Pizza Kitchen Confidential

For three months between my last two jobs in product management, I worked in a small pizza kitchen in Harvard Square. My last company had done a “strategic headcount reduction” (actually, three) on its way to imminent demise, and my wife was also between full-time gigs. We needed the money, and I needed some structure in my day.

It was a refreshing and eye-opening experience. I hadn’t worked in a kitchen since high school, and the change of pace was welcome. I was on my feet and working with my hands. I didn’t have to think deeply and make high-stakes decisions; I just had to maintain focus and not fuck up the line. Plus — and this really shouldn’t be discounted — I love making and eating pizza. Even though I was making a 10th of my market rate and came home with bits of flour and cornmeal in my hair every night, I was happy.

However, I’m still a product person at heart, and I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to the two worlds. In every job, I always try to identify something I can use to be better in my next role. As it turns out, working in a pizzeria offered me a chance to become a better product manager.

Everyone Works in Customer Experience

Every step in the process and every choice in a kitchen affects the customer. It starts downstairs. If the delivery drivers don’t get the dough trays from the commissary into the walk-in fast enough, the doughs will soften and expand into each other, ruining their shape (first rule of pizza: round dough makes round pizza). When the doughs collide, the person working the dough station upstairs is going to have a tougher time scraping them from the tray and shaping them.

Dough. If the dough isn’t stretched evenly, you get thin spots. Olive oil, sauce, and wet toppings will eat through that spot before it’s launched into the oven. The best case scenario here is a pizza with a small hole in it (product quality 📉). The worst case scenario is a mess in the oven and a remake (customer wait time 📈).

Toppings. Toppings should go all the way to the edge of the pizza and be evenly distributed so any bite will have all the right flavors. Ever order a pepperoni pizza and get sad when there’s a slice with only 3 of them on there? 😞 Or all the cheese is crowded in the middle of the pie and stops several inches short of the crust — most likely ruining the structural integrity of the slice? 😩 If topping distribution didn’t matter, we’d all just eat calzones.

Oven. Burnt crust and burnt cheese aren’t as good to eat as crispy crust and melted cheese. Pies that get launched wrong will lose their shape and make it harder for expo to cut — customers want all their slices to be the same size. Launching pies correctly also maximizes oven capacity (wait times 📉).

Expeditor. Make sure the order is correct. Did they ask for extra cheese? Gluten free crust? No red sauce? Was it 4 margheritas and 3 cheese or the other way around? Did they order salad? Pickup or delivery? Did they order ahead and request a specific delivery time? Did the eggplant ricotta get basil?

Front of house. The most traditional customer experience role in the kitchen. The good ones find a way to sound friendly walking their eightieth customer through the slices of the day (meats across the top, veggies across the bottom). They speak quickly but the words don’t blur together. They don’t just point to the sign with all the slices listed. They pull slices from the FOH oven before they burn. They throw in an extra slice for free if one looks too small or thinly topped. When they say, “Just one slice?” it sounds like natural concern, not the upsell tactic it really is 💵. They’ve memorized the layout of the POS system and know how to count out change.

Delivery. Be on time. Don’t let toppings shift during the ride (our deliveries went out on bikes — there is, in fact, no place to park a car in Harvard Yard). Remember to take plates and napkins. Try not to smell too much like smoke when you arrive.

Does your DevOps team understand their role in customer experience? Uptime matters. Page load speeds matter. Do the designers ever get to feel the pain of a user who spends 10 extra seconds looking for the Submit button? Do engineers think something is done when it’s marked that way in Jira, or when it’s live on production for customers? Does marketing understand that rushing people to activation helps conversion metrics but makes customers question whether we have their best interests at heart?

Most of the people working in the kitchen couldn’t actually afford to eat there. They were working two hourly jobs just to make ends meet, so when some uppity Cantabrigian complains that they had to wait an extra 15 minutes for their $23 pizza, they don’t always share the same level of concern.

Lack of empathy has a direct impact on product quality and customer service. Make sure everyone who’s building a product understands why it’s important to customers. When people find meaning in their work, they put more pride into it. It’s as true for software as it is for pizza.

Shortest Feedback Loop Wins

From the time someone at the dough station scrapes a dough off the tray and dips it in flour to the time it gets cut and boxed is usually between 15 minutes and an hour. That’s when you see the finished product and the truth is revealed.

That thin spot didn’t hold up, so the pizza caught on the peel at launch and now you have a long oval with a hole in it. The oven has a cold spot so the left side is well done and the right side is too soft. The toppings weren’t put on in proper order, so the spinach burned before the cheese could fully melt.

