Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Would You Like Chips * With That Q&A?

(* British for French Fries)

I don't go to McDonald's often. But last Wednesday, I did go to McDonald's, though it was for the technology, not for the food.

With the exception of last Wednesday, I'm not exactly sure when I last visited a McDonald's. I think it might have been almost four years ago, in Prague, and that was to get a cup of coffee (though I have a vague memory of my wife, Loy, having some kind of ice cream dish). So, I stand by my original assertion, that I do not go to McDonald's that often.

Many of my European friends find this hard to believe. Certainly, as an American, and one who is on the road a lot (most would say too much), certainly I must succumb to the siren song of the fast and easy food available at these locations. Actually, it's largely because I travel so much that I avoid fast food restaurants in general, if not in principle.

While I am not a skinny person, it would be disingenuous to characterized me as being overweight. And I work at that. In fact, when I am on the road, I rarely eat dinner at restaurants of any kind. Instead, I find something at a local supermarket and fix it up in my hotel room. Since I normally have a room with a microwave oven and refrigerator, at least in US hotels, there is a lot I can do. Making soup, building sandwiches, re-heating prepared meals, or even preparing raw vegetables. It's amazing, really, what you can do.

Even when I am not on the road, I rarely eat out. The fact is, I love to cook. To me, eating at a restaurant when I could be cooking at home would be my loss. I would much rather spent my money on ingredients, and maybe a nice bottle of wine, than to give it to someone else to prepare my food.

In fact, I am shocked each time I do eat out. My goodness, it's expensive (not that this is an issue). But when I think of what I could have done with that 30 bucks (or 50 bucks) I feel a loss. That same money could have bought some beautiful New Zealand green mussels, or Dungeness crab, or Maine lobster (I love seafood), or a great steak, or a little of each!

But my visit to McDonald's had nothing to do with food. It was for the the WIFI.

Last Wednesday I was in London, England, as part of the Delphi Developer Days 2010 tour that I was delivering with my friend and colleague, Marco Cantù. We had just finished the first day of our presentations, and I was preparing to go online for a live broadcast of my question and answer (Q&A) session for a web-based presentation I was doing for Embarcadero, called DataRage 2.

There was a problem, however. Well, two problems, really. The first problem was that the wireless Internet connection at our hotel had gone down. It had been up for most of the day, but now, just as I was supposed to go online, it was down.

I knew that this might be a problem. At this hotel the Internet goes down at least once a day. In most cases, we simply talk to the front desk and they reboot the router. There, problem solved.

But this is where the second problem comes in. And his name is Trevor. You see, Trevor works a shift at the front desk, and apparently he is uncomfortable with technology. Basically, if the Internet goes down when Trevor is on duty, you might as well wait until his replacement comes in, and they will have it back up in minutes.

Asking Trevor to reboot the router is like asking your plumber for health tips. It's a pointless exercise.

When I reported to Trevor that the hotel had lost its Internet connection, a hint of panic crosses his face. Next he stutters that there is nothing that he can do. When I comment that the other managers simply reboot the router, he starts flipping the power switches on and off on two power strips connected to who knows what, over and over, until he reports that, "There, it's gone. I'm sorry, it won't turn on again."

It's gone? Trevor, what have you done? I offer to come behind the counter and take a look. After all, I am a computer guy. You know, one of those people who work with these things all the time.

But Trevor would have none of this. His stuttering is getting worse. He's not supposed to touch it, he informs me. No one is supposed to touch it. It's not the hotel's equipment. No, I cannot come behind the counter. He's becoming more agitated. "We'll just have to wait for someone to come in and fix it," he informs me.

While this was going on, my presentation was already being broadcast. I submitted a 30- minute recording some weeks before, and this is played prior to my live question and answer period. However, it is now 5:22 pm (London time), and there are about 10 minutes left before I am supposed to speak.

I grab my backpack, which contains my computer, and start to head out the door. I ask Marco, who has a mobile phone, to send a message to DataRage coordinator Christine Ellis at Embarcadero and let her know that I am going to try to find an Internet café from which I can talk.

As I head towards the high street, where I had previously seen several Internet cafés, it occurs to me that I left my USB headphones, the ones with over-the-ear earphones and a noise canceling microphone, back in the hotel. But it's too late to go back. I need to get to an Internet connection as soon as possible.

