The Story of a Working Traveler

Russia, huge country. So is Moscow, as you would expect. I was fortunate enough to visit that part of the world in a company project and I would like to share my experience and the things I’ve learned.

The project consisted of equipping a new rack with network and infrastructure hardware to provide services in that location. This was my first time in a project like this, which involved travel, a different language and being so far away. So, besides the main goal of getting everything working for the services to run, I set myself a secondary objective that consisted mainly of learning as much as I could from the whole experience; personally and professionally speaking.

I think it all came down to three main points.

Objectives

We started preparing several months before the actual trip. I wasn’t that involved in the first steps of the project as I was working on other things, but whenever able, I tried to get up to speed with everything my partners did. A lot of questions came to mind during that time. What’s the best equipment to buy? Where do we buy it? How do we get it there? How many hours a day are we going to work? Is it a working day like in the office or is it different? What are we going to eat? I don’t speak any Russian; how will we communicate? As you see, a lot of questions.

Luckily for me (and the project), I came to learn that one of the guys I traveled with is quite efficient in managing situations like these. The first important point to highlight: set a clear and achievable objective. I cannot stress the importance of this point enough. Setting a clear objective means that you can focus on specific tasks to achieve it. Of course, once in a while you can get distracted and start doing other stuff, but when the objective is clear, it’s much easier to come back to that main task. Therefore, the first question ends up being: what are the absolutely necessary things we need to achieve?

With this in mind, a ticket was created specifying those needs and from where all other tasks would fall out. In our case, it was getting connectivity in the rack and configuring everything so we could do anything we wanted remotely. Basically, rack everything, cable everything, configure gateways and switches with our configs, rack servers, and check that everything is accessible via IPMI and console. If you see it this way, it doesn’t sound as an extremely complex task. This does not mean that we would not try to do more than the main objective.

Planning

This brings me to the second point: planning. And I really mean planning. I know that not everyone enjoys this section but I’ve come to realize that in these projects, planning is key. It gives you an observable set of tasks to do, it makes it easier to calculate time-frames for tasks, and helps you discover new things to take into consideration that you might not have been aware of.

The planning started some 6 months before the trip. After setting the objective, we started to get really specific about the procedures to perform on-site. After a while we realized that the actions required could be classified as pre-trip, during trip and post-trip, and could also be assigned different levels of priority. A high priority task would be one that is necessary for the main objective of having connectivity. The others would be “nice to have” extras. For example, configuring the IPMI was high priority, whereas installing the operative system in the server was secondary, given that we could do that remotely if the IPMI was working.

Little by little, all the procedures were documented and we got to the point of buying the equipment: the delivery would take around two to three months.  Finally, we defined a date for the trip.

With nothing more to do, and after 20 hours of flight, the problems began.

The three of us arrived at Moscow airport but none of our bags did. I just wanted to mention this because we had even taken into account the possibility of one bag getting lost, so we divided the equipment (cables, velcros, label printer, tools) among all three bags. Of course, we didn’t think all three bags would get lost at the same time. Luckily, we were able to start working right away because the datacenter lent us cables and tools; so we started racking the equipment.

Teammates

Fortunately enough, the trip was successful with some minor setbacks, but this allows me to introduce the third point: the importance of the group of people you travel with.

In this case, I believe traveling as a group was the best choice. A one-person trip would have been disastrous. We wouldn’t have been able to remain calm after losing the luggage, every time an issue occurred it would have taken much more time to resolve, and every time a major change was performed, a double or even triple check was nice to have. But besides that, a group always helps you to not feel lonely or stressed, which can cause problems in the work you are doing and of course your feelings in general. No one wants to have a bad time during a trip, not even a working trip.

And, even if you have to work long hours, I highly recommend that you take at least some hours off one day to tour the city. It is difficult to travel and it would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity.