Amos Blackman, younger brother of AWS Elemental co-founder Sam Blackman, probably put it best during a morning of tributes to a man who made a profound impact on his world: it’s a cruel irony that “a man who wasted so little time got so little of it.”
On a perfect Sunday morning, finally free from the relentless heat and smoke that has staggered Blackman’s beloved city and state, several hundred mourners packed into the Kridell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum to hear family and friends remember Blackman, who was described as kind, curious, optimistic and perhaps the world’s worst Zumba dancer during a two-and-a-half hour service.
Susan Blackman, Sam’s mother, confirmed that he died on August 27th of “ventricular fibrillation” that she said “could not have been forseen or prevented” despite the efforts of bystanders who performed CPR. Ventricular fibrillation occurs “when the heart’s electrical activity becomes disordered,” according to the American Heart Association, another cruel irony to fall upon a person who brought so much electricity to his life and the lives of those around him.
“Sam was born a force of nature,” she said. That such a force of nature, healthy and grounded by family and friends, could be cut down in a instant was — and still is — quite shocking to many of those who knew him, and quite a few of those who didn’t.
Eli Blackman, Sam’s youngest brother, echoed those thoughts: “Your passion, your joy, it carried through in everything you did, and it was incredibly infectious. You loved living life. Living suited you so well. You were so good at it, so much better than all of us.”
Blackman founded Elemental in 2006 with Jesse Rosenzweig and Brian Lewis, a year in which he also found time to get an MBA and take care of a new baby with another on the way. They sold Elemental, which developed a widely used method for streaming video at massive scale, to Amazon Web Services in 2015 for $296 million.
“He had a way of bringing together a team in unity that was captivating,” Rosenzweig said. “It was his confidence that got us through the hardest times at Elemental, the most stressful times in our journey to where we are today.”
Blackman was remembered as a goofy yet passionate advocate for his company and his city, always quick with a smile and despite putting in long hours building Elemental, never forgetting that there’s more to the world than the office.
“I’ve always kind of wondered whether it would be Sam or (Pink Martini pianist) Thomas Lauderdale that would be Portland’s next mayor,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Congressman for Portland and the surrounding metropolitan area, kicking off the service. Before he died, Blackman was scheduled to have a meeting with Blumenauer to talk about the impact of technology on the rest of society; “he had deep concerns that technology can be a two-edged sword, very disruptive. He was very concerned about what would happen to those who were displaced.”
“Sam knew better than anyone that anything worth doing takes work,” Amos Blackman said. He called on attendees to continue Sam’s work on progressive political issues and taking care of Portland’s natural beauty and its most disadvantaged citizens.
Blackman hoped to bring that energy and community-oriented spirit to Amazon, his mother said. Her remarks made it much easier to tell where Blackman received his inner strength and progressive-minded beliefs: as a person that still refuses to buy anything from Amazon, she was a little concerned when he announced he had just sold his company to Amazon Web Services.
But he said two things that resonated with her during a lunch after the deal was struck. She was struck by the reverence he had for Amazon’s operational skills; always curious and hungry to learn, he had realized that there so much he could absorb from working more closely with the company. Also:
He did see Amazon as being entirely focused on maximizing profits and motivating employees totally through financial incentives. But he thought he could try to persuade the company of the value of investing in the community and understanding that it could benefit from helping out and giving back, as Elemental had. Well, I said, good luck, if anybody can do it…I never got an update from him. It was on my list for our next lunch, as he was closing in on his second anniversary with the company.
The service closed with “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Kelly Clarkson’s take on a song from the hit play Hamilton, which was a favorite of Blackman’s. Maybe it was just me, but as attendees filed silently out of the room into the Portland sunshine, the last line of the song seemed to accompany us down three flights of stairs.
“Look around, look around. They are going through the unimaginable.”