Travel Horror Stories

Product management and product marketing are two fields where you can expect to travel often. Unlike sales, who usually have a territory, we cover the world and are called to travel widely.

Horror StoriesEvery one of these jobs I have been in has advertised 25% of travel. And every one of them has underestimated the percentage of travel required.

Pro-tip: If they tell you while interviewing that you will travel less than 25%, they don’t know what product management is.

Yes, we travel a lot, to a lot of places. Our IRL friends often think this is glamorous, and it was the first couple of years. But then it becomes a grind.

Fortunately, most travel is innocuous, and you are more likely to die of boredom waiting for planes, trains and automobiles than have a hair raising experience.

Thus, when something goes wrong, it will be a disaster:

Travel Agent Insanity

Today, most of my domestic travel I handle with the web based reservation system. It is usually efficient, and I have some control.

However, it hasn’t always been like that. When I first started in this career, we were at the mercy of the corporate travel agency. Being people, and having an “interest” in how they processed our travel, they would direct us to their preferred carriers and hotels (nb: places that gave them a commission or kickback)

Today it is better, but incompetence still rules the day. Some blunders:

Tickets not issued: this really happened. Circa 1999, I was flying to Japan in February to present a paper at a technical conference (I used to be really really smart). I booked the trip in November once I knew the paper had been accepted, knowing that I needed to be in Tokyo. At this time, I was quoted a pretty good fare (I don’t recall ever spending more than $800 round trip from SFO to NRT until 2006 or so).

So far so good.

I get to SFO on Saturday to catch my flight. I check in, and the counter agent sees my reservation but it wasn’t ticketed. apparently the agency didn’t ticket it because they thought I might not travel. So, it is Saturday, about 90 minutes before boarding time, and I am on the phone (on hold) waiting for an agent. Mind you this is in queue at the check-in counter, as I had no cell phone then. Then I get the message that I had been on hold for the maximum time they allowed for customer satisfaction purposes, that I could leave a message and an agent would get back to me.

Excuse me, I am at the airport, 90 minutes before my flight, I have a reservation, but the ticket was never purchased, and instead of answering the fucking phone, you dump me to voicemail?

Fortunately, I called our group administrative assistant at home, who got on the priority line and got my ticket purchased.

Today, I would just whip out a card and buy the ticket, but back then, if it wasn’t charged to the corporate card, it wouldn’t be reimbursed.

Going home wasn’t an option, as we co-wrote the paper with a large semiconductor manufacturer whose name begins with ‘i’, and is the largest IDM maker in the world.

Stupid routing: Once I was traveling to Busan South Korea from my home in Tucson Arizona. The way the ticket worked was that I flew through LAX to NRT, then switched carriers to get to Busan. I thought nothing of it when I booked the ticket.

I get to the airport to check in, and I get my ticket to Tokyo, but since the carrier from Tokyo to Busan was different, I needed to check in there. No big deal.

Except that it was a big deal. Apparently, you can’t check in more than 24 hours in advance, and I missed that by about 3 hours.

So, I get to Tokyo, needing to catch a flight to Busan, and I have 45 minutes between flights. A legal connection my idiot travel agent swears.

What I had to do: Land in Tokyo, go through customs, pick up my bags, go to the check-in counter at the other airline, check-in, go through immigration control and security, and board my plane. All in about 45 minutes.

Yes I made it, but the stress was incredible. And the irony is that the travel agent didn’t understand why it was stupid. And his fault.

Botched Instructions: One time, I was on a trip to California. I was in meetings, and supposed to return on Thursday. But I needed to extend the trip a day. So I called the travel agency and had them change my flight out on Thursday to be Friday. Seemed clear to me.

bzzzt: Wrong answer. The doofus travel agent canceled my return trip, and canceled my flight to Austin, TX the following Monday. So I had a trip with a flight into San Jose, and returning from Austin the following Friday (and I was already in San Jose). Nothing in the middle.

When I called up livid, he said he thought I wanted to cancel my return from San Jose and my flight to Austin.

I asked him if he thought how I was to get from San Jose to Austin, he thought I would just drive. Just 1,716 miles by road. Idiot.

