Andrew Rok (1966-2012)
Andrew, by forever challenging societal norms, was looking to bring about meaningful change. He continuously pushed the boundaries of common thinking. When the masses were at point A, he had already leapt to point Z.
To those to who knew Andrew, he was often described as a brilliant visionary with no patience for mediocrity for the status quo. Andrew had very strong opinions, which he shared openly without tolerance for political correctness. Anyone who ever met Andrew remembered him – whether they agreed with him or not. He was an exceptional leader who will forever remain in the hearts and minds of all those who knew him.
Andrew was the brilliant visionary who saw the future as a complete picture where others only saw scattered puzzle pieces. He always challenged everyone to look ahead and constantly said “we can do this better”. “It can't be done” was a phrase that people said to him at their own peril. He would take on the challenge and each time prove that a solution can always be found with some smarts, creative thinking and commitment.
Andrew valued innovation, constantly watching trends in technology to determine how he could assemble the pieces to make a societal imprint in the future. He had a gift where future trends were concerned, with the majority of his earlier predictions becoming reality. All too often people would just shake their heads and smile, thinking “there he goes again”. But Andrew would have the last laugh as he watched predictions made up to 10 years prior became realty.
Andrew regarded continuous improvement as critical to personal success. He believed that every person, no matter what position, had a duty to constantly evolve – to find ways to improve themselves, their jobs, company processes, and overall customer experience. Only by embracing new ideas, technologies and service innovations, could people evolve. While so doing, they empower themselves to bring about change to the overall corporate environment. Accepting the status quo would mean sinking into mediocrity – and to Andrew, mediocrity was the root of all evil. Andrew was not satisfied with just talk, he needed people to take the initiative to make things happen. Whether it was a new product or a better way of doing one’s job, he insisted we must value doing things the best way possible. To arm yourself with the challenge to improve your own environment every day leads to great satisfaction and personal success on so many levels. It’s only people who commit to these essential elements that will be our future leaders and game changers.
Andrew was born on January 9, 1966 in Zawiercie, Poland. Being the only child of a doctor (mother) and electrical engineer (father), he grew up with all his little heart desired. His brilliance didn’t hurt either. Effortlessly, he was always at the top of his class. As a result, he had a lot of time on his hands. This led to him becoming a very mischievous young boy and getting his fingers into many different things. He learned Morse Code and became a ham operator when he was just six years old. He was heavily involved with sports, especially soccer and had a passion for astronomy, math, physics, planes, cars and science fiction. He was a natural born leader, holding the position of student President from grade four onward.
Born and raised in communist Poland, Andrew had a particular distain for conformity. It wasn’t uncommon for a child at this time to see a great deal of violence and abuse. It was normal for human life to be treated with little respect and individuality was scorned in many ways. Andrew hated this element of his childhood. He simply couldn’t accept the persecution of any person or idea. He refused to be what others demanded. He broke the mould in every way he knew how from a very young age. His dedicated mother had to watch him incessantly for fear that he would find another way to assert his independence. The first time Andrew and his parents went to dinner, he was two and a half years old. When his parents looked away for a moment, Andrew took off around the restaurant and started pulling the tables cloths off all the tables. As he grew older, he became very bossy and his peers had no choice but to embrace him as their natural leader. At an intellectual level he preferred adult interaction, debating politics with his paternal grandmother, playing chess at a young age and being an avid reader. He got into everything and didn’t care about consequences – he was a real risk taker from the very beginning.
Throughout his childhood, Andrew’s father worked for a company that sold specialized equipment throughout the world. He was assigned to lead various projects with deployments in Japan, Sweden, France, America, Canada, etc. He would be gone for three to six months at a time. Each time he returned, he came back with something special for Andrew from that part of the world. This made Andrew very curious about the lands from which these things came. Over time, he developed a desire to leave Poland to experience life in another country. Helping fuel his desire were the annual trips he and his mother would take throughout Europe. He loved the beauty of the countries they visited and saw so much more opportunity for the future than in his home country of Poland.
Andrew was very fortunate. Although travel was restricted due to communist rule, his father had permission to work abroad and because his mother was a doctor, she had the right connections to obtain permission to leave the country for vacations. He definitely enjoyed experiences that were rare for Polish people at the time.
It was in 1980 that Andrew’s dad was offered a four year contract in Canada – he went on the condition that his family join him. His mother was not overly interested as she had a great career. However, he convinced her to reconsider, and Andrew’s excitement over the opportunity to live abroad definitely helped to sway her. They left for Canada on October 24, 1980, headed for Toronto. Andrew was 14 years old and had just started grade nine. As soon as he stepped off the plane, he promised himself he would never return to Poland. A new life had begun. Little did he realize what was ahead of him.
