5 former architects talk about their transition into new careers in technology

In June 2016, five architects who recently transitioned into new roles in technology came together to discuss why they decided to leave one of the world’s oldest and most venerated fields for new careers that have only existed for a few years including augmented reality, wearables, IoT, bitcoin, and transportation innovation. Excerpts from our conversation are below

Panelists:

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Matt Storus holds a Master of Architecture from Harvard GSD and B.Arch from University of Waterloo. Matt previously worked as Interaction Designer at Samsung and is currently the Head of Design at 21.co.

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Gavin Johns holds a Master of Architecture, Master of City Planning, and B.Arch from Georgia Tech. Gavin is a licensed Architect and currently works as a UX designer at Autodesk.

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Leona Hu holds a BFA in Architecture and Interactive Design from California College of the Arts. Leona worked as a UX and Visual Designer at Apple, SAP labs, and Autodesk, and is currently the Founder and Design Director at Airgora.

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Dan Tsui holds a B.A. in Architecture from UC Berkeley. Dan worked for a number of years as an architect and is a self-taught software engineer currently working at Uber.

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Greg Tran holds a Master of Architecture from Harvard GSD and B.Arch from Ohio State. Greg previously worked at Samsung as an Interaction Designer and now works at Magic Leap, leading the design for the future of augmented reality.

Moderator:

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Blake Hudelson holds a Master of Architecture from California College of the Arts and B.S. in City Planning from Cal Poly. He previously worked as an architect at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and as an Interaction Designer at Method.

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Depending on the industry, whether it’s industrial design, architecture, interaction design, or software engineering, every discipline has established processes for creating something. How is the process in architecture similar to the process of creating a digital product?

Matt Storus: There’s a need for designers from both disciplines (architecture and digital design) who think in terms of systems. Of course in architecture there is a need to break projects into constituent parts to construct a building. UX design works in a similar way. For example, if you’re designing a mobile app you have to be aware of the all the parts of any app and understand the conventions and constraints. The way where processes differ between architecture and digital design is speed. As you know, it takes a long time to design and build a building — to go from a concept to something that sits in the ground. Conversely in UX design, the turn-around time is much quicker. On top of that, in UX design you can actually play with and use the thing you created at a closer fidelity to the final product. Of course in architecture there are all kinds of abstractions where you use models, drawings, and renderings that allows you to experiment and think about the thing you’re creating. In UX design, you’re using the thing that you’re working on every day, and processes like usability testing can help inform design decisions much easier than in architecture.

Gavin Johns: Another similarity between architecture and UX design is the anatomy of the team. As an architect you are the design captain bringing together engineers, contractors, and developers. The same thing is true for UX designers where they have to be the glue between software developers, product managers, user researchers, etc.

Dan Tsui: As an engineer at Uber, I’ve realized how much design goes into software engineering. While there is a lot of iterating in architecture, in software engineering you never stop iterating. The amount of iteration you do as a product designer and engineer is continuous throughout the lifespan of a digital product. In architecture you may spend 10% designing and then you have to start building a permanent thing. In software, nothing is ever permanent. Your requirements are always changing. I actually don’t think I did nearly as much “design” as an architect as I do now as an engineer. The more services you add, the more requirements change. The more diverse your service gets, the more features you have to add. So how you juggle that with performance is a struggle that you have to deal with every day.

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Gavin, in the article you wrote on ArchDaily, “Why a Career in UX Design is Perfect for Dissatisfied Architects,” you talk about how your career as an architect was missing three things that you believe are critical to an exceptional creative career. Could you talk about what those three things are and why they’re important?

Gavin Johns: So the three things that are missing in architecture (or at least lacking) are speed, iteration, and measurement. The reason that I think those three things are important is they increase the volume of your creative output. I’m of the philosophy that quantity creates quality. So the more you can create, the better the design will become. That’s one of architecture’s biggest weakness — it takes an immensely long time to build a building. And of course even longer to build cities! 100 years? Count me out! {laughs} Lastly, there’s measurement. Sure you can measure the efficiency of buildings, but the onus is typically on the owners of whether they want to optimize the energy or the comfort of tenants. Whereas, when you are building a digital product, it’s imperative to measure and analyze everything because it’s integral to its success.

I’ve had the opinion for awhile that the tech industry could benefit from hiring more designers with backgrounds in architecture. I’m curious to hear if you all agree? If so, why?

