Death by Interview

By Ron Van der Veen

I never signed up for this!

I’m so nervous I can smell my armpits!

My design should speak for itself!

Why am I groveling for work?


I’m giving you a glimpse of how I felt 46 1/2 minutes ago. I was just about to walk into a 45-minute interview in front of a selection committee for a design commission that I’d die for (which would make it understandably difficult to actually execute). Yes, over my long career as an architect I’ve interviewed too many times to count, but this is the project I really want. It has the budget, it has the site, it has the sophisticated client, and it has ME . . . if we can win it.

The cold, raw reality of having to secure work is the ink stain on an architect’s otherwise crisply laundered shirt of passion and craft. I don’t recall one single architecture professor even hinting at this during my formative years in design school. And yet EVERYTHING seems to rest on “the win.” Careers are launched, firms are propelled, reputations cemented, acclaim garnered, riches hoarded . . . all in 45 minutes.

The labor of winning work often starts years ahead of the actual interview with schmoozing the potential client. Yeah, this can get to the dreaded level of used-car salesmanship, so the principled architect must establish boundaries and rules before diving into this world. Of course, I know that for any potential client I am just one of a dozen other architects vying for the same attention, like a neglected puppy. Young architects: you are just gonna have to learn to do this, because we veterans know that if the first time you hear about a request for qualifications is when it’s published, you are too late.

Yes, about the RFQ. This is the first step in any formal selection process, in which all interested design teams are asked to submit an SOQ: a statement of qualifications. I have personally worked on about 2.5 million of these and have come to the conclusion that there must be some universal central file of questions asked, because they are all so redundant. My biggest challenge is answering questions like “Describe your design or management approach,” without sounding like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Wah, wah, wah, wah . . .”

One aspect of the SOQ that I still enjoy is the cover letter because I give myself two personal challenges:

How far into the letter can I go WITHOUT starting to talk about myself (or my firm)?

How far into the letter can I go WITHOUT using an architectural cliché?

Okay, so you’ve spent years getting to know the client, you’ve been to all sorts of events to schmooze, you’ve donated money, volunteered for activities, allowed yourself to get emotionally drawn into the project and the organization, and now you’ve focused all of that gained passion into creating an absolutely convincing SOQ, which you’ve barely submitted on time because the nearby Kinko’s printer broke down.

And then you wait . . . for the short list.

Making the short list is a bit like getting dessert before dinner, and you get a quick sugar high, but it doesn’t last long. This is especially true if you find out that up to five other firms are also on the list. At this point, I usually start my self-doubt musings, such as, “We can maybe beat firms B and D, but we’ve never won against A, C, and E! We are losers!!!!”

There are typically a few weeks to prepare for an interview—enough time to lose about 10 pounds worrying about the competition. How the hell did they get shortlisted? Who is on their team? Will they build a model? What kind of graphics will they have? Is their project manager a smooth talker or inescapably grumpy like ours? Will they show a design (you know you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t!)? What is their secret weapon for winning, and how do we counteract it? Why do they always beat us?

Ron van der Veen presenting

What often unnerves me while preparing for an interview is the understanding that so much rests on 45 short minutes in what has to be an almost perfect engagement. And I mean “almost perfect” as in really, really, really great. I know our competition is going to be formidable because they have as much resting on these ridiculous presentations as we do, and they probably made an awesome model, developed the actual building program, already designed three versions of the facility, gave thousands of dollars to the foundation, married the CEO’s son or daughter, remembered the birthday of every single person who works for the organization, went on ski vacations with one of the VPs, and hired a presentation coach to prep for the interview. Yeah, we are losers!!!

So, back to the present: As I mentioned, I just walked out of the interview for this commission. I’m exhausted but relieved. Our team gave it everything we had, and we all feel like it was the best presentation of our lives. And that is the problem. I usually figure the better the interview, the more likely we are to NOT get the project. Recently, during one interview, a panelist actually stood up and assured us that we would win the project, and then I found out the next day that we didn’t. There must be some obscure law of quantum physics dictating these seemingly contradictory outcomes. As most interview veterans know, a team usually doesn’t lose from a huge screw up. It is death by a thousand tiny cuts. We often get a debrief from the selection committee when we are not awarded a commission, and we hear these similar comments as though they come from the same central file:

1. It was such a hard decision. In the end it was like flipping a coin.
2. You came in a close second.
3. Your presentation was excellent. We just thought the other team was a little bit better.
4. We could have picked anyone for this project and been happy.
5. You really didn’t lose, you just didn’t win. Please submit for the next project!
6. Wah, wah, wah, wah . . .

Forty-six and a half minutes ago, I put years of business development and emotions on the line to win this tremendous commission. Do they know that? Do they care what this means to me and my firm? Did they smell my sweaty armpits? Well, they told us how great the interview went. The best of the day! One committee member even announced he wanted us to win the commission. You know what that means?

We are losers!!!

Ron van der Veen, FAIA, is our esteemed Side Yard columnist and a principal at NAC Architecture. Ron has continued to assure ARCADE that all of his stories are at least semiautobiographical. In this case, the incident of not winning an important commission after being told he would occurred the day before he wrote this article.