Make Your Own Opportunities

April 21, 2014 — 26 Comments

Young architectural interns are awesome … full of promise and possibility. I’ve been around the architectural block more times than I care to admit at this stage of my career and I have learned a few things along the way. One upside of working many jobs is that you get to experience all sorts of different project types, firm sizes, and management techniques. I have felt that there were some jobs that prepared me to achieve success more readily than others but I typically learned something of value at every job I’ve ever had – sometimes learning what not to do is as important as learning what you should do.

Last week, as I was driving to a job site, I had one of the interns in the car with me and we ended up having an interesting conversation about how a person’s behavior in the office can have either a positive or negative effect on their career path. When I graduated in 1992, the economy wasn’t very good and I was happy to get a job. The firm I worked with (which happens to be the exact same one where I work now) was a start-up … I was the company’s first employee. As a result, I wasn’t paid particularly great but none-the-less I loved my job. Where I wasn’t compensated financially, I was compensated with responsibility and opportunity. It was during that period that I think I shaped my work demeanor and ethic. We didn’t keep time sheets – just worked towards deadlines. This meant that I could spend as much time as I wanted working on a design problem as long as I met the overall deadline. I should point out that I wasn’t told to work more hours, I just did. As a result of all this extra time working – along with working in a small firm, I was given opportunities very early on in my career and I was able to take advantage of them.

I thought I would list the 10 attributes that I think an intern should demonstrate if they really want to rapidly advance their career. If you manage to add these traits to how you go about performing your duties, you will find that you are in an excellent position to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. As the saying goes: Luck favors the prepared.

Interns Doing your own thing

Job site visits at lunch
I hear it all the time, interns want to get out of the office and go to the job site. So what are you waiting for? Go! There normally isn’t a reason why you can’t go other than you have other responsibilities, but even then, you can go on a lunch break. I used to do this all the time and always wondered why nobody else was doing this along with me. As a bonus tip, just make sure that you have some appropriate shoes to wear. Look the part and people will take you more seriously.

Dress appropriately
I’ve heard people say this before – “dress like your boss”. In order to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves, you need to look like your supposed to be in the room.

Ask questions
Young people know all sorts of terrific things and I would never tell you to be something you’re not – but if I’m being brutally honest, you don’t know what you don’t know yet. All too frequently I will give what I think are clear and concise instructions to an associate only to check in hours later and discover that they have been doing something else entirely. I recommend that after you receive instructions you repeat back what you are being asked to do accomplish just to make sure everybody is on the same page.

Know what you don’t know
How can you know what you don’t know when I’ve just said that you don’t know what you don’t know? Well, you know when you don’t know something so don’t pretend that you do only to go back to your desk and try to figure it out then. Ask a question and get a clarification, it’s not a bad thing and the person handing you the task will not punish you for it – I promise. It’s when you pretend to know something you don’t know that things get messy.

Take notes
You should really get into the habit of writing things down. I developed this habit right out of school and it has stuck with me ever since. This habit has also protected my bacon more times that I can recall – and there are all sorts of additional benefits to being the person who writes things down. I worked in an office once where the main partner used to swoop through the studio like a tornado, checking in on people and wrecking havoc as they decided that you were screwing something up or not doing as you were told. This NEVER happened to me because people knew that I wrote everything down. I never (and you shouldn’t either) pulled out my notebook out to demonstrate that I was “right” – that’s a “career limiting” move. This person just knew that I was diligent and as a result, just took it at face value that I was doing what I was told.

Learn new skills
This is an easy one, right? Don’t just get better at the things you already do, taking on new challenges will present you with new responsibilities. At my second job, I taught myself Photoshop after hours and on my lunch break. (Photoshop was not a common skill back in those days) Once the design partner discovered that I knew Photoshop, gone were the days of toilet partition schedules and boilerplate construction documents – now I was in design meetings helping prepare concepts for presentation … this skill got me in the room.

Look for ways to help out the firm; don’t wait to be asked to contribute. I wrote a post about writing your resume and one of the lines I put in there was that I wanted to earn the respect of my peers – and I meant it. By putting yourself out there, you will get the attention of the people who matter, the people who can help you in your career (this is also a strong argument for volunteering).

No Reasons or Excuses
Nobody really cares why something didn’t happen or why something was done incorrectly. Reasons and excuses sound a lot a like and the time when you most strongly feel like you need to defend your action is typically the absolute worst time to do so. You shouldn’t spend any time defending yourself because despite current evidence to the contrary, your boss probably knows you aren’t ignorant – they just didn’t get what they wanted from you. Hopefully your track record demonstrates your abilities and this is a rare event. If it’s not and you do make mistakes all the time, defending yourself probably isn’t going to help you out in the long run.

Find a mentor
Make an effort to find someone in your office who you can turn to for support and guidance. This person should be in a leadership position in the firm but preferably someone other than your boss. Depending on the size of your firm you might not have that many options but complaining to your boss about things may not be the best idea. Finding a sounding board, someone you can vent, ask questions, get recommendations, etc. is a very good thing. Finding someone in your own office who understands the culture and the personalities in play will be able to help you far more than someone else – but any mentor is better than no mentor.

