Making Business Travel Bearable 

I had a huge fascination for air travel as a kid . My dad traveled frequently ( at least once a month) on work , and I had some rich relatives who flew regularly to America and Europe for family vacations . They would tell me great stories of their travels and bring me back little goodies – like a can of Coke ( which was not available in India at that time ) My resolve became stronger over teenage years that I need a job that let me fly frequently all over the world .

My wish was granted . Fast forward 20 years since I graduated – and millions of miles behind me – all I can say is WHAT THE **** WAS I THINKING ???

By conventional terms for me  – 2016 so far has been a “light travel” year. And today I saw that I had already qualified (yet again) for the highest tier of my Airline frequent flier program for following year , as well as for the hotel chain I use . I am sure more than half my colleagues had those same emails 6 months ago. The last time I felt good about getting such emails was the first time I got it and I can’t even remember which year that was . 

Those who know me can vouch that repetition bores the heck out of me . That is why despite the extreme dislike for travel – I am still in the consulting business . I get the variety of challenges that keep me motivated every day I wake up . If clients for any reason choose not to challenge me – I am sure my employer will pick up the slack and throw a few challenges my way …. you know , just to keep me sharp 🙂

Effective and efficient travel is a life skill for anyone in this business . I keep picking up new skills and make little tweaks as I conquer the sky miles . Here are a few that I think are my basics – with no claims that it will work for you too 🙂

1. Be a minimalist about everything you pack

If you need 3 shirts for the trip and want 5 , stick to 3 . If you run into an emergency – buy a new one or hit the laundry. In 20 years I have had to do that maybe three times . 

A big part of traveling comfortably is to pick a great bag to be your constant companion . Although not fashionable ( and un-executive like according to my mom)  – I use a backpack for my laptop and books , and one stroller for my clothes be it a one day trip or a 5 day trip. Many friends choose multiple bags to suit length of travel. 

Many consultants go the same city every week for several months . When I had that kind of travel,  I used to leave some dailybuse stuff at my regular hotel (or under my desk in a bag) to avoid carrying it . 

I dress for comfort . Unless the client needs me to – I won’t wear a suit and tie . Comfortable shoes that also look decent is probably the best investment I make on shopping front.

2. Try as hard as you can to not checkin luggage 

You cannot buy time . Even when you have nothing better to do – it’s better spent reading a book , or (and?) drinking a beer at the airport bar than standing in line to check in your bag and then waiting to pick it up at the destination . 

3. Ignore the pain and earn top tier loyalty levels at airlines and hotels ( optionally car rentals too)

Pick an airline that works for 80% of your travel and stick to them till your breaking point . I have come dangerously close to getting out of it a few times but I haven’t taken the final step yet . As you travel more – upgrades become your best friend . And the bonus points help a lot . I forgot the last time I paid for a hotel or airline when I took a family vacation . I have stopped renting cars almost fully – mostly because of the nature of my current job . I stick to cabs and uber now and it works splendidly . But in many cities – rental cars still make sense . 

4. Choose a credit card wisely for travel 

Those points help with vacation . Some will also make airline club memberships cheaper . Balance it against annual fees and pick one up and use it regularly . Always keep a backup card too – Murphy is always watching you ! 

5. Enroll in TSA-Pre and Global Entry

Although those lines are getting longer compared to when it got introduced – for the most part it’s easier to get through them than the regular frequent flier lines. I have a few friends who don’t enrol due to privacy concerns – and it makes a great beer conversation after their tired selves join me at the bar after a two hour journey through the regular line . For me this is the best $100 a consultant can spend every 4 years 

6. Minimize the need to travel 

It’s really hard to not travel at all for business – except in a few cases ( say where you have extremely good skills and are in a hot market without a lot of competition ). But all of us can minimize travel by good use of phone , email , social media etc . I often choose to travel even if I can get work done through electronic media – mostly because human-to-human interaction has greater quality . 

7. Build a time saving routine 

Routine keeps us sharp and reduces variance and hence reduces risk. I am on autopilot for several things when I travel . Be it packing , booking , driving , eating or exercising – build a routine and it will help tremendously over time . For example – I know it takes 12 minutes for me from gate to exit at PHX airport . So I book my uber ride to perfectly match when I am stepping out and have zero wait 

8. Strike conversations every chance you get 

I can check email later – but if I can strike a conversation with a stranger , I will do it . These are not long boring talks and if the other person is not interested I move on quickly. But I have learned a lot from these conversations – especially from cab drivers across the world . When I have hypothesis to test on social and political issues – nothing beats airport and hotel bars . Over the years – I have even built the foundation of a few business relationships this way . Funny enough – I have met more fellow IBMers in airports than at any other place 🙂

9. Never eat alone 

I try really hard to not eat alone when I am on the road . After work conversations over food and beverages are the best way to know your customers and colleagues . It has the Magic effect of building solid relationships over time . And it keeps the boredom away 

10. Call home 

I usually call in evenings to catch-up with my wife and daughter . And I call my parents and in-laws from cabs on my way from airports . And I post updates during the day on Facebook so that they know what I am up to . What I don’t do well is to restrict the audience to just my wife , my sister , my mom etc – but that is just my laziness . 

