Denis Anderson

Denis Anderson, a friend and a colleague, passed away suddenly this past weekend. I’ve never experienced the death of anyone with whom I have worked so closely; it has greatly affected me, as well as my other coworkers. As such, I feel compelled to write a few words about him here.

I first met Denis almost five years ago, shortly after I started at The Marketing Store. I was initially hired to help manage technical projects and resourcing, so my first order of business was to meet with the existing pool of freelancers. At the time, Denis was a rather shy, quiet, long-haired and bespectacled programmer who had done some work on a few of our clients’ projects. He might have seemed a bit strange to some people at first, with his tendency to avoid eye contact and his compulsion to illustrate concepts as he spoke, using his notepad and wild nonsensical scribbles.

But I liked him right away. He was charming, knowledgeable and a true geek in all the best senses of the word. I learned during his interview that he came from a traditional graphic design background, having started before computers were ubiquitous in the industry, as they are now. He was an early adopter, and quickly became indispensable for his computer skills. As things tend to go, the need for computer experts in the job market increased, and he found his focus turning to another field, that of web development and programming. He was what some folks call a “renaissance man”, an individual skilled in many disciplines. Others call might call that a “jack of all trades”, but that would incorrectly imply that he was master of none.

We hired Denis on a permanent basis a short time later to work on a development initiative I was managing. He sat in the cubicle over the divider from mine, so we could lean to the side and peek through the opening whenever we needed to talk. Other times, when I was deep in concentration at my computer, he would quietly come around to my side of the wall, stop about eight feet short of my desk, and just stand there silently until I noticed him. This annoyed me until I developed a sixth “Denis sense” that made the back of my head tingle whenever he was getting close. After this, I could even wear headphones and know when he was approaching. I’m finding out now that he did this to many people, and none of us really minded anymore.

Denis proved to be a huge asset to the team: he could definitely program an ASP web frontend – that’s what we hired him to do. But his design background and expert knowledge of Illustrator and Photoshop meant that he could design and build all the web pages –well– with little or no help from anyone else. He could also conceive of web applications in wireframe and hierarchical chart form. He documented everything meticulously using Visio, which made him the information architect on our team, too. His versatility allowed us to accomplish a great deal for our client with a small, nimble and responsive crew.

He helped make me look good as a project manager, which I can credit as a major reason I’ve done so well at this company.

But being good at his job was not the only thing Denis Anderson was about. He was a consummate reader, boasting the biggest technical reference library I’d ever seen in the possession of a single individual. He was always attending seminars and taking night courses to maintain and improve his knowledge of the technologies he worked with. He loved to share his knowledge, which he did articulately and occasionally at length. In fact, it was sometimes a playful challenge for me, the whip-cracking project manager, to get him to turn his attention from the lecture back to the task at hand.

Denis and I shared a lot of interests. He was an enthusiastic Mac user, as am I, who learned the Way of Windows because the workplace demanded it. Whenever Steve Jobs made a keynote address, we both watched it or read about it and exchanged expert commentary on the direction Apple was taking. He proudly emailed me photos of his new Mac Mini after he set it up at home. He was also into photography, and just before Christmas made me a great deal on a beautifully-preserved 60mm Nikon macro lens he had bought in the early nineties but had stopped using. He really took care of his stuff, a trait I happen to admire. Over the holidays, he took the trouble of digging out the original box packaging for the lens and brought it by for me. He also showed me a few of the pictures he’d taken with the macro, which weren’t bad at all.

He hadn’t attended university, having joined the work force early and learned his trade on the job. Nevertheless, he was immensely cultured. When I was promoted into account management, no longer his direct supervisor, he gave me as a parting present a CD and a book of poetry. I’m listening to the disc as I write this – it’s an exquisite recording of Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets that he told me was one of his favorites. He had specially selected the music to accompany the poetry book, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot. I must shamefully confess that my level of culture did not approach Denis’: I only got a few pages into the poetry before storing the book on a shelf. The book now sits near me on my desk and will soon, hopefully, be my channel towards a deeper understanding of my friend.

Despite all this, I will probably best remember Denis Anderson for his intelligent and often riotously funny sense of humor. He was an expert web surfer and dug up the funniest sites and anecdotes to share with selected people via email. He wasn’t an email joke carpet-bomber, though: he would always consider his audience to ensure they appreciated the humor. I, for one, always did.

