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I just graduated from college and started working a few months ago. My company has a big new project which I have been working on with several other engineers. As part of that project, we are taking a business trip to meet face-to-face with the hardware manufacturer in Taipei (we are in the US). I will be going on this trip, but none of the other engineers will be going because the announcement was fairly short notice so the more experienced engineers are unavailable. The only other two attending this business trip are VPs at the company, one of which is the company founder and my boss.

So here's my question(s):
What should I keep in mind when going on a business trip with two high-ups in the company? What steps should I take to be as prepared as possible since I am the only engineer attending and will be speaking for the rest of my team?

I know my questions are a bit vague. I'm really mostly looking for some advice on how to approach this big anxiety-inducing business trip and live up to the expectations.

Update: My company is a software company and we will be porting our service to a new hardware platform. While it's not explicitly a client/vendor relationship, we are using this new hardware at the request of a big customer, so we are working to meet the needs of the customer by using the new hardware. I have talked to my manager, and I will be spending most of this week meeting with the engineers who are not going so that I can get organized and get address everyone's questions during the trip next week.

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    Have you asked your manager? Especially considering you're a new grad it makes perfect sense to go to him and say: "While I probably don't need to be, I'm a bit nervous about this trip considering my inexperience. What should I keep in mind for this trip and how can I best prepare for it?" A useful conversation should follow. – Lilienthal Nov 30 '15 at 17:25
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    Could you confirm which company is the client and which the vendor/supplier in your situation? – Lilienthal Nov 30 '15 at 17:28
  • @Lilienthal My company is a software company and we will be porting our service to a new hardware platform. While it's not explicitly a client/vendor relationship, we are using this new hardware at the request of big customer, so we are working to meet the needs of the customer by using the new hardware. I have talked to my manager, and I will be spending most of this week meeting with the engineers who are not going so that I can get organized and get address everyone's questions during the trip next week. – JD Reese Nov 30 '15 at 19:30
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    Thanks for the update and for writing a good first question. Best of luck with your trip. One piece of personal advice: be professional but don't forget that VPs are also people. :) – Lilienthal Nov 30 '15 at 19:44
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    Expect them to do most of the talking...in my own experience, they may give you a couple minutes here or there, but they'll do most of the talking when necessary. – Tim Dec 1 '15 at 13:37
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Well in advance of the trip, you should talk with two people/groups:

First, talk with your manager. Ask what he anticipates they'll be discussing so that you can prepare. (Your preparations might involve getting more information from others, not just reading up on stuff, so you need time for this.) Thank him for the opportunity while reminding him that you're the new guy and you want to do well for the company. He wants you, and the trip, to succeed too, after all.

Second, talk with your fellow engineers, particularly the ones who've been there the longest. They can't go on this trip, but have they gone on such trips in the past? What can they tell you about what's likely to come up? What problems can they anticipate and help you prepare for? What do they know about the needs of this particular customer?

Finally, unless your manager tells you otherwise, try to avoid making statements in the customer meeting that sound like commitments if you aren't 100% sure about them. "That sounds feasible but I'll need to check with someone about server-side implications" sounds a lot better than "sure, we can do that" followed, after you get home, by either "oops" or coworkers unhappy about what you signed them up for.

  • +1, but quick note: the OP's company is most likely the client. The Taipei company is presumably handling manufacturing for their project. – Lilienthal Nov 30 '15 at 17:28
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    @Lilienthal oh, that could be. Depending on the business that could go either way (maybe your company makes software for somebody else's platform), but your interpretation is probably the way to bet. Still, the OP doesn't want to say things that imply that, say, something in the specs isn't that important and a corner could be cut if he isn't certain it's true. – Monica Cellio Nov 30 '15 at 17:30
  • @MonicaCellio, you make a lot of really good points here, especially the last one. My company is not the client, we are a software company porting our service to a new platform (as you had guessed). Even so, it's a good point to consider so that I can ask the right questions. – JD Reese Nov 30 '15 at 19:09
  • A super-big +1 (in lieu of the ability to give a higher number) for the last point. That's a very common newbie mistake that can cause major headaches. For that matter you should avoid making commitments you're unsure of to your own boss let alone a client/customer, though that's often a much less severe problem. – thanby Dec 1 '15 at 7:57
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@MonicaCellio answered what to do to prep as far as the work. The other problem is how to handle the off work time.

