The Big Interview

Portfolio, schmortfolio….

Image via Marjeux link here.

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of my time slogging through interviews of prospective talent about to, or having recently graduated from college.  Architecture is an almost unique profession that combines the very creative with the very practical, and navigating the thin edge between the two is difficult for some fresh grads.  I’d like to offer a few tips for those looking.

Let me fist explain that I’m not a recruiter, nor am I up to date on the current blitz of recruiting strategies out there.  I have a good friend who is, and have heard dismal stories of things like engineering resumes to be properly work search by an algorithm such that you aren’t one of the unlucky masses immediately “excluded” from consideration before a real person actually looks it it.  I’m not sure that many save for the largest architecture firms deal with those sorts of issues, and we definitely don’t.  Any resume that gets to us are always reviewed by a real person, usually the partner in charge of recruiting, or one of the senior members of management before any decision is made.  This leads me to my first point:

1] Know Your Audience

A resume that performs well in a search algorithm isn’t necessarily the same resume you want to be initially filtered by a human being.  Architecture, especially, is a unique situation and the resume is the most glaring example of a candidate’s struggle between “design” and “practicality”.  Corporations like boring resumes that only give the facts.  Architects aren’t that way.  We’re visual, and a well structured resume that is succinct, useful and easily to visually navigate say a lot.  Our architecture should always be succinct, useful and easily to visually navigate, so starting with your resume says a lot.  That said, a resume that is too visually distracting, too cluttered with images isn’t the right tact.  That’s what your portfolio is for.  While it may be very impressive that you grew, harvested, soaked and assembled the papyrus that you hand inked your resume on, all in accordance with the strictest rules set down by Pliny the Elder – you’ve strayed a little far off the path.  We need you back over here in boring, old practicality land.

2] Research The Firm

This overlaps the first point a bit, but there are so many facets to it that cannot be over emphasized.  We live in a world where finding information on a firm is extremely easy.  Nearly all firms are on the web, many have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and all can be subject to a Google search, especially in the News section.  Find out what architecture they do, who works there, what awards they’ve won, what their culture is like, etc.  Sure, you definitely peruse their online portfolio, but also look at the awards they’ve won, see what articles people at their firm have written in trade journals, check out the goofy event photos on their social media accounts…really get to know them.  I’m always surprised when I recruit students from my own university that have no clue I went there, though it’s clearly noted on my bio on our website.  One of the most important questions I ask candidates is “Why do you want to work here?”  and I promise you “I just need a job.” isn’t the right answer.  We [and a lot of other firms] perform a specific flavor of architecture that isn’t for everyone.  We are far more interested in recruits who are passionate about our sector of work, have examples of that in their portfolio, and can talk intelligibly about it.

3] Portfolio

There are vast amounts of information on how to craft a good portfolio, so I’m only going to offer a few minor points.  The first is that you have to think of this as a document to showcase your skills.  As a manager, I’m considering how you can be integrated into our team, what assets you have, what you can offer and if you have the passion and the tools to help.  Don’t clutter your portfolio with confusing images or too much information and make sure what is in there directly supports what you note on your resume, from software to skill sets.  Be able to directly reference those skills, and point out where you applied them.  Secondly, it’s become a thing with universities these days to embark on big group projects, sometimes ones that take a whole semester or year to complete.  These are an impressive tour de force, but unless I can see you, who you are, what you did, in them…they are useless to me.  A big rendering showing the completed master plan, or an animation showing the final result is fine, but the bulk of your information on that project needs to clearly communicate your role, what you did, how you contributed.  Sketches, process models, pictures of you constructing, anything that helps me see you in the work.

4] Questions

Where I get the most information about a candidate is when I turn the tables on them and ask “Do you have any questions for me?”  This is critical, because I learn how prepared they are, how desperate they are, how much confidence they have, and most importantly, how passionate they are.  I purposefully leave out a lot about our firms when I discuss it with them with the intention that they are to wheedle it out of me. This is a perfect opportunity to find out what your couldn’t determine online, and the more intelligent the questions, the better you come off.  Rightly or wrongly, I tend to associate people who are desperate to get a job, and don’t really care what they would be doing, with people who are just going to treat the position as a “job” instead of a “career”.  While we may have hundreds of candidates knocking down our door, we still know that we are going to have the most success with those that want to work here, want to do what we do, and are very discerning in their professionalism and their preparedness.  I believe this has a direct translation into the quality of work people perform.  Recently, another item I’ve noticed is that prospects rarely ask about benefits anymore.  I don’t know if this is something they are told in professional practice classes, or a millennial generational thing, but I don’t get it.  Part of working for a company is knowing they are working for you.  While you don’t want to turn an interview into a “what can you do for me” kind of discussion, I believe questions that help the candidate fully understand a firm only help to speak to their preparedness.

5] Distinction

It’s always good to have something that distinguishes you from the crowd.  All too often we’re sorting through a slog of grads who are all from the area colleges, often all have the same projects in their portfolio, and we can discern very little daylight between them.  Having something in your portfolio, or your interview, that clearly sets you apart is good.  One of our most successful hires came to me with a portfolio than included a design build house project the studio had done, but she’d shown a sort of “project within a project” she’d argued for.  By identifying a need in the design and taking it upon herself to design and build a unique solution, she showed me a whole aspect of her level of passion and initiative that no one else had (or hand displayed).    Be interesting.  Be passionate.  Don’t be desperate.  Usually we’re hiring to fit a need, but sometimes we are so impressed with a candidate we’ll create a role just so we can get them on board.

It’s still a difficult environment out there for architects, but good talent is good talent, and you need to make any firm you speak with know they can’t miss out on you.  This is never handled in a resume mission statement, or a hand crafted portfolio, this is the intangible, the nebulous, the ethereal nature of a person that can only be communicated through discussion.  Good Luck.


07 2013