Everything was telling Sam Thirlwall not to take this job. Joining Zapproved, a legal services technology company in Portland, Ore., would mean a pay cut. It also would mean being a manager responsible for a large team, rather than doing what he had done for years, which was building cybersecurity software. Mr. Thirlwall, 36, didn’t know much about the company or legal technology. Even the interview process seemed weird.
Mr. Thirlwall took the job.
This was early 2018, and he was so tired at that point he needed a drastic change. He had spent several years at a company called Cylance developing a cybersecurity program that had devoured his time and energy. He had two young daughters he was trying to help raise. He was going through a painful divorce. Through the stress of it all, he had put on weight. The new job, at least, would be fewer hours and let him concentrate on his daughters and his own well-being. A fresh start.
Caitlin Halla, 31, had been a software developer at Zapproved for almost a year and, frankly, was ready to leave. She had just been moved from a shared window office to a shared windowless office to make room for the new engineering director, Mr. Thirlwall. A company email said he enjoyed cooking with his daughters and in his free time wrote software to track the movement of ISIS. That’s awfully braggadocious, Ms. Halla had thought. She considered his photo, then turned to a colleague: “Is it weird that I think he’s kind of cute?”
Ms. Halla had taken a circuitous path to software. The daughter of teachers in San Juan Bautista, Calif., she studied biology at California State Polytechnic University, but as a senior had switched to creative writing. After graduation, she got a teaching credential and taught kindergarten. She then moved to Portland, where she turned her love of language in a new direction, to software coding. Along the way, she had been married and divorced. Zapproved was her first job out of coding school.
Hoping to retain Ms. Halla at the company, her supervisor told her about a new team being formed and set up a meeting with Mr. Thirlwall. She put the meeting in her calendar: April 30, 2018, 1 p.m.
Mr. Thirlwall had taken a circuitous path to Zapproved, too. He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but moved with his family to Cocoa Beach, Fla., as a child. He went to Emerson College in Boston, intending to major in film, but a teacher said he was wasting his time. Film wasn’t really his passion; he was writing papers on subjects like genocide during the Boer War. What he should really do, the teacher said, is join the F.B.I. He transferred to the Florida Institute of Technology and became fascinated with cybercrime. He worked in government contracting (and, yes, he did write programs to track terrorists) joining Cylance and moving to Portland with his former wife and their children.
He had seen Ms. Halla around the office, but this meeting would be their first real conversation. What was supposed to be a 30-minute one-on-one meeting about a new position turned into a rambling two-hour conversation about work and family, wolves and artificial intelligence, Inuits, dogs and tattoos. As they left the conference room, she turned to him and said, “What just happened? Did I just tell you about my entire childhood?” Indeed she did.
Mr. Thirlwall was enthralled. “I walked out of the meeting and my first thought was, ‘I’m so glad she’s interested in moving to another team,’” he said.
He sent her tutorials on machine learning, a subject in which she had expressed interest. (It involves computer algorithms searching for patterns in large amounts of data.) She responded via Slack, and pretty soon the messages were flying.
Not sparks, just messages. Neither was quite sure how the other felt, even as the days and weeks progressed. Looking back, Mr. Thirlwall said, “I’m sure it would have been quite obvious to anyone looking on.” But at the time, all they knew was that they enjoyed one another’s company.
“Are we becoming best friends?” Ms. Halla wondered. “Connected in a romantic way? We just didn’t know.”
Their relationship shifted a little when she confessed over Slack that as a software developer, she sometimes felt like an impostor. He wrote back: Would it be weird if I called you?
As Ms. Halla recalled it, he told her how capable she was, how valuable her ideas were. There are some loud and insistent voices in the software realm, he explained, but they held no monopoly on answers. She felt instantly at ease, more ready to tackle the next work challenge.
“Sam is so very open and welcoming and kind,” she said. “It felt like we’d been friends for years.”
Neither had experienced a connection quite like this before. Slack messages became text messages became long emails, until Mr. Thirlwall suggested they meet for a Sunday lunch; Ms. Halla picked a city park called Colonel Summers. Through the afternoon, they shared more and more with one another, checking off a list of questions that Ms. Halla had prepared in advance — something along the lines of the 36 questions for intimacy outlined in Modern Love.
Over the coming weeks, they kept the questions going, getting up before sunrise to meet on a dock along the Willamette River, talking and sharing until it was time to go to work.
“It was this weird situation where we were having these very intense, long talks, but we weren’t in a relationship at that point,” Mr. Thirlwall said.
The fact that he was her manager’s boss felt strange. She soon transferred to another team. Later, both changed employers. Ms. Halla now works as a software engineer at New Relic and Mr. Thirlwall returned to Cylance.
In what can only be described as equal parts sweet and nerdy, Mr. Thirlwall started a Google doc to record milestones in their relationship: first date, first trip, and so on. “This was so special and so different,” he said. “I know life gets super busy and chaotic and random things happen — like pandemics, apparently — and I just didn’t want to lose sight of this. I didn’t want to look back and wonder, did we…?”
