The Socratic Method

Questioning Our Assumptions About Design

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    The Rookie Architect: Navigating Your First Job

    Sean Joyner
    Jan 10, '19 2:49 PM EST

    When you step into a firm for the first time it can be quite nerve racking. Things are foreign to you yet also oddly familiar. It’ll take a couple of months to really take it all in. In the beginning , you’ll feel anxious, insecure, inadequate, but you’ll also feel excited, blissful, and optimistic. You’ve worked hard to get here, and it wasn’t an easy path. But now, after all you’ve gone through in school you’ve come to realize that this is actually the beginning, being a professional that is. School was merely the preface to a bigger picture.

    And so as you enter this new season, you’ll want to embrace a few things to help you along the way. These are things that I’ve adopted and that have been helpful and fruitful for me, it’s not an exhaustive list but if you embrace these points I promise it will help you in some form in your journey.

    Most of the items listed I’ve learned at my own expense, failing in some way and learning from those failures. Being a newbie can be a tough path and if you don’t have the resilience to learn from your mistakes and endure discomfort this profession will eat you alive. But not to fear, chances are school toughened you up pretty well already. The points to follow will equip you to become a formidable force in your place of work. Let’s jump into it:

    1. Become a master observer

    Understand that everything that you will need to learn will not be voluntarily given to you, if you are passive in your growth you will quickly fall behind, you have to be proactive when it comes to your growth. Being an observer allows you to discover the subtle things that most people will miss.

    First observe the leaders:

    • What’s their leadership style? (this can be vast but seek to understand the different personalities and realize that you cannot be the same with everyone. For example, some people will prefer that you go up to them at their desk to ask questions while others will prefer that you schedule a time to talk with them, one isn’t necessarily better than the other but rather just different preferences for each person.When you understand this you can modify your approach depending on who you’re dealing with.)
    • What’s their relationship to the other leadership? (within a group of leaders there will also be a leader, as you become a better observer you can see who has the most authority. This knowledge is good just to understand the dynamic within the leadership. Remember, we are merely observing not judging, we only want to see things as they are and accept and seek to understand them.)
    • What are their pet peeves? (most human beings have pet peeves, leaders especially. Find out what they are and do not trangress them.)
    • How do they talk to people? (unless you have an extraordinary mentor you won’t get much training on how to interact with people as a professional. You have to learn this by observation. Listen to how the leaders and those more experienced than you talk to other people. If you are in a position to see how the other person responds to the leader, even better, you can witness how effective their communication is and if they typically have good rapport with others. Most of the time you will want to ask yourself why things were said in certain ways and think of how you can incorporate those principles into your own communication.)
    • What is their vision? (good leaders have a vision for their organizations, chances are that the principals at your firm have one too. Be sure to understand what this is and what your part to play is. Realize that this is not always exactly what the vision of the firm is. Some leader’s vision might be for everyone to obey them and not ask questions, believing that there is not room for any defiance on their team. While other leaders might have a vision of a team that is constantly taking initiative and pleasantly suprising them with fresh ideas and awesome presentations. Everyone is different. You can discover what this is by how your leader responds to other team members, notice the subtle things that they appreciate and try to identify how that might fit into their larger vision for the office.)

    Typically, the tone of the office is a result of the leadership. If the work is always late or things seem overly chaotic, chances are the leadership is unorganized. If people feel comfortable to share their ideas and collaborate freely, you can bet that the leadership are open to new ways of thinking and adapting to new ideas. In almost all cases the captain of the ship is the one responsible for the condition of the ship. This will help you to know what leaders to emulate and which one’s mistakes to learn from.

    Next observe your colleagues:

    • What is their perception of the leaders? (This one is tricky, you have to realize that almost everyone has a problem with authority. This question is more for you to understand the character of your colleagues rather than as a basis to judge the leadership. Someone who is always dissing the people who employ them needs to be seen with caution, if things go bad for them and you are involved they will most likely turn on you also.)
    • What is the internal dynamic? (Just like school, there is a dynamic in the office that you must understand, there is probably a favorite: the star-child that everybody loves, there’s the master: the guy or gal who has been an architect longer than your parents have been alive, the defender: the one who speaks their mind and protects the firm from people (contractors or plan checkers a lot of the time) who want to play games, the jester: the one who makes light of everything. It can go on, the point here is that there are certain types of people and there is an agreed upon dynamic that you have now stepped into. The faster you understand this the faster you will be able to navigate it.)
    • How are you perceived? (You want to have some kind of idea of how other people see you. This is not a way to measure your self worth but more so a way for you to understand and anticipate how another person will respond to you. At a previous firm I worked at the culture was one where your devotion to the team was measured by how long you were willing to stay and work. I would always come early and leave at around 5pm and I knew that this was not perceived in the greatest way. For personal reasons I was not able to stay as late as everyone else [and so I came earlier than everyone] but I knew that while people on my team understood that and were cool with it there were others who saw that as me not being a team player. Understanding this would help me on how I might approach those people, for example, being sure to express that I was heading out for the day but that I would be in at a certain time earlier the next morning to continue my work. In the end, people will think what they think but having some kind of knowledge of that will give you insight on how to interact with them)

    As a brand new professional typically if you are pro active, take intitiative, and seek to find ways to be a team player and help the team you will be on good terms with your colleagues. With those closer to your age try to take the position of a comrade rather than a competitor (a “we are in this together” kind of vibe) and you can usually avoid unnecessary drama.

