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IT skills: A key to career success
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By Alan Joch

 

As the competition for plum appointments and perhaps a partnership at a choice firm heats up, architects look for every advantage to distinguish themselves from their colleagues. Increasingly, these competitive strengths include more than just design skills and a creative eye. Educators and principals at large architectural firms say that
IT skills, if promoted correctly, can sometimes open the door to the boardroom. “The firms we are feeders to are very committed to computing,” says Dr. Mark J. Clayton, executive associate dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University in College Station. “There is clearly a career path for architects who focus on IT.”


Young architects are typically very computer-savvy, but just knowing how to use software won’t get them far without other crucial job skills.
Photography: © Jon Feingersh/Corbis

But a basic proficiency with PCs and CAD software isn’t a rare skill set anymore. “Technical expertise is not the badge of honor it used to be,” says Ken Sanders, FAIA, vice president and chief information officer in the San Francisco office of Gensler Architecture, Design & Planning. To make an impact on progressive practices today, architects need to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of many different types of technologies. In addition to stalwarts like CAD, rendering, and modeling software, architects hoping to use technology as a fast track also must be adept with applications that streamline communications with clients, manage project schedules, and crunch return-on-investment numbers. Added points come with the ability to create Web sites, as the Internet becomes a ubiquitous communication tool for firms wanting to connect with clients and community groups. Similarly, Web technology helps practices create intranets to distribute in-house expertise to the entire staff in the form of electronic resources such as detail and image libraries, marketing materials, and project schedules.

However, IT training in itself isn’t enough. Fast-trackers also need the creativity to see how new technology can be applied to their firms and projects in innovative ways. “It’s less a skill set and more an openness and willingness to look for new ways of doing business,” says Jonathan Cohen, AIA, principal of Jonathan Cohen and Associates in Berkeley, California, and chair of the AIA’s Technology in Architecture Practice committee.

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Old school lives

Unfortunately, not every architectural firm embraces technology as a strategic business tool. Firms vary widely in their views of the importance of technology and may either promote or pigeonhole technology-savvy architects. Some staid firms regard technology as an annoyance or a support function, and in those cultures, becoming “the IT guy” may be a fast path to nowhere, Cohen says.

He recalls one consulting assignment with an East Coast architectural firm that was managed by a group of founding principals approaching their 70s. This “very old-school” firm benefited from a second tier of managers who had risen through the ranks and came to understand that architectural practices were changing. “They had an inkling that technology was becoming an integral part of that practice,” Cohen says, “but they couldn’t penetrate the existing culture.” If a firm’s principals won’t listen to new ideas, lower-ranking architects may find it challenging or impossible to bring about technology-based changes, and in turn, they may not secure career rewards for their expertise. “Firms that have been successful [in the past] often cling to the oldest methods,” he adds.

On the other hand, progressive firms view IT expertise as having strategic value that pushes the boundaries of their practice to attract new clients and bring about greater work-flow efficiencies. “In firms like that, a person sits at the management table and helps set the direction of the firm,” Cohen says. “Those are the firms doing exciting things.”

By following her IT interests, Jill Rothenberg, principal and chief information officer at ADD Inc in Cambridge, Massachusetts, landed a seat in the boardroom. Joining the firm in the 1980s as a junior-level interior designer, she became involved with the IT group because of a desire to do “something new,” she recalls. A decade ago, the firm named Rothenberg head of IT, a role that eventually became an entrée into senior management. “Many architectural firms would only consider making an architect a principal,” she says. (Rothenberg herself is an architect, but given her career path, prefers not to use her AIA designation). “But technology has become integral to our practice. Because of this, the executive management values my contribution to the direction and success of the firm.”

 

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