Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tips and Tricks?

There are two approaches you can take to BIM at mid-career.

1. You can play the role of experienced architect and – in the classic architect/apprentice fashion – sit beside the agile BIM operator reciprocally feeding your building technology input in exchange for their BIM magic.

2. Master BIM yourself and become the real deal, all-in-one, all-of-a-piece, master virtual builder. BIM operator not included. Some rules apply.

The Side-by-Side Approach

The first approach has the advantage of using your current skill sets and experience to help move projects along while advancing emerging professionals in their understanding of how buildings come together. At the same time, the emerging architect – working in BIM – has the opportunity to

  • inform you of what they discover in the model,
  • what works and doesn’t work,
  • where there are gaps in the information and
  • where coordination may be needed.

The relationship is reciprocal and there’s a clear symbiosis to it. As one mentors “up,” the other mentors “down,” and there is an evening-out – a flattening – of any perceived or actual hierarchy. Working in BIM, privy to important information before anyone else, the emerging architect feels empowered. Working alongside the BIM operator, the senior professional is

  • assured that the building is coming together effectively,
  • grateful not to have to pass along redlines wondering if they were understood and addressed correctly, and
  • intrinsically rewarded knowing that she has passed along some hard-won lessons and experience to the next generation.

Advantages of the mid-career architect’s mind

Mid-career architects may have an advantage that gives them a leg-up on learning BIM – both the technology and collaborative work process. So it is no longer only experience, wisdom and hard-earned professional judgment that distinguish the experienced architect.

A well-known and well-regarded architect and educator I interviewed for my book recently described the difference between young designers and older designers saying that older designers have the ability to manage an increasingly larger set of variables. He went on:

When I was working for x, one of the amazing things about him – he could keep so many things in his head and he could balance them and weigh one against the other and he could edit out what he called the systematic generation of useless alternatives. He would prevent us from going down that avenue. A lot of the sorts of things that are transactional – does the building work from a fire code perspective, do we have the right orientation for the sun – a lot of that stuff is going to be supported by analytical algorithms, which I do believe for good designers will change the nature of the design process.

As Tara Parker-Pope recently discovered, “Recently, researchers have found…the brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.”

Architects are trained to see both the big picture – and the minutest detail – at one and the same time. One could assume that the mid-career architect would then have an advantage on seeing the big picture, perhaps pointing to mid- and later- career opportunities for architects working in BIM and Integrated Design

The presence and example of mid-career and experienced architects in the workplace is absolutely critical to the success of projects and the firms in which they are designed, modeled and documented.

The DIY Approach

The second approach involves

  • learning the software – and the collaborative work process
  • unlearning habits you picked up along the way – including thinking in CAD
  • attaining an open and flexible mindset and attitude toward change
  • being easy on yourself when problems occur or trouble appears

Change, a timely subject, with Oscar contender Crazy Heart ‘s Jeff Bridges living the “it’s never too late” theme. For it is never too late for mid-careerists to learn a few new tips and tricks.

Several studies indicate that it takes 21 days to break a habit, while others say it takes longer. “It takes between 30 and 60 days of doing the same thing over and over again on a daily basis to create a new habit or break an old one,” says Larry Tobin, co-creator of “We all walk around on a daily basis with habits that are detrimental to our productivity.”

But are we really calling CAD a habit in need of change, replacing it with a new habit called BIM – a two-step process whereby you call out the bad habit (CAD) and identify its well-documented and acknowledged negative consequences and create an alternative action in its place (BIM.)

Or are we talking here not about habit change but about learning a whole new technology, mindset and work process – the whole shebang?

Two questions

Can mid-career architects learn BIM? And should mid-career architects be learning BIM?

The first is a question of the middle-aged brain and its capacities. The short answer is Yes.

The second is a business and professional question: one having to do with roles, identity, profitability, ROI, personal growth and development. This second question is more situational – while it is a business question, and a career one, it is also frankly, a personal decision.

The money factor does come up. At their hourly rates, especially as firms aim to work leaner and more efficiently and effectively – does it make sense to see a 48 year old working in Revit vs. sitting alongside a younger BIM operator, one hand on computer technology, the other on building technology.

Will mid-careerists be able to not only change but keep up? Absolutely. It all comes first and foremost down to attitude and mindset. It involves giving up past ways of working that are at once familiar and comfortable – but detrimental to your work, progress and ultimately your indispensability.

To do so mid-career architects will need to reinvent themselves. The world, industry and profession is not the same world we inhabited just a few years ago. So we will need to change, adjust and adapt. When things return – we won’t be returning to the way things used to be. The old formulas simply don’t apply anymore.

For most, learning the technology is a no-brainer, a non-question: KFA offers a half-day quick start training course in BIM that will get you off and running, and resellers offer some powerful 3-day workshops, not to mention tutorials, online and old school. Several of the IT experts I interviewed for my book scoff at the idea that learning to master BIM is even difficult. They don’t even question whether 50 year olds can learn it. It all really comes down to what you want, where you want to see yourself 5-10 years down the road.

