A death in the family - our tribute to the inimitable Kurt Marko

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 24, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
The diginomica family has lost a key member with the passing of Kurt Marko. Here's why.

Kurt

Over the last few years, it's a question that came up often:

What does Kurt Marko think?

I didn't have to look far. Beyond his essential weekly pieces as a diginomica contributor, Kurt Marko was an enterprise Twitter savant. He could easily turn a tiny piece of real estate, aka the "tweet," into a edgy, penetrating take. When Microsoft acquired Activision, and the enterprise media burst into hyperbolic metaverse hand-waving, I waited for Kurt's sharp rebuttal.

This time, it didn't come.

Now, alas, I know why. Kurt Marko, prodigious enterprise analyst and tech journalist par excellence, passed away on January 12, 2022.

On January 12, I didn't know this. On the 12th, Marko sent in his latest (and last) diginomica column, Why huge cloud and telecom vendors have invested millions in a GitOps startup.

I didn't hear from Marko on the Twitter backchannel for a few days, but paid that no need. He and I would ebb and flow. But a few days ago, I started getting pings - first from Clive Boulton and Frank Scavo. Boulton and Scavo were engaged in a Twitter message thread with Marko, and hadn't heard back from him since January 11th.

Further searches revealed Marko had no apparent online activity since the 11th. By now, it was the 20th. I had a sinking feeling I could not shake. I called Kurt, left a friendly voice mail, asking him to check in. After 24 hours, more voice mails, this time saying if I didn't hear from him, I'd be sending someone by his home.

A day later, it was time. I called his local police department, told them we had not heard from Marko online since January 11th. I was determined to persuade police to do a wellness check. I was also sure, if Marko was alive and well, he would not appreciate this. Marko was a proud and private person, not interested in that type of official interference. But hey, I had given him fair warning. I was prepared to argue with the police: a ten day absence from Twitter, for this particular individual, was a big deal. I didn't have to argue.

Fifteen minutes later, a different police officer called back. Marko had passed. His mother, who he lived with, told police he had passed on January 12. The details are scant, but a local obituary is supposed to be forthcoming. For more, we'll have to wait. Marko had been through a major hip surgery in 2020, but had come through, and had recently sent a colleague a picture of his personally shoveled driveway.

Here's what I do know: my life is diminished. This hurts. It hurts in a way that might seem unfathomable when I tell you: Kurt and I never had an interaction that wasn't about the enterprise, aside from the hip surgery.

But that's where Kurt's passion was. It was a passion honed by healthy skepticism, and decades of well-honed tradecraft. Kurt was fueled by the belief that enterprise innovation was achievable - but only if we collectively pushed through the morass of tech hype, and scraped down to the real possible.

And no one could do that better than Kurt. His grasp of the technical architecture underneath transformation rhetoric was unsurpassed. On the diginomica backchannel, a colleague said to me:

He was clearly totally in charge of his brief and knew his shit.

If you think that's an odd thing to put in a tribute, I'm pretty sure it's the line Kurt would have liked the best. The eulogy perhaps not.

Kurt didn't have time for pleasantries. We had spirited spats on Twitter. Once he apologized after. I told him never to apologize - if I couldn't take the heat, I shouldn't be in the game. Through our sparring, that understanding held up.

Kurt's technical mastery, which traces back to his Stanford engineering pedigree, was bolstered by a sophisticated grasp of how to apply the scientific method to opinionated analysis, however subjective it might ultimately be. But it was Kurt's truth-telling that welded his know-how into a stinging edge; vendors could feel its poke. More than a few times, Kurt felt the impact of that from vendors PR agencies. At diginomica, we consider that "good trouble," and we get into it fairly often.

One classic example: while most were fawning over Zoom and annointing them as remote work darlings, Kurt was early-in on security flaws, PR missteps, and problematic Chinese connections (as of April 2020). He wasn't easy on Zoom's Five9 acquisition fail, but Kurt didn't cling to rigid narratives. He recently wrote of Zoom's event opportunity in Zoom as a video production platform shows it knows that online events aren't going away. Kurt was a staunch work from home advocate, which influenced his open mind on Zoom. His Tweetstream was a blistering takedown of centralized-office apologists:

A couple months ago, Kurt got into more "good trouble" with vendor PR. This one ran a bit hotter than usual. Our core team backed him, and he backed us. In our world, this is the stuff lasting friendships are made of. It sucks to lose that opportunity, and to lose his voice. After that PR skirmish, I remembering thinking to myself:

Kurt, welcome to the family.

I only wish I had said it. Perhaps it's too late now, but it still needs to be said. With no affront intended to Kurt's blood relatives and the different level of pain and loss they must be experiencing now, Kurt was irreplaceable to us also.

There is so much we don't know. But I do know one thing: on Kurt's final day, he was doing what he loved. I'm sure his readers will take this just as hard. There are few enterprise gadflies left, even fewer with Kurt's tech chops. Without Kurt, we'll all need to press a little harder, probe into those marketecture slides, ask the tougher questions and stop it with the softballs. Otherwise, we are not deserving of Kurt's mantle.

I asked Clive Boulton, long-time diginomica reader and fellow Stanford alumn for his words. Boulton writes:

We met up through diginomica, and became friends online during the pandemic lockdown, chatting with other industry analysts. Kurt was always digging deeper into the computing details underpinning the cloud-era, succinctly explaining the valuable impact to business readers. Back to custom chips, completing a circle in the enterprise, and from where we began.

While we don't know if this applies to Kurt's situation in any way, Boulton reminded me: in the midst of remote work isolation, checking in on colleagues is not an option, it's an imperative. When in doubt, do it.

After I published my Carl Sagan-inspired piece, Honing our enterprise BS filters - with tips from Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, Kurt and I had a fierce session on the backchannel. Kurt adapted many of Sagan's ideas into his craft. He admired the scientific method, and the necessary skepticism and respect for the data that belies it. Kurt sent me a picture framed above his office, charting out every form of manipulation and obfuscation known to humankind - all of which he was determined to root out and call out. I'm going to find a copy for my office.

Carl Sagan once said:

Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.

That fits Kurt Marko's work in the tech field pretty darn well. I hope, deep down, Kurt knew that. If he didn't, it's our failing, not his. Kurt turned in the cleanest copy you could find. No typos for Kurt Marko. Edgy didn't mean rough around the edges. Kurt was a polished stone, you see, and perhaps his work was done here, I don't know. But I do know we miss him already.

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