#ArchiTalks / Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career

This post is part of the ArchiTalks monthly blog series, hosted by Architect Bob Borson. This month’s topic is: “Then and Now.” At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some of the other ArchiTalk Bloggers. Make sure you visit them.

Fair warning, this is basically my career story from graduation to present. It has ups, it has downs, but if you stick around until the end, I think you’ll find some great insight you can apply to your own story.

Evolving Architect / Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career

When I graduated college, I had some really interesting ideas of where I’d end up.

As most of the architecture magazines had convinced me, I expected to be greeted by the world with open arms, just like all of the other amazing architects I had read about. They made it look way too easy.

Time it seems, is the great equalizer.

I’m now over 8 years removed from my graduation. A lot has changed. Some of the things I expected to happen have, but most have taken shape in other ways. I also write this knowing that I have yet to truly scratch the surface of what I hope to be a long, industrious career. But I’d be lying if I thought this is where I’d be.

Summer 2008 / My Vision for the Career Not to Be

A few months prior to my graduation, I had begun to search for the job I would inevitably need after school was over. Like many of my peers, I searched where I assumed I’d be welcomed with open arms. I applied for jobs in New York, Chicago, Boston, and L.A.

I didn’t look too hard, but I still tried to find something. At the time, I really did think that as long as I looked, someone would hire me. I mean, I went to a prestigious school that repeatedly ranked in the top 5 programs in the country, I was graduating Magna Cum Laude, and my thesis was selected as one of the projects to be presented at the Award Juries (aka ‘Super Jury’). What isn’t there to like?

Damn, I was arrogant.

It wasn’t that I didn’t deserve those accolades. I worked my ass off to get them in fact, even at the expense sometimes of ‘other’ college experiences. I was in college for one reason, on reason only. I wanted to be the best.

I thrived off of the merits, the praise, the honors.

Some of the firms wanted me to interview. I traveled to Boston with one of my good friends, Preston. He had interviews too. He ended up staying in Boston after he accepted a position there. His story though, was not mine.

After I graduated, the job offers weren’t there. As I mentioned before, I was trying to get a position, but I was also just sort of basking in the fact that I had completed my grueling, 5-year bachelor degree, with flying colors no less.

There’s a moment that I recall directly after I graduated. My student loans hadn’t begun yet (thank God for the 6 month grace period), I was living my life, and in a position to consider my options. I didn’t have a care in the world.

On a whim, I visited one of the firms I had interned at a few Summers before. I was more or less just checking in, seeing what was new, and parading around a neatly composed thesis book. I needed to tell more people what I had done and what my big plans were. I knew they would understand.

I met with the partner, Bob. He was also a Syracuse Grad. I remembered that we had bonded on that a bit when I was an intern and it may have even been the reason I was hired. I showed him my work and told him that I was looking for work in cities like Chicago and Boston.

Bob is not a subtle man. He looked over everything, heard what he needed to, and simply offered me a job.

I was simultaneously surprised and whatever the opposite of surprised should be. Prepared, I guess? Anyway, I accepted the offer.

It’s interesting. I was prepared for something like that to happen, because at the time, why wouldn’t it? I knew Bob liked my work and what I had done in the Summer I had interned. Now I was a graduate and ready to take on the world. 

In that moment, I figured ‘Hey, why not? I’ll keep looking for something in the ‘Big City’ and I can get some experience here while I do. It can be a start to something bigger. I accepted.

Little did I know that I had signed just signed myself up for 7 years at that ‘starter’ firm.

Again, pretty arrogant.

September 2008 / The Economy Free Falls

For anyone who has been in the workforce long enough, you’ll know that the market decides everything and sometimes doesn’t play nice. There are good times and there are bad times. I didn’t realize that even happened, but I sure was about to feel it.

In September, months after I had graduated, the stock market plummeted from a credit crisis and fear. Now granted, the “Great Recession” was an accentuated version of what other generations before me had experienced, but it felt unreal all the same.

