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Posts Tagged ‘Mentoring’

As I sit here next to the ocean I can’t help but think about the fact that the ocean is never the same; the water is constantly moving, but therein lies it’s constancy.  The same can be said of generations, mentors, and the intentional transfer of knowledge.

My first professional mentor was my grandfather who practiced architecture (and ran several related businesses) in Charlottesville from the late 1920s until the late 1970s.  It was he who inspired me at the age of six to pursue the profession that has occupied me to this day.  As one might expect, he introduced me to floor plans and taught me two point perspective drawing.  Fast forward about eight years and he introduced me to the various dimension lumber sizes on the family lumber yard where I had my first job.  On another occasion, he came out to the warehouse with a steel manual and introduced the beam diagrams and formulas in those pre-calculator days.

A few years later, I was introduced more thoroughly to structural design by my future father-in-law who taught structures in the University of Virginia School of Architecture.  This allowed me to bypass introductory statics and strength of materials at Virginia Tech.  During those years in Blacksburg, there were a few professors that I considered mentors.

I was later introduced to specification writing by Thomas R. Wyant, Jr, AIA, CSI who had me writing specs about a year out of school.  He also unknowingly inspired me to join CSI, which brings me to the real subject of this column.  Mentorship involves the intentional transfer of knowledge which is arguably the most important function of CSI.

it is through attendance at CSI events and participation in the CSI Certification Program that knowledge of construction processes and documentation is transferred to the next generation of construction professionals who would otherwise miss the opportunity to learn.

CSI is the one place where architects, engineers, constructors, suppliers, manufacturers reps, and other diverse construction professionals represented in its membership can sit down at the table and talk openly and in a non-confrontational manner about their experiences.  We can’t help but learn from one another.  At some point, down the road, there will be a situation in our careers that will prompt a memory of a conversation that took place at a CSI gathering and perhaps also a phone call that will borrow from the experiences of our colleagues within the organization.

I can’t speak often enough about how my membership has more than paid for itself over the last thirty-one years.  If you’re a construction professional and not a CSI member, I would strongly recommend that you join.  If you are a CSI member, by all means bring a young professional to your next chapter member.  You will not regret it.

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I have been asked the question “What one piece of advice do you wish that you had received as a young professional?” multiple times in recent years.  I struggled with the answer to this question, because I was blessed with several great mentors in my years as a young professional.  The advice I received was sound, and I gained a great deal of technical knowledge in the process.  Clearly their advice helped me to become the professional I am today.

The bit of advice that I was missing from my early mentors was that no one ever told me that TO BE A LEADER IS TO SERVE.  Got that?  To be a leader is to serve others.

It took me years to learn this truth.  As a youngster, I pictured a leader as something of a drill sergeant; telling others what to do and how to do it.  Through the school of hard knocks, I learned that being a leader often means leading by example.  In order to do so, one must lead by doing.

When we chartered the Central Virginia Chapter of CSI in 1990, I was in the midst of raising a family.  During the pre-charter meetings hosted by then Institute Director Byron Dickson, I realized that if I expected an organization that benefits me to exist, I’d better be willing to assume a leadership role, and became the first treasurer of the chapter.

Fast forward about 15-20 years and I watched my three daughters take on leadership roles in the organizations to which they belong.  I did not deliberately teach my children to be leaders, but as they say, your children don’t do as you say, they do as you do.

Somewhere between my misguided high school days of envisioning a leader as a drill sergeant and the time I was participating in CSI leadership, I figured out that in order to lead, I must be willing to work hard and be of service to others.  To this day, that knowledge has served me well.

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I’ve seen a fair amount of twitter traffic over the last couple of days regarding the documents that are handed to specifiers by architects. The principal complaint has to do with lack of detail in the drawings.  This is in step with complaints I’ve heard (and sometimes uttered) over the years about unprepared graduates coming from our architecture schools.  I was once one of them.

