Remembering Ian Murdock

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 01, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The first time I met Ian Murdock, he was holding a sign with my name on it. He was meeting me at the airport along with three other members of Progeny Linux Systems, and I was in Indianapolis for the final stages of a job interview. We went out to a Greek restaurant, and while I felt myself outclassed by the rest of the team he was putting together, I must have said the right things, because for the next year I handled Progeny's communications and marketing, commuting every few weeks for several marathon days of catching up with everything that couldn't be done by email or phone.

I knew Ian, of course, as the founder of Debian. I also knew that he had been on contract with the Free Software Foundation when GNU/Linux was being put together; until recently, you could still find his name on a number of man pages. However, he hardly seemed to match his reputation.

In someone with his early accomplishments, some boasting might have been excusable, but that wasn't Ian at all. He had the modesty of a man with nothing to prove. During my time at Progeny, I watched as he learned from his mentors how to be a manager. He made mistakes -- I particularly remember his surprise when he learned that the company's pizza night, far from building morale, was seen as an irksome obligation by the rest of the staff -- but he always admitted them when they became obvious. As though in a series of stills taken from a movie, on my periodic visits I watched as he learned when to allow discussion and when to limit it and make a decision, as he agonized over having to fire an employee, and worked with mentors in the never-ending effort to find investors. Despite his mistakes, he was a quick study, always ready to consult, and managing programmers all the better for having been one himself.

Two memories of Ian stand out for me:

The first was flying in on a Sunday afternoon, and working into the evening with him to get the company web site posted so that investors could view it on Monday. I had written drafts for the web pages at home in Vancouver, but Ian was a very hands-on CEO, and we were editing the drafts before putting them up, tossing ideas back and forth in a collaborative effort that I enjoyed despite being pressed for time.

When we finished at about 7PM, he thanked me, and I muttered something about only doing what I was in town for. However, what I was thinking was that not many executives would realize that working for a half day on Sunday was beyond what could be expected.

My second was on the last day of LinuxWorld in New York. The night before, all the Progeny staff at the Expo had wandered over to Times Square, gawking like the tourists we were, and ending up at a Chilean restaurant where the waiters carved your meat from a joint they carried around on a skewer. On the last night, after dinner in a tavern, Ian and I decided to continue in our role as tourists and ascend the Empire State Building, since it was a comfortable walk from our hotel.

Since it was January, the observation deck was freezing, and we mostly had it to ourselves. We were shivering, but having got there, neither of us wanted to descend and return to our rooms without making the most of the view. We talked for an hour about Progeny and our personal ambitions, continually dashing outside for a few minutes, then retreating back inside until we were ready to repeat the process.

It was during this talk that I realized that Ian was someone who, through a combination of talent and circumstance, had peaked too soon like a child actor. More than anything, he wanted to repeat his accomplishment with Debian, and, naturally he wondered if he could live up to his own expectations of himself.

That, I think, was Ian's personal tragedy -- that he had succeeded early in life, and nothing else he did with his life could quite measure up to his expectations and memories. After I moved on, I watched over the Internet as Progeny drifted away  from his expectations. He moved on himself, and in other hands the company kept going as a consulting company, but its big break never happened, and eventually Progeny shut down. He tried to assume a leadership role in Debian and its derivatives, but, while he was always honored, his new-found management perspective clashed with the community style of the project. He never seemed to have trouble finding employment, but, except perhaps for his most recent position at Docker, none were as cutting edge or as challenging as he needed -- a problem he shared with many who have run their own company.

Meanwhile, he divorced. He started attending AA occasionally. According to mutual friends, he was sometimes depressed, sometimes upbeat. Had I known then what I have heard since his death, I would certainly have contacted him -- not that I could have done anything to help except listen. However, we had drifted out of touch, and I always thought I could put off contacting him for another day. Then, suddenly, there were no other days, and he was dead after a brutal, disorienting last forty eight hours, apparently a suicide.

I wish I had been a better friend. Looking back, I doubt my last twelve years as a writer covering free software would have been possible if Ian hadn't decided to take a chance on me at Progeny. Being employed by Ian sometimes seemed like an endless meeting with the people I admired, and the experience cemented my determination to make free software my life's work. He gave me an opportunity to change my direction in life, and I only wish that he -- or someone else -- had offered the opportunity for him to do the same for himself.

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