Ended up re-booking my return, and my entire Austin trip. Of course < 6 day advanced notice meant that my return from San Jose was $800 (when my entire ticket was $250 before), and my trip to Austin was $1,400 (when it was $300 RT before he messed it up).

Naturally my boss wasn’t amused. Neither was I.

Canceled Flights and missed connections

Nothing is worse than that sinking feeling when you are going to miss a flight. Perhaps a meeting ran long. Or traffic snarls prevent you from getting to the airport. Whatever the reason, it can be a sucky day.

Those are things that you ultimately have some control over. But there are a class of insanity that will screw you even if you do it all right.

Canceled Flights: It used to be that flights were never canceled unless there was a DGR (damned good reason). A DGR would be a Typhoon headed for your destination. Or a plane crashed on the runway at an airport. Rare, and special.

But now the carriers are maximizing their revenue by ensuring that seats are filled. All too often, an underutilized flight will be canceled, and the luckless passengers will be crammed into the next flight. This happens all the time now (cough US-Air cough, cough United cough). Last month I got my ass out of bed at 3:30 to catch a 6:30 flight to be in San Jose by 8:30. Of course, they canceled my 6:30 flight due to “mechanical” troubles (the trouble being that it was only about a quarter full), and instead crammed us all into the 8:30 flight. Got to San Jose at 11:30 (one stop instead of non-stop).

This used to happen a lot when I lived in Tucson. United would get you to Phoenix, then cancel the last flight to Tucson at night, so you would end up renting a car and driving the 2 hours home.

Even Southwest, a carrier that almost never canceled flights is getting into the game.

The worst one for me was a flight to Dublin (via London). British Airways, direct from PHX to LHR. Departs at 9:00PM. Except that when I got to the airport, it was delayed 6 hours, and wouldn’t depart until 4:00AM. Of course, that fouled up my connecting flight, so I got to stay in the LHR hotel, and get up at 4:00AM to catch the first flight to Dublin. Fun.

Once, I was flying to Taiwan. There was a Typhoon, but as I checked in for my first flight to Tokyo, the agent said all was well, that the Typhoon wouldn’t interfere. Lies. The typhoon camped out on the Taiwan island for several hours, so I got to spend a night at the Narita airport, before getting on a plane at 5:00AM specially for us to get to Taiwan the next day.

Missed Flights: Of course, since flights are fuller, and the advent of baggage fees means that people are trying to carry on way too much baggage, this makes for fun if you happen to miss a flight.

It used to be (and as an elite traveler) pretty simple to get on another flight later. But this is no longer true or applicable. If you miss a flight, it will often take 5 or 6 hours, and as likely as not a bizarre connection to get home. Oh, and if you miss an evening flight, I hope you enjoy the hotel they put you up in.

This usually means that you get to spend some quality time at the customer service desk. It can be entertaining to see the people in front of you reading the riot act to the customer service personnel, but it really isn’t helpful to yell at them. They didn’t make the plane late, or decide to cancel the flight. They are victims as much as you are. Be polite to them, and they may give you an extra meal voucher.

Summary

When you put as many miles on as a typical product manager, you are bound to experience the best and worst of travel. At one point I flew so much international United Airlines flights that I got free upgrades to business class almost every flight. That was choice. Of course it no longer happens.

With the advent of telepresence and webcasts, the demise of the need to travel has been foretold, but in the end, a good fraction of what I do requires making personal connections, and that means going out to visit customers in their native environments.

As long as I will be traveling, I am certain I will continue to amass horror stories.

eBook Fun – Fixing fouled up books

As I have mentioned many times, I have been a long time satisfied user of my reader and ebooks. Certainly better than hauling around a lot of dead trees when I travel.

All good. I have been building a collection for more than 5 years now, from a variety of sources, many commercial, but also many of the free sources (Project Gutenberg) as well as some other sources for out of print books that are ahem less than legit.

Most of the commercial options are DRM encumbered, so that I can’t peek inside with impunity. But all the others are open books, so to speak, mostly ePub format. There are some great tools to work with.

