Local tech hero Sam Blackman's last interview
Sam Blackman's death on Sunday, Aug. 27 left Portland's tech world in shock.
The 41-year-old appeared to be on the cusp of great things. The founder of Elemental had sold the company to Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2015 for $296 million and stayed on, happily, as CEO.
He was considered a rare, homegrown tech success, the Lake Oswego son of a lawyer who loved Portland and Oregon and advocated for keeping companies here instead of striking out for Silicon Valley or Puget Sound.
Blackman was also a generous and authentic philanthropist, giving cash and time for three challenges his company identified early on: education, inclusion and hunger.
The tech world was stunned at the sudden departure of a prominent leader, and also saddened, since he was a family man who never failed to mention his wife Adriane, a Portland K-5 Spanish teacher, and their two young sons.
Three days before his death he led a media tour of the new offices with reporters from the Business Tribune, the Portland Business Journal and the Oregonian/OregonLive.
Blackman seemed in fine fettle, looking fit and tan from the summer. He said he was excited to work with his new office mates (he had a standing desk next to some Amazon engineers), and talked enthusiastically about Elemental's software, work culture and doing good.
He said integrating Elemental into the cloud computing behemoth Amazon Web Services was an interesting challenge.
"Leading in a large organization like Amazon is such a different challenge...than leading a startup company. I've always enjoyed this role because I learn so much."
His last role was being a rising star within the Amazon corporation, and he cheerfully admitted to some vulnerability.
"It's never boring and I'm never comfortable. You're always feeling like you're overwhelmed and barely just cutting it."
Portland was home
A consistent booster of Portland as a great place to live and work, he was excited that Elemental could be a "beachhead" for Amazon in Portland.
"Recruiting in Seattle has gotten difficult for Amazon, the number of engineers they have is a high percentage in that region. Portland is still this untapped pool of software engineering resources."
AWS is planning to link Elemental's video processing software to the AWS platform of super-fast cloud hosting and artificial intelligence.
"With software, you can look at an image, detect objects and do sentiment analysis on the people in the image. A CEO, sports leader, business leader, politician, you can see frame by frame what the sentiment is."
For example, they are working with a fashion retailer who wants to learn how consumers feel when they don't buy something.
With facial recognition, they can analyze security camera footage to see the facial expressions of people as they say, handle a wallet or dress.
Elemental has usually focused on tier one entertainment businesses, helping stream such massive events as the Olympics and the EUFA Champions League Final, and managing streams on Netflix and Amazon Video. Now that they are part of Amazon they have access to thousands of large enterprises that rely on AWS for cloud services.
"I personally saw the value of the AWS platform. There's a saying that data is gravity. Once you have data on the platform then suddenly all the services that AWS offers can benefit from that data. It's no longer siloed and can be used for machine learning, content delivery, video processing and big data analysis. Being in a silo is going to get more and more difficult."
The new office is in Pietro Belluschi's building at 1320 S.W. Broadway, the former headquarters of the Oregonian newspaper. It has been remodeled by Allied Works.
But physical space didn't really interest him.
"I love working in a great space but I was super happy working in a couple hundred square feet working on tech problems, so the physical space was not a priority." He proceeded to list the addresses and square footage of Elemental's previous six offices. As for bringing art into the new place, which is all tasteful wood and glass, he hadn't given it a thought. He said he might put up some posters explaining what Elemental does and some pictures from their non profit work.
He laughed at the absurdity of his marketing team temporarily working in WeWork in the Pioneer Place Mall. They were wearing shades and getting sunburned because of the skylights.
"For me, the office is not what a business is about, it's about creating great work for your customer. I don't ever want the focus to be where you come to work every day, it's got to be around the passion for the work you're doing."
The Amazon way is to have plenty of open desks, meetings from dusk to dawn, and few fancy corner offices.
The Blackman family enjoyed the Aug. 21 eclipse. It took five hours to get back to Portland because Google maps sent them on back roads without sufficient data about how crowded they were. "I'm very fortunate because my wife likes to drive, and I hate to drive. And I just worked on a laptop with a mobile connection the whole time. The kids did fantastic."
Getting into Amazon's three floors of the building requires submitting a photo ID to get a pass, and even then, there is an inner secure zone, like an airport, into which only certain staff may go. Blackman explained that Amazon has never compromised a customer account and insists on similar security for its partners.
The same applies to work practices.
"Amazon runs with a ton of rigor. I'm learning all the time, how it manages its visions and process. A lot of thought and analysis is put into a decision, more so than when we were a startup company. It's different but the outputs are exponentially better."
Before they were bought, Elemental would talk to customers to see what they wanted, and the present a deck of slides. The AWS "Peer FAQ" way is to start with a mock press release, stating exactly the benefits to the customer.
"It's amazing how having to write down what benefit your idea will bring to the market forces you to focus on the true benefits. The system works really well for honing your thoughts and making sure every stakeholder is brought in. They can disagree, and that drives really good discussions."
The CEO was an avid runner, and Elemental is known for its 4K4Charity fun runs, which have raised $350,000 for nonprofits. The next AWS Elemental 4K4Charity fun run in Portland is set for October 12, 2017, at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. "This year I got it on the calendar early so the kids and my wife can make it. They didn't last year."
Blackman was glad his company set up its community investment program when the company was still small, rather than having to play catch up as Amazon is. Having said that, he was impressed that Amazon's new megabuilding in Seattle will include three floors of housing for women and children from domestic abuse situations, with Amazon employees working with them.
He was also impressed that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos recently tweeted words to the effect that "I want to hear the big ideas that have immediate impact," Blackman said. "Amazon people are hard driving but not arrogant and egotistical. In work and community investment they've been very open," and have taken seriously his and Prosper Portland's ideas about including minorities in the tech world.
"Amazon won't make a decision that only benefits their white-collar engineering community. It's got to scale to hundreds of thousands of folks working in the fulfillment centers, working hourly. I love that about Amazon."
Tributes for Blackman flooded in, including one from Skip Newberry, CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon, which made Blackman Technologist of the Year in 2015.
"Sam had a tremendous impact on the region that extended beyond tech." Newberry said. He worked with his team to build one of the most successful companies in Oregon in recent years, but he also seemingly had limitless time and energy for different organizations and causes. His love for Portland and Oregon was great, and he also was intensely devoted to his family. Not only was Sam a great business leader, he was an amazing human being. I know I speak for a lot of people when I say he will be profoundly missed."
A public memorial service will be held at 10 a.m.on Sunday Sept. 10 in the Kridell Ballroom in the Portland Art Museum.
The Blackman family asked that donations be made in lieu of flowers to three places covering the areas he was most focused on giving back – hunger, the environment, education.
Oregon Food Bank
Forest Park Conservancy
Rosemary Anderson High School
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News