Brian Whittaker - In memoriam

Mr. Brian Whittaker was a great colleague that I had the opportunity to work with at McAfee. He was from the Aylesbury office. Today marks 2 years since the passing of Brian, and I have a few words to share.

When I joined the EWS team at McAfee in late 2010, Brian was already a very senior engineer. PN, one of the managers at that time, use to say, "For any given technology or programming language (that we were using), it is safe to assume Brian knows better than us". Specifically, if we ran into a problem that is unixy, a running joke in the team was to say "Well, man Brian", a reference to the Unix man pages being the ultimate source of information on anything in Unix/Linux. Brian could help with a solution for everything from a messed-up merge to process synchronisation problems. He maintained a fairly sophisticated build system for several years, created many useful utilities for the product and the engineering team and gave really useful feedback in code reviews.

For several years, the engineering team was also responsible for creating the Release notes for every release. And the team used to use Bugzilla at that time for issue tracking. Brian had written a utility that would parse comments from each bug that is meant for a release and create the HTML/PDF release notes. For doing that, to ensure that the comments that get into the release notes are unambiguous and easy enough for the customers to understand, Brian took upon himself the task of correcting the vocabulary, structure, and grammar of the bug comments. When we made mistakes that are not very obvious to us non-native English speakers, he famously quips "As my high-school English teacher used to say, …."

Brian also wrote the backup utility that the team had been using for well over a decade when I left McAfee. It was a home-grown Perl-based solution that handled daily/weekly backups of several TeraBytes of data.

When I first met him in person in 2013 during an official visit to the UK office, I was amazed at how he had organised this workstation’s desktop. There used to be dozens of small terminal sessions, each serving its own purpose (and only Brian knew which terminal is for what). You go ask him a question, he will get to the right terminal type in a few commands (at times obscure commands), and get the results that you had asked for. His work ethic/discipline is something that all of us could learn from.

Likewise, the build system that he created (along with AJ, SchCr, SiCr?) was extremely complex and sophisticated. At one point in the past, the set of Makefiles, triggered from a top-level make file used to generate 3 ISOs, 3 zips (patch install), and 1 source ISO.

By late 2019, Brian started to show signs of illness and needed frequent visits to the hospital. But his sense of commitment and nonchalance remained intact. I remember a specific incident where when a build failed for no apparent reason, I asked around and no one could figure out why. And Brian was in the hospital. While we worked around by creating a formal build off of our Jenkins, Brian was kind enough to login from the hospital to tell us that there is an intermediate IT-owned file server to which the build gets copied and that seems to be the point of failure.

I had the opportunity to meet him in person again in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 menace started. We (HB, SV, KSh, and I) had been to the UK office to transition a few products over to India. We had planned a few transition (a.k.a KT or TOI) sessions with Brian. But he was quite unwell by then and managed to share only a subset of what was planned (and that was of course quite useful). A few short weeks after we returned back to India, we were informed of Brian’s passing by PN. Though he was quite senior to us by age and experience, it was still a case of "gone too soon".

Brian, along with AJ, spent a significant part of his time improving developer/programmer experience (PX). And he was inspirational in many ways. A true "senior engineer", as the industry calls them.

PS: I could not find a LinkedIn profile for Brian, nor could I find any photos. I’ll share those if I manage to find any publicly available ones. Also, this is more of a "thought dump" than a proper blog post.