Business Travel: Quick Tips for Hassle Reduction

I do not travel for work nearly as much as some of my friends do or as much as my father did while I was growing up, but I have been on a plane roughly once a month for the last 6 months and am good for 1-2 work-related trips a year (at one time it was 5-6) (added to personal travel). Traveling for work is not as glamorous as one may think but despite Skype and Teams and lighting fast WiFi sometimes you just need to be there in person. With that in mind, here’s a set of useful tips culled from my personal experience and from my coworkers and friends.

Airport Strategy

To check bags or not to check bags? That is the question. Before your trip assess which airport(s) you’re flying in and out of and then see what their reputation is online — for example, CDG in Paris has a reputation for losing luggage, one that I found well-deserved (I got my bags about a day and a half after I arrived). If you don’t want to risk it make sure your carry on fits carrier guidelines (many carriers have *reduced* the size of acceptable carry ons) and be prepared to not use that space under the seat in front of you for your feet — because if you’re in a later boarding group there may not be overhead bin space. Also, take advantage of YouTube packing videos.  You can get a lot of stuff in a small case.

Inversely, if you do choose to check, weight your bag before you get to the airport — and maybe pack a smaller lightweight bag or backpack in it. This is because if your bag is over 50lbs they usually charge $100 instead of a $25 or $30 bag fee, and having 2 checked bags is still cheaper than one overweight charge.  If you travel a lot and you have a carrier Visa card, that usually comes with free bag check. Finally: add some unique item to your handle, even if it’s just a strip of novelty duck tape. You would not believe how many identical black Samsonite bags are out there.

Get TSA Pre Check.

If you aren’t thrilled with an airplane loo — and who is? — and find yourself needing to go as you exit the plane: use the facilities closest to (and just before) the security exit. That is, you get off the plane, you  head down the concourse to the main hub, and you get to that part where it says “after you go through here you can’t go back” — and find the restroom right before that security exit.  This is because it will be less crowded than all of the ones you just passed (because everyone else got off the plane and will happily stand in line) and is likely to be less busy.

Hotel Strategy

Hotels often have more amenities than are listed on their site. For example, mine has a free shuttle to the conference I’m attending — even though it’s a half hour away. It wasn’t advertised and I came across it by accident (while trying to schedule a Lyft) so it’s good to ask at the front desk if there is a shuttle service to your location of interest.

The gym at a hotel can be resplendent with fresh towels and water bottles and a wide assortment of machines/weights or it can be one dilapidated bosu ball and a sketchy elliptical trainer. Check TripAdvisor or Yelp hotel reviews to see what the gym actually has and also when it is open.

It’s nice when they hand you your room keys in that little paper fold and it’s a pain to carry that around. If you travel a lot room numbers kinda blur, so take a pic of your room number (at the door) to remember it without having to keep track of little foldy bits of paper. This strategy also works with remembering parking space/stall numbers.

Hotel toiletries are unreliable (in terms that some hotels offer a selection of toiletries and others offer the inherently suspicious bottle of 3 in one shampoo/conditioner/body wash).  Get reusable travel-size bottles and fill up with your stuff from home. Bonus: keep them all together in a quart size Ziploc – you’ll need it for security, anyway.

Conference Strategy

Ever notice how conferences are usually in a hot-weather area during the hottest time of year? It’s because it’s cheaper (it’s during their off-season) for the conference provider and usually for the attendee. Case in point: Grace Hopper (where I’m at right now) in Houston, or an analytics conference I attended in July. In Las Vegas.  You’ll be tempted to wear a super-lightweight top and pants or a skirt, but don’t forget a light jacket or scarf — because as soon as you get into the Convention Center or Hotel Ballroom, the AC will be jacked up and you will freeze.  As much as you’d like to think that will help you focus on the material, it won’t, and you’ll end up drinking too much coffee in an effort to keep warm.

Speaking of coffee: the coffee shop or stand *at* the convention center or hotel may sound like a good idea, but it will be slammed.  Go around the corner or even two blocks away, or leverage pre-ordering apps like the one offered by Starbucks.  Bonus points if your hotel has a mini-market or quick options like muffins or fruit, but you’ll want to put thought into your breakfast strategy *before* the morning of.  This is because when you get up, you will be thinking about your deliverables and schedule, and just hoping to run into food. So are the other thousands of attendees.

Seating strategy is also important – you’re in a room with 300, 400, 500 other people? Figure out if you need to exit early (for a conference call or because you’re dubious on the content) — and sit closer to the door so you don’t feel like a horrible human being when you do get up to leave.  Do you need to take notes during the presentation and you’ve got a laptop? Look for carpet cutouts in the floor –– typically power outlets are stashed there (or sit along the walls).  Poor eyesight or you like to ask questions? Sit towards the front *or* near the mic stand.

