by Dan Spoone
The theme for this edition of the E-Forum is “Vision Around the World.” It is sponsored by ACB’s International Relations Committee. We applaud the committee for their efforts and encourage other ACB committees and affiliates to participate in future issues. The theme concept has brought excitement to the “Braille Forum” and the “E-Forum,” and we congratulate the Board of Publications for a fantastic idea.
This particular theme brings back memories of my time as an employee of Siemens Energy. Siemens is a German-based multinational conglomerate with over 400,000 employees in 150 countries around the world. I had the opportunity to manage several global project teams with members in both the United States and Germany. This meant lots of international travel. Many times, these trips were with other work colleagues, but on several occasions I had the chance to travel solo across the pond. These trips were exciting, informative and challenging, as a blind person. I always came away with the basic understanding that Americans and Germans were much more similar than different. However, I thought it might be beneficial to share some of my experiences working for an international company in Europe.
My trips would usually start on Sunday afternoon with a flight to either New York or Atlanta and an overnight flight to Germany. I packed a set of business clothes in my backpack, so I could head straight to the office the next morning, when I arrived in Berlin. We worked through Friday and I returned home on Saturday with a connecting flight back through either New York or Atlanta and a final flight home to Orlando. When you do this on a regular basis, the time difference (six hours) really messes up your sleep patterns. It usually took me several days to get back in sync.
It was important to pack the proper items for the trip. The European electric grid is 50 cycles instead of the 60 cycles we are familiar with in the United States, so you needed adapters for all of your electric items. My first trip to Munich, I used an adapter for my electric razor that did not have the proper converter. Smoke quickly filled my hotel bathroom, setting off the fire alarm. “Welcome to Munich” were the next words I heard from the hotel staff, along with some chuckles from my American colleagues.
It was also key to bring some euros with you for the initial transactions with the taxi cab and the local restaurants. By the way, the euro is fully accessible, with different size bills for $5 and up. The bills are different heights and widths, with different colors and braille markings. What a novel concept! Many locations did not accept American Express, so you needed to have euros available at all times.
There is no ADA law in Germany, so the hotels did not have braille or raised print on the elevators or hotel rooms. There were very few ramps and lots of stairs. It will be interesting to see if the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Treaty (CRPD) will have an impact on these accommodations. Most Germans under the age of 40 spoke pretty good English, but it was necessary to travel with index cards with the key addresses for the hotel, office and train station to give to your taxi driver for directions.
It was good to travel with a simple calculator, since you were always trying to convert miles to meters, gallons to liters, pounds to grams, and Fahrenheit to Celsius. There were usually three television channels in English, which were International CNN, CNBC Business and Bloomberg Business. Remember, the international business language is still English. Thank goodness!
My favorite story in Germany was a project review meeting we had in Berlin on our major implementation of the Fleet Management tool (FMT) that managed Siemens Energy’s long-term service contracts for a fleet of 200-plus gas turbines around the world. These contracts represented over a billion euros of business, and it was a high-pressure meeting. I was the lead project manager, so when I entered the conference room the German and American team members were already assembled. We exchanged formal introductions and the meeting got underway.
Like most formal Siemens business meetings, the focus of the meeting was a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation with a projector shining the presentation on a screen mounted on a wall. I was the manager in charge, so it was my job to challenge the team on their confidence in their projections and assumptions. Were we on track? What could we do to correct items that had fallen behind schedule? Did we have confidence in our budget projections? This was made more challenging by the fact that I was the only blind person in the meeting and the Germans were still trying to adjust to having a blind boss. When I would decide to challenge an assumption, I would point to the block of light on the wall and ask my question. I could not see any writing on the presentation on the wall, but had a very good understanding of the presentation materials and felt comfortable asking tough questions. After my third such question, my American colleague, John Gates, yelled, “Stop, Dan, you are driving me crazy.” It caused me to stop in mid-sentence. John had been a colleague and friend for many years, and I was frustrated with his sudden outburst. John continued, “You keep pointing to the window and everyone keeps looking outside. The PowerPoint presentation is on the other wall.” The entire room broke up laughing and we had a great meeting.
Like I said in the beginning, we are all more similar than different. I hope everyone gets to travel to Europe in their lifetime. It is a wonderful experience.