At the time, in my naivety, I just assumed that our profession wouldn’t be affected much. Again, arrogant and wrong.

In a few months, projects I had assumed to work on began to dry up. Now, the firm at the time, was fairly small. There was Bob, the partner, myself, a secretary, and four other designers/architects. Still, I distinctly recall a time when pretty much everyone was only working on one project. If that project left, we’d be out of jobs. Those were some of the best quality drawings to ever leave the office though.

Things were stressful to say the least.

Friends that I had watched on the path that I had hoped to travel myself were suddenly either out of work or still trying to find jobs in all of the madness. I felt helpless. There was something safe in being in my hometown of Buffalo, NY that made it a bit easier to handle everything. I didn’t want to chance going to a larger city only to find myself out on the streets a few weeks later.

I had to ride out the storm.

In a way, the ‘Great Recession’ helped me find a part of myself though. In the turmoil, I was able to focus on other things to reinforce and expand my career.

Spring 2009 - Summer 2011 / Insulation Through Effort

So, there was a period in my earliest stage of career that became extremely eye-opening for me.

At work, I was dealing with the stress of not knowing when and if the work would run out and I’d be out of a job. A very stressful time for myself, the design/construction industry and the world. Because the job had become something else to me, I needed to find an outlet that I could expand not only my creativity, but my knowledge and skills as well.

I knew that I had to insulate myself, as best I could, from the impending doom I could feel all around me.

I did this in three primary ways:

1. Design Competitions

2. Community Service

3. Credential Hunting (LEED AP)

DESIGN COMPETITIONS

At first, I searched for design outlets outside of the office in the form of design competitions. I designed a house constructed from modular blocks, a modern lake house for an artist and a writer, a chair made from recycled tires and water jet cut plywood, a transforming kitchen in Manhattan, a performative, new facade for a Russian theatre, and a dynamic, experimental skyscraper in Boston. Oh, and there was that one competition I entered where I even wrote a letter to architecture itself.

Yep, I went there.

I completed all of those projects within the span of about 4 years. At some point, I think I may have become addicted to working on my own projects. The work took on a life of its own I guess. 

Originally, the intent was to create a body of work I could take somewhere else and say, “I did this.” I saw all too often that resumes and sample pages would find their way to the incoming mail pile for the office. Some of them would be openly discussed because of the culture their (a side note to anyone applying for a job - it happens). The common trait - unless it was clearly noted, it was very difficult to discern what they had actually done. I didn’t want that issue and I knew that the additional work I could bring to the table on top of the quality work I was creating at the firm would benefit me greatly.

Ultimately, entering competitions did allow me to expand upon my existing knowledge. I had a single goal for each competition I entered - learn something knew. I understood very early on that if I could not only end up with a project, but also a skill, I would be able to get double-duty from my effort.

COMMUNITY SERVICE

I had been raised early on to give back to the community. 

I distinctly remember helping my parents with a newsletter at our local church. I would fold and staple them together so they could be distributed later. A simple act, but one that I know the congregation appreciated.

After I left college, I wanted to help out again. To be honest, I think I’ve always been a good person, but I did have an angle when I started. I wanted to build a resume that was ‘impenetrable.’ At least that’s what I told myself at the time.

My parents have been in the Communications and Marketing field for several decades. I’m not completely sure how I became an introverted architect, but that’s probably something I’ll discuss with a professional if I’m ever psychoanalyzed.

Because they helped to run promotional events on occasion, I was able to assist them on event days. I counted money, handed out flyers, and created graphics. Nothing fancy, just helping out where help was needed.

Each new effort was something I could speak to.

But then I found Habitat. Habitat for Humanity helps underprivileged families find homes after they’ve gone through a rigorous acceptance process and proven they will be able to maintain their home later.

For about a year, I was on the Family Selection Committee. Basically, I would interview prospective families looking for a house through the program. 

