The Architect’s Greatest Fear: The Usurper

What’s the difference between the Principal and the Intern?

It’s not talent. It’s experience and power.

How familiar is this story to you:

The firm wants fresh interns, not people ready to lead projects. The firm says they want leaders, but then doesn’t give anyone opportunities or support. The firm says they want talent, but then all the new employees don’t last.

There’s a lot going on here, but one of my theories is this:

We spend forever in school. We spend years completing IDP. We spend grueling months taking and retaking the Architectural Registration Exams. We then get the title we crave and start a new fight. A fight to get projects. To run teams. To lead design. Then we have it. We have a project all our own. We get to call the shots. We get to design what matters. Then we are given the wide-eyed intern, fresh out of school, ready for a challenge. Do we give him some real work to do? Do we say, here’s a new project, take a stab. No. We hoard the best parts for ourselves. We keep the young out. We fought long and hard to get the good stuff. And here’s this new kid who wants to do it too. Fat chance. Wait your turn. Just like I did. All this is mine now.

We spend so long getting to a point of control that when we have it, we don’t share it, and thus force others into a vicious cycle of fighting and waiting.

Some years back I made a decision. Never again would I work for a firm with someone’s name over the door. Not someone else’s and not mine. When I was a young intern I worked for a firm that was just the boss’s name followed by the word architects. It was clear when someone answered the phone whether or not the person on the other end was talking to someone who mattered. The boss had a way of answering the phone and proclaiming “so and so architects, so and so speaking.” What easier way is there to put everyone else in their place? Whether he knew it or not, he was running from the specter of being supplanted. By naming the firm after himself and making sure that every person who contacted the firm knew he was the boss he was simultaneously exerting his power and devaluing his firm. How many people are inspired by such behavior? How many people have their morale boosted when they hear their boss talk like that? How many people think, one day I’m going to help run “so and so architects” and be an equal partner with “so and so”.

There’s a great article about this situation in the Fall 2013 issue of Licensed Architect Magazine (follow this link and go to p. 29: The Principal’s Dilemma). Everyone at a firm without a clearly defined succession plan should read it.

The Usurper…

The architect’s greatest fear is the Usurper. Someone who’s going to steal their job, their fame, their abilities, their clout, their clients, their everything. Think about it. The principal shits on the intern. The lead designer hides everyone else who worked on the project and steals all the credit. Old coworkers who were once praised become dead to their old firm. Designers worry about clients empowered with more access to digital resources. The pencil users keep denying the usefulness of the computer. Users of BIM software A get nervous when discussion shifts to BIM software B…the list goes on and on and on. Each of these divides deserve more discussion. I plan on delving into each further in the future, and hopefully starting some discussions about getting past each type of fear.

…comes in many forms

Just like the thin line between principal and intern, that same tension and fear exists between architects and the unlicensed horde. The licensed architect is afraid of the unlicensed masses doing the same work. What separates the two? Is it anything more than a thumbs up from state government? There are incompetent architects and those without licenses who understand everything about designing any type of building. The fear of the usurper makes us focus on this antagonistic relationship rather than solving the real issue of defining the role of architects in the 21st century.

How I try (and sometimes succeed) to run my business.

The usurper encroaches and fear asks “if we open the door will we be pushed out?”

My belief when it comes to this uncertainty is to do the reverse. If I have special knowledge or a privileged position, I want to share everything. If I succeed only by pushing you down that won’t make me proud. I want to win because I can outperform you, not because you lack a credential, are prevented from competing, are missing some information, or are otherwise cuckolded. If we are on a team, I want you to bring all your resources, not just the things I’m comfortable with you doing. That doesn’t help anyone do their best work. That doesn’t improve the profession or the world.

Another way to look at it is this: I want to be obsolete. If you don’t need what I offer, then I get to try something different. If I teach you everything I know, then I get to learn something new. There are a lot of things that I have to do, but would rather not. If you or some intelligent machine can do them for me, then I can focus on other things. And all those hopes are valid whether I’m a writer explaining the value of BIM or a principal chasing work. If you can do my job, then I get to do something potentially more interesting. Good.

What do you think? I know I’m being a bit extremist in my examples, but do you see similar patterns in our profession? Have you had similar experiences? Or have you seen (or acted in) the reverse? Have you instead uplifted (or been uplifted by) those around you and seen positive benefits for all?

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” – Arie de Geus

For more on experience in the architectural profession, here are some thoughts on how it relates to people shitting on BIM. Subscribe to my blog to read more about the future of BIM and the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and RSS feed. And now you can join the LinkedIN group too!


  1. Finith Jernigan October 30, 2013
    • Jared Banks October 30, 2013
  2. zyryab2112 October 31, 2013
    • Jared Banks October 31, 2013

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