I’ve stated before in this forum that I was more fortunate than many in that I had an excellent mentor in Thomas R. Wyant, Jr., AIA, CSI. He filled in the many of the gaps that my professional education left void.  He also introduced me to CSI.  Tom paid attention to detail, both in terms of the documents we produced and in terms of the constructed result of our work.  For the 30 years that my practice has existed, I have made a concerted effort to pay this forward.

In spite of our best efforts, however, there is no such thing as a perfect set of construction documents. So the sketchy sections that initially go to the specifier should only serve as a conversation starter.  An experienced spec writer will see immediately what is missing and start asking questions.  It is this dialogue that results in details being fleshed out.  Assuming that there is enough time in the owner’s timetable for this conversation to take place, the construction documents should be adequate to allow the project to be built.

That said, we need to be educating all of the parties to the construction project – including the owners. Owner’s expectations should be realistic in terms of both budget and timing.  The A/E should be able to have enough time to produce the documents and make a reasonable profit in the progress.  Likewise, the contractor should have adequate time and funds to do his/her job appropriately; again at a reasonable profit.  In the end, the owner should have a facility that meets his/her needs that also provides an environment that is functional and meets the needs of the end user.

It boils down to communication, which is essential for a successful project. Such communication is possible through a common language which is facilitated by CSI formats and proper use thereof.  Individuals who hold a CSI certification or certificate will be well versed in the use of the various formats and will benefit the construction team on which they serve.

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With my last post I spoke of the necessity of members of the AEC industry to sweat the small stuff; to consider all of the issues related to putting a project together. This week, I will explore the best way to accomplish this.

We often hear about how graduates from architecture and engineering programs have very little practical/technical knowledge in their field. The complaints seem to be loudest from seasoned professionals such as myself.  In response to this, I concentrate on mentoring young professionals in an effort to pay forward the mentoring I received in the late seventies and early eighties as a young professional just getting into the field.

That said, new graduates and young professionals come armed with the most recent thinking on theoretical issues and solutions to some of the issues we all face. They have so much to offer, that we need to listen to what they have to say.  We need for mentoring to be a two way street, as we can all learn from one another.  Example: the seamless transition of our practice from hand drafting to CAD back in the nineties was made possible by a young professional with knowledge that I didn’t have.  She made it possible in a two week time span to have our electronic drawings look like our hand drafted work.

The best way I know of to make the two-way intentional transfer of knowledge happen is through CSI. In order for the two way exchange of knowledge to take place, we have to make certain that we get the young professionals to our meetings.  The invitation needs to be made on a personal basis, regardless of how the invitation is delivered (face to face, e-mail, social media, or even (gasp) a phone call.  The future of the industry depends on it.

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I’ve spent this week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week of R&R. While walking the beach, I’ve observed how the forces of nature have left their mark.  There are water marks left at high tide and ripples in the sand deposited by the wind.  The fiddler crabs left myriad tiny footprints in the sand as have the marine waterfowl.  Multiple animals deposit their shells on the sand following their passing.  We are admonished to leave only footprints and take only memories as we leave.

Like the natural forces on the barrier islands, those of us that are design professionals are obsessed with leaving a mark. Hopefully that mark constitutes a beneficial impact on the community that is the world.

We need to leave functional infrastructure, architecture that provides shelter, and somehow with both of these, we need to leave a beauty that users and observers will appreciate. Easy to think of this from the standpoint of monumental architecture, or a Golden Gate Bridge, but something as utilitarian as the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge that connects Hatteras Island with the rest of the US has a certain beauty in the rhythm of the pilings and the stantions that support the guardrails.  The built legacy should survive us and benefit society for generations to come.

In the process of creating the built world, we have a far more important obligation to leave an intellectual mark with the younger folks that work with us through the intentional transfer of knowledge. This takes place through mentoring, networking, associations, and certification programs.  Experienced professionals such as myself need to make certain that when we leave our professions that we don’t create an unfillable void.  Our professional legatees need to be ready step in and fill the space.  It is our obligation to make certain they are.

