

What to do when you're over your head...on a project

Another inevitable fact of being an intern is that you will end up getting in over your head on a project. Perhaps your boss likes what you do and how well you do it, so s/he gives you a bigger role with more responsibilities.  Or perhaps a small project turns out to be like an onion: it has lots more layers that you can see from the outside, and peeling those layers makes you cry.  Either way, there are few things worse than feeling overwhelmed and unable to handle a project, especially early in your career when you're still developing your skill set.  It leaves you feeling adrift and anxious, and it might even leave you thinking you're going to get fired if anyone sees this or figures it out. 

The first thing to remember when running a project as an intern is that a licensed architect must supervise your work. On a regular basis, a licensed architect needs to look at what you're doing, answer questions, provide feedback, and review most if not everything you send out of the office. That process can be in person or electronic, but it needs to happen. If someone isn't doing that, then you're going to have to manage up.  Send out the message to your office, send urgent emails, and even stand in the doorway/walkway of your manager's office/cubicle and insist that someone review what you're doing and answer questions.  If you have a few years' experience, you may think that you're answering everything just fine and doing well, but unbeknownst to you there are repercussions to what you're asking and writing in your emails and RFIs and documents. The seasoned eye of a competent licensed architect can stop the in-over-your-head phenomenon before it ever starts.

I mentioned there are few worse things that feeling over your head. One of those few worse things is having your mistakes discovered after the fact. If you're feeling like you're not able to do the right thing on a project, or you don't have the skill to respond to a project's challenges, the time to ask for help is the moment your start to feel that oh-dear-God-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into feeling. Asking for input, review, feedback, and advice is one of the primary ways that architects learn. Ask for help before it becomes a problem, and ask for help when it's a problem.  It's okay to admit ignorance within the walls of your firm. If you're unlicensed with less than, say, seven years' experience, no one is expecting you to know everything.  

Frankly, no one's ever expecting you to know everything, even after you're licensed.  Architecture is a big, wide, deep field, and you can't know it all.  I have 12.5 years' experience and manage large projects, and yet I still will ask my boss for help in writing a good email or making a judgment call on how to make a floor plan work.  My boss has almost 20 years' experience and is one of the principals of our firm, and yet he still asks me questions about the ADA and various healthcare codes and guidelines. Everyone asks for help and advice--it's just the nature of architectural practice.

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