Waitressing and the lessons learned.

How waitressing taught me to be a better human, and better at product management.

I spent three years in Singapore Polytechnic studying chemical engineering. Except, well, I was hardly in class.

I was out, working on freelance development projects from users on DeviantArt, and waitressing at a restaurant in the evening. These experiences taught me a whole lot about how ill-prepared school leaves me for the world outside.

Image from Pintrest

Waitressing is probably one of the things that I looked forward to at the end of the day. I would jump from my seat to catch the earliest bus that took me on a 30-minute ride down to the central business district in Singapore, where the fine dining restaurant I worked at was located. It was a beautiful restaurant, flanked by the Singapore river on its left and the Asian Civilisation Museum on its right.

Asian Civilisations Museum | by DanielKHC Asian Civilisations Museum | by DanielKHC

Beautiful isn’t it?
When the crowd starts coming in, though, that’s when things start to turn a little more complicated.

Before I started waitressing, I thought that job only required these three skills:

  • The ability to bring ten full pints of Heineken beer over to a table without spilling anything,
  • To shuttle to-and-fro from the kitchen to table, really, really quickly, and
  • To never mess up an order.

Job descriptions fail at telling you what you’re really in for, though.

Let’s look at this job description I pulled out from on of the job listings I found:

  • Respond to customers and clients through channels including phone, chat, email and messenger using a CRM
  • Handle and solve advanced customer cases
  • Provide customer feedback for product development
  • Customer acquisition and customer retention
  • Manage shifts
  • Optimise customer care operations

Any smart ANI could potentially handle 5 out of 6 of the job description. FYI: Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) is machine intelligence that equals or exceeds human intelligence or efficiency at a particular thing. A human has capabilities that still exceeds ANI — we have something we pride ourselves in — Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

There is something job descriptions never tell you about — apart from the functional job descriptions written out on the job listing, you, the living and breathing human being, are required to also have the skills to:

  • Handle your boss’s and co-worker’s tantrums and quirks.
  • Know when is the best time to bring your supervisor their favorite cup of coffee, and when is the best time to never cross their path.
  • Soothe a customer’s frustration over the phone (especially hard when they think you’re the sole reason why their food doesn’t taste good, or why their software magically deleted the 3000 essay they were working on)
  • Cry silently in the bathroom and not smudge your makeup
  • Cry silently in the bathroom and lie to everyone else you weren’t crying, and neither were you in the bathroom
  • Handle your emotional rollercoaster ride because, within a span of one minute, you could be sounding like the bubbliest person in the world to one customer, and the most aggressive salesperson to another.

The list goes on.

These were things what I had not thought about when I signed myself up for waitressing. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges I listed above though.

I could put the human side of me to the test:

  • Managing aggressive customers and supervisors
  • Preventing and mediating fights in the staff area
  • Being a good listening ear to my supervisor when she was bullied.
  • Being a good listening ear to my co-workers when they think our supervisor’s a total pain.
  • Lightening the mood in the staff area when tensions were high.
  • Being the life of the party when we end the day on a good note.
  • Damage control (when food’s not up to the guest’s standard, for example)
  • Anticipating the needs of 50 guests at one time, on top of everything else, while keeping in mind the capabilities of the staff on the floor and in the back kitchen.
  • Scrutinising the table 100 meters away, to see if they need a refill of tap water (this is a hilarious story saved for another blog post)
  • Thinking, constantly, of better ways to serve the guests and to enhance their experience at the restaurant.

What does this have to do with product management?

Everything — from understanding your customers, your product, and the people you deal with on a daily basis to develop, design, and maintain that product. The planning and strategising, the forecasting, the production, the marketing..

You are literally living both those words in that fancy title:

“Product.”

You live the product. You breathe the product.

You have to be the product.

Image from Pintrest

“Management.”

You manage everything that revolves around the product and the product: From the people involved in the design and development of the product, to the upper management or founders of the company that pushes this product, and to the users who use the product.

Of all the skills we have at our disposal, being humans, the ability to talk to users and co-workers, and connect with them at a deeper level, letting them articulate their needs and situation in their own words, gives us great opportunities to excel at product management. Waitressing has, as odd as it may seem, taught me how to better manage a team of developers, designers, and marketers, the products we work on, and the team we work with.

Ever been a waitress, or are you currently working as a product manager? I would love to hear your thoughts.


I develop tech products, specifically to founders or non-tech people who want to launch their startups. Sometimes, the accidental product manager and consultant. Follow @cherietanjy

Original post.