Gretchen Richter de Medeiros

How managing a trip around the world made me a better program manager

It was our last day in the southern hemisphere. We’d been traveling for seven months through five countries. I was sipping my early morning coffee when my husband stumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed, messy-haired and panicked. “Oh, my God, I need a visa!” he whisper-shouted. “Brazilians need a visa to enter the UAE!”

My response was calm. “No, that can’t be, I would have flagged it months ago. Let’s check online.”

He was right. Our flight from Johannesburg to Dubai was in four hours, and we’d let this crucial detail slip through the cracks. Actually, I had let it slip. As program manager for my family’s round-the-world trip, visas were definitely my responsibility. So, I took a deep breath and rolled up my sleeves to fix this.

I’ve been a Program Manager (PM) for most of my professional life – and, in many ways, most of my real life, too. It all started when I was a little girl organizing my siblings, playmates and dogs for neighborhood talent shows. I gathered resources, delegated responsibilities, and made flyers to attract our audience. I continued almost-PMing as a coxswain for my university’s crew team. There, I strategized, made schedules, and brought diverse personalities together to achieve a common goal.

When I first heard about Program Management as a career, I almost couldn’t believe it. People would pay me to do what I’ve always done? As I grew my career, I began to see how often the skills I’d honed on the job helped me in my non-work life, too. Not surprisingly, when my husband and I took an 11-month sabbatical with our two teenagers, I found myself tapping in to every aspect of PMing to plan and manage our epic journey.

We splurged on a guide for Machu Picchu and other Inca sites in Peru, our first stop.

Program Managers are business managers. We create and manage the budget, determine roles and responsibilities, and articulate goals. We’re the keeper of each program’s vision. For our trip, this translated to me scouring the internet for blogs by world-traveling families. I found people’s budgets and cross-referenced them with cost data in guidebooks. I identified which countries and experiences would be most expensive so we could pick just a few. Together we drafted travel goals. We got really good at talking about why we were doing this crazy thing. It felt just like the beginning phases of a program.

Program Managers identify risks and develop mitigation plans. We notice recurring challenges and change our team’s processes or habits to reduce or eliminate them. Additionally, we monitor the daily pulse of the team. Thinking through possible emergencies, I purchased trip and travel-medical insurance and made electronic copies of our passports. I was constantly gauging everyone’s emotions. When it became clear that transit days were very difficult, I tasked the kids with figuring out how to reduce stress, “hanger,” and timing errors. We learned more and enjoyed ourselves best when we traveled more slowly, so we adjusted accordingly.

Turkish Delight. The Turkish town of Selcuk was so lovely, interesting and relaxing we extended our stay to three weeks. 

Of course, a huge element of Program Management is Project Management. Just like I do with projects, I broke our trip in to component parts: Itinerary. School. Lodging. Transportation. Budget. Visas. Food. Packing. Everyone had specific tasks and I made burn down charts to get things done before we left. (Yes, I really did that.)

I built our calendar with key dates. Not every detail for every country was planned in advance, but we did know our flight schedule for the first six months and booked lodging in our first two countries. I tracked our timing for visas and deposits. Each month I updated our actuals vs. budget. I forced fiscal trade-off conversations that went something like this: “If we go to that fancy dinner in Mendoza, we might not be able to do the Dinosaur museums in Neuquén. Which is more important?” (Answer? Dinos. Of course.)

I identified the resources needed to maximize learning and safety. At home, REI, the Army/Navy surplus store and Target were our go-to stores for stocking our backpacks. Though we’d brought a stove-top espresso pot and corkscrew from home, our first Airbnb houses exposed that we needed a mini-traveling-kitchen. We gradually acquired a paring knife, hand-held cheese grater, and tiny cutting board.

I negotiated contracts and hired SMEs, like our guide in Peru and Safari outfitters in South Africa. I was also nagger-in-chief when it came to reporting program status via blog and vlog posts and emails to grandparents and teachers back home.

We couldn’t leave Argentina without visiting an Estancia. This was one of our big splurges in South America.

As with programs, consistent, respectful and open communication was essential for managing expectations and driving decisions. We flipped and flopped about adding South Africa to our itinerary, two of us finally convinced the other three. As it turned out, our Safari made it to everyone’s best-experiences list. Other critical negotiations included allowing the teens’ freedom to explore cities independently, spending one month in Turkey, and ending the trip three weeks early.

Our first afternoon on Safari, near Addo National Elephant Park in South Africa.

Our planned visit to Dubai? Well, thank goodness PMs are change management ninjas. Having experienced many project pivots and cancellations, I quickly devised plans A, B and C when visa-catastrophe struck. Plan A: investigate if my husband could get a visa upon arrival. Nope. Plan B, changing our tickets to bypass the UAE, seemed improbable. Could we reach our San Francisco travel agent at 10:30 Pacific on a Friday night? Miraculously, it worked, someone just happened to be in the office. Even more serendipitous, our rental apartment in Athens was also available. Disaster averted! Tickets changed, fees paid, and lodging secured we left Johannesburg shakily, but determined to enjoy our longer stay in the Greek capital.

Whether in South Africa or Seattle, I continue to marvel at how often being a PM comes in handy outside of work. From childhood through university, as a parent, traveler and employer, I’ve tapped into the PM toolbox for many reasons. It’s fun, too, to see my non-work life impacting how I do my job. The skills I learned traveling with my family are now helping me in my role as a Service Design PM at Fjord Seattle. Last year, for example, I used Airbnb, TripAdvisor and many other travel tools to facilitate ethnographic research in Japan. I tapped into my travel networks to find assistant candidates, and shared online cultural references to help the team prepare for their work. As I conclude my first year with Fjord, I look forward to continue building and applying all these skills to the world of Service Design.

Gretchen Richter de Medeiros

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