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My Journey in Digital Construction: A summary of my experience and opportunities while working in BIM in the USA.

This article is written Melissa Thiessens, Design Technology Specialist at Parallax Team & WIB Regional Lead for Salt Lake City, USA.

As a Regional Lead for WIB, I have long been on the lookout for really awesome, groundbreaking industry topics that I could cover for my turn writing an article. Then I realized that this would be published  just after AU and people would have just spent days watching industry talks from people with access to giant workshops and worksites with robots and lasers and I can’t quite compete with that…

Why do I feel that way?  Well firstly – robots and lasers… ‘nuff said…  But mostly it’s because I don’t feel like a very exciting person or that I have anything of consequence to say…  I spent days wrestling with ideas and jotting down random paragraphs about more techy topics, and it just wasn’t coming together…  Until I started exploring why it was that I felt that way, even though I have a rewarding new job as a Design Technology Specialist at Parallax Team, working with some of the smartest people I know, and (until COVID, of course) have had the opportunity to travel around the world for industry events.

So I’m going to tell the story of how a nerdy girl [AGS1] with crazy hair, who wanted to grow up to be an architect, ended up quite happily working in architectural technology; and why a ridiculously introverted girl with anxiety so bad she often ends up with giant red hives all over her legs when getting up in front of large groups has been volunteering as a conference committee member, speaking on panels at various conferences, co-hosting a podcast, and teaching Revit classes at the local community college and university.

Anybody who knows me well, knows that I am not writing this because I like to talk about myself (far from it, in fact). I am writing this because over the years, I have had the opportunity to have conversations with many people that I look up to; people, both in my personal life and well-known in the Revit community, who have shared feelings and stories similar to some of my own. Learning that I’m not the only one battling these feelings has helped me start to overcome them.  I hope putting my story out there will help somebody else feel less alone, or like they aren’t a failure for not being where they thought they would be at this point in life or not having everything figured out already.   Who knows, maybe even I will start to believe in myself a little more…

As a child, I always knew I wanted to be an architect.  I was the one who put together all the Lego sets (mostly my brother’s) that came into the house at birthdays or Christmas.  I used to sit at the back window for hours sketching the neighboring houses, clip house plans out of the weekly newspapers, and build cardboard houses for She-Ra  (the scale was clearly easier to work with, than that giraffe Barbie). In the summer I was often found exploring houses under construction nearby or building treehouses or clubhouses out of whatever scraps we could find.  I helped when we finished our basement, and as the oldest cousin, got to wield the nail gun when we re-shingled my grandparents’ roof.

Because I was one of those ’lucky‘ people that already knew what they wanted to do in life, I tailored my elective classes in High School to start on that path.  I took hand drafting classes, lots of art and math classes, and even learned Microstation. From there, I went straight to Salt Lake Community College where I took construction classes, studio classes, sketching classes, and learned AutoCAD (R14 for anyone wondering) and then Architectural Desktop.  After 2 years, I left with an Associate Degree in Architectural Technology and continued on to the undergraduate program at the University of Utah; determined to cruise through the program, knock out Grad school and get licensed by the time I was 30.

Over the next 2 years, I survived all the architecture school things; the site visits, the all-nighters, the model-building and cardboard cuts,  the all-nighters, the waiting for the plotter to be available for hours just before boards were supposed to be pinned up, the all-nighters, the critiques that seemed to have nothing to do with your actual project, and the all-nighters… Many projects I really enjoyed; designing and building light fixtures and furniture, even spending my time teaching some of the other students how to use AutoCAD (leading to my re-purposing of a project I had completed at the community college so that I had something to turn in).

Then it was time to concentrate on the next step – Graduate School.  I had given fleeting thought to going somewhere out of state, but due to various life circumstances, I decided I would just apply to continue with Grad School locally.  While discussing plans and worries with a group of fellow (mostly male) students, one of them helpfully told me “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get in.  You’re a girl”.  He was a nice guy, and I genuinely think he meant his comment to be reassuring, but it stuck with me.  In a big way.  And not in the way he meant it…

I was accepted to the Graduate Program and started the next spring. (I don’t even remember if the guy that made the helpful comment was there).  I did pretty well that first year spending all day working on school projects, a few nights a week drafting for an architect, and answering phones at JCPenney on the weekends. But there was always the voice in my head telling me that I didn’t really deserve to be there, that I was only accepted because they needed more ladies in the program.

We started the second year by writing about our master’s thesis topic; why we had chosen it and what the design would accomplish.  I chose to remodel the oldest surviving school [AGS1][PGI2] building in the town I grew up, and convert it into a Community Center with a theater addition.  I spent weeks pouring through local history books and talking to community members about what their needs would be.  I ended up with a 30 page paper detailing the history of the building, the significance it had for the community, and why I thought it would be the perfect choice for a community center.  I still remember the feelings of shock I had when I received the email from the professor saying that she didn’t think it was a strong enough project for my Master’s Thesis, and that I wouldn’t be moving onto the design portion with the rest of my class.

After the shock wore off, I was angry at myself and feeling resentful toward the professor.  I told myself that she had never really liked me, or she would have spent more time speaking with me during studio, and that as a woman herself, she should have wanted me to succeed. But that quickly gave way to feeling like it made sense; I had never really deserved to be there anyway.  So I quietly packed up my stuff at the school and just never went back.  I didn’t believe in myself enough to fight for it and was too embarrassed to face my classmates, so I settled easily into being a failure at the thing I had told myself I wanted my entire life.

Looking back, I wonder if that the email from my professor was meant as more of a wake-up call, that she wanted me to show some passion and put my whole heart into it. That instead of coasting by and picking a safe topic, I should have made an effort to sit down with her and discuss more promising alternatives. But it’s difficult to plead your case when not even you believe in it.

