Faith, Tech and Entrepreneurship: What difference does it make?

What difference does faith make when it comes to technology entrepreneurship?

This talk answers the question by comparing and contrasting Jeff Bezos’ wisdom with Biblical wisdom. By considering the commonalities, we discover what’s still missing, pointing us to the ways faith makes a difference in our pursuit of technology entrepreneurship.

Note: The manuscript and slides below are from a talk delivered at the “Vocational Thriving in a Changing World” conference in Seattle, WA on May 5th, 2018. Full slides are available here.

Outline:
1. Is Bezos Biblical?
2. What’s missing
3. TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant
4. How Faith Makes A Difference


Is Bezos Biblical?

About two weeks ago, Jeff Bezos–the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world–received the Axel Springer Award for his innovative achievements in e-commerce and digital journalism. During the corresponding interview Bezos talked about: “leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it’s like to have Trump as your biggest critic”.

Here’s what he had to say about a few topics relevant to our conference today:

First, when was asked how he was able to leave his cushy Wall Street job to do a startup, here’s what he said:

when you have loving and supportive people in your life like Mackenzie [his wife], my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risk because I think…you kind of know somebody’s got your back and so it’s just an–I don’t even think you’re thinking about it logically–it’s an emotional thing.”

“So I think it’s, anyway, I won that lottery, I won that lottery of having so many people in my life who have given me that unconditional love

Interesting. Jeff Bezos says that the unconditional love of his family and community were the key to his risk-taking.

What could this mean for Christians who confess the unconditional love of God?

Shouldn’t we be unleashed to think big and to take big risks for God’s Kingdom?

And if we aren’t, what does it say about the love in our churches and our personal experience of God’s love?

Second, let’s talk about criticism. Here’s what Bezos said about being criticized:

“Well, first of all, with any criticism, my approach to criticism and what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you’re criticized, first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right? If they’re right, change, don’t resist.”

Interesting. Doesn’t this sound a lot like biblical wisdom? For example, Proverbs 15:31-32 says:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.

How about generosity? Bezos is the richest man in the world, surely he could be doing so much more to help others? Some of his critics are pretty unhappy with how he uses his money.

Well, here’s how Bezos responded:

I’m finding I’m very motivated by the here and now…when you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem, serious drug addiction, a very hard-to-cure problem, but there’s another bucket of homelessness which is transient homelessness, which is a woman with kids, the father runs away, and he was the only person providing any income and they have no support system, they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person. And you by the way, only need to help them for like six to nine months, you get them trained, you get them a job, they’re perfectly productive members of society.

Whatever critics may say, they can’t deny that his pragmatic and short-term approach to giving is reasonable. In fact, it resonates with what the Apostle Paul said he wanted Christians to do in his letter to Titus (3:14):

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Lastly, here’s what Bezos had to say about something very important to a lot of Christians in the tech industry in particular… on work-life balance:

…this work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees, actually, and senior executive[s] at Amazon too, but especially the people coming in. We’re asked about work-life balance all the time and my view is that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade off and the reality is if I’m happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. And so it actually is a circle, it’s not a balance. And I think that that is worth everybody paying attention to. You never want to be that guy…who as soon as they come into the meeting they drain all of the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy level go whoof …you want to come into the office and give everybody a kick in their step.”

Some people may cynically think work-life harmony is an excuse for overwork and I’m guessing Bezos doesn’t intentionally rest on a Sabbath day, but even this response has echoes of Biblical wisdom, for example Proverbs 11:25 says:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

So what’s the point? Why do I point out the resonances between Bezos’ words and Biblical wisdom?

It’s twofold.

First, I want to show how much the capital “c” Church–of which I am a member–can learn from leaders in the tech industry. Not to overstate it, but I fear complacency, cowardice and incompetence in the Church has damaged the cause of Christ more than persecution.

  • We’re more ambitious for our careers and salaries than we are for God’s Kingdom.
  • We tolerate ineffectiveness and laziness in Christian community that would be unacceptable in the professional world.
  • We forget rigor, due diligence, and accountability when it comes to Christian leaders and causes only to get blindsided by scandal and mismanagement.
  • We uncritically assume our activities are aligned with God’s Kingdom so we can focus on pursuing our own comforts, interests and definitions of success.
  • We forgo Biblical sacrifice and suffering, believing worldly methods can accomplish God’s will.
  • We seek fame, riches and recognition for ourselves, thinking we can use it as a platform to glorify God.

I don’t like speaking this way. It’s hard to be vocally self-critical.

I know it doesn’t equally apply to everyone and that there are nuances in every person’s situation. But I’ve spoken in these terms to drive home the point that we as the Church have much to learn and much room to grow.

If technology’s power can be so effectively harnessed by entrepreneurs like Bezos to deliver spectacular shareholder value and reshape our entire world, shouldn’t it be intentionally and effectively leveraged to advance the Gospel?

The Gospel is not a hobby or a community service project. The Gospel is God’s power to save the world. If we can make our greatest strengths productive for companies in the marketplace, how can we make them productive for the Gospel too?

Which leads to my second point. In all of the biblical wisdom espoused by Jeff Bezos, what’s missing?

What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?

Bezos doesn’t make any reference to the Bible, God, Jesus, the Gospel, or the church, yet his answers resonate with biblical wisdom. Can we just follow what he says?

What does faith have to do with any of it? What does the Bible have to meaningfully say about technology and entrepreneurship beyond what he’s said?

To think about this question, I want to share with you this diagram I made that has helped me think about vocational integration. If you’ve heard of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, maybe you could call this “TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant for Faith-based Vocational Integration”.

TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant

On one dimension you have a range from explicitly non-Christian to explicitly Christian. On the other dimension, you have a range from the Kingdom of this World to the Kingdom of God.

 

The reason why this diagram is helpful for me is that it keeps me from making the mistake of collapsing the two dimensions.

Growing up in church, it’s really easy to mistake everything Christian with God’s Kingdom and everything non-Christian with the world.

But it only takes a little bit of experience to know how much sin, incompetence, deception and abuse happens in the Christian sphere. And it only takes a little bit of experience to discover how much justice, creativity and good there is in the non-Christian sphere.

The church has suffered great harm from the collapse of these two dimensions because it has cut it off from a lot of godly wisdom simply because it lacked the Christian label, while simultaneously embracing worldly practices simply because they were labeled Christian.

By putting each dimension on its own axis, we end up with 4 quadrants. Here’s how I’ve labeled them.

