Laurel Fan led an exemplary life

Laurel at the Robot Co-op office, image pulled from a photo by Josh Petersen.

It’s been difficult having to spend this week processing the sudden loss of Laurel Fan, partly because I’ve been selfishly trying to live in the moment while traveling overseas, and partly because her passing simply sucker-punched everyone who knew her, including me. We never became close personally and, as anyone who knew her can attest, she was not one for conspicuous public gestures. She might not have wanted something like this written about her by a former coworker she hadn’t seen in years. In that sense, I’m not even sure if I’m someone who “deserves” to write about her or can contribute something of value. But hers was the kind of life that deserves celebration and, in my opinion, sober reflection on what she might’ve been teaching us even when she wasn’t demanding our attention. There are clichés that come easily to mind at times like this, like still waters run deep and she died doing what she loved. She left us while professionally involved with code.org, where she devoted her talents to selflessly fostering workplace diversity, and she apparently died falling from the top of an ambitious climb. You can tell from her last few Facebook posts how excited she was about the trip. So, cliché as she died doing what she loved may be, those words certainly ring true in this case. But I wanted to say some more personal things about Laurel, despite knowing her only professionally.

What has been interesting watching this unfold in the last week is seeing all the testimonials written mostly by her friends and peers in the Northwest climbing community and yet, as someone who knew her in a completely different context, recognizing everything I’ve read about her character, talent, badass courage, and dedication to helping others. Maybe her climbing friends knew she was a great developer, but of course that’s a less visceral endeavor. We software folks might’ve revered Laurel’s mountaineering efforts with romantic images of epic adventures racing through our minds, but her climbing friends wouldn’t have done anything like that regarding her day job writing software. Boring office work, I’d assume they assumed, but it paid for the gear.

But Laurel did have this “other life” of her development career, in which she humbly kicked ass in the not-actually-boring but appallingly white-male-dominated field of software. The photos from this aspect of her life aren’t so captivating:

A 43 Things enthusiast visits the Robot Co-op office, circa 2007. I don’t remember why Josh was pointing at Slovakia, but I’ll be visiting there in a few weeks, because life is too short not to chase your crazy goals. Photo by Daniel Spils.

I imagine in the mountaineering world she must’ve had to overcome ingrained challenges as a gifted female in a pursuit traditionally associated with male bravado. But, as we all know, the challenge there, as in the software world, is not practical but societal. It’s a challenge not of real-world gender disparity but rather the baggage of entrenched sexism from old-world social norms. She was never concerned with nor daunted by any of that, as far as I could tell, and clearly served as an inspiration to women in both the climbing and coding communities. (I saw a girlfriend of hers post this week about how Laurel convinced her “how easy it was” to work as a woman in the software world.) And in endeavors largely driven by competitiveness and ambition, there are inevitable and unfortunate side effects. Many talented software developers default to an attitude of condescension and dismissiveness to their junior peers when they could opt instead to mentor and to lead. Laurel, as opposed to that exclusively male club of preening jerks, was a shining example of being good-natured and nurturing to her teammates rather than being conceited or self-serving. By all accounts from her climbing friends, it seems that in that realm she showed the same generosity of spirit, giving back to the community as much as she got from it. Leading by example and mentoring those who were just trying to keep up with her.

I worked with Laurel at two different companies but much more closely at that small, single-room startup called Robot Co-op. We were building a lifestyle company during the “Web 2.0” era and our flagship project was a life goals website called 43 Things — hence the t-shirt you see Laurel wearing above. List your life goals explicitly and publicly, suggested the conceit of the site, and then endeavor to achieve those goals, sharing your progress all the while. Live the life you claim to want by getting started on it. Right now. Just shut up and do it. Then share with others, maybe even lend a hand.

I think what hits so hard about Laurel’s passing is that it forces the simple consideration that her mode of quiet confidence while humbly realizing ambitious goals might have been a lot more intentional than those who just considered her “shy” realized. Maybe she deliberately spoke with her deeds, living by example. Words are cheap. It occurs to me this week how much we in the software world took heed, implicitly. I remember as a scrappy bunch of self-taught cowboy coders building a startup in the very early days of Ruby on Rails, we had adopted many unprofessional habits by the time Laurel came on board. Exposing our ugly underbelly to a new hire who we already knew and considered a true professional was embarrassing. Laurel never would’ve chided us for our misdeeds, of course, but she didn’t need to. Her mere presence as a peer caused us to step it up a notch, to care more about what we were doing and to do it better.

That life goals website to which she brought her integrity and professionalism was pure humanism, straightforward and humble, modestly ahead of its time, and executed with a sense of humor and true joy. So, yes, I mean that the project shared many of its finer qualities with Laurel. But that too was cut short, switched off in a flash some time ago. I hope to always remember what it taught me about how to live.