Stuff Ben Built


From hacker to hospice in 7 weeks

30 Nov 2014

If you would like to help Steven, please donate to his family. He will not live to see his child born. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

Roughly eleven weeks ago our company moved offices. On the last Friday at the old office we all chipped in and boxed our things in preparation for the movers. When the work was done we headed to a nearby pub for a little nostalgic celebration. In two days I’d be heading off for a month-long trip around North America, and given how busy everyone was it was nice to have a chance to catch up. We got to the pub at around 2pm, and since it was a warm and sunny spring day we sat outside on a picnic table under an awning. After several hours of eating, drinking, and hearty laughter, I looked over and noticed that Steven had fallen asleep.

Steven Ashley is a hacker. He’s passionate about software, and he posesses an enviable sort of high-energy optimism with respect to sticky, difficult-to-solve problems. As a team lead who is still relatively new to the company, I rely on him heavily. He’s been there for ages. He started as an intern in 2006 and two years later came on full time. He’s crazy smart, inquisitive, chatty, and remarkably altruistic. Again, a model hacker. We now have teams of people fleshing out things that he started as an intern several years ago. He was also the first teammate I met when I started my current job — less than a week after I had just moved halfway around the world.

When I saw that Steven had fallen asleep my first thought was that he’d “had a thirst” and drank a bit more than the rest of us. Then I thought back to 9pm the night before when I’d left the office after yet another twelve hour day, and remembered that Steven had still been there when I left, furiously trying to catch up. I remembered overhearing phone conversations between him and his wife Nicola. She was displeased with the amount of time he was spending at work, and he was struggling to put her at ease. About two months earlier Nicola’s mother had lost her battle with cancer, but we were back in the swing of things now and this was crunch time.

Our company hosts an annual event for our customers which is something akin to Apple’s WWDC. It’s a very big event where we show off our upcoming products/features, and invite customers to showcase how they use our software. Steven is the lead on the team behind the project that was set to steal the show. The plan was for his team’s product to be featured heavily in the keynote and in several follow-on presentations. It would also be demoed live for our customers in some of our more prominent demo booths. Per usual in software development, the project was behind schedule. It was no time for anyone on that team to be slacking off.

We woke Steven up. He seemed more drunk than we would’ve expected. He said that he was tired, and that he was going to walk to the sushi restaurant next door to grab some food and try to wake up. When he left to eat we all had a quick chat and the people next to him said he hadn’t had more than two or three beers in the several hours that we’d been there.

Eventually he came back, and said that he was feeling better and that he was going to head home. He still seemed a bit groggy, but he had certainly improved. The following day I sent him a text.

“Hey man hope you got some rest yesterday and you’re feeling a bit better”

“Yeah man. Was mostly just tired :-)”

The day after that I left on my trip back home to North America.

When I returned to work roughly four weeks later, it was a Monday. Steven wasn’t in the office. He’d been in the previous Friday, however. I’d heard from an officemate that since I’d left he’d been having problems with bouts of nausea and headaches. One coworker said that Steven had told him that he hadn’t slept in a week. I took that to mean Steven hadn’t slept well in a week, and I figured that he must be taking a much-needed day off to set his rhythms back in order after all the long hours. In the time when I was away he’d been working hard toward that deadline, and I’m sure that when faced with these nagging health problems he told himself that it was no time to be falling ill.

Every Monday at 10:30am our division gets together for a stand-up status meeting. That day Mark, the head of our division, had sobering news. He told us that over the weekend Steven had gone into the hospital. They did some tests and found a growth on Steven’s cerebellum. They didn’t know what it was yet, but given the problems he’d been having they thought it was fairly aggressive. The doctors planned to do a biopsy that day, and start treatment as soon as possible. It’s no hyperbole to say that everybody was stunned. When Mark was finished talking we all stood there staring at our toes for the next several minutes. For five minutes or so nobody said anything. Nobody moved.

Steven was at the office slogging it out just seven weeks ago. Presently he’s in a hospice care center, being kept as comfortable as possible until he passes away. From what I’ve heard, he’s mostly “locked in,” unable to move or speak. He can just barely squeeze Nicola’s hand. They suspect he has only a few days left.

This past Monday when we learned that they’d stopped treatment and were moving him to the hospice center, we also learned that Nicola was pregnant. I can only imagine how what should be excellent, exciting news can compound such a tragedy. I have no idea if Steven and Nicola learned of this prior to Steven’s hospitalization, but I hope so much that they had a chance to celebrate with one another before his body started shutting down.

Personally I’m still trying to process the news. Suffice it to say that there aren’t words to express how angry this situation makes me. It makes me sad, sure, but more than anything else it makes me so viscerally angry. I’m confident that there’s no ‘lens of tragedy’ coloring my view when I say that Steven is one of the most genuinely altruistic people I’ve ever met. The fact that such a tremendous force for good is being snuffed out of this world so ruthlessly is something that just can’t sit easy with me.

Aside from the anger, there’s another feeling I just can’t shake. I’m not sure it has a name. Steven and I have quite a lot in common. We’re the same age. We have very similar tastes in reading, movies, music, and especially code. We both have the same work ethic and drive to solve problems. Overall, we have a very similar sort of world view. It’s impossible for me to be a witness to this situation and not think “what if it were me?”

While I’m sure I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience what he’s going through, I can predict with confidence where my concerns would lie. All I’d be able to think about would be my wife and child. I know I’d be worried for their livelihood, but also regretful for spending so many of my last days tied up with work. I’d be wondering what kind of person my child was going to become, and I’d be tortured by the fact that I’d be unable to be there to find out. All of this would be compounded unbearably by my inability to express any of these thoughts to the person whom I care about the most.

It’s sad, and terrifying, and my inability to even scratch the surface of “making it right” is so incredibly angering.

Some people at Telogis have gotten together and started a Givealittle page for Nicola and Steven. Please consider making a donation. While it’s true that nothing can fix this for them, we can help ease the burden which those who relied on him will face when he’s gone.

If you’re uncomfortable donating directly to an individual, please consider making a donation to Cancer Society of New Zealand in Steven’s name.

Since this post is garnering a bit of attention, there are a couple of details I thought I should add…

I want to emphasize that Steven loves solving tricky problems. Work is very much a passion for him, as it is for me, and at least in my case I can say that the lines between work and play are very much blurred. While there is some “tyranny of choice” going on here, this isn’t meant to be some allegory about work/life balance. I think it’s good if people read this and are moved by it, but I want to be clear that I’m not trying to teach any lesson.

Also, I think it’s worth noting that the efforts of Steven and his team were a great success at our annual conference this year.

There is a discussion about this story on HackerNews.

Finally, a hearty thanks once again to those who have donated and/or passed on this story.

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