There are four close parallels between the world of software development and the culinary industry:

  1. The rise of credentialization
  2. The celebritization of higher-ups (software executives and chefs)
  3. Opportunities for on-the-job-learning
  4. A belief of each subculture in its own meritocracy

Given these similarities, Bourdain’s books should be required reading for any early-career software developer. It is no coincidence that one of the essays from this book, “So You Wanna Be a Chef” made the rounds on sites like Hacker News and Lobsters a few weeks ago. It is well worth reading in full for its discussion of points 1 and 3 above. Seriously, go read it now and then come back.

The second point above (celebritization) comes up in chapter 14:

Under commandment 19 Richmond lists, “show us the chef.” “If dinner for two is costing $200, you have every right to expect the chef to be at work.” … [Richmond] also well understands, one would think, the economics of maintaining the kinds of operations he’s talking about. Yet he demands and expects us to believe that every time a table of customers plunks down $200 at one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants that Bobby himself should rush on over and personally wrap their tamales and then maybe swing by and give them a little face time over dessert….

The whole suggestion is predicated on a [big lie], one which Richmond himself happily helped create and which he works hard on a daily basis to keep alive. See, it makes for a better article when you associate the food with a personality. Richmond… built up these names, helped make them celebrities by promoting the illusion that they cook–that if you walk into one of dozens of Jean George’s restaurants he’s somewhere back there on the line, personally sweating over your halibut, measuring freshly chopped herbs between thumb and forefinger.

Every time someone writes “Mr. Batali is fond of strong, assertive flavors,” however true that might be… it ignores the reality–if not the whole history–of command and control and the creative process in restaurant kitchens…. There are plenty of great cooks in this world, but not that many great chefs. The word chef means “chief.” A chef is simply a cook who leads other cooks. That quality–leadership–the ability to successfully command, inspire, and delegate work to others is the very essence of what chefs are about.

This is remarkably similar to the way that technology leaders are discussed in the popular press. Tim Cook is not designing ARM chips for the next iPhone, and Patrick Collison is not likely to be found committing code to production systems at Stripe these days. What makes these individuals so impactful is their ability, like a great chef, to “successfully command, inspire, and delegate work to others.”

One chef who struggles to delegate, David Chang, helps to illustrate the fourth similarity above: the belief of both chefs and software developers that they work within a meritocratic system (ch. 17).

“What took me to cooking was that there was something honest about it,” says David Chang. “There is no lying in the kitchen…. You either can or can’t make an omelette. You either can or can’t chop an onion, shake a pan, keep up with the other cooks, replicate again and again perfectly the dishes that need to be done. No credential, no amount of BS, no well-formed sentences or pleas for mercy, will change the basic facts. The kitchen is the last meritocracy.”

Software developers might be better off if they understood the similarity of their role to other artisans–chefs, carpenters, cobblers–for whom the act of showing up on time and creating work that speaks for itself is a matter of pride. For insights like these, Bourdain and other lifelong students of a craft (such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Shop Class as Soulcraft) are worth reading again and again.