At 82,000 members and growing, the McCombs Alumni Network is a formidable bunch, working in just about every profession under the sun: CEOs, astronauts, athletes, small-business owners, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, artists and on and on. In our new “Ask the Expert” series, Texas taps into that breadth of knowledge and asks alumni to share their expertise, from the practical (spicing up your PowerPoint presentations) to the ‘How’d they do that?’ (producing a Presidential inauguration) and everything in between. Your education shouldn’t stop when you graduate—and hey, you never know when you might need to start a fire in the middle of nowhere.
HOW DO YOU SURVIVE BEING STRANDED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BRAZILIAN HIGHLANDS?
By Joe Dowdle, BBA ’04
Starting a fire is the biggest component to survival because it keeps you warm at night, you can cook fish and boil water. On the first day, total man hours logged, it was a good 24 hours before we finally got a fire going, with 4 or 5 people working on it. The key is the tinder that you use, and the kindling. It has to be 110 percent dry, and it can’t be too spread out. You have to make sure the spark hits right in the middle of an area the size of a pinpoint. Your arms get tired after an hour or two of hacking away at a piece of flint—I’ve never been so frustrated in my whole life. But eventually you get the hang of it, and making fire becomes routine.
Protein is your best friend. We were just eating five scoops of rice for each meal, so I dropped 25 pounds in the first 12 days. We found a fruit called jatoba that was powdery and chalky and smelled like feet, but it was very rich in protein. When I ate protein, it would stave off the hunger for a couple of hours, which feels like eternity out there.
Everything can be a resource. We used jatoba shells as spoons. And one time I squashed a fly, put it on a hook, caught a little minnow, cut the minnow up, put it back on the hook, caught a smaller fish, cut it up, put it back on the hook and then caught a big fish. You just start thinking like that. Something as small as catching a fly—that becomes your fate.
The small stuff matters. On the 12th day, I got a little scrape, nothing much at all. But it’s impossible to keep 100 percent clean out there, so it got infected. One morning I woke up and it was just out of control. They told me that if I didn’t leave to go the hospital I could die. So they brought in a helicopter for me, took me straight to surgery, drained out the infection, stitched me up and put me on antibiotics. Something that started out as a small scrape put me in the hospital for a week.
You either sink or float real quick. It’s not sink or swim—swimming implies that you’re excelling. It’s hanging in there, and that’s all you’re trying to do. You want to conserve as much energy as possible. You do essentially the bare minimum to get things done and get food. You’re definitely not trying to impress. It’s about sustaining.
Joe Dowdle, BBA ’04, was a contestant on the 18th season of the CBS reality show “Survivor” and spent 21 days in Tocantins, a region of the Brazilian highlands. He was forced to leave the show because of a knee injury. He lives in Austin, where he does site acquisition work for cell phone towers and is also pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter.
HOW DO YOU PUT ON A PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION?
By Suzanne Mahoney, MBA ’99
We originally met up with Barack Obama’s team during the Democratic National Campaign Primaries in Texas. The Obama For America campaign then turned to us to produce their Election Night Rally in Chicago’s Grant Park—a site we know well since it plays annual host to our music festival, Lollapalooza.
Fast-forward to November 29, 2008. C3 was approached to help produce another history-making event in a matter of weeks—the inaugural ceremonies in Washington D.C. We led event-production services for the We Are One Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, the Inaugural Swearing-In Ceremony on the National Mall, and the Inaugural Parade.
You don’t expect a once-in-a-lifetime event to be simple, and it wasn’t. Our primary client for this gig was the Presidential Inauguration Committee. We also worked directly with the U.S. Secret Service (on overall safety and security), the National Park Service on all site-build decisions (the majority of inauguration events took place on national parkland), the District of Columbia, the U.S. Armed Forces Committee (they organized the parade) and HBO’s production teams (on the live concert broadcast).
Here’s a snapshot of some of the numbers: It took 170 stagehands to build the Lincoln Memorial concert stage, 89 rock stars and 750 chorus members to put on the show, 286 production staffers to manage everything on site (from bleacher installation to artist logistics to media coordination), 27 Jumbotron video screens to broadcast the happenings to 1.8 million people on site, 4,500 port-o-johns and one bald eagle named Challenger.