Most conferences have some sort of expo or booth-laden enterprise where you go learn about new things and acquire swag. Don’t acquire swag to acquire swag. It’s more stuff to pack into your suitcase for dubious benefit. If you’re interested in the company or its offerings, grab your cell phone and take a picture of the business card or product info – doesn’t get lost, takes up no space, and you have all the information nearly instantly.

Finally — Conference WiFi (and any publicly available WiFi) is open — so remember to use a VPN to keep your electronic traffic safe. If you need super-reliable WiFi, don’t rely on conference WiFi — they can easily underestimate traffic — see if you can tether to your mobile or get a mobile card if it’s an absolute must.

Hustle: How to Get Things Done

In Empire Records, Liv Tyler’s character is this seemingly perfect human who is a straight A student, cool, works in a record store, and gets a lot of things done. When her friend comes to pick her up for their shift at the store she’s got fresh-baked cupcakes and her friend marvels at her productivity: her answer is that there are 24 useable hours in a day. (Sure, later on we find out she’s been on amphetamines but we all know someone like this who isn’t. Or probably isn’t.)

Increased productivity is an economic expectation (and/or desire) for a given population but it’s also an expectation we put on ourselves, and our kids, coworkers, volunteers, etc. The “always busy” culture celebrates the hyper-productive person who, when you ask them how their day was, will inevitably reply “busy”.

In my career (which sounds really great as a tag for a series of only vaguely tethered job choices) I have developed a set of practices to live in that world and get a lot of things done. While it’s true that there’s no such thing as multitasking you can learn to recover from switched contexts faster, when to shove the ball into someone else’s court, and how to pursue the answers you need (to unblock your course of action) doggedly.

Getting Someone to Respond

Most offices work in an email-enriched environment (maybe too enriched) for primary communication.  Some have Slack or Teams as an augment or replacement. Then there’s meetings and conference calls.  Within these, there’s usually the need to either disseminate information and the need to acquire information. Getting someone to respond is the need to acquire information: either to get them to acknowledge a given topic or to provide a missing piece of data so you can go about your day. Example: I need to know if there already exists a security protocol/practice on a system I’m thinking about using. I’ve read the provided documentation* and still don’t have an answer.  At this point I reach out to the name responsible for the documentation (or the name responsible for the product, or indeed anyone I can find related to it) and send an email or Slack@. When the inevitable non-response occurs (email is good for that), I set a meeting.

Why?

Because people hate meetings. It’s a massive disruption, they’re stuck on the phone or in a conference room when they could be doing something else, and it means they’ll have to (gasp) talk to you in real time.  The reason why texting has taken off and voicemail is dead is because, for the most part, people don’t actually want to interact with you unless they have some social basis for it.  By creating a meeting and pushing the point it gives them one of three options:

  1. To unblock you by responding to the meeting request/your original email and giving you the data you need or some other poor sop to go after.
  2. To actually meet with you, in which case you get not only the answers you’re after but you can pelt them with more questions.
  3. To ignore your meeting request.

For that last: it does happen, but rarely.  When it does, and *if you’re truly blocked*, you request a meeting with their lead.  At some point up the chain, meeting requests and emails can’t afford to be ignored.  This is a somewhat nuclear option, so use sparingly.  You can also branch out and forward the meeting/email to others in the same group/product.

Carving out Time

This may seem silly, but actually carving out time on your calendar (“booking yourself”, as it were) will make sure you have the unblocked time you need to get whatever-it-is done, and that you don’t accidentally overlap incompatible things.  I can clear out my email while dinner is in the oven, and I can go for a run on the treadmill while listening to a podcast, but I can’t clear out email while listening to a podcast (because the brain gets confused). Some folks use this to actually make sure they remember to eat (e.g., “lunch” as a 30-minute block) and some folks do this so they can catch up on training or get focus time to diagram something out. Bottom line: book your time, because if you don’t someone else will.

Also, this includes personal stuff: I have calendar time carved out for housecleaning, for laundry, for grocery shopping, for trimming the kitten’s nails, for blood donation, etc. It keeps me straight. Sure, I could try to keep it all in my head, and I used to try to do that.  In 10th grade I double booked a friends’ house sleepover (super-rare for me to get to do those back then) and a babysitting job.  I was devastated because I had to do the job (you do what you say you’re going to do. Period.)  Keeping it written down reduces unpleasant double bookings.

Finally: carve out time to do nothing.

That’s right. Do nothing. Give yourself a night a week if you can afford it. Block it off so it can’t be consumed by other things (unless you really want it to).

