I'm an architect, but I haven't always practiced as one. I did so for a few years after architecture school, and then for 13 years I worked in the CAD software business in sales, marketing, and management roles. Leaving the profession isn't that unusual, but what makes my case different is the fact that I returned. Since 1999, I have operated my own firm in San Francisco, specializing in residential design.
I veered from architecture into business by accident. I was working mainly on single- and multifamily housing at a small Atlanta firm in the early to mid-1980s. The firm was reasonably successful, but after some time I was ready to move on. Newly single and out of debt, I decided to move to Paris and try a few months of bohemian life before relaunching my architectural career.
As a bohemian I was, and remain, a total failure. I panicked before I even left Atlanta and arranged a part-time teaching job with my alma mater's study-abroad program at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. While teaching there, I met a French architect who was starting a company to sell Mac-based 3-D modeling software in the United States. He asked me if I could translate their software manual and help present it at the San Francisco MacWorld Show in 1987. I agreed and ran to W.H. Smith on the rue de Rivoli to purchase a French English dictionary. Little did I realize that, in my zest to survive in Paris, I had just left both bohemia and architecture behind.
We managed to complete the manuals and show our stuff at MacWorld with encouraging, but not profitable, results. On the flight home, my French colleague admitted that he did not have enough money to continue paying me as a contract worker, and offered a full-time, salaried position instead. I have to confess that this made sense to me, as it did to him. I accepted, and my next paycheck came about a year later.
The company did grow, however, and I grew with it. I learned about business plans and balance sheets, rapid growth (and layoffs), sales, marketing, and the differences between accounting and finance. It was exciting; being part of a team developing new software is not very different from being the developer, architect, and contractor of a building. Most of our customers were architects, so I met a broad spectrum of professionals from around the world. I still thought of myself as an architect, but I rationalized that working for the software company gave me a reason to remain in Paris.
A few years went by and I was married with a son. My wife and I decided it was time to move back to the States, so we relocated to San Francisco. I took a position with Graphisoft, a Hungarian company with which I'd worked in Paris, managing its U.S. office. I could no longer rationalize my software career by living abroad, but I had the opportunity to get even closer to the architecture profession and--I hoped--serve it by advancing the use of 3-D CAD technology. As Graphisoft grew, so did my skills and business knowledge. I found myself being a client of PR agencies, programmers, and other designers.
I enjoyed working with architects the most, however, and never doubted my true profession. I got to meet firms of all sizes and spend time with some famous architects, as well. We sponsored a CAD competition with the student chapter of the AIA called something dull like the AIA Student CAD Competition. Sir Norman Foster (now Lord Norman Foster) chaired our first jury! I spent six hours with Sir Norman evaluating entries and talking technology, at the end of which he suggested that since our company was paying for the competition, we should name it after ourselves. I remember thinking, "Man, they don't call you Sir for nuthin'," and since then we have called the competition the Graphisoft Prize.
After a five-year stint as president of the U.S. office, I became vice president of marketing communications. A year or so into that job, I faced a moment of truth I had been avoiding. Our company had grown over the years into a worldwide player and was about to become publicly traded. We were under increasing pressure to improve our performance in all areas. As someone who behaved more like an architect on sabbatical than a software executive, I wavered in my commitment to take my career to the next level needed by the company. My experience at Graphisoft offered me the financial security to change careers once more, and I did so in the spring of 1999.
I am still a part-time technology consultant for an Australian company, but most of my time is spent in a small practice, trying to grow one house and one addition at a time. So far, my acquired business skills haven't helped me as much as I thought they would. There is some crossover value, but building a practice mainly requires relationships and an intimate knowledge of the building process. When I left Graphisoft, my building knowledge was rusty and my relationships were with other architects, not potential clients. I knew a lot about product marketing, but, with nothing built in 14 years, I had no "product" to market.
There is one business idea I have been able to apply in my practice: customer service. My software career taught me the importance of meeting commitments, being proactive, and exceeding expectations. I have also seen that, while I don't need to produce pro forma balance sheets or market studies for my projects, my professional clients feel comfortable knowing that I know what these are and perhaps better understand their priorities and preoccupations as a result.
It may be too early to offer much perspective. But I have felt for a long time that architecture is important beyond simple building design and is worth defending. What architects do, even when they don't do buildings, is assemble general knowledge and bring spatial thinking to a situation. Good design may not solve everything, but it is the answer to many problems. I may have left the practice of architecture for a time, but never its cause.
David Marlatt is principal of DNM Architect in San Francisco.