In the top left, we have explicitly Christian appearances, but beliefs and practices that are actually aligned with the Kingdom of the World. When we find laziness, cowardice, injustice and deception in quadrant 1, we are in the Hypocritical quadrant.

Below that we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of the World. This is evil in its most obvious forms. For example sex trafficking. There’s nothing redemptive about it because it violates the God-given worth of its victims, abuses their sacred sexuality and robs them of their freedom.

This is the Disintegrated quadrant.

To the right we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of God.

This is the “Aligned” or “Common Good” quadrant. I might place the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to alleviate global poverty here for example.

And above that we have the Integrated quadrant.

This is where the opening lines of the Lord’s prayer are fulfilled. Not only is God’s will practiced in justice, righteousness and steadfast love, or God’s creativity reflected in wonderful inventions, but God’s name is also explicitly hallowed.

By putting “How close is it to the Kingdom of God” on a different axis than “How Christian is it?” we have a category for all the ungodly things that happen in explicitly Christian contexts. We also have a category for all the glorious and good things that happen in explicitly non-Christian contexts. And as Christians in any context we can discern the “True North” of God’s Kingdom and actively move things in that direction.

Applying the Magic Quadrant

Let’s look at a few examples of how to use these quadrants.

How many of you have heard of Theranos?

Theranos is a startup founded in 2003 that claimed to revolutionize medical testing through new technology that could run comprehensive tests on just a few drops of blood. This would make medical testing incredibly affordable for the masses. The founder was a brilliant storyteller. Widely praised by the press, Theranos eventually raised $700 million at a $9 billion valuation. It sounds fantastic, the kind of company that would fall under the “Kingdom Aligned”/“Common Good” quadrant.

But in March of 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company with defrauding investors by lying about the company’s technology and business performance. It turned out the tech was a total failure and today its value is virtually nil. Not only were investors swindled, but thousands of people who used the unreliable technology may have been misdiagnosed and harmed.

If you were a whistleblower in such a company, Christian or not, your actions would have aligned with God’s Kingdom and pushed the company towards the Aligned quadrant.

For a second example: How many of you have experienced a church scandal or at least a serious church conflict?

Isn’t it scary when God’s Word and Christian religiosity are used to cover up lies, protect abusers, or swindle people out of their money?

When you stand for the truth in such situations, perhaps at great personal cost to your relationships and reputation, you’re pushing things away from the hypocritical, worldly quadrant and towards the Integrated quadrant. You’re fulfilling Jesus’ description of being salt and light.

Alright, so this is how I think these quadrants can show us what’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom.

The biblical resonances in Jeff Bezos’ thinking exist in the “Kingdom Aligned” quadrant. That’s what makes it so insightful and effective. It’s not explicitly Christian or Gospel-oriented, but as Christians we affirm and learn from it. It reflects God’s wisdom and simply acknowledging God as its source would move it towards the Integrated column.

However, it’s not enough for us as Christians to stay in the “Aligned” quadrant. If we do, we get stuck in our faith.

If the most we can say about being a Christian engineer is “be a competent and honest engineer”, then the Christian adjective doesn’t really make a difference.

Many people want to do good, find meaning and purpose in work, express their creativity, make good money, and serve with excellence. It’s all well and good, but to paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “If you’re just as good as everybody else, what’s the point? … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We live in a post-Christian context. If your faith has nothing meaningful to add, maybe we’d be better off just going to top tech conferences like AWS:Reinvent or Google I/O. Maybe we’d be better off learning leadership from Jeff Bezos than pastors. Maybe we’d be better off creating the wildly successful startups of tomorrow rather than investing in church planting.

But I hope to show you, as this diagram makes clear, that these options are not mutually exclusive and that faith does make a big difference–if we’re willing to act on it.

How Faith Makes a Difference

So how does faith make a difference? Here are three ways that I see faith making a difference for technology entrepreneurship.

#1: Faith makes God your ultimate customer
#2: Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy
#3: Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Faith makes God your ultimate customer

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The customer is always right” or “The customer is king?” Well I learned from one of the panelists we will hear from later today that in Japan, they actually say, “The customer is God.”

okyakusama wa kamisama desu” / 「おきゃくさま は かみさま です”」

Wow.

In a consumerist society that supremely values the customer, the only way a Christian can be faithful is to say, “God is my customer.”

Now you may ask, “Chris, that sounds nice, but what does this actually mean in practice?”

And I’d like to give you two approaches one is top-down, the other is bottom-up.

First, when God is your customer, it means that you will apply God-centered design instead of human-centered design in everything you create. You will deeply empathize with what God desires and study the Scriptures to understand his vision. Then you will work backwards to design a product or service that delivers the results God wants.

In my company, we’ve tried to practice this principle in the design of a prayer app called Ceaseless. We worked backwards from 1 Timothy 2, where the Scriptures say that God wants Christians to pray for all people because He desires all people to be saved. With that user goal in mind, we built an app that helps Christians do God’s will when it comes to prayer.

 

Instead of adding a Facebook “pray” button or focusing on ways to request prayer, Ceaseless is designed to help you pray for others.

It integrates with the address book on your phone and shows three people to pray for each morning. By showing you the full breadth of your relationships one day at a time, Ceaseless helps Christians, not only have more discipline or enjoyment in prayer, it actually helps Christians pray according to God’s will and desire that all people be saved.

That’s one very practical example of the principle of “God is my customer” in action. That’s the top-down Bible-based approach.

There’s also a bottom-up people-based approach.

We believe God became a human being and walked among us. The Incarnation, God in the flesh, means that many of the tools of human-centered design are transferable to a mindset where God is the customer.

Let’s pretend you own a food truck startup making multi-ethnic food available in highly trafficked locations on-demand. I actually heard a pitch for a startup like this by some students from Seattle Pacific University. They called it “Chomp!”.

Anyway, let’s say you were creating this startup. What would it look like for God to be your ultimate customer?

Well, let’s imagine it’s 1pm and Jesus literally shows up at your food truck because he wants some of your famous jambalaya, Ethiopian flatbread and spicy popcorn chicken.

I’m drooling. It may feel silly, but let’s think about this.

What if Jesus showed up as a customer? What kind of experience would you want him to have?

What if your truck was really popular and he had to wait in line for an hour in the rain–what would you do for him? What if he showed up and didn’t have enough cash–how would you treat him? How would you treat your God?

Although the idea may seem comical at first, the principle is powerful. Making God your customer is a driver for innovation and excellence. It applies the words of Jesus: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy

Okay, a second way that faith makes a difference in technology entrepreneurship is that it makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Today’s tech founders are so valuable and powerful because they’ve had spectacular exits. They’ve taken their startups from zero to a large acquisition or successful IPO.

