This weekend has been an emotional one for me. It marks the two year anniversary of the death of my close friend Violet, which felt as painful as last year. I spoke briefly about Violet and my reaction to her death earlier in the year in TheProblems We Can't Fix.
However despite talking about the passing of world luminaries like Steve Jobs or Dennis Ritchie, I've never really spoken about Violet despite her huge personal influence on me (partly as her death came 6 months before I started this blog).
So to mark her extraordinary life, I'd like to share with you who she was and how she continues to challenge and influence me …
Violet was many things – when she died at 35 she had in some ways lived out more than many of us. She was primarily an artist, this was her passion. But she was a knowledgeable genius in many fields – psychology, photography, politics, ethics, obscure science fiction and engineering. Like my own family, she'd grown up in an engineering family, and she was passionate at tinkering and understanding technology – despite having worked in computers for over 10 years I was always asking her “how to” do things.
But her true legacy is the relationships she nurtured. She was a big believer and champion of people above all.
She was an easy person for others to dismiss – she was transexual, she had a number of mental problems suffering from crippling levels of manic depression (bipolar) and well as suffering from acute levels of anxiety. She'd even been committed over her mental health issues for periods of time.
And yet she used her own demons to battle the demons of others. She understood the mental health system, symptoms of certain conditions and medication as only an experienced end-user. There are countless stories of the people who she helped get diagnosed and find real help to deal with their issues. When she died in 2010, the phrase most on peoples lips was “you understood me when no-one else did, you championed me when others judged, you saved my life”. I too consider myself within that number of people who faced my inner demons with her, and came out stronger. This is why I consider her a friend and a mentor.
That ethos of “we're stronger together” ran through her whole life. She was a big believer in co-operation and trying to get to a better place as a community.
She loved OpenSource, and was always experimenting with Linux, especially Ubuntu. She believed the internet had great potential to aiding all to access information fairly, and be able to be informed and a global community. She feared technology and the internet becoming a divisive line in the world, where only the “haves” who could afford Microsoft or Apple devices would benefit. As such she often helped people to build their own Linux machines often from spare/junk parts.
She was a committed vegetarian and passionate peace and political activitist. She wanted a fairer world where the line between the privileged and the non-privileged would not become the line between life and death or opportunity and enslavement.
Meanwhile, I was someone who I worked previously for nuclear energy (at University) and on countless military applications. I never thought we'd be able to be friends. But she only ever saw the good and the potential in me – encouraging me in my work, and in my writing. We actually became the best of friends, and it's the reason my book The Software Minefield is dedicated to her.
At work I'm always striving to build a team around me who are committed to each other on a work level and a personal level, and seek wherever possible to work for companies with a strong ethics and behaviour, who will seek to say no when a situation is wrong. All these things are the legacy of her mentorship and example. I know in my heart she would have excelled in an Agile environment.
And yet amongst all the serious stuff, she had a wicked sense of humour. One of the things which makes her memory so bittersweet is it's hard to think about her too much without wanting to laugh remembering some quip of hers. She had a true talent for saying the right (humorous) thing to turn around my most monstrous of problems. She kept me sane like that.
I must be honest. My first reaction to this strange transsexual with so mental challenges was of being unnerved. Not an easy thing for me to say, but I say it because if I had chosen to judge and follow that prejudice, I would have missed out on one of the most positive and influential friendships of my life.