There’s nothing like a hot meal to bring people together and make someone’s day better.
That’s what I discovered first-hand in the spring of 2022. In the context of the Ukrainian refugee crisis hitting my city, I had the chance to volunteer at a social kitchen set up by professional chefs through the global humanitarian initiative World Central Kitchen.
I didn’t do much cooking, since I wasn’t an expert, but I was able to assist with food preparation, packaging, and shipping. It was an amazing opportunity for me to help but also to learn how a professional kitchen works, which, as someone fascinated by any process, flow, and system, had been on my wish list for years.
All the time I was helping, I was also observing – and gradually realizing there are many similarities between this experience and my usual working environment in a Tech company that builds amazing software. And while reflecting on it, I came up with ten important takeaways (pun intended!) from a professional kitchen that I also found valid for IT and software development.
Using the PPT framework
At first, these ideas would randomly pop up as I was observing the daily activities in a professional kitchen while trying to find the best way to help. But when I finally sat down and put them on paper, I realized they could be grouped according to a popular business method used extensively in the information management area since the early ‘90s: the People, Process, and Technology framework.
It’s often described as a three-legged stool because if one of the legs is uneven, either shorter or longer, there is no balance and it’s impossible to sit down properly. In any organization, people are important because, obviously, they’re the ones doing the work. But they need to set up processes to make this work more efficient. Meanwhile, technology (or resources) can help people do their work faster and streamline the processes.
The key is optimizing relationships between these three dimensions. By maintaining this balance, we can improve operational efficiency and drive change in organizations.
All right. Now that we’ve covered the framework, let’s see how this works inside a professional kitchen – and how that relates to the Tech environment.
Takeaways about PEOPLE (that is, who is doing the stuff)
1. Find a good leader
Every kitchen needs a chef, and every project or product needs a product owner. You can’t have people running around like headless chicken (another pun) in your kitchen or Tech company. One good leader for each team is just enough, in combination with a flat hierarchy system like we have here at RomSoft, to give people the foundation they need to do their work.
Strong leadership is crucial, and it has to be in the person of someone who is calm, collected, and, most importantly, empowered to make decisions. Also, as the business or production line grows, they need to be experienced at scaling and putting out fires quickly (you might as well get used to the puns).
2. Build a strong team
Any leader, as brilliant as they may be, can’t do everything by themselves and needs to be surrounded with good people. Teams may, and should, be quite diverse, but it’s important to have some key high-performance workers that form the backbone of the project, whether it’s senior developers or kitchen staff with years of experience on their hands.
But don’t neglect anyone, as each may have a specific skill that comes in handy: someone may be better at detailed jobs like decorating cakes, others at muscle jobs like moving the giant soup pot. Use any opportunity to get to know your colleagues and grow relationships, since you all need to count on each other.
3. Foster a healthy culture
Even if apparently some restaurants kitchens (and some outdated companies) still prefer to create ruthlessly competitive environments, nothing compares to the feeling of purpose and meaning you get from working with a team that shares the same values, like trust and collaboration.
This was obvious in the context of cooking for refugees, where everyone was motivated by a good cause, but it’s equally valid for any project. That’s why at Office Timeline, the project I’m working on, it’s my responsibility and my pleasure to introduce new colleagues to our brand story and explain how the product we’re building helps people. Common goals and storytelling can inspire people to work together better.
4. Communicate clearly
If, like me, your mental picture of a professional kitchen is a busy and noisy place where people shout out commands and snappy responses, you’d be absolutely right. Time constraints, staff shortages, and the constant clatter from kitchen equipment make clear communication an essential requirement.
Someone, usually the Chef, assigns tasks to people by calling out their names and, if needed (mostly in my case), providing instructions or showing how it’s done. This way, everyone is doing something useful and there is no room for misinterpretations. Clear communication is what promotes mutual understanding.
Takeaways about PROCESSES (that is, how stuff is done)
5. Plan and organize
Working in a professional kitchen is basically a crash course on project management fundamentals: it’s all about planning and keeping things on track. Every morning starts with making an inventory of supplies, staff and the menu for the day, which is very similar to the Daily meetings from Scrum that IT people are so familiar with.
Another fun fact I’ve learned in the kitchen is that, because of different cooking times, food is prepared separately and then assembled, IKEA-style, when it comes to serving. This means Chefs always plan several steps in advance so that everything finishes cooking at the same time. Quite like software releases, honestly.
6. Embrace uncertainty
If there’s one thing I found out right from the start is that things can, and will, go wrong. Food portions were either too many or too few; someone put icing sugar instead of starch in a sauce; the sour cream we were expecting for a stew didn’t get delivered; hell, we even had an electricity blackout for a few hours one morning.
And every time, the only person getting anxious was me. People around me were unfazed, they were experienced enough to know that panic doesn’t help, and they always had a back-up plan for every situation. Their catchphrase was “we will manage” and that’s an excellent lesson in resilience.
7. Maintain a standard
Just like in software development, in the kitchen you need to find the right balance between quality and speed. If you cut corners and skip some steps to save time or resources, your food just won’t have the same taste.
So, first make sure you cover the basics. After all, your product still needs to be functional and the food edible. But always pay attention to details. Make sure everything you ship is consistent in quality and delivers an outstanding experience to every user. Who knows, you might just have a Michelin judge sitting at your table.
Takeaways about TECHNOLOGY (that is, what we do stuff with)
8. Provide tools and training
People need the right resources to get their work done. Electricity, gas, pans and pots, and, as I’ve learned on my first day, a good, sharp knife. Seriously, there’s a special relationship between a chef and their knives. Or between a developer and their computer.
Also, once they have the right tools, people need time to learn how to use them. After I spent more than one hour carefully chopping parsley to the Chef’s high standards, a junior chef comforted me, saying: “it took me about a year to get it right”. Every learning process requires time and patience.
9. Streamline and improve
One of the things that impressed me most during this experience was the initiative and autonomy people were showing. This was a new kitchen for everyone involved in the project, but they got started right away. Every second counts.
It was only after consistently observing and learning the flow, that I was able to anticipate some of the steps and take action to prevent bottlenecks down the road, e.g. counting the packages in advance or cleaning the shipping boxes from the previous day’s delivery. Time is a key resource and if something can streamline or automate the process, it’s worth the investment.
10. Practice mindfulness
Finally, I believe that an important resource we should include on the list is energy. Mental energy, that is. Working in a kitchen is quite therapeutical, since it forces you to focus on the task and the present, but it’s also a fast-paced environment.
Just like in software development, there are sprints, where a short boost of adrenaline is necessary, but remember you’re also running a marathon. Make sure you save your energy, so you don’t burn out like an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.
After you have all your elements mapped out – people, processes, and technology –, the real challenge is putting them all together and working to maintain the delicate balance between them. Unfortunately, there’s no fool-proof recipe for this, it just takes constant effort and hands-on involvement.
On a personal level, although it happened in a tragic context, the entire experiment of volunteering at a professional kitchen was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. After two years of working from home, it was a good chance to leave my comfort zone, connect with people, and do something useful for other humans in need.