Whoever’s running expo points this out to the offending party, and there’s time to adjust before the shift ends. Compare that to software development where you wait until retro to talk about how things went a week or two ago. How can you shorten that cycle? How can you let a teammate know in as-near-real-time-as-possible that his poor choices (or his good ones) are affecting the rest of the team?

That’s just the internal feedback loop. It never gets old watching a customer take her first bite of a new slice, or hearing a loyal customer come back with a friend to insist they try a slice of our mashed potato and bacon pizza. This instant gratification helped me stay motivated while sweating next to a 600° oven when the A/C was broken.

How long does it take you to get something in front of customers? How long before you know whether they like what you have to offer? And how often do you share that feedback with the team that made it? The faster you can gather and act on feedback, the better you’ll be.

Control Your Rate Limiting Factors

A kitchen is essentially a tiny factory. There are different stations, and some pretty basic math governs your inputs and your outputs. The oven can only hold so many pizzas at once. There’s only so much physical space on the line for people to top pizzas. There’s a finite amount of time that dough can be upstairs—unrefrigerated—before it needs to go into an oven.

These are all potential rate limiting factors. When we would fall behind on orders, the manager would assess kitchen productivity and determine whether we needed to extend delivery estimates or change up our positions in the kitchen. If we’re all going as fast as we can and the oven can’t keep up, there’s nothing to be done—bump up delivery times. If the oven’s not full and the two people topping pizzas are waiting 4 or 5 minutes between pizzas, the dough station is your bottleneck. Swap him out for someone faster.

This can apply to product development too. Whatever your methodology, you’re following a process, and you’re operating on a timetable of expectations. Are code reviews taking too long, holding up an engineer’s ability to pick up new work? Is engineering getting on your case because the mockups are constantly outdated? Is your research stalling because you’re having trouble recruiting participants? Find the rate limiting factor in your process and deal with that first. If it can’t be helped, adjust the expectations.

Culture Fit is Overrated

Kitchens have notoriously high turnover, which makes them a pretty clear meritocracy. It doesn’t matter where you worked before or what your pedigree is. If you meet the criteria required to hold the job — speed, consistency, and cleanliness — the job is yours for as long as you want. Kitchens are hot and cramped and you definitely don’t have to like everyone you work with, but you do need to share a rhythm.

But my tech startup isn’t a kitchen, you say? We have to spend more time in a room with our co-workers and make difficult decisions together. Whatever. They’re not that different. In both a kitchen and an office, you’re working under pressure to achieve results for customers, and you can’t do it alone. Maybe the division of labor in an office isn’t as clear cut as it is in a kitchen, and maybe tech companies follow a less linear path to delivery. Either way, it’s still requires collaboration with other people.

Companies talk themselves into believing that in order to work through stressful situations, they need to build teams that enjoy spending time together. It’s the old line about wanting to have a beer at the end of the day with them.

This is total bullshit.

There were plenty of stressful nights in the kitchen. Once, we screwed up someone’s large delivery order, so we had to give her all our pizzas that were designated for to-go slices right before the dinner rush. We had to make up lost output and keep up with all the new orders coming in. Which do you think I cared more about that night? That the manager seemed like a cool hang, or that he could stretch six doughs at once, when I only knew how to do two?

Be honest about the skills you need for each role to be successful, and focus on that when you’re building a team. I have no idea where anyone in that kitchen grew up or went to school. I don’t even know which of them graduated college. But it made no difference in the kitchen. If you were slow or sloppy, I didn’t like working with you. If you were fast and clean, we’d get along great.

I learned in my first week that I wasn’t better than anyone there. One of the managers (a young 5-foot Latina woman) legitimately terrified me because she was such a stickler for quality. She could glance at my station and tell if I was being too generous with the mozzarella. She could spot missing toppings and undersized doughs in microseconds. If it was a slow night and she caught you checking your phone, she’d ask why you weren’t cleaning or restocking something.

Hopefully this is obvious, but it is possible to find common ground with people even if you have different backgrounds. Sometimes it’s small stuff, like the fact that everyone (literally, everyone) enjoys the Lion King soundtrack. (We had a bluetooth speaker in the kitchen, I took a calculated risk.) This can be enough to get through a shift, or at least break the ice to learn more about a person. You can find a way to work alongside almost anyone if you leave yourself open to it.

I’m back in startup-land now as the Head of Product for Hometap, and I truly feel more prepared to succeed because of my time in the kitchen. I’m optimizing feedback loops to reduce the time between insight and action. I’m iterating on our process to improve our rate limiting factors. And I’m working to build a team that emphasizes skills and performance over backgrounds. If you want to join me on our mission to make homeownership more accessible and less stressful for everyone, please reach out. We’re hiring.