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Jan 30, 2021
8 minutes read

A friend and mentor passed away tragically this week.

I had the privilege to meet him, and speak with him very often throughout the past 3 years and a half. He was a warming, funny, brilliant and intellectual man. I can’t tell how lucky I have been to meet him, and I will always remember him.

On such events people’s reactions are grief, sadness, anger even. Mine is incredulity: it sounds like a bad joke. I am waiting for his usual message: “Hi, do you have time to catch up?”. And, quite candidly, I seem to see his face a bit everywhere, particularly far on the horizon.

For sure, I was nowhere near him like his family. So please bear with me if it seems that I am too involved in this. Mine is a different type of pain, and I’ll do my best to describe it in a respectful way in the next lines.

One can’t possibly avoid asking tough questions, when bad things like this one happen. Why is this world so unjust? What is the value of distant friendships today? What am I losing when I choose remote work, remote meetings, remote this, remote that?

There will be a place and a time for answering those questions, but it’s not here and now. The reason is that his death was a tragic event, very unlikely to happen and, as such, it shouldn’t change general opinions like the ones linked to those questions, despite all grief and anger. With that being said, such questions — the last two in particular — are constantly in my mind and it’s unavoidable for me to view them under the light of this loss.

There will be a when and a where to answer those questions, but it’s not here and now. Because, ultimately, negative thinking doesn’t lead anywhere.

The best thing I can do now is to review all the amazing things I did, learned, listened to, spoke about with him and make sure they will have a positive impact. He would like that, I am sure, for so much value he put in the community and contributions.

When I met him in October 2017 we spoke for about one hour and a half. It was supposed to be a job interview (he being the interviewer), but ended up being a fascinating walkthrough of many different topics.

He gave me a long overview of what he and his other collaborators were doing for work. It lasted very long, and I was impressed by the creativity and the depth of pretty much everything.

I thought it was something being cooked up for years. Wrong — it had been just a few months of work.

I figured right then that I was speaking with somebody not quite average. When technical brilliancy meets creativity, that is it. And, I will dare to say, also like-minded.

The values we shared were lifelong learning, curiosity and obsession for every detail. I hope he would agree with this bold statement of mine.

There was a period, it was maybe spanning 2 months, when every time we met we would speak about the MOOCs each of us were studying. He was particularly proud of me because I completed the entire Deep Learning specialization in just a few weeks. On his part, he went for two very advanced courses on NLP. One of them was so difficult that he would constantly speak about it saying “this is insane!”.

A few weeks later he came up with an astonishing idea: to use the MOOC forums as a recruitment place. MOOCs have assignments, so you can filter people who have mastered that subject by looking at their grades. Even though that’s not a perfect system (it has many false positives), it definitely helps with doing a first, large filter.

That was so typical of him: brilliant, simple and creative.

Another topic dear to him, and one I learned so much from him, was people management. How to keep people motivated and engaged with their daily duties?

The idea we had in common in this case is that people work best when they don’t receive orders. People work best when they are thrilled about what they are doing, and this happens more often when they decide what to do and own it.

This may sound crazy and is in total contrast with the classical way of doing business: a manager decides, people execute.

I think he didn’t believe in the old system; I don’t believe in it either.

The problem is that to work with people capable of working in this different way requires something magic. It requires an incredible ability to find people like this. It requires outstanding management quality to keep the same people engaged but not through commands, rather through brainstorming and honest conversations.

He had this magic, and so much more.

I look at the company he built and I think: here he is, showing and proving to me and to the world that it’s possible to do great things in that way.

He did show and prove it, but it’s ultimately up to me to find a way to make the most out of this. As a manager myself, I find it very difficult. I don’t have his magic, but I am sure I can learn a bit of it.

He was big in community contributions. Actually, he was very big on that. A tireless writer, speaker and a giant in his community. You could tell by looking at the countless tweets, posts and articles about his death.

His approach on this was, once again, so brilliant and simple that it’s even difficult to explain it. One thing I know: it profoundly changed me.

Every idea of his touched me, in some way, but this one — about contribution — totally blew off my mind.

He started a journey as a community contributor around two years ago. In brief, he put out there his immense knowledge, for free. He just kept sharing insights, either by writing or by speaking at conferences.

You have to give before you can ask, Pietro — he would tell me. If it sounds simple, then why isn’t everybody doing it?

For a starter, not everybody has the required skills and the knowledge. He had it.

Also, not everybody is so tireless and ready to start such a long journey. Because building knowledge is a very long journey. And building reputation can only be done after you’ve built knowledge, so it’s an ever longer journey.

He was ready and knew how to make that journey exciting. And he did. To put it simply, he became a star in his community, while at the same time he stayed humble and focused on learning and hard work.

How incredibly lucky I have been to work close to him for more than three years!

Like I said, this profoundly changed me. If you can become a better person by learning a lot, while at the same time helping out other people in the community and thus also being recognized for it, why doesn’t everybody (and every business) do it?

I don’t know the answer. I think people are attracted by shortcuts, but there’s no shortcut to knowledge: it’s called lifelong learning for a reason. If you don’t lifelong learn then you can lie to yourself but people will see it.

Maybe people like shortcuts and are therefore not capable of embarking on such a long journey as the knowledge and contribution journey.

But his example is out there, and will live forever. He went for the journey, and successfully so. All I can do know is to follow his footsteps.

On my side, I regret many things, of course. Things I could have done better while he was in this world and that I didn’t for laziness or lack of understanding. They hurt too much now and therefore I am not capable of writing them.

In several of the last meetings I had with him he would say — You see, Pietro, it’s paying off. He would mean that his approach of sharing knowledge was paying off because people knew what an honest, brilliant and knowledgeable man he was and therefore they would look at him and at his company for that and much more. Floods of speaking engagement requests, books requests, articles requests: he received a lot of these every day.

One day he called me at the usual time but we couldn’t have the usual meeting because he was outside cycling with his children. It was so nice to see him like that! He was always happy for sure, but there’s nothing like spending time with your children, I guess.

On the very last time we spoke he was so excited because that month his business had reached a new record of monthly profit. Basically, he had won the race.

He couldn’t win that other battle, sadly. But all he did stays here, and it forever will, because the things he shared with me, taught to me, talked about with me are invaluable and timeless.

Thank you.

Tags: essays

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