Discovering the Society for Design Administration

Before I was called a little sh*t, I enjoyed a number of years at that A/E firm. Started out as mail clerk. Promoted to receptionist. Promoted to admin assistant. Began learning more about projects and the A/E industry. First time working with subconsultants, and first time working as a team member on a specific project.

I enjoyed being the mail clerk. I got to make the rounds of the office instead of being tied to a desk. Another chance to scan the industry-related magazines before delivering the mail to staff.  And then one day, a red flyer arrived in the mail, addressed to “The Administrative Staff.” Hey, I was an administrative staff person! The flyer invited admin staff to a membership drive, and it was free; free food, free beverages, and it was being held on a ship that would cruise around Lake Union. It was an open invitation for admin staff to go check out the Seattle Chapter, Society for Design Administration (SDA;, or

Side note: When I joined the organization, it was known as the Society of Architectural Administrators (SAA).  When the organization was first formed (its roots began in 1959), it was called the Architectural Secretaries Association (ASA). Around 1995, the name was changed again, to the Society for Design Administration (SDA).

So I showed the flyer to my boss (not the same boss who calls her staff names), and told her I was going to attend (she was very encouraging and asked me to tell her all about it afterwards). So I went.  Met a bunch of Seattle chapter members and other guests. Great food. Great presentation by the chapter president. Nice night for a boat ride.  I went home pumped that evening and told my husband, “I think I found an organization that is right up my alley!” Went back to work and asked my boss if the firm would pay my membership dues.  She cut the check and within a month or so, I was voted in to the Seattle Chapter. Woohoo! I started going to the chapter meetings and attending the chapter programs. The programs were all focused on the A/E/C industry and the typical jobs and tasks that support staff handle for their firms. So I was learning all about the five administrative areas of a design industry firm:

  • office administration
  • finance
  • marketing
  • human resources
  • project management/project administration

Think of it this way:  If you were the sole support staff in a firm, chances are you would have to handle some or all of the tasks that fall within those five categories. So the more knowledge and the more skill sets you have based on those five areas, the more value you bring to your firm. And even if you were one of many admins in your firm, say, only responsible for the marketing, the more knowledge and the more skill sets you have based on those five areas, the more able you are to easily fill in for other administrators when they are out.

So SDA became my education (did I tell you I didn’t finish my college degree because I stopped to raise a family?). While I am a life-long learner, SDA and its many educational opportunities put me on the fast-track to becoming a certified design firm administrator.

Yes, SDA has its own certification program. It’s changed a bit over the years. Originally, you had to have so many points between years of work experience and education (college degree), and so many points for volunteering, and so many points for qualified, educational programs you attended. Add all the points. Submit five copies of a huge notebook showing evidence of all those points, along with a submittal fee. Plus, attend one of the national conventions and sit before a panel – your verbal interview (at the time; now you simply pay a fee to take a test and if you pass the test, you are certified by SDA). The panel asks you questions based on the notebook you submitted, then makes a determination whether you are qualified to have the designation “SDA/C” after your name (SDA/C signifies you are a certified member of SDA. Later on, the initials were changed to CDFA, which stands for Certified Design Firm Administrator). It was all very secretive, so it seemed.  You were advised to not discuss what went on during your verbal interview. You likely didn’t find out if you were certified until the convention’s banquet, where they would call your name and you would go up front to get your certificate.

I remember how nervous I was knowing I had to go before that panel for my verbal interview; seriously, my knees were shaking! But you know what? The verbal interview was a piece of cake! How silly I was to even think about being nervous about that interview. (In my official letter from the SDA Certification Committee congratulating me on achieving SDA/C, the only negative they had to say to me was that I shouldn’t refer to women as “gals.” I remember using that term during the verbal interview, and I couldn’t believe I did that at the time because I never say “gals;” it’s just not a word I use. But if that was their only constructive criticism, well, I could live with that.)

As I said, I enjoyed a number of years at that firm.

Something I did: One of the first days of my promotion to receptionist, I accidentally hung up – three times! – on the same employee who was calling long distance from the project site. I was a bit rattled using that humongous switchboard (first time I ever used one like that; lots of buttons) and I kept pressing the hang up button instead of the transfer button. The fourth time he called back, the first thing he said was “don’t hang up on me.” Took me four times to get him transferred to the person he was trying to reach.  My sincere apologies to you, Mr. B. But look on the bright side. I could have cost the firm a client, instead of just annoying you three times.

Something else I did: I took the liberty of asking everyone their birthday months, and once a month, I would bake cookies or brownies or something, and hang a sign by the sweets saying “Happy Birthday” to those with birthdays that month (their names listed). Of course, that was a big hit with everyone.

What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was getting to be like the “office mom.” No offense to you admin staff (particularly women) who still do stuff like that, but I no longer want to be the office mom. I’m a professional administrator, and I would appreciate being thought of as a professional administrator, rather than everyone’s mom at work. So I quit doing the type of things that would enable employees to regard me as the office mom (or “the woman who always brings us treats or makes us gifts,” etc.). I waited to quit being the office mom until I left that firm. I didn’t want to make those guys go cold turkey from the monthly birthday sweets (I’m not that cruel). And I knew the next firm I worked with, if I started off on the right foot (I’m not your mother), they wouldn’t get the chance to think of me as anything but a design firm administrator, one who supports the team. Someone else can serve in the role of the office mom; not me. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

A value-added thing I did for the firm:  The firm won a project outside of the Seattle area and we needed a way to get documents delivered on a daily basis. I used the fine art of negotiation and got a delivery firm to give us special, below rack prices for our deliveries. I saved the firm a bunch of money. (The fine art of negotiation? Well, I didn’t have any dedicated training in that, but, ha-ha, it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Actually, all I did was call them and tell them we’d have a lot of deliveries, and I asked for the best price they could give us, since we would have a lot of deliveries.  Remember Lesson Learned #1 – take a risk – from my previous blog?)

Other readers and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about “office moms,” and also about value-added things you’ve done for your firm.

Sharing knowledge is a good thing.