Andrew enrolled in Kieller MacKay Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke upon his arrival. He was given a test to determine his educational level. Scores indicated he was capable of skipping straight to grade 12, but the school opted to place him in grade 11 in order allow him to strengthen his English skills. Well, they didn’t have to wait long for his language to improve – he managed an English mark of 98% as a new immigrant, sinking his teeth into Shakespeare when most students with English as their first language struggled to understand much lighter reading. His favourite subjects continued to be math and physics. For him, they were so simple and logical. The fact that everything in the universe could be translated into a mathematical equation amazed him. Later in university, he took physics simply for “fun”, and although he never did study, he always boasted the highest marks in the class.
In grade 11, he was exposed to computer science for the first time. He had a teacher who inspired him to delve deeper into IT. Andrew loved it and decided it was the career he would pursue. His mother was very concerned as computer jobs were scarce in Poland. Andrew did not care. When he was younger, he had wanted to become a pilot but his mother wouldn’t permit it. This time he made it clear to her that she had changed his career choice once and that it wouldn’t happen again. She reluctantly agreed. What she still didn’t realize was that Andrew had decided never to go back to Poland upon completion of his dad’s Canadian contract. Engaging in a career that provided Polish opportunity was irrelevant to him.
Although Andrew was determined to stay in Canada, it was a very difficult time for him. He went from being at the top of the social ladder in Poland, directly to the bottom in Canada. He was a young foreign student who knew no one and had a new language to learn. He was two years younger than his classmates and had no prior relationships on which to build. Money was scarce which prevented him from participating in many activities that could have helped him bond with his peers. He was pushed around by resident bullies. It was at this time that a different Andrew began to emerge – one of perseverance, determination, and responsibility.
He slowly began to forge selected friendships. His best friend, Rami Girgis, was a young immigrant from Sudan. Other friends were made and he finally started to feel a sense of belonging. He became heavily involved with volleyball and won several championships. The writing in his yearbook is a testament to the respect his teachers and peers had for him: “To someone who always has ‘wild’ ideas!” and “It was great knowing a smart guy like you” and “You’re unforgettable, really. Math was definitely not as dull with your presence. Always the clown, always the crazy, but we all appreciated it. You’re really going to get far in life…because you are an achiever.” The quotes just go on and on.
Andrew was a 1983 grade 12 honours graduate. When you find him his picture in the high school yearbook, you will read “’The Greatest’ …plans to become a computer brain for the University of Waterloo.” Unfortunately, his dream to attend the University of Waterloo was not to be. His parents simply did not have the finances required and as a result, he decided to study at York University which was closer to home.
While attending university, his father’s contract came to an end and the family prepared to return to Poland. Andrew refused, so it was decided that friends would care for Andrew and his parents would return alone. As the departure date came closer, his mother became more and more upset. She then announced she was not prepared to return to Poland on the arranged date – she needed another three months to settle him in and ensure her son would be OK without her.
Once they missed the return date deadline, the family was forced to vacate the company apartment and return the company car. Funds were low and the Zloty could not be converted to Canadian currency. The money and assets they had would remain in Poland. Although they were well off in Poland, what they had would not suffice to live in Canada. Two years prior, Andrew’s parents had purchased a used Audi Fox for $700 so that Andrew could attend university. All their belongings – clothing, personal items, a TV and one small bed – were loaded into and on top of the Audi and they moved into their new place. It was a tiny apartment where Andrew and his dad slept on the floor and his mother in the bed. They remained there for three months. Andrew and his dad worked many small jobs here and there to make sufficient money to live, some in quite dangerous conditions. Andrew also obtained work as a car jockey at Budget and Hertz. This is when his addiction to cars developed. He would work well into the night washing and refueling cars all the while attending university full time. He graduated in 1987 with an Honours degree in Computer Science.
A few days before they were scheduled to return to Poland, Andrew’s father found a new job in Canada. This, combined with the Polish government’s hard stand on the costs they would incur to return to Poland (as they had missed the scheduled departure date), changed his mind about staying in Canada. Andrew’s mother was relieved as she did not want to leave her son. The new job paid him $700 per month.
They moved to a new apartment in a difficult part of Mississauga. They managed to get by on their combined meagre earnings and credit card debt. It was extremely stressful for everyone. Between the struggle to live, endless work and university hours, family tensions became unbearable at times. On top of this struggle, Andrew’s prized Audi Fox didn’t survive the move to the new apartment.
