My good friend and colleague of close to six years…
Alex Johnson passed away unexpectedly at the much-too-young age of 38 years old two weeks ago today. I’ve been at a nearly complete loss at losing him and today is the first day where I’ve felt like I could even attempt to write about my friend Alex without dissolving into a blubbering, crying mess. I had the honor of telling a group of well over a hundred people about my friend Alex at a service in his honor this past Sunday in Washington State, but there I was very much crying and couldn’t say all that there is to say about Alex. This post won’t achieve that either, but it will make a better attempt.
Alex was the best developer I’ve ever worked with…
…and I’ve worked with well over a hundred developers at this point in my career. Apologies to all my wonderful developers for this, especially the talented team at Chaotic Moon. I love you all and you’re all the best.
But Alex was the best of the best.
He was one of the 3 most technically skilled backend / server / web developers that I’ve ever worked with, he was one of the 5 best architecturally-minded developers I’ve ever known, and he beat out all of them because, while he was confident in his skills and capable of calling bullshit when he needed to, he was never self-satisfied enough to really fully appreciate how good he was, and unlike the vast majority of geniuses that I’ve worked with, he didn’t have that “asshole” chip on his shoulder. He was always direct, but never judgmental towards people approaching things the wrong way. He was a great mentor to every developer at Chaotic Moon; and this includes his would-be peers: skilled Architect-level developers working in iOS and Android.
He was also, unlike many developers, extremely capable of interacting with every level of customer and every type of person who worked with us at Chaotic Moon. He could be the nerdiest nerd developer and geek out with us like the best of them, but he also could relate and work well with Sales, and Project Management, and QA, and everyone.
I thought I would be working with Alex for the rest of my life.
After I left Ceros and was looking for new opportunities, I had about four different clear places I could have gone. Although ultimately, I made the decision to go to move my family to Texas and join Chaotic Moon with my wife, Kristin, that decision was largely informed by numerous conversations I’d had with Alex. I remember one conversation in particular where he said, “You should go to Chaotic Moon. We already know them from working on The Daily with them. We know we can help them. And I’ve always wanted to work directly and clearly for you, and as EVP of Technology, you’d clearly be my boss.”
I have about 3 good ideas for products that he and I would discuss sometimes as something we would do in the future should we ever leave Chaotic Moon.
He made us better.
Alex made me a better manager. He made me a better EVP of Technology. He made me a better friend and a better person, and I’m better for having known him, but I honestly feel a bit lost with him no longer here. I no longer have that trusted confidant, consiglieri, and lieutenant who I always knew could take care of things as I expected them to be taken care of consistently every time.
He got excited about things and made you excited about them too, and had this amazing ability to marvel at small things.
Alex was incredibly tall. He was one of the only people that I used to hug on a regular basis where I felt small in the hug. He would do this thing sometimes, when he was excited where both his eyebrows would raise, he’d dip his head forward and down towards your level, and smile saying “Oh yeaaaaah!” or “Oh, wooooow!” nodding his head slightly in excitement. He would do this over ideas and nicely crafted things.
One of my wife’s favorite memories of Alex was from the first time he came over to our house in Austin, we had just received a CSA delivery for the first time and it came with fresh eggs, which being ungraded and organic “straight from the chicken” were of odd shapes and sizes. Kristin opened the eggs and said something about this, and Alex came over excited, did his head dip and lean in and said “Oh wow these are soooo goood. You know what they are right?” Just fascinated and marveling at nature.
He had an all-in laugh
We often called Alex our gentle giant or our warrior monk. He was the most peaceful kind person, but he was also stern in what he believed in and would call out anyone who he thought was being unfair or wrong. But he did this without any sort of judgement. This was great for me, because he often helped me realize when I was being too severe or too stern with someone. It also meant that although I have the most wrong sense of humor on the planet, whenever I’d make a particularly horrible joke he would laugh one of those all-in laughs of his, finding joy in my joke even though he was shaking his head in a “that’s just wrong” sort of way about it, but somehow with no judgement that I ever felt directed towards me.
He touched so many software products used by millions of people who will never know…
Most of our work is under NDA. But Alex did so much and touched so many cool products that have been used and brought smiles to millions of people’s lives. He wasn’t one of a thousand developers working on something huge that seems like it should be small, like Twitter. He was one of at most a dozen developers focused working on products that he actually steered towards their awesomeness. That deserves to be known.