An opening concert of this nature had never been done before. To add further complexity, the stage was being built on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a national landmark. With only a few weeks to prep for the inaugural events, we quickly embraced adaptive behavior. This intentional flexibility helped when unexpected hiccups—like freezing cold temperatures, sudden road closures, public protests and a drop-in from the First Family—pushed the already tight schedule. Sometimes “make it up as you go along” is the best strategy.
The themes of President Obama’s campaign were accessibility and inclusiveness, and that set the tone for the inaugural events. Everyone was in it together. There wasn’t one element or person that mattered more than anyone or anything else. Truly what we did was a sum-of-the-parts effort—bringing together thousands of people to pull off something spectacular.
Suzanne Mahoney, MBA ’99, is the creative services director for event-production company C3 Presents, which co-produced Barack Obama’s Election Night Rally in Chicago’s Grant Park and spearheaded event production services for the 2009 inaugural ceremonies in Washington, D.C., including the We Are One Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Inaugural Swearing-In Ceremony on the National Mall and the Inaugural Parade. C3 also produces Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A POWERPOINT PRESENTATION LESS BORING?
By Tim Washer, MBA ’96
My father always told me “redundancy is a sign of ignorance.” If he said it once, he said it a thousand times. It’s one of the most frequent mistakes I see in PowerPoint presentations, and it can turn your audience off quickly. A few ideas for a better
Do your homework: Reach out to a handful of people before your presentation and ask what is the most important question on this topic that they would like answered. Not only will your material be more relevant, but you’ve let a few audience members know their opinion counts. It will have a positive influence on the energy in the room.
Less is more. One executive I’ve worked with used to introduce cluttered slides with the useless disclaimer, “I know not everyone in the room can read this….” He failed to discern subtle nonverbal cues like people squinting—or leaving.
The most influential slides I’ve seen deliver their message with only three to eight words. It allows for an easy-to-read slide and keeps the focus on you. I never use a font smaller than 30-point, unless I’m presenting to a very small group (e.g., a negotiation with my wife).
A picture is worth a thousand words. Although my English literature professor assured me this ratio doesn’t apply for a midterm essay, it holds true for PowerPoint. Since our minds absorb visual information faster, it’s a much more powerful way to convey your point. Impress your audience with a classic from Corbis.com, ShutterStock.com or even Flickr.com. My friend Charlie made the exchange and still had a few words left over.
Tell stories. Everyone loves a good story. Use client examples, or find a relevant reference through WSJ.com, NYTimes.com or an industry trade publication. Simplify the tale with the narrative formula: a) problem, b) solution, c) results. For a good story, those are the only elements you need. And possibly a dragon.
Schedule 20 minutes, and finish early. People love to get time back.
And finally, the most important rule bears repeating: always avoid redundancy.
Tim Washer, MBA ’96, has appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and has written for “The Late Show with David Letterman.” As a corporate speechwriter and humor coach, he’s worked with senior executives at IBM, Pepsi and Cisco. Visit his Web site to view his corporate comedy videos.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO CLIMB THE WORLD’S TALLEST MOUNTAINS?
By Ryan Childs and Austin Harkness, MBA ’09
(Journal excerpts from their climb of Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua, 22,836 feet)
5:15 AM – It’s summit day. We’ve been up for close to an hour boiling snow to sustain us for the day ahead. We’re exhausted; with less than 50 percent of the oxygen at high camp (19,850’) as at sea level, sleeping is nearly impossible.
5:20 AM – We top off the last water and quickly eat a 300-calorie high-carb breakfast since the body can’t properly digest protein at altitude (we lost 31 lbs between the two of us during our 19-day expedition).
5:30 AM – Having just finished our meal of cookies and Argentinean sweetbread, we gear up: two pairs of expedition socks, moisture-wicking leggings and top, fleece bodysuit, long sleeve synthetic top, expedition down pants, and a Gore-Tex top. We top it off with two pairs of gloves and a wool cap after securing crampons over 8 lb, -50° boots.
6:05 AM – Finally dressed, we pack our summit packs with the essentials: extra layers, backup ice axe, water, and food. We meet the rest of our team. With no sunlight, the wind already picking up, and temperatures hovering around -15 °, we are ready to get moving.
8:15 AM – We’ve been pushing been for over 2-hours and the sun still has not peaked over the mountain. One group member has already turned back. Our guide fears it is HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), a condition where a climber’s lungs fill with fluid due to the effects of altitude.
