Monday, June 25, 2012

Specializing and generalizing, Part 2 of 2

I wrote last week about looking for places to excel in the architecture profession and going after those tasks and skills. I advocate this path in architecture for a couple of reasons.  One is that this is bound to be a long and arduous career for many of us, and getting good at the parts you enjoy can make the trip a little more pleasant.  If you're good at something you also happen to enjoy, you may actually be (*gasp!*) paid to do something  you really like to do for a living, which is about as close to nirvana as many of us will ever get.  

The other reason I advocate for this is due to trends I see in our profession: it's as if we're finally acknowledging that all architects are not all things to all people.  It's not because we're bad architects or bad professionals--it's just that it's not human (or often possible) to be really good at everything.  And in a professional and economic climate where so much is at stake, a firm cannot afford to have anything less than the best on each aspect of the project.  You don't want the space planner trying to figure out where the vapor barrier goes in the exterior wall, and you don't want the specs guru trying to figure out the best arrangement of the materials and parti for the building. That being said, we're all architects. We care about the way the building looks and how it works inside and if it's affordable to build and efficient to operate.  We all still deserve and need a say in each of these aspects.  But the conversation needs to be led or at least started by someone who really knows what they're doing.

And yet, I've seen the architectural specialist take a hit in the past five years.  Architects who were CA experts, spec experts, or building envelope experts, are the ones I saw get laid off the most.  First off, if there's no work to get and do, then there's no specs to write or CA to perform, so there's nothing for these souls to work on.  But second and almost more importantly, these specialists were often too specialized; their skills could not or would not translate over to another aspect of architecture.  The best example I've seen of this was a senior architect who was a whiz at exterior building detailing and CA, but he was so cantankerous that he couldn't be brought to a schematic design or space planning meeting.  As soon as someone proposed rethinking or redoing everything they had been thinking and sketching on for the past twenty minutes, the architect dug in his heels and refused to revisit a concept or site location or whatever was up for debate.  The strictness that dictated his primary skill set (and ensured success in that arena) foiled any success at any part of architecture that required nonstructured thinking and flexibility.  He was laid off less than a year after the recession started.

I advocate specialization, but I don't advocate utter and complete specialization.  To paraphrase the saying about closed-mind thinking: if all you have is a hammer, then you can only deal with nails--pounding them in and pulling them out.  If you have one of those neato rechargeable drills, you can drill screws with various head types, or you can attach or remove nuts and bolts with various heads and sizes by interchanging the heads.  No, you can't pound anything into a surface like a hammer, but you're definitely more useful.  To take this analogy further, if you have a shovel, you can mostly use it to dig into the dirt and move dirt around, but you can also use it to cut roots and hack at weeds and smooth out a dirt surface and even whomp something on the head with it.  You know how to use a tool--and your skills--successfully for something other than the intended purpose.

Last week, I mentioned the skills at which I have excelled, am okay, or am not so good.  It's the okay-skills that I feel best about, oddly enough.  I'm really good at designing how healthcare departments should be laid out and can work best, but I also am decent enough at Revit that I can go into a model, put in walls and doors, and move things around to get the plan just how it needs to be.  I'm glad to rely on others who are faster and better for this work, but I can do the work myself if need be.  I'm excellent at healthcare codes and guidelines, but I also know enough about regular ol' building codes to know that there might be something in there that will throw a wrench in the amazing floor plan I'm trying to achieve. Being really good at one thing at the expense of all others isn't talent--it's being a savant, and a savant isn't nearly as helpful as someone who is really good at one thing and pretty good at a few others.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Specializing and generalizing, Part 1 of 2

I recently celebrated the 12-year anniversary of being at the same architecture firm, where I started as an intern fresh out of grad school in June of 2000. Well, "celebrate" is a strong word--I mostly remarked on it to a few colleagues and my husband.  In that time, I've gone from super-green intern to healthcare planner and project architect.  I started as someone whose job it was to do whatever's needed on a project, and twelve short years later, I've become someone with a more specific set of skills to be employed in certain ways and at certain times.  Some of my skills have increased, some have plateaued, and some have waned.  Examples:

Things I've gotten really good at in 12 years:

  • User group meetings: asking the right questions, settling arguments between users, keeping the discussion on track
  • Space planning and schematic design in healthcare projects
  • Healthcare code/guideline requirements
  • MEP/acoustical requirements and pitfalls in healthcare facilities
  • Writing, producing, and editing marketing materials and interview presentations

Things I've gotten okay/sufficient at in 12 years:

  • Revit (drawing, modeling, building families, drawings details, scheduling...I can do my own CA, but I'm not a fast drafter/modeler like I was when I used CAD for 8+ hours a day)
  • Building code requirements (I have 0% of that book memorized, except that dead-end corridors in a hospital can be no longer than 20 feet)
  • Construction administration (I can do it, but man, do I get impatient and irritated)

Things I haven't gotten good at in 12 years:

