My first architecture job

I entered the workforce when I was thirteen years old, delivering newspapers from the back of my dinky old bicycle on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The bike was red, festooned with spokey dokes and eventually crumbled into pieces. But each week for the two years prior it helped me earn $20 cash plus an apple slice from the bakery across the road.

I remember weighing up the pros and cons of the weekend vs weekday paper rounds. I did this pretty much every time I dragged myself out of bed and into the frigid morning air:

  • The weekday round paid $25, but it meant I would have to wake up at 5am five mornings a week. Unthinkable torture and a terrible return on my pre-dawn investment: only $5 per early wake-up!
  • The weekend round paid slightly less and meant I only ever got to sleep in on school and public holidays, but the ROI was twice as good. $10 per early wake-up made it worth it.

I wasn’t much of an entrepreneur back then, and most certainly did not know what an ROI was, but I did learn the value of a pay cheque.

Then, when I was fifteen I started cleaning my Dad’s office every weekend (which I confess I didn’t love), and helping out with the filing (which you won’t be surprised to discover I found quite relaxing). Soon after, I escaped into a string of hospitality jobs that carried me through the rest of high school and first few years of university. Memorably, at one point I was fired from a dodgy wedding reception centre for spilling a large amount of tomato sauce on a bride’s dress.

During the first year of my architecture degree and at the wise behest of my parents, I arranged work experience at Six Degrees Architects and Tom Kovacs Architecture. I had my first encounter with AutoCAD at Six Degrees, a fabulously complicated tool that turned out to be as difficult to manipulate as it looked. I can’t remember what I did at Kovacs, but I do recall that the office converted into a painfully trendy bar after hours. Which I attended while feeling (but not being) painfully trendy.

Finally at age twenty one, I graduated from the undergraduate portion of my architecture degree and set out to obtain my compulsory year of industry experience. So how did I get this valuable first job in architecture? And how did I get every job following?

Read on to find out.

My first architecture job

When: 2002
Résumé: a single page
Portfolio: A3 sketchbook filled with artful black and white photos of university models
Delivery method: cold call, then door knock

In the olden days, there was no Instagram, no LinkedIn and barely any Internet. There were computers though, one of which I used to concoct a one-page résumé in Times New Roman font. I also converted an A3 sketchbook into a sublime display of artful black and white photos of my university models, replete with poetic summaries of each project.

As I set out to procure my first paid architecture job, there were a few things that saved me from these mortal sins:

  • I was a pretty good student, so my grades (and even my models) were decent.
  • I was tenacious, confident and personable.
  • I went extra old school with my job application.

I’ll elaborate on this last point:

  • I called a small number of architecture studios whose work I admired.
  • I asked for one of the directors by name.
  • I requested an opportunity to come by with my portfolio.
  • Then I appeared in person at the designated time to display my wares.

It must be said that this approach was facilitated by the broader context of compulsory work experience that existed back then. The industry supported students in their practices, demanding our incredibly cheap labour for the purposes of model making and CAD monkeying. I was just one of hundreds of year-out kids running around asking for a job (almost all of whom eventually found one), so my personalised calls were not unexpected and perhaps even appreciated.

But even within this context, I was not immediately successful. One of the directors from my hand-picked list of architecture studios agreed to the meeting but then stood me up. Another met me and was generous with his time, but noncommittal. The third flipped through my wanky portfolio at lightning speed, dismissing it with seven chilling words I remember to this day, “I want to see skills not content.”

It wasn’t a great start, but two days later it got much better. Despite his unnerving feedback, skills-not-content-guy offered me a job. I was paid an annual salary of $15,000 to do lots of model making, trade literature organising, samples library cleaning and coffee making. Pretty standard fare for a student.

It was neither lucrative nor glamorous, but I was in the workforce.

In the end I suppose it came down to luck: I was in the right place at the right time. Of course, this was an outcome that I couldn’t plan, but as London-based architect Deborah Saunt has since observed, I could at least encourage it along. The staffing needs of the practices I approached were outside my control, but there were two things entirely within my control that helped supercharge my luck:

  • I was more organised than most of my peers, so prospective employers heard from me before anyone else.
  • I was personal, treating each prospective employer as a person not a pay cheque.

And that’s it, my first job in architecture.

Thanks for joining me on this little trip down memory lane. Over coming weeks, I’ll be sharing further insights into how I’ve obtained every job in architecture I’ve had. You can access an archive of the series here.


Image:

  1. Paperboy (not actually me but uncannily similar!); sourced from Medium; Facebook is the new paperboy; photographer unknown.

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