They’re now so rich that they aren’t really sure what to do with all that money.

So what do they do? They set their sights on even bigger dreams. Some focus on immortality through medical science, some focus on saving humanity from the AI-apocalypse while still others focus on space, the final frontier.

Here’s what Jeff Bezos said he would do with his 12-digit net worth:  

I believe on the longest time frame — and really here I’m thinking of a time frame of a couple hundred years … I believe…that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I’m doing.”

“I’m pursuing this work because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to lie in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change and let’s think about what powers that. We are not really energy constrained…Now if you take baseline energy usage…and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. So that’s the real energy crisis and it’s happening soon…So what can you do? Well, you can have a life of stasis where you cap how much energy we get to use…[Or] take the alternative scenario where you move out into the solar system. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans, and if we had a trillion humans, we would have 1,000 Einsteins and 1,000 Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. Why not? that’s the world that I want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to live in.

That’s Bezos’ vision of humanity’s salvation, filling the heavens (aka space) where we will find limitless resources to provide for all of humanity’s needs.

Let’s compare this with the Christian vision of salvation through a snippet from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Although it’s apocalyptic literature, I think we can say that in the long term future of God’s plan there will be infinite energy, unparalleled beauty, boundless life, complete healing, righteous power and deeply satisfying relationships with God and one another. Everything will finally make sense. Everything will finally be made right.

Christians in technology and business need to grapple with this.

What does salvation mean to us? What’s the endgame?

Which story are we living? Where do the narratives align and diverge?

Bezos sees energy scarcity as one of humanity’s biggest existential crises and he wants to use his billions to solve it by sending more humans to space. We see sin and Satan’s dominion as humanity’s biggest existential threat and we want to see billions of people experiencing the power of the Gospel so that they can inherit a renewed, flourishing planet and Universe that the Creator will give to us forever.

Yes, space exploration can serve the common good and align with God’s vision for humanity. Human beings reflect God’s glory by being relentlessly curious: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2). Whose to say we won’t be a spacefaring civilization in the New Creation?

 

But as Christians, we must also seek the uncommon good. We must lead not only in creativity, curiosity or ethics; we need to lead in eschatology, in hope. We can’t be ashamed of the hope of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for every human being not only in the past, not only in the distant future, but in the here and now.

If we really believe that through faith in Jesus Christ, God will raise us from the dead and give us a magnificent inheritance in the New Creation forever, it will change the way we go about building companies, inventing technologies and serving the common good.

Everything we create will be yet another foretaste of the future we believe God is preparing for us. We can’t help but infuse our products, services and organizations with the flavor of God’s Kingdom. And anytime our customers, investors, employees, vendors and colleagues delight in what we do, we’ve inadvertently witnessed to them about God.

The Kingdom of God is like a startup, let’s call it Gospel Inc. At the price of his blood, Jesus acquired us from being slaves of the Devil and now he’s made us co-owners of his company by giving us shares.

Right now our shares may not seem like they’re worth much. Gospel Inc. hasn’t gone IPO yet. But it has paid dividends through the joy and power of the Holy Spirit that we experience today.

And one day, when Jesus returns, when the New Creation finally launches, when Gospel Inc. goes public, our shares will be worth infinitely more than we ever dreamed.

As of this writing, 1 Amazon stock would cost you $1,580 (5/6/2018) $1,974 (9/25/2018).

The price of a share in Gospel Inc.? Free.

The value? Priceless.

Isn’t this why the Scriptures say, “Good news is preached to the poor”? The poor may not be able to buy Amazon stock, but they can receive by faith in Christ, something worth infinitely more in the long term. And when we use our Amazon stock to share with them the good news in word and deed, we show that our hope is in that future too.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Every modern organization has a vision and mission statement. Churches, businesses and even small meetups have a reason why they exist and how they fulfill that purpose.

A lot of books, teachers and coaches focus on how to help you find your calling, your purpose, your personal mission(s). I get it, everybody wants to know “Why do I exist?”

However, I think sometimes we can get stuck and frustrated trying to figure out our passions, interests and skills instead of lifting our heads and being captivated by the big picture vocation God has given to the Church.

What if instead of working forwards from our personality and life situation towards what God might want, we worked backwards from God’s vision and mission to our circumstances and calling?

Here’s how we’ve tried to do it in my company TheoTech. We’ve built a real time translation product called spf.io with a very succinct and common good mission: “To make every event accessible in any language”

Spf.io enables events like this one to be accessible to people in many languages with the tap of a button on their smartphones. I can speak freely and you can receive captions or translations of what I say in real time. It has widespread applications throughout society and I think spf.io’s mission is something that a lot of people can get behind, Christian or not.

But where did this mission come from? It came from God’s vision and mission.

In Revelation 7, the Apostle John receives a vision from God where he sees people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping Jesus together. In Matthew 24, Jesus specifically says that the Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached to every nation before the end will come.

So working backwards from this criteria, we decided on a mission for our product spf.io that would align with God’s as best as we could: “to make every event accessible in any language.” If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to the gospel being preached to every nation. If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to foretastes of God’s vision by making it possible for people to worship together in many languages every Sunday in every church.

 

That’s one example of how faith has informed and shaped the way we practice technology entrepreneurship. It’s how we move from the “Aligned” quadrant to the “Integrated” quadrant.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission.

So what?

So what.

You may think, “Chris, that all sounds really cool, but what does it mean for me in my work? I’m not a senior leader. I’m not an influencer. I’m still just learning, trying to figure out the basics. I just need to make a living. I want to integrate my faith and work, but what can I do?” (Start now. Build God’s Kingdom into the DNA of your career from the outset.)

Or maybe you think, “Chris, you’re crazy. You take the Bible too far to the extremes. Can’t we just do good works, succeed in our jobs and lead a quiet, dignified life as the Bible says?” (You can do all these things. But just know that they are not all of what God calls us to. You get to choose how much you want to buy into the Kingdom of God.)

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Chris, this is too abstract and impractical. I’m bored at work and stuck in a dead end job with a manager who doesn’t care. I’m tired of the drama and just want something more fulfilling that pays well.” (God cares about your work. When you make it about serving Him wholeheartedly instead of your boss, you may find the freedom, joy and guidance you’ve always longed for.)

Well I’m glad you asked, because we’re about to get really practical.

