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Professor Randy Deutsch—Discussing the Future of Architects: Convergence and Superusers (Part 2)

Author, architect, and professor Randy Deutsch talks to Architosh about his last two hit books delving into the transformative forces shaping change in AEC and the nature and characteristics of some of the architects responding to those forces he calls Superusers.

This is part two in a two-part series on a conversation with Randy Deutsch. The first part was previously published as the special feature inside Architosh’s Xpresso #07 newsletter on 1 September.


(Anthony Frausto-Robledo) Working with the past, working with the planet, working with technology, and working with each other seems like a very appropriate framework—certainly contextualizing practice in the broadest sense and de-atomizing the individual architect in our post-Fordist world. And for modern firms, Superusers have what Shane Burger calls “situational intelligence” and a propensity to see or want to see the bigger picture. You refer to this as “Contextualizers.” Can you explain this and some of the other C-factors that set Superusers apart?

(Randy Deutsch) Most of the C-factors are self-explanatory: connectors, communicators, collaborators. Curiosity, for example—is cited most often as a non-negotiable characteristic of the design technology folks. Computational thinking, another C-factor, is the ability to recognize repetitive work processes that can and should be automated, freeing-up team members to work on other tasks. Some, like Contextualizers, require some explanation to assure they’re understood.



For tomorrow’s design professionals we need to emphasize four things: working with the past, working with the planet, working with technology, and working with each other.



Contextualizers look at their work in ever-larger contexts that spiral out from the problem they are trying to solve, beyond themselves to reference points beyond. Contextualizing means to always ask: what does my work mean beyond what I am working on now, in ever-increasing questions of beyond? The best design technology specialists—this goes for all employees in general—ask themselves: who else could benefit from my discovery or finding? Who else could use this information or detail? Is there some other way that this could be utilized on a different project type or team or even beyond the firm itself?

I thought one of the C-factors was most interesting—Capacitors. Can you touch on what this is and why it has meaning to the discussion of how millennials work in architecture? On your talks about this book, did this aspect come up with your firm audiences? 

An electrical component that is most similar to a battery, a capacitor stores (electrical) energy and gives it off to the circuit when it’s needed. In the book, I call this C-factor, Capacitator: having the capacity to take on another assignment whether or not you actually have the time or energy to do so.

Randy Deutsch’s second to last book explains how convergence is affecting the whole AEC industry and how it differs from integration, automation and other forms of optimization. It ultimately is examining how convergent technologies and methods are impacting the future of design professionals and the world in which design takes place.


Having capacity means there is always time and energy because you’ll make it. A mindset, it’s less about multitasking, which is seldom productive, than working smart. Superusers create capacity in two ways: they recognize—and many of us over 40 do—that the more you say yes to, the more you are able to accomplish. You just find as you age that by working more efficiently you are able to accomplish more by doing more, not less. It’s why if you want to accomplish anything you should ask a busy person to do it. They also create capacity by automating repetitive tasks—enabling others to work on more interesting assignments that leverage their core competency. I do get asked a lot about this one C-factor during Q&A in my keynotes and workshops.

I’m glad you just mentioned older design professionals. In the past few INSIDER Xpresso newsletters, we’ve touched on the dramatic transformative change happening in the industry and how this might affect practitioners at different ages. We also just referenced an article about neurological strengths at differing ages. Taking all this in, with respect to mid-career professionals in architecture in particular, what advice would you give to them to help them best prepare for convergence in AEC? 

One of the books I am writing at this moment addresses mid-career professionals is on this very topic. The biggest challenge for our industry is getting design professionals to adapt—and to stay. Those at mid-career have an advantage in that they have developed people skills over time. Whatever their education, experience, and interests, my advice moving forward would be to emphasize empathizing more by thinking like others working on multidisciplinary teams; listen more, be mindful, and stay present; stay agile and flexible, and work toward becoming a facilitator, orchestrator of teams; stay curious and ask lots of penetrating questions, doing riffs on what-if scenarios. This is where we have to turn our focus to thrive in a world of convergence.

