In Memory of Matt Carpenter

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It was February four years ago that a friend and ex-colleague (in that order) of mine committed suicide. I could say plenty about him, but for the purpose of this blog I’ll focus on just one aspect, which is work.

I met Matt in college where we in the same A-level computing class. We both had an interest in Linux, networks, security, and practically anything computing related that wasn’t the Microsoft Access coursework that we were meant to be doing.

Some time after college he got me an introduction for job at a web development company where he was already working. I passed my driving test a week before starting which meant that he no longer had to get the train.

Matt would call himself a developer but always had an equal interest in systems administration. Today we’d call it DevOps™, but more than ten years ago and in a very small company we just did what needed to be done. We racked and de-racked colo, soldered and patched cables, configured switches and operating systems, tuned databases, deployed software, tested failover, etc.

He got me into using Gentoo Linux. I don’t have the time or inclination to use it anymore, but I have no regrets because it taught me the most I’d ever learn about Linux to this day. He gave me the confidence to dive into other peoples code to debug and fix it, including the monstrosity of a PHP application that we ran and supported.

Much more importantly though he got me interested in version control and writing Python code. Prior to that most of the utilities I’d written were in Bash and they were terrible. We disagreed on the subject of Perl - I seem to be one of the few sysadmins that has never grokked it. Python however seemed different, elegant, accessible, and Matt was pretty evangelical about it.

My first attempts were pretty contrived. I tried to convert existing scripts using liberal doses of os.popen(). Soon though, after asking him lots of questions about how to do things and why, I was able to automate processes like on-boarding new clients and taking backups of MySQL on NetApp storage. I felt clumsy but empowered.

In hindsight, I owe a lot to him. Without him I’d likely have a very different career to the one that I do today. Less successful and definitely less fun. It’s a shame that it took hindsight to fully realise this though.

He used to complain about our job an awful lot. Mind you, so did I. He talked a lot about quitting and was sure that the grass was greener elsewhere, but when he did leave it turned out not to be the case. He crashed through two jobs that he didn’t like and struggled to find anything after. A mixture of bad luck and bad timing.

I believe he’d suffered from depression for as long as I’d known him. He also had terrible bouts of insomnia, which only seemed to make matters worse. It wasn’t something that we really talked about - I had no idea how to broach the subject. There were other factors too, but burnout wasn’t really one of them.

His death took everyone by surprise. I blamed myself a lot. I should have been a greater help, more available, less wrapped up in my own life. True to common advice the feeling of guilt fades over time but never completely goes. I carried his coffin at the funeral because it was the very least that I could do. I still wish I could find any meaningful words to say to his family.

One of the many many frustrating things is that I don’t feel like I’ve learnt any solid lessons from any of this. Even though several people close to me are also prone to depression. Even though it seems to be a common theme in this industry that I work.

I have no good advice to give besides some woolly sentiments about attempting to be a good human being; try to talk, take time to listen, praise people for doing good things, don’t be an arsehole, and consider that you have no idea what someone might be going through.

It seems that we should talk more openly and frequently about these topics. That doing so would reduce the stigma associated. If we’re not able to talk about them now, then it’s going to be even harder for people to talk when they actually need help. That is of course easy for me to say though.

I started writing this post in the second week of February. While still struggling to find the right words I learned that Carlo Flores (@lolcatstevens) had taken his life. I only knew him through Twitter, but it was clear that he was a very good person. This has of course been affirmed by all of the people that knew him better and have spoken about him since. The news slowed me down at first but then later motivated me to actually finish writing this.

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