11. Music , reading , writing , exercise ..

I use my phone for listening to music , to read and also to write emails and blogs . I always prefer being agile over being elegant and formal and it mostly works for me . I am not big into working out – so I use airports and offices to walk fast , climb stairs and so on to make up for it . I don’t always succeed . 

What are your tips ?

The confusing terminology around AI 

Few weeks ago , I attended our college reunion in India . Hard to believe 20 years have passed since I got a piece of paper mailed to me that I am a bonafide mechanical engineer . In these twenty years – the “work” conversation I have had the most consistently , multiple times every year , is the difference between terms like data, reporting , BI , analytics etc . After about ten years of fighting the good fight – I gave up and reconciled in my mind that it doesn’t matter what you call it as long as it solves problems for my clients . 

Over these past two decades , there was always a movement in IT to show that careful analysis of data will help the business take better decisions . As a result – a lot of improvements happened in both data management as well as analytics . As the technology got more and more sophisticated – the terms we use to describe it got more and more confusing too . At this point – people use AI , Cognitive , machine learning , neural networks and deep learning etc interchangeably . 

The amount of confusion this generates is not trivial . So now – not only do I get to explain the old ” analytics vs reporting vs BI ” , I also get to spend countless hours explaining nuances between ” cognitive vs AI vs…..” . 

If we need one umbrella term – I would stick to ” Artificial Intelligence” as that term . AI was a term coined by the late Prof McCarthy over 60 years ago . Over the past few years – led by IBM, several people have started using Cognitive computing as an umbrella term too . 

I have asked around for and read a lot of definitions for AI – and it’s hard to find any consensus . The way I look at it is AI is the discipline that is today about doing things only humans could do in past , and one that is aiming for a tomorrow where computers also think like humans do . 

A friend of mine and I usually joke around AI just being a series of nested if-else statements , just that it is written in Python 🙂

That joke is not fully off base . The traditional approach has been to model the thing we want to analyze and then ask questions of it . Intelligence comes from the brilliance of the designers – not really “artificial” . The challenge is of course , things change over time . A better approach probably is to model how humans think – so that even if things change , answers can still be found . Just that it is contrary to how we ( or most of us ) have learned all this while to design and code . This is the concept ( or more precisely just my understanding of ) behind “deep learning” . 

Is “Supervised” learning really much different from the maintenance and enhancement aspect of traditional programming and hence is that really AI ? I am conflicted on this – mostly because human learning also needs supervision in many cases . 

Some of the confusion can be avoided by thinking of today’s world of AI as “narrow” intelligence and the vision for tomorrow’s world as “general” intelligence . Machine learning – perhaps the most visible part of AI today – is mostly used today (at least from my limited point of view) on the “narrow” use cases . The easiest way to think of it for me is that rather than make continuous code changes , the algorithm keeps up with changes by detecting patterns as it gets access to more and more data 

The challenge for me with the term AI is the definition of “artificial”. I think the expectation for “artificial” is a lot higher than say “augmented”. And that is perhaps why “cognitive” doesn’t get as much push back as it should . 

Another challenge to move from old world to the AI world is our fascination for precision . Most decisions only need directionally correct information and options – they don’t need precision . But that is not something that a lot of people will agree without significant pushback . AI type projects need a lot of expectation setting and some education on the basics of probability . I had to dust off a few of my statistics books before I could talk semi intelligently to my clients . 

As machines get smarter and the primary communication becomes mostly machine to machine – perhaps machine learning doesn’t need to try to think like humans anymore. Whether it’s going to be more complex or less complex is anybody’s guess . All I am sure of is that we won’t be spared of some more jargon 🙂

Before I sign off – here is a shout out to my friends in the world of hardware . Without the extreme speed of innovation in the hardware world, AI ( and old world computing too) would never have had a chance to get on the fast track . Look at how much the world of AI has changed since GPUs became mainstream as an example . The last two or three years have seen more progress than the decades before it. It’s gonna be a wild ride