Three Career Phases

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante Alighieri, age 35, was halfway through his biblically allotted seventy years when he wrote these magisterial words. One typically defines a mid-career professional as someone who is 35-50 years old, has worked in their field for at least 10 years, and is at least 10 years from retirement. By this definition, Dante was a mid-career professional.

Forgetting roles – project manager, project architect and project designer – and titles – associate, etc – for a moment, an architect’s career has roughly three phases:

  • post-college “emerging architect”
  • mid-careerist “re-emerging architect” and
  • experienced architect

It is best for the mid-career design professional to think of themselves today as re-emerging. Given the economic conditions we are currently subjected to, we are all – or soon will be – re-emerging professionals. The world has undergone some massive changes in the past several years and along with it the industry and profession. When work returns we will all be re-emerging with the economy, with building owners, with each other.

Architects who are working at capacity (the minority,) at under-capacity or not at all (the remainder) – are re-emerging mid-career into a bright new world brought about by three forces: sustainability, technology and business – or roughly speaking LEED, BIM and IPD. For more on this theme, see Scott Simpson’s brilliant designintelligence blog post on the same.

So, how to train a re-emerging architect? There are 4 steps the mid-career architect needs to assume before taking a first step into this bright new world.

1. First, assure yourself that all is not for naught

2. Next, obliterate the myths you may have mistakenly come to believe as gospel

3. Resolve to learn – and master – a new trade or skill

4. Once underway, keep a daily log off your progress – and rate your progress every day

NYC author and blogger Gretchen Rubin has as one of her resolutions in her excellent new book, The Happiness Project, to Master a New Technology. She writes,

“Once I got through the painful learning curve, it was fun. The novelty and challenge of mastering the technology – though I was maddened with frustration at times – did give me enormous satisfaction, and it gave me a new way to pursue my passion…”

If you haven’t done so already, learn BIM – the technology and the process. If unemployed, invest in yourself and join the Autodesk Assistance Program, where even mid-career architects are considered students. The program has been extended through March 2010 so you can take advantage of it.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Susan Jeffries

Think of it as training. Why training? Because in 2010 we will need to reinvent ourselves to adapt to a changing world, industry and profession – and to do so there is no better way than to train. Why would you continue to do the same things over and over when you already know what the outcome is going to be IF you are looking for a different outcome? Or, as Albert Einstein put it, The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Training the Mid-Career Brain

The New York Times recently ran a popular story on How to Train the Aging Brain by health blogger Tara Parker-Pope.

In the story – and the informative comments that follow the article, many long-held views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, are overturned. We learn that brains continue to develop, neurons continue to multiply, synapses continue to connect (even if neural connections progressively weaken with disuse and age,) through and past middle age.

As Pope and Barbara Strauch in the New York Times explains, “What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.” Much the way that information can be buried inside a BIM model. For those fortysomethings that can regularly access deeply folded information in their own minds may hold the key for where to place information in the model so that it is readily accessible by all.

With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who is 66.

She asks: Is there a way to train the middle-aged brain to do better?

To learn more, read the full story, “How to Train the Aging Brain,” and read the discussion.

Myths dispelled

Over the years we’ve been led to believe many myths concerning the brain that just aren’t true:

The 10% myth (that you only use 10 percent of your brain)

The brain doesn’t grow new cells myth  (certain areas in the brain—including the hippocampus where new memories are created and the olfactory bulb the scent-processing center—regularly generate new brain cells)

The memory loss is inevitable myth (no, memory loss isn’t inevitable as we grow older)

The videogames are bad for you myth

The you can’t change your brain myth (Your brain changes constantly in response to your experiences retaining its basic “plasticity” well past midcareer)

The people lose brain cells every day and eventually just run out myth (you grow new brain cells creating new connections, or prevent the ones you have from withering, when you exercise your brain)

And one myth especially pertinent to mid-career architects,

The memory decline is inevitable as we age myth

The Oldest Profession

Architects not only need to consider working longer due to increased life spans, but also due to the economy stalling their retirement – if they ever intended to retire. Historically, architects tend to retire late as it is and some it seems never retire. Oscar Neimeyer recently returned back to work after surgery. He is 101. Which supports the truism that architects never retire.

Witold Rybczynski recently asked why architects don’t ever retire. For many that have seen their retirement accounts dwindle, this may seem like an insensitive and moot question. Architects may quip that they want to spend whatever time they have left working, but given that they have more time to learn – how is it best to use that time? Retrain for a new career? Learn new technology to enhance or reinforce a current position? Will learning BIM – the technology and collaborative work process – help to make mid-career design professionals indispensible?



Filed under BIM, BIM employment, collaboration, design professionals, education, IPD, modeling, people, process

4 responses to “Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tips and Tricks?

  1. What a great article. I will be passing this one around the office.

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