Seven Years Ago

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The very first page of my charting book has just one line on it:

To Alexander Dobrovolski, who made it all possible.

Even with all the copies of the book that have been sold, no one has ever asked me what this dedication meant, or who Alex was. Today, I’d like to tell you a little about Alex.

From Ukraine via Boston

In early 1999, I had already been running Prophet for six and a half years. But most of that “running” was me operating out of a spare bedroom in my house with the help of a couple of folks operating out of their spare bedrooms. We never had any money.

But due to a surprising windfall, I was in a position to make Prophet a real business, with a real office, and actual employees who came in every morning and left every night – it was going to be quite a change.

But what we needed most was talented engineers. And, let me assure you, finding a good software engineer in 1999 was no easy task. All the talent started getting sucked up once the Internet craze started four years earlier, and the talent that was left was (a) really expensive and (b) not at all talented.

So we scoured, as best we could, to find someone – anyone – decent. By chance we located a consulting firm in Boston that had some engineers from the former Soviet bloc, and they were more than glad to pimp them out (this is, in fact, the term we used).

Now, I don’t know how many of you have looked at the resumes of software engineers, but 98% of them look identical; I actually got pretty good at just eyeballing a resume and seeing who was decent and who wasn’t. One person in particular, Alex, stood out as quite promising. I noticed that he even had taken the 2nd place prize in a nationwide contest in mathematics back in the Ukraine, so apparently he was awfully smart.

So we asked to speak with Alex. It was a difficult conversation, because his English was pretty limited, but even over the phone he seemed smart and likable, so we decided to take a chance and devote some of our modest cash to this new engineer.

“He’s going to cut my balls off.”

Like many transplanted engineers from the former Soviet Union, Alex was in this country without his family. He came here because he could earn much better money and, hopefully, eventually bring his family over. As I got to know Alex, he told me he had a wife, Eugenia, and a son of about twelve years.

It was rapidly apparent that Alex wasn’t just bright – he was brilliant. Prophet had very, very little when he started, and our charting code – God help us – was written by me (this is the equivalent of having an ambitious eight year old boy construct a house for you to live in). Even over a period of months, our communication remained difficult since we didn’t speak the same language, although using the written word, he did just fine. So there were dozens of instances where I’d come over to his desk, start to explain something, and then just fire up Notepad on his computer and type to him what I was trying to say. I could type English much faster than I could get him to understand the spoken word, so we had this curiously silent way of communicating. And, yes, he would type right back, with me right next to him.

We didn’t want to keep Alex as a consultant, though. It was apparent to us this guy was a gem, and we wanted him to work for us – – forever, if possible. So we contacted his pimp – – err, consulting firm – – and told him of our intent.

The pimp was none too thrilled to hear this, because he was getting a handsome cut of Alex’s pay. But our contract with the firm gave us the permission to hire him away, and we told him that’s what we were going to do. So he asked to speak to Alex to say his farewells. I handed Alex the phone and he spoke to his guy in Russian for a couple of minutes. He finally said, “Da.” and hung up the phone.

“What did he say?”

“He said he’s going to cut my balls off.”

“So are you going to stay?”

“Yes.”

JavaCharts then Kandinsky

Alex worked in 1999, 2000, and 2001 on just about all the web-facing products that Prophet had. His principal creation was JavaCharts, which was a full-blown charting applet that put Prophet on the map.

This one creation absolutely made the company, because it gave us something that brokerages were actually interested in licensing. So over twenty different firms licensed the product, and it gave us a steady, hearty stream of recurring revenue.

Those were insane years in the valley, because in the span of months, the entire area went from insane booming bubble to collapse. Because Prophet had never had a “boom” period (or venture capital), we didn’t have a “bust” either. We were actually a sea of calm amidst a huge storm, and a lot of our would-be competitors simply blew up.

As JavaCharts usage grew from the thousands to the millions of tens of millions of hits every month, the pressure was always on to improve both it and its underlying infrastructure. But, as with any software product, JavaCharts was starting to show its age, and Alex wanted to created something completely new to replace it.

In 2002, he embarked on a new project called Kandinsky (which ultimately would become the ProphetCharts we know and love today). Even though JavaCharts was a really good product, we knew that Alex’s experience with it would provide him the knowledge to create something truly amazing as its successor. So his long days at the office continued – – – and his life was all the more complete now that his wife and son had joined him (equipped, as he was, with a fresh green card) in the United States.

The Phone Call

At 8:16 p.m. on November 8, 2002, Alex was – as was often the case – the last one at the office. He wrote himself an email of sites he wanted to check first thing on Monday morning. The subject line, in typical Alex fashion, was humorously meaningless. He even signed it.

From: Alex Dobrovolskiy

To: ADobrov@usa.net

Sent: Friday, November 08, 2002 8:16 PM

Subject: ssssssss

http://clearstation.etrade.com/rfcs_thetrade.html

http://www.devx.com/getHelpOn/Article/9915/

http://www.devx.com/java/article/9856

http://archive.devx.com/free/tips/tipview.asp?content_id=4153

http://www.developer.com/java/other/article.php/1495061

Alex Dobrovolskiy

I imagine at this point he shut down his computer, locked the door, and started to walk across the street to get into his car.

The next morning, I was sitting in the restaurant Fu Lam Mum in Mountain View with my family, and my cell phone rang. It was Alex’s wife, Eugenia, whose English was more limited than her husband’s.

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no bother. Is something wrong?”

“Alex was hit by a car. I thought you should know. He’s at Stanford Hospital.”

She wasn’t crying; she wasn’t hysterical; and she seemed to feel genuinely bad about calling me on a Saturday morning. Needless to say, we all left immediately for the hospital, not knowing what had happened or how bad it was.

One by One

We met Eugenia at the hospital, and she remained very composed – stoic, even. My wife asked to see Alex, whom she adored, even in his horribly damaged condition. I couldn’t bear to go in there; he wasn’t conscious, and he was being kept alive by machines.

According to the police, a hit and run driver mowed Alex down as he was crossing Alma. He was thrown at least forty feet. He was as good as dead at that point, and once they turned the machines off, at Eugenia’s request, he was gone.

So this brilliant man – – the man who had made everything we succeeded at in our company possible – – and whose wife and child had joined him in a new land – – was dead. Killed by someone with probably half his IQ and one-fiftieth of his morals. Because somewhere, out there, is the slob who ran him over and didn’t have the courage to face the consequences of his actions. A coward killed him.

As we told our employees that Monday morning, privately, one by one, the reactions were understandable – shock, grief, and a fear of what was going to happen. After all, we were all, to a degree, riding on Alex’s coattails. This was the brain behind our creations.

I was particularly moved by the outpouring of support we received from the community. Both strangers and friends poured money into his memorial fund in order to support his survivors. And, of course, people were outraged that the wrongdoer got away with it.

Obviously I wish he was still here – – he had just started doing some amazing things. But he was formative in a company that created employment, customers, and a lot of happy users. I miss you, Alex, and I’m sorry that this happened.