Everything I Know About Project Management I Learned from Serving Lobsters

By John Nguyen,
Red Lobster

A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, I supported myself through college (and then some) by waiting tables. It was a lot of fun and good cardio, but not the kind of thing that I thought would look good on a resume when my aim was to leave the hospitality business. But nothing could be further from the truth. I learned important life lessons, including how to manage my time, work under pressure, and feel more empathy for people. Waiting tables prepared me for my professional career far better than all of the internships I had over my collegiate career. I’d like to share five takeaways from my time waiting tables that I hope help anyone in a web project management role.

1. Set Out Metal Lobster Crackers First

Anticipate needs and try to reduce risk.

Many people come into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want for dinner. “I want a lobster,” they think. But that kind of tunnel vision also means they don’t necessarily have an eye on the small details, such as how they’re going to open that lobster. A good server anticipates such a need and predicts other possible problem points before they happen. That’s why you should bring out some crackers beforehand (not saltine crackers, these crackers) -- so guests can pry that juicy meat from the hard crustacean exterior. Some people don’t even know what crackers are. In which case, it’s your duty as the expert in this world to educate them, or at least present the option.

Similarly, in the web development space, a client will propose a website design that she wants you to execute. From her perspective, this is a finalized design with a clear cut path to victory! It’s at this point that you tell her that her design is fantastic and follow up by asking her how she thinks this is all going to look on a mobile device. Chances are, she wasn’t thinking about that. But now she knows you are. And she likes that. In sum, your job is to anticipate needs and empathize -- to try to stay ahead of things and keep people happy.

2. Create a Beautiful Lobster Experience

How you present things is kind of a big deal.

Your establishment can cook the juiciest, most delicious lobsters ever, but if they’re not presented in an appealing fashion, then no one will come back for more or recommend your restaurant to their friends. If you were to take those cooked lobsters out of your pockets and plop them on the table, guests will surely stand up from their seats and be on their merry way. Presentation matters, and that applies to not only the meal you’re serving (with its proper garnish and pretty plating), but also how you and the wait staff present yourselves. Be personable with your guests and show genuine interest in them. Don’t auction off food at the table; take the time to carry out your meals in order -- or establish a system where your teammates know which orders correlate with which seats. Screaming out “Who had the lobster tail with a baked potato?” looks disorganized and gives the impression that you either don’t know or don’t really care about what you’re doing.

The same goes for client work. You might have strategized, designed and coded the hottest website ever, but if you can’t help present your team’s work, at every stage, in an organized and pleasing way, then your client isn’t going to buy any of it. They’re going to take their lobster bibs right off and drive to the crab shack down the road. So, when you demo, QA or present a project, you have to make it sexy. You can develop a general, repeatable presentation structure that you and your team agree on. Decide who’s going to introduce people. Make sure everyone knows their places to chime in. Preempt technical hurdles to your presentation. Review the materials beforehand to make sure they look good. People want good Internet -- no flies in the butter sauce. And people want a good experience, so make a real effort to get to know them and establish a personal connection. If you can build the relationship there, then the client will be more likely to approach you about things and meet in the middle when some type of conflict arises.

3. Control All Lobster Traffic

Prioritize and then communicate all the things to all the peoples.

It’s a bustling Friday night and you have ten hungry tables who want things, and they want all the things now. If you could conjure up all manner of food to instantly satiate all their appetites, you would. But good food takes time, and an order with a well-done steak has to go into the kitchen before an order of salads. And you have to make sure the guest understands that a well-done steak could take 40 minutes to make on this busy night, even though it normally takes less time. Nobody’s happy when they have to wait longer for a meal than they expected. If one of your tables happened to order salads and steaks, ask them whether or not they want those things to come out together or in waves, and then relay that to the kitchen. That way, the cooks know in what order they should prepare those things.

As a project manager, you’re often playing the role of Lobster Traffic Controller. You have multiple clients expecting different deliverables at different times, and each one takes your team a different amount of time to produce. Basically, it’s your job to prioritize these things, and set expectations with the client. That includes things like creating a realistic timeline that the client can accept, and holding the client and the team accountable to that timeline. If you know the entire team is going to be away at a convention during the middle of this project, let the client know that there may be a lull in activity during that time. And if a monkey wrench gets thrown in there somewhere, then regroup with your team about what kind of adjustments need to be made, and relay these changes to the client.

4. Ask Important Questions about the Lobster

Understand the context behind the decisions you’re making.

In lobster service world, it’s helpful to understand the reasoning behind certain things. For example, if your guest doesn’t want onions on his salad, is it because he’s allergic? If he’s not asking for bread on his burger, is it because he’s celiac? The main thing here is, if you know why your guest asks for these things, then you’re able to do more for him. You can present him with better options and suggest things in which he’d be interested. You can stress to the kitchen the importance in the execution of his dish. If you put parsley on this lobster, then an ambulance is going to have to come pick this person up!

Now translate that to the project management world where, if we understand why we’re doing something, what we achieve in the end is ultimately better, right? For example, when we do discovery work and we understand who we’re serving and why, the UX and UI invariably improves tenfold. From a technical perspective, if we understand the goal behind the functionality of a feature on a site and know what’s important and what’s not, then we can approach the execution from multiple angles to come up with a cool new solution! It may not be what was specced out, but it could be cheaper, more efficient, or less code-heavy.

5. Stay Calm and Keep the Lobster in the Kitchen

Learn to control what you can, and don’t micromanage what you can’t.

As a server, you don’t have direct control over very much. You put in orders, but you don’t control how quickly the food gets out to the table, which can be kind of stressful. You’re really just guessing at things, trying to stay appraised of what’s going on in the kitchen, and timing things to the best of your ability. You can control some things, though, like your attitude and your knowledge of the menu. Even if everything seems to be going wrong and their meal is taking forever, staying positive and reassuring them that everything is okay will go a long way in not ruining the mood of their evening. And although it’s not your job to put together the dishes, you should still know them front and back -- what’s in them, how much time they take to make, what they pair well with, etc. That way, you can answer most of the questions your guests will have about what goes into their meal, even though someone else will make it.

Similarly, on a web project, you have no direct control over what happens in development. (Well, at Kalamuna, that’s not always true, as most of our project managers have some type of technical background.) But even if I don’t know how to do something myself, I know what goes into it. That way, if a website throws an error or there’s a question about whether or not something is possible, I’m able to give a general idea of what the options are. Being able to keep cool and not panic always inspires confidence in the client. Ultimately though, it’s up to the developer to decide how a problem should be resolved, and you should leave that decision to them and allow them to execute. They’re the developer, after all, just like the cook is the artist who makes that scrumptious lobster look a beautiful ruby red.

Serving lobsters helped me become the project manager I am today. I anticipate needs. I manage traffic. I make presentations go smoothly. I try to understand people and help them meet their goals. In sum, I serve grand lobster website feasts that clients consume with relish. At least, I hope I am doing those things. But if I hear from my colleagues that I need to up my project management game, I will meditate on my server days and consider the lobsters.

John Nguyen

Project Manager

Without project management, good websites never launch. Without John Nguyen, great websites are never realized. In the dark days before John dawned the project management cowl, time and tasks were but fickle variables in some distant, unknown equation. As Kalamuna’s project facilitator, our clients know him as the man with the plan – the man whose last name is pronounced win.