Some people’s deaths hit me harder than others. When Douglas Adams died in 2001 I was devastated. I also took it pretty bad when Guido Sohne died last year. I’m glad that he’s now been rewarded with a post-humous award – in his name – and triggered a belated reaction to the original news.
Guido Sohne was an African software developer and open-source proponent who grew up in Ghana, went to Princeton, and then – amazingly – returned to his native land. Why did he do it? It’s awfully tempting to stay where wages are high, where computer products are easy to get, peers are easy to meet … he would have had no problem there. But instead he chose to return to Accra, and later Nairobi (Kenya).
I met Guido on a mailing list called PubSoft, focused on global issues around open source software. I’ve been an open-source nut for a long time. I’ve also been interested in international development and especially Africa since I lived for 6 months in a rural development project in Lesotho at an early age.
Guido and I struck up a cyber-relationship – we never met in person and only talked a few times on the phone. I was really interested in his views on the development of internet and computer technology in Africa. I can go and read what people are saying, but Guido was “one of us” – a CS grad from a big school – and a really nice guy and had a lot of credibility. I learned a lot from him about the realities. And, also, lets face it he was ahead of me in terms of exploring the boundaries of web technology – introduced me to Ruby on Rails for example.
Somehow or other I wound up hiring him to do some work for my company Semacode – I needed software written, didn’t have many connections at that time, and he was looking for work. He did some himself and also managed another African native who he managed very effectively. We had a great business relationship which is especially important since he’s on the other side of the world, and trust in business is so critical. He was totally reliable.
The source code by the way is still in the Semacode barcode decoding source base and is good code – has been built on over the years (since 2004 or 2005??).
And I know that Semacode was a great opportunity for him too as it has great web presence and is (still) really cool up-and-coming technology.
He had some business ideas that we discussed, we exchanged I don’t know how many emails, and finally he got a job at Microsoft. Crazy, I know, because he was a Linux fan and always used a Mac. But I know other people who are otherwise good people who wind up at Microsoft and anyway: (a) MS is much less evil now and (b) this is Africa we’re talking about … how many major software companies have significant operations there?
(As an aside, did you know that there is only one major software company with HQ outside the USA?)
And then… I got an email that he died. At 34. In his sleep. There was no warning that I knew of. He always looked and sounded healthy. Maybe he had a heart condition or something. I don’t know.
I often wonder if the reason he went back to Africa was because he had been diagnosed with some kind of “eventually-will-kill-you” illness and had a sort of revelation, to do something more meaningful than the traditional CS job. Well, that’s looking for a reason for someone to be so extraordinary. I know good programmers and he was well up there. But he also had a vision, great people skills, drive, energy, communication and a good heart. So. I still can’t believe he’s gone.