  • Exterior detailing
  • Specs (I should be a lot better at this, but I wrote specs on a project recently for the first time in almost four years, and I realized how bad/out of practice I am at it)
  • PhotoShop/Illustrator/Sketchup/InDesign

I really am embarrassed at how bad I am at some of these items.  I've always had the impression--perhaps from school, maybe clients, maybe work--that I should know a lot about everything and good at every aspect of my job and career.  When I get that feeling, I remember the combined words of author Malcolm Gladwell and sports commentator Colin Cowherd.  Gladwell describes (in his book Outliers) the 10,000-hour rule, in which you have to practice something for at least 10,000 hours before you get good at it.  Cowherd uses an analogy of Michael Jordan versus Bill Gates: "Bill Gates will never make a dunk, and Michael Jordan will never program a computer. In order to get really good at one thing, you have to give up something else." 

In order to be the go-to guy or gal for Adobe CreativeSuite stuff...or rendering...or code research and knowledge...or space planning...or exterior detailing...or exterior and site design...or whatever, you need to spend a lot of time working on that thing.  You also have to accept that if you make the choice to excel at some aspect(s) of design or construction, then you're not going to excel at one or more other things.  I've become one of the few go-to people in my office for healthcare space planning and design knowledge, but my phone isn't ringing off the hook with people wanting to know where to put the vapor barrier in an exterior wall.  There are people in my office that know where to put the vapor barrier--they dig that sort of thing, and they know the right questions to ask me about that wall before they give me an answer.

IDP requires that you do a full range of tasks so that you know what it takes to get a project done and what you're required to do and know as an architect.  A side benefit of doing all that IDP requires is that you find out what you really want to do--design, space plan, code research, detailing, marketing, CA, etc.  Do the work, and then decide what you really enjoy and what really fits your skills, and then seek ways to further develop those aspects of your practice.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How Chris Rock can make your resume sharper

My sister and I were chatting recently when we both began quoting part of Chris Rock's standup act to each other and laughing our asses off in the process. My sister is an English professor who mostly teaches freshmen (1101 and 1102), and the start of every fall semester brings that moment when she dashes the hopes of the students who think they're just in 13th grade.  They assert that by meeting the criteria and basic requirements on the syllabus, they "deserve" an A.  My sister must then remind them that when you meet the minimum requirements, you get a C; you earn (not "deserve") an A when you do high-quality work.  We began relating this to a rather controversial bit that Chris Rock did back in the 1990s.  At one point in the bit, he describes how he hates it when men with children brag, "I take care of my kids!"  Rock counters: "You're supposed to take care of your kids!  Whaddya want, a cookie?!"  My sister feels like yelling something similar at the students that want credit for doing something they're supposed to do: "You're supposed to attend class every day and do all the homework!  You don't get a trophy for it!"

Sometimes I see intern resumes that list attributes that they believe would help a firm: Strong digital and hand-rendering skills, Experience with contracts and on-site CA, and so on.  Mixed in with these attributes are more personal ones: Attention to detail, Excellent communication and teamwork skills, Able to work alone or on a team, etc.  Here's the thing: after 4-6 years in college, an intern better be able to pay attention to detail, be organized and punctual, and work alone or with a group.  Well-meaning interns include these traits as a way to help firms see that they'll be a great fit and that they can be relied upon.  But these traits are givens in the work world: regardless of your profession, you have to have certain baseline traits to work, and listing them on your resume makes it look like you want credit for doing something that you're supposed to do already.

If you want to emphasize one of these traits, find a way to tie it back to a job or organization or activity.  For example, if you want to emphasize how organized you are, link it to your catering manager job where you juggled several events simultaneously.  If you want to emphasize your writing skills, link it to the time you spent editing the school's online or print journal or college newspaper.  Without explicit examples, it just looks like you're asking for an A for meeting the C requirements.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lulu's Mailbag: Are internet portfolios a good idea?

G. sent in the following question:

I would really like to have your opinion on the idea of internet portfolios. I created one years ago, and along with my physical portfolio, it was a great help. So many companies just seem to want work samples and that makes me think of a few well- chosen PDFs of projects that I have done. Of course the physical is a no-brainer, but is the digital one needed as well? 

G., I give a 100% thumbs up to internet portfolios, especially to those starting out in architecture.  It's a great way to get your foot in the door without wasting money on expensive printing and mailing.  A hiring manager or architect can click a link and see what kind of work you (can) do, and it tells them quickly if you're what they're looking for. Seeing a recent online portfolio made me want to bring in a recent interviewee, whom we ended up hiring.

If firms are asking for hard copies of your work, then it makes sense to think about what best describes your work.  Bring your two or three best projects in a format no larger than 11" x 17" (or A3 sheets for my international readers), and if you've worked in an actual firm, then I advise bringing a half-size set of a project you worked on or even renderings or photos of some built projects.

The physical examples are good to have for the actual interview, but the digital portfolio can help you get the foot in the door that you need in a tough market.

If you have a question or topic for me, feel free to leave it in the comments or via my email in the sidebar.  Thanks!