Ian Keough, the father of Dynamo and CEO of HYPAR—whom Architosh interviewed in its launch issue of Xpresso—opens your book with the powerful words that there is a growing existential crisis in the architectural profession owing to the relationship to automation. Are Superusers and their presence in AEC some form of a symptom of the gap that exists between the existential threat to the profession and the profession’s awareness and preparedness for this threat? I ask this in this way because at some level the book suggests they are the “cure” but there is this huge schism that exists between normative architecture firms and advanced tech-forward firms that house, support or are founded by Superusers. 

In Superusers, both Ian Keough and I say that if the AEC industry wants to transform from inside (vs. being disrupted from without) you have to let Superusers lead. They fill a gap in that they—just like start-ups—recognize there is a need or gap, and step-in to fill it with a product or service.

An image from the book Convergence showing several new realms of knowledge and skillsets in the AEC industry, from Fabrication to Virtual Reality, to designing with Data and Computation and Analytics in every phase of design.


Starting in 2008, when the professional headcount in the U.S. was reduced by 30 percent and jobs for new graduates were hard to come by, technology became a way to differentiate yourself—to add value, and at the same time, to address a solution to the fact that firms were forced to deliver as they had before but for a lower fee. As market conditions improved, firms either absorbed these technology folks into design roles, championed them with a raise and title, or these design technology specialists left for greener pastures.

You advance the argument for Superuser types in architecture firms beautifully in your book. What did you learn from your book tour in terms of feedback that helped you to advance this argument further? 

The feedback has been very positive. In the book, I refer to Superusers—due to their combination of technology chops and interpersonal finesse—as unicorns. One thing I learned after speaking during my book tour, firm leaders would come up and tell me that their firms had employees that match these specs in abundance. Where I had assumed a dearth of Superusers there apparently is a surplus. The feedback confirmed that this is largely a generational shift, not a quasi-specialization. Firm leaders have told me, in their own words, that they were inspired by the book’s message—found it energizing, thought-provoking and transformative—resulting in advancing their strategic plans, where the research and findings from the book served as a catalyst for change, whether they were looking for a sign, confirmation of their suspicions, or just needed a little push.



In Superusers, both Ian Keough and I say that if the AEC industry wants to transform from inside (vs. being disrupted from without) you have to let Superusers lead. They fill a gap in that they—just like start-ups—recognize there is a need or gap, and step-in to fill it with a product or service.



Firm leaders recognize that the digital and technological transformation occurring in our industry is redesigning how they will serve their clients and partners. They want to understand how and when this transformation will impact their firm. They find the message of Superusers to be, as one person put it, invaluable in helping them achieve their firm-wide goals. Interestingly, the term Superusers has made its way into the lexicon of some of these firms.

Something that caught my eye in the book was the discussion of the value of project managers—they accrue scar tissue, they keep dairies and do a lot of reflection. This gives them huge accrual value over time.  It seems to me that many of the C-factors are actually very related to both old and contemporary project management theory. Are Superusers just natural manager types who are also blessed with the ability to do very focused work—Deep Work, as Cal Newport talks about. Isn’t this truly what makes them “super” this ability to do deep work (because learning computational design is in fact very deep work) but in fact, they are naturally big-picture people. It is like they are combinations of the two Steves of Apple. Are they not just Jobsian-Wozniaks? 

In fact, going back to the aforementioned combinatory creativity, Superusers are indeed the convergence of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, though I would hardly look to Jobs for his people skills. Here, it’s important to remind ourselves of the distinction between managers and leaders. More than managers, I see Superusers as being T-shaped leaders, where for the vertical stanchion they have a deep-work focus or specialization, and for the horizontal bar an equally wide social wingspan. (see image on Part 1) Not too deep vertically—where they might be considered a stagnant expert with fixed expertise—and not too wide, where they might be thought of as a social butterfly. T-shaped leaders keep each part of the T in balance. If Superusers are at all managers, they aren’t top-down types, but rather managers that manage by walking around. That’s how they connect the dots, people, and tools—and subsequently how they work their magic.