Sigil – a WYSIWYG ePub Editor

Sigil is free, open source, and pretty solid. It will help you put together a book, and fix minor errors.

It is a good place to start to figure out the ePub format.

ePub are pretty straightforward HTML with some special attributes. You can do just about anything that you can put on a web page (within reason, no javascript or animations).

But you can tweak up the look and feel of the book with stylesheets, inserted graphical elements, and all the other tricks that you can use with web pages.

Calibre – An open source library manager

Of course, your reader probably comes with software to manage its files, You will find that it is pretty limited. Perhaps you have some old files in one of the dead or dying formats (.lit, .lrf, BBeB etc.) Additionally there are a lot of eBooks in plain text format or Microsoft Word format.

It is helpful to be able to shift formats, and to clean up some of the glitches.

Enter Calibre. An open source, multi platform (Mac, Windows, Linux) environment for managing your library. It groks all the standard formats, and converts between them seamlessly. It is extensible with plugins, and it can help you clean up books as well as transcode them. Additionally, it connects with several sources to get covers, meta data, and other tangibles to improve the user experience.

It can be used to take HTML files or word processing files (RTF or .DOCX) and turn them into eBooks in any format.

Being a powerful package, to get the most out of it, you really need to understand what it is doing, and how to optimize the settings. By default it does an OK job, but as in many cases, garbage in equals garbage out.

Some issues

Why is this a problem? Well, it is because a lot of the free or community books are poorly formatted to begin with. Also, some sources in general suck. Often, I will find an out of print book that was scanned and OCR’d. Often this is turned into a MS word file. Until recently, you needed to save that file as an HTML file and run it through Calibre.

Calibre uses some pretty heavy stylesheets, that mostly look OK. The ambitious person can customize them easily, if you know what you are doing. Of course not every reader can handle all styesheet formats, so it can be a trial and error process.

Of course, there are some things that really foul up any book. Anything output by Microsoft Word uses a class structure that is insane. If you see class=”msonormalxx”, you know that you are going to have an ugly book.

RTF files are not much better. They typically have a lot less funky classes that are tossed in, but the conversion does glitch in some spectacular ways.

ePub versus other formats

I have a pretty large colletion of the Microsoft ebook format (.lit) and the old Sony reader format (.lrf) that I convert to read. Both these formats can be problematic.

The Sony format leads to ePubs with some really whacky xhtml coding in them. Really ugly to try to clean up. Additionally, they have odd chapter breaks, and pretty non functional Tables of Content.

Fortunately, it isn’t too difficult to clean them up, but it is time consuming. You need a few tools.

  1. An HTML stripper. There are several options, but I use a simple app for my Mac HTML Stripper A reasonably priced utility. There are some free ones, but I like to support small vendors, and $15 is a good price for this tool.
  2. The HTML stripper will give you good plain text. You will need to reformat that into clean HTML. Fortunately, Markdown is a fabulous way to do this. I use Mou for the Mac (free, but do donate to them), and MarkdownPad on my PC. Again free, but the pro version has some nice extensions, so it might be worth spending the $15 to buy it (I have).

The clean up workflow

First I extract the raw HTML. I do this chapter by chapter. It is best to create an ePub with one source file per chapter. That makes for clean chapter breaks, and a well functioning table of contents.

Then I run it through my HTML stripper. That gives me clean text file. It will likely have odd numbers of breaks in paragraphs, and some other interesting things. Fortunately that doesn’t matter.

I then import that text into my markdown editor. Add a chapter title in h1 and then you have a nice complete chapter to drop back into the epub. (every markdown editor has a “copy to HTML” function. Works great.)

Lastly, I build a new epub using Sigil. Add meta data, a cover, and construct a table of contents, and you have a nice book.

But what if you want to read it on your Kindle?

Of course, the Amazon kindle doesn’t support the ePub format. So you need to convert it into either an .AZW3 or a .mobi format file.

Calibre to the rescue again. Trivial, and the defaults are pretty good for conversion.

And naturally, you use Calibre to transfer or manage your library on the Kindle (this is only for files you didn’t buy from Amazon). Works like a charm.

