My Career Pivot, Sherry Harbaugh

The first spec writer I knew was an older gentleman at the firm where I was working. He was one of the few employees at the firm who had his own office, and he rarely came out of it. When his door did open, stacks of books and files seemed to spill out of the office, and a strong smell of coffee and cigarettes filled the air (this was 1988 when smoking inside was still allowed!) All this is to say spec writing was never more than a smoke-filled memory of this man for many years after I completed my short internship at the firm.

By the time I graduated from college a year later, I had forgotten all about the spec writer in the office, and it still hadn’t occurred to me that writing specifications was a career path, despite feeling unfulfilled and honestly, a bit disappointed in my first job after graduating. It never occurred to me that there was more than one path in architecture, and after spending so much time and money pursuing my degree, I felt that I had to stick it out. No matter what.

Of course, looking back I see that I could have been a project architect and managed construction teams, or hoped to get enough experience to be involved during construction, but in the thick of it, all I could focus on was the fact that I didn’t like my job.

Most of us have learned two important truths about higher education by now:

1. You go to school to learn how to succeed; how to finish what you’ve started.

2. Most of what you need to know for your chosen career is learned on the job, not in school.

And even though we know this, it’s still hard not to take off the graduation cap and think that we are immediately going to change the world.  We quickly realize that we don’t have the tools, or we’re not in the right position to make the change. Oftentimes we get to moving along in our career, and suddenly realize that it’s not what you want, like I did. You don’t look forward to going to work, and you start reevaluating what you want to do. Do you stay in your job? Or is it time for a change?

For me, it was time for a change! When I graduated in 1989, Sacramento was a boomtown for construction, and in California you could start taking the ARE right out of school rather than spending three years at an internship first. About five of us from my class headed down to Sacramento, we all landed jobs immediately, and everything seemed to be going great. But after just one year in my job, I was bored. I felt pigeonholed and had drawn enough reflected ceiling plans for my lifetime. I easily got another job at a small firm in downtown Sacramento, and I thought for sure having more responsibility and more exposure to the industry would be fulfilling. I was in charge of projects from start to end, and I started to become much more familiar with specifications. During construction to be exact!

Eyes open wide, I was digging into those specs for every answer the contractor threw my way and much of it was not there, or there were references to building materials we didn’t have. Honestly, the daily process of being grilled by the contractor about what was wrong and the problems I needed to solve was miserable at first. But after some time, I became more proficient at deciphering specifications and started enjoying being a resource who could help the team solve problems and bring projects together more efficiently. After consulting a friend who encouraged me to explore spec writing, I was on a new path to making specifications better. I took a job as a junior spec writer at a large firm and that was the first step on what would become my true career path.

Looking back, I was lucky to have found my place in a large industry relatively quickly, and have so much support from my peers to help me find my direction. I didn’t really flounder in my career all that much, I was just disappointed that my vision of architecture wasn’t matching my reality. If I would have stood still long enough, I would have seen that I had been surrounded by specifications since I graduated from college and just didn’t put it all together. I had joined the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) of Sacramento as soon as I got there, and I was on the membership committee and soon chaired the local product show event. Within only a couple of years, I knew many of the local movers and shakers of the industry in Spokane and the West Region.

I knew people wrote specifications as a career but it never occurred to me I would join them until I was forced to reevaluate my strengths, passions, and motivations for pursuing architecture in the first place

While you or I may not be the next greatest designer to hit the front cover of a glossy magazine, we all have something to contribute. I am fortunate to have found my niche within the first 10 years of my career and now after 30 years, I am anxious to make another pivot. As a teacher, my goal is to share my knowledge about the industry and help others confidently navigate specifications. As a career and life coach, my goal is to help people find their passion so they can become the best version of themselves.

If you’d like to share your story, learn more about spec writing, or if you’re interested in career coaching, please reach out to me at