He was a witty guy in conversation, well spoken and articulate. But, like me, he liked to add extra polish and fine-tuning to his communication by way of the written word. Many times, he would comment on an email thread going around at the office, not only with clever phrases, but with a carefully-Googled image or photo thrown in. Photoshop expert that he was, he could also create the perfect image to complement his punch line if he couldn’t readily find it. Take, for example, this gem that he created around Oscar time, after we had discovered we shared an admiration for the Muppets’ Swedish Chef:

Brokebork Mountain 

Denis was always able to make light of stressful situations when they arose, helping us all deal with them. Consider the following O’Reilly-style book cover he mocked up during a break from a stressful project deployment:

Nissan Deployment In A Nutshell

We did OK with this project in the end, of course. And then there was the time that Nissan announced that they were going to relocate from Los Angeles to Nashville, which someone quipped via email was going to be like “The Beverly Hillbillies In Reverse”.  Denis got to work with Photoshop and produced this to punctuate the joke:

Nissan Relocation

Beyond Denis’ propensity for conceptually illustrating humor, he had an unusually thorough grasp of the English language. This was actually very handy on projects, since he could write most explanatory copy for the websites he built himself. One day, Denis demonstrated his poetry skills, evident in the following email thread. It was started following a company Hallowe’en lunch prior to which Denis and I had requested that this year they not include candy insects and worms in the entrees. The meal was an excellent Thai preparation that we all thoroughly enjoyed. The organizers asked playfully if Denis and I had been appeased, to which I replied:

From:  Pierre Seguin 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:21 PM
To: Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale        

Poetry, thy name is Pad Thai.


Eight minutes later, Denis one-upped my note:        

From:  Denis Anderson 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:29 PM
To: Pierre Seguin; Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale        

Indeed, I was inspired to compose this Haiku:

Thai food, so spicy
No worms or bugs confront us.
We eat contently.


This inspired another co-worker or ours, Victor, to write a poem of his own:        

From:  Victor Khabas 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:37 PM
To: Denis Anderson; Pierre Seguin; Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale        

O Denis, you inspired me
this Haiku to compose
The time of worms will come

Ever the perfectionist, and definitely not to be outdone, Denis came back with this:       

From:  Denis Anderson 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:42 PM
To: Victor Khabas; Pierre Seguin; Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale       

Victor, you must use
Five syllables, then seven,
Then five syllables.

By this point, the whole office was in both stitches and awe at Denis’ previously hidden talent. This reply to the thread summed it up:      

From:  Nadia Luft 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:43 PM
To: Denis Anderson; Victor Khabas; Pierre Seguin; Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale      

Denis, you have mad Haiku skills

Denis was on fire, and not about to stop until he’d inflicted the coup-de-grâce:      

From:  Denis Anderson 
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2005 4:49 PM
To: Nadia Luft; Victor Khabas; Pierre Seguin; Halloween; CA Toronto Office
Subject: RE: Halloween Finale      

Chicks dig guys with skills
Computer skills, nunchuck skills,
Haiku skills as well.

Over the years I knew him, Denis seemed to gradually conquer his shyness and evolved into more “chic” than “geek”. He was very health conscious, and succesfully dieted and exercised, losing much weight since I first met him. (Unlike me, he was successful in keeping it off.) He cut his hair, got new glasses and clothing, and seemed to make a whole bunch of new friends. Despite his seemingly newfound popularity, he remained unassuming and fun around his coworkers. He remained active in company social activities, and was always asking for more frequent coworker beer outings.     

Apparently he was with some of his many friends last Saturday, swimming in a pool, when he felt unwell and got out of the water. He soon afterwards collapsed from what was actually heart attack and he died in hospital.

I first heard the unthinkable news early on Monday morning, and it has taken some time to sink in. His workstation is as he left it, with part of his considerable library on a shelf, and his model of a NISMO 350z on the desk. The knowledge he’s not just on vacation, or not at a dentist’s appointment doesn’t readily reconcile with our perception of everyday life at the office. We still see the results of his work every day as we do our jobs, and gingerly navigate the landscape from which he is now absent.

We did a memorial in his honor yesterday, and I used the opportunity to share some of Denis’ old emails with the rest of the office. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (or so it seemed to me, through my own misty eyes.) I just wish Denis could have been around to feel the love for him, and hope he understood that it had always been there, just not all exposed at the same time like it was yesterday.

Well, if I knew Denis, his version of heaven would have really good network bandwidth, a fast Mac and several giant flat-screen LCD monitors, so he could surf all the good websites at once. Maybe, just maybe, my site will make the cut, he’ll read this, and know how I felt.