    2. Seek to make lives easier instead of trying to prove yourself

    When a firm hires you their primary hope is usually that you will be able to help the team in some way. I know that seems obvious but most of the new hires I talk to have an extraordinary preoccupation with a need to prove themselves. I was this way too, thinking things like, “I need to show them that they made the right choice in hiring me,” or “I can’t ask too many questions or they’ll think I’m stupid.” Whatever it is, when we focus so much on ourselves we end up inadvertently doing a worse job because all of our energy is spent being insecure.

    Think of it this way instead: Realize that your goal is to make the lives of those around you easier. Do not worry about getting recognition, let the person directly above you have all of the recognition, make them look good, make their life exponentially easier than it was before you arrived. This should be your primary focus, making the life of the people you’re helping significantly easier and learning as much as you can. By doing this you will naturally be a person of desire within the firm because what people want more than a talented designer is someone who makes their job easier and saves them time.

    You can achieve this in a number of ways, it will be different depending on who you’re working with. One thing that I always do is try to anticipate what my supervisor may not have thought of for a meeting, it can be something small like tracing paper, an extra pen, a print out of an email that is relevant to the meeting, anything that could have a possibility of coming up, I want to be the guy who has it ready to go.

    You can take a step further, often times when I print something out, like a building code document that I need help with I will highlight the section I am going to ask about, then I will print out any sections that the section I am asking about refers to and highlight the relevant sections in there. I will make sure the sheets are ordered in a way that follow the flow of how I will ask my question and then I will go ask the question. My goal is to make this the simplest and easiest process for the person I am going to talk to. Most of the time this is a question that takes maybe a minute or so to answer but I like to think that if I didn’t prepare everything in this way that it would take longer. It will take time to know what to do and what to look for but if you are observant and take the time to absorb what you learn you will be on your way.

    Be the one that makes the lives of others easier and more convenient and you will naturally do what you were so concerned about before; you will prove yourself. Finally, be careful not to take this into a vibe that becomes more like brown nosing or kissing too much ass. Imagine someone like the Chief of Staff to the President, he or she is not a kiss ass but rather an indispensable ally.

    3. Eliminate your need for approval

    Naturally, as young designers we all want the approval of someone older and more experienced than us but this can be dangerous. When you’re seeking the approval of someone in your firm you are missing the reason why you are there. You didn’t go into architecture to please your boss but rather to contribute to the world. At a firm your focus should be on the work you are doing not for the approval of your employer. You will inevitably come across people throughout your career who do not like you, this is something you cannot control. Yes, it is important to value your relationships with your team and your employer but these people should not be the ones who determine your value.

    Instead focus on the work. You are there to do great work. When you do this you begin to realize that you are a part of something that is beyond you and another person in your office. The entire team has embarked on a journey to complete a great project, if you embrace this you’ll usually find that everything else will work itself out. You will find that you have more resilience when people get frustrated or upset (which will most definitely happen) and that you will not take things personally.

    Focus on the work and giving the project your best and you will be golden.

    4. Take initiative

    Passivity is a profound weakness that many people in our generation suffer from. We tend to want people to hold our hand and tell us what needs to be done. This isn’t true for everyone but I see it happen a lot. In your new role you do not want to be a passive person. Similar to my example above about taking initiative before a meeting you want to do this with all of your work.

    • When someone gives you redlines to pick up don’t just do the redlines that they give you and return it back to them, take a moment and check their work too, most of the time you will find that they also missed stuff, they are mere mortals like you. As you gain more experience you will learn what to look for.
    • If no one in your office puts away their dishes in the kitchen, be the one to put them all away. Don’t be a follower.
    • Ask the question that everyone else is afraid to ask. I remember I was in a design meeting and everyone kept referring to something called a “spandrel” and I had no idea with this was. I usually wait a while and see if I can figure out what something is based off of the context of the conversation but this was something I was completely caught by. The design principal and the project managers were all there and so were some of my peers. Finally I asked what it was and they were happy to tell me and two of my younger peers told me that they were happy I asked the question.
    • If I can do it efficiently I typically try to figure out what something is or how to do something before I ask for help. When I first started drawing details I would sketch everything that I could think of in my notebook of how I thought everything went together and then only after I completed this would I would go to the project architect and ask for help. Do this anytime you are able, it will make you a better thinker down the road and the person helping you will appreciate you getting things started for them.

    If you embrace this point you will only go up in your time at your firm.

    Remember that you are more than equipped for this new role. Embrace your new position and your ability to contribute to your new team. Take the points I’ve talked about and explore them this week. And always feel free to reach out to me if you have any insights or revelations as you commence your journey!

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This blog explores ideas about design and how it relates to our lives through research and critical thinking. As the title suggests this will be a platform to present thought provoking ideas intended for further discussion.

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