Saturday, March 05, 2005

My Friend Nick

I met Nick under what one would expect to be not the best of circumstances. I was working at the time for a huge telecom company and was working on a project that was in deep trouble. I was an architect and development team leader for a key component of a major re-engineering project. This was before the telecom bust and the company had the resources back then to do big things. Our project was a big thing – as it turned out, a big mistake. It involved hundreds of very talented people from multiple regions of the company, spanning at least five countries and three continents. Early in the project, things had seemed to be going well; lots of brilliant tools had been developed and it was only in the latter stages of the project – when we went to hook them all together, that things started to fall apart. We discovered that there was no workable agreement about the underlying business process. There were disagreements about the definitions of such fundamental concepts as “Order” or “Product” or “Customer.” We were doomed… and management began the process of looking for magic solutions to their insoluble problem. One of those “solutions” was to bring in a largely European company that did business process consulting and project management, and with that company came Nick.

I expect that Nick was in some of the initial interviews that the consulting company did with me when they were first brought in, but to tell the truth I don’t remember him there. My earliest clear memory of Nick was later, when he had been assigned to my part of the project and was reviewing our code. We were working in Smalltalk and Smalltalkers like to use high resolutions and small fonts to get as much code on the screen as they can. My first memory of Nick is of a tall, lanky man hunched over in front of a computer monitor. He had taken off his rather thick glasses and was holding them up to the screen to use as a magnifying glass to read the tiny characters a few at a time, all the while laughing and complaining, in a loud, Dutch-accented voice, about the size of the font.

During the time I worked with Nick on that project he was always cheerful and hardworking. He displayed that European bluntness that I sometimes find off-putting with other continental expatriates, but I never did with Nick. His good nature, easy humor and lack of pretence made the directness of his speech charming. He worked alongside my team on our hopeless project for slightly less than a year and during that time we became friends. He constantly reaffirmed that first impression I got from his peering at the tiny type to see our Smalltalk code. He was a big, gangly man of great curiosity and enthusiasm who worried very little about the impression he made.

In the decade since that time we have kept in touch. My wife and I made it a point to try to see Nick and Ingrid whenever we were in the same town. Their stories about their renovation of an old house in Atlanta are some of my wife’s favorites; sooner or later she tells everybody about our friends Nick and Ingrid and what they found under the tablecloth and what was in the drawer that had been taped shut and painted over. We’ve followed their travels though Christmas cards and emails, and always look forward to the next time we could get together, even if that was only for a few hours every other year.

By now, a perceptive reader, having noticed the persistent past tense in this description, will have figured out that Nick has passed away. I heard from Ingrid a week ago that he had died, apparently taken ill with a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting the town of Potosi in Bolivia. Potosi is famous for its colonial-era silver mine and also famous as the highest city in the world at better than 13,000 feet. The altitude there bothers many visitors and may have contributed to Nick’s problems, but I am not an expert and I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that I will miss Nick.

Nick and Ingrid atop a Mexican Pyramid

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