If you can’t stand the heat...
I cook. I love everything about cooking. I read cookbooks from cover to cover for fun. I travel so I can understand the world through food. I even enrolled in culinary school to hone my skills (I am also a culinary school dropout, but that’s a story for another day).
Every day in my career as a project manager, I find myself drawing parallels between lessons learned in culinary school and my job. What I’ve noticed is that there are quite a few tenets of cookery that made me a better project manager.
Culinary students learn that they need to understand the steps, know what they need to have ready, and have an idea of the end result before they even begin. Then they’re taught to make a list of every ingredient and tool needed before even preheating the oven.
In order to draft a project plan (or recipe) for a web project, creating the figurative list of tools and ingredients needed to accomplish each step is also a basic of project management. Do we have the right people available to do the work? Do we have user data to help us understand the problem we are trying to solve? Have we accounted for the appropriate amount of “cook” time? It’s the project manager’s responsibility to account for all of those items.
In cookery, there is a concept called “mother sauces” — the basic sauce recipes from which you can create all other sauces. You’re probably already familiar with them without realizing it. For example, the mother sauce béchamel is a roux-thickened cream sauce. Add Gruyere cheese and you’ve got the Mornay sauce for a Kentucky Hot Brown; add cheddar and you’ve got nacho cheese; add parmesan for alfredo sauce.
If there is one fundamental truth about managing custom web development projects, it’s that you’ll often need to alter the sauce. The basics of how a web project comes together are relatively consistent: understand the need and the user, craft the user experience, build, test and ship. That’s your mother sauce. Adding different elements can alter the end state, just like that Hot Brown. Planning and accounting for the adjustments along the way is necessary and good project management.
A well-known French phrase in the culinary world, mise en place means “everything in its place.” Simply put, it’s the act of doing all the prep work on your ingredients before you start cooking. It’s chopping the garlic, measuring the chicken stock, and dicing the onions before anything hits the pan. You’ve probably seen cooking videos where each ingredient is already cut, prepped, and has its own little bowl. Some might look at that and think “OMG so many dishes to wash!” but I look at that and see organization (insert a collective dreamy sigh from project managers everywhere).
It should be no surprise that the number-one goal of project management is to keep everything organized. Our mise en place requires us to prep all of our little bowls and to know which little bowl needs to go into the pot next. In a nutshell, my job is to make sure the folks on my team have what they need to get their jobs done. So I have to make sure the designers have their bowl filled with user data, the content team knows how many teaspoons of keywords to add into their copy, and the developers have a large enough pot to stir all their code in.
My culinary school instructors would constantly tell us “never make a move without purpose.” In other words, always think about how you can optimize for efficiency as you operate within your space. Do you have to take a pot to the sink to fill it up with water? Great, take some of your veggies too so that you can rinse them. Need to run to the fridge to get an ingredient? Okay, what items on your prep counter can be returned to the fridge when you go? Every step you take should be a purposeful attempt toward your end result.
As a technical project manager, efficiency is something I find myself chasing often. It leads to happier clients, better profit margins, and confident teams. But don’t be fooled into thinking that efficiency always equates to time. It has more to do with the minimal amount of inputs necessary to achieve the highest output.
There is a similar agile development practice of “minimizing work in progress.” When managing your developers, limit the amount of tasks they are working simultaneously. This reduces time spent context switching and allows them to focus, thus increasing productivity and quality of output. At Ample, this is a very tricky dance that we do every day given the nature of agency work, always having multiple clients and projects in progress. When determining the team allocation each week, I try to ensure that most of our developers are not working on more than two clients at any given time.
Busy kitchens are bustling. Loud. Clanking. Because of the volume of the space and the intricate coordination required to prepare food, culinary students are taught to yell. The two most important phrases? “Yes, Chef!” and “SHARP!” We yell “Yes, Chef!” to confirm to the person running the kitchen that you heard their command (“I need four steaks, medium rare, all day!” “Yes, Chef!”). We yell “SHARP!” when walking through a busy kitchen with a knife, lest we impale someone.
The value of clear communication cannot be understated in a kitchen nor in project management. I tell every new hire that the number one way to be successful at Ample is to communicate: well, clearly, and often. When I consider the meaning of project management, communication is of utmost importance. At Ample, we conduct a 15- minute standup every morning with our full team. And, while my team often grumbles at me about this, it is critical for the project managers to be able to unblock blockers, make sure timing is on track, and communicate any new information that might impact the work.
When I’m cooking, I like to evaluate new recipes in three phases. First, I cook the recipe exactly as written. On the second pass I make adjustments based on what I learned from the first cook. If it’s good enough for a third time, I might introduce a new ingredient (have you ever tried a slice of American cheese on a bowl of ramen?), cook it in a unique way (fish in a bamboo steamer rather than a pan), or make a substitution (arugula or ramps instead of basil in pesto, mmm). These parameters actually offer more opportunities to be creative, not less.
In project management, this is simply called “problem solving.” Juggling resources, reprioritizing work, and trying new technologies or processes are all ways that project managers problem solve every day.
Whether you’re managing a website build or braising short ribs, the key ingredients to a tasty end result are to be efficient, organized, communicative and willing to adjust. Interested in creating something together? Let’s get cookin.
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