Coda

I got into cleaning up ebooks when my collection of old Doc Savage books. Circa 2008 I found a repository of them in Sony format (I had a PRS 700 reader then), and the 181 original Doc Savage stories were a joy to read.

But they convert poorly into ePub. When I lost my PRS700, and replaced it with the PRS 600, the support for .lrf files was removed. My only options were to convert them. Calibre converted them, but it did a lousy job.

The last few days, I have been using the workflow above to clean some of these books. It takes me about 35 mintues to create a crisp, clean, and standards compliant ePub from a completely ugly converted ePub.

A labor of love.

Having a new Kindle is giving me the motivation to fix some my my titles.

More hand suckage – Cortisone shot

Ugh. My 6 weeks with a brace on my thumb didn’t help. I guess I am not surprised, at best it was going to help ease the bone on bone rubbing.

Today, I went back to the hand specialist. He wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t improving. The degeneration of cartilage is not really reversible. Just controllable.

Today I got a cortisone shot. The needle was much smaller than the one when I got a shot for my plantar fasciitis. Woo hoo. But it hurt a lot more than the shot in my heel. Hmm, I guess there are a lot more nerves in the hand.

The doctor was surprised that he got most of the cortisone shot in. Most of the time he can only get about half. Of course, he is usually giving them to little old ladies though.

It felt OK after. A little stiff, not surprising since 3cc of cortisone was injected. But the doctor warned me that the anesthetic would wear off and it would hurt bad this afternoon. Also that it might be a good idea to take some ibuprofen.

No shit. it is 1:00PM, and it hurts like hell. I took 800mg, and will take 800mg more this evening.

As I was leaving I asked the doctor how often I would need shots. He said that you get two. Total. So the goal is to go as long as possible until the second one.

Gulp. I will keep taking my glucosamine, I will take ibuprofen. I will nurse this as long as I can.

Sadly, I am certain that my days of playing guitar are coming to a close.

Next steps

When it gets worse, there is surgery, but it is not pleasant. It will be a fusing of the bones in the wrist to prevent out of plane motion. Typically not done until people are much older. I know that will be a bad bad day when that is the only option.

My online history

My blogging/online history

I started blogging late, in 2009. I was stuck in a bad job, that had gotten much worse due to some serious political wrangling by the executive suite.

At first I just grabbed a wordpress.com site, and made a couple of posts that were really not meant to be read by anybody. Venting about the stupid crap that I saw every day.

Very quickly, I wanted more. I had been spending time reading some of the major blogs about product managment at the time and wanted to get my own voice out there.

A friend of mine, a photographer, was interested in improving her online presence, so I dove into hosting.

the wordpress days

I had my own domain that I bought back in 1998, and used for my main email. So I used that domain and found a web host.

My first blog was based on WordPress, and it was easy to setup. I bought a commercial theme, did some simple customization, and I was up. I focused on product management, and a few personal items.

WordPress served me well, but the ubiquity of the platform, and the spectrum of add ons was fun. I hooked my twitter handle to it, and a lot of other cool things.

But, that era, WordPress was a common target of hackers. The first time I got hacked, my host helped me clean up. The second time, I got whacked really good. I had to wipe and start from scratch.

When a few months later I got hit a third time, it was time for a change.

enter Joomla!

I had been playing with some of the more industrial strength CMS’s, starting with Drupal. While it was easy to setup, and very well appointed with features, it was a bit beyond what a novice needed. It does power the Economist, so it is a professional strength solution.

At the start of 2012, I got involved with a local non-profit. A group that rescues retired Greyhounds, they were just getting started, and I got drafted to build their web presence.

One of the other “communications” people, who would be helping with content creation and maintenance had experience with Joomla! so we decided to go that route. (Unfortunately, she quickly vanished, and I do virtually all the maintenance and content creation) The other option was WordPress, but by then, with the exploits I had to deal with, it wasn’t worth entertaining.

A crash course in Joomla, creation of a custom theme, and the site went live in June (there was a quick and dirty WordPress site that just tided us over.)

