When I checked into the shed for my after lunch espresso at Taylor Street Baristas Nicholas was quizzing the junior staff. At first I was a little surprised. I know Simona can already do a great job of dialling in an espresso – we have a shared love of naturally washed Costa Rican coffee – so why was he questioning her about flavour profiles of different beans? Turns out Simona has an exam next week, and she was enjoying being quizzed. Taylor Street has a rigorous structured program for its baristas, and it shows. The chain has an enviable reputation – its staff are generally really friendly, always knowledgeable and most importantly great at making coffee. The company offers training courses for its customers to make better brews at home, and now has a roasting operation too, which makes quality management more important than ever.
Nicholas said the training for trainee baristas to become junior baristas was about learning how different coffees would react to different conditions, with an associated language for talking about that. It’s not just about different varieties of beans from different regions, but the water used and of of course the milk and how it’s treated. It’s not enough to know that naturally treated Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is likely to taste of blueberry yoghurt. How would it be different if it was washed, and how are characteristics different for Kenyan beans?
I was worried the exams might favour those that spoke most confidently, likely men, fast talkers and hustlers, the bullshitters. The same problem we face in tech.
But Simona, who is softly spoken, disagreed. She said she has learned more in 4 months since joining Taylor Street than the previous three years working as a barista elsewhere. Taylor Street teaches its employees craft coffee as a science – they literally get to know the science of heated milk. As Nicholas explained, many baristas can make a great cup of coffee, but the key is doing it consistently. When a great barista makes a great cup they ask themselves: “how did I do that?” So they can do it again and again and again.
Vendors and enterprises could learn a great deal from the Taylor Street approach. Yesterday I wrote On process tool and people shelfware. How are we going to achieve escape velocity for modern software development? The key is staff development and training, with a certification approach. Employees feel valued, because training is a requirement, but it leads to career development and higher pay. This all may sound rather obvious but far too many companies don’t bother with training for tech employees. It’s up to the practitioner to learn new skills, languages and frameworks. Then the company complains when employees are not up to speed with whatever technology an executive read about in a magazine on a plane. If organisations are serious about digital transformation they’re going to need to become as dedicated to on the job staff development as Taylor Street is. New tools are emerging at an incredible rate today, which puts a premium on learning new skills.
Taylor Street doesn’t just focus on its own internal programs – it looks for external validation for example by encouraging its baristas to apply for competitions like the UK Barista Championship, and then helping them rehearse. That’s like encouraging your employees to go out to meetups, and giving them some budget to attend, or buy the snacks or drinks.
Obviously some coffee places don’t have this kind of dedication to the craft, but then, their coffee isn’t as good, and their employees aren’t as fired up. I have been getting coffee from the shed for about seven or eight years, and Fanny and Jen are still working there (though The Franklys are currently touring. Great band, you should check them out), so staff retention is obviously pretty good.
Good luck next week Simona – I know you’ll pass, especially with a great mentor like Nicholas.
This post is for my esteemed colleague Marcia, who always loves it when I write about what tech can learn from other businesses.