Cake as Work

I make a great deal of cake for work.

I am not employed in the cake industry, and making cake doesn’t feature in my job description or my annual objectives.

Nevertheless, in the past two years I have made over 100 cakes for my colleagues. Pretty much once a week.

Chances are you haven’t done this.

If you have made over 100 cakes for your work colleagues, then chances are you didn’t gather feedback on all of the cakes and record it in a spreadsheet along with other data about each cake, including calculations for ‘cost per slice’.

If you did do that, chances are you didn’t make this spreadsheet open to the public, and broadcast your weekly cake activity on Twitter.

If you did all of these things then please get in touch with me because we are going to be best friends.

Best friends like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, except swap out being hilarious, brilliant and famous for being cake nerds

So I find myself in the potential position of being the world expert in something. I already wrote about the first year’s experience. After another year, I want to explain my motivation for starting this in the first place. In doing this, I also want to draw parallels between the cake work and my actual work (which is building digital products and services in the UK public sector).

A large part of this post is what I intended to do two years ago when I started out, but I’ve also learned as I’ve progressed.

Through cake, I wanted to model and exhibit behaviours, practices and values that I would expect to see in my actual work. I wanted to “be the change you want to see”.

One of the conclusions I drew a year ago was that people aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing. This is still largely the case.

It doesn’t matter though, because there is cake every week and most of the time the numbers show that it is delicious.

Note that when I talk about cake, I mean the cake that I make for my work colleagues.

Let’s call this ‘cake for business’.

So if I say something like

Icing is bullshit

Then I mean it in the context of my ‘cake for business’, rather than that icing is bullshit in the wider cake universe.

I will write the cake wisdom in bold, with the corresponding work wisdom underneath in italics, like so:

  • This is the cake
  • This is the work

Let the cake-thought-leadership commence!

  • Bake in the open
  • Work in the open

By baking in the open I have met people, made some friends, and shared my feedback form with some folks who wanted to repurpose it. These include people outside of my office.

None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t baked in the open.

It’s low effort, and I have a repeatable process that’s anchored around a tweet when I put the cake out. The only thing I have to lose is Twitter followers who are sick of my cake-related content.

This translates well to working in the open. What have you got to lose?

  • Ask for feedback, and act on it
  • Ask for feedback, and act on it

You have to ask for feedback in order to make your cake better. Feedback can challenge the biases you bring to baking.

For example, feedback can help you iterate a better brownie. You might think that an oozing pile of chocolate goo is a step too far, but the evidence will show that your users think it’s the best brownie ever.

You need to look for trends and consensus, however. Just because one person says you should try passion fruit next time doesn’t mean you need to try passion fruit next time. That’s a want, not a need.

  • Maximum taste, minimum cost / effort
  • Maximum utility and satisfaction, minimum cost / effort

Whilst global political events in 2016 have overshadowed recent years’ fears, we’re still in a time of austerity. You can’t be baking with public money [1] and waste it. In the past 12 months in particular I’ve tried to drive down cake costs. Through this I learned that there’s no correlation between ‘cost per slice’ and user satisfaction. Look at this graph:

I made this

This leads me to conclude that cheap (<£2) cake can be delicious. This is the cake it is my public duty to make.

If the recipe is simple and doesn’t take too much of my time on a Sunday night (say, less than 20 minutes) then better still. Bara Brith is a good example.

I suggest ‘cake for business’ can be summarised as all taste, no flash.

For work it just means be aware that you have a responsibility to ensure maximum value for money. Which leads to…

  • Icing is bullshit
  • Extraneous features are bullshit

Imagine some feedback on your ‘cake for business’ says “needs icing”.

No it doesn’t. Get out.

If you’re making a cupcake then icing is a necessary component, but you shouldn’t be making cupcakes for work (more of which later).

A cupcake that I made for work. Bullshit.

In a cake, the icing is superfluous. Icing is a the high-calorie, low-taste feature.

‘Cake for business’ isn’t an exercise in proving your awesome sugar craft.

Look at GOV.UK [2]. No icing.

Resist features such as bouncing buttons and carousels.

Also anything featuring chocolate is bullshit.

  • You used too many eggs
  • You used too many consultants / freelancers [3]

Lemon Drizzle cake is an interesting case study. It’s a very simple recipe with repeatably successful results. It’s many peoples’ favourite.

It will never top the charts for value [4] however, because it is (relatively) expensive.

You can deliver a service that’s consistent with much of what I’ve recommended, but maybe it’s too expensive to maintain (or it cost too much in the first place).

  • Your cake mustn’t be fragile
  • Your service mustn’t be fragile

I have to transport ‘cake for business’ to work via the tube. I use Tupperware. If the cake was some bleeding-edge fancy sugar confection it would break. Even cupcakes are too fragile and (given their form factor) I’d have a disproportionately difficult time transporting enough of them to satisfy expectations — let’s say 15 users on average. So, I’ve learned that loaf cakes are the best option.

Your cake / service needs to be resilient. It needs to be able to take punishment. You need to be able to transport / replatform it without everything collapsing.

Too much software is an incredibly intricate sugar-crafted swan.

Of course, the comparison between cake and work falls down pretty quickly.

With cake, the recipes are tested and the raw materials are consistent.

Many teams have to mill their own flour, or even grow their own wheat, in order to deliver.

No doubt, in order to get butter, some teams enter into a procurement process to buy a cow, and end up with a herd of goats [5].


I suggest it needn’t be this way. Public services have the potential to reuse existing, trusted recipes. More effort needs to go in to the raw materials so that they are definitive and consistent (coincidentally, the main focus of my current role).

If we could achieve this then building public digital services really could be as easy as baking a cake.

[1] I am paid by public money therefore my money is your (and my) money. Don’t worry, I don’t get a baking budget through work. Incidentally at the time of writing I’ve spent £298.14 on ‘cake for business’, with some gaps in the data (so actually I’ve spent a bit more of my (and your) money).

[2] Whatever your views on GOV.UK are, you can’t accuse it of having any extraneous features. Also you can have confidence that any and all features have been rigorously substantiated by user needs research.

[3] All about balance here. My personal preference from ten years’ experience is no consultants or freelancers in the team, but I’m not absolute about it and YMMV.

[4] For me, value is CAKE POWER which is cost per slice / average rating out of 5. This is heavily weighted towards cheap cakes, which is right.

[5] I really could draw cake / work analogies all day but I exercised restraint.



Head of Data Science at Citizens Advice. These are my personal thoughts on work.

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Dan Barrett

Dan Barrett

Head of Data Science at Citizens Advice. These are my personal thoughts on work.