Mitch Hill, the former CEO of Avanade and Opscode, passed away Wednesday after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 55.
A fierce competitor who earned a black belt in karate and raced motorcycles as a kid, Hill participated in bicycling events and water sports throughout the Northwest. In fact, it was that competitive spirit that kept driving Hill even after the diagnosis of cancer earlier this year.
From the time of his diagnosis in March until early this week, Hill thought he would beat the cancer, recalled his longtime friend and Opscode co-worker Paul Edelhertz.
“He wanted to work as long as he could work, and he stayed deeply connected all the way literally to the absolute end,” said Edelhertz. “I will never forget when he told me about his diagnosis and I asked him about his prognosis and he said: ‘The numbers are terrible and I am never going to look at it again, because I am going to be the exception.’ I think, actually, even until Monday that’s what he was thinking. That was the type of dude he was.”
Working at Avanade and later at Opscode, Hill would ride his bike from his home in Bellevue to the companies’ offices in Seattle.
“He was super competitive,” said Edelhertz, noting that Hill would still “smoke people” on his bicycle who were 10 to 15 years younger.
Edelhertz attributed Hill’s competitive drive and strong leadership skills to his early childhood, growing up in humble surroundings with seven siblings and a single mom.
Hill was born on Oct. 2, 1958 in San Pedro, California, and graduated from Westminster High School in 1976, where he met his wife Cherie. He graduated with a degree in economics from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
After graduation, he took a job at Arthur Andersen and Company (now Accenture), rising quickly through the management ranks. “He kind of blew the doors off the place,” remembered his friend and former Arthur Andersen co-worker Edelhertz, who later joined Hill at Opscode.
“He stood out as not one of your traditional ‘Accenture guys.’ He was an incredibly good fit in the place in terms of somebody who clients loved and did a great job, but the really amazing thing about Mitch was that everybody wanted to work for him. He was a magnet for the best people,” recalled Edelhertz, noting that his management skills created deep loyalty.
But it wasn’t just business with Hill, who extended his relationships with people beyond the office walls. Edelhertz — who described himself as a “directionless single guy” at Arthur Andersen — was one of the beneficiaries of Hill’s outgoing nature. Even with a young family, Hill would invite Edelhertz out on family camping trips.
On one occasion, the two men were traveling to a friend’s wedding in Cabo San Lucas when Hill just happened to strike up a friendship with a few of the families on the plane. “They happened to be staying at the same hotel we were at, ended up going to the wedding with us, and now those same two families who he met on the plane were basically with him 24-7 in the hospital and at his house in the last six weeks,” recalled Edelhertz. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Hill used those leadership and personnel skills to form Avanade, a Seattle-based joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture. He led Avanade as its founding CEO until 2008, growing it into a consulting powerhouse with about 9,000 employees. Earlier this week when the current CEO of Avanade sent out a note to staffers about Hill’s death, the response was overwhelming, with 1,000 responses from staffers in the first few hours.
“The other thing about Mitch, he was always calm,” said Edelhertz. “No matter what kind of craziness with his customers or clients or inside his company or with his big crazy family, he was always that guy who was that sort of rock calmness.”
In 2011, Hill surprised some when he jumped to Opscode, a small Seattle IT automation startup that had just raised a round of venture financing. At the time, Hill told GeekWire that he was excited to play a role in an early-stage technology company, talking to customers and leading stand-up meetings with the dev team.
“It is just a hell of a lot of fun,” he said.
Opscode CEO Barry Crist, who assumed the CEO duties after Hill’s diagnosis earlier this year, said Hill will be missed.
“Mitch made a huge impact on the company, and he’s one of these guys who was larger than life, and just touched a lot of people, both in his professional and personal life,” said Crist.
Jay Wampold, vice president of marketing at Opscode, said that Hill exuded a quiet confidence.
“He had an easy hand at the wheel,” said Wampold. “If you talk to anyone, from folks who worked with him over at Avanade to anywhere in his career, he was someone that inspired people to do their best work. He just brought the best out in people. It is a tremendous loss.”
Hill his survived by his wife Cherie, and grown sons Mitchell and Matthew. A memorial service is planned for the Museum of Flight on Thursday, Dec. 19th. It is open to the public. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hingorani Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.