Content warning: death, psychological trauma, and thoughts of self-harm
Martin Andert died last week.
Unless you worked with him, you probably didn’t know Martin Andert. He was an excellent software engineer, but he didn’t have a blog or personal website. His Twitter account offered no original content, but he bestowed approval with the occasional fave or retweet, made all the more precious by scarcity. His Github profile reveals a dedication to his work and a lively interest in extracurricular coding, despite being very busy with his full-time work.
He lived in Germany, and leaves behind a family who I can only guess will miss him very much. I’ve seen photos of them, but I don’t know their names. I’m told they don’t speak English.
I only met him twice in person, but I also miss him very much. I was devastated to learn of his death. I read the messages on my phone, logged off from work, and went into the kitchen where my husband was working. As he tried to wave me away without looking up—he was busy, I was interrupting, I knew—the tears welling up in my eyes quickly turned into full-on hiccuping ugly crying. (Don’t worry, I was quickly enveloped in a hug as soon as he looked up and noticed my distress.)
I don’t think I reacted that way when my grandparents, who I adored, died. Nor when my uncle passed away unexpectedly at a young age, in the middle of the night, just as Martin did. When I cry, it’s generally a silent, stoic sort of crying. And yet. There I was, sobbing in my kitchen. Martin is dead, I wailed. I’m writing this a few days later, and still sometimes my heart protests against this fact, a wave of raw emotion overtakes me.
We were friendly, but we weren’t friends. We were colleagues for a short time—less than two years—but in that time he had a profound impact on my life. He was a private person. Our conversations, while warm and engaging, touched only on matters related to our work together. In many ways, I hardly knew him.
There are some things I do know.
Martin was a careful, meticulous developer. He held himself and everyone around him to a high standard and took great pride in his work. Drawing on his background as a designer, he took as much care in crafting clear and navigable user interfaces as he did in crafting an abstract syntax tree for custom linting rules to help enforce his high standards across our codebases. He was difficult to please, known for rigorous and thorough code review. He wasn’t one to dole out superfluous or unearned praise.
Early in our time working together, Martin told me I was a good engineer. Later, he told me I was a good manager. Both pieces of feedback were unsolicited, and certainly sincere and straightforward; I didn’t know him to communicate in any other way. Others have been much more effusive in their praise of my skills, but knowing that Martin thought I was doing a good job was an evaluation I could reflect back at myself on low days. “Look, Kaitlyn, you can’t be as crap as you feel because even Martin thinks you’re doing a good job.”
There were many, many low days. So this came up more often than you might think.
I haven’t spoken much publicly about my time at Rail Europe. I posted a few tweets, I was threatened by someone from human resources, I deleted them (mostly). On my timeline, you’ll see I was an engineer, and then I was a manager, and then I returned to being an engineer. This was my choice, but my supervisor still had me sign a letter titled “demotion”. I signed another letter promising not to quit for a year. A few months later, I volunteered for redundancy, damn near begged for it, as soon as the pandemic started and it became obvious that the management weren’t taking care to cut costs, were sharing ludicrously optimistic financial projections out of line with any potential reality. I knew there would be deep cuts on my team, and I didn’t want to stay behind and bear the burden. Martin did, and I worried about him, but I’ve heard he was happy enough there towards the end, and I was relieved to learn that.
“Burnout” is a term that’s thrown around a lot in the tech industry. Rail Europe burned out many good people. I’ve never experienced it before, so I’m not sure if the trauma I experienced at Rail Europe was a form of burnout, or something different. I’ve lived with depression my entire life, so when I found myself spending large parts of each day and night fantasising about killing myself it didn’t feel uncomfortable or surprising. It wasn’t a warning sign. It’s only now, in the midst of a pandemic, when I haven’t seen my family and friends in over a year and I’ve lost all of my mental health coping mechanisms (going to the gym, making pottery, traveling), while I’m working again at a challenging job, that I can put my finger on it: trauma. I’m not fine, I’ll probably always have depression, but I haven’t fantasised about suicide in months. My confidence, my resilience, are still shattered from the trauma of my experience at Rail Europe.
During those dark days, there were many times when a kind word or conversation with Martin provided the tiny kernel of validation, of appreciation, that I needed to continue. To continue working, sure, but also to continue showing up, living. If you could call what I was doing at that time “living”, which, I’m not sure.
When someone dies shockingly, suddenly, sometimes we regret the things unsaid, the opportunities missed that can’t be made up. But although we hadn’t spoken for a few months, I don’t have any regrets with regard to Martin. I was effusive in voicing my admiration for him, both to him directly and, as his manager, to those higher-up to ensure he received recognition for his contributions. I supported him unwaveringly, as he did me, as many of our other colleagues from that time did for us both. There are many different ways to live in this world, many ways to show up for people. Martin was pleasant, professional, able to keep his work life and personal life wholly separate, but that didn’t diminish his impact. He showed up, he did the work. He taught me a lot, and he will be missed.