I’m going to invite three panelists to share about how they’ve practiced faith and work integration in tech, their struggles as well as their successes. (Unfortunately panelist responses were not recorded.)

But before we move on, let me restate the outline of this talk.

We started by asking, “Is Bezos Biblical?” and traced through some of his thinking and how it aligns with what the Bible says in several areas. The Church has much to learn from technology entrepreneurs and Bezos in particular. He may be a modern Cyrus or Solomon.

Then we asked, “What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?”

I showed you this diagram to help categorize our experiences and orient our actions towards God’s Kingdom in any context. In whatever quadrant we find ourselves, our organizations, or our societies, we serve as salt and light by relentlessly pressing into the Integrated Kingdom of God quadrant. Being a pastor is not anymore significant than being a software engineer, but serving God’s Kingdom is significantly different than serving the Kingdom of the World.

Next, we asked, “How does faith make a difference?”

I gave three examples of how faith impacts technology entrepreneurship:

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer. In a world-age where the customer is god, making God the customer is not merely a nice idea–it is the only way we can be faithful to Christ while benefitting society and thriving at the same time. By obsessing over God as your customer, you get to know God better.

Second, faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy. Instead of hoping to become overnight billionaires by going IPO, we fix our hope on the return of Christ as our true reward.

Third, faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission. Even though we don’t always have control or even clarity about our personal or organizational visions or missions, we proactively seek to align any areas of our influence with God’s stated plan.

What Have I Been Up to Lately?

It’s been awhile since my last post, so here’s an update on one major thing I’ve been working on lately. My company TheoTech, built spf.io, a product that provides AI-assisted real time captions and translations of live events.

You plug in audio from the soundboard, spf.io converts sound to text, translates it and distributes subtitles/captions to people’s smartphones.

This past weekend, we used it to run everything from slide projection and video playback (NO Propresenter or Powerpoint needed!), to of course real time English captions and Spanish translation. One speaker even controlled slides from her smartphone without any training!

It was an exciting milestone. Seeing the product mature enough to handle everything was particularly gratifying.

Many people ask how to pronounce spf.io and what it means. Here’s the story behind the name [the rest of this post was originally posted on the spf.io site].

How it all started

Many years ago I took a class on entrepreneurship. We formed teams to write a business plan and pitched it at the end of the quarter. The iPhone had just revolutionized the world so my team pitched a real time translation app.

The problem was that pitches can be pretty boring without a product demo. You can talk about the problem and market opportunity but unless your audience experiences the solution, it’s all theoretical. So I decided to build a “minimum viable prototype” or MVP.

My MVP was a powerpoint slide with the picture of an iPhone in landscape mode. I scripted an introduction in Indonesian and put the English translation in the picture of the iPhone. Kind of lame, I know. But then I added animation so that the text would appear character by character.

I memorized what I wanted to say, practiced the timing a few times, and presto! A magical demo.

On the night of the pitch, I nervously walked up to the front, took a deep breath and started speaking in Indonesian so my audience could feel the confusion.

Then I advanced the slide.

An early prototype of spf.io

Suddenly, the English translation appeared, in sync with my speech in the giant iPhone mockup projected behind me. The class erupted with cheers and applause.

Despite my “smoke and mirrors” prototype, they were impressed and delighted to “understand” my language.

A better way to do translation?

Fast forward several years later to the inception of spf.io.

We were feeling the painful drag of doing bilingual worship services at my church. Service lengths were doubled and people were tuning out half the time, hearing a language they didn’t understand–or worse, hearing the exact same thing twice!

There had to be a better way.

Then I remembered what I did for the business class. Even though my MVP felt silly, I realized that my audience loved it and that it actually worked! They didn’t care that it was scripted, they loved the experience and my presentation became “performance art”.

So I built a prototype for my church to make it easy for the pastor to upload his manuscript and project the translation on screen, in sync with what he said. I called it the “Synchronous Presentation Framework”. (I’m a nerd, I know).

I used the internet to keep everything in sync so the pastor could release his manuscript from an iPad and the translation would appear on screen. I also built a mobile view so people could follow along on their smartphones in the language they preferred.

That’s when I bought the domain name spf.io. I wanted to keep it short to make it easy to type on a phone. I also wanted it to not mean anything in any language to avoid problems down the line.

What spf.io means

In the beginning, I kept spelling “s-p-f-i-o” out literally until my co-founder pronounced it “spiffy-oh” one day. It felt right and the name stuck around ever since.

When people see “spf.io”, they may feel confused about what to call it, but when they hear it pronounced “spiffy-oh” it suddenly makes sense and that tiny moment of understanding brings a smile to their face–a moment that mimics the joy we hope to spread through our product.

So what does “spf.io” mean? Technically, it means “synchronous presentation framework,” but I hope one day it means “the joy you feel when you finally understand someone for the first time”.

What spf.io can do today

A screenshot of spf.io in landscape mode, showing a slide with subtitles overlaid.

Spf.io has come a long way from the early prototypes.

We now support automatic captioning of live speech, automatic translations into more than 60 languages, automatic slide translation and much more. We also enable humans to intervene at any time to keep quality high.

All of this is carefully designed to create a simple and seamless experience for your audience. They just visit a url, select their language and get translation on their mobile device. They can even hear the translations read to them!

It doesn’t get much easier than that.

——

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Would you or someone you know like to try our product? Drop us a line today to get startedhttps://spf.io.

Faith and the Tech Sector

How can we support, activate and unleash technologists to use their gifts to advance God’s Kingdom?

In this talk I share the massive opportunity for the Church (especially in the Pacific Northwest)–so massive it would be irresponsible not to pursue–as well as 4 methods and 6 models for doing so.

This talk was delivered at the Christ and Cascadia 2016 conference. A recording, manuscript and slides are below.

Overview

The Opportunity

Good morning, my name is Chris Lim, and I’m Founder and CEO of TheoTech. Today I’m going to share some thoughts on Faith and the Cascadian Tech Sector.

Whether you are a pastor, a business person, a technologist, or simply a follower of Jesus, my aim is to inspire you with what God could do in our local technology industry to advance his Kingdom. I want to show you examples of what has already been happening and how you can get involved in advancing God’s Kingdom with technology.

In February 2015, the Washington Technology Industry Association released the “Information and Communication Technology Economic and Fiscal Impact Study”, which revealed some surprising facts about the Cascadian Tech industry. Here are some highlights:

There are 238,900 workers in the Washington tech sector spread across more than 8600 companies. Of these, about 90,000 are coders and each coder generates 7 additional jobs.

