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Remembering CJ Fearnley

On December 8, 2022, CJ Fearnley passed away after a short, serious illness. I’m heartbroken.

When I moved to Philadelphia in 2001, one of the first communities I got involved with was the Philadelphia area Linux Users Group (PLUG). I had just started dabbling in Linux with the help of my boyfriend at the time, and with the first meeting I ever attended being about Beowulf Linux clustering, I was quite out of my depth. Still, I stuck with it and slowly got familiar with the community, and the leader of the group, CJ Fearnley.

CJ Fearnley leading a PLUG meeting in 2015

CJ gave me my big break. During the dot com boom I dabbled in web development, but that quickly fizzled out along with everything else, and I ended up getting a job doing accounts payable work for a large corporation. It’s not the kind of job that one has a passion for, but it paid the bills, and I was able to keep an eye out for any contract tech work. That’s what caused me to be available when CJ was looking for junior folks to help with installing servers for his clients. I jumped at the opportunity and here and there I’d make myself available to pick up a server, drive it to the install location, haul it into the data center, or whatever closet it was living in. From there, I had my trusty Debian installation CD and would do the install and load up the default packages it needed. After a few months and an in-person which culminated in seeing Richard Stallman speak in Philadelphia, CJ offered me a full time job with his company, LinuxForce.

The first thing you need to know about working for CJ is that he’s very principled. His passion was for open source software and among his goals for running LinuxForce were spreading open source and Debian. He believed in the technology and he believed in the philosophy, and we was often uncompromising when it came to both, which is refreshing to see from someone running a company. And that company would never make him rich, but it did provide a living for himself and a small handful of employees like myself. He also believed in giving people a chance, particularly minorities in tech. He would always have me keep an eye out for smart folks with non-traditional backgrounds who might like a position where we could mentor them into success. His track record was great, several of the people he had on his payroll over the years have gone on to have remarkable careers in systems administration, and him giving them a start was key to that for all of us.

I spent six years at LinuxForce. Each day we’d spend 30-60 minutes syncing up with the latest client needs and plans for the day. This included division of labor, and frequently the opportunity for me to work on something new or otherwise sparked my interest.

When I began, I wasn’t sure what I wanted from my career, just that I had grown quite fond of Linux and open source in general, and wanted that to be a big part of my career. Early on, he asked me, “do you want to be a systems administrator or programmer?” and with the limited experience I had, I didn’t know how to answer, so his answer was to throw everything in my direction and see what stuck. I started out with Debian packaging, did a lot of programming in Perl, and then developed a fondness for systems administration. I found with systems administration I could have my hands in various technologies and still build things I was proud of, so that’s ultimately the direction I took under his mentorship.

CJ kept me on when I moved to San Francisco, and I worked a couple more years for him before I felt I had outgrown my role there and wanted to move on to something different and more challenging. What was his response when I mentioned I wanted to look for something new? Complete support, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone who knew him.

We kept in touch throughout my successive moves. When I visited Philly I’d often stop by a PLUG meeting, sometimes to even give a presentation on the latest thing I was working on, and we’d catch up after the meeting over pizza. The pandemic did a number on my personal relationships, and so has being a new parent, so the last time I saw CJ was in the summer of 2019 when I came by the PLUG meeting to give a presentation about Linux and open source on mainframes. We caught up as always, and I figured I’d catch up with him when I was in town again. That dragged on a bit with the pandemic, and before I knew it, I had a shocking email in my inbox explaining that he was suddenly quite ill and didn’t have long to live. I was able to get a quick message off to him expressing my care and thanks, and within a couple days he was gone. He was only 55.

Because of CJ’s influence, I was the first to jump at the opportunity to see a Buckminster Fuller exhibit that came to the SF MOMA. I went to more than a few events put on by the Long Now Foundation. In 2013, he came to my wedding with his partner Jeannie.

CJ and his partner Jeannie at our wedding in 2013

There are a lot of reasons this loss has hit me particularly hard, especially since it was so sudden, but I think the core of my despair comes from the fact that his mentorship was pivotal to me at a critical time. I learned a deep level of Linux systems administration that I think would have been difficult to gain elsewhere, especially as a woman in the field at the time. He was patient and thoughtful even when I struggled with things, and while no boss wants their employees to make mistakes, he fully adhered to failure being a part of learning, and stood by that when mistakes did occur. Tech stuff aside, he also taught me to be uncompromising and genuine, both of which have served me extremely well in my career. Losing a mentor and friend like CJ is devastating.

But he lived a full life following his passions and had the love and respect of participants from every community he was involved with. There are so many people who got their start in the Philadelphia Linux community who continue to thrive in the industry, and those I’ve spoken to since his passing have all credited him with helping them get their start. Whether it was attending PLUG meetings in high school or getting them set up with their first shell accounts, CJ was there to run meetings and help lead the way. And as one friend pointed out to me today, he “led from the trenches” which is a style of leadership I’ve come to embrace.

Audience at a PLUG meeting in 2013, including CJ in the foreground

In the small pond of the earliest Linux adopters, CJ was one of the kindest people I knew. His willingness to share his passions was the bedrock of the Linux community in Philadelphia. It’s going to be hard to move forward without him.

Thank you for everything, CJ.