Likewise, we have much to learn from the younger professionals in our lives. They are full of energy and new ideas.  New ideas are worth our time, attention, nurturing, and even of our championing.  Pay attention seasoned professionals, as your young colleague may provide the idea that makes something work in a new and wonderful way.

So a quick memo to my younger colleagues: I want to spend time with you.  You have the capacity to make me better, and we can make each other better.  The best place to find me on a first Tuesday is at a CSI meeting.  In that venue, we can both learn something new.

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Last Friday, I ran into a couple of old friends at a pre-bid meeting. As the conversation progressed, the topic of Thomas R. Wyant, JR, AIA, CSI came up.  Tom was my first employer after I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1979.  He was a client to my friends who are a surveyor and geotechnical engineer respectively.  We reminisced for several minutes about him.

While Tom was not the easiest individual to work for, I probably learned more about the profession of architecture from him than any other single person. In this vein, Tom was an expert in the technical aspects of putting a building together.  He was very particular about how we detailed things, but would let us draw things up as we saw fit.  On a daily basis, he would make the rounds in the drafting room and would look over our shoulders to review our work.  If we could justify what we did, he would say simply, yeah, that’ll work, and go on to visit with the next drafter.  If there was a problem with what we did, he would help us to solve it.

Probably the most important thing Tom did for us was to introduce us to specification writing, arguably an unusual thing to do with a couple of first and second year interns. He taught us to use MasterSpec and SpecText and in doing so, indirectly taught us CSI SectionFormat.  Also, in using both master systems, he demonstrated that at that time, some sections of each were better than the other.  In so doing, he gave us the opportunity to exercise some critical thinking about which component or system was more appropriate for the project(s) at hand and how best to communicate the information to the construction team.  I cannot think of a better way to mentor.

Tom is also responsible for my joining CSI, although he was never aware of it, as I joined five years after I left Tom’s firm. In this regard, he led by example.  Through him, I learned that CSI is the place to go for building information.  His mentoring led me to connections with literally thousands of experts nationwide.  For that I will always be grateful.

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Today I wrote Field Report #1 for another project. My observations were limited to walking the property lines and ascertaining that the corners were properly marked and that the wetlands on the property were still flagged.  While this isn’t a lot of progress, what it represents is a new project has reached the Construction Phase.  The beginning of a project carries with it a special sort of excitement.  This occurs with each new project, road trip, another year at Construct, and the list goes on.

I also experienced this feeling when I left my first architectural position after three and one half years of working for a difficult boss who happened to be a great mentor. In spite of distancing myself from my mentor, I found myself looking forward to the next step, a four year term running construction operations for a local general contractor.  My time spent as a member of the constructor team became a large part of who I am as an architect and contributed heavily to my technical expertise.

So as I contemplate my new project, I can’t help but think about our younger colleagues whose careers collectively constitute new projects. I feel an obligation to give back to the profession as a mentor to these folks.  After all, there were many people who did the same for me.  So as I observe the beginnings of people’s careers, I share their excitement as they submit Field Report #1 on their careers.  I look forward to intentionally sharing knowledge for years to come.

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Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we Boomers have been turning gray in recent years. That means that there are two and soon to be three defined younger generations in the workforce. As time marches on, we will inevitably pass the world on to folks that are younger, whether through retirement or otherwise. Are we ready for that? Will our businesses and associations survive without us? Therein is where our priorities should lie.

Regardless of the generalizations that have been uttered about younger generations, I have to say that today’s young people are NO DIFFERENT than my contemporaries were at a similar age. Yes, we have different tools with which to deal with life, thanks to today’s technology, but the deep down issues are universal. All generations at any given age share the same hopes and fears.

