How the skills I learned in the service industry directly translated into my 9–5

Whenever I started my first 9–5 job I was, of course, nervous. This was my very first job in tech and my first job working in an office. I’ll never forget my first day of work when I literally stood around a water cooler and had small talk. It seemed so surreal to me at the time — wait, water coolers are real? Offices are real? This is my desk? I have a real job? Am I even allowed to be here?

The following months were a whirlwind of learning countless softwares and procedures. I learned the company’s history, got to know the team and product, and before I knew it, I was a key member of the crew; making decisions, managing the office and staff, building internal systems, taking care of operations, customer support, and finally becoming a member of the tech team on the product side.

Looking back, that stuff was the easy stuff. Learning how to write professional emails is a skill, but it’s something that anyone can learn (and a surprising amount of professionals get away with having no clue about). The skills and qualities that got me hired and made me stick at my company were with me when I started. I had a fundamental understanding of the way the world worked and how to interact with people, and damnit, most of that I learned while working in the foodservice industry.

So, alas! Here is a list of skills that have directly translated into my 9–5. If you are looking to make the transition, and think you are unqualified, take a look at this list and think again.

27/F/NYC

Customer Service: Customer service is not an inherent skill. Slinging burgers or booze at people all day will teach you who your customers are, what they want, what pisses them off, and (most importantly) how to smooth things over when everything goes wrong. You learn to anticipate what people need before they ask for it. You valuably learn how to judge which people will never be pleased, and that it’s OK to expend your energy elsewhere. Every business needs great customer service, and nothing prepares you like working face to face with customers all day. My work with technical customer support, clients, user research, and product management have all directly relied on my ability to listen to people and understand what they need from our product, take note of how they interact with it, and anticipate the next steps.

Working harmoniously and efficiently with a team: Service is a beautifully hectic industry, high pressure and fast paced, yet a delicate dance of moving parts to make it all work. The team makes or breaks this dance. Everyone on the team has to be aware of their role and do it well, or it all falls apart. Every person is equally valuable; you’re screwed if the busser doesn’t show up, the sous chef quits, or a waiter decides to walk out in the middle of a shift. Relying on each other to play their role creates a strong bond. I’ve never felt more connected with coworkers than my experience in food. Every day is a potential war zone that you and your comrades face together. You might meet someone for the first time right before working with them through a rush. This builds communication and leadership skills as you might have to delegate tasks or pick up slack. Working individually as part of a larger unit is a fundamental skill which you can bring to any team.

Project Management: Working in a restaurant is project management a million times a day. Every order has a beginning, middle, end, a budget, and an expected completion time. As a worker in this environment, you are constantly managing timing, resources, and expectations of your team members and customers. Fish delivery didn’t come in this morning? How does that change the project of creating and delivering every dish that involves fish? How do you work around this? How do you manage the expectations of the customers? What do you offer instead? How long will it take? Who has to be involved to get these steps done? This basic understanding of managing projects has translated directly into my company — the specifics are different, but whether you’re building a website or getting that stupid fish dish out on time, the fundamentals of project management are the same.

Problem Solving: When dealing with so many small moving parts, anything can and will go wrong at any given time. In order to keep things running smoothly, you have to be able to solve problems on the fly and keep the show going. Whether it is using a shoelace to rig up a broken ice machine, or figuring out how to wait on customers while simultaneously cleaning up 5 gallons of spilled milk, being comfortable with solving problems is something that you simply get used to as a foodservice worker.

Sales & Marketing: As a waiter or counter worker, you are often asked to up-sell things, requiring learning the product, and figuring out how to sell it. As far as marketing goes, you might not even realize you are doing it. Are you responsible for coming up with daily specials? Designing a sandwich board that sits outside? Running the restaurant social media? Merchandising? Arranging the holiday display? Well, you’re marketing a business, my friend, and that skill translates into any industry.

Work Ethic: You develop a strong work ethic when working in a restaurant, and not always by choice; you either get your shit together, or you’re not scheduled anymore. You are required to work long shifts, and frequently not given a proper break to eat. If you don’t clock in on time, you’re in big trouble. You don’t get sick days or vacation days. If you’re not working, you’re not making money. You can’t be afraid to work hard. You get used to standing on your feet and keeping calm after you’ve been busting your ass for 10 hours, and that last table will not go the fuck home. You learn how to work until everything is done. I carry this work ethic with me. I show up every day, I work hard, and I’m never afraid of heavy lifting.

Operations: If you’re working at a restaurant, you learn the operational aspects of that company. This understanding helped when I moved into the tech industry and handled basic operations for the office and the freelance team. I already understood inventory and ordering. I was prepared to manage schedules, set up systems of accountability, and help the team invoice properly. I learned this through managing and working in restaurants with rules and procedures for everything. If you’re a manager, you’re handling money, deposits, and keeping up with petty cash. Every business needs someone there to make sure the damn wheels don’t fall off.

In my experience, service industry people are some of the toughest, smartest, creative, and coolest people out there. If you are lucky enough to have this experience as a career foundation, I think you’ll go far in life. And if you are hiring people for your 9–5 team, you should be so lucky to scoop one of us up!

PS:
Do you have experience in the service industry? Do you have a great story? Did I miss a huge skill that you use in your day to day 9–5 you learned from the service industry? Write me about it in a comment or email me at sarahdevine.nyc@gmail.com

Edits by Kyna Damewood