They realized they both adored music. (Mr. Thirlwall had a vinyl record pressed with their favorite songs for Ms. Halla as a gift.) They loved reading and cooking. Mr. Thirlwall even joined Ms. Halla in her CrossFit workouts.
Last May, he took her back to Colonel Summers Park, got down on one knee, and presented her with a ring in a small wooden box he had made with his daughters.
They planned a tiny ceremony. No guests, just them, a witness and an officiant on the Oregon coast at Oswald West State Park, the site of their first hike together. They would walk from the parking lot on a short trail, through the temperate rainforest, until the sound of cars was replaced with a gurgling creek and, eventually, the rumble of the Pacific. To Mr. Thirlwall, the place had the feel of Endor in the “Star Wars” universe. An adventure photography company would document the day.
“We wanted to reflect on our journey together and reflect on our love rather than having a performance or showy thing,” Ms. Halla said. Both had felt constricted by others at many times in their lives, and struggled with revealing their true selves.
“We both were finding our voices and finding ourselves in parallel,” Ms. Halla said. “And that’s when we met.”
In late March, the Oregon governor declared state parks closed because of the coronavirus, and their wedding was off.
Plan B emerged through the social networking app Nextdoor. “Hey neighbors!” Ms. Halla’s post on April 24 began, explaining their last-minute change to a wedding at their Portland house. “Might anyone have any ideas, D.I.Y. projects, or materials that might be good for sprucing up our backyard space and getting it wedding ready?” They had just moved in and didn’t know the neighbors, but the response was overwhelming.
One stranger offered to make a bouquet; another made dozens of origami butterflies to hang around the backyard; a third offered decorations they had saved from their own wedding. There were offers of plastic flamingos and glass fishing floats, vases and bubbles and a set of antique teacups to use for a toast. A few days before the ceremony, as Ms. Halla ran around picking everything up, strangers waved from front porches to say how excited they were to be part of the celebration. Returning home and looking through all the bags, she realized one neighbor had tucked in a bottle of wine.
“I think we’ve never felt more connected to people despite being socially distanced from them,” Ms. Halla said.
The wedding took place April 30 at 1 p.m., commemorating their first meeting in the office. They had sent out last-minute invitations for friends and family to watch via Zoom.
Mr. Thirlwall’s daughters, Aurelia, 9, and Juliette, 8, in tiaras and matching blue striped sundresses, acted as wedding decorators, bridesmaids, ring bearer and flower girl. When the skies opened into a downpour a few minutes before the ceremony was set to start, Mr. Thirlwall draped a towel over the Zoom-enabled laptop, picked up the lace shawl that Ms. Halla’s mother had worn for her own wedding, and calmly waited out the storm as his gray suit grew damp. His daughters seemed more concerned than him. “You’ve got to be dynamic,” he said brightly. That’s one of many things, he said, that he loves about Ms. Halla. She can shift gears on the fly, turning a tough situation into something positive.
By the time Ms. Halla emerged in her wedding dress — a high-neckline, open-back gown with a tulle skirt — there was a break in the rain.
Susie Cunningham, a Life-Cycle Celebrant, presided over the ceremony, which included lengthy vows, space for reflection, and a long family hug.
After a toast with cans of locally made mead, the newlyweds rushed to the laptop to greet their guests. It turned out to be scores of people. “This is wild!” Mr. Thirlwall said, excited to see smiling faces “from Canada to Mexico!”
Ms. Halla’s parents, Ken and Valerie Halla, watched from San Juan Bautista. Mr. Thirlwall’s mother and stepfather, Judi and Reg Oswald, watched from Melbourne, Fla., and his father and stepmother, David Thirlwall and Nevi Koscevic, from Montreal. (The groom, who had used the surname Oswald after his mother remarried, took his wedding as an opportunity to legally change it back to Thirlwall.)
As the congratulations reached a crescendo, the camera jumped so quickly it was hard to know who was talking. “We’re all dressed up!” one woman said. From kitchen tables and living room couches, they clinked beer cans and champagne flutes, and somebody, somewhere shouted out, “It’s almost like we were there!”
On This Day
When April 30, 2020, 1 p.m. Two years earlier, on the same day, at the same time, they had their first work meeting and felt an instant connection.
Where Portland, Ore., in the couple’s backyard.
The Rings Ms. Halla’s engagement ring features twisting, intertwined stones on slender gold strands representing their circuitous path to each another. Mr. Thirlwall found a jeweler who taught him how to make his own band, and together, the couple took raw gold found around town, pressing it into the concrete to form impressions at all the places they loved.
United by the Universe “When you think about all the little things that had to happen for this to fall into place,” Ms. Halla said. “We both had to marry the wrong people. Sam had to change his major. I had to go to coding school. He had to hit a low point to change his life. It’s mind-boggling.”