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If You Cook It, They Will Come

May 3, 2013

“February is ribs.”

“Is Joel making them again?”

“Yeah, with that apricot sauce.”

“Awesome. We’re moving our router upgrades to February!”

This was a conversation that I had with one of my engineers. . . in NOVEMBER. We decided early on, that if we were going to ask engineers to come down to the datacenter and work all night, the least we could do was feed them.

Part of the reason was practical. Engineers started arriving at the datacenter between 5:00pm and 6:00pm for our 8 o’clock start. And we would often be there until 6:00am or later. And given the fact that our datacenter was at an undisclosed location on a university campus, and EVERYTHING within 3 miles was closed, we kind of had to take care of food and drinks.

But, there was another reason. People, especially engineers do weird stuff for food. My teenage boys will attend a church meeting that they have no interest in if there’s food. They lamented that they didn’t get to go to the kick off meeting for Girl’s Camp when their sisters came home with cookies and brownies. I often see similarities between my engineers and my teenage sons.

Planning the food menu was a fun exercise that was a diversion from our normal discussions of databases and load balancers. We tried to make sure that there was something for everyone. For one engineer it was Australian licorice. (“Yeah, But You Guys Are Screwups.“) And we had plenty of soda, chips, candy and beef jerky. But, the main course was where we tried to really show the engineers we cared about them. Pizza, sub sandwhiches, Chinese food; we mixed it up every month.

But, by far the best was ribs that one of our engineers would make. We typically had them about every six months. Joel, the chef/engineer asked me about it one time.

“Yeah, they’re pretty expensive. I guess you have to kind of limit it?”

“Not at all. I just know how much work it is for you to put it together.”

“But, they are pretty expensive. I mean it’s about $500.”

“Joel, how many people are we expecting in February?”

“I don’t know. . .50?”

“Probably closer to 60. We have to bill projects for everyone’s time. Let’s suppose everyone’s there the full 10 hours. That’s 600 hours. We bill our time to projects at $70/hour. So, our cost to projects for that night is $42,000. Five hundred dollars doesn’t even hardly show up.”

As I explained in “The Biggest Raise I Ever Received,” food, or in that case soda, is one of the cheapest incentives.

My friend Howard Tayler describes this idea as Maxim 7 of the “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries“:

“If the food is good enough, the grunts will stop complaining about the incoming fire.”

My daughter, the soldier swears this is absolutely true.

In planning these maintenance windows, often my only influence over the engineers was based on mutual respect. Many of them didn’t have to schedule their tasks during my window. So, food was one of the ways I tried to motivate them.

It almost backfired on me one time. We had a minor maintenance window scheduled for one of our smaller datacenters. During our planning meetings, we realized that the entire window would only be a few hours and we’d only need a few engineers.

“Do we need to have food if we’re starting at 8:00 and we’ll be done by midnight?”

I THOUGHT I had agreement. A few weeks later we were gathered for the maintenance. It was me, and about 5 engineers. At about 9:00pm Gus asked one of the other engineers,

“Hey Brandon, wanna go in on a pizza? I’ll chip in half.”

I was surprised.

“Gus, why don’t you just order pizza and bill it to the project?”

“Oh, no they told us that we couldn’t order food for this one.”

“Gus, *I* am the THEY! If you want pizza, order pizza. I’ll approve it.”

And the engineers were thrilled. Best $50 I ever spent.

From → Team Building

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