In the absence of the Audi, they needed another car so Andrew’s parents bought him a Monte Carlo. Even though his car was quite used, he was so proud of his vehicle that he purchased a radio and added other bells and whistles to personalize his most prized possession. Two times the car was broken into and its contents stolen. Andrew was heartbroken and furious. He waited night after night in the parking garage for the thieves to return but, luckily for all, they didn’t.
On April 29, 1987, Andrew’s dad suffered a massive heart attack. He died at a Mississauga Hospital the same day. He was only 49. Andrew struggled with this but looked to his future with a vengeance and forged ahead as he had done through difficult times before.
After his father’s death, Andrew made the decision to buy his own home. It was time for him to experience some stability and move to a better part of town. He bought a townhouse for himself and his mother at a new Mississauga complex. Together they moved in July 1988.
After university, Andrew started his own software design company (Micro Design). He worked from his home office. Soon he had the opportunity to join Northern Telecom and took it, however, his full time employment did not last long. Although he loved his job, he quickly became irritated by the bureaucracy surrounding him. He simply could not understand why business moved at a snail’s pace and he was never afraid to say so. He was warned quite often by his manager to keep quiet, but for Andrew that was impossible. He finally had enough and decided to quit his full time position. He returned to contract work where he could focus on producing the best possible results for his clients and not involve himself in office politics. He did well for several years but became bored and longed to do something greater with his life.
In May of 1992, he met Monica Pirc through a mutual friend. Monica was a Queen’s University commerce graduate who was completing her MBA at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo. She had been offered a position by TD Bank in Toronto and was looking for a place to live. A friend, with ulterior motives, introduced her to Andrew. By then, Andrew had two rental properties. Although they were occupied, he graciously offered to show her around the city and suggest where to live and more importantly, where not to live. Monica was immediately struck by Andrew’s exceptional intelligence and wit. However, they did not start dating until she moved to Scarborough that July. The day she moved, Andrew took her out for dinner and two years later, on September 24, 1994, they were married.
During their honeymoon, Andrew came up with the idea of starting an IT services company. Andrew, being ahead of the curve, envisioned building ecommerce applications – to tap the emerging Internet’s ability to transform how businesses worked. He realized that the Internet would be the great equalizer for smaller businesses and enable them to compete on a level playing field with much larger companies. Of course, he was right. But this was a time of Internet infancy, when people were still uncomfortable typing into a browser for fear of breaking it! He would have to wait for the world to catch up. He conducted many training sessions for customers and business partners. Although he inspired people, it was still too early. Quite often people joked, why was he trying to sell software when he should be selling tickets for his motivational speeches? Eventually, Andrew started NetSurf in 1995 and it evolved into an Internet service provider.
In 1996, Andrew and Monica had their first child, Matthew. Just 13 months later, their second child Nikki was born. When Nikki was three months old, Monica decided to leave TD Bank to help Andrew build NetSurf. However, Monica became concerned that their children were not receiving the proper care from the babysitter when it became apparent that they knew every TV show and every character. She considered leaving the company. Andrew suggested that Monica’s parents, who lived in Brockville, move to Mississauga to care for them. Monica was an only child and it pained her parents to be separated from their daughter and grandchildren. It was a cold snowy day in November 1998 when Ingrid and Hans Pirc moved to their new home in Oakville. It was one of the best decisions the family ever made! The kids were well cared for by exceptional grandparents and the family was together. Just as important for Andrew and Monica, they could devote much needed time and attention to growing the business.
While Monica ran NetSurf, Andrew took time to engage in other startups. His skills were in demand. Wherever he worked there seemed to be a need for Internet services. As a result, the more companies Andrew engaged with, the more business came to NetSurf.
Then came the .com crash. Many NetSurf customers went bankrupt, leaving NetSurf with enormous bad debts. Andrew and Monica ceased to collect income, but continued to pay the staff while Monica arranged payment schedules with creditors. It was a very difficult time but they knew there was opportunity and it was worth the short term struggle. The business turmoil took quite a toll on their marriage but they persevered, understanding the end goal.
During months of struggle, Andrew and Monica continued to look for their “killer app”. With the advent of DSL (Digital Subscriber Loop), Andrew found it. He discovered a drop in the market take-up for the private network service of choice – frame relay. DSL was much faster and came at a fraction of the cost. He developed a private network offering that was not plagued with the issues that burdened Internet VPN (Virtual Private Network) services. As Netsurf competitors went bankrupt and their customers looked for new providers, he was ready to bring them on board. Their killer app was born and so was a new company designed to tap this emerging market – AKN ( Advanced Knowledge Networks Inc.).
