The Epic Journey: Merging Work and Extended Road Trips

Manufacturing Insights Blog

 I've established a reputation for taking vacations of arguably epic scope.

Having been with Plex Systems for over 15 years, I now have a lot of paid time off, and I do take advantage of it. When I go somewhere, I want to immerse myself in the experience, and that takes time.

Let’s flash back a bit.

In the fall of '79, during my first semester at Arizona State University, I bought my first BMW motorcycle: a 600cc '74 R60/6. By the following spring the only thought in my head was, "Get the heck out of this place before summer hits." So I jumped on my bike and took  a 6,000-mile, three-week ride to the Grand Canyon,  Utah and Las Vegas, then to Sequoia, Yosemite and San Francisco, up the west coast through Mt. St. Helen's ash-laden aftermath and  finally east to my hometown in Michigan.

Taking long trips while off school for the summer was no problem. But after college I eventually landed a position designing and building production tools and machines. Being a toolmaker and later an engineer – jobs which I really enjoyed – meant being with, or in some cases inside of, big machines that weren't going anywhere.

There was no getting away from them. I had to be there. The industrial tradition of needing personnel to be "in the plant" made it fairly tough to get away with extended vacations. A week was acceptable, in some cases mandatory; but two weeks at a time was pushing it.

In '93 I bought my third BMW, a brand-new R1100RS. I immediately put it to use for annual tours from Michigan through Canada, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and the northeast, Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula and my perennial favorite, Colorado. By then I had enough seniority and accrued vacation time that I could usually get away for two full weeks, and once even three.

In '97, I started at Plex Systems. For the next few years, we all worked long hours. Still do, actually. But the company has had flextime from the beginning and I took full advantage of it, though I often logged more hours than anyone except the company’s founder, Rob Beatty. I didn't take much vacation, and never in big chunks – although I almost always made it home in time to read to my son at bedtime. He heard the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy twice; if we couldn't have our own epic saga, at least we could savor one of the best.

By June of 2000, things began to change. I'd just completed a major build and implementation project, but hadn't yet been given a new assignment. My hard work had not gone unnoticed; everybody knew I deserved a break. A great thing about Plex Systems’ culture is that we're expected to work hard, but also to keep in mind that, as Rob put it years ago, "The reason this company exists is to provide good lives for our families."

So I devised a plan to mix a little business with a lot of pleasure. I flew to Phoenix and bought my uncle's minivan, then drove it to San Diego.  My wife and then 10-year-old son flew out to meet me, and while I attended a software conference, Laurel and Johnny went to the zoo and kicked around town. After the conference, we spent the remainder of four weeks driving around California, Utah, Arizona and Colorado – a trip that made memories we’ll always treasure.

In 2010 my wife and I took a grand tour of Europe, spending a week and a half in London and southern England, then traveling around the continent. A weekend in Amsterdam, our 25th anniversary in Paris, then a few days in Luxembourg with a pen pal I’d met during a study abroad trip in '78.  

We hung out with my college roommate and his wife in Vienna, hit Munich on the first day of Oktoberfest and, of course, completed my pilgrimage to the BMW Museum. We were gone for exactly a month.  

This summer I'm back from a 7,149-mile, 22-day journey that included a ride through Colorado with my dad and stepmom and a small reunion with friends and family in Arizona. Somewhere along the way I decided to continue to California, and ride the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to Oregon, where I spent the weekend with a cousin I hadn’t seen in twenty years.  

Most “Plexians” (as we often refer to ourselves) don't do these kinds of extended adventures. Most probably don't want to, if for no other reason than the thought of facing 5,000 emails upon their return. But it's a testament to Plex Systems’ culture that I'm able to indulge my peculiar passion. And to what seems to be an ever-increasing degree, my job can now be done from almost anywhere and, especially in my new position, almost any time.

For example, in order to stretch my continuous time off by three days, I really wanted to depart for that trip on Memorial Day weekend.

My bike was fully serviced and packed, but I wasn't ready.

I'd almost, but not quite, finished the specification for a new Plex module. The broad strokes of the design were done; the team would be able to work out the details and move the design forward without me if needed. But they deserved a well-constructed document to review during my absence, and perhaps even put through to development before I even returned.

So with my laptop securely stored in the bike’s hard-shell saddlebags, the finishing touches of the Module Configurator design package were completed in a hotel room in Estes Park, Colo. Various reports were posted from Steamboat Springs … and I'll admit that the New Enhancements Summary for May was collated at, and dispatched from, Smuggler Joe's Brew Pub in Telluride.

John Dancoe is Product Manager at Plex Systems. To see pictures and stories from John’s 2012 tour and other writings, please visit his blog.

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