When a Team Member Dies


The technology world lost a wonderful writer and highly respected thought leader recently – Kerry Butters.

Kerry Butters passed away on 23 February 2016 after a short battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of working with Kerry since early 2013 – she was a pivotal member of the XEN team and a wonderful guide to me personally. I’ve written a post over on the XEN blog covering her achievements and amazing contributions. In this post I wanted to mention a few personal items that probably wouldn’t have been relevant in that post.

At XEN we have a core team of 6, plus a number of other freelance and casual team members all working together on a ton of different projects with our customers.

XEN is a remote company – that is, we rarely (if ever) meet each other in person – most of our communication is via email, Skype, Slack and a bunch of other collaboration tools. This might seem strange to you if you’ve not worked in that situation, but if you investigate a little you’ll find it is reasonably common, especially in technology companies, and becoming much more the norm.

Being a remote company has its advantages and disadvantages. This post isn’t about exploring those, but I will highlight one key advantage: the chance to work with world-class people that you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to.

Kerry is a perfect example. I worked with her closely over the last 3 years, all remotely. I never actually met her in person. She was based in the UK and everything we did was via email, Skype and other tools.

It’s thanks to our remote setup (and these tools) that we could meet and work together. And what a privilege it has been for me (and for XEN).

As a general rule I’m very slow to process my feelings. Michele often jokes that it takes me a day to decide if I want anything from the fridge (when she asks while she has the door open). But it’s true. I often don’t know how I feel about something until a week or two later.

When Martin (Kerry’s husband) emailed me to tell me the devastating news about Kerry passing, I was shocked. Although we knew she wasn’t well (Martin had been keeping us updated regularly on her treatment) the speed at which she went was a complete shock. In the space of a few short months she had gone from healthy to peaceful passing. But even now, 3 weeks later, I think it is only just starting to register. The notion that I won’t talk with her again. That we won’t discuss technology ideas again. That we won’t be able to help solve a customer problem together again.

There’s always a big hole left when someone dies, but when you’ve only ever corresponded with them online, and never actually met them in person, there’s a different kind of void. It’s as if it is only temporary as if they’re offline for a bit and they’ll be back any day now…

Which makes dealing with it delayed, and difficult to process. I think perhaps I’ve avoided thinking about it. As if denial will make it easier. As I write this post Kerry’s photo and bio still sits on the XEN About page. What should I do about that? What is the protocol – should I remove her, should I add a note that she is no longer with us, should I just leave it as-is for now. I don’t know.

Death brings other things as well – sadly, it is only now that I’ve learnt of some of Kerry’s personal challenges and some of her quietly downplayed yet amazing achievements. Martin covers them beautifully in his tribute to Kerry. It’s only now that I have a fuller picture of just how much she achieved in so short a space of time. And, perhaps most strikingly it is only now that I learnt that she was younger than me. In all our discussions over the last 3+ years I just assumed she was older than me – she had a wisdom and worldly understanding that belied her age.

Kerry was incredibly smart, hard working, thoughtful and caring. She had initiative, drive and attention to detail. She was taken from us far too soon, and we are much the poorer because of it. I miss her more each day.

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By Craig Bailey