Careers Start by Peeling Potatoes

Listening to my the family talk about dividing up the cooking chores for this Thanksgiving dinner, including who would peel the potatoes, reminded me that most careers start by peeling potatoes.

KP – Kitchen Patrol
One of the iconic punishments in basic training in the military was being threatened by our drill instructors of being assigned to KP – Kitchen Patrol – as a penalty for breaking some rule. If you got assigned to KP you were sent to the base kitchen and had to peel potatoes all day for all the soldiers on the base.  It was tedious work but to my surprise I found that it wasn’t the dreadful experience our drill instructors made it out to be. But working in the mess hall, the real eye-opener was the inside look at the workings of something I took for granted – how do you cook three meals a day for 10,000 people at a time. Peeling potatoes was a small bit in the thousands of things that had to go right every day to keep 10,000 of us fed.

One my first career lessons: stop taking for granted finished goods and appreciate the complexity of the system that delivered them.

Solutions From Hands On
When I got to my first airbase my job was lugging electronics boxes on and off fighter planes under the broiling hot Thailand sun, to bring them into the technicians inside the air-conditioned shop, to troubleshoot and fix. The thing we dreaded hearing from the techs was, “this box checks out fine, it must be a wiring problem.” Which meant going back to the aircraft trying to find a bent pin in a connector or short in a cable or a bad antenna. It meant crawling over, under and inside an airplane fuselage the temperature of an oven. Depending on the type of aircraft (F-4’s, F-105’s or A-7’s – the worst) it could take hours or days to figure out where the problem was.

A few months later, I was now the guy in the air-conditioned shop telling my friends on the flight-line, “the box was fine, must be a cable.” Having just been on the other side I understood the amount of work that phrase meant. It took a few weeks of these interactions, but it dawned on me there was a gap between the repair manuals describing how to fix the electronics and the aircraft manuals telling you the pin-outs of the cables – there were no tools to simplify finding broken cables on the flightline. Now with a bit more understanding of the system problem, it didn’t take much thinking to look at the aircraft wiring diagrams and make up a series of dummy connectors with test points to simplify the troubleshooting process. I gave them to my friends, and while the job of finding busted aircraft cabling was still unpleasant it was measurably shorter.

My next career lesson: unless I had been doing the miserable, hot and frustrating job on the flightline, I would never have known this was a valuable problem to solve.

Up From the Bottom
My startup career started on the bottom, installing process control equipment inside auto assembly plants and steel mills (in awe of the complexity of the systems that delivered finished products.) Wrote technical manuals and taught microprocessor design (to customers who knew more than I did.) Worked weeks non-stop responding to customer Requests For Proposals (RFP’s.) Designed tradeshow booths, spent long nights at shows setting them up, and long days inside them during the shows.

Over ten long years I wrote corporate brochures (making legal, finance and sales happy), and sales presentations (treading the line between sales, marketing, truth, and competition), and data sheets, web sites and competitive analyses, press releases (getting a degree in creative writing without being an English major,) and flew to hundreds of customer meetings on red-eyes at a drop of a hat (making sales guys rich and gaining a huge appreciation for their skills.)

Partnered with engineering trying to understand what customers really wanted, needed and would pay for, versus what we could actually build and deliver (and learning the difference between a simply good engineer and working in the presence of sheer genius.) In the sprint to first customer ship, slept under the desk in my office the same nights my engineering team was doing the same.

Each of those crummy, tedious, exhausting jobs made me understand how hard they were. Each made me appreciate the complexity of the systems (with people being the most valuable) that make up successful companies. It made me understand that they were doable, solvable and winnable.

It took me a decade to work my way up to VP of Marketing and then CEO. By that time I knew what each job in my department meant because I had done every one of them. I knew what it took to get these jobs done (and screw them up) and I now pushed the people who worked for me as hard as I had worked.

Career Lessons Learned:

  • Winning at entrepreneurship is for practitioners not theorists.
  • Building a company in all its complexity is computationally unsolvable.
  • There’s no shortcut for getting your hands dirty. Reading stories about the success of Facebook or blogs about the secrets of SEO might make you feel smarter, but it’s not going to make you more skilled.
  • Unless you’ve had a ton of experience (which includes failing) in a broad range of areas you’re only guessing.
  • Great careers start by peeling potatoes.

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25 Responses

  1. You next book should be a biography. Would be extremely interesting!

  2. What a great set of lessons. I think it was the US marketer Dan Kennedy who said “first we had Napoleon Hill breaking down success into 13 steps, followed by Covey who managed it in 7 and a bit, so I thought I would break it down into 1 – Action”. Nice one Steve.

