Brett Helsel, who played a key role in shaping the Seattle technology community through senior engineering roles at F5 Networks and Isilon Systems, died last week after suffering a cardiac arrest while paddle boarding on Lake Washington. He was 54.
Three teenage girls recovered Helsel from the water, administered CPR and called 911. Helsel was transported to Overlake Hospital, but did not recover from the incident. He died July 10th at 7:30 p.m.
Helsel had the rare distinction of shaping the products at F5 and Isilon, two of the region’s most important technology companies. F5 now boasts a market value of $8 billion, while Isilon was sold to EMC in 2010 for $2.25 billion and continues to maintain a large presence in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Born in Philadelphia and educated at the Florida Institute of Technology, Helsel first went to work as as software engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space. He later held roles at Digital Equipment Corp. and Wall Data.
But it was at F5 that Helsel made his mark.
He joined F5 in 1998 as an early member of the executive team, rising to the position of chief technology officer. He shaped the company’s product direction a year before its groundbreaking IPO, and helped position F5 to take market share from industry titans Cisco and Nortel.
He left F5 in 2003 to start his own venture-backed security software company — Lockdown Networks — before getting tapped by Isilon Systems to help lead a turnaround at the Seattle storage company.
At Isilon, Helsel served as senior vice president of engineering, leading the company at a pivotal time in which he set a new product direction and revamped the engineering organization.
Friends and former colleagues remembered Helsel as a passionate technologist who easily won the loyalty of customers and co-workers.
“Over five years, his energy, incredible passion, and frankness made him very successful and an invaluable asset to me,” said Sujal Patel, the co-founder and former CEO of Isilon. “His passing is an enormous loss to the Seattle tech community, and even bigger loss to those of us who have come to know Brett as a friend.”
Jeff Hussey, the founder and former CEO of F5, said Helsel was a key confidante during the early days of F5.
“He was world-class at maintaining the balance between a business’ priorities and those of its customers while managing them to a mutually successful outcome,” said Hussey. “In any organization, regardless of size, there are a small number of people who make a big difference. Brett was one of them. And as good a business partner he was, he was an even better friend. His passing is an incredible loss to his family, his friends and the community.”
Both Bill Richter and Kiran Bhageshpur, who worked alongside Helsel at Isilon, described him as one-of-a-kind.
“He impacted a lot of people and everyone who knew him has a ‘Brett story,'” said Bhageshpur. “He was one-in-a-million.”
Helsel’s wife, Simone, remembered her husband as passionate, courageous and honest. He loved being on the water, boating, fishing, paddle boarding and as a youth surfing. He was also a fan of the open road, spending time on Harley rides.
“He was my best friend and love,” she said.
Helsel is also survived by his daughter Amy, son Trevor, stepdaughter Savannah and brother Buzz Helsel. A memorial service is planned for July 24th at 2 p.m. at the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle’s University District. In lieu of flowers, donations can be directed to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.