“With great produce comes great responsibility.”

Long before I joined New Relic, I cut my teeth working in retail and customer service for a Chicago-based grocery store chain. I have fond memories of what seemed like a carefree work environment surrounded by friends—and, of course, a few intercom pranks and backroom produce fights. (I never want to lose the wealth of produce knowledge I gained: For instance, I still make a mean watermelon boat!)

But a decade later I’ve started to look back on that time with a different perspective, and I’ve begun trying to relate those experiences to my current job. It turns out that a surprising number of those early professional experiences helped prepare me for my career in software development.

You might think, “How in the world can you relate working in a grocery store to software development? It’s apples and oranges!” (See what I did there?) Bear with me, and as I’ve asked in previous posts, “Keep an open mind.”

Grocery lesson #1: Do your homework

All businesses require the ability to identify and cater to your audience. In the grocery world, this is often based largely on a store’s geographic location and historical sales trends. But things can get tricky when you try to establish new products. I remember a situation in which muskmelons were going to be featured as part of the upcoming weekly sale. Cantaloupe and honeydew sold quite well on sale. We assumed that muskmelons would also do well, so we ordered a similar amount—roughly a pallet of product.

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But many grocery stores, including mine, rarely carried muskmelons. Despite their similarity to other melons, sales of the unfamiliar muskmelons came in well below the forecast and we had to discard three-quarters of the product.

In the software business, missing the target on a feature that took several months to develop stings far worse than having to toss out a pallet of perishables. To avoid that fate, work with your market experts in sales, support, and product management. Use betas and other forms of customer feedback to minimize the possibility that you end up with a bunch of rotten melons!

Grocery lesson #2: It’s always your responsibility

Lo and behold, grocery stores don’t actually create most of the items they sell. Instead, they largely rely on regional warehouses and a combination of local and national vendors and growers to keep the shelves stocked. While stores occasionally make ordering errors, when an item runs out it’s often due to external causes—a shortage at the warehouse or a freeze that reduces the availability of citrus products. Whatever the reason, though, disappointed customers don’t want to hear excuses. From their perspective it’s always the store’s responsibility.

Similarly, in software it’s quite common to rely on third-party vendors for solutions. And if a solution your software uses has a bug that negatively impacts the customer, your software represents the face of that failure. Customers don’t want to hear that “Oh, that’s not us, it’s [enter company/vendor name here].” In their eyes it’s you who has failed to deliver. In fact, customers usually appreciate an apology and a little bit of empathy rather than the appearance of passing the buck.

Grocery lesson #3: ‘P’ is for process

Your process—or lack thereof—can heavily influence your success regardless of what you’re selling. In the supermarket, while some products allow for shortcuts, others, such as bananas, require strict adherence to well-defined processes. You cannot simply fill the shelves with bananas and throw the rest in the back. Bananas should not be exposed to cold temperatures for very long and have a relatively short shelf life before they begin to spot. Each case needs to be promptly opened to promote air circulation and restacked in one of a few special patterns that consume approximately 50% more storeroom space per pallet. Ignore these processes and you could end up with a bunch of product you can’t sell, unhappy customers, and lost revenue. The effects are not trivial: Bananas can account for 1% of a store’s total revenue!

Similarly, some software processes can be looser than others. Take intra-team communication. As long as daily communication is happening it probably doesn’t matter if it’s via email, in-person, interpretive dance, or maritime flags. But the process for handling/addressing critical support issues from your top 1% customers? That’s a different story!

Critical areas of the business require hardened, defined processes and procedures that must be followed to the letter, each and every time. Different areas of any business require varying levels of process and procedure to keep the business (and customers) happy. Take the time to identify the ‘bananas’ in your shop!

Grocery lesson #4: Past becomes present

When I was laid off from my first software job, the first thing I did to keep paying the bills was look for work in retail. Within days after losing my job I had secured a part-time position with a big home-improvement chain.

In my interview, I was asked why someone with my education (computer engineering) and recent work experience (software) would be a good fit. I replied that customer service was easy to me—not that retail is an easy job; in fact, it’s a job that’s very easy to do poorly. I explained that, to me, the art of retail and customer service is nothing more than solving problems. Sometimes that problem is easy: “Where are the furnace filters?” or “What aisle has baking supplies?” Sometimes it is more difficult: “I need to rebuild the internal components of my toilet” or “I need a fruit tray for a party of 25.”

By and large, software is also a game of solving problems. Whether the problem is answering a support question or creating a new feature/technology, it’s all about listening to the customer and delivering the solution/answer they seek.

I am positive that being a problem solver in software helped me get back into the retail world. I spent approximately five months working in retail before resuming my career in software. Fortunately, my time on the front lines gave me a renewed appreciation for what it means to be a customer. If I ever find myself out of software again, I wouldn’t hesitate to resume my career as a retail problem solver. (Pro tip: If you’re ever looking to get in shape, work the garden center during spring/summer at a Texas home improvement center.)

Lessons from everywhere

I believe my experiences in both retail and software have made me a better problem solver by improving my ability to look at things from different angles and approaches. The combination has also helped me empathize with customers when things don’t go well.

I encourage you to look back on your experiences both in and out of your current field. Explore the takeaways that can make you better at what you do today. Think about how your earlier experiences relate to your current job. I bet you’ll be surprised at the parallels you can draw and the perspectives you can gain. Besides, it’s a fun trip down memory lane!

Grocery store image 1 and image 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

Matt Sneeden is a QA Developer at New Relic. He supports the .NET Agent team, specializing in building continuous integration and automated testing systems. When not wired in, he can be found exploring the outdoors of southern Wisconsin. View posts by .

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