I’ll tell you right now, that was one of the first experiences that made me stop and think. Although I had been helpful in other endeavors, I was drastically affecting the possible outcome for people’s lives. 

After the first couple of interviews, I began to realize just how much of the world I didn’t understand. Sure, I understood that poverty existed in the world, but being a middle-class, white kid from the suburbs, I never had to experience it. My Habitat experience truly made me thankful for the life I had been given growing up. I was thankful before, but looking through the eyes of a family trying to create a better life for themselves moved me deeply.

A little less arrogant.

CREDENTIAL HUNTING (LEED AP)

Fortunately for me, I had been fairly aggressive at work in terms of trying new things and asking for more responsibility. This worked in my favor when my Boss asked me to research the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) credential system because the firm’s new office renovations required the project to comply with LEED for tax credits and incentives.

I was given free reign to research the program, understand its inner workings, and establish the path to bring the project through the credentialing.

If you’re unfamiliar with LEED, it’s basically a system that checks how ‘environmentally responsible’ a given construction project is. There is a points system and an a la carte menu of possible credits to choose from. If you acquire a certain number of points, you can reach a given level of ‘sustainability.’

Because the firm was low on work and the renovations needed to be completed within a given schedule, I think was provided with more time and resources to figure out the process than I normally would have been otherwise. I took advantage of the time I had and learned everything I possibly could about the process. After hours, I would go home and look up even more about the unique technologies and systems that were available.

Soon I realized that I could not only bring the project through the process, but that I could use my recently acquired knowledge to seek out a specialty credential. After several months of studying, I took the LEED AP exam and became a LEED Accredited Professional. It’s basically the equivalent of being known as an ‘expert’ in sustainable design.

Simply showing up with quality work on a regular basis had placed me in a position to both learn a new skill and become an expert in something recognized by the profession.

It helped me stand out and I could sense that my efforts to expand my skills were starting to pay off.

Summer 2011 / The AIA

While I had been extending my reach of knowledge, my boss had noticed that I was passionate about the profession and offered me the opportunity to become an Associate AIA (American Institute of Architects) Member and to sit on the AIA Buffalo/WNY Chapter Board.

I had been waiting for about two years prior to that for some kind of in. I had watched as Bob put together events and participated as an architect in the dialogue that was taking place within the profession.

Knowing that I could not successfully serve both Habitat and the AIA to the best of my abilities, I stepped down as a Family Selection Committee member and became an Associate Member of the AIA Buffalo/WNY Chapter a month later.

It was Summer of 2011. I had been invited to my first meeting for the AIA and I didn’t know what to expect. For the first few months, I remember just taking it all in. I spoke up when I had something to contribute, but mostly I listened. I knew that the members on the Board were all highly-respected professionals chosen throughout the community to serve.

I realized very early on that my voice had to serve the membership by serving its up and coming emerging professionals. There was a significant void to fill in that department. A committee existed a few years prior for emerging professionals, but it had long since gone the way of the dodo.

My internal need to help others was slowly evolving all on its own. It had shifted a bit to be the voice for those like me who wanted to understand where they fit into the larger profession. In January 2012, I co-founded the Buffalo Emerging Professionals with my good friend Manny Rivera (also a new Board Member looking to make a difference).

In my tenure with the committee, I’ve helped establish a permanent ARE Resource Library, an ongoing series of Seminars (now webinars through a partnership with Evolving Architect called Workshop Wednesdays), an ‘Animal House’ Design Competition, and so much more.

I won a few awards for the Community Service that I provided, but I’ll tell you right now that the high I get from helping others is palpable.

I was humbled.

April 2012 / The ‘One’ Project

Remember how I was still working, right? Haha, yeah back to that.

From Summer of 2011 through Spring of 2012, I was working on the ‘One’ Project, the once in a lifetime kind of project. As the Recession began to release more work into the industry and clients became more comfortable with starting up new projects, our firm was selected to design the major renovations at Crosby Hall on the University at Buffalo(UB)’s South Campus. Crosby Hall is home to U.B.’s Architecture School. It is the only accredited architecture program in the S.U.N.Y. system.