8:55 AM – We reach Indepencia Hut, our first real break. Situated on a saddle ridge at 21,325’, this is also our first glimpse of direct sunlight. We take the opportunity to hydrate, eat a Snickers bar and try to warm up. The sun is deceiving- though it feels warm behind our glacier goggles, the wind-chill is around -40°. We are both starting to miss Austin.
9:20 AM – We get our first view of the cold, wind-swept traverse that connects Indepencia to the summit ridge via the West Face. Though we can see the other side, we are looking at a 3-hour push on an exposed trail. 60 mph gusts are whipping across the traverse. We’ve been climbing over 4 hours and still have 5 to go. For the first time today, we doubt our ability to make the summit.
10:40 AM – We’re halfway across the traverse. We’re back in the shadow of the mountain. Everything is cold, and since we’re taking 4 breaths per step, we’re not going anywhere in a hurry. Down to our right we see the tents at base camp come into focus, almost 2 vertical miles below us.
12:05 PM – We’ve completed the traverse and arrive at the “cave,” a secure sun-drenched boulder outcrop at the mouth of the canaletta, a coulloir leading directly to the summit. We check the GPS: 21,940’, less than 900’ to go. We hide behind a rock outcropping to escape the wind, take off our down parkas and get much needed food and drink. We both feel strong but know we need a good, long rest.
12:43 PM – After our team had a chance to rest, warm up, and rehydrate, we set off up the canaletta.
1:05 PM – It is slow going up the incline and our team quickly spreads out, and we move ahead as we’re both still feeling strong. Five breaths for every step at this point; we’re about 1,000’ below the point where oxygen tanks become a necessity.
1:57 PM – We are up the canaletta and on the ridge line. Now to our left, we can see base camp miles below us. To our right, we get our first view of the famous South Face, a 10,000’ drop at more than 70 degrees.
2:08 PM – One more short break before the last push. We sit down for a minute to get a drink and readjust our crampons. Only one liter of water between us now, and headaches are setting in from the altitude, but we know we’re close and push on.
2:26 PM – Summit! Right now we are the highest people in the world (it’s winter in the Himalayas). After pulsing out at 180 bpm for more than eight hours and spending 17 days on the mountain with months of training and preparation behind us, we’ve finally reached our goal. We spend a few minutes taking pictures and video and make a couple satellite calls to family. 20 minutes on the summit before it’s time to head down. We check our blood oxygen saturation before leaving: 65%. We should be in the ER.
2:45 PM – As we leave the summit we pass the rest of our team on their way up, and offer them words of encouragement. Minutes into our descent, we feel fortunate to have left; a storm has blown in reducing visibility to about 50 feet. Climbing down steep ice is hard, and one slip would be it.
4:05 PM – We are pushing ever more quickly down the traverse, and even with the whiteout, it’s much warmer than it was this morning – at least -5°.
4:58 PM – No idea where Camp 3 is. We could be on the wrong trail, or might’ve gone too far. We’re sure that camp is close and we think we’re at the correct altitude for camp, but we’re exhausted and out of water. Neither of us can see any other climbers in the whiteout conditions. It’s time to admit we’re lost. This is not good.
5:03 PM – We debate our options, and stopping isn’t one of them as we don’t have the gear to spend a night outside like this. We spread out and walk along the ridge side by side looking for a glimpse of the trail or some sign of camp.
5:54 PM – We finally find camp. Still no idea where our group is, but they are with our guides, so we know they’re safe.* We go straight to our tent and pass out. It has been a tremendous day…
* We later found out that one climber in our group had mild HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) on the summit and was given dexamethasone before being rushed down. And another climber collapsed of exhaustion at Independencia Hut and had to be helped down the mountain, which is why our group arrived so late at camp.
Several days later, another expedition got caught in a blizzard, killing three of its climbers and stranding many others at “the cave.” The survivors were rescued the next day but all had severe frostbite. Two days after this tragedy, another climber collapsed on the summit and died of an apparent heart attack.
Events such as this make us feel extremely fortunate about our expedition, team strength and general luck while climbing this mountain. It won’t be our last trip, but we now climb with a greater respect of these mountains, and better appreciation for all that we have.
Ryan W. Childs and Austin Harkness, both MBA ‘09 have been climbing mountains for years, and are now on a journey to climb the highest peak on every continent. In June, they tackled Mount Elbrus in Russia (18,510 feet) vying for their third of the Seven Summits.
Have an idea for a future Ask the Expert segment? Let us know at email@example.com.