Alan W. McLachlan, an engineer who helped create the PDF, died at home in San Francisco on Oct. 6. He was 58.
His husband Paul McLachlan, who works as senior engineering manager at Rivian, described him as incredibly humble, talented, and loving. His co-workers described him as vastly knowledgeable and technically gifted. Throughout his career he focused on firmware, essential software that allows a device’s specific hardware to function. It’s not “the sexy part of tech, because everybody wants to write the app,” Paul said. Yet Alan’s code, Paul said, is likely running on the computer of everyone who reads this article.
“His legacy is to celebrate the people who want to help, who are working in the background on the stuff that you don’t see but you use everyday,” Paul said.
Alan was born in Auckland, New Zealand. In 1979, he immigrated to the United States, where he enrolled in Orange County’s Westminster High School. Paul said one of Alan’s early experiences with computers took place in high school, when a teacher sat him down in front of Commodore 64 and made him learn it.
After high school, he attended California State University, Long Beach where he studied radio, film, and television. He graduated in 1985. He was a part of the film crew for the sitcom “Family Ties” during his studies, Paul said, and “he has a bunch of photographs with people like Michael J. Fox and others.”
Alan taught himself to code; he never studied computer science or engineering formally. He pivoted from film to technology soon after graduation, according to his LinkedIn. One of his early jobs was as a senior programmer with the Conographic Corporation. In 1993, he started working at Adobe as a systems programmer. He was a member of the core team that invented the PDF, and built the printer drivers (software that converts data into a printable format) that enabled languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.
“He was really fortunate to join tech before it was a capital T,” Paul said. “It was a weird industry full of weird people who were not working like other people.”
Alan with Michael J. Fox; Alan with his dog Ayr.Photos: Courtesy of Paul McLachlan
Alan later worked at Microsoft on the Xbox engineering team. The majority of his career, though, was spent at BigFix, which was acquired by IBM in 2013 and subsequently HCL Technologies in 2019. Brian Shorey, his manager at BigFix, said Alan was known as a company encyclopedia. He knew the product inside-out, and was adept at handling complicated customer problems.
“Everyone knew they could just ping Alan and he could answer their questions,” Shorey said. “It was quicker than doing a Google search or looking it up internally.”
Shorey said Alan was one of the smartest people he’d ever met, describing him as a “super guy.” Fellow BigFix architect Rosario Gangemi echoed Shorey’s descriptions, also noting Alan’s care and thoughtfulness. “He’s somebody that speaks only with reason and when he has something to say,” Gangemi said. BigFix promoted Alan’s position to fellow posthumously. He’s the first fellow within HCL Software.
Paul and Alan met on match.com in 2009. In a lucky coincidence, Paul’s VPN accidentally set his location to San Francisco instead of New York, where he was living at the time. Paul recalled being stuck on his BlackBerry in those early times, texting with Alan even on a Christmas vacation sailing in the Caribbean. After a harrowing, near-death experience when his sailboat flipped over, Paul texted Alan, who booked him a helicopter flight off the island. Paul flew to meet him in San Francisco, and never left.
“He was so gentle, and so handsome,” Paul said. “He was so fascinating, too.”
Outside of work, Alan and Paul cared for rescue dogs together. In fact, the couple planned to open a shelter for older and disabled dogs. One of their adopted dogs is an epileptic and diabetic dog named Ayr. Every morning and evening at 7:30 exactly, Alan would measure out Ayr’s food and take his blood pressure, logging the data points in a journal. He was part Maori, the group indigenous to New Zealand, and would walk the dog past the native pōhutukawa tree to retain the New Zealand connection.
More than work, Alan cared about people. Paul said he was never the type to discuss accolades or technical achievements.
“I don't think he had a grand narrative like, ‘Wow, look at all of these accomplishments,’” Paul said. “It was always about the people.”