Since you are going with people who are very senior to you, you need to be careful to present a professional appearance at all times not just at work. That means, don't even consider getting drunk for instance. It means that even if they are partying hard, you should not do more than be sociable. Above all else, do not get arrested. Different cultures have different laws. It means you likely will be sharing meals and that you need to get out your best manners. Let them set the tone for how much they want you to socialize with them outside of work. Some people will want to go off without you (often because they want to do something like cheat on their spouse), some will want to include you in whatever they do.

It means that you shouldn't show up to the airport in your scruffiest clothes. (you might want to check with them about the dress code to follow while on the trip as well, often you need to dress up for client type meetings). You also should make sure that you have a change of clothes and whatever physical materials you might need for the trip in your carry-on luggage. Be prepared for the airlines to lose your luggage. Back when I traveled, I always wore something that I could wear to the work site the next day if my luggage got last.

If you have the vacation time available and your work schedule permits, consider taking some time off and returning on a later flight. Ask your boss if this would be acceptable. But with the flight taken care of, a couple of extra days of hotels are a pretty cheap vacation in a spot you might never have had a chance to visit.

  • cheat on their spouse looks like you have lot of fun or vey awkward moments on those bussiness trip. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Nov 30 '15 at 18:02
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    Very awkward moments compounded by the fact that I was the same sex as their spouses and single. You really don't want to know what it was like. – HLGEM Nov 30 '15 at 18:53
  • I do intend to present myself professionally for the entire week, and you have some great tips for that. I wish I did have some extra time off to spend a day or two extra in Taipei. I think I may have another chance to visit again within a year, and that time more of my team would also be going. That might be a better chance to stay for a couple extra days, rather than sticking around by myself this time. – JD Reese Nov 30 '15 at 19:20
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    +1 for the advice 'Above all else, do not get arrested.' Is this based on personal experience, or just a generally good maxim when travelling with upper management? – copper.hat Dec 1 '15 at 6:09
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    @copper.hat I guess this is a good advice throughout your whole life. ;-) – Benedikt Bauer Dec 1 '15 at 9:31
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This is all great advice. A couple more tips from my experience as an engineer who has travelled:

  • Don't pretend you know an answer when you don't. Technical people are supposed to be precise. Leave the spin doctoring to the VPs. If you don't know an answer admit it quickly, take a note and follow up as soon as you can. I have often been able to get answers from co-workers back at home via skype or email and report back during the same meeting. Trust me on this - if you pretend to know then everyone will almost certainly see through it.
  • If you are on a distant trip (like US to Taiwan) then your sleep pattern is going to be seriously disrupted. Once the work meetings are over for the day it is OK to say "I need to go collapse so I can be ready for tomorrow. Will that offend anyone?" instead of going out on the town or whatever. Jet lag is no joke.
  • Ditto what others have said about not making commitments. As the "tech guy" on the team you should only make commitments to get precise answers.
  • Practice your demos before you travel. Don't assume you will have internet access in the conference room or the right kind of projector or an easy place to plug in your power cord. If your demo really requires a projector then bring one with you along with the right kind of power adapter for your destination. You will be the one trying to fix things while the VPs tap dance if anything goes wrong, so plan ahead.
  • Let the VPs control the flow of the meeting. Look alert and pay close attention to everything discussed. The VPs will signal you when it is time for you to talk. Do not surf the web, read email or anything else distracting during client meetings.
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    I might add, print out a paper copy of any presentations and keep it in your take on luggage. Then even if the equipment can't be made to work, you have something to use to go ahead and give the presentation. And I usually email the presentation to my personal email and carry it on a thumb drive so I have multiple ways to get to it if one method fails. – HLGEM Dec 1 '15 at 15:40
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VP are actually easy to deal with if you just relax. They will tend to ask very clear questions and listen to the answer. They usually understand the answer. If they don't understand they will tell you and ask you to explain further. Don't try and second guess why they asked the question. Answer the stated question pause and if they say nothing ask them if you have answered the question. If you don't know the answer then just say I don't know - don't make excuses. Ask them if they want you to research it and get back with them. Don't bring up work unless they do first.

