Monday, February 11, 2013

Will having a life hold me back?

I was talking with an intern recently who is married with two small children. She overheard her boss mention that she (the boss) might send the intern on an overnight trip to meet with some clients because another architect couldn't attend. The intern mentioned it to her husband that night, and he was uncomfortable with her being gone overnight.  For her and her spouse, family is important, and neither she nor her husband liked the idea of her being away overnight for work.  Her work schedule with her firm is oriented around her family life as it is; she works through lunch so she can leave early to pick up her kids from day care, and she rarely if ever works overtime. The intern expressed her concerns to me regarding her future career path, and even her job security: "If I make family a priority, is that going to hurt me at work?"

We can quibble the idea of a spouse quashing our ability to travel for work, but that's not the point of the question.  We all have something (or somethings) that we like outside of work. Maybe it's family, maybe it's a hobby, maybe it's a second job that allows you to flex a different kind of creativity, maybe it's volunteer work, or maybe it's a combination of these or others. Any human being cannot only work at their job/profession; it makes them incomplete as people and more prone to burnout. Yet as my colleagues and I have gone further into architecture and up the ladder at my firm, I see common threads in promotion, raises, and job description changes.  Advancement in all its many faces:
  •  ...comes to those who do the work required with exceptional quality. People can be taught how to use software or how to look up something in the 2009 IBC or where the insulation goes in a brick wall section, but people can't always be taught how to care.  Exceptional quality in your work has to do with caring, knowing why something is the way it is, or knowing all the possible exceptions or issues or concerns with a piece of code, or checking your work for thoroughness and even spelling/punctuation errors.
  • ...comes to those who take the time necessary to do that work.  Sometimes--not all the time, but sometimes--that takes more than 40 hours in a week. It doesn't necessarily go to the person who's always in the office, 50+ hours a week, but I've never seen it go to the person who's right in at 8 and right out at 5, regardless of what the project requires at that moment.
  • ...comes to those who act and speak/write with respect, clarity, professionalism, and integrity. All the good design skill or technical competency in the world cannot be overcome by someone who lays out of work when there's a deadline or writes snarky emails to design team members or ignores clients.

If you work at a firm that doesn't allow for a life outside of work, I would personally beware.  I've also said here before that there are two un-ideal situations at work: never working overtime and always working overtime. Never working overtime means I can't count on you when there's a sudden emergency or deadline, which happens on even the best-managed projects. Always working overtime means you're overwhelmed or haven't been trained properly, or you're employed at one of those workhouse-type firms. But these may come off as platitudes for the intern I described at the beginning of this post.  What are her options professionally if she's highly competent, but 40 hours a week is all she can do?

My answer is that she has plenty of options if she chooses carefully.  If she works on a lot of local projects (to which she can travel to and from in the same day), there's no reason she can't manage those projects, especially after she's licensed. If she also sticks with smaller projects and project types, there may be less of a chance of having insane deadlines and tons of work to do on them (which would require a lot of that evening and weekend work time).  But here's the other unfortunate truth: interns are the people that work nights and weekends, because they're taking direction from architects.  Getting licensed will help open the doors she needs to be able to leave at 5 because someone else is doing the drawing.  Another option that will help her advancement is being willing to work at home a bit on weeknights, maybe after the kids have gone to bed.  Having a laptop (or an iPad, as I do) allows project architects and project managers to answer questions and keep people moving without having to be in the building ten hours a day.

But there will be limitations. One of the reasons I was given a major promotion last year is that I am (and have been) willing to take on big, tough complicated projects with intense deadlines.  I'm willing and able to travel to remote areas on multiple puddle-jumper planes to meet with clients for four days at a time.  I've been willing to do what the project required, regardless of the size or scope of the project.  It's that last part that makes me more flexible and allows my firm some breathing room when doing staffing, and that flexibility make their lives easier...and I've been rewarded for that.  And while I don't have children, I do work with men and women who have children and have also been willing to travel and work long hours when it was needed, and they were promoted accordingly.  

The bottom line: choosing family unilaterally over work/career will not completely limit your professional growth, but there will be some missed opportunities.  And choosing work unilaterally over a personal life and family will make you boring, bitter, and burned out. And these truths hold regardless of your profession.


  1. I agree with you up to a point;

    I'll concede and agree that at some times it makes sense to send someone to a project site to actually be there in person. However it needs to be considered whether or not it makes sense for that person to be there in person? Do they really need to be? I've been on a project that requires site visits, however I'd argue that 50% of these site visits we're completely useless and could've been accomplished with a conference call or a video call. It seems to me that architecture while quick to accept new technology in some instances (Revit, etc) we're painfully slow to even consider new technology such as video conferencing, and I'm not talking about the painfully complicated methods previously used. Google offers a completely free option that someone can log into via ipad, desktop, laptop, mobile phones, etc. You can be face to face w/o needing to jump in a plane.

    I'll also argue that the younger generation of architects/interns are quicker to accept this ... however we're fighting the the old people who only know the old way to conduct business and are un-willing to learn or un-willing to consider new options. Clients are getting younger too … times will change sooner rather than later.

    Additionally, I believe quite of few in the younger generation grew up with absent parents (I know I did), they worked too hard to provide and get ahead, but at the cost of ignoring their children. Their marriages failed, and the toll on the kids needs to be considered. My parents we’re divorced because both worked too damn hard and never spent time together. Maybe their marriage would’ve failed regardless of their work ethic, who knows but it certainly was a contributor.

    As such I’m very reluctant to volunteer any of my time away from the office, and away from my loved ones. Sure an overnight trip here and there … no problem. But, when it’s expected that you’ll drop everything in your personal life to jump on a plane to go to a meeting I have to draw a line, and that’s somehow the only way to get ahead? I’d argue it’s not worth it, sure my career is great … but my personal life is now in shambles because the office decided they could determine my priorities with the unsaid threat that I’ll never move up otherwise.

  2. I concur with your approach, Architect Timmy. My concern with the intern in thepost above is not necessarily that she might not be willing to travel for work--it's that she was unilaterally choosing everything else over work and refused to ever ever ever work more than 40 hours a week. While this does protect her life outside of work, it means that her coworkers are often left holding the bag and picking up whatever she doesn't finish. My concern for all interns is the unilateral and completely inflexible choosing of everything else outside of work, and also the unilateral choosing of work over everything else. Neither is healthy. And as I say in the post above, if you work at a firm where you're being told, either explicitly or implicitly, that you must put aside life for work at ALL TIMES, then it's time to get out of there...and fast.

  3. And I do agree that virtual meetings are often a much smarter move than in person meetings--they save a great deal of time and travel costs. In this intern's case, however, this was a trip to do on-site CA, which is one of the few meetings/trips that really does require making a trip.

  4. I'll also add that it is the quality of time you have with your children as well. You can go home on time all you want, but do you both read with your kids, help them with their homework, play silly games with them, or do you go home so that your spouse can go down in the basement with their stamp collection?

    It's sounds like your reader has a balanced family, but I think you're right on track - take a look at both aspects of life, work and home and find the right balance. I would say mine is a bit skewed toward work right now because I am developing my career, but if I have to miss dinner, I still make it a priority to get home to read stories. If there's a deadline and the school play is that same week, I go and come back or take the work home that I can do there - redlines, spec proofing, etc. 3-5 hours a week aren't going to make a big difference. Missing key events and disconnecting yourself will. Having a spouse that understands where yhou are in your career helps. If they don't then have that discussion. Despite being married some couples still have no idea what this profession takes or what their spouses take. Talk about it and understand it and know where each of your boundries are and what compromises you can live with.