The leadership at the School is progressive and had been looking at precedents of recently completed architecture school renovations to move their program in line with the best of the best. 

The project manager from our firm, and one of my best friends and mentors, Ken, was a graduate of the program at the school and took the responsibility very seriously. He is a talented designer and architect (probably the best I know personally). We worked diligently to create a design that encompassed all of the program requirements and produced one of the best drawing sets I may ever have the pleasure of working on in my entire career. It just worked.

I was confident.

Then a (partially) unexpected thing happened. Ken quit and marched right across the street to another firm. I’m not joking.  Right across the street. It’s always felt like there was about to be an architect brawl on Seneca Street in downtown Buffalo like a scene straight out of ‘Gangs of New York.”

At the time, I remember him telling me that he needed a change and that he had heard good things about the people at the new firm. *This, my friends, is a very, very important thing to remember in our story.*

Something I’d like to mention at this point. There’s an 18 million dollar renovation on the table here and I have about 4 years of experience. I could feel everyone looking around and asking themselves, “so who’s going to run this thing now?” Keep in mind that the firm was starting to build positive momentum and the redesign of an architecture school in your office’s hometown is NOT something you want to screw up.

I had doubts at first, but I closed out Schematic Design, sat down with my boss, and simply told him I could do this. I wanted the project. I wanted it like the need to breathe.

To Bob, I think I made the most sense to run the project because I had been entrenched in the process for a year prior, knew all of the issues and players, and could handle it. I had proven myself through all of the extra effort, the outgoing requests for more responsibility and a strong desire to keep learning.

I think I held on to the project so tightly because I saw it as something I could look back on fondly in my career.

The project moved forward steadily for about a year into the middle of Design Development.

But then an atomic bomb exploded. The project had been put on hold. It stayed that way for about another year. Whah whah.

I felt like the ‘one’ project was my principal reason for being at the firm. It became a part of my identity. I was a project manager because of it and had exponentially increased both my responsibility and education in a matter of months (in ways I hadn’t even done in the four years prior).

I needed to refocus.

Two options presented themselves. I could either get my license, something I rationalized I could do anytime or teach a group of fourth graders how to become architects. I chose the latter.

Fall 2013 / Architecture + Education

One of the great joys of my career was the Fall I spent with the fourth graders a Buffalo Public School #53. I took this as another opportunity that simply couldn’t be passed up.

I didn’t mention this before, but since I’d left my undergraduate program at Syracuse, I had been planning a triumphant return to academia. It wasn’t necessarily to get my graduate degree just to have it. It was because of what the graduate degree meant to me - a passport to teaching others.

It’s a widely-known understanding in academic circles that you either need a lot of practical experience, a graduate degree, or both in order to teach architecture students at the college level. Since I didn’t have quite enough practical experience or my license yet, I had dreamt about getting my graduate degree instead.

As those who know me best will tell you, my plans for a graduate degree consumed me at times. I made 2 year, 3 year, and 5 year plans. I would rework them every so often just to make sure that I was always working towards the goal of going to graduate school. Oh, by the way, I didn’t just have any school in mind. I was looking almost only at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). This was a residual dream of mine that had carried over from my time at Syracuse.

I rationalized that if I had gone to a #2 or #3 undergrad program in the country, I should only be moving up and looking at programs that would justify my effort above and beyond. I mean, graduate school is freaking expensive. It was a way to justify, in part, why I’d be going to graduate school at all. At least that’s how I saw it.

Maybe a tad bit arrogant.

Anyway, back to the fourth graders.

The program is called ‘Architecture + Education.’ Every other year, the Buffalo Architecture Foundation (think of this as the sibling foundation to AIA Buffalo/WNY) hosts in conjunction with the City of Buffalo School District a 10-week program for inner-city youth that teaches them basic architecture skills through weekly projects and presentations. At the culmination of the 10 weeks, a huge party is held downtown and all of the work from the classes are displayed for the public’s viewing pleasure.

Ages range from Pre-K through High School, but I was placed with Mrs. Popovich’s fourth graders. I worked with her to develop a general curriculum for the entire 10 weeks and then spent an exorbitant amount of time creating powerpoint presentations, props, and handouts for everyone to share.

I. Was. Hooked.

Teaching had been a kind of abstraction to me before, but now it was the smiling faces, the realization that I had given them the opportunity to dream of a better life.

I was proud.

June 2014 / The ‘One’ Project is Back

Listen, if you knew that the one project you had spent blood, sweat, and tears on was coming back to you from the point of oblivion, I’d bet you’d be pretty freaking happy.

I was, until I realized something, it wasn’t the project I knew before.

The scope had been cut significantly for reasons out of the client’s control, reduced to smaller upgrades instead of a building-wide renovation. That’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes though. All the same, we had a duty though to make it the best project we could. 

I became slightly disenchanted. This was the first of several cracks that started to show in my purpose.

Over time, I started to notice other things that bothered me about what I was doing. Had I just put all of myself on a single project? Why was I so devastated?

In an effort to deal with the situation in the best way I knew how, I kept moving forward with my licensure. At this point, I had taken and passed five of my seven exams.

I spun a little out of control, trying to do more at the AIA at the same time as my studies. I took over the Chapter’s Design Awards - a monumental effort in and of itself. I didn’t just run the Awards, I helped make them better, easier for the next person to run after me. I streamlined processes and just put all of myself into every detail.

I couldn’t tell at the time, but I was lost, just holding on to whatever I could to make sense of everything.

Spring 2015 / A New Hope

Just looking for a change, I started thinking about what my next steps were. I ultimately determined that what I needed was a change of scene.

I had been working at the same firm for nearly seven years straight. I was extremely grateful to my fortune that I was able to do what others were not, weather the storm of the Recession.

But those are War times.

I needed to make the change for myself. I needed to make the change to reset.

As you may have noticed from the story so far, I don’t just do anything at half energy. I am constantly working on a project or helping some cause. As it turns out though, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

When I went out into the community searching for prospects, I was happy to find several. It didn’t hit me until I realized that I was not only helping my community through badass community service, but that I was consistently able to impress the other Board Members over a 4 year period.

I showed up. I gave it my all. Everything paid off in spades.

June 2016 / Is it Safe to Cross the Street?

Remember the pivotal moment I pointed out before with my friend and mentor Ken? Well, I knew that after several regular lunches that he was a much happier person.

One day, I asked him, “What makes you happy there?”

He said, “It’s the people and the work. I don’t take issues home with me anymore.”

I knew right then what I had to ask, “So, are you guys looking for people?”

“As it turns out we are,” Ken said as he smiled.

I had an interview scheduled with the two partners within a week. The good will and presence I had created around myself continued there.

I explained how the ‘one’ project had given me not only a good rapport with the client over time, but that it allowed me to improve my technical skills exponentially in a ‘sink or swim’ scenario.

The one partner, Shawn, I had known for years on the (yep, you guessed it) AIA Buffalo/WNY Board of Directors. He knew me and he knew the type of person I was. He had seen my ‘work’ firsthand.

I knew going into the interview that this firm I had heard about from the other side of the street was known for the culture they had fostered, not their ‘design’ abilities. That’s not say that there weren’t good designers there, just that the company’s philosophy was about providing quality service and attention to its staff and clients above all.

Just as I knew that point about their firm, they knew I came from a firm known primarily for its attention to design quality, the kind you see in publications and magazines.

Shawn said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. (Paraphrasing)

“We know that you come from a place where design quality is emphasized. Our projects, while there are definitely opportunities for good design, mostly rely on the positive service we provide. They’re not always 'fancy.' Do you think that would be a problem for you long term?”