Prioritize your Backlog

In the Hyper-productive Expectation World, you will always have more to do that can be done. Always. There’s not enough caffeine, amphetamines, or hours to accommodate everything.  You can either ruthlessly trim things (which is very effective but requires a strong will to say “No” sometimes) or you can prioritize things (which means you still have them on your list, they’re just much farther down).  Look at the Volume of Stuff, and figure out which are most important to least.  Some things will be of related importance (you can’t do A until you do B, but A is really important, so get B done now) and some will be compatible or a two-birds-one-stone situation (I can walk at an incline on the treadmill and read that latest set of whitepapers). I recommend having prioritized lists for Work and Non-Work (and if you have other commitments — PTA, Scouts, Church, Nonprofit, Clubs, etc.– prioritize within those).

Use Technology To Help You

Use your calendar and reminders. Use a list/task tracking app. Use OneNote. Use the alarm on your phone. Use sticky notes. Use whatever works for you to remind you if/when you need to do stuff and what it is.  For example, we have a running One Note grocery list broken out by the stores we use (because Trader Joes doesn’t have all the things and Costco doesn’t either). We update it through the week.  I have an Outlook task-tracking list of the things that are most important for a given week. My friends use a Trello board to organize household responsibilities and projects.  Another friend uses their inbox to prioritize.

The thing to determine here is what set of technologies work *for you*, because some folks like to leverage their mobile for keeping their brains straight and some people prefer tactile things like sticky notes and highlighters.  There’s no one *right* way, just the way that works for you.  You may have to try a few things before you hit on the right combination.

Eat Your Frogs First

In any prioritized list of things to do, there’s the thing you don’t really want to do but have to do.  Maybe it’s the cat-pan change out. Maybe it’s reorganizing under the bathroom sink.  Maybe it’s collecting all of the papers for your tax return. Maybe it’s going line by line through an excel spreadsheet until you find that the issue with line 943 is in fact that the value that should be a decimal was in fact a text and it broke your import. You know, that thing.

Do that thing first if faced with it and another 3 things of the same priority. You’ll get it out of the way, the other things will feel (and be) easier, and you’ll feel all kinds of virtuous.

Wash your hands when you’re done, though.

 

An Illustration of Live Site Practice, Featuring My Eyeballs

Congratulations to me, as I’ve got a new job, and I’m in a new team here at the ‘soft. Specifically, I’m in Azure, in the Internet of Things space, working on a Thing. I can’t talk about the Thing. Some day I will talk about the Thing. But not now.

This means I’m back on a live product (or a product that will be a live product, it’s all very complicated) and that means I am on a Live Site team and I’m pretty happy about that. I enjoy the Live Site process because it’s basically enforcing a culture of learning from mistakes.

What is Live Site Practice

Generally speaking, Live Site means that your site is… live. Meaning when something goes wrong (and there are varying levels of wrong to Wrong to WRONG to WRONG!!!) you have a person responsible to fix it, you have expectations of how quickly it gets fixed, you put a plan in place to make sure it never happens again and monitoring to catch it when it inevitably does. Live Site incidents can be singular (this one experience happened this one time) or multitudinous (cascading incidents, parallel problems, etc.) or chronic (a liberal application of the philosophy of Live Site could categorize a series of data breaches or questionable data sharing practices by a given company, for example, as a very large Live Site Incident).

Measuring the Live Site Response

There are four major ways to measure the response to a Live Site Incident. These are: Time to Detect (how long it took you to figure out something is wrong from the time something actually went wrong), Time to Engage (how long it took you to start trying to fix it from the time it was detected), Time to Mitigate (how long before the customer stopped having the negative experience), and Time to Resolve (how long before the actual problem was fixed).

General prudence means I don’t illustrate this with an Actual Thing From Work because I like my job and I want to keep it, so I’ll use a recent personal experience to illustrate.

At about 8am on August 25th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It was annoying so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/case and went about my day in glasses.  At night we had friends to dinner so I wore my contacts with no trouble. At about 9am on August 26th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It wasn’t horrible, just annoying, and so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/fresh case and ran around with my glasses.  No problem.

  • By 4pm that afternoon my eyes were itching. Because we’d had smoke issues lately coming in from the Canada and Eastern Washington fires, I figured my eyes had got irritated from that, and put some drops in.
  • By 5pm my eyes were uncontrollably watering and itchy.
  • By 8pm I had to stop watching Aliens, one of my very favorite movies, because the following hurt: opening my eyes, closing my eyes, and having my eyes closed. Thinking that eye irritations usually resolve themselves with a good night’s sleep (hello, morning eye crud) I went to bed (yes, at 8pm). The software equivalent of this is turning the machine off and turning it on again.
  • By 10:30pm I woke from a dead sleep feeling like someone was stabbing me in my eyeballs and asked my husband to drive me to the ER.
  • By 11pm they had put numbing drops in my eyes. Ensuing investigation showed my corneas had all kinds of pitting all over them and possibly dual infection in both eyes.
  • By 12:30pm they discharged me with a Percocet (to help me sleep and ignore the pain), antibiotics (for my eyes) and an instruction to see an eye doctor the next day.
  • By 10:30am the next day the eye doctor confirmed the infection, noted some abrasions, and said I’d self-heal in about five days.

