Developer Relations revelations: travel is hard work

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about traveling.

Sleeping on a plane

When I worked for the Red Cross with elderly people one thing became pretty obvious to me. People who traveled in their lives were not only more interesting, but also aged much better. They had more energy, showed more excitement about new things and generally felt more alive.

Traveling as a DevRel person isn’t like that. It can easily be the exact opposite.

Coming from a low-end working class family traveling around the world always was a dream for me. Each holiday was cramming the family in a car and driving 14 hours to Italy to go camping. To the same place every year. And yet, I made the best of it. I loved going to highway stops seeing cars and trucks from all kind of countries. I deliberately chose to work on the web as it meant I can connect to people from all over. Getting to know them, finding out our differences and maybe – if I every get really lucky – visit them in real life.

From this point of view my job right now seems a dream come true. It seems that I get paid to travel the world. I have Gold status with one airline affiliate group for three years running. I have Silver and Gold status with a few hotel chains. My travel history is pretty impressive:

My travel statistics, 965369 miles traveled, 1931 hours in the air, 27 countries and 48 destinations

My Android location history
My Android location history See yours here

Here’s the thing though: travel for work is not at all like being on a holiday. It is taxing. It takes a toll on your health, it takes a heavy toll on your relationships and it is very easy to overdo it. You need to be happy with being on your own and being the only person to rely on. You also need to ensure that all your creature comforts get covered. This is often at odds with the budget of conferences or your company’s expense policies.

Faux Jet-Set

There is a strange disconnect in business travel. You are part of the jet set but you almost never have time to enjoy it. On paper it feels great to have travelled to all these cool destinations. In reality all you see is the airport, some means of transport, your hotel room and the event venues. This can be depressing. You constantly have this carrot of world traveler excitement in front of you. To experience it you would need to sacrifice free time. The days before and after an event are crucial for our jobs and it is hard to tack on a few in each direction.

A constant “do I deserve this” feeling

Lonely meals and nondescript rooms are much less fun when you didn’t hang out with people you know. And you don’t want to add yourself to other groups or ask people to dine with you as that would be work. And you need to ensure you have some time off to re-charge. Interestingly enough, the fancier the accommodation is the worse I feel. When I am in a really cool hotel and have no time to use the facilities other than crashing for a few hours I feel weird. I spend other people’s money without reaping the rewards. Trying the hotel out for a holiday later is not as common as they tend to be costly or optimised for business travel.

It is important to be on the road. A two minute face-to-face conversation is often worth weeks of emails, chats or calls. Meeting people where they are can open great opportunities for you and your company. So, here are a few tips that helped me on the way and still make it much easier for me.

Find an airline alliance to collect points and status with.

That means things that don’t sound much but will add a lot to your well-being.

  • You do not have to worry about luggage restrictions.
  • You get priority boarding, which means you can book a cheaper seat and still get on the plane first. You can store your hand luggage above instead of having to keep it at your feet.
  • It is imperative that sooner or later you get lounge access. This turns a layover caused by a missed plane from a nightmare to an opportunity to get some work out of the way. Then you can sleep or relax on the plane.
  • You are also more likely to get upgrades if you have status with an airline. Conferences or your company can book you an economy ticket and yet you travel in comfort.

All hotel loyalty systems are pants

Hotel loyalty systems only give you proper benefits when you book on their web sites or in their apps. With your own, personal credit card. If, like me, you have a corporate card, the most you get is a free bottle of water on check-in (yay?) and late check-outs. There is not much point to be loyal in this case. Something else is much more important when it comes to hotels.

Your hotel matters

Your hotel on a company trip can either be a place to crash at night or your base of operations. I try to make sure I can do the latter. That means the most important part is that it is close to where I need to be. You don’t want to spend a lot of time in transit between hotel and event, carrying a lot of swag and hardware with you. If that means you stay in a cheaper, but closer, hotel, this is a good thing. If it means the conference or your company needs to pay more, so be it. Most trips I do are short which means I will spend most of my time at the event. Having a fancy hotel isn’t useful when you have no time to enjoy it. The most important bits are that the place is clean, has fast connectivity in your room, and is easy to reach.

Stay active – or your health will suffer

If you can, try to find a hotel with a gym – no matter how basic. It is the best thing to fight jetlag and to clear your head. It is also important. When you travel, you sit a lot and you don’t move on a plane. That’s bad for you. You also consume a lot of food and drink on planes and you don’t give your body a challenge to burn it. I found that going to the gym before and after events allowed me to be much more energetic. Look after yourself – nobody else does.

If you’re tired or sick, your work will suffer

Jetlag is a pain and will turn you into a liability. You can not be in a stressful environment when you are not awake and relaxed. You will make mistakes, you will say things you can regret online later and you won’t be able to take in as much as you need. So look after yourself and get sleep when you can. You don’t need to be part of every social activity of an event and should sneak out for a kip whenever you can. Try to get enough time to deal with jetlag and look at what you eat and drink. You can not get sick. And believe me, this is a full-time job. Time differences, over-zealous air conditioning, pressurised aircraft and unknown food all mess with your body. Everyone I know working in DevRel carries a bag of medication. Acid reflux, indigestion, unwanted bowel movements and sore throats and runny noses. All commonplace enough to prepare for them.

Adding to that is that being on the road and constantly having to adapt does things to you. In Pattern Recognition William Gibson describes jetlag as “your soul trying to catch up with you” and that is pretty accurate. Being more emotional without planning to is common on planes. There is a lot of research into Why people cry on planes and I also find myself doing that.

Take care of yourself, please.

Point-to-point annoyances

One thing I am adamant about is that a conference or office makes it as easy as possible for me to get from the airport to where I need to go. I don’t want to deal with pushy unlicensed cabbies. It is also not fun to try to use public transport in a place you don’t know after 30 hours in the air. This may sound whiny and “first world problem”-ish but any minute wasted on the road isn’t doing you any favours. At least demand a good explanation what to do to get there from the people who invited you.

Expenses sound fun, but aren’t

Living on expenses sounds great, right? It is, to a degree, and it would be much harder – and silly – to spend your own money to do your job. But it also means that you need to be diligent about keeping receipts, and note down who you ate with, what and when. You often also have a company card unknown or unsafe to use in a certain place. Then you need to get money out. And you need to explain your company why you didn’t pay by card, suffering twice from the lack of support. It is important to do your expenses on the spot after your trip. Otherwise you end up delayed and get fined. It has become much easier to file expenses digitally now. I remember typing in all receipts, staple them to a piece of paper and mailing them to a different office. Yet, often you wait for weeks for things to get sorted out even now.

Summary: DevRel travel is lost time

When you travel as a DevRel, travel is not a gift any longer. It is a necessary part of your job. Where it is OK to rough it for a holiday, you shouldn’t sell yourself short when it comes to travel for work. It adds to the stress of your job. It takes up a lot of time you could be doing things to diminish the workload you already have. Whilst you can work in a lounge and on a plane I find it not that fruitful. Often I am tired, or euphoric about a certain topic and write a lot of things that sound lucid but are a write-off later on. One exception is going through emails on a plane. Being offline is a great opportunity to take time answering them without distractions. Traveling as a Developer Relations person is a lot of time a matter of good negotiation. Don’t try to be nice by allowing people to put you on a cheap flight and the wrong hotel. You don’t do them any favours as they would get a grumpy, non-effective you rather than the person they invited.

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