In 2013, the industry paid $22 billion in wages contributing more than $2 billion in taxes. The total market value of the Washington state technology industry exceeds $1 trillion dollars.

That’s some pretty heady stuff. Globally renowned companies like Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have infused Cascadia with a tech culture and their outsized impact means that whether we like it or not Cascadian values and cultural exports have significant influence around the world.

So point number 1: the Tech Sector is hugely important.

I cross referenced these statistics with the Pew Forum’s religion research for Washington in 2014. I was surprised to learn that about 60% of Washingtonians identify as Christian. 32% identify as religious “nones”.

Now if you’ve been in the tech sector for awhile, you probably feel like these statistics should be reversed. At first you might feel lonely. You may be the only follower of Jesus on your team at work. In a company of 25,000 maybe only 10 people show up to a weekly prayer gathering.

In an industry full of extremely intelligent and successful people who largely think they don’t need faith or Jesus, you may feel like simply minding your own business and keeping quiet about the Kingdom of God.

But I think you’d be mistaken to do so. God has placed you in this powerful industry for a reason and gifted you with technological acumen so that you can bear witness to his Kingdom. Don’t be afraid, you are not alone. God is with you. In fact, in many ways, I think He is presenting you with an enormous Blue Ocean opportunity.

Instead of 60%, let’s assume 20% of the Washington tech industry identifies as Christian. That would mean 18,000 coders who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. Wow, 18,000? What could God do with 18,000 coders? I’m going to share some ideas shortly, but let’s briefly consider the financial power of the industry.

Assuming the 20% ratio holds, we would expect Christians to earn about 20% of $22 billion or $4.4 billion. If they allocated 10% of those wages to funding work that explicitly advances God’s Kingdom, there would be about $440 million in annual revenue available to make disciples of all nations.

To give you some perspective, $440 million is comparable to all of Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, and it is larger than InterVarsity. It is about half of World Vision’s annual revenue. This global work could be supported by the giving of the tech sector of just Washington state.

I believe many Cascadians are already very generous, but imagine what could happen if we saw this kind of generosity coming from the tech sector? What would be possible if more than 20% of the tech industry became followers of Jesus?

I did the math with these assumptions and every time someone in the technology industry becomes a follower of Jesus and invests 10% of their wages explicitly in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom gains almost $10,000 in free cash flow annually.

So one hundred new tech disciples unlock $1 million of free cash flow for the Kingdom of God.

Now like any other technologist, I don’t like being viewed as simply a dollar sign for this or that cause. But I wanted to call out the immense influence of the Cascadian technology sector and with it the immense responsibility of the Cascadian Church to make disciples of people in the industry.

And for those of us in the industry, perhaps the words of Paul to the wealthy Corinthian church apply:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich…

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.

As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”…

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (excerpts from 2 Cor 8, 9)

Now, I think this generosity goes far deeper than money. God has entrusted technologists with gifts and skills and wisdom that, like the craftsman who constructed the Tabernacle, can be explicitly applied to advancing God’s Kingdom. And I think the Cascadian Church must support these software craftsman in using those skills to create foretastes of the Kingdom.

4 Ways to Unleash Coders for the Kingdom

Here are four ways it can do so:

First, theological instruction, second kingdom witness, third technological activation, fourth eschatological entrepreneurship. Let’s briefly survey all four and give special attention to number 3.

So number one, Theological Instruction.

When John the Baptist and Jesus started proclaiming the Gospel, they said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” John in particular was approached by tax collectors and soldiers asking what it meant for them to repent and he said, they should collect no more than owed and to stop abusing their power to extort money.

In our present day we often speak of how business and the marketplace advance the common good. This is good. People need to understand intimately how their work reflects and advances God’s Kingdom and they need to be instructed and helped in the process of discovering how their vocation explicitly glorifies Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t happen automatically, so we must preach and teach life in the Kingdom of God. We must proclaim God’s vision and show the correspondence between present reality and the trajectory of history with the prophetic word.

Then by breaking it down into the nitty gritty details of daily work from code reviews, debugging, performance reviews, human-centered design, artificial intelligence and everything else we equip and release believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom in every sphere of life.

Theological instruction is therefore intimately connected to Kingdom Witness.

Not everything in the tech sector is good and not everything is bad. By thinking deeply about Scripture and being led by the Spirit in the royal law of love, Christians have a special discernment about what can be affirmed in the industry and what must be corrected. With boldness we must speak up for what is pleasing to God in technology and call for repentance in the areas that are contrary to God’s design.

And the interesting thing is that much of the industry is open to listening.

You might find that surprising, but I want to call out some recent things that have been coming out of the industry with respect to artificial intelligence. With one voice, all industry leaders from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos believe AI is going to disrupt and reshape society.

On the one hand, it has great potential to make our lives healthier, more convenient and connected. But it also has great potential to cause massive job loss, it poses ethical dilemmas in cases like accidents between self driving cars and it brings up deeply spiritual questions about the nature of intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be human.

Recently industry giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google formed a “Partnership on AI to benefit people and society”. They want it to be an open platform for engaging the public about AI and society, which means that it is an ideal forum to bear witness about God’s Kingdom as the industry navigates really difficult questions about AI and the ways technology can be used to benefit humanity instead of destroying it.

6 Models for Technological Activation

Now I’d like to dive into the third way the Cascadian Church can unleash coders for the Kingdom: Technological Activation.

As I mentioned earlier, if 20% of the tech industry were disciples of Jesus Christ, we would have about 18,000 coders who have been gifted by God for an amazing purpose.

The Church must help these believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel, not simply invite them into cookie cutter volunteer roles. There will always be a place for serving as an elder, volunteering on a weekend or leading a Bible study, but these believers have the capacity for so much more.

So here are 6 models for activating technologists to use their gifts to advance the Kingdom.

The first model is a hackathon. It’s basically 48-hours where like-minded people collaborate to create solutions to Kingdom challenges, particularly with tech.

You don’t have to be a coder to participate–applying and adopting technology for the Kingdom is as important as creating it. But a hackathon is a place for do-ers. People who want to get their feet wet with new technology, people who want to use their skills and do something about the challenges they see in the world from a Christian perspective.

Do you know people like that? Are you one of them?

Hackathons

So let me walk through an example from last year’s Code for the Kingdom Hackathon.

First we start with prayer, an introduction and then an open mic. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has an idea can get in line and share it with the room for 2 minutes. Then each person with an idea gets a sign and everybody mingles to chat and decide which team they want to join.