Thank you for talking to Architosh. 

Thank you for the opportunity.

Both books are fascinating and I encourage readers to pick them up. Superusers: Design Technology Specialists and the Future of Practice was published earlier this year, while Convergence: The Redesign of Design was published in 2017. 

Analysis and Commentary

Having read Deutsch’s last two books nearly simultaneously, I was anxious to interview him for our (emTech) focused newsletter. While the newsletter paints a picture of the future of AEC through topics like robotics, 3D printing, computer vision, AR, VR, and artificial intelligence—all “emergent technologies,” or tech that is still or recently “edge-of-market” (EoM)—Deutsch himself brings an informed view based on more than two decades in practice. This experience in the trenches of practice means he has gone through at least two big disruptive experiences in the past: analog to CAD and CAD to BIM, making him especially qualified to adjudge technology disruption both in historical terms and direct experience. 

There a few things we spoke at length about that are not in the interview above. They are worth summarizing here in bullet point responses:

  • the architecture degree — Deutsch advocates for the 3+1+1+ type of program, noting that today’s young architecture students “want to work and be of use sooner.” His “fundamentals + differentiator” model will respond better to the next decade’s constant disruption, and he advocates graduates come back every seven years for another year of education. However, he doesn’t see this affecting licensing. One assumes that at year 1+ past a “first professional bachelors” in architecture, further degrees would be masters (“differentiators”) which could respond to sustainable design, designing for resiliency (working with the planet); computational design, robotics, 3D printing, AR/VR (working with technology); urban design, historic preservation, and architectural theory and history (working with the past); and finally programs like real estate development, design for human health, design and human policy, project management, engineering management, technology management, et cetera (working with each other). These fourth category specializations are more suited for the “mid-career professionals,” leveraging their people-skills, management experience, and strength evaluating complex variables and patterns of competing concerns. 
  • technology, and the mid-career architect — Deutsch makes the point that older architects develop people skills that younger architects lack. Xpresso #06 noted an article that discussed that “human brains have multiple cognitive peaks throughout their lives,” and knowing what these are can help pivot mid-level architects into the right types of “differentiators” under Deutsch’s model of 7-year educational pit stops. 40 and 50-year olds excel in evaluating complex patterns including human emotions, while 20-year-olds yield peak information processing and short-term memory, highly useful for developing abstract technology skills like algorithmic design and visual scripting. He also noted that mid-career design professionals are one of the subjects of one of his upcoming books. As a mid-career architect myself, I am quite excited to see someone pick up this much-needed topic.
  • “starchitects” — Deutsch doesn’t come out and attack them or their value, even when slightly prodded by my questioning. This contrasted with Anthony Hauck’s (co-founder of Hypar) views in Xpresso #01 when he stated, “If starchitects were really valuable to the world there would be a lot of them. There are many star musicians, actors, star novelists, and yet a few superstar architects at any given time.” Deutsch notes, “There will always be exceptions—and the need for these exceptional individuals—but that is not what the profession and industry needs,” going on to say, “What it needs are people with the kind of qualities to be more productive, empathetic, and engaging team players.” 

Randy Deutsch’s two last books have much to say about both the current state of architectural practice and education and its near and far futures. They are likely to shape thoughts around the firm, its formation, and pedagogy in architecture schools for years to come. Moreover, I fully expect his upcoming books to continue to advance themes present around Convergences and the notion of the Superuser type architectural employee. 

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INSIDER Xpresso keeps CAD industry professionals up-to-date on next-gen emerging technologies (emTech) that will revolutionize the worlds of AEC and manufacturing and design. As an Xpresso reader, you will hear from some of the most important voices inventing and using the very latest tech in areas such as AI, machine learning, algorithm-aided design (AAD), AR, VR, MR, 3D printing, 3D computer vision, robotics, and SmartCities technologies.

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