To judge by the likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, if you want to attract the very best software engineers (and make them as productive as possible), you have to provide them with three free squares a day, prepared by top chefs. It's not so much a perk anymore as a given, so common in tech circles that the Internal Revenue Service, sensing an untapped vein, is mulling new tax regulations for "employer-provided meals."
But there's at least one high-tech company that's going in the opposite direction. At Actifio, a $100 million data-management company outside Boston with about 400 employees, company coders dine on such seasonal delicacies as grilled scallops with pineapple salsa, Frogmore stew, fried spicy beef with green peppers, and strawberry shortbread, all of it prepared and served onsite not by professional cooks but by the engineers themselves.
Writing code and cooking, it turns out, are overlapping skills. Both require attention to detail, a balance of being creative and following the rules, and complete focus on the quality of the output. "But some of the appeal is that it's not the same," says engineer Jon Choate, who dyes his Mohawk purple, orange, or pink, depending on his mood. "We work on some pretty mental problems here. Sometimes it's nice to keep your hands busy and free up your mind for a little while. Get some inspiration."
Some trace the tradition back to the day founder and CEO Ash Ashutosh happened upon one of his staffers peeling potatoes in the company kitchen. ("It relaxes me" was the explanation.) Others suggest it was when engineer Chris Murphy had an idea to whip up some Belgian waffles for visiting colleagues from India. Murphy didn't ask for help but he didn't have to; he soon had more than he needed, cleanup included. That led to fresh-baked bread in the afternoons, which led to weekly smorgasbord blowouts. Now hardly a day goes by without someone cooking something.
Employees plan the menus, shop for ingredients, pay for everything themselves, and even donate specialty kitchen gear. One day a rice cooker appeared; later, a blender and a coffee grinder. When the need arose for a fancy sous vide oven, rather than buy one for hundreds of dollars, half a dozen engineers attacked the problem with competing designs. Another employee "had the nicer display, but I had more precise temperature control," claims David Chang, vice president of products, showing off his winning model.
At first, Ashutosh's role in all this was simply to let it happen (while quietly applauding the boost to productivity, morale, and retention--plus the fact that it wasn't costing him anything). But as things escalated, Ashutosh stepped up, investing in appliances, including a restaurant-grade oven, a mammoth gas grill, and a twin-spigot beer tap. Coming soon: an expanded designer kitchen, modeled after a classic food truck (only bigger), and a new dining area, the better to nurture dinner-table collaboration. "Why not invest in something the culture has already created?" says Ashutosh.
A few weeks after visiting Actifio, I heard from employee John Sgammato, who blogs at FoodiePilgrim.com when he's not writing technical documentation. He wanted to tell me about the paella they'd served that day: "Our Indian employees all asked, 'What's a paella?' When I said, 'It's a sort of biryani,' they all understood." Also on the menu that day: grilled lamb chops, sweet plantains, fried cauliflower, mango pie, and a quinoa, basil, and blueberry salad. "Once again, the thought of sharing something delicious with friends inspired us to get creative," he says, "and that's a muscle that we like to exercise."