Weekend Journal — Engineering (Business) Travel

Weekend Journal — Engineering (Business) Travel

I’ve written before about business travel, but this time I’m traveling as a design engineer; last time it was general thoughts on travel after a short stint at a conference as a technical writer. So I decided to consider what engineers need to know in order to work successfully on an overnight trip to a foreign locale.

Design engineers aren’t made to travel. We have quirky needs, lots to do back at the lab and massive amounts of baggage (take that one how you want to). However, sometimes the need arises to get off your butt and go see a customer. Other times it’s a supplier. And sometimes you need to go simply because the boss tells you to.

Early this week, I’ll traveling for my day job and I thought I’d blurp out my thoughts (that’s right, blurp) before going. While not all of this will be strictly for engineering, I thought it’d be an interesting perspective since I think most engineers will be expected to travel at least once during their careers. So, what does it take to successfully travel as an engineer in order to survive?

  1. Don’t party like a salesperson — Yup, stereotype time. Salespeople can handle having a few drinks. Why? Because they are often out entertaining clients sometimes (duh, it’s not all of them) and that ups their tolerance for alcohol. Unless you’re a big drinker normally (not many engineers I know are…once school is finished at least), you really have to watch yourself while on travel. Aside from any company policy that might restrict you from purchasing drinks on the company’s tab, traveling with salespeople or even going out with some of the local people you’re traveling to see can often mean a few more drinks than you normally have. Overseas travel can mean this might even be a cultural thing where you’re expected to go out and have a few with your new friends. If you’re on travel, it’s best to try and take it easy and leave the partying for when you get back home. You’re there to do a job, after all. And even if you know you are able to party at night, it likely won’t be a fun day the next day.
  2. Don’t work too much  — Another reason not to party too hard? People on travel often work long hours. When it’s staying at the office a few more hours to get some work done or sit in a hotel watching basic cable, the office doesn’t seem too bad of an option. And if you’re working long days, you want to be in good shape for however many days you’re traveling (again, see number 1). You have limited time in other locales, so you often focus on getting the work done over leaving the office on time. Still, in order to get good work done, you probably shouldn’t be at the office all hours of the night, nor should you be expected to. Don’t be afraid to excuse yourself at a reasonable hour and get some rest so you’re able to work the following day.
  3. Eat healthy — While the beginning of this list is starting to sound like motherly advice, another way to ruin business travel is to be…um…indisposed…all day while your co-workers expect you to be working on something with them. The temptation is to eat like crap on travel because you’re rushed (see number 2) or because you’re on the company dime. Even just eating regularly at a restaurant guarantees larger portions and less healthy meals (food tastes good at restaurants…because of the butter). I’m not suggesting you go level 5 vegan while on travel (and hunt down the one restaurant that will suit your needs). Just don’t forget that french fries are often served with meals, but don’t need to be consumed with every meal.
  4. Bring your own tools — While you’re not likely to bring along all the equipment you have in your lab, bringing one or two key items can ensure you’ll get your job done. In some situations you might not have access to nor be allowed to use the tools at a facility (some union facilities have very strict rules about who can do what). Perhaps it’s your favorite multimeter or set of calipers or even a set of torx wrenches you know you’ll need. Or maybe it’s something even simpler, such as a camera or a flash drive in order to properly transfer information back to your company. Plan ahead and make sure you have the tools you need to actually be an engineer…not just a spectator.
  5. Check the scary looking stuff, carry on the important stuff — I’m not sure about the non-EEs out there, but going through the security checkpoints at the airport can be a trepidatious time for people working with electronics. Unfortunately, to the untrained and over-reactive eye, every bit of electronics inside your travel bag looks like a bomb. Especially when it’s not in a case or packaging. Ooooo, how scary! If you have the means, I suggest checking these “funnier” looking items in a well padded suitcase (though that could have some of its own issues). The caveat being that if it’s really important, take the time and go through security. If you’re transporting a prototype that should not leave your side nor should it be slammed around by baggage handlers, take the feelski from the TSA agent and ensure your cargo makes it to its destination.
  6. Meet the local nerds — This is something I highly recommend. Not just for the obvious worldly implications of learning more about the local technology scene; but also for the less obvious networking potential of meeting people in different walks of life and different parts of the world. Sure, you might only be there for a night or two; but what if you really end up liking the area you’re visiting and you decide you want to look for jobs there? My personal favorite way to encounter the locals is stopping into Hackerspaces and seeing if there is someone around that evening. Usually I get a tour of the place (always fun to see others’ shops) and often I can twist and arm or two and convince them to let me buy them a beer (though not too many). If there aren’t any hackerspaces around, I try to get on local college campuses to see facilities. It’s always fun to be where the smart kids are.
Do you travel much in an engineering capacity? What kind of reasons do you have to travel? Do you have any tips for other travelling engineers? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to Dr Stephen Dann for the plane picture


I have to agree with most of this advice. When traveling with Salespeople on the company’s dime, always pay the check the first night. Almost no-one does this for them and they will be very grateful. I never thought about visiting local hackerspaces or universities.

The only point of disagreement is the “scary looking stuff” comment. I bring demo boards, eval systems, etc. on planes all the time. Only once was I pulled aside for something that was in there – an 9V battery holder with unconnected wires. (I should have known better!)

A nice “Up In the Air” post! I’ve done an awful lot of travelling in my time and wholeheartedly agree with your comments (though a hefty night out counter to #1 can bind teams together; too many is definitely a drag, though).

I would only add two items if I were to be staying longer than overnight: to #3 add some light sports shoes and shorts for a jog around the hotel (or if the surrounds / weather are too scary, then for the hotel gym), plus Skype or similar for getting in touch with loved ones back home – it’s reassuring to know that all’s well back at the ranch!

#3? Fuggedaboutit. Eating out is one of my favourite parts about business travel. It’s not coming out of my pocket, which means it frees me up to be a bit more adventurous in trying out new foods and restaurants. After all, if I don’t like it, at least I won’t feel like crap for having to have to pay for it as well.

And talking about portion control, here’s a restaurant I once visited on a business trip: Gregory’s Steakhouse — Home of the 120 ounce steak. I went on a Monday. It was all-you-can-eat steak night for $12.99. I love America.

In one position years ago, I was on the road nearly as much as a sales guy… upwards of 150 nights away/year. If one is out only a week a year, the cable tv in the hotel may be workable… but long term it can bring on a type of fatigue of its own. What I found helpful was to bring along side projects, either of my own, or of my employer to take on during the off hours. Granted, one does have to be careful as concerns working on your own IP with company tools etc. Another thing I tried to do was use bike transport rather than a rental car… preferring to let the sales guys do the driving.

As far as travel in general, I always had a packed suitcase, toolkit, and company sales lit/tech/demos in the car… even when my car was parked at the airport. More than a few times, I’d come back from one trip, only to find out the next day I had to go somewhere else. Not having to repack or take care of broken tools, used up supplies etc between trips was a huge saver in aggravation.

In a similar vein, each case had a checklist and was locked after my techs checked and refilled it. Its far too easy for someone to borrow a Fluke for a bit, especially since 2 of them were in the travel kits just waiting to be used.

I don’t travel too often, but I always try to do the transportation part alone. I’ve been stuck in a car with coworkers for 5+ hours…. not fun. When at all possible, I will make my own arrangements.

Other than that – I think the most important of your tips is eat healthy!

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