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Obituary: Leslie Nassar – Tech genius who respected competency and integrity; and eschewed machismo and superficiality

Ahead of a celebration on Thursday of the life of Leslie Nassar, friends and colleagues Andrea Horton, Cathie McGinn, Dan Nolan and Nic Christensen remember a pivotal figure in Australia's digital industry

In recent days, social media has seen a flood of tributes for Leslie Nassar, who was taken from us in tragic circumstances last weekend.

Those who know Leslie well know one thing: he would have absolutely hated all of this attention. A man who loved and understood Twitter better than many of Twitter’s own team, the prospect of trending on Twitter himself, as he did for several days this week, would have left him mortified.

He would also have been overwhelmed by both the recognition for his legacy but also the amount of love being shown to him, and most especially the concern for the three girls who, along with his wife, he leaves behind.

The news of Leslie’s death, the result of a hit and run, has devastated many in the Australian media space.

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Lest we’re tempted to beatify him in death, it must be said that Leslie Nassar was an anti-social obsessive with the blackest sense of humour and a flair for a sweary rant. He loathed the phoney, greedy, and the wilfully stupid, which lent him the air of a highly caffeinated misanthrope.

Paradoxically, those he loved, he loved deeply, fiercely and loyally; he took immense, quiet pride in those he chose to work with, and showed endless compassion for the unfortunate and the underprivileged.

Many people might not have known Leslie personally but you have doubtless seen his work: the system to integrate tweets into Q&A live broadcast; the ABC’s podcasting platform which now delivers millions of podcasts to Australians.

During his time as the chief technologist for Razorfish Australia he helped lead big projects like helping Samsung screen their photos on the sails of the iconic Sydney Opera House: all variations on the theme of his love for digital and a desire to use it in the service of making the world little better.

Leslie had that magical spark that made working with him so much fun. He could solve a problem in such a way that once the work was done, it seemed impossible that no one had done it years earlier. His particular genius – and that’s not a term you see bandied about in this most uber-cynical of worlds – lay in the fact that he solved problems using technology so elegantly and intuitively that the tech seemed the least important part, with the connection with human beings at the forefront.

The man was a prodigious inventor and someone who could not just see what technology could do, but was constantly trying to push it to the edges of the realms of the possible.

The more excited he was about a project, the more understated he became, with a tiny glint in his eye as he waited for you to catch up.

The project he was working on for the Twitter platform at the time of his death was another technological leap forward, underpinned by a desire to make Twitter an exciting and more useful platform for people of all stripes, rather than a media-centric echo-chamber. We can only hope those ideas won’t be lost with his passing, along with so many others.

As Peter McEvoy, executive producer of Q&A said so beautifully: “It breaks my heart to think of all the brilliant ideas that will never be realised without his talent.”

Leslie’s legacy will be defined in a number of ways. As many have noted he was both an “engineering genius” and a “champion shit-stirrer”.

Razer: vale Leslie Nassar, engineering genius and champion shit-stirrer

It is immensely sad that we will never get to see his smart-arse retort to the Daily Mail Australia’s headline reporting: “Australian woman Leslie Nassar killed by ‘drunk driver’”.

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We know it would have been a good one.

Many in the digital world will have known Leslie for his razor wit and his online satirical persona Department of Australia.

It was only a couple of days ago he was generating global headlines, in the likes of The Independent, after some Americans thought the Department of Australia was a real government account.

To Leslie’s delight, his tweet asking Donald Trump not to “grab Australia’s pussy” went global and was just another demonstration of his wit and ability to poke fun at the preposterousness of the political dynamic, both here and overseas. This giant biting wit was never used for ego or for attention, but because he deplored bullshit and wanted to reveal the truth, call out hypocrisy where he saw it, and hold power to account.

Leslie’s main focus was always on his family.  It didn’t matter where he was: in an Uber; during a dev planning session; in a meeting, he would always stop what he was doing and pick up the phone to talk with Marisse and the girls.

He once interrupted a client pitch, stopping in mid-sentence to answer a call and wish his daughters a good night.

In losing Leslie we have lost a brilliant, funny, fearless, gentle and compassionate soul.

Amid that grief, there is some comfort in the knowledge that Leslie would have been truly overwhelmed by how the Australian Twittersphere came together to raise more than $27,000 to help his family through this impossibly tough time.

His widow, Marisse, says:

“Thank you everyone for your kind words and generosity.  It goes without saying that both go a long way in supporting this grieving family that most of you have never met.

“I’m sure you could fill a swimming pool with the number of people he’s told to ‘fuck off’ at work—but if you were able to count him as your friend, then odds are you were extraordinary at what you did.

“Leslie respected competency and integrity; he eschewed machismo and superficiality. I don’t think he forgot many kindnesses. He may have said he didn’t like people but he was genuinely happy when friends undertook new ventures, had babies, got promotions or ate at a taco truck.

“I suspect he was quietly cheering for many of you from the sidelines, and while his liberal use of the word ‘fuckwit’ precludes him from sainthood, I hope wanting good thing to happen to others counts for something.

“Today our special needs daughter is finally realizing that her dad isn’t coming back.  From 6 months on, Leslie spent time every day teaching her to say ‘daddy’.  It took 7 years for her to learn a word that is now obsolete.

“I don’t know how much awareness Leslie had between impact and death, but if he had any, I hope he knew his girls were safe and his beloved Australian Shepherd licked his face gently until help arrived.  Thanks again for your support and kindness.”

Tech genius. Irreverent and savage satirist. Idealist. A man with a shining moral compass in an ethically murky world.

But to us it will be the father, the friend, the mentor and the beloved colleague that will be missed the most.

To Leslie. Thank you for everything.

  • A send-off for Leslie is to be held at The Rose Hotel, Chippendale, Sydney on Thursday November 3 from 2pm. His family’s GoFundMe page can be found via this link.
  • Tributes from those who can’t attend can be sent to cathie.mcginn at gmail.com. They will be sent on to his widow and children.

Leslie Nassar 1973-2016

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