Greg Tran: In my job (creating an augmented reality platform), there are no tools that exist that I did not already know in architecture school. I don’t know how to code at all. Architects as a whole have very strong technical abilities and I think architects are very well suited to jump into the tech world. What’s most important is being familiar with current practices in technology. If you can design something, you can design anything. It’s just a matter of you being educated about what you’re designing and who the audience is. I think that in order to do UX design it’s just a matter of getting in touch with the zeitgeist and understanding the underlying processes for creating a digital product. I went to the Harvard GSD earlier this year to recruit architecture students to come work for my company, Magic Leap. We hired a couple of students to work for us over the summer and they just jumped in and are contributing great stuff already. Obviously they don’t understand everything right away but in terms of solving design problems and bringing the technical skills, they are really well-equipped.

Dan Tsui: I think we can definitely use more diversity in tech, especially in software engineering. I would not have been able to make the transition from architecture to software if someone didn’t give me a chance. The thought process that architects have makes them great candidates for many positions outside of architecture. Now, there is not a perfect link between architecture and software — it takes considerable work — but all architects have worked long hours, been through rough critiques, cried a little bit (I know I have), and because of this we have thick skin. You need that, especially when you move fast and test things and make mistakes. Those are the types of things that aren’t taught.

Blake Hudelson: Dan, did you teach yourself how to code?

Dan Tsui: I took an Objective-C class in high school but that was a very long time ago. As I was working in Revit as an architect, I started to really enjoy the technical side of design. I started experimenting with APIs and scripting, and then started teaching myself the C# programming language. That led to me learning Python on my own and then going to a three-month coding bootcamp called App Academy where I really found my passion. After that, tech companies started to take me seriously when I applied.

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A lot of architecture schools are leading innovators in robotics, virtual reality, generative design, etc, but a lot of that seems to be lacking in professional practice. Whereas, the tech industry seems to be aligned much closer to the research and innovation happening in academia. With that said, what do you think the architecture industry can learn from the tech industry?

Dan Tsui: Oh man, I don’t know how much architecture can do since it doesn’t have any money. {laughs} In the technology sector, people are constantly trying new things even if they have no idea how to make money on it. You have an idea? Let’s throw a bunch of smart people on it and see what happens, and likely make zero money on it. You can’t do that in architecture. You can do it as a student in architecture school because experimentation is the cornerstone of architectural education, where it feels very much like a startup. But when you graduate, you have student loans to pay and other realities that kill innovation in architectural practice.

Matt Storus: Certainly one thing that has come out of architecture schools are tools that speed up architectural processes. Let’s look at Autodesk, which is developing some software that actually takes the role of the designer out of the equation. There is a lot of software where you don’t need as much design input as you previously needed to make something. So in the future we will need fewer designers to do something. You can imagine a software product that essentially lets a client design 90% of a building on their own and just for legal reasons you need someone to stamp the drawings and bring it through to completion. Just look at how web design has transformed in recent years. Look at how much of the market has been eaten up by platforms like Squarespace, where you don’t need to spend a bunch of money anymore to get a custom website. Buildings of course are a little more complex with site, budget, and programmatic constraints. But it’s not that hard to imagine that soon you will be able to go to the Squarespace of buildings and download a custom design for yourself. What does that mean for architects? I’m not entirely sure. At first you might think we’ll need fewer architects, but maybe it just means architects will transition into new roles such as experience design or virtual reality.

Leona Hu: I think architecture schools need to teach more multidisciplinary skills. Students learn a lot about 3D modeling and drafting tools, but when students graduate they don’t have a ton of options except going the traditional path of designing buildings. When I was a student at CCA, one of the most valuable classes I took was a Python programming class. It was valuable because it introduced me to some of the fundamentals that I built off when I left school and started learning other programming languages.

Dan Tsui: Here’s the thing. Architecture and transportation — which is what Uber is all about — are not very different from each other. They are both very old industries, they both have a ton of regulation, but what Uber is doing is disrupting the system. And what architecture is not doing is disrupting the system. In professional architectural practice, there is very little questioning of established ways of doing things. Uber has this mindset that it needs to constantly disrupt and help put in place new legislation. Without this mindset, it would not exist as a company today. In architecture, no one wants to push the boundaries because it’s too risky. You could lose your shirt. I remember when I was working in architecture designing a bathroom and one year the bathroom requirement got larger because the code said so. But did people fight for that and ask what this was really solving? If you were to take the mentality in tech of always wanting to update and change existing systems — where the only way to survive as a tech company is to disrupt what was previously there — there would probably be a lot more disruption in architecture.

