I'm a part-time travel blogger with a full time day job as a program manager on the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) team at Google in Dublin Ireland. I never thought that key principles from my day job would come in handy on our travels. It turns out that I was wrong. Key SRE principles and practices are super useful in a travel emergency. Read on to learn more about Site Reliability Engineering and get some advice you can use if you are ever injured on vacation.
What is Site Reliability Engineering?
Site Reliability Engineering is a sub-discipline of software engineering responsible for keeping large-scale systems up and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. 100% uptime is an impossible goal so SRE is all about mitigating risk to an acceptable level so that you can achieve the desired level of availability (whether it be three 9's, four 9's, or 5 9's; i.e.: 99.9%, 99.99% or 99.999% uptime). The motto of the Site Reliability Engineering team at Google is:
Hope is not a strategy. –Ben Treynor SlossI like to think of SREs as constructive pessimists. We think about what could go wrong and then take proactive steps to minimize the chance of that thing actually happening. Inevitably things do go wrong though. Just remember Murphy's Law:
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. –Murphy's LawOr Finagle's Law:
Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment. –Finagle's LawBecause of this, site reliability engineers also focus on incident management and following up after an incident. Getting injured on vacation certainly qualifies as an incident in my book, just not the sort that SREs are used to dealing with.
Injured on Vacation
So what happened? My husband Scott and I travel a lot. We've been on hundreds of trips since we moved to Ireland over 8 years ago. This time we were traveling through Slovenia and Croatian Istria. We were spending 24 hours in Rovinj Croatia when we made the fateful decision to rent bicycles. This seemed like a low risk situation. Rovinj has a coastal cycle path that looked flat and easy to negotiate. Little did we know that due to some construction at a nearby hotel, part of the bicycle path was closed forcing us on a detour on a shared road with cars. We were taking the bicycles back after a lovely day of cycling. We were on a relatively quiet road and a slight downhill slope. One minute, Scott was pedaling in front of me, the next he had landed face first on the street.
I dropped my bike and ran to him. There was blood everywhere. I knew that it was important to stay calm in a crisis so I took decisive action. I checked to make sure his eye was ok and then got him out of the street. I looked around for something with which to apply pressure to the cut above his eye. We had a thick canvas tote bag with us which I had him press onto the cut while I called emergency services. Fortunately, the ambulance was parked nearby and arrived within about 5 minutes. We spent an afternoon at Croatian hospitals in the regional hub in Pula and the next day at the larger hospital in Rijeka. We soon learned that things could have been much worse. I'm pleased to say that while Scott needed stitches and actually broke a bone in his face (not to mention sustaining a bunch of scrapes and bruises) in the bicycle accident, he is expected to make a full recovery.
What Lessons from SRE Can Be Applied to a Travel Emergency?
As we were sitting in the hospital waiting room for our turn to be seen, I thought, I need to do an SRE-style retrospective on this so we can learn from this experience for the future.
Doing A Blameless Retrospective
In Site Reliability Engineering, every incident is followed up with a blameless postmortem which covers: the timeline of events, what went well, what could have gone better, where did we get lucky, and what will we do differently next time. In this case, I thought it was better not to invoke the term "postmortem" so we'll just call this our blameless travel retrospective. In SRE, it's important for a retrospective to be blameless. There is no point in pointing the finger at individuals which just puts people on the defensive and often incentivizes people to cover up bad stuff. Instead, a blameless retrospective is all about figuring out what it was about the system or circumstances that allowed the incident to emerge.
The Timeline of Events
The timeline of events is important to capture to help discover the root cause of the incident. In our case, the timeline was as follows:
- 9:30 am Rented bicycles.
- 9:30 - 2:00 pm Cycled along the coast of Rovinj.
- 2:00 pm Lunch along the coastal path.
- 3:00 pm Discovered that a section of the coastal path was closed due to construction. Backtracked and followed the detour onto the road.
- 3:30 pm Cycling downhill on a relatively quiet road, Scott lost his balance and fell off the bicycle landing on his face.
- 3:35 pm Emergency services called.
- 3:40 pm Emergency services arrive and check for vital signs and alertness.
- 3:45 pm One of the paramedics helps take the rental bicycles to a nearby restaurant for safekeeping. A waiter at the restaurant agrees to call the rental company and let them know what happened and see if they can come and get the bikes.
- 4:00 pm Paramedics finish bandaging the wound and send us in a taxi to Pula.
- 4:45 pm Arrive at the Hospital in Pula.
- 5:30 pm Stitches are applied, sent for x-rays.
- 6:30 pm X-rays complete, Broken bone discovered.
- 6:45 pm Referred to a specialist in Rijeka for follow-up.
- 7:00 pm Return by taxi from Pula to Rovinj.
- 11:00 pm Rental car reserved to drive to Rijeka.
In my case, the timeline went on for another few days but I'll spare you the details. It's important to capture what happened and when so that you can analyze the situation and answer the next questions in the travel emergency retrospective: what went well, what could have gone better, where did we get lucky?
What Went Well
As a first step, think about what went well and write that down. In our case, I'd say the following went well:
- Emergency services responded quickly when we called 112.
- Bike company was very understanding. Did not charge us for damaging the bikes.
- We had our EU insurance cards with us which meant we only had to pay a small co-pay for the emergency services.
What Could Have Been Better?
There were definitely things that could have been better in this particular travel emergency.
- The bicycle company did not offer us helmets though we didn’t think to ask since the route was supposed to be on bike paths along the coast.
- We were in a very small town in Croatia with limited medical services though they are used to having tourists.
- There was no ice in the ambulance or at the hospital in Pula to apply and help with the swelling right away.
Where Did We Get Lucky?
Even though Scott was injured on vacation and it was pretty serious, it could have been a lot worse. We got lucky in several ways.
- Scott's injuries weren't as bad as they could have been given the severity of the fall.
- Helpful English-speaking locals assisted us in communicating where we were to emergency services.
- We had packed my driver’s license on the trip even though we didn’t intend to drive. This helped when we needed to get to Rijeka.
The whole point of an SRE-style retrospective is to reflect on what happened and then commit to certain action items to help mitigate the risks for the future. Here are a couple AIs that we committed to after our travel emergency:
- Make sure immunization records are up to date and accessible (e.g., is our tetanus shot still good)?
- Create a list of contacts that we can keep in our wallet in case of emergency if we are traveling alone.
What Will We Do Differently Next Time?
Another key point of a Site Reliability Engineering retrospective is to change your behavior after the incident in a constructive way. Here are some things we'll definitely do differently from now on.
- Don’t rent bikes ever without a helmet. Going forward we'll use the same approach that we do with boats. Lifejackets are required or we don't get onboard.
- Pack both our driver’s licenses even if we don’t plan to drive just in case.
- Add Paracetamol to my medicine kit (only had Advil).
SRE-Style Travel Retrospective Template
Check out this Google Doc for an SRE-style retrospective template that you can use should you find yourself in a position to reflect on your own travel emergency. Just open the link and create a copy. I hope you don't ever find yourself in this situation but then again, as we all know after reading this article: Hope is not a strategy.