Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Xponential 2016

New Orleans was a lucky break. My brother and his friend recently started a company and they needed an extra person to help out at a trade show. They kindly overlooked my total lack of engineering qualifications and, whoo-hoo!, there was a ticket to New Orleans in my inbox!

Although the expo was only for 3 days, we spent almost a week there. There was the set-up, the break-down, the networking events, and the city itself to see.

We set off at 7 AM on a Saturday morning, getting a close-up of Mt Rainier.

Nick (my brother) had enough miles to upgrade us to first class, a fancy place I'd never been. I had no idea how much food and drink the flight attendants would pass out during the flight, wow! It was a great distraction from the sheer terror that is air travel.

New Orleans was in the middle of a stormy few days when we landed. An Egyptian taxi driver rushed us down the highway, cursing all the other cars, before the next storm started.

Rain was the theme of our first few days there. And be warned- if you ever laugh at all the tourists running around in cheap rain ponchos, the gods of New Orleans will make you suffer the same wardrobe.

We grabbed po boys from a cafe advertised by a skull and two crossed baguettes-

Sweet potato po boy!

and ran through the rain to the convention center.

That convention center was HUGE. I don't think I'd ever seen a building that large in my life!

We spent that first afternoon setting up the booth in an empty exhibit hall and making an emergency run to Target (doesn't sound very exciting but it meant crossing the Mississippi!).

The next day most of the other exhibitors rolled into town and things started to get a little more lively.

You can probably guess what kind of event this was by now. It was organized by the noble-named Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Or in layman's terms: We Do Drone Stuff. At this point I was frantically trying to memorize the fancier terms before the tradeshow actually started ;) In the meantime, we had one more evening to relax before everything began.

Greg, the other half of the company, flew to NOLA that night and introduced himself right away as a foodie. He explained his plan to eat his way through the city. We had a "company dinner" together at a place whose name I can't even pronounce- Lüke- but best. food. ever. Ever!!! In fact, even though I didn't have anything green the entire six days, New Orleans had the most wonderful meals I've ever had. (Or as my brother said on the plane back: Now I want to spend a week eating only salad and running 5 miles a day.)

I was super nervous the first morning of the show. That very first time someone came up to the booth and said "So, what do you guys do?".... I was speechless. Everything I had memorized was gone.

By the second day, I got to "Uhhhhh, high-precision camera thingamajigs".

By the final day, I was at "High-precision lookdown cameras for mid-size, long-endurance UAVs".

Progress :)

It was a lot like learning a new language. If you just try to learn the words, you fail. If you understand the meaning behind the words, it sticks. I still only understand the business in basic terms, but I get it. You need to look for problems in thousands of miles of railroad tracks or pipeline. Track wildlife or forest fires. Survey 100,000 acres of crops. Doing it on foot is crazy. Doing it with a hobby-size drone will take forever. So you get a 10-ft long drone, put a high-end camera on it, and send it up. You send up an onboard supercomputer too so it can process images in the air instead of having to send them all the way back down for a bored human to look at. And voilà! You can see exactly where the fires are, or what kind of trees are in that forest, or where some idiot shot the pipeline. It's like a Google Earth that gives you high-definition when you zoom in. That's where I'm at now with my understanding of things, at least.

I had some hits and some misses as a booth girl. One time, a guy who looked a lot like the new Superman villain approached the booth and started asking about image processing capabilities. You can imagine how much I had to contribute on that subject, haha. Luckily Nick was able to eventually come over and give some real answers. Afterwards, he said "I was so nervous talking to that guy! He's like the #4 aerospace CEO in the world right now!!" That's one more aerospace CEO who will never be giving me a job.

Another time, I was flying around my baby drone-

and a big burly man walked up to watch. This was literally our conversation:
"It's my baby drone! Isn't it adorable?"
"Actually, I was thinking of how it could be used to take out enemy combatants."

Yeah. He turned out to be military. There were a lot of military on site, mainly looking at things to buy. There were also military personnel with the fun task of looking for spies. Two plain-clothed officers came around the first day with warnings about corporate espionage and certain nationalities. Kind of speaking of which, I did get to practice Russian with two Latvian guys!

And I made up for the aerospace CEO incident. There was an end-of-the-expo party, and I hung out for a while at the bar with a friendly southern guy and his girlfriend. Again, along came Nick. "Whoa! Do you know who that guy was? He's in charge of the army's drone program! People are standing in line to just talk to him!" Unless you're at the bar, I guess.

Speaking of bars, maybe I made this event sound too business-y, because there was a definite element of drinking. Happy Hour started no later than 4 PM every afternoon. The people who shelled out the big bucks on their booth would offer free beer, or you could join the queues to buy wine. By 4:30 PM, there was an awful lot of happy socializing going on.

On the last day I escaped a few times to wander the exhibit hall and gather swag.

There was even someone around from my alma mater!

Overall, it was an awesome experience. People were really friendly and easy to talk to (I quickly became a master of steering the conversations to what they did). It was also cool to get to know my brother better. We spent six whole days hanging out. I don't think we've spent that much time together since we were teenagers. I'm really proud of him and Greg for becoming entrepreneurs and stepping out on their own. And it was encouraging to see other women at this event and think that maybe someday the rest of us can be as science-savvy as they are.

This trip was also a work experiment. I have a new job writing content for an ESL website. It's mainly remote work- everyone's dream, right? This week was a test to see what it's truly like to travel and work from a hotel room.

Maybe I can blame it on the lure of New Orleans, but I only fit one or two good writing sessions in. The weekend I got home was spent in front of the computer screen on a deadline. Since then I've experimented with other ways to write more consistently. Hopefully going to do better with this in the future.

The hotel non-screen time was nice. The lobby was mellow, and the gym was full of machines. We stayed downtown, so everything was just a short walk away.

We also got in one evening walk down Bourbon Street, on a Saturday night!

Luckily the rain had vanished by the end of the week-


- so we had time for one thing I had really wanted to see in New Orleans...

More alligators to come ;)


  1. So jealous of your first class experience!

    1. Ugh, yes, it's going to be hard to go back to coach now :p Before I was always skeptical of the whole airline-miles game, but now I see how it pays off.

      Could you try flying first class in Russia, maybe? It might be more affordable but equally luxurious!

  2. Replies
    1. There's a postcard on the way to you, Timur ;) And Nick says hi!