Andrew finally found the business traction he had sought for so long. The network service evolved into a national offering with reach into the US as well. He partnered with larger providers to offer them value add to their clients. This gave AKN the opportunity to piggyback on larger brands to introduce AKN to the broader market. It was a very exciting time.
During this fast growth phase, AKN had to evolve from a shoe string entrepreneurship to a “real” company. A critical decision was to assess the partnership team that was involved in the operations. Andrew decided that building an organization was not his passion and insisted that Monica assume the role of President. She took on the role on January 1, 2007. It was also during this time that one partner disengaged from the company. The remaining partners, Andrew, Monica and Bob Bosiljevac, solidified the go-forward plan and AKN continued to prosper with new services, new customers and a new team.
Andrew remained the brilliant visionary who inspired customers, employees, and partners alike. He was capable of jumping from a business discussion with a CEO, to a technical discussion with an IT Director, to a visionary discussion with a strategic partner. He was exceptionally versatile and knowledgeable – a very rare individual who was compared by so many to Steve Jobs.
Several months after relinquishing his role as President, Andrew caught the golf bug. He became as focused and committed to excellence in his new favourite sport as he was to his career and company. AKN’s driving philosophy of “Good Enough isn’t Enough” guided his approach to golf as well. He never knew how to do anything halfway. Evenings and weekends spent at the driving range became a religious rite, as did Friday afternoon golf games during the summer. He insisted on walking, refusing to take a cart. He believed this to be the best way to get fit and the only way to commit to the sport.
He developed his skills so quickly and proficiently that people were often in awe at his driving ability. However, he had no patience for putting, being a much more delicate and slow paced skill. His position was that if he could drive the ball close to the hole with one or two swings, putting requirements would be minimal. It made his friends cringe!
Andrew was always watching for technology trends and assessing societal impact as well as AKN’s ability to deliver meaningful products to the market. In 2009, he introduced a cloud infrastructure concept to the company. AKN had developed into a strong network provider. Building on this core competence, Andrew firmly believed he could deliver exceptional value to our clients by delivering a complete end-to-end IT infrastructure solution. AKN would be the first to do so on a fully-managed Private Cloud platform, incorporating virtual desktop, voice, network and data centre into one complete turnkey solution.
He believed IT should be as reliable and as simple as turning on the lights. The only way achieve this would be to abolish the PC-based desktop environment and to incorporate AKN infrastructure services to assure quality of service. At that time the technology was not yet ready and the product development was long and arduous. But by late 2010 technology had sufficiently evolved to make AKN’s cloud strategy a reality.
It was during this time that Monica approached Andrew about assuming the CEO role while she remained as company President. She believed that Andrew, being such an exceptionally talented and charismatic individual, would be much better suited to building the AKN brand and sharing his knowledge with others. Andrew accepted the challenge in April 2012.
The summer of 2012 arrived. It was an exceptionally hot one. But as always, nothing could stop Andrew when he pushed himself to do better and better. The stresses of business growth combined with physical stress, sometimes playing 36 holes on a hot day (walking the course), began to take its toll. He was extremely tired and edgy. He chalked it up to over exertion but never slowed down.
On Friday August 3rd, Andrew began to feel ill. He had a headache and his stomach was “off”. He ended his golf game early and went home to rest. He thought he had either suffered heat stroke or had the flu. He had some chest pain but told Monica late that evening that he had pulled a muscle playing golf and from what he read online, golfers who experienced such an injury were normally sidelined for months. He was extremely upset he would likely miss the rest of the season. At approximately 1:15AM August 4th, Andrew passed away from a massive heart attack. He was 46 years old, a devoted husband, cherished father, and loving son. He was a brilliant and rare visionary. He will be terribly missed by all who knew him. He was a man of integrity, great passion, loyalty, determination and wisdom. Anyone who knew him would want him as a friend.
It is the purpose of this scholarship fund to support high performing students whose values parallel Andrew’s. It is to support those who have experienced significant life struggles but continued to persevere when just giving up and taking the easy way out would have been so much easier. Andrew was passionate about introducing such young men and women to AKN, for them to learn about AKN’s way of doing business and for AKN to learn from the next generation. Andrew knew that exceptional young people would be the ones to lead AKN into the future. We are looking for those students who represent Andrew’s legacy and are worthy of this Foundation’s support.
Learn about Andrew in his own words.