Is Bigger Always Better?

January 21, 2010 — 13 Comments

When it comes to choosing which size architectural firm is better for you, which is better – big, little or something in-between? Turns out small was the right size for me (insert easy joke here) because it suited my interests and my skill set better.

When I graduated from college in 1992, the economic environment was pretty similar to what we have now. There were not a lot of great jobs hanging on trees so when I began my search, it started and ended pretty much with a job my mom got for me (long story best left for another day). It was for a sole practitioner who had recently gone out on his own and had been working out of a closet in his house. My first day on the job involved driving around with my new boss buying lateral files that were going to serve as the bases that we were going to put 36″x80″ slab doors upon for our drawing surfaces. We took my jeep because these things could pile up and over the boundaries of my car whereas his finely crafted Swedish super Saab could only fit human beings.

This firm focused on designing “genesis retail environments” which is a 21st century way of saying we designed one-off mom and pop stores. This work was fun but we worked all the time, I mean like 15 hour workdays and a full day on the weekends. I was at this first job for just under three years and other than working lots of hours (which eventually led to me burning out as my life added more life components and the opportunity for conflicts increased) this was a great job. I was able to have my own projects, write proposals, meet with clients by myself as a 24 year old. Heck, I even wrote a spreadsheet program in Excel to keep track of our billing which meant my boss didn’t have to go down to Kinko’s and sit at a typewriter all weekend. Yes, I am fully aware of how antiquated this all sounds…just don’t worry about that for now.

What was being laid at my feet out of an apparent necessity (because there wasn’t anyone else to do it) was the responsibility for a broader range of tasks than my associates who were working at larger firms. When I left this job, my skill set was far more developed than my peers in the areas of project management and client relations, but that’s when I discovered that I had a job skills problem – I was both over-qualified and under-qualified at the same time.

I went to a larger firm, about 40 people, but they had senior people in place who handled things like management and proposal writing. They didn’t need a 27 year old who had 3 years of retail design experience with a mix of upper level management skills. I was behind the curve now of my peers and still hadn’t had to draw anything that had to keep out water – flashing? vapor barrier?…what?

I went from firm to firm looking to find a good fit and to try and learn what I hadn’t previously so that I could collect the skills that I thought every good architect needed. The firms I worked at and the project types were:

Urban Architecture (now the Beck Group) – movie theatres and shopping centers
RTKL – mixed use retail
Forrest Perkins – interiors firm and historic preservation
The Michael R. Coker Company – land use planning, best use development
Michael Malone Architects – retail environments and residential

At every one of these firms, what I went there for would change so that my employers could make use of my emerging skill set – design, critical thinking and communicating. Eventually I would leave as soon as a pattern became established and I would go somewhere new to learn how to detail a building so it wouldn’t leak. It wouldn’t take long before the things I was good at to present themselves and my job role would change back to essentially the same role as the job I just left. I fought this for a long time without recognizing it for what it was – I liked to draw and wanted to work out details. I was getting bored doing the same thing over and over every day and missed the thrill of getting to do it all – designing, detailing, talking to the client and yes, even the billing.

The way most large firms work is that the skill set of each individual is finely honed so that each individual becomes what I call “awesome” at what they do. This is a person whose skills have been developed along a narrow band of tasks and they become extremely qualified in their roles. I am not saying that they can’t do other things, just that they aren’t asked to do other things. Therein lies the singular difference between large and small firms. The individual at the small firm is asked to do everything and wear all hats. Now depending on which side of the firm-size fence you stand on, you might have the grass is greener mentality towards the other side. No me – I’ve been on both sides and have learned that I am better as a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. I couldn’t do what they do but the good news is that I have finally realized that I don’t want to do what they do (and I’ll be 42 years old in April….)

I forgot, if you want to know where I am at now

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  • anxiousORexcited

    I am glad tht I am reading your blog posts …better late than never. I liked to read this one..felt so relevant:)

  • Great post. Like many others I’m on a similar journey. Pigeon-holing is a horrible fate for those of us that prefer the small firm, jack-of-all trades lifestyle. Glad you retweeted this today so I could come across it!

    • absolutely! Yes, it is jack of all trades for me, can’t imagine going back to a large firm at this point (but you never know)

      I wrote it so long ago, I had only 7 readers at the time so I will send out some of my favorite old topics from time to time so new visitors don’t have to hunt through 400+ posts.

  • Nat

    I understand my problem now 🙂 Great article

  • David_K

    Hi Bob,

    Just a quick question. I have just completed my Architectural degree couple months ago and couldn’t be happier that I’m out of uni now. So now my first step into the working world; I am looking for a ‘not so stressfull’ job. I don’t mind getting paid less. Do you think I should go for a bigger or smaller sole practitioner practice?

    • Anonymous

      I suppose that is sort of the point of the post … only you know which will be better for you. Even then you might not know until you experience each environment and see which one fits your skill set best.

      For me, it’s a smaller firm, these days even a private practice is a consideration. Only you know what you are capable of and which place will provide you the best opportunities to take advantage of your skills.

      Best of luck.

  • davidpgoode

    I have a similar experience in work, having started in the late 80s as a temporary drafter at 18 years old in a multi-discipline firm. I've been the only architectural guy, I've been one of two at a start-up, I've seen a small firm grow to a rather large company (and back again) and was a managing principal of a 28-person office at 37.

    I have always avoided the massive firms although opportunities were there. I never wanted to be pigeonholed in a role. I enjoy spending the morning on details and the afternoon on marketing and accounting. I believe I'm an all around better architect because of it.

    I'm 41 now and launched a new firm about a year ago. I missed the jack-of-all trades approach, so I left the big firm. In my business development, I make a point to clients that my “over qualification” makes for a better project experience for them. Its working, and business has been terrific. I have promised myself to always keep it small…

    • David,
      You probably are a better architect for it and it sounds like your skill set is suited for the broad range of tasks that you take on daily. I am glad to hear from people who have discovered what they like to do and are able to pursue it. Other flourish in large companies – figuring out what is best for each individual is the key.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • bborson

    don't you think it would make a great bumper sticker?….
    (I think I just marginalized myself )

  • bborson

    don't you think it would make a great bumper sticker?…. (I think I just marginalized myself )

  • Marcela Abadi Rhoads

    Hey Bob,

    I really like your Blog! I totally could identify since that was a similar journey from mine (including all the moving around to find the right fit). Love the last sentence…among others.

  • Marcela Abadi Rhoads

    Hey Bob,I really like your Blog! I totally could identify since that was a similar journey from mine (including all the moving around to find the right fit). Love the last sentence…among others.