Archive for the 'work' Category


Another Coursera course: Foundations of Business Strategy


I can’t get enough of the free online education at Coursera. Each class I take continues to be more challenging than I expect.

I’ve just completed Foundations of Business Strategy, a 6-week class taught by Professor Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. To get a passing grade we had to complete weekly quizzes, write a short strategy recommendation paper for a company of our choosing, and participate in the online student forums. It showed me that analysing a business strategy can be a lot more quantitative than I believed.

It’s the first course I’ve taken that can be directly useful at work rather than a class I’ve taken just for my own interest.


An example of excellent customer service from…*gasp*…a US airline!

I know, that title is shocking.

If, like me, you’ve travelled around the world then there’s a good chance that you find flying in the USA a shockingly bad experience. You have to pay for every extra little thing. Check-in is a semi-automated nightmare. We still have to take off our shoes because of one failed shoe-bomb attempt over 12 years ago. Seats are cramped. Airport terminals are well-worn. It’s just not pleasant, especially compared to flying elsewhere in the world.

But on a recent trip through the US I experienced an event that blew me away with its customer focus and totally changed my feeling about the trip in a positive way.

I was flying from LaGuardia, New York to Dallas, Texas. My flight was with United Airlines, and I had to go via – and change planes – in Chicago.


The day before I flew I noticed that I only had 37 minutes to make my connection in Chicago. Gulp. That’s what I get for trusting my corporate travel booking system too much. Oh well, I thought, I’m flying with carry-on only. If things are on time I can make it. Although it’s been over a decade since I’ve been through Chicago’s O’Hare airport I verified that my arrival and departure gates there were in the same terminal. And I am a runner. I decided to remain positive.

I also decided to pay the extra $49 for legroom on my LaGuardia-O’Hare flight and get the front row of economy so that I’d be first off the plane, increasing my chances of making the connection.

The first snag happened before we left LaGuardia. At the gate, preparing for boarding, United staff announced that the overhead bins were going to be very full and that by the time they seated group 4 there would be no overhead bin room left; anyone who wanted to have their bag checked through to their destination could do so now for no charge.

I looked at my boarding pass: seating group 5.

I went up to the check-in desk and asked if I really had to check my roller carry-on, because it would not fit under the seat in front of me (which is where I planned to put my laptop bag). She said yes. I said, “But I only have a 37 minute connection in Chicago”.

“Your bag will make it,” she said.

I did not believe this. But it was clear that I was going to have to check my bag. My meetings weren’t until the following morning so I figured I could deal with a late-arriving bag. I checked it.

The second snag was that it took the plane a long time to board. People were attempting to squeeze bags into the overhead compartment despite being told they wouldn’t fit. By the time the plane was underway we were 20 minutes late. And then – third snag – there was congestion leaving LaGuardia. I resigned myself to missing my connection.

By the time we arrived at our gate at O’Hare there were only 2 minutes left before my connecting flight was scheduled to leave for Dallas.

Nevertheless I had nothing to lose by sprinting. Maybe my connecting flight was delayed, I thought. I ran into the terminal and had to make a choice: left or right. I chose right. Right was wrong, and I ended up at security. Luckily there was also a big board of gate numbers.

There was my Dallas flight. Gate number: the opposite way I’d chosen to run. Gate status: closed. Damn.

Once again I figured there was no downside to running, so I did. As I puffed up to my gate I was delighted to see that they were boarding the last (but me) person. They were about 5 minutes late. In total perhaps 4 minutes had passed since I left my plane. I had made it.

“Thank you for running,” the gate staff lady said.

“I’m glad I made it,” I gasped, “but it’s too bad my checked bag won’t.”

“Yes it will,” said a man standing behind the woman. He appeared to be some sort of baggage or ground crew supervisor. My stunned look prompted him to go on.

“I saw that your flight had just arrived and I figured you might make a run for it. The system shows you had a checked bag, so I dispatched one of my guys over to your plane to retrieve it and bring it straight here in case you did. It’ll be on the plane.”

“Mate,” I said, “that’s incredible. Thank you!”

The supervisor followed me down to the end of the airbridge. As I boarded his man popped up from outside and gave a thumbs-up that he’d loaded my bag.

“Thanks very much,” I said to both of them.

“Not everyone would catch that,” the supervisor said. “Fifteen years on the job, so I know how to spot these things.”

I’m glad he did.


Edit: Actually, come to think of it, luggage and ground crew staff might not be part of United Airlines at all, they might work for O’Hare airport. It’s hard to give credit where it’s due when, as consumers, we’re sort of forced into compressing all our feelings about the travel experience into the airline we choose to fly with. 


Being back in Halifax


Photo from Dennis Jarvis on flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Family circumstances mean that for the last week and a half I’ve been living and working from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and will be here for a few more weeks. It’s been a changing experience to be here, and a very different one from when I’ve returned here for holidays.

I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, and spent 6 years in Halifax going to university. I’ve visited here many times in the years I’ve been away, since we still have family here and nearby. But this is the first time where the initial weirdness of visiting has worn off. Being here for this long, and doing ordinary things like working and buying groceries, has made me feel a little more local once again.

