Interviewing an Intern’s Employer

Last post, we met Rebecca Sunter, graduate student and summer intern. Luckily, I was also able to talk to Chris Pattillo of PGAdesign in Oakland, CA which was one of the firms Rebecca worked for this summer. Chris graciously spent her lunch hour with me so I could pass along another Interview with an Employer to you! Full disclosure: I work at PGAdesign, too.

As many of you know, I’ve done three posts to date where I talk with design firm executives. Each of them is in the position of doing the hiring and portfolio review for their respective firms. I take notes, type them up, and once they’re approved or modified by the person interviewed, I post the results here for you. It is through this process, that as much as possible, these are their words.

Q: What are you looking for in your hiring?

A: It depends on what need in the company we are trying to fill. For instance, if we needed to do more SketchUp and didn’t have someone who was strong in that software, we would prioritize that skill in our search. Usually, when we have an opening, we need people who are very well-rounded. We also consider whether that person will get along with the rest of the staff. Personality and chemistry is surprisingly important.

I like to see people with good hand graphics as well as computer skills. I like to see the full spectrum of samples including working drawings, writing samples, details, and I would be impressed if someone brought in sample specifications. I’m interested in the extracurricular activities people participate in whether they share an interest in one of our areas of expertise. How someone spends their free time tells me a lot about that person. I also need to know what that person did for the work in their portfolio. In school, people sometimes work in teams, so I need to know what their role was. Likewise, if this person shows me a project from another firm, I need to know more about what they did on the project and not so much what the project’s program was.

Q: How important is it to you where someone went to school?

A: We do look at what school someone went to. We’ve found over the years that people who went to design schools are better designers than those who attended extension programs. The final decision doesn’t depend on what school, though.

Q: What would be a deal-breaker in an interview at PGA?

A: Sloppy dress or an egotistical attitude is a real turn-off. Interviews are already an artificial setting, so it is important to make a connection and demonstrate genuine interest and an ability to interact and be professional. Another pet peeve is when the candidate tries to control the interview and forces us to listen to a full presentation of all the projects in their portfolio. I like to see that this person has been able to keep a job for a while and doesn’t just have a lot of very short-lived jobs. With the economy having been so hard, though, I don’t look at that as much as I used to.

Q: What kinds of applications do you usually get?

A: I almost always get resumes with samples of work emailed to me. I keep a folder for these emails, and when there’s a need, that is the first place I look. I also forward those emails to colleagues looking for people.

Q: So is it unusual for you to get a hard-copy mailed to the office?

A: Very. I do have a file for this, but it is pretty unusual.

Q: But if someone gets invited to interview, they always bring a hard-copy portfolio?

A: Yes. People always bring hard-copy portfolios. Sometimes it is just the printed version of what they sent, but they always bring a physical portfolio.

Q: How long is too long for a printed portfolio?

A: I enjoy portfolios, so I like to see a lot of work. Some are too long, but I think around 20 pages is just fine. A lot of gorgeous stuff comes across my desk, but in the thirty-three years we’ve been in business, I have probably only seen three or four truly exceptional portfolios.

Q: I met with Rebecca yesterday, and we had a good talk about the difference between what was expected of her and what she thought she would be doing. So what do you think? When an entry level person starts working here, what are your firm’s expectations?

A: We understand that people coming right out of school aren’t as well-rounded as someone with more experience, but if they show a desire to learn and an enthusiasm for the work, that is very helpful. We don’t expect them to design or manage projects, they would start by doing redlines for a project manager and work their way up to more responsibility.


So – if you compare Chris’ answers to Scott’s, Mr. H’s, and Ms. Golden’s, they’ve got some things in common and some of their opinions are very different. If you are one of the thousands of people looking for work in Landscape Architecture, I challenge you to take a close look at their answers and try to figure out for yourself how you can present yourself as a desirable, memorable applicant. Read each answer and consider how you as a person with your unique skill-set would be best represented.

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