Once everybody has a team, it’s time to get to work. Some people pull an all-nighter, others take a nap–either way, it’s lots of food and lots of fun.

On the last day of the event every team has the opportunity to pitch their project to a panel of judges. These judges and the people get to vote on the project they want to award and those projects compete at the global level to get further support, momentum and distribution.

So after nearly 48 hours, we celebrate God’s grace over the weekend and go home and sleep.

So the hackathon model is very flexible and a great way to get people started using their gifts for the gospel and getting connected to and inspired by other like-minded people. It’s something that your church can do–all you need to do is provide the space, the time, the food and a program. It doesn’t have to be 48 hours, it doesn’t have to be a big production. Again, at the heart of it is activating people to use their gifts for the Gospel by bringing them together for a period of focused and intense, but fun collaboration.

You’re all invited to this year’s Code for the Kingdom Seattle hackathon. It is going to be next weekend from Friday to Sunday at Seattle Pacific University. Here are some links where you can register and learn more. Come and see for yourself what it’s like and please share it with other do-ers!

Since my time is almost up, I want to briefly touch on the other 5 models of engagement.

“Bezalel” Open Source Model

One is the Bezalel Open Source Model. Open Source means that the intellectual property behind the software you produce is licensed in a way that enables other people to read and contribute to the source code. How many of you use Linux? Linux is so ubiquitous, powerful and flexible because it is open source. Developers from all over the world can contribute to the code base and use it for their own purposes.

In the case of Linux, it’s original creator Linus Torvalds is known as the BDFL or “Benevolent dictator for life” because he has the final say in whether or not to accept people’s code contributions to the Linux kernel. In some ways he is like Bezalel the master craftsman overseeing the construction of the Tabernacle to fulfill Moses’ specifications. That is why I call it the Bezalel Open Source Model.

At my company we’ve open sourced Ceaseless, an app that helps you pray for others.

The app is available for iPhone and Android. It shows you three contacts to pray for each day so that over time you pray for all the relationships in your life. You can download it at ceaselessprayer.com

The advantage of making the app open source is that other people can contribute to making it better and more suitable for their use cases. They don’t have to work for your company or organization, yet if they find the app useful and want to make it better, they can be a part of improving it.

You can see here that Ceaseless has a team of 14 people who are largely volunteers, contributing to the app. So this is a way beyond hackathons that people can continue using their technological gifts on explicitly Kingdom-oriented software projects over time.

Again, if you’d like to try out the app, you can download it at ceaselessprayer.com or if you’d like to contribute to the code you can check it out by searching for ceaseless-prayer on GitHub.

Missional Communities in Corporations / Corporate Chaplaincy

Model number 3 for technological activation is missional communities in corporations.

There are believers in companies like Microsoft and Amazon who gather for regular prayer and the word. When I was an engineer at Amazon, I convened a group of believers to study the Theology of Technology because as creators of technology we have a great opportunity and responsibility to infuse what we build with the values of God’s Kingdom.

This was consistently a refreshing time, not only to think about the Kingdom of God, but also to encourage one another in the daily struggles of work. God uses groups like this to make disciples in place–making disciples directly in the marketplace and at work.

If you are a pastor interested in serving the tech community, I’d love to speak with you about the need for corporate chaplaincy.

Missions/Non-Profit Platforms

Model number 4 is the Missions model, or non-profits that create technology platforms that others can build on.

One example of this is the Digital Bible Platform from the ministry Faith Comes by Hearing. By making their Bible content available through an API, developers can easily integrate Bible content in their apps. Ceaseless for example uses the Digital Bible Platform to show a Scripture related to prayer each day as a devotional aid.

So if your church or non-profit has certain kinds of data that it can export via an API, creating a platform is a way to engage and activate technologists to build things that will advance your mission.

Software Foundations

[Skipped in the talk recording]

Model number 5 is the institute or foundation model and this is related to the missions model, except that it is more explicitly focused on technology. How many of you are familiar with the browser Firefox? Did you know that it is created by the Mozilla foundation, which believes that, “the Internet must always remain a global public resource that is open and accessible to all”.

I mention them because I think there is similarly a need for a Christian software foundation which can steward the software generated by many developers to address Kingdom challenges so that the projects and its impact can outlast the individuals who started them.

Eschatological Entrepreneurship

And so we close with Model 6, Entrepreneurship or as I like to call it Eschatological Entrepreneurship:  Spirit-filled leaders fully exercising their gifts everywhere and together to hastening the coming of Christ.

One local example of this is a startup led by my friend Jonathan Kumar. His company, GiveSafe helps people be the hands and feet of Christ when they see someone in need.

Basically their company partners with non-profits to distribute bluetooth beacons to people experiencing homelessness. Then if you have their app installed on your phone, you’ll get a notification when you are near a beacon. From that notification, you can read the person’s story and give money to help with their needs. The money goes to an account they can use to get goods and services from non-profits and vendors, so that you can give without worrying about the money being used for a negative purpose.

A second example is my company TheoTech and our product SPF.IO. It’s a product that lets you speak freely in your language while providing subtitles in real time on people’s smartphones for those who are hard of hearing or do not speak your language.

The Kingdom purpose of this product is to empower churches to reflect the multilingual glory of God’s Kingdom. Churches should be a foretaste of heaven and SPF.IO is meant to help make that possible.

The common good purpose of this product is to help minorities have access to the same experiences and services that English-speakers have. Talk with me afterwards if you’d like to use it in your church or organization.

For the long term, I believe that paying people market rate for using their technological gifts to advance God’s Kingdom requires prosperous for-profit companies that have business objectives explicitly aligned to Kingdom objectives. That is one reason why I created TheoTech and why I believe Model 6 is an essential component for long-term activation of technologists for the Kingdom.

So there you have it. 6 ways the Cascadian Church take advantage of this amazing opportunity to accelerate the Gospel and make disciples of all nations through technologists and technology. I realize we covered a lot of ground today and so I want to leave you with one simple call to action as a next step.

Come to Code for the Kingdom Seattle next week. See for yourself what God is doing about Faith and the Tech Sector.

Thank you.

3 Learnings from Life After a Break-in

We were gone for only two hours. My sister and I came home from lunch when I noticed my laptop was missing.

“I think we’ve been robbed.”

My sister thought I was joking until she noticed her laptop was missing too. I ran downstairs to my room. The thieves had rifled through my drawers and taken cash.

I dialed 911.

Two hours later an officer showed up and walked through the house with me trying to figure out what happened. It wasn’t obvious how the thieves entered and escaped–every door and window seemed locked and undamaged.

