The company that I work for is switching over to using a new set of software for our products. Because of this, several members of our development staff were required to travel to our development studio in Manchester, United Kingdom in order to be trained on the new software.
Downtown Manchester, January 30, 2015.
As one of the senior developers in my office, I was asked to be one of the representatives of our studio for this training, and I had the good fortune of being able to go on my very first trip abroad. It wasn't technically my first visit to a foreign country, as I've visited Canada several times. Nor was it my first trip over an ocean, since I've visited Hawai'i. But the trip to Canada was many years ago; before a passport was even needed to cross the border, so it didn't feel like as big of a deal.
The training element was a bit underwhelming. The training schedule coincided with a major release deadline, so the engineer who was supposed to be providing the training and answering our questions had limited availability due to some last minute crises that he had to handle. So instead, we had a room full of people from different development studios in different countries all trying to bumble our way through the new software together.
But we did still learn some things, and even taught the lead engineer a thing or two!
A piece of advice to tech companies: don't schedule training sessions to begin a couple days before a major software release deadline - especially if you are flying developers in from halfway around the world to participate.
A British perspective on the World Wars
It wasn't all work though. I did try to do some touristy things.
I arrived in Manchester early Sunday morning after a red-eye flight from Philadelphia. After checking into the hotel to drop off my luggage, I took the cable car trolley back into the city and visited the Imperial War Museum (North). The main museum is in London (which I did not get to visit, other than a lay-over on the return trip), but there is a small branch of the museum in Manchester as well.
A tank displayed outside the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, U.K.
One of the interesting things about this museum (compared to most history museums in the States) is the emphasis on the domestic impacts of war. Several exhibits were dedicated exclusively to the effects that the world wars had on the general populace - especially women and the women's suffrage movement. Aside from some museums or exhibits dedicated to the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, most history museums in America don't have many such exhibits since very few wars have been fought on American soil. Pearl Harbor is the most significant exception.
Overall, the museum was not terribly impressive. I'm sure the London branch is probably a lot bigger and better. And I've been spoiled when it comes to museums by my visit to the Smithsonian several years back.
English food is crap; but they have good ethnic foods!
It was a business trip, so I didn't have too much time to have fun. But I did try to have some fun after hours.
We also went out a couple of nights during the week for dinner. British food is thoroughly underwhelming. Lots of potatoes, bread, and beef or pork in stews and pourage. Very boring.
But there were a lot of options for various ethnic foods, especially Indian - which I'm fond of anyway. So we did go out to the Indian Ocean for dinner one night, and it was pretty good.
The spiciest vindaloo I've ever had, and the best Guiness I've ever had.
I was introduced to Indian food about five years ago by some co-workers at the company that I used to work for. Our boss was Indian and took us to an India Palace restaurant in Las Vegas (which is a good restaurant). I ordered vindaloo, and the waiter asked how spicy I wanted it. I like spicy food, so I said "spicy". My boss then told the waiter "How ever spicy you usually make it, do it even spicier!". I went along with it, and ended up having some exceptionally spicy vindaloo.
In fact, it was so spicy that I couldn't finish it, and I had to take the left-overs home for the next day. And after re-heating it in the microwave the following afternoon, it had gotten even spicier! That vindaloo was an 11 out of 10 on my spiciness scale; and a 12 out of 10 after sitting overnight!
Well, that vindaloo is now the second spiciest vindaloo that I've ever had!
And on the way back, we all got snowed on! Which was nice, because I could lift my head up, open my mouth, and cool off the vindaloo spice.
Glad I brought warm [British-looking] clothing!
Better beer; earlier last calls...
I was also impressed by how much better the Guiness is in the U.K. I had been told that it is better, but it was like drinking a totally different beer!
My girlfriend insisted that I try two things when in the U.K.: have a Guiness, and try the Indian food. Well, since India Ocean had a convenient bar / lounge area for patrons to wait in before being seated, I decided to take out two birds with one stone. I normally hate the Guiness in the States, but that Guiness that I ordered before dinner might have been the best beer I've ever had!
Strangely enough though, when I went into Manchester proper later in the week, I ordered a Guiness off tap, but found that it didn't taste much different than what I was used to in the States. It seemed odd that the canned Guiness from the Indian restaurant would be so much better than the tap Guiness downtown...
One bit of culture shock was that stores and restaurants closed very early: 8 pm. Even on a Friday night. Coming from Las Vegas, that was mind-blowing. By the time we got back into town from the office, everything was closing up, so we didn't get to enjoy the local shopping scene or pubs as much as we would have liked. Maybe next time...
We wanted to eat at the Old Wellington pub, but it was packed and closed at 10.
I've been spoiled by Las Vegas' 24-hour lifestyle...
We really wanted to eat at the Old Wellington, but by the time we got there, it was too late to be seated and served, since the place was already full. We had to go to another restaurant instead. We did come back to the Wellington later for a couple beers though, so I did get the experience of drinking at a British pub.
Next time, I'll have to go into a sports bar during a football [soccer] game and harass the hooligans by telling them that "soccer isn't real football"!
Off-color joke time: why is this baby
racing a wheel-chair man across the train tracks?
I wish my city had public transit!
Even though I had a corporate card that I could use to buy taxi cabs for transporation around town, I still preferred to use the city's public transit. It's a bit pricier in Manchester than I'm used to. Washington D.C. was dirt cheap (my dad and I paid $2.00 a day); Dallas was a bit more ($4.00 a day); and Manchester was even more than that (£5.00 for a day pass, and a pound is worth more than a dollar).
D.C.'s subway is pretty fast, especially during rush hour (assuming that you can get through the crowds to catch a train). Dallas and Manchester were slower because they used cable cars. So they are still subject to stop lights and traffic congestion.
I wish Las Vegas had a public train.
I really wish that Las Vegas had a public train system. I think that if the mayor is serious about wanting to get locals to visit a revitalized downtown, then a public transit system linking Henderson, Summerlin, and North Las Vegas to downtown would be essential. You'd think that the casinos would be onboard with putting up some money to pay for such a system, since it would directly benefit them with more customers. But whatever.
Manchester's train is clean, and was rarely crowded. Even during the peak hours, there was plenty of room for most people to sit down. The trains also ran pretty smoothly. It still only takes half an hour or so to get from downtown Manchester to Ashton. I used the train whenever I had to get into town, and I encouraged my colleagues to use it as well.
The only complaint was that the train from the airport was not running. It was closed for maintenance or repairs or something. So I used a bus after arriving, and had to call a cab when departing.
Despite the rough patches of the training sessions, the trip was pleasant. The hotel room was fine (and I was equipped with the proper adapters for my electronics), and had a decent gym and pool. Although, most of the gym equipment was uncomfortable and lacked adjustment options, so I used the pool and treadmills instead. I didn't have any problems with the people in the city. And the weather was agreeable - how often do I get to see snow in Vegas?
Our management wants to make developer meet-ups a regular event, which means I could get to return again later in the year. And I might even have a chance to visit some of the other countries that we have offices in. Now that I have my first passport stamps, I look forward to my next trip abroad; wherever it may be.
The first stamps on my passport!