For sure never criticize anything about the project or project member. Especially if it was a design decision you did not agree with.

You get no vote on where to go eat if they do invite you. Don't get drunk. If they linger after an evening meal it means they might want to talk VP stuff. Excuse yourself - tell them you are tired.

Take note of all the questions (VP and customer) and the answers you provided. Share this with your team and manager when you return.

  • One thing I am a little afraid of is that this trip will feel like a trip "for the VPs", and I'll just be a bit of a third wheel. I'll keep that third point in mind if that turns out to be the case. – JD Reese Nov 30 '15 at 19:23
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    Don't let yourself feel like a third wheel. You were brought along for tech support. If the VPs need to go off and do VP stuff then don't take offense. If they include you then just relax and don't do anything stupid. I am sure there are lots of thinks to see in Taipei. For me I would like some free time. You are going to get lots of face time with business and travel. – paparazzo Nov 30 '15 at 19:54
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Some good advice here already. Just a few comments to add, asian companies are often very hierarchical, let the VPs take the lead, be respectful and don't interrupt. Take notes, if you have something to contribute but have not had a chance to say your piece then wait for the coffee break and talk to your VP, if it is important they will raise the issue.

Summarise your notes at the end of the day, not an essay, be concise, email your observations to the VPs.

  • Don't get drunk, #epicfail
  • Even on off time you are representing the company and your VPs reputation
  • Put a change of underwear and socks in your hand luggage
  • Drink plenty of bottled water
  • The food will be unfamiliar, try to find a local shop where you can buy water, fruit, biscuits just in case
  • Get as much sleep as you can, jetlag is the pits
  • Keep your travel/hotel details on you all the time
  • Print a map showing your hotel, the airport, the office.
  • If you're changing planes, look for the airport map in the mag on the plane, your ticket should tell you which gate you need to be at, find it on the map.
  • Have some local currency, at least enough for an emergency taxi ride to the airport
  • Learn to say please, thank you, hello, hotel, airport in the local lingo
  • On a piece of A4 print the addresses of the hotel, the office and airport terminal in english and local. You can always point and grunt to a taxi driver.
  • Put antiseptic, painkillers, indegestion tabs in your hand luggage
  • Get a haircut, shave, wear a tie
  • On the food front, if you're not familiar with the cuisine, it might be worth trying to find if there's a local restaurant of the cuisine of the area you're going to, so that you can sample a bit of the food before you go. Note that you'll want to look for restaurants that appeal to immigrants from that country, not 'American-ified' food. (If you only have Americanified (or whatever for your country), you might try talking to the waiter/waitress and explain your situation, and see if they can make a dish more like what you'd get there.) I also pack a pound of nuts, for if I miss meals. – Joe Dec 1 '15 at 16:07
  • Oh ... and on the map ... you actually want to carry TWO maps. One in the language you speak, and a second in the local language. I got lost in Kiev, and my maps were useless as all of the street signs were in Cyrillic. – Joe Dec 1 '15 at 16:09
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You are likely to bore, burden and embarrass your superiors, especially if you're right out of school.

when you speak, minimize the amount of words necessary to convey your ideas. VP level employees can convey most ideas in a single sentence, almost all ideas in two sentences.

have a non-work-related goal that's attainable in something like a 1/2 hour without inconveniencing the trip, like "I want to get really authentic green tea or hot pot"

have an "important pocket" with everything you need for all parts of the trip. passport, wallet, printed tickets and itineraries, addresses, phone numbers, names of contacts, etc. You don't want to be the guy who can't find his ticket/doesn't know where he's going.

charge your phone every night.

display enthusiasm for the trip to the VPs, they'll like it.

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