Then we walked to the back porch and he pushed on a pair of french doors. Deadbolted, locked and yet they swung open.

“The wind could blow open that door!”

The locked deadbolt gave us a false sense of security since the second door was supposed to be pinned to the door frame, but had no visible affordance to indicate if it was pinned or not.wp-1458607587406.jpg

My sister and I immediately got to work.

We asked friends for prayer and help, filed a police report, called insurance, reset passwords, activated Find/Erase My iPhone through iCloud, placed watches on credit cards, the whole 9 yards. We installed new security countermeasures and did a long overdue spring cleaning cleansing.

I didn’t want to sleep that night. My room felt unsafe, unclean and violated so I ended up dozing off at 3am in the living room.

My sister and I had just been discussing forgiveness over lunch that day and the irony of being simultaneously robbed was not lost on me. God was up to something good in all this, but what?

Here are three things I’ve learned in the short time since the incident and I’m sure there’s still more wisdom to gain with time.

Learning #1: Theft deals far more damage than the loss of goods.

The burglary makes me feel angry and anxious. It makes my home feel unsafe. The thieves took the tools my sister and I need to do our work. We spent several days dealing with the fallout of their actions. We have to deal with the risk that people will steal the private information on our devices and use it for nefarious purposes.

The thieves may have thought they were simply taking valuables to get easy money from an unsuspecting home, but the actual cost of their actions is far greater than the value of what they took.

To generalize/personalize, I’m beginning to pay more attention to how even my minor irresponsibilities have an outsized impact on others. I can’t isolate my irresponsibilities to myself. None of us can.

Learning #2: Cash flow can’t be stolen and heaven is the only place to accumulate assets.

As a young entrepreneur, I’ve often heard the phrase “cash is king” and now I’ve learned a new reason why.

Thieves can steal assets. They can steal goods in a warehouse, a package on the curb, office supplies, laptops, money in the bank, etc.

But they cannot steal real, healthy customer relationships resulting in ongoing revenue and a continuous in-flow of cash going forward. Cash flow is resilient to theft.

I think this correlates with Jesus’ major point about treasure:

“Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NET, emphasis mine)

The Kingdom of Heaven is the only completely safe place to store your assets. Your earthly assets can be destroyed, corrupted, compromised and stolen. Setting your heart on earthly asset accumulation means putting your heart at serious risk because it is only a matter of time before your treasure will go away.

Alternatively, if you spend life on earth maximizing Free Cash Flow for the Kingdom and transfer as much wealth as possible to the Kingdom of Heaven, you win forever. Luke records one explicit mechanism for this value transfer:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34 ESV, emphasis mine)

What does this mean for us? It means this life is the time to take risks, not play it safe. Now is the time to vigorously and generously labor for Kingdom cash flow, not comfortably sit on your assets. Now is the time to sow and reap (and give), not store up excess grain in a barn and take it easy for the rest of your days and lose your soul in the process (cf Luke 12:13-21).

Learning #3: Vigilance, Diligence and Aggressive Security Measures Apply to Spirituality.

This experience snapped me out of my complacency.

I cleaned up my house and put long overdue things in order, increased the privacy and security of my home, conducted a security review and improved everything we could think of.

And then I took a break and enjoyed having an orderly home and more orderly life. For all the grief and loss suffered, we received an even greater outpouring of sympathy, concern and kindness from family, friends and neighbors. Thank God!

Then while joyfully meditating on these things, I realized something.

This is exactly what I should be doing in my spiritual life.

Jesus said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10 ESV)

Abundant life must be guarded with greater vigilance than my home. It’s way more valuable.

Before, I assumed my house was safe. Now I assume it’s always being scouted, tested and targeted. Instead of letting thieves have their way, I prepare by mitigating risks with controls and respond by neutralizing threats.

The same applies to my spiritual life. Satan is a cunning and menacing adversary, constantly casing, canvassing, and prowling around like a lion waiting to strike (1 Peter 5:8-10).

The gift of faith that gets me in on Jesus’ life is the supremely precious asset for life on this earth. So when it comes under attack, I shouldn’t give in. I shouldn’t succumb to feelings of self-pity, doubt, surrender, fear and depression. I should fight.

I should take precautions and install countermeasures to mitigate the risk of these infinitely precious assets from being stolen or damaged or compromised. I should fight for joy and protect it with greater vigilance, diligence and aggressiveness than anything else.

Here’s to praying that I will!

Question: When was the last time you did a security review of your life (physical & spiritual)? What security mechanisms did you put in place to protect it?


PS, here are two Christian books that I read a long time ago, which have newfound relevance. One delves into “heavenly asset accumulation” and the other discusses “spiritual asset protection” (affiliate links):

PPS, I get this verse better now. The first few days after the burglary I wanted to stay home all day with a frying pan in hand to wait for the thieves to return :).

But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39-40 ESV)

Succeeding as a Christian at Amazon and in the Marketplace

Are marketplace values compatible with God’s Kingdom?

Does succeeding according to corporate values and principles help us grow into the likeness of Christ?

Does following Jesus faithfully enable us to succeed in the corporate world?

In this talk (audio below), we’ll see one example of comparing Scripture with Amazon’s leadership principles to thoughtfully answer these questions. Chris will walk through a method for examining the values of your workplace and finding the alignments with the Kingdom of God and he will close with some thoughts on the recent press Amazon has received for its work culture.

Outline

Manuscript

Good morning friends, it’s a pleasure to join you today. My name is Chris Lim and as a former Amazon engineer for 3.5 years, let me be the first to admit that:

Work is Hard.

I know what it’s like to stay in the office past 11pm on Halloween in order to clean up a workflow database for the next day. I know what it’s like to see people burn out from slavish pressure and poor management. I’ve seen politics kill good products, ruin careers and frustrate entire organizations.

But for all these problems let me also be the first to say that:

Work is Fun.

I love the thrill of seeing customers light up with joy the first time they use my product. I love the relief of getting to the bottom of a ridiculously complicated problem that was stressing out my team for weeks and solving it once and for all. I enjoy the pleasure of mastering new technologies and getting better and better at what I do. I also appreciate the good-natured whining that happened while hanging out with my team past 11pm on Halloween to get a job done since nobody really wanted to go home anyway.

