The first time I met Ken, in May of 1994, he scared me to death. Walking up the stairs to his office, the top floor of a storefront in the old downtown of Norcross, Georgia, I felt like I was entering a haunted house. The walls were alarmingly slanted; as I walked up, the steps creaked, the lights were out, and, despite the hot summer outside, the interior of the building was cloaked in gloom and seemed cold, somehow. I was there for a job interview.
The door to the office stood open, the spooky half-light revealing two rooms that were stacked high on all sides with dusty old pieces of computer equipment, ten years obsolete or obviously broken. There was a blonde sitting at the reception desk, filing her nails like Sam Spade’s secretary in the Maltese Falcon. I introduced myself, and asked where I could find the boss.
She pointed at a dark hole in the wall, a doorway without a door, beyond which lay a dark room, strobe-lit by the sputtering of a faulty flourescent light fixture. I walked slowly toward it, and warily poked my head inside. At the far end of the room sat a dark shape, half-obscured by a desk piled high with old floppy drives, ribbon cables, and tabloid-sized computer magazines, still in the cellophane mailing wrappers. A swing-armed lamp switched on behind the stacks, and an enormous pony-tailed hippy-head leaned round it, eyeglasses reflecting the white, pulsing light. “Well, hey there! You must be Eric”, boomed a radio-announcer voice. “Well, yes I am,” I answered. That’s when I noticed there were two gigantic Doberman pinschers about three feet away from where I was standing, staring at me like I was a six foot Milk Bone. That’s pretty much how it went for the next six years.
Our little company was called NSS, Inc. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it was the best computer support company in Georgia at the time. We had customers spread from Rockmart to Savannah, made up of people that taught the blind to use computers, or examined old men’s prostates, or maybe built fuel tanks for F-14s. At any given time, we were supporting over 2000 seats. We helped our customers transition from DOS and UNIX workstations to Linux and Mac and Windows NT; we showed them what email was, and what it was good for. We explained to them what then-cryptic acronyms meant, like WWW and Y2K. The tech world is never what you might call stable, but the 1990s was a frantic time to be the computer guy. We were a 2-man operation, and we helped usher in the Internet revolution.
And that was only during work hours. Any time we weren’t screwing computers together or crimping 10base2 connectors, we were discussing anything and everything. Ken had an amazing grasp of history, logic, and rhetoric; and more importantly, he had the talent to apply concepts across disciplines. He could use aristotelean logic to figure out what was causing a Novell server to abend. In the same vein, he once explained to me an elegant and sophisticated Libertarian system of government using a Token Ring network diagram as a visual aid. He had a talent for abstracting a concept, transmitting it through time and space, and rematerializing it unharmed in a completely different setting. All this happened as an aside to our real job. During lunch hour, or the time between calling it a day and actually leaving the office, that’s where the real magic of NSS happened.
Pretty early on, Ken stopped being just a boss, and became what you might call a mentor. The amazing discussions that we had taught me how to truly understand what I was doing, and what it meant in the greater context of life. I quickly understood that the processes I learned could be reduced to principles and applied to anything. I had acquired a lever that could truly move mountains, that of applied rationality. And I had never even imagined such a thing until I met Ken.
For six years, we spent every workday together, but we never saw each outside the office. Although I was a heavy drinker at the time, and Ken had an impressive cabinet full of single malt Scotch behind his desk, we never had a drink together, not a drop. I knew that he had a gun-safe in the server room, stocked with a legendary array of firearms, from Uzi to Desert Eagle. Or maybe he didn’t; I never saw him open it, and didn’t really want to. It was all about the work, the conversations, and the intellectual boxing matches that I always lost, to good effect.
Over the years, he has been a huge influence on me. His intelligence, knowledge, and clarity have been an inspiration, and can serve as an example to us all of how men should be. I wouldn’t be half the man I am today had it not been for the time I spent with him as a part of NSS, and I would like nothing more right now than to shake his hand and tell him, thank you, with all my heart.
Ken Ashbaugh died last Sunday, at the age of 56. His services will be held Saturday, October 14th, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I’ve booked my flight from Munich to Atlanta, and will be there to pay my respects to this most remarkable man.