I’ve come to realize that perhaps ’knowing‘ what I wanted to be from a young age wasn’t actually as good a thing as I had always believed.  It kept me from ever looking up during the journey and realizing that I really enjoyed the model building, using the software, and the more detailed parts of the curriculum, but I was never able to be as free and loose as the professors wanted me to be during design studios. It was never creating the overall design that I loved, it was the details and the problem-solving process of bringing it to life.  If I had ever taken any time to sit down and really look at the aspects I enjoyed and had an aptitude for, I may not have gone to Grad school at all , and would have saved myself a lot of grief.  But then again, I may not have learned a lot of these lessons about myself.

After this major setback to The Plan, I started working full time at a large firm I had been loaned out to when work started slowing down for the architect I worked for during school, all the while contemplating if I should disappear one day and start a new life somewhere far away, where no one knew I was such a failure…  But I stuck it out, and when the CAD Manager there left I sort of unofficially picked up the role, becoming the go-to person for CAD questions.  After a few years, I met a guy at a local car club meet up, who convinced me that I should apply at the firm he was at.  I did, and rather nervously made my first real career move.

In my first year at the new firm, I ended up taking over many of the CAD Manager duties. From there, I was in the perfect place to jump into Revit and start transitioning the architectural and interior design projects to be done entirely in Revit.  After just over a year there, I was fortunate to be sent to Autodesk University to learn as much as I could and to see what larger firms were doing.  The years after were a busy mix of production, creating and updating templates and libraries, and training other employees.

They were also a mix of continuously going through the cycle of getting inspired by AU classes and things I read on Revit forums, setting lofty goals for what I wanted to do with the office templates and libraries, being too busy to fully implement the idea, and then feeling like a failure because things weren’t perfect.  I was also constantly being reminded of my failure to be an architect by working daily with others who had graduated from the university and were already working on testing.  I would often feel depressed at seeing the names of people that hadn’t continued past the undergraduate program being listed on the company website under the ’Architecture‘ employees list, while I was listed under the ’Technical‘ section.  Of course, I never had the guts to say anything about that to anyone, and just added it to my growing mental list of reasons I wasn’t good enough.

At one point I got a call from a former professor wondering if we were using the keynoting tool, which reminded me that I had wanted to get that implemented the year prior, but had been sidetracked by many other small, but mission-critical projects.  Fueled by the fear that I was letting us fall behind everyone else, I embarked on a 6 month journey, often working at night because I was too busy at the office, to tie our entire library and template to a master keynote list.  Sometime after finally completing this task, we partnered with a couple of larger national firms, and I saw that they were still just using text notes and tags.  But of course, I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

Luckily, during all these years that I was feeling like I wasn’t good enough, my firm didn’t feel that way. They supported me in my personal quest to try to not be the worst ever, and I was sent to AU every year, where I started to meet many of my Revit Heroes.  In 2014, after much cajoling from Jim Balding I submitted a lab abstract as a co-speaker to RTCNA and the class was selected as an instructional demo.  Partly from my extreme nervousness at presenting at a conference for the first time, and partially because I had been planning to hide behind the relative safety of having the attendees mostly staring at their own computers, I highly doubt my portion was delivered very smoothly… I never did ask my co-speaker to see the comments from attendees, believing they would all say his portion was great and mine was awkward and a waste of their time.

The upside of not actually dying of stage fright was that the smaller venue of RTC allowed me to meet many new people, and spend more time with some of the people that I had only met in passing at AU.  It was the start of many great friendships that I honestly cherish, and that have helped give me the courage to venture out of my shell in the last few years.  Another upside was that because of the value of the knowledge and the connections I brought back that year, I was given the ok to continue attending the North American RTC (now BILT) conferences in the following years, even if I wasn’t speaking.

During the last 5 or 6 years, as t I’ve started gaining a bit more confidence in myself, I’ve realized that it’s one thing to be supportive of the groups such as Women in BIM, and other Diversity and Inclusion groups that are working to create a more inclusive AEC industry, but that I wasn’t helping anything by just applauding those that were already daring enough to get up on stage to say something about it.  If we really want those numbers to climb, more of us must take the courage to get up there as well; to show women, and other groups that have not traditionally held AEC and tech roles, that they belong up there as much as anyone else, and that they have important contributions to make to the field. And, while my natural tendency is to not want to put something out there until it’s perfect and polished, I remembered something one of our name partners once said to me after I asked him how old he was when he finally felt like he knew what he was doing.  His answer to me, after looking furtively around for eavesdroppers, was to lean closer and with a wink, say “I’ll let you know if it ever happens.” He has since gone on to become FAIA, win a lifetime achievement award, and has retired, and I’m still waiting to hear back.

So I put my name up to be a WIB Regional Lead , joined the Building Content Summit Committee, and agreed to be a podcast co-host. Since then (admittedly with the help of anxiety meds), I have gotten up in front of large rooms to introduce amazing speakers at BILT; I have gotten up an stages to speak on panels in front of way more people than I’d like to think about (with the extra help of friends who promised they would tell me if my hives were noticeable); and have spent my time at the last few conferences I attended trying to be more bold and meeting more people, especially the amazing ladies that are there.

While I continue on my adventure of figuring out what I’m supposed to be doing before anyone notices I don’t know what I’m doing (or was it finally conquering my Imposter Syndrome…?),  I sincerely hope that something in this post will help someone out there, whether it’s simply letting you know that you are not alone in your doubts and fears, or maybe inspires you to step out of your comfort zone and get more involved.  At the very least I hope it can inspire you to come say “Hi” next time we’re all allowed to be in public.  You can’t miss the hair (especially if it’s at all humid)!

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