With that said, as each individual and each subsequent generation enters the workforce, they will inevitably have questions. How else would one learn? The thing is, those of us that have been around for a while need to be willing to mentor and share the knowledge gained from years of experience. If we act appropriately in this regard, those on the receiving end of this intentional transfer of knowledge will be able to avoid our mistakes and create things that were not possible thirty or more years ago.

It is my goal, therefore, to share my technical knowledge with anyone willing to listen, then get out of the way so that I don’t micro-manage how they put the information into practice. That allows me to get great pleasure out of looking over someone’s shoulder and see how much faster they can produce something than I can (but I must confess that I have to remind myself of this).

So I will continue to intentionally mentor, hopefully without being overbearing.  It’s the least I can do to help ensure that what I have learned will not be lost.  After all, young people are the future!

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Our culture is obsessed with the future.  Marketers have used slogans like “The future is now!” and Hollywood produced several “Back to the Future” movies starting in the mid 1980’s.  There is a pervasive addiction to having the most current technology, even if it doesn’t always perform its function as well as that which it replaced.

In contrast, my father used to tell us to remember the past so as not to repeat mistakes and live for today.

I would like to propose an alternative:  Live for today, but embrace the future.  I do so by making myself available to mentor young people.  After all, the future belongs to you.

For each of you that would follow me professionally, I would strongly encourage you to embrace and enhance the future of your career.  You can do so by joining CSI (no, not the TV show, but the Construction Specifications Institute).  It is there that you can network and gain much knowledge that the schools and universities don’t seem to have the time to share.

There is only so much that you can accomplish sitting in front of a computer.  You can insert all the content in the world into a social media page, but doing so or viewing such a page will never convey as much information as a face to face conversation.  We learn much from the things others say and do, including vocal inflection and body language.  You get only words from a sterile message conveyed via the internet.  More to the point, you cannot put a hug or a warm embrace onto a computer no matter how many emoticons you insert.

To further enhance your future in the design and construction industry, you need to participate in CSI’s Certification Program.  Sitting for and passing the CDT exam will afford you and demonstrate to others that you have a level of knowledge of construction documentation that graduates from architecture and engineering schools often lack.  I am aware of several recent graduates who immediately found jobs following graduation because of the fact that they held the CDT certificate.

So, live for today and embrace the future by becoming a member of CSI and sitting for the CDT.  There are a large number of us who would welcome you with open arms and a smile.  More to the point, your future career may depend on it.

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Once again, my CSI membership paid for itself.  This time, however, it was in a way I never would have imagined 24 years ago when I first joined the organization.

At it’s October dinner meeting, the Central Virginia Chapter of CSI hosted a program on NFPA 285 and its inclusion in the International Building Code.  More fully known as NFPA 285: Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components, the standard establishes the testing protocol for evaluating multi-story wall assemblies in buildings of all but Type V construction.

Here’s how I once again benefited from my CSI membership.  My design student daughter often seeks my counsel regarding her projects, at times to get an idea whether she’s going in the right direction, and others when she simply wishes to show me what she’s up to.  This morning, I received an e-mail from her asking my opinion as to whether insulated concrete forms (ICF’s) would be an appropriate material for her project on tornado resistant design.  Knowing that my firm often recommends the use of ICF’s, she knew I would have an opinion on the subject.

In this particular instance, I believe the ICF wall would not be the appropriate system.  For starters, she needs the wall to be impact resistant, so a hard, almost structural, cladding would be necessary.  Secondly, I went on to explain, the wall assembly would have to be tested under NFPA 285.  This is something I would not have been aware of had I not been an active member of CSI.  My thanks to Kirby Davis of the Dallas Chapter for making me aware of that which has been largely unenforced locally at Construct 2012 in Phoenix in September.

And so, my membership paid for itself in allowing me to pass a bit of knowledge on to the next generation.  I find this tremendously rewarding.

Membership in CSI is easy to come by.  Simply ask a current member, or contact the Institute ( www.csinet.org ).  You will be welcomed.

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