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In Memory of Caleb Cornman

We lost one of our guys last week.

On Saturday, November 17th, Caleb Cornman passed away. He was thirty years old, and had worked at Table XI for only two months. He came to us after a tour through every major Ruby on Rails shop in town: 8th Light, Thoughtworks, Obtiva, Hash Rocket. He was a talented developer and teacher.

Caleb’s older brother, Josh, said that Caleb “always wanted to make things” and knew at the age of four that he wanted to work with computers. Josh told him that it was a silly idea, that “we’re never going to be able to afford a computer.” But the family got one anyway, and when they did, “Caleb just knew it already.”

Josh didn’t have much interest in the computer until he was fourteen, when Caleb sat him down and spent a few hours teaching him how to use it. From then on, Josh was always sneaking into Caleb’s room to pick up whatever nuggets of knowledge he could get out of his younger brother. Soon after, Josh got a job fixing computers, which he parlayed into a career in IT. Today, Josh provides for his two children with skills that originated from the infectious passion and intelligence Caleb demonstrated before he was even a teen.

It doesn’t surprise me that Caleb started to share his love for computers at an early age. Shortly after he arrived at Table XI, I had the opportunity to work with him - my first time pairing with a more experienced developer. It’s tough to find programmers who are technically gifted and have the patience and humility to teach others. Though he was several steps ahead of me, he never made me feel stupid, or flashed a hint of arrogance. He didn’t judged my ignorance, but simply delighted in sharing knowledge.

One day Caleb and I were reading over some code, and he made a comment in passing about the “Octothorpe.”

“Wait. What?” I asked.

“The Octothorpe.”

“What the hell is an octothorpe?”

Most punctuation symbols have long names, which aren’t conducive to rapid conversation. Caleb taught me to refer to a question mark as “huh,” an exclamation mark as “bang,” an underscore as “skid,” an asterisk as “splat,” and the pound/hash as… “octothorpe.” I don’t know why the symbol with not one, but two, commonly accepted monosyllabic names is referred to as “octothorpe,” but it might be my favorite word I’ve learned this year.

I learned a lot from Caleb. In two weeks, he gave me my first vim tutorial, showed me how to write controller tests, and weaned me off of my dependence on the GitHub GUI. He helped me set up Oh My ZSH, and introduced me to the CanCan, pry, and decent_exposure gems. He taught me about code smells, time boxing spikes, and atomic commits.

More broadly, Caleb showed me what it looks like to be a true software craftsman. When he was coding, he was methodical and disciplined. When he got stuck, he knew where to go to get unstuck without pause or frustration. He moved with intention, and had a reason for every decision he made. He cited sources, often saying things like, “My friend Corey Haines says…“ At times, it seemed like he had worked with or knew just about everyone in the Chicago Rails community.

The community will miss him greatly.