Generic Shop Talk
The people who want design opportunities in the office always amaze me when they don’t actually engage in any sort of design “shop talk” with the designers within the company. I used to talk about the projects in the latest design magazines, the current exhibition at the museum – whatever that was going on – with one of the design partners all the time. I didn’t do it in an attempt to suck up but more of an opportunity to learn something from them. One time, the partner told me that I was the only person who ever did that and they would have thought that the people who asked for design opportunities during their employee review would actually show more interest in design. Seems pretty obvious to me but apparently it isn’t to everyone.


When opportunity knocks, someone needs to open the door. We all know what this means but are you prepared and in position to do something about it? I wish there was a list like this when I was younger, I can’t help but wonder what I would have done with it or how it might have shaped my career.

I hope this list means something to you and you’re in a position to do something with it.


Bob AIA signature



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  • Michelle C. Smith Cowman

    I really enjoyed this post. As a young intern, it really validated many of the things I’m already doing in the office – just have to keep it up. The hardest thing I find doing is talking to senior principals off the cuff. I’m comfortable dropping by my colleagues desks to chat about design. Have to keep at it since it will only pay off and expand my knowledge base. Thanks for the post!!

    • most welcome. You are correct in identifying that talking to senior principals is hard but if you can figure it out, it’ll be well worth your time and effort.

  • Todd Howard

    Bob – SPOT ON my friend. I can not thank you enough for taking the time to write this. I have shared it with our office. – Todd H.

    • Thanks Todd – nice to see you here on the site. I am always happy when someone local shows up!

  • Jess Hopkin

    Thanks for this post! I now know I’ve been on the right track with the few unpaid work experience jobs I’ve had. I always right notes down in my diary. It really helps out with group uni projects when other people don’t do stuff on time, just record it for future reference and move on.

    • that’s the smart play – you record things for yourself, not as a record of what others do (or in some cases, what they don’t do). I tell my daughter “get your business taken care of and then go help others”

  • JD Franklin

    Bob as always you have hit the nail on the head once again. I think your blog should
    be required reading for anyone that is interested in furthering their career
    path even if they are not architects.

    This information applies to not only architecture students, but to most career
    paths. Coming from a structural steel designer’s perspective, I have found that
    all of these tips played a pivotal role in shaping my career path from starting
    out as a laborer working nights to 20+ years later being a senior designer at a
    larger international engineering/construction firm.

    One of my older coworkers told me “there is no such thing as luck; luck is where opportunity meets preparedness”. I took that to heart and worked to prepare myself for any and all opportunities that may present themselves in my life.

    • Thanks JD – and you’re right about being prepared. Making sure that I can speak or act with confidence has been a major contributor to the effort I put forth. Of all the people I am familiar with, nobody comes to mind who has made it through life by skating by.

  • Carolyn Chaiko

    Great blog post. I think its exceptional advice for interns.. or anyone..In fact, I just told my teenage son some of the same advice about his school work and behavior.. oh brother! Thanks always for the great writing!

    • Thanks Carolyn – hopefully your son listened better than some of the people in my office!

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  • Bill Woodhams

    Great article, the only rule I have ever told any intern in our office is ask us any question. There is no such thing as a dumb question, except for the one you do not ask.

    • We encourage asking questions as well but a lesson I learned from my wife was the 20 minute or 5 question rule – you have to try and solve your own problem(s) until you can come to me

  • This is great and very applicable to other fields as well. I especially like “Learn new things.” I always tell our intern-equivalents that they need to be great at two things, one is not enough. If your employer would have to hire two people to replace you, your job is secure.

    • The concept of making yourself valuable to your employer is a difficult one to appreciate when you’re in your early 20’s. When I was that age, I thought I was bulletproof.

  • This should be part of the standard issue manual for recent graduates.

    • Thanks Enoch – experience is life’s greatest teacher

  • AlmostJane

    Great post. Reminded me of one of my father’s greatest hits: “Only kids your age have everything figured out. But you have NO idea what you DON’T know yet.” Now I know it’s probably the way things always have been/always will be, but I sure do wish NOW that I’d been bright and/or humble enough to have really listened to both of my parents back in the day. Have a great week.

  • Thanks for the great article! This is really helpful for getting me into a progressive mindset for my internship this summer. I’m sure many other students are in the same position.

    • Thanks Andrew – you should note that my normal hyperbole is missing from this post. These things actually will make a huge difference if you follow them and incorporate them into your workflow.

  • thank you for taking interns with you on jobsites! i used to go right after work, taking my business card just in case someone was there to ask what i was doing. later, i worked for an architect who did take me out, then sent me out by myself, too. i learned so much from the contractors this way!

    • People tend to think that architects and contractors have a natural disposition to be adversarial but it simply doesn’t need to be that way. I really love being on the job site and discovered long ago that contractors – and subcontractors – enjoy being asked questions on why things are done a certain way. In many ways, they know more about a certain thing since it exactly how they spend their time. Everybody has something to offer.

      • Exactly right Bob. In my experience, the relationship only gets adversarial when one (or both) parties let their ego get in the way… if either is willing to concede that the other might have a valid point for why something is the way it is, then there’s room for civilized discussion and constructive progress. As architects, we must be willing to admit that we can learn from the contractors (who, like you said, do their specific tasks every day) and they must be willing to try to see our vision for a space, not just the bottom line/easiest (or cheapest) way to get something done.

  • Courtney Price

    Good advice, not just for interns…

    • Thanks Courtney – I thought it was pretty straight forward but I did have to learn it myself along the way.