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Advice for RS&H Associates Starting Their Journey

March 16, 2023      By John Bottaro, AIA, NCARB

Tags: Our People

When I first started working at RS&H in 1983, our product was literally on our drawing boards. As such, we treated these drawings with immense care.

At the end of the day, we had to take our drawings off the boards and put them in organized, flat file drawers inside a fire-proof vault for safekeeping until the next morning. Each day would start with a trip to the vault to retrieve our drawings, and then we were working again.

As a young architect then, I could see how valuable and important our work was. As a retiring architect now, I still see the value and importance.

This month, 40 years since I first interviewed with RS&H, I reflect on the long road to get here, which hasn’t felt too long at all. I have been fortunate to have mentors who have guided me since my first day, and I have always tried to pass that forward in mentorship to others.

two businessmen smiling for the camera So, as I begin the next chapter of my life, there are a few pieces of advice I can pass on, all of which have served me well.

1.  Embrace responsibility.

Many people have an instinct when an opportunity arises to take a step back and let others take their chance. But it’s hard to grow in your career or life if you don’t take the initiative.

Remember, it’s your career, whatever that career might be; take ownership.

For professionally degreed architects and engineers, taking responsibility means first getting your license. The sooner you can get your license, the sooner you can get more experience and take on larger roles.

I walk through our offices now and see our young associates, and it reminds me a lot of when I was just starting at RS&H. I have friends from those days that are still friends today. We grew up together and went through many of the same experiences. It didn’t matter if we were architects or engineers, we were all focused at that point on getting our licenses.

Earning your license was – and is still – the next step after earning your degree. We were pursuing our licenses all while learning as much as we could on projects from our senior leaders. We were learning the lessons we were not taught in school but that were critical to our professions.

What was and still is great about RS&H is that we could learn across multiple disciplines due to our full-service organization. Our architects had greater appreciation and understanding of the engineering systems and disciplines, and vice versa, because we were learning from our friends and colleagues who literally sat next to us.

Once I got my license and wanted more responsibility, I got to start serving as project manager and project architect on small projects. I also started meeting clients. Again, I was fortunate to develop some amazing relationships, and the learning continued beyond RS&H and into what was important to our client organizations.

Take advantage of opportunities to meet clients and develop strong relationships. For me, the first 15 years of my career at RS&H was just about professional licensing, becoming a good architect and project manager and building relationships.

Building your skillset and relationships around you will help you grow and benefit you throughout your career.

2. Be cognizant of the balance between your career and your personal life.

Pay attention to this balance, because you can have both a successful career and a happy personal life; it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There is no special recipe for doing this since everyone’s personal life and career are different.

four people in a row, playing golfOur professions are time-consuming, and it’s not unusual to have to put in extra time to meet a commitment or schedule. Passion for what we do and the willingness to put in the necessary time is critical for our careers, and we need to take exactly the same approach and dedication when it comes to our personal lives.

We are fortunate at RS&H to be in an environment that respects that balance.

3. Understand that opportunities can and will come along that may take you out of your comfort zone.

Be mindful of the opportunities you take, even if you have to stretch for them.

By the time I interviewed with RS&H during my last year of architecture school at Tulane, I had already worked at some small firms as a summer intern. RS&H was the biggest firm I had ever interviewed with, and I was excited about the opportunity.

I remember having my interview at RS&H, which couldn’t have gone any better. I went back to New Orleans afterward just knowing that I was going to get a job offer. I didn’t.

Instead, I moved back to Pennsylvania and started my career with a small architecture firm in my hometown. When I received a call a few months later from RS&H asking if I was still interested in a job, I had to think about it, as I was already getting re-rooted back home with family and friends.

Ultimately, I decided to try out RS&H and get the big firm experience. If it didn’t work out, I figured, I would spend a few years in Jacksonville and then go back home. Little did I realize what an interesting time it was at RS&H and the changes that were about to take place.

businessman making a presentationA few years after I joined RS&H, the firm was acquired. The arrangement only lasted a few years, and by 1989, a window of opportunity arose for RS&H to buy itself back.

Our CEO at the time, Leerie Jenkins, organized a group of associates to buy the design portion of the company. Our firm had dwindled in size and was no longer the large firm it once was when I had started.

It was a gamble for the group of associates to buy into the new RS&H, and it was the biggest gamble of my career to date to stay with the firm. We were essentially a startup company with a 50-year-old legacy name.

The anxiety was high, but this also provided an unbelievable opportunity to grow quickly and take on more responsibilities. Staying at RS&H gave me the opportunity to develop close, strong client relationships and even closer relationships with the coworkers around me.

One of the reasons I stayed at RS&H was the variety of project types. At a different firm, I am not sure I could have worked on a convention center, airport, corporate headquarters, financial center, federal courthouse and more. It didn’t matter if the project was large or small; it was impactful to the community, our clients and, ultimately, RS&H.

I was also encouraged to get involved in professional organizations, which gave me the opportunity to meet and get to know some amazing people both inside and outside our industry.

Along the way I got better at balancing personal and professional time. Taking my family to a ribbon cutting ceremony or touring a completed project with my wife, who incidentally I met at RS&H, and our three sons all helped with that balance. My family got to know a number of our clients as well as my co-workers, which helped build a bridge between personal and professional life.

As for memorable moments, even though I had nothing to do with it, going to the Kennedy Space Center and standing next to the Mobile Launcher with the American flag on the side is something that I will never forget. What an amazing sense of pride for our firm and what we are capable of doing! It’s an incredible part of the history of this country, as well as RS&H, and it still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

As cool as all of that is, what is just as memorable to me is when I look back and see a lot of people at RS&H I was able to recruit and bring to the firm who have made a positive impact over the years. I look back at my career and see how relationships start and how they evolve. I see these people mentoring and growing younger associates who are our next generation of leaders. I see all of this and know that RS&H will benefit from its people for generations to come.

I’m thankful to have been part of the RS&H journey and RS&H has been a big and special part of my own journey. I wish everyone at RS&H the very best in the future and am thankful for all of the collaboration, creativity and support over the last 40 years.

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