The turboprop maneuvered precariously into position for its third attempted landing over an airstrip outside Nuuk, Greenland. Icy waters clawed at the plane as it skimmed the bay; fjord walls squeezed in from both sides. “Everyone in the cabin was dead silent,” recalls Randy Lagman. “We made it, but it was the worst flight I ever had.”
Randy Lagman’s job has involved many such hair-raising adventures. Is he a risk-loving researcher? A modern-day explorer? Not exactly. He’s a Web geek. A few years ago, Lagman, 37, spent all of his workdays indoors, rebooting corporate servers and rooting viruses out of groupware programs. He worked at Lands’ End, the billion-dollar catalog company based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, as a support staffer for Internet operations. Lagman still works for Lands’ End, and he still works with technology. But his title now is “technical adventurer outfitter.” And he spends much of his work time outdoors, equipping world-class adventurers — such as polar explorer Will Steger and sled-dog musher Bill Cotter — with the digital tools they need to transmit images and essays to the Internet. Why? Because Lands’ End hopes that by posting gripping diaries and stunning photos on the Web, it will draw eyeballs to its main site (www.landsend.com) — where, by the way, visitors are welcome to buy clothing, gear, luggage, and furniture.
For Lagman, this thrill-a-minute job comes as a radical career departure, but for Lands’ End, it’s the natural extension of a long-standing business strategy. When Gary Comer launched the catalog company in 1963, its focus was on selling sailboat hardware and equipment. It has had an eye on the high seas — and beyond — ever since. Back in 1985, the company began publishing essays by and about outdoor adventurers in its print catalog. Today, with Lagman’s help, that publishing practice is being carried over to the Web.
The flight to Greenland last June typifies the expansion of Lagman’s role with the company. Lagman was on his way to meet a crew of adventurers (led by writer W. Hodding Carter) who were preparing to sail a replica of a Viking ship through Greenland’s treacherous Davis Strait to the shores of Newfoundland. The goal of the 1,500-mile trip was to trace Leif Ericsson’s voyage to the New World, which took place around the year 1000. Lagman’s job was to equip the latter-day voyagers with hardware and software that would allow them to keep Web visitors up-to-date on the trip’s progress and problems.
Doing that job meant working with lots of new tools. On remote expeditions, notes Lagman, the toughest laptops and the highest-resolution digital cameras are useless if the necessary power source dies — or if transmitters fail to find satellites. That’s why Carter’s crew set sail with a wind generator that was capable of recharging two 20-hour, 120-pound gel-cell batteries. The batteries powered two super-rugged laptops, a satellite phone, a high-frequency radio (for weather broadcasts), a very-high-frequency radio (for Coast Guard communications), and a global positioning system. (Lands’ End used the GPS to monitor the journey; the sailors navigated the old-fashioned way — by the stars.)
On some assignments, Lagman has found another tool to be very useful — a gun. On a trip to Alaska last winter, he packed a 45-caliber semiautomatic side arm. He was in the remote town of Nenana, about 40 miles from Fairbanks, preparing Bill Cotter to deliver photos of the upcoming Iditarod race to the Lands’ End Web site. In Nenana, moose can be hazardous to your health. “If you run across a female with kids, she’ll slam you into the ground,” says Lagman, who notes that packing a piece is standard operating procedure for area residents.
Lagman got his new job in early 1997, when Lands’ End was preparing to sponsor Carter’s first attempt at a Viking voyage. Company brass asked Lagman if he could figure out a way to deliver Web content from the ship. “My immediate answer was yes,” he chuckles. “Of course, I didn’t know how to, because I didn’t know anything about satellite communications. But with information technology, attitude is more important than immediate knowledge.” The ship lost its rudder, and the crew lost its chance at immortality — at least for the moment. (The second voyage landed successfully last September.) But Lagman had found a new professional calling.
His assignment has had a big impact on his work style. For most people, bringing work home means reading reports in front of the TV or analyzing spreadsheets in an office carved out of a spare bedroom. For Lagman, it means wearing a raincoat, sitting under a lawn sprinkler, and testing a weatherproof laptop. “I’m getting a reputation as the neighborhood crackpot,” he jokes.
His work has also had an impact on his understanding of risk and stress. Lots of IT people believe that they work in high-stakes, high-pressure environments. But Lagman’s role as technical adventurer outfitter brings him into contact with people who know the real meaning of risk.
Consider the Viking crew: “As they approached land,” Lagman reports, “one of the first things they saw was a polar bear. On a couple of occasions they had to get their oars out and row away, because polar bears are great swimmers — and one of the few species that will go after humans with the intention of eating them.”
Or consider polar explorer Will Steger. Says Lagman: “Steger was dropped off at the North Pole by a Russian icebreaker, and his intention was to walk back. That’s a different perspective on life from what I’m used to. The folks we work with on these adventures are truly a different breed.”
Mark Halper (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on technology from San Francisco. You can learn more about Randy Lagman’s adventures on the Web (www.beyond.landsend.com).