Joomla was a good intermediary between WordPress which while very flexible, is at its core a blog environment, and Drupal, a heavyweigh. A lot of moving parts, but there was a method to the madness. And, importantly, it had a pretty solid ecosystem of add ons, with mostly professional coders who would support, and take care on security. I was able to get the site up and running, build a front end access system that allowed the adoption people to maintain the “available” dogs list without needing to do any HTML coding.

When I became comfortable with Joomla, I moved my wordpress site, tralfaz, home of product management to the Joomla platform. It wasn’t a seamless transition, but there were tools available to smoothe the transition.

Joomla has a good balance between extensibility, flexibility, and performance.

Hosting goes to hell

One of the hazards of running your own website, especially if you don’t have a machine in a rack in some data center, is the hosting company you select can turn out to suck.

I didn’t know who was good or bad at the time in late 2009, but I figured out that the rating sites were pretty rigged. The highly rated hosts surprisngly had lots of people trash talking them.

I selected Media Temple. They seemed to be very professional, and had a really solid platform. I gave it a try, but quickly converted my trial into a paying service. They were expensive, but they had awesome performance, great flexibility, and support was fast and responsive. A win, win situation.

When I was setting up the non-profit’s website, they had registered their domains with GoDaddy. I decided to go with GoDaddy’s linux based shared hosting. At $6 a month, it was less than 1/3 the cost of Media Temple. It was far more restrictive, and “idiot proof” than Media Temple. But it worked, and it was easy to setup the site.

However, GoDaddy is a slimy company. They use every point of contact to try to sell you more useless stuff. More emails, more domains, etc. Every time I log into them I am barraged with their marketing. As a marketer, I understand the desire to use your opportunities to place product and ads.

But I deal with it for this organization. The things I do for the hounds…

In September 2013, I got the cheery email from Media Temple announcing that they were purchased by GoDaddy. Ugh. Regardless of the professions of it being a good thing, and that GoDaddy wouldn’t interfere, I knew that I needed to move my web properties.

VPS, more control, and scary too

A while before that I had contemplating going to the next level in hosting. Instead of being on a shared linux box with other users, who at times would consume all of the resources, I wanted to go to a VPS. Not quite dedicated hardware, but my own instance of linux, and a guaranteed IO and bandwidth. This was the nudge that put me over the edge.

I did a bit of searching before I focused in on a new provider. A Small Orange had good reviews, and their site and product offerings were pretty solid I took the plunge, and signed up for a 2 core system with 1.5G ram, and 40 gigs of SSD storage. Getting it setup was trivial, and within 30 minutes I was up and running.

The truth is I am a bit of a novice in linux. I have used it at various times in the past, but never connected to the world. But the standard configuration of the system offered by A Small Orange was solid and well configured.

It took a while to move all my properties from Media Temple to A Small Orange, and ensure that they were properly setup, but it went smoothly.

Coda

I started as a complete babe in the woods. I knew enough unix CLI to be dangerous, but the awesome support of Media Temple kept me out of trouble.

I started heavily reliant on the WYSIWYG editors built into WordPress, then Joomla. They worked well, but after editing and re-editing posts, things got pretty hosed. Particulary with the greyhound site, where I was constantly updating the main page.

Add to that the fact that I would often get articles to post in Microsoft Word format, it was a real chore to import that text, and strip out the stupid shit Microsoft embeds into their files.

So, I started using a text editor and hand coding a lot of HTML to get things the way I like. This worked well, but it was a chore, particularly for things with lots of formatting.

Then I discovered markdown. I was unsure of the use of it at first, so while i learnt the basics, I never did anything with it. Then I figured out how to convert to plain HTML, and it has become a godsend.

Now I do most of my work in markdown, and it is a snap to format, and make the text look just how I want it.

There are a couple of good markdown editors on the Mac (I am currently using Mou) and an industrial strength one on the PC (markdownpad).

Summary

I am currently hosting my sites, my wife’s business site words by barbara, my friend’s photography site, and a few others.

I still have the original wordpress.com site gander2112 where you are reading this now. My old posterous postings moved over, and this is my personal, for friends and acquaintences blog.

I have learned a lot in the past 4 years, and I am sure I will learn much more.