I said without hesitating, “To me, design is all about solving problems. Architecture is just a service we provide to others who want help solving them.”

I walked across the street on June 29th, four weeks later. The Gangs of New York weren’t there to stop me as I had expected.

Fall 2015 / License

The first thing I knew that I needed was to just help where I could. The great part about starting a new job is that you’re rarely given too much responsibility right off the bat. I don’t mean that in a bad way. There needs to be some time for the transition to happen naturally. I had to learn a new drafting program, VectorWorks, and get acclimated to the new team I was working with.

Something had changed when I made the leap. I became more chill. My work ethic didn’t waiver, but I wasn’t so manic about everything. I took an acceptable pace initially and didn’t want to step on any toes as the new guy.

Since I was just trying to become one of the team and hours typically end for the day at five, I had some time back for myself. I decided to set the goal to finish my license.

It took three months, but I completed the last two exams. The morning I found out was the same day as our interoffice meeting (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse) at the Rochester Office. At one point, everyone went around and updated the group on what they had been up to lately. Shawn stepped in when it came to my turn and said, “Today, Mike has earned a raise.” (I had mentioned it to him right before)

It was one of the proudest moments of my life. The raise helped too.

Fall 2015 - Present / Evolving Architect

It may surprise you, but I’m basically an energizer bunny. My ‘downtime’ is to work on the next project.

I had reached a place in my career where I needed something to call distinctly my own. My experience with the AIA taught me one thing - there are hundreds, nay, thousands of emerging professionals out there that need help navigating their careers. I wanted to be one of the people there to help them on their journey.

Evolving Architect was born two weeks after I found out I had passed my final exam.

It has been the way for me to reach out to the designers and architects out there who want to evolve their careers just like I do.

I’ve come to realize that Evolving Architect is my grad school. I don’t need to go to graduate school just to teach people what I know. I just need a keyboard, a digital canvas, and someone willing to read my inane ramblings.

Fall 2015 - Present / The Next Adventure

I’ve taken the opportunity to mentor younger staff at the firm I’m at now. I don’t just see it as a part of my job, but as a responsibility to the next generation. We’re only as good as a profession as our weakest link. But what if our weakest link wasn’t weak at all, but strong as steel? (Haha, architecture puns)

It’s not always easy, but teaching younger designers a step or two behind me is one of the most rewarding things I could have hoped for from my career.

I had my annual review a few months back. I asked Shawn, “How can I be more valuable to the Firm?”

Shawn smiled and replied, “Just keep mentoring.”

I intend to. Arrogance has been replaced with purpose.

I’ve learned a few things since I graduated. My success really comes down to three simple ideas.

Give a sh*t.
Show up consistently.
Serve others well.

 

I couldn’t have anticipated that I’d end up here. I only hope that I continue this enjoyable adventure until the next time I have a moment to reflect.

Put the positive energy you have into the world and watch it come back to you in unexpected ways.

I am grateful.

MY ‘X’ FACTOR / JESSICA LAVALLEY

It should be noted, I am only here writing this for you today because of my wife. She is the main reason I’m not a selfish ass devolving into just a shadow of who I’ve become.

She, in many ways, is the reason I have the quality career that I have today. Not everyone has a ‘Jessica,’ but I hope you find the person that helps you realize the best version of yourself.

THE ARCHITALKS CREW

 

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Then and Now - Architectural Design or Accounting

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
10 Lessons Learned from a Young Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
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Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
From Then to Now...Residential Architect

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here

Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
The Biggest Surprise of My Life as an Architect

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Where It All Went Right

Nicholas Renard - Renard Architecture (@dig-arch)
15 Years of Architecture

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
then and now: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Then-Now: A Schematic Story

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
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Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
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brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
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Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
How did I get here?

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
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Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
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Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
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Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
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Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)
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Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
The Reluctant Code Guru

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
#Architalks 22 - Then and now

Michael LaValley

Buffalo, NY