A couple of minutes later I turn the corner onto the high street, and immediately find an Internet café. Actually, it was more of an all-in-one shop, international phone calls, prepaid phone cards, and several Internet-connected computers lined up along one wall. Success!

"Do you have wireless?" I ask. "No" was the simple reply. Drat! I need wireless.

My laptop is already set up with Microsoft Live Meeting, which takes several minutes to install on an existing machine. And, it's not clear that these machines even have microphones, or that I would be permitted to install Live Meeting. I needed another option.

"Is there an Internet café nearby that provides wireless access?" I ask. "Well," the clerk informs me, "if all you need is wireless access, go to the McDonald's across the street. It's free there."

I quickly thank him and leave. The McDonald's across the street was not actually across the street, but I could see it from here. And, I needed to go down to a crosswalk, as this was a very busy street.

As I entered the McDonald's, I did feel a tinge of guilt. I am not a regular customer, and I don't intend to buy anything this time, either. So, I should be as inconspicuous as possible. But as I sat down at a single table in a far corner, away from most of the rest of the patrons, I realize that this is one noisy place.

To begin with, the place is heaving (this is a particularly British phrase). It's now just after 5:30pm, and my Q&A should be starting. But so is dinner service, and the place is filled with families with young children, each one speaking at the top of their voices. On top of this was the music, a pulsing electronic pop that blared from speakers in the ceiling. The music may have been louder than the children. But the cacophony of it all was too much. There is no way that I could talk from here.

I began to put my computer back into my bag when I realize that it was going to be McDonald's or nowhere. The nearest Internet café that I could recall was at least two blocks away. I was going to have to make do. If nothing else, maybe I could type my answers to any questions asked.

So, I restart my computer, and connect to the McDonald's Internet (this took several minutes, as I had to register with their provider first). However, I was soon connected and Live Meeting was loading. During this setup time I once again realized that I didn't have my USB headphones. How am I going to hear the questions?

I scrounge around in my bag and find an extra pair of cheap earphones that I got on my flight to London. Actually, these were ear buds, and poor ones at that. But, they'd have to do.

Just about the time I have the ear buds plugged in, and Live Meeting is finally coming on line, I hear the rich voice of Embarcadero Developer Relations Evangelist David Intersimone (affectionately known as "David I") answering a question about my presentation. Suddenly, he stops and says "It sounds like Cary has come online from an Internet café. Cary, are you there?"

Oh, I'm here all right. Leaning over my laptop, speaking directly into the built-in microphone of my laptop's lid, with my fingers in my ears, trying to push the ear buds in further so that I could hear David while trying to block as much of the external racket as possible. "Yes, David, I'm here. Coming to you from a McDonald's."

"I can hear that. Sounds like you have a big audience there." But the good news was that I could hear the questions, and remarkably, they could hear my answers. And that's the way it was for the next 20 minutes. Me leaning over my laptop with the forefinger of each hand stuck in each ear.

I must have been quite a sight. But certainly not enough to discourage the family of five, an exhausted mother and her four children, all yelling at each other at the top of their lungs, from sitting down next to me half way through my session. Gee, I would have thought that a lunatic talking to his computer with his fingers in his ears would be something that a nurturing mother would want to avoid. But what do I know? This is London, after all, and they have their fare share of lunatics, and most of them are harmless.

Meanwhile, back at the conference hotel, Marco and Loy are back online and listening in (and laughing pretty hard, I'm later told). Apparently someone has rescued Trevor.

Considering the circumstances, it all went quite well. And at the conclusion of the Q&A, David I noted that we had accomplished a first. Other presenters had handled their Q&As live from the Embarcadero studios, some from their own offices, others from home, but never from a McDonald's. And, despite the constant chatter of children in the background (Marco and Loy said it sounded like I was presenting from a daycare center), we managed to answer all of the questions asked.

So, I'll have to admit that my first visit to McDonald's in years was an overall satisfying experience. Maybe I'll be back another day, when there is less pressing business. After all, I hear they pour a world-class cup of coffee these days.

Copyright (c) 2010 Cary Jensen. All Rights Reserved

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