Time to Detect

This one is tricky, because on one hand you can say I “detected” it at 9am when my contacts clouded over… but on which day? As nothing hurt and I wasn’t inconvenienced and I carried on with my day.  So I’ll say I detected it at 4pm.  But it’s likely the problem actually started at 9am on the Saturday, so my Time to Detect was 31 hours.

Time to Engage

Again, it’s not a clear line (and I’ll point out these things are hashed over in the Live Site world a lot as well). I started “engaging” with eye drops at 4pm. I didn’t request professional help though until 10:30pm when it got really bad. I’m calling it 6.5 hours (4pm-10:30pm).

Time to Mitigate

Mitigation is all about the customer’s perspective. How long from the time the problem started actually happening (and the customer was inconvenienced) to the time it got fixed from the customer’s perspective. For me, that’s from 4pm (eyes watering) to 11pm when I got my first numbing drops. Seven hours. If you want to be really specific, my eyes had stopped hurting mostly by the next day, *without* numbing drops, so a more conservative mitigation time would be from 4pm Sunday to 10:30am Monday – 18.5 hours.

Time to Resolve

Resolution is about the actual problem being fixed (perspective or otherwise). In this case, five days from Monday the 27th, or September 1st. Time to Resolve: a little over six days.  As part of resolution I had to throw out all open saline/lens solution containers, contact lenses, etc.  As a “customer” of this experience I also took the added step of “re-architecting” my framework: I went and got a different brand of contact lenses (that change out more frequently), and started wearing my glasses more often.

Measuring the Impact

Money

The Emergency Room is not cheap, although by comparative standards I got off easy. My bill, after insurance, was roughly $700 (not including the follow-up eye doctor visits, new contact lenses, replaced makeup, etc.).  The bill sent to the insurance company was roughly 3 times that amount.

Time

Money isn’t everything, and time is more precious: I lost about 4 hours’ sleep, I lost 6 hours’ quality time with my husband and a favorite movie. I lost another 2 hours or so to the ER and another 2 to/from the eye doctor.

Peripheral Impacts

I had to work from home on that Monday, and that meant even though it was my last week with my old team they didn’t have me right there to help with my transition; that’s 4 people impacted. My husband had to take time from his evening and next day to take me to appointments, which he was super supportive of and insisted upon, but it also meant he couldn’t do whatever it is he should have been doing during those hours.  Rarely is it just one customer who is impacted in Live Site.

Post Mortem

Yes, post-mortem means “after death”, and no one died. In the Live Site world, no one dies. (Well, we hope no one dies). The Post Mortem is when you look over what and how it happened, figure out how to keep it from happening again, and figure out how to detect if it does.

What Happened – also known as the Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the review of what instigated the problem. In this case, what happened was that I somehow (?) got either smoke between my contact lenses and cornea, creating a corneal abrasion that then lead to dual infection, OR the I got an infection, which led to corneal abrasion. The experts weren’t really worried about which came first, and if I had wanted to spend lab money to dig into which came first, I don’t know that they would have been able to figure that out. It is, in fact, a moot point.  If it was smoke from the environment, that’s how that could have happened. Or it could be infection from saline solution, eye rubbing, random bacteria, etcetera.  It could have been from contact lens over-use. If they would have been able to tell me definitively the root cause that would be great, because it would impact my next two steps, but rarely do you get a clean root cause.

How to Keep it from Happening Again

As we read up above, I trashed all of my eye-based items (including, incidentally, my mascara, every one of my eyeliners, etc.).  I washed all of my makeup brushes and sterilized them. I got a new brand of contact lens that is changed out more frequently.  I got new glasses and wear them more often than I used to. This may be overkill, but it is everything I can do to ensure I don’t have to miss one of my favorite movies.

How to Detect if it Happens Again

In this case, my first clue was my contact lenses clouding over on the Saturday. At that point I should have quit wearing contacts for a few days and thrown those lenses out instead of trying to disinfect them. My second detect point was the second day of clouding lenses — those two combined should have sent me to the urgent care or an eye doctor, which would certainly have been more cost-effective than the ER.  Uncontrollable eye watering, foggy lenses, and/or gritty pain when opening, closing, or having closed eyes are all reasons to see a professional right away.

Coda

You’ll notice in most of this I’ve not beaten myself up about being stupid, making poor choices, etc.  That’s because it wouldn’t help (either me or the situation) and it’s entirely beside the point. I can’t go and change what happened, so the best practice is to learn from it and ensure others do, too. *That* is what I like about Live Site. If your Live Site culture feels like a giant finger-pointing exercise, then it isn’t being implemented properly, and it’s time to do some Root Cause Analysis.