What Owning a Coffee Shop Taught Me about Software Development


Four years ago, I embarked on an unknown adventure. I invested in and shared ownership of a coffee shop, without having either much business experience or any knowledge of coffee. I dove, head first, into a crazy adventure which changed me in ways I never would have guessed.

h2. The Opportunity

The opportunity came up while a friend pitched me on her vision for the next phase of an established coffee shop. Her partner recently pulled out of the business and there was room for an investor/partner. After hearing the pitch, I was in.

I found rough guides on evaluating a small businesses’ worth by using its profit and loss statements. Atomic Object’s open books policy helped me understand what I was I was looking at. I’d read profit and loss statements at our quarterly meetings and I had a rough idea of what good and great profit margins were. My friend and I came up with an evaluation of the business and I became a 40% owner and sole investor.

h2. Teach & Learn

At first, coffee seemed very simple, and admittedly, it can be. Hot water and ground up, roasted coffee beans will technically make a cup of coffee. But things change quickly when we talk about espresso — coffee finely ground and extracted using a high-pressure water system.

When creating a “shot” of espresso, even small changes in humidity, temperature, or any other random factor can cause things to go way, way off course. It took me a little under a year to master this craft. The experience taught me to be steady and evaluate each of the components factoring into my drink. Unexpectedly, this also directly helped my debugging skills, when writing software. I learned to slow down, evaluate all inputs, and walk through each step.

After learning the craft of coffee, I shared the role of quality control for the coffee shop. On a weekly basis, I’d work with our employees, testing their drinks and helping to create consistency across eight people. This process directly related to my developer skills. I learned how to have patience with my students and how to describe things in a way they could understand. The skills required to share a craft — teaching someone a language or how to test a piece of software, for example — were closely related.

h2. Honing My Craft

As a developer, learning a new programming language, piece of software, or development style isn’t too difficult. It’s pretty simple to research, read, and follow people who are already masters of the craft. When trying to learn something completely new however, this path quickly breaks down. Researching becomes hard when you might not have the language to describe what you’re trying to do.

Owning a public-facing business forces you to continue to change and update to keep from getting stale. Keeping a business new requires researching and trying new things, and its difficult as each business and space has specific needs.

I learned to try and fail fast, keep an open mind, and always be watching for places where innovation can be had. In writing software, these skills have helped me keep an eye on the product as a whole. I’m constantly searching for consistency and places where we can make improvements. I’m always watching for new techniques that would help push my team forward into new areas.

h2. Empathy

Above all else, running the coffee business gave me an understanding of the complexities of human relationships. Managing other people, relationships, and friendships were one of the hardest components of the adventure.

Creating a friendship with one employee might alienate another. Promoting someone with passion causes someone who’s been there longer to feel slighted. And having to let someone who isn’t working out go is a hard decision, regardless of how clear things might seem.

This has given me great empathy for my superiors at Atomic Object. I have a much better understanding of the constant challenges faced when managing the complexity of 50+ people.

h2. Moving On

After four wonderful years, I also learned when it’s time to say goodbye. I know now it was the right decision, but leaving a group of loving, caring, hardworking people and the amazing world of coffee was not an easy choice.

I’ll forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to own and operate a small business, as my lens for work and life has forever changed.