Software Kitchens

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Kitchen Nightmares
“Kitchen Nightmares” is a show where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay visits failing restaurants and tries to revive them by giving them incredibly harsh and direct feedback on their food and practices. Sparks fly and egos get hurt, but progress gets made.

Systems and Feedback
Seeing how this shocking, refreshing, accurate feedback gets stagnant situations moving in the right direction again reminds me of a fantastic book I read recently, Donella Meadows’ Thinking In Systems.

Discussing how to make systems better, the author says:

If I could add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: “Thou shalt not distort, delay, or withhold information”. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.

In the case of the restaurants Ramsay visits, we often see owners with strong personalities suppressing, denying or ignoring the feedback they need to help them improve.

Expert Beginners
In the software world, Erik Dietrich recently wrote a series of articles about “Expert Beginners”. These are people who have learnt enough to feel smart, but not enough to realize there is much more for them to learn. In an environment where feedback is lacking, or where they suppress feedback by force of personality, this can create a stagnant situation. Here’s an excerpt showing how attempts to improve the status quo are dealt with:

…most of them are content to do things my way. But a couple are ambitious and start to practice during their spare time. They read books and watch shows on […] technique. […] They expect me to be as interested as they are in the prospect of improvement and are crestfallen when I respond with, “No, that’s just not how we do things here. I’ve been [programming] for longer than you’ve been alive and I know what I’m doing…”

Dietrich goes on to explain how the good people leave due to lack of progress, and only poor performers (who won’t rock the boat) get hired. It’s a convincing argument, and fits well with the feedback-resistant owners we see on Kitchen Nightmares.

The software version
One of my co-workers is a huge fan of the show, and he wondered what it would be like if a Ramsay-equivalent visited software development teams and gave them an unequivocal dressing-down for the imperfections in their build systems, test suites, ability to hit business deadlines etc.

I would watch that show in a heartbeat. I’d love to see someone like Zed Shaw, Ted Dziuba, or Erik Dietrich walk in to a stagnant software development organization like the one described above, watch them, and give direct feedback.

Then again, maybe we can learn almost as much just by imagining what Ramsay would say if he knew about the business of software.

High Scalability recently published an article listing 100 of Ramsay’s lessons for restaurants, leaving the conversion of “kitchen lessons” to “software lessons” as an exercise for the reader. The conversion is surprisingly easy and thought-provoking.

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