These things, which initially felt strange, have started to feel normal:

  • Everyone’s so freakishly polite, especially in the service and retail industry.
  • Food portions are massive.
  • Relaxed drivers: three times I’ve had cars that were already waiting at a four-way stop reverse to let me cross the street without having to walk around them.
  • Everyone has a funny Canadian accent.
  • The price you see on the tag is not the price you’ll have to pay at the counter.
  • It’s cold: it’s well into spring but some days temperatures max out in the low teens. Nevertheless there are a lot of people in shorts and T-shirts.
  • Lots of hockey. And I don’t feel the need to specify that it’s ice hockey.

I’m looking forward to seeing how things feel when we head out to the country.


Volunteering for Lifeline

The software company I work for, CA Technologies, believes that good community members make good employees. Putting their money where their mouth is, CA permits employees to take a few paid days off each year to volunteer.

Lifeline is a well-established and well-respected Australian charity that runs suicide prevention and crisis assistance contact services. They have been running for 50 years and take more than 400,000 calls every year from Australians who need help (and get as many online contacts). Like most non-profits they rely on community support for a significant part of their funding.


So last Friday CA permitted me to go help move hundreds of boxes of donated books for a massive book sale that’s taking place at the Hornsby RSL this weekend.

It was actually a lot of fun. I grew up on a farm doing day after day of physical labour. Friday was a refreshing change after so many years at a desk: to spend a day lifting heavy things onto a truck and then lifting them off again somewhere else.

I met a lot of other volunteers, almost all of whom were retirees. They were pleased to see a couple of younger guys to help out with some of the heavier and higher lifter. There was another Canadian immigrant, plus many who had visited there. I met a chemist. One of the long-time volunteers had rigged up sets of wooden rollers that made it easier to load the trucks; this reminded me of blueberry season back home.

I helped a guy turn on Google Now on his phone. I snacked on sweets that the ladies brought in. After all the boxes of books were in the hall we helped the ladies turn them the right way to allow crowds to browse the titles. It was a day very well spent.

Yesterday and today have been warm, sunny days. I hope Lifeline is getting a great crowd out to buy lots of books.


New stuff

There’s some new stuff in my life.

First, there are two new things:

  • A coffee maker. To be precise, a Lelit PL041EM Espresso Machine. I’m still getting the hang of it, but I’m already making coffees at home much better than I’ve drunk for most of my life.
  • A new computer. To be precise, a 21.5″ iMac. I got totally re-addicted to Macs at my last job, and bought one for home.

There’s also something new to do: a new job that I started this week. I’m back in a big company, but I’m stretching out into a new tech area: software.

Change is good.


Two weeks back in Europe

My whirlwind trip to Europe begins very soon. I’m just about packed.

  1. I work a half day tomorrow, then head to Sydney International Airport.
  2. I fly to London (via Bangkok) and meet up with my better half, who’s already there.
  3. I have five awesome days of holidays back in London. I lived there for 9 years, but have not been back since I left two years ago. I’m planning to see a lot of people.
  4. We fly to the south of France, for a few days in the spot where we got married (aww).
  5. She flies back to Oz. I, however, take the train from Toulouse to Barcelona (via Montpellier and Figueres).
  6. I have a work conference for five days in Barcelona.
  7. I fly back to Sydney, via London and Singapore.

If you look close, you can see me in a window, very smug. Photo from velodenz via Creative Commons license


Trip to Barcelona in November

I’ve just had a work trip confirmed to Barcelona for the week of November 7-11. Awesome, I love that city. We had a great weekend there in 2008.

Now, the other big question becomes: can I tack a London visit onto either end?



I spent five days last week in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), Vietnam. It was my first time in this Asian country. I, like all of the people at the work conference I was attending, was pretty impressed.

HCMC is currently at 9 million people, and with 4 million scooters. That’s the first thing you notice: the millions of motorised bikes, weaving in and out of the traffic, up and down each street. They swarm. And they all somehow get along with a shared cultural understanding, each wave taking its turn.

Seafood was great. Beer was cheap, as were taxis. It’s not overly westernised. Western visitors and expats are not uncommon. The war is so recent that memorials like the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels seem like raw, fresh wounds. The people were, like people anywhere, very friendly.

Highlights were a scooter ride ourselves through the city, and helping a school of disadvantaged kids build some bicycles.

The overwhelming feeling I got from the whole place was one of growth at every level. There are shops everywhere. There are stands along every street, selling stuff. The government has cleared the residential side of the Saigon River and plans to allow the bustling business centre to spread there.

You can see some pics from the week here.




In a couple of days I’m off to Vietnam for a week. I’m looking forward to this: I’ve not been there yet.

Unfortunately since it’s for business and I’m not taking any extra time I won’t get to see much beyond downtown Ho Chi Minh City. I have booked onto a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels, though, which I expect to be pretty cool. I’ve been looking forward to trying snake wine again, too.

And you thought Snakebites were bad.



Sailing with dolphins

Last week my workplace had a team-building day that saw us sailing on Sydney Harbour. It was a great day, and a lot of fun.

What really made it special for our boat was that a small pod of three dolphins came alongside us, swimming and leaping and just generally playing. One of the guys onboard recorded it on his iPhone; the dolphins show up around 0:35 and get really close at about 1:35. It was pretty cool.