It takes a generalist to become a specialist
There is a lot of emphasis and pressure on our generation to specialize. While this is very important I personally don’t believe that a complete architect should strive for this from the onset. A broad skill set and diverse project typology understanding, forges the backbone to becoming a specialist.
There is also a certain risk with becoming a pure “specialist” or “expert” too early on in one’s career. Project typology or ‘practice area’ trends are constantly being informed by each other almost in a cyclical manner and this tendency is happening faster and faster as cities are shifting towards hybrid or mixed use project types. Being able to leverage knowledge from other project types is the key to innovation. Former Campus Architect at UCSD, Boone Hellmann, shared during an informational meeting that he always shortlists a “dark horse” architect who typically has a significantly less relevant project type experience than the other 2 to 3 firms on a shortlist for a project. This is because he believes that the first time an architect does a project type; it is often his or her best. The main reason for this, is that he or she will not be constrained by all the conventional ways of doing things. Of course there is the other side of the coin to the argument, which is that one must know the rules to break them.
The first five years after graduating are critical to becoming a great architect. Ideally these years should be developed in a fluid environment that embraces the different aspects of the profession and as well as diverse project types. In my personally experience the best environments to develop this type of knowledge are found in small boutique firms or in larger offices that have a clearly defined “small studio” structure/culture. This type of culture can be loosely defined as one that fosters risk taking.
Find a mentor
This may sound cliché but I have consistently been able to observe two distinct tracks of development; those who have been taken under the wing of leadership and those who have not. The latter fends for him/herself in a complex profession filled with professional and political faux pas, the former continues his professional growth in an organic way almost like a post graduate degree. So, how does one establish this type of relationship? Some simple tips apply to your first job or a new job where you are building relationships from scratch.
- Be humble – It does not matter if this is your first job or if you are being brought in as a senior lateral hire. It is surprising how many people come to a new office environment and fail to realize that it is already filled with talented people who have been dedicating their life to the practice. Take the time to understand the dynamics and focus on the quality of your contributions. Be willing to learn from junior and senior colleagues alike.
- Work smart and hard – working smarter and not harder is the ultimate goal but true effort is almost always recognized. Make it clear from day one that you will go the extra mile and do what it takes to get the job done by leading through example.
- Be positive – a contagious positive attitude goes a long way.
Leaders naturally want to collaborate and mentor others that exhibit these qualities
Start networking early
Relationships take time and patience to build. Just like a 401k needs to be built up slowly so do industry relationships and the earlier one starts the more successful they will be. This is the business aspect of the profession that is hardly mentioned in school or during the early years of one’s career.
Too often junior staff believe that the aspect of business development or networking is “above their pay grade.” This could not be farther from the truth. Junior architects should not necessarily strive to have relationships with the CEO or managing director of client companies. However, they should begin to understand how the client’s business works and who their junior peers are on the client’s side. Through professional industry organizations, start to build relationships with them. Overtime these junior peers will be promoted and they will take on higher management roles.
Architecture is a complex profession. Understanding the business aspect of it is essential for professional growth and having the opportunity to work with great clients on great projects.
Photo by author