How Black Spectacles is helping architects hit career milestones
There is a learning gap in architecture.
Design is well-covered, both in school and beyond. But what about the technical aspects of the job?
Things like software skills and deep knowledge of construction methods aren’t taught in the classroom, and not all companies support continuing education.
Architects often spend years acquiring specialized knowledge through on-the-job experience. If they’re lucky, they’ll absorb knowledge through a good mentor.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Marc Teer, CEO and founder of Black Spectacles, is on a quest to lower barriers to learning.
Here’s why democratizing learning is the key to career success.
Solve the software learning problem
Architects need to know a variety of software tools to do their jobs, but instruction on how to use them isn’t readily available.
“We're supposed to know all these tools, but nobody wants to teach us,” Marc said. “Schools don't want to teach you. It's very much a faux pas to teach software in school.”
Yet you need to know those tools when you get out.
Design and visualization tools get more complex every year, allowing architects to accomplish more things. But without education, many architects are stuck.
“I was in the biggest firm in the world with great resources and I was still sunk,” Marc said. “My students were sunk. People in other firms who I had met through AI Chicago were sunk.”
That realization prompted Marc to start Black Spectacles and offer on-demand software courses for architects.
Improve test prep
After offering software courses for a while, Marc and his team also added test prep courses for licensing exams, another area where architects could spend years getting ready.
“Test prep has really taken off,” Marc said. “I would say that we've had a tremendous amount of people who we've helped get licensed and a lot of penetration into the market.”
Last year, half of all architects who took the exam used Black Spectacles to prepare.
“Many people say, myself included, it's annoying to take all the exams. But at the end of the experience, those people walk away and say they feel like they became a better architect,” he said.
“It makes me proud to know that we've been able to help that volume of people.”
Success in software education and test prep made Marc realize that he was at a turning point.
While the company could have pivoted to supporting education for a diverse array of fields, he decided to double down on architecture.
Next up? A new platform called Spectacular that will serve as a professional network for firms and architects.
Narrow your options through your purpose
Once Marc defined a clear purpose for Black Spectacles, making decisions became a lot easier.
The same is true for your career.
“If you have a project with no rules, no boundaries, it's really hard,” Marc said.
Setting constraints can create a clearer space to work within.
“As soon as we clarified that purpose, boom,” Marc said. “It was like the ideas just fell right out of the purpose.”
The purpose of helping architects throughout their careers has kept them focused, even when different opportunities pop up.
Marc sometimes gets calls from people trying to sell him on business ideas, but he’s able to decline without worry.
“Maybe one day when we're done with this, I'll come back to you, but for now we're going here,” he said.
Use values to evaluate candidates
Some companies come up with their core values, put them on the wall, and then never think of them again.
Black Spectacles takes their values seriously and uses them as part of the standard hiring and onboarding process.
“We always start our offer by talking about values,” Marc said.
He tells candidates their values and explains how everyone who works there has been asked to live them and hold others accountable to them.
Once a person is a part of the organization, values are a way to keep everyone on the same page.
An impediment to growing and scaling a business is people going in different directions.
“One of the really fundamental things you need to do is develop a purpose and some values so that everybody, as you used to say, all the fish are swimming in the same direction,” he said.
It’s a simple solution to what could become a big problem.
Give people a tool for making decisions
Clear values also empower your employees to make decisions independently and in line with the company’s goals.
“The other thing that's really valuable with values is it gives people tools to make decisions without asking,” Marc said.
He gave the example of his director of marketing having a new idea about how to run their Black Friday sale.
He’d personally run it for years in the same way with success, but she had a new direction in mind.
He grilled her on different scenarios before approving it.
“She had wonderful answers at each one of those questions,” he said. “And then the last one was a question like, but what if it doesn't work? And her response was she recited one of our values back to me. She's like, ‘we're taking a calculated risk,’ which is one of our values.”
She laid out exactly what she would do if it didn't work, and Marc gave her permission to go ahead.
Learn from the master/apprentice model
Most architects learn in the master/apprentice model where an experienced coworker teaches them on the job.
“That's actually the number one best way that humans learn is a master/apprentice thing, where you get an assignment, you try to do it, you get feedback and it doesn't work, and you try it again,” Marc said.
While it’s a highly effective way to learn, it can also be inefficient and expensive.
“How did you learn how to use anything in Revit?” Marc said. “Everybody says it's the guy sitting next to you or the girl sitting next to you.”
The key issue here is that in an office setting, you have to wait until you’re exposed to someone with the knowledge you need in order to gain it.
Sometimes, you may not even realize what knowledge you’re missing.
Black Spectacles aims to use what works about that model, but deliver much faster learning opportunities.
Depending on which firm you land in, there is either a lot of support for learning new skills and software or none at all.
Marc remembered being at a large firm that gave him the chance to fly to conferences where he’d be immersed in learning about new software and construction techniques.
Those experiences gave him an advantage that his peers in other firms didn’t have access to.
“I was like, here's this huge new possibility in terms of what we could do creatively in architecture,” Marc said. “And only a tiny group of people have access to it. That's nuts.”
A large part of Black Spectacles’ purpose has been to democratize learning, from software to professional advice.
For example, people want to know how to move into more senior roles like design director, and are looking for insight.
“There's not some course for that, but the truth is there's actually a lot of basic knowledge and skills that you need in order to do that,” Marc said. “Well, there's no reason we can't teach it.”
As Marc has worked in this space, he’s started to imagine a world where architects don’t have to work so long to hit career milestones.
His biggest goal? To challenge the mythos of the gray-haired design lead.
“What do they say? You don't become a good architect till you're 60,” he said. “But wouldn't it be fascinating if, because of all this, I was able to bring that down? Maybe in 50 years they'll say, oh yeah, you don’t become a good architect until you’re 35.”
With on-demand software, technical education, and professional resources, modern architects can finally acquire knowledge - and success - at their own pace.
Join us on Thursday, January 28th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Marc Teer. Marc is the founder and CEO of Black Spectacles, a member of the AIA College of Fellows, former award-winning architect at Gensler, Assistant Adjunct Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Chair of AIA Chicago's Young Architects Forum. Marc founded Black Spectacles in 2010 to advance the creative potential of architecture and design through online learning. In the years since, Black Spectacles has become the first and only NCARB-approved test prep provider for all six divisions of the ARE® 5.0 exam. In striving to democratize the learning process, the software-based platform is continuously introducing new educational offerings that help architects thrive in their careers.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Marc about the state of architectural education and knowledge transfer in AEC firms.
- What are key issues within architectural education?
- What is the current state of knowledge transfer in architecture firms?
- If you started a firm, what best practices would you implement early on?
- and More!
About Black Spectacles
Black Spectacles helps educate and inspire architects around the world to thrive in their career. Born out of feeling a lack of guidance in the early stages of architectural education and career, Teer sought to ensure other architects would have the influence and connections that he didn’t. Black Spectacles was created to provide young professionals with the inside track to propel them to become resources and mentors for the next generation of architects.