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There are a lot of different career tracks one can take in the tech industry, whether it’s working for an agency, startup, or large corporation. What are the different career tracks architects should consider when transitioning into the tech sector?

Matt Storus: When you’re making the transition into tech, you really want to find a place where you can learn from other talented people. You will be able to find that more easily in a big company or in an agency. Agencies are fantastic places for being around talented people who are doing innovative work at a very rapid pace. You will learn a lot very quickly by drinking from the proverbial fire hose. As for big companies, they tend to have a lot of politics, which is why I am no longer working for a big company. But there are a lot of talented designers that you can learn from and resources to help young designers. Startups are difficult because it’s often the case of the blind leading the blind, particularly if there are no other designers there. You know the mentality I’m talking about: I don’t know what the hell to do and you don’t know what the hell to do, so let’s just do something! Startups can be great for people with more experience who are comfortable working in ambiguity, but startups are difficult for younger designers wanting to be mentored.

Gavin Johns: Not only is your role and type of company difficult to figure out, but the industry is difficult to choose as well. Technology literally touches everything. You could work with drones, e-commerce, or building architecture software like me. There are so many options out there, you need to spend time studying the intricacies of different industries and have an understanding of how you could contribute.

What are some exciting fields that you’re not currently working in but would definitely want to be involved in sometime in the future?

Matt Storus: I just want to be Greg. {laughs} Greg is working in something that is related to architecture — using spatial effects to introduce a UI into everyday life — and I think it is one of the most fascinating fields to be working in right now. I think in 10 years we are going to look back and remark on how weird it was to look at these glowing rectangles that you had to take out of your pocket to use, versus having ubiquitous interfaces around us that can be summoned with voice or gesture or even thoughts. I think that layer over reality is something that we’re going to start taking more seriously as it becomes more technologically viable. There is definitely a big anticipation for what Magic Leap will deliver, but also Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook, and other tech giants will have their own platforms. It’s going to upend what we think of in UI/UX design. From a broader point of view, we went from using large screens (computers), to having to learn how to do the same things on very small screens (mobile devices), to very tiny screens (wearables). Now we are moving in the direction where everything will be the screen.

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Final question. What are two things someone interested in switching from architecture to tech could do today to get started?

Leona Hu: One thing that I think is essential is taking an Intro to Computer Science course. You can take one for free online in your spare time. It’s critical to understand the industry you’re getting into and what this industry is built on. Whether you are going to be a designer or software engineer or product manager, it’s important to understand the underlying technology that is running every product we touch. The second thing is to really understand what you are most interested in and work towards that goal. If you’re interested in visual design then go study typography, color, graphic systems — really figure those out. If you’re interested in web design, go learn html, css, and javascript, which are the fundamental skills you need to create quality web products.

Dan Tsui: It’s ridiculous how many free tools there are today. You can even take Stanford and MIT courses for free online! The atmosphere is really different nowadays. If you tell an engineer you’re interested in learning how to code, the engineer will be insanely excited! On a personal level, I’m so happy to go to work every day. I never felt this happy working in architecture. I actually smile now! {laughs} When you meet people that love what they do, they often are more than happy to share their experiences. I have plenty of friends who are trying to make the transition into tech and I spend hours with them. The industry is so welcoming to those who want to transition and they have so many free tools to make it happen.

Gavin Johns: Just to reiterate what Dan is saying: get help! There are in-person bootcamps, which is what I did. Tradecraft and General Assembly are the two popular ones in San Francisco. There are meetups every day in the Bay Area — this city is the center of the world for meetups.

Leona Hu: The best way to test the waters of a new field is to start designing something small on your own. Let’s say you don’t like any of the current calculator apps on the market. Design one yourself. Learning by doing is so important. After you build something, show it to a friend who works in the industry and get feedback. You won’t understand the reality of building a product until you actually try it for yourself.

Greg Tran: I definitely agree that starting by making is the best way to go. Since there are so many resources, it could be overwhelming to figure out where to start. I also want to dispel the myth that it’s important for everyone to know how to code. I don’t know how to code at all, nor do I plan to. If you’re not interested in coding, you don’t have to do it. One of the biggest things you have to do to convince potential employers to hire you is have an interesting story. Most of the people that we hire don’t have a formal education in augmented reality, but they have to show that they have done good design, they think critically, and are insanely passionate about their work.