Looking beyond Silicon Valley for product leadership, vision and inspiration

Never have I seen a product mind in motion so interestingly captured than in the 2011 documentary “El Bulli: Cooking In Progress”. The film, about one of the most decadent, highly rated and progressive restaurants in the world, featured world famous chef Ferran Adrià. Leading a world class team of chefs and service, Adrià is portrayed as a detail obsessed leader searching for the impossible – perfection.

A team “standup” is depicted, where each member of the large group described their name, specialized role, and by the request of Ferran, their previous employer. A young woman casually announces her name, and that she previously worked for Jose Andres, another world famous molecular gastronomy chef and former student of Adrià. The pedigree and composition of his staff was not too different from the waves of ex-Facebook and ex-Googlers in the Valley who gather and successfully form new ventures.

Ferran embodied a very polarized depiction of the characteristics I’ve seen in founders and product managers during my admittedly short ~10 year career writing software. He was a leader, he was a visionary, and he inspired his team to build. He obsessed with detail, process and documentation. This obsession was highlighted in a scene where a damaged hard drive lost a week’s worth of food experimentation data, he (like any good data informed PM) was furious.

He encouraged and innovated directly through experimentation. He tasted and tested constantly. He obsessed about both the macro details (the flow, the entire meal, the timing, [the user experience]) as well as the micro (the physical plates, the garnish, the exact amounts of flavoring down to the crystal of salt, [the pixel level detail]).

He insisted that new menu items would only be served to tables of two, and then slowly integrated into the main menu once they’d iterated, verified and truly perfected the dish. This part of his process really stood out to me because this controlled release process is no different than how we release new features at Twitter. While this might be a very standard and obvious process in the culinary industry, I was surprised and impressed with this strategy.

But Ferran also ruled with an iron fist. He had very little patience for failure. He was seemingly short tempered, impatient and stubborn. These characteristics reminded me of the description given by food critic Masuhiro Yamamato of Master Sushi chef Jiro Ono. A strange cocktail of otherwise negative characteristics that result in a close to perfect product. And while I’ve commented before about how the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi was more about engineering diligence, El Bulli was about the audacity to reach product perfection.

To be clear, Adrià’s impatience was only for sub-par quality, rather than an expectation for instant satisfaction. He electively closed his $350/person restaurant for 6 months of the year to spend time researching and creating his unique menus. He would, however, scoff and raise a fit when served a food sample from his staff that was not to his liking.

The “climax”, so to speak, of the film draws to a conclusion with Ferran sitting alone in the restaurants’ kitchen. Though surrounded by his 40 staff members and a full restaurant of satisfied customers, he might as well have been on the moon, alone with his thoughts. His unheard, yet likely inner monolog being: “It is not good enough, I can’t serve this to my customers”, the irony of course being that it was a 3 Michelin starred restaurant at the time. Omitted from the film was the unfortunate reality that such a strict disciplined approach was not sustainable. El Bulli sadly closed shortly before the film was released due to financial stress the process and 40+ staff likely put on the restaurant. This unfortunate fate, however, came only after Adrià successfully ran the restaurant for 24 years, whilst topping the lists ranking as the best restaurant in the world. The following observed qualities lead him to success, and perhaps the last one to his demise.

  • complete respect for quality

  • intolerance of the mediocre

  • inspired, and lead fearlessly

  • relentless experimentation and iteration

  • total willingness to reinvent

  • obsession with perfection

Maybe creating software has no comparisons to a world class Michelin rated restaurant. But as a food lover, and also software engineer, I’d like to romanticise and draw parallels between the two. Regardless, there are many lessons to be learned from observing Mr. Adrià’s legacy in motion. Perhaps we don’t all need to have an obsessive quest for perfection, but then again, if we aren’t serving out our absolute best dish, what is the point?

[photo credits: http://vcrown.com/]