I left the restaurant business three times before I finally found something that worked better for me than waiting tables and bar tending – technical writing. Restaurant schedules can be a lot more flexible than office jobs, and,in Florida, at least, if you don’t like one restaurant you can probably switch jobs until you find a restaurant you like better. It’s a living wage if you’re good at it. It can pay very well if you’re great at it.
It’s physical work, it’s conducive to meeting people and making good friends, and it teaches skills that are absolutely transferable to other fields, such as sales, which I think is helpful in any field. Here are some that have helped me in tech comm:
1. Handling Volume
Every business has a regular busy time, or rush, and a restaurant has at least one almost every shift. There’s the rush, then there is getting slammed and being in the weeds–getting your ass kicked. In a restaurant, this can happen if a large group all arrives at once for some reason, such as all the squads coming in after a cheer leading competition.
Or, the right circumstances can come together to create a chaotic level of volume: Valentine’s day falling on a Friday, for example. In times like that, we were so busy that most of our standard operating procedures were maxed out: we were running out of chairs, running out of glassware, waiting over an hour for food because we got a crazy rush after cooks had been cut for the night. I remember the computer system crashing and having to manually process a slew of credit cards, or getting so busy that we had to stop running tabs so that no one ran out on their bill.
It takes poise and problem solving skills just to get through a rush like that without needing the manager to comp whole tables, let alone to make good tips. Some of that just comes with experience–having made it through once and seen that the restaurant keeps going almost no matter what.
In Fall of 2004, Central and Western Florida got hit with a series of hurricanes, and a lot of people lost electricity, but the Applebee’s where I worked never lost power. I remember several shifts during which the restaurant filled again and again with people who were stir crazy, starved for air conditioning, and tired of eating whatever had defrosted in their freezers.
There were several “hurricane shifts” that fall, but one that I remember particularly well. I was coming on as the night bartender, and the day bartender couldn’t go home. People wanted cocktails and commiseration about their damaged homes. We ended up with a thank-you letter for taking such good care of them.
I try to keep this perseverance in my tech writing job when the document seems never ending, and I’m finding hundreds of inappropriate screen shots that I have to replace, and I just got another request with an aggressive schedule.
Even when the volume of work seems unreasonable, it still has to get managed in one way or another. This is may be more apparent in the restaurant environment than in the office–the doors open and people sit at your tables so you have to keep going.
The work is more abstract in a tech comm department (maybe you’ll have to adjust schedules, or estimate how much help you’ll need, or suggest a compromise in what the files will contain) but the principle is the same.
2. Making it Look Easy
Servers wait for the rush like surfers wait for waves because that’s when they make money. When the rush is not happening, they are making $3.13 an hour and probably being harassed by management to clean something. But they don’t make money during the rush if they look too rushed.
Sweaty, abrupt, disheveled servers who are making mistakes because they have too many customers don’t get good tips. And they don’t deserve them. They’re not giving the customer a good experience.
I struggled with this in the restaurant and eventually got better at it, but the calibration is even more sensitive in an office environment, in my experience.
Restaurant work is physical work, so there is some discharge of the adrenaline it takes to get through the rush. In an office, people are sitting quietly, and even a nonverbal disturbance can reverberate through a large room of cubicles until every department on that floor knows that something is going on, even if they don’t know what it is.
Emotional reactions and negativity are disruptive, so every success at minimizing them is helpful to co-workers. My office job seems to offer an endless supply of lessons in self control. A challenge I have is that I can get a little over-enthused solving a problem, and I tend to think out loud, which can sound an awful lot like complaining. I like to debate, too. I imagine what qualifies as disruptive depends on the group.
Does anyone else think this might come naturally to a lot of people who are Generation Y? Or maybe is it more of an introvert thing? There seems to be a code — anything that makes your effort and exertion apparent can probably be done in a better way.
I’ve seen this carried through to a fault (passive aggression, or shunning enthusiasm for a project), but I think it is largely a pretty good rule of thumb for someone like me who is practicing restraint. I’m Gen Y too but, for whatever reason, this isn’t a code I’ve naturally adopted. I’m an extravert and I like that, but like I said, I’m practicing.
3.Watch Your Mouth, Customers Can Hear You
Out in the dining room, if you’re a server or a bartender, it’s unprofessional to swear, or complain about the cooks, or discuss your sex life. There are customers within a few feet of you at all times.
If you are a technical communicator in an office building, it’s literally almost the same situation. Your customers aren’t just the product users who are reading your documents. To some extent, the other teams are your customers–they are relying on you for the service you provide.
If you complain about the process, then someone is going to look bad for not improving it. Maybe you. Maybe your boss, which diminishes his or her effectiveness when going to bat for you.
If you badmouth a project or a tool because there was a misunderstanding, or a learning curve, or a bad day, that can snowball pretty easily. Pretty soon, someone from the Education department is saying to you, “Yeah, I heard there are a lot of issues with Flare and the new format.” And you’re thinking, There are? That was one of my favorite projects.
Gossiping falls into this category, but it’s also related to the idea of not disrupting the work environment. Someone can hear that you talk about everyone, no matter how discreet you think you are. It breeds mistrust, which is a frustrating distraction to have at work. The more people can feel comfortable at work, the better, since we rely on our job to pay for our homes and food and all.
Gossip is really common and sooner or later everyone needs a strategy for surviving it, but why be that person emitting little puffs of poison into the office?
4.Doing Things All the Way
In a restaurant, no matter how inconsistent or forgetful he or she is, almost every server will get regular customers, or “regulars.” I was popular with little old couples, for example.
But the people who have the most regulars and get the biggest tips are the ones who do all the things you are supposed to do for the customers–they bring the right things at the right time, they don’t let dishes and napkins pile up on the table, they remember what people like to drink and what their kids’ names are, and they are fun while they do all that stuff.
There are plenty of servers who do some of those things, and they have some regulars. The few who do it all consistently have regulars who will wait for them to have an open table, or who end up taking up tables in other server’s sections.
What is doing it all the way mean in tech comm? What comes to mind for me are these things: always finding a way to not only finish the iteration, but to improve the document every time. Staying on schedule, keeping consistent communication about status with the project team and with management, consistently suggesting ways that tech comm can improve customer experience, consistently identifying ways that team processes can be improved. And making it look easy.