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How Working in a Kitchen Taught Me to Succeed in Tech

Joel Zien

Joel Zien

September 6, 2022

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Almost a decade ago, I made a radical career change pivoting from the culinary execution of five-star restaurants to working in technology. It wasn’t the most apparent transition, a fact I fully embraced as a testament to my drive and adaptability, two things I’ve always attributed to my success as I began navigating this unfamiliar world some 9-years ago. 

But was it all that unfamiliar?

Admittedly, the worlds of technology and product development couldn’t seem further from that of a fine-dining restaurant and kitchen. However, time as it often does gives you a clearer perspective or, in my case, shows that you’re wrong. 

Rather than different, perhaps there was a reason I felt equally, if not more in my element, with service agreements as I did with dinner services. Maybe one primed me for success in the other. Because of what I learned in the kitchen, the rules of efficiency, empowerment and success are remarkably similar to what many of the most successful leaders, teams, and organizations do – whether they realize it or not. 

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at what I learned in the kitchen and discover how they can help you lead teams, delight customers, and create remarkable experiences.

As soon as you arrive, assess the scene and progress accordingly

Time is never on the side of a busy kitchen. Things are constantly changing from staff availability, the supply of ingredients, and the evening’s reservations. The ability to assess, evaluate, and shift efforts accordingly empowers and enables the kitchen (or product teams) to provide the best possible service and product to the customer.

When the apron goes on, we’re a team

Think of the apron as a jersey. Once on, you become part of a supportive group that wants to work together. A group who shares ideas and is always willing to help one another, are honest (sometimes too honest perhaps) and constructive in their criticism, shares expertise and knowledge yet always remain teachable. In short, they have each other’s back, working towards a common goal.

Mise en place will make or break you; good services are made in prep

Mise en place is a French culinary phrase that means to put in place, or everything in its place and refers to the setup and preparation of all of the ingredients required to execute the menu. Failure to properly prepare and maintain one’s mise en place jeopardizes the services, food quality, and team efficiency. Now, think of a product strategy and all the preparation that goes into successfully executing it. Finding the teams, the technology and the expertise to utilize it and execute the plan takes time and effort, and when the work isn’t done, then the ability to successfully execute is in jeopardy.

You show up early, ready to work, and coachable, striving for the possible best form

Obviously, when I started in tech, I didn’t know what I know today. I really didn’t know a thing. But I learned a little. And I got really good at figuring out where I fit in to provide the most value and where I could absorb the most information, always trying to learn and get better. It is exactly the same approach novice chefs take to become great, and that progression is almost exclusively an upward trend. Because if your expectation is to be the best then you must ensure that you’re better than you were yesterday, progressing day after day towards your goal.

Respect goes a long way, and there’s only one Chef

You’ll find people from different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities in every professional kitchen, much like in every large, successful company. They have different titles, levels of experience, and skill sets that set them apart, but there’s also a strong sense of respect that brings them together. Whether you’re referring to the dinner service or a feature update, rather than looking past the differences, they are embraced as an asset in executing one vision. This takes place while adhering to a strict chain of command, leaving no confusion about who is in charge or the task at hand, with everyone’s buy-in and belief assumed. This isn’t to say that feedback and opinions aren’t welcome, just not during service. Where do you think the expression “too many chefs in the kitchen” came from?

Respond, don’t react to criticism 

It’s easy to become defensive when someone doesn’t like your work, and in professional kitchens, there’s nothing worse than having a plate sent back, especially if you’re responsible for it. But rather than defensive, be inquisitive. Was it cold? Undercooked? Overcooked? Underseasoned? Overseasoned? Was a step in the preparation missed or done improperly, or is it just a personal preference outside of your control? Whether you’re talking about a restaurant with three Michelin Stars or an application with 5 stars on the AppStore, it’s how a chef and a company respond in moments of customer discontent that form a lasting impression (and if done right a relationship) with the customer. 

Communication needs to be clear and constant

Razor sharp knives, open flames, hot oil, and heavy pots and pans all make for a dangerous work environment. Where you are, where you are going, what you need, who you need it from, and what you have all need to be communicated to your coworkers to not only get the job done but to do so safely. Granted, working in technology, the likelihood of me bumping into a coworker with a pot of boiling water is a lot less; however, the consequence of poor communication is nonetheless real, it’s just changed. For the consequence of miscommunication now results in overblown budgets, lapsed deadlines, and delayed delivery, to name a few. 

Stay inspired 

Like great products, great food is inspired by the people it is intended for. And people, far from static, are constantly changing, evolving, and being influenced by their surroundings. From seasonal dishes and ingredients to ensuring sustainable and ethical practices are maintained, a chef must evolve their offering to match those it’s intended for, and a product is no different. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kitchen or an office, without having a sense of the world you operate it, what it wants and what it has to offer, the chances of any success, least of all prolonged, becomes drastically diminished. 

Dessert (Conclusion)

Whether you are talking about a Michelin star restaurant or a category-creating company, you will notice some commonalities between the people who work there. Both share a high level of respect for the people they work with and the talent they bring. They’re willing to work in a team and give and accept honest appraisals while taking ownership of their work. They are passionate and professional, willing to share what they know, and eager to learn more, all in an effort to execute a common goal. 

While it’s common practice to do business over lunch and celebrate something momentous over dinner, I propose restaurants hold another appeal. The next time you’re looking for a little inspiration on how to effectively and efficiently lead teams, delight customers, and create remarkable experiences, I invite you to remember the last great meal. Because if it was memorable, then I assure you the people who prepared it match the description above, which is the closest thing to a recipe for success you can get. 

If you’d like to learn more about Connected’s approach to product development (or to try my recipe for Lasagna alla Bolognesa) don’t hesitate to reach out on LinkedIn.

Joel Zien

Joel Zien

Revenue, Demand, and Growth at Connected are where you’ll find Joel at the helm. For nearly a decade, his undeniable passion for product and technology has helped organizations and product teams accelerate, elevate, and distinguish their value offering. With a portfolio of success transcending industry and vertical, it’s his unwavering commitment to helping create products that both customers and the company accountants love that have allowed Connected to grow alongside so many of its partners.

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