What I learned about product management from legendary chef Thomas Keller


Straight Tape

Inspiration Beyond Tech

As product managers, we strive to build products that people truly love. The iPhone, the Dyson vacuum, Slack, and other amazing products have shown that we can solve real-world problems in a way that users deeply enjoy. At BuildingConnected, our team studies and learns from achievements in technology products, but one of our most powerful inspirations comes from a completely non-technological line of business. We learn from the world of gourmet restaurateurs.

I’m most inspired by visionary Thomas Keller, the world-famous chef and proprietor of The French Laundry. You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate the new standard he’s set for culinary arts. Keller and his team go to extraordinary lengths to provide the best possible experience for their customers, and the customers love him for that. It’s not a coincidence that Restaurant Magazine voted his flagship kitchen “Best Restaurant in the World”.

He’s obviously a successful leader, but what specifically can we learn about software product management from Thomas Keller?

The Neon Green Tape

A few years ago, I tuned into a radio show that was exploring some of the personal quirks of famous chefs. The show described Keller’s obsessive passion for a seemingly trivial task: the way his team labels their supplies.

It’s common practice for kitchen workers to use a handwritten label to indicate what ingredients or supplies are in a storage container. But in Keller’s kitchens, everything must be labeled with a black Sharpie on a specific type of painter’s tape. Neon green FrogTape to be exact. Each green label must be straight and level and cut with perfect right-angled corners. Apparently, you can be fired from his kitchens simply for not keeping your tape straight.

I’m sure most radio listeners just thought Thomas Keller was some sort of control freak. However, I was immediately curious as to why such a masterful chef would consider this simple task so important.

A Clear and Uncluttered Mind

The radio show went on to explain why Thomas Keller feels so strongly about keeping his neon green tape straight. My understanding is that he believes that clear and uncluttered labels will lead to a clear and uncluttered kitchen. And a clear and uncluttered kitchen will let the chef’s mind remain clear and uncluttered so they can focus on their work.

That philosophy makes sense but may seem trivial at first. His concept doesn’t become powerful until you think about the consequences of a chef not having a clear mind. If a chef’s thoughts are cluttered, it’s likely a customer will eventually have a cluttered experience. Everything that is put on the customer’s plate originates from the kitchen, and imperfection will trickle down through the rest of the process.

The same applies in many other professional fields, especially product management.

Putting It Into Practice

After understanding Thomas Keller’s tape rules, I wanted to apply the philosophy of keeping a clear and uncluttered kitchen in my own team’s workplace. However, since my team is making software and not meals, our products don’t originate in a physical space like a kitchen. We work in Sketch, Trello, and Google Docs. Our “kitchen” is in the digital space, so we had to figure out what our “tape” would be.

For our team, we decided that our communications are our tape. “Keep your tape straight” means that we keep communication and documentation simple, clear, and concise. We strive to reduce visual clutter, eliminate hard-to-read text, and remove unnecessary fluff. If a product manager on our team produces anything that is unclear or cluttered, the rest of the company is empowered to tell him or her to go back and get their tape straight.

We’ve adopted “keep your tape straight” as a core mantra for our product management team. It’s our simple reminder to be clear and concise. There’s no need to remember content guidelines, instead we just challenge ourselves to keep our tape straight. If I’m ever unclear in my own writing, my team doesn’t hesitate to call me out and tell me to get my own tape straight!

Why You Should Embrace the Tape

Product managers are the start of customer experience. Like a chef in a kitchen, you are behind the scenes perfecting the product that will be delivered to the next customer. If you don’t provide your designers and engineers with clear and uncluttered communication, eventually your own users are going to have a cluttered experience. It’s inevitable.

With a simple four-word phrase, you can challenge yourself to be more clear and concise. It will ultimately lead to a better customer experience.

So, is your tape straight?