Alum says broad skillset and thirst for learning serve her well
Zahra Williams (BEDS’10) has held several positions since graduating and is currently a principal and the Director of Operations at ZZap. In a new Q&A, she shares her journey towards success, the challenges she faced along the way and how she benefited from her time at Dalhousie.
What made you want to study architecture?
I viewed architecture as a blend of creativity and science, and after many years of practice I firmly believe it suits my intersection of skillsets. It also feeds my need for life long learning. So many concepts are applied to architecture: design, technology, and engineering, but there are so many more considerations, such as history, politics, geography, public health, sociology and climatology, to name a few.
I love to learn. I’m a global citizen and a student of life, so a discipline that mandates continual learning and looking to the world for examples and precedent suits me well. Something that fascinates me is, my grandfather was a builder in Barbados, and both my brother and I ended up in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries; he’s a structural engineer. I like to think we had some generational influence.
Since graduating what has your career path looked like?
My career includes experience in engineering firms, as a construction project manager, a design and construction role in institutional facilities management, a part-time academic position in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning and of course, in architecture firms, where I completed my intern hours and ultimately became registered. I think this broad range of experience has helped facilitate my general knowledge and understanding of construction at large, increased my abilities in coordination and collaboration, and has benefitted my relationships with consultants and contractors. Ultimately, my growth as an architect has been about saying yes to new architectural project opportunities, however, my growth in management and now in an ownership position has required me to develop a new skillset that’s much more macro, while still being committed and consistent with projects.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during your career and how did you overcome it?
My main hurdle was my architectural education. The path to licensure is quite long in Canada and requires many steps in formal education. Admission is tough, and the academic experience can be isolating, barriers to entry for the profession is a national conversation and both education and the architecture continuum are an aspect of this. However, there are options. I went to graduate school in the USA; that expanded the possibilities from 11 schools of architecture in Canada (during my time) to over 100 schools of architecture. My graduate school experience was invaluable and my time completing a Bachelor of Arts at Mount Allison and at Dalhousie prepared me for that rigorous academic experience.
I think an equally challenging experience was related to coming from away—cultural adjustments so to speak. While my maternal grandparents were Canadian, I grew up in Barbados. In fact, my grandmother left Halifax in the 1940s. Entering a professional industry that is rather homogenous and quite closed to newcomers most certainly presented challenges. I’m seeing some growth and welcome it and I am pleased to be here as an advocate for those who need one or just need someone to talk to with shared experience.
Looking at your current role and the past positions you’ve held, what helped you excel the most throughout your career?
Project management skills, being a solid generalist and understanding the steps and processes required in the scope of a project has been a great asset in my career. Being able to ascertain, quickly, what sits within my skillset and where I need subject matter expertise has also been a huge strength. With the different positions I held—between the completion of my architecture education at Dalhousie and becoming a licensed architect—those experiences provided me with perspectives of being on the other side and assist in anticipating the needs of clients and consultants. I like to think they add to my ability to deal with clients, consultants, and builders in my role as an architect today.
What did you learn at Dal that has proven useful to you in your career?
Multitasking and a committed work ethic. I consider myself a dedicated volunteer. I’ve always been engaged in community and relevant associations, and I think it’s important for everyone to be a part of a community. This proved most difficult while completing my architectural education, which can often be all-consuming. It took some time, but being willing to multitask, learning to prioritise and taking the time to understand the level of effort a task required, helped me through my academic career and that skillset has transitioned to my professional career. Your university career is an introduction to project management; balancing multiple deadlines for different stakeholders is a trial run for life and your career.
What advice would you give those just starting out in architecture?
It’s as important to know what you are good at, as it is to know what you aren’t. Welcome new opportunities, value people and build relationships along the way. To elaborate, knowing what you are good at will enable you to increase that skillset at a faster rate; while some people can be good at many things, it’s rare to be good at everything—and that is absolutely okay. Being able to discern what you can execute well and quickly is a skill and will help in any situation. Opportunities will come and go, being able to embrace the unknown is an asset. Life is exciting, there are so many paths to build a career, and sometimes what doesn’t seem to fit in your plan can be your greatest opportunity.