What Software Developers Can Learn from Their Cafeteria

Did you know that Starbucks sells a cup size called "short"? It's a small cup that is less expensive than the other cup sizes. They never mention it on their menu; you have to know it exists before you can order one. Why? By having a smaller, cheaper option, they give their budget-conscious customers an opportunity to pay for coffee rather than go without. This kind of thinking has important repercussions to software developers.

Last year I consulted to an IT project of about one hundred and twenty people working on it. The company didn't have enough space in their offices to house the project, so they leased a large, local office. Unfortunately, the only space available locally that could accommodate the project was an open office which had previously been a call center. It wasn't the ideal workplace for the team, but they "made do." The one thing people struggled with most was the canteen food—they hated it. Everyone moaned about it, yet most ate it because there were no alternatives nearby. Some people made do by bringing their lunch in from home, others coped by moaning, and others just ate the chips and then took an after-lunch nap when they got back to their desks.

As you read this, I bet you're forming an image of the canteen in your mind. Perhaps you imagine a bunch of canteen staff and management who don't care-how could they serve such food otherwise? Perhaps you're annoyed at the project's management who didn't seem to care—how could they let things get so bad? That's what I thought when I first visited the office, but it turned out I was completely wrong. In turn, I also rediscovered something that's useful for software developers.

The canteen staff and management did care (as did the project's management, but I'll come back to them later). The guy who ran the canteen—a nice chap called Graeme—was a very engaging guy who always gave great service. One day, he told me that he was genuinely hurt because his boss kept getting negative comments back from my colleagues about the quality of his canteen's food. Yet, Graeme was proud of what his team accomplished given the severe budget constraints they were under. He said that he'd love to do better, but this wasn't the Ritz and his hands were tied.

He said that they'd put out a comments and suggestions box a few weeks earlier, but he got little feedback. They'd added a few items to their breakfast menu that sold OK, but they didn't make a big difference to their takings. They'd also started serving special meals. They were a little bit more expensive than the normal meals, which they were contractually obliged to sell at low prices, but they'd been quite popular despite being more expensive.

I nodded as I chewed over what he'd just said. They had put on special BLT Panini for lunch, and, although they weren't spectacular by high-street standards, a few of my colleagues had commented that they were nice which I relayed to Graeme. He said he was pleased but he didn't look all that cheered up. I felt sorry for him, but I didn't know what to say. There was an awkward silence that I felt I had to fill, so I burst out, "You know what Graeme? I'd quite happily pay more if the food were, um, more up-market."

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