Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Good Funeral for a Great Guy

We attended Steve Metsker's funeral today. It was literally standing room only.

Two thoughts:

1) It was amazing to hear everyone reiterate exactly the same things. Steve was consistently wise, clever, accepting, inspirational, encouraging and a stand up role model to everyone he touched. He was a team player, eschewed the spotlight, accepted people as they are and pushed them to be what they might be. I have never been to a funeral where it was so clear what the direct impact of a single life had been on so many people.

2) The power of a liturgical structure in a ceremony is that it provides a narrative at key life moments (birth, death, wedding, etc.) because we often lack them on our own. Granted, the Unitarian Universalist tradition doesn't offer much in the way of concrete narrative, but this funeral today was entirely made by the personal anecdotes from a variety of friends and family. Steve's life, words, actions and influence were clearly narrative enough. Everything else (sparse as it was) simply got in the way.

Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry. -- Mark Twain

Hey, man. You win.

Friday, February 08, 2008

So it goes... R.I.P. Steven J. Metsker

I was just devastated to find out that my friend and former customer, Steve Metsker, passed away yesterday. I had not the slightest idea he was ill. They discovered some form of cancer on January 11 and less than a month later he succumbed. Apparently he was in a lot of pain toward the end so the swiftness was in his best interest, but it is so hard to make the mental shift and realize that the world is one Good Guy shorter today.

I met Steve when I was hired as a consultant at Capital One as a contractor. They had a project that had taken a group of PowerBuilder developers, given them some modest Java training and told them to go forth and build Enterprise Java applications. Hilarity ensued.

After many false starts, missteps, etc., Steve was added to the team to help. Within a year (my recollection on the timeframe may be wrong, but the results are not), he had helped turn them into a functioning, consistently productive team.

As I worked with him, he and I developed a friendship and mutual respect. We had similar senses of humor and enjoyed talking about software, life and everything. I showed up at Capital One very excited about the ideas of Aspect-Oriented Programming. Steve shared my interest, but cast a cautious eye toward silver bullets. Still, I credit him with encouraging me to send myself to the first Aspect Oriented Software Development conference in Enschede in April of 2002. That was a pivotal point for me as it was there I met Gregor who introduced me to Ron who introduced me to Jay.

Steve was an accomplished author, mentor, speaker, trainer and all around sharp guy. I remember one time when his parser book had been translated into Japanese, he was curious what the Japanese reviewers said:


My Japanese is pretty good, but had gotten rusty, so I ran that through BabelFish and came up with:

"To be easy to know being brief, the super male be completed"

The gist of the review was that it took a pretty special person to make a book about writing custom parsers in Java so simple, accessible and brief. He also wrote about Design Patterns, UML, Software processes and pedagogy.

That was Steve's gift. He was a talented communicator; a distiller of ideas. He was very much in favor of hands-on instruction and used the approach at various OOPSLA and other conferences to teach people about Design Patterns.

Recently, Steve had attended several of my NFJS talks on REST, the Semantic Web and NetKernel and was again cautiously optimistic about building scalable, maintainable systems with these ideas. I don't think he had quite wrapped his head around the full picture, but we were working on that.

A little over a year ago, Steve asked me to be part of OOPSLA as the Demonstration Track Chair. I was flattered and happy to do it, especially since I would get to work with people like Dick Gabriel, Joe Bergin, Guy Steele, etc. The last time I'd seen Steve was in Montreal last October. We had a lot of fun and spent a good amount of time together, eating, drinking and just gabbing about software. It was at this OOPSLA that I got to hear Fred Brooks, John McCarthy and David Parnas in one day! That evening, through a weird series of coincidences typical of my life, I ended up joining John McCarthy for dinner and got to explain some of the ideas about the Semantic Web to him. Talk about the highlight of my career!

I owe a lot to Steve and his influence, guidance and encouragement. But as enthusiastic as he was about his career, books, etc., nothing was more important to him than his family. I heard so many stories about the various activities with his wife and daughters. They were all precious to him and it showed. I don't think I could end this any better than to quote him from a variety of emails. They do a good job of showing his enthusiasm, supportive spirit and wide interests:

About his willingness to pitch in and be involved in his daughters' activities:

In other news: Today’s Pinewood Derby day, where 50 or so boys race little tiny cars they’ve built (in the morning), and then about 50 girls race in the afternoon. I was the least averse to volunteering to help, and am now pretty well running the whole thing. There’s a ton of logistics and operational stuff, with an aluminum track to set up, an electrical timer (with a laser switch!), and race management software. Man! Anyway, I think I’m prepared. If I pull this off, though, I’ll send along a revised resume!

About his interest in fostering clear communication to people submitting tutorials to OOPSLA and encouraging them to be involved again and again:

I notice as I fill in my tutorial reviews that some of y’all are not filling in the section on “Evaluation, including points in favor and against, and comments for improvement.”

It’s important to fill this in.

Filling in this section is a courtesy to the submitters – they need to see what we’re thinking, especially when we reject. It helps them grow and submit better tutorials next year. It can incent rejected submitters to try again. (It might, I suppose, have the opposite effect, depending on our wording. But I can’t imagine that pure silence is better than trying to give them ideas on how to improve.)

On his encouragement of me and my career:

Ya know, I gotta say, you're one of those people who seems faintly
bemused that others see a lot of potential in ya. Self effacement's Ok, but it's Ok to believe in yerself too.

On his reminder to me to not let work overtake more important relationships:

Glad to hear it, given that I assume with not one moment of doubt that you do not allow your busy schedule to any way impinge on your relationship and partnership with your beautiful wife. :)

And finally, the last e-mail I got from him was an idea he had submitted to Threadless based on a conversation we'd had:

As I said, the world is down one Good Guy today.

Goodbye, my friend.