I’ve cried more than I did when my father died…
The day my father died, I was in an all day meeting with a potential acquirer of Chaotic Moon, and I didn’t have the time to really cry. Also, I knew it was coming. Jackson and I had visited my dad in the hospital the weekend before, because things weren’t looking good, and shortly after we left, he was moved to hospice care. I remember finding out that morning and during an early break in our meeting apologizing to the rest of the Chaotic Moon management team for not being as “on” as I usually am, because my dad had died. They all came in and hugged me and I cried. That lasted for about 3-5 minutes and then I went to the restroom, composed myself, and returned for the remainder of my all day meeting.
I cried profusely at my father’s service, and his passing definitely changed me. I’ve been more emotionally raw since he passed. And more aware of my feelings.
But Alex was the first close friend that I’ve ever lost. And he’s the most unexpected loss that I’ve ever experienced.
One of the great things that happened this year was that Alex and I—who had only ever worked together remotely for years, seeing each other here and there quarterly as we flew in to various code jams or client meetings—had both moved to Dallas, Texas to help open Chaotic Moon’s Dallas office this summer. Finally we were physically working together in the same place. Seeing each other nearly every day. Kristin and I always sent him all the okra and other odd vegetables from our CSA that we didn’t eat. It was great.
We were laughing in his office in Dallas on Tuesday afternoon before leaving work, talking about the new house that he and his wife Michelle had just bought in Dallas and were in the process of renovating. They were knee deep in kitchen renovation, and I was saying how Kristin and I needed to have him and Michelle over soon, since our house was finally past the renovation phase and entering into the habitation phase. He was taking the next day, that Wednesday off, because he had been working hard on a very successful client delivery that had just shipped and I’d been trying to get him to take a day for a few weeks. He and Michelle were going to work on their new house.
That’s what they did. Then sometime late on Wednesday he didn’t feel so well. Then he got sick and thought he had food poisoning. He sent me an email in the middle of the night saying that he would not be into work because of the food poisoning. The next morning, Michelle texted me from his phone to tell me that they were in the ICU, and that there was some sort of infection but everything seemed to be under control. We texted a few more times that day and at the end of the day, Alex had gone to sleep and just needed to rest.
Sometime in the middle of the night, she sent a text to me and several other people that he wasn’t doing well. I slept through that. At about 5:25am, two weeks ago today, my phone vibrated on my bedside table and woke me up. I sat up, having missed the call and looked at my phone and saw that I had missed both a phone call and a text message from Michelle. As I was holding the phone, reading the text, and thinking “Oh no…” it rang again and she told me the news. I immediately started crying.
Then I called Ben. Then I called our HR department. Then I called and tried to reach all the people I felt I need to talk to one on one at Chaotic Moon before communicating to the larger company. Then I wrote the email to the company telling them what had happened to one of our beloved family members who had meant the world to our company.
I spent most of that Friday calling people from 3 different companies, telling them the sad news and crying together on the phone and between calls. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in a single day. Sometime late in the day, after I felt like I had told everyone I could, I tweeted it.
The next day I felt hung over and wearied from the day before.
Thanksgiving was a mixed bag of happy to visit my mom and brother and his family in Mississippi and feeling sad both about Alex and my dad. The Saturday after Thanksgiving we drove back to Dallas.
Dallas to Seattle
I unpacked the car, then my bags and repacked them for the trip for Alex’s service. I went to bed early, got up at 4am, drove to Dallas Love, flew on a 6am flight to Seattle, landing at 8:30am.
I picked up my rental car, drove over to the hotel where both Brian Alvey and I were staying and picked him up. We went and had breakfast at some place that we named wrong, and talked and laughed and were sad together for most of the morning.
Then we drove an hour to Alex’s Celebration of Life right outside Olympia, Washington. When I arrived Michelle told me that I would be the first one to speak. I did. I cried. Many people came up and thanked me for what I said.
When I met his mother, we both burst into tears. When I met his father we both burst into tears. When I met his step-father we both burst into tears. I told them all I loved their son. They told me that he loved his work and loved me. When I met his oldest daughter, we both laughed about Alex, and she asked me if she could have a hug, and said she was so happy that she got to meet me.
I told Michelle that I was going to leave. She said that we both were married to Alex and that we both were strong and would get by. We said goodbye and I left.
That night, Brian Alvey, Brian & Lynn Abent, and I had dinner together, and drank and laughed and talked about our missing friend Alex. The next morning I flew home. Tuesday I was back in the office and felt normal again. Until I drove home, was listening to grunge music, thought of Seattle, thought of Alex, and ended up crying singing “Come as you are as you were as I want you to be” while driving home.
Every day is a little better. But I’m still crying here and there.
I miss you, Alex. You were my brother. I won’t forget you.