  3. Great article! I worked as an manufacturing engineer before jumping to the web industry and right before I quit I was working on a lot of kaizen/ lean activities. One of the main initial activities is reviewing the process in a holistic way. You really find out where the waste in movement, activity and time is when you have a small kaizen group focused at improving activities. Most of the time when you ask the person why are they doing that and their reply was usually “that’s how I was taught” or “that’s just how I’ve always done it…” I see this Lean movement and methods from manufacturing are now being really utilized by startups and the tech/web industries.

  4. Great post Steve! It is especially timely with the Thanksgiving holiday. It made me thankful for all of life’s experiences and opportunities. It is a good reminder to me personally to live in the present and continually learn.

  5. Happy Thanksgiving! And I’m STILL peeling potatoes! :)

  6. This inspires me to hope. Rarely does a CEO know it all because they’ve dime it all.

  7. Great insight. Good writing. How do I share this on my fb page.

  8. Sounds like you would have enjoyed working at McDonalds

  9. Even greater careers start by figuring out that the healthiest part of the potato is the skin and that you can eliminate an unnecessary task by leaving it on :-)

  10. I love your article, Steve, and you are “right on” with your insights once again. Your clarity and good sense have always amazed me, and I attribute it to your working your way up from the bottom. Perhaps it’s because I, too, traveled that path.

    After high school I entered the US Air Force – not so much to defend my country as to get money for college – a luxury my parents couldn’t afford. After paying my own way through college with my Uncle Sam money and part-time jobs I emerged debt free from graduate school to join HP as a “repairman”. One might think repairing equipment isn’t the most glamorous job for a newly minted M.S. in Physics, but I learned a bunch by toting wrenches around, dealing with gases, liquids, electronics, robot autosamplers, pumps, mainframe computers, high voltage, high vacuum, and all kinds of user-caused malfunctions, including the chemistry involved in these analytical instruments. I got to see real customers crying with frustration and stress as their bosses pressured them for results, but the instrument was down. I got to learn firsthand how you need to listen to customers. This really helped when I moved to manufacturing to help build the instruments I was repairing, then to R&D to help design them, then Quality to help teset them. It was a long road to being a business leader, but I am a far more capable leader because of this journey.

    Those who had an easier path need to work harder to gain these insights. Thanks for pointing the way.

  11. Great post! Having worked my way up last decade I can connect to these observations and career learning!

    Most recently, I always knew about how search adwords works and how it can help acquire customer, but I really started appreciating the tech, when i applied these to my own projects and saw how it can impact business!

  12. [...] Steve Blank offers a nice post about learning in the business context. His main point is that the most valuable lessons are found in doing stuff rather than theory. I agree that you can’t understand a process without doing the process. And once you stop or if you get disconnected from doing the heavy lifting, you stop learning. [...]

  13. It’s hard enough to stay connected to the frontlines when you’re a founder or senior executive; taking the time to peel the potatoes is one of the few ways to do this.

  14. Terrific post. This should be taught to kids starting in high school; there are no short cuts while developing anything great. It could be titled “It takes 10 years to be an overnight success” or “Start by peeling potatoes!”

  15. Wow! Thanks for sharing these nuggets and wisdom bytes! Great insights for future leaders!

  16. Great post – I have done the same with every success I have had – knowing about how to do the job at my own company, and also getting to know everything, and I mean everything, about my customers operations. Thanks Norm

  17. Great article.
    Everyone has to start somewhere and most of the time it is all the way from the bottom. But it is wonderful to reap the rewards of all the experience and wisdom gained through the difficulties of rising to the top.

  18. Great post…thanks for sharing a personal story. It serves as inspiration to all of us out here “peeling potatoes” everyday.

  19. great post, this is why startups need senior people, no substitute for experience, I have worked in software since I was 16 ( am 42 now ) and see new grads make the same mistakes due to ‘book learning’, experience is what counts

    up with steve blank and his awesome blog

  20. Reblogged this on SquareBall Marketing and commented:
    Great advise from Steve Blank. There is no shortcut in in creating your own success. If you need motivation to keep you moving forward, this is a great read.

  21. [...] Steve Blank talks about the origins of his success, and strangely enough, they involve doing physical things and encountering the problems he would later help overcome through the enginee…: [...]

  22. There is no comparison to gaining experience from doing each job you have to lead one day.

    Since you have experience being down in the trenches, then what would you look for in a wanna-be entrepreneur working to build a company that puts past colleagues to work in the digital age with the latest, and “next” tools?

  23. [...] Blank writes a lovely blog about his experiences starting and growing technology businesses in the USA – but it has plenty of wise words for non-US, non-tech entrepreneurs too. (Why [...]

  24. Awesome post. Nothing beats hands on experience. It seems like the internet has given rise to analysis paralysis.

    If you want to make something happen, put in the work!

    Chris

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