Most of this week I'll be visiting a client of mine out of town. I don't expect to have much free time there, even in the evenings -- so I thought I'd better get my weekly post here done early. And what better topic to write on than one which is currently consuming my attention: all the things to worry about when traveling on business!
Back in the early nineties, I used to do the remote gigs over a 9600 baud modem dialed directly into a Unix or VMS system at the customer's site. Telephone was the only option for online meetings, so they'd usually insist that I travel to their site at frequent intervals. When I was single, I actually enjoyed that a lot -- I racked up ton of frequent flyer miles, and I stayed packed and ready to go at a moment's notice.
These days, the Internet has made remote consulting much more effective, and various tools for distributed collaboration and on-line meetings have made my personal presence virtually unnecessary. If I have to travel twice a year, that's a lot for me now. While it's nice to enjoy my 100-foot commute every morning and to be with my family every evening, my travel-preparedness skills have suffered from hangar rot. These are some questions that run through my mind as I get ready to leave town:
- Am I bringing all the hardware I need? Back in the day, you'd bring a few blank diskettes, but you wouldn't even think of bringing a whole computer. Now I've got to be sure I've got my notebook, mouse (with wireless sensor), power cord, EV-DO card and antenna, USB flash drive, and a CAT-6 cable (just in case). I'd love to bring my external monitor and keyboard, too -- but they just won't fit into the luggage.
- What about software and files? I keep most of my files on a shared network drive at my office, so I must copy anything I might need while away over to one of my notebook's internal drives. It can take the better part of a day to copy over everything I might need, so I try to be selective. I guess if I miss something I can always hook in over GoToMyPC and download it, but that would be much slower than copying it now over my gigabit local network.
- Am I really ready for the meetings? You can never be as ready as you'd like to be, but you should be ready enough to satisfy the client. What if I completely forgot to prepare on a key item, though? I have bad dreams about being asked about something on which I was expected to deliver, only to look back at them with a blank stare and say, "Oh yeah, I was supposed to find out about that, wasn't I?"
- Did I pack enough clothes, etc.? You can always stop somewhere and pick up toiletries that you might have forgotten, but you probably won't have enough time to shop for clothes. And you'd hate to be a shirt short, hoping they wouldn't notice on the last day that you already wore that one two days ago. But my wife always makes sure I pack enough -- which leads me to...
- Am I packing too much stuff? I really don't need two extra suits of clothes, or three pairs of underwear per day. I'd rather travel light. I hate dragging a huge suitcase around for a trip that only lasts a few days. Besides,
- What if they lose my luggage? Well, I've never had my luggage actually lost, but it has been delayed by as much as a day -- which can get rather embarassing if you have to present to clients wearing your travel clothes from the day before. Probably best to cut back to a carry-on... and then loop back to number 4.
- Will I get to the airport on time? Living on an island, I have to coordinate the ferry schedule and local transportation on the other side with my flight schedule and the need to arive early enough to get checked in and through security on time. What if the ferry gets delayed, or even canceled? That happened to me once, due to a mechanical failure.
- What if the flight gets delayed? One time I was connecting through Chicago, and my first flight was delayed. I missed my connection (the last flight out to my destination that night) and I had to present the following morning at 8AM. I got there late, tired, and still in my travel clothes the next morning. It's always a good idea to take an earlier flight so you can fall back to a later Plan B that still works.
- What about terrorists? Besides everything else we travelers have to worry about, now we're also supposed to keep our eyes open for shifty-looking characters wearing flammable-looking shoes.
- What if someone thinks that I'm a terrorist? Hmm... he's traveling alone, and what are all those gadgets he's carrying (see #1 above)? Maybe we'd better pull him aside and give him the "wiggly wand" treatment. And then...
- What if someone else picks up my carry-ons while I'm being detained by TSA? That equipment not only cost me thousands of dollars, but the hard drive contains a lot of sensitive information (see #2 above).
- What if something goes horribly wrong with the airplane? A couple of trips ago, the plane had already pushed back before the pilot realized that they needed fuel. "Good thing he looked at the gauge," I laughed (but maybe a little nervously). As the airlines get pinched by fuel prices, they're cutting corners all over the place. I'm sure they're being as careful as they can not to take shortcuts that would compromise safety -- but it only takes once.
- What if I drink too much in front of my client? Often, these visits involve activities that extend into the evening -- and shared alcohol features as a social bonding agent. You have to be careful to know your limits and not make a fool out of yourself. Believe me, I've learned that one the hard way. Think karaoke. Besides that, you don't want to have a hangover the next morning -- it really compromises your ability to think clearly. Best to train up ahead of time to the level of alcohol you expect to consume, so your body isn't shocked by the difference.
- What if I drink too much coffee? Coffee is often provided at meetings like these, and it's easy to chain-drink. Again, make sure that you don't suddenly increase your level of consumption, or you could find yourself overcome by the spike in caffeine and the need for trips to the bathroom. If you don't drink coffee at all usually, then maybe you'd better bring your own tea or whatever it is you drink. If you plan to partake, get your tolerance up well before your trip.
- What can I eat? This is probably the toughest issue for me. I'm controlling my blood pressure through diet and exercise, but from the time I leave my house until I return, I have very little control over what's available to eat. Too much salt can drive up my blood pressure, even to the point of seeing spots. Too many carbs can curb my mental abilities. I really have to pick and choose, because many foods available at the airport and the hotel are loaded with salt and carbs.
- When can I exercise? Daily exercise is the best medicine for clear thinking and overall good health. It can even cure a hangover. But if your meeting starts at 8AM and you also want breakfast, you've got to get up plenty early to have time for a morning walk. And depending on the location of the hotel, you may be taking your life in your own hands at that hour.
- Will I leave something behind? I try to have a place for everything, so I don't accidentally forget to bring something home. But being out of my normal routine anyway, sometimes that doesn't work. Ask my wife about my phone charger.
- Will my family like what I got for them? There's never enough time to shop for gifts for my wife and kids until I'm back at the airport waiting for my flight. The shops available there have a limited selection at outrageous prices -- and I don't mean that in a good way. So there's always the probability that whatever I get for the kids will be met by an unheartfelt "Thanks, Dad," and that my wife will chastise me for spending too much money on junk. But just try coming home with nothing.
- What will be my punishment for going out of town? Everyone else in the family looks on this little excursion of mine as some sort of pleasure trip. Once I'm back, I'll be forced into all sorts of extra work around the house and help with school projects. Not to mention my other clients whom I have had to ignore while away. Nor all the email and feeds that I haven't had time to read and respond to. After all I've had to worry about, and all that will be waiting for me to do when I return, I'm going to need a vacation.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.