I open with these anecdotes because I realize that my goal this morning is not to teach you something you don’t already know. Rather, my goal is to encourage you by giving a perspective on how God may be using the pressures and values of the marketplace to make you like Jesus. I hope that coming out of this talk you will feel gratitude for the way God has united our marketplace work and the work of his kingdom. And I pray that you will be unleashed to do good with the grace God has given you by making the most of everything you have to give the world a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

As Al Erisman, founding board member of Kiros likes to say, “You can serve God wherever he has placed you. You don’t have to be a pastor to serve God. God has a great purpose for work in a secular environment.” And today I want to show you an example of one way this plays out in the marketplace.

I’m going to share with you three Amazon leadership principles, compare them with Scripture and close with some practical steps you can follow to proclaim God’s Kingdom in your context.

When I started at Amazon, I was a young, naive, insecure software engineer. I knew how to program, but I didn’t know how to engineer production quality software that could serve millions of customers. I didn’t know all the tools I needed to use, much less why I needed to use them. And although I knew how to get good grades in school and finish projects, work was a completely different game. Setting SMART goals and writing up peer reviews and waiting for the results of an opaque performance review process always left me questioning if I was doing well or just a waiting to be exposed as a disappointment.

In the software world, we often follow a project management process called scrum. A part of this is something called the “Daily stand-up”. At the appointed time, everyone on the team gathers around a whiteboard that shows what needs to be done in order of priority and progress. Each member shares what they did yesterday, what they’re working on today and anything they need help with. Once everyone has given an update, the meeting is over. These daily stand-up meetings were a simple, but powerful tool for accountability.

It was after one of these stand-ups that a senior engineer on my team pulled me aside and asked me if I knew Amazon’s leadership principles. I remembered hearing about them during my new hire orientation, but I hadn’t paid very close attention. He told me:

Chris these leadership principles are very important. I know other companies might just put them on posters, but at Amazon they go into your performance reviews. It really defines what it means to be a leader at Amazon. You should memorize them.

I immediately looked up the principles, printed them out, went to a whiteboard and spent the rest of my day memorizing all 14:

  • Customer Obsession
  • Ownership
  • Invent & Simplify
  • Bias for Action
  • Dive Deep
  • Hire and Develop the Best
  • Frugality
  • Vocally Self-Critical
  • Are Right A Lot
  • Insists on Highest Standards
  • Think Big
  • Has Backbone; Disagree & Commit
  • Earns Trust of Others
  • Delivers Results.

I felt like my colleague had given me the secret playbook to succeeding at Amazon and I was going to make the most of it. Before I wasn’t sure of how well I was doing, but now I felt like I knew how to play to win.

And to a small degree, I did win.

In my second year I received an Outstanding performance review rating and a Role Model leadership rating–these are the highest marks a person can receive. I was honored with an “Above and Beyond Award” in my organization for driving the adoption of the product my team built within the company–this required taking on the responsibilities of a technical program manager while still fulfilling my role as a software engineer.

I share this not to boast–I believe everything is grace; every achievement is a sheer gift from my heavenly Father–but I share this to highlight my discovery of the power of the performance review system and the leadership principles.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for”.

I would like to add a new, but similar saying: “You get more of what you pay for”.

For example, if you reward people for being vocally self-critical, more people will be forthcoming with their mistakes. If on the other hand you punish people for having backbone and standing up for what they believe is right, more people will silently comply.

To put it simply: I realized that the Amazon’s leadership principles and performance review system rewarded me for conforming to Amazon’s image of leadership.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you may hear echoes of Romans 12:2 in what I just said:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Instead of conforming to the world, we know that God’s vision for humanity is to conform us to the image of Jesus as written in Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

As a Christian, as someone who professes a desire to be like Jesus more than anyone else–more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg I want to be like Jesus–this led me to ask:

“Does conforming to Amazon’s leadership principles help me conform to the image of Christ?”

If it doesn’t, then I risk being glorified by the world while missing out on the supremely important glory that comes from God. I risk playing the wrong game and losing everything in the end.

If it does then those leadership principles and rewards are actually very powerful tools that God is using to fulfill his promise to make me share the glory of his Son.

In order to explore this question, I decided to compare the Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and I invited the christians-interest mailing list at Amazon to join me. Together we spent several weeks over lunch carefully studying and discussing each principle.

So without further ado, let’s dive into three of the fourteen principles and see what the Bible has to say about them. For each principle, we’re going to:

  1. Define the principle
  2. Ask a few clarifying questions and
  3. Find answers from relevant scriptures.

It’s a really simple method that I hope you can take with you and apply to your own companies.

Principle #1: Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Question number 1: “What does it mean to be an owner?”

Can anyone think of a relevant scripture?

The one we discussed is from Matthew 25:23:

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

This verse implies that as an owner, you share in the long term risks and rewards of the things that belong to you.

Now this verse refers to a servant-master relationships, which led to the next question: “How is ownership different than stewardship?”

Any thoughts?

Although they are different, a good steward always acts in the best interests of the owner, so that the actual behavior is similar.

In John 10:11-14 Jesus describes the degenerate case where the behavior is different:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

Jesus distinguishes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep versus hired hands who don’t really care for the sheep and run away when endangered. They are unfaithful stewards exactly because they are not acting like owners. Their long term well-being is not aligned with the well-being of the sheep.

Tying this back to the workplace, we then asked the difficult question: “Can you act like an owner even when you don’t feel like one? What are some reasons why you may not feel like an owner?”

Any thoughts?

These are some reasons why it can be hard to act like an owner:

One, you really may not be an owner, or you may not have the influence to affect change and benefit from the outcome of your decision.

Two, you may be driven by selfish ambition, using what you have to get ahead in the short term instead of doing what is right in the long term for others. For example, as an engineer you may design a system for the short term, expecting to get promoted and switching to another team so that you don’t have to deal with the long-term consequences.

Three, you may not want to benefit your bosses because you feel like they aren’t looking out for your best interests. You may have disagreements with those in authority that make you feel disempowered because you have to take on the consequences and responsibilities of ownership without having the freedom and rewards of it.

Now, despite these difficult situations, as Christians we believe that God is the ultimate owner. He has entrusted a stewardship to us and our reward is guaranteed by him, even if we cannot trace out the connection between the responsibilities we fulfill today and the rewards that will come in the future.

In Psalm 24:1 it is written, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;”

God is in fact the owner of all things and his incredible promise is that we are not merely stewards, but also heirs (owners!) of all things in Christ:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)

So to summarize: God owns everything and will one day give everything to us. This means that growing in ownership actually prepares us to receive the kingdom of God. Growing as an Amazonian means growing as a Christian. And the reverse is also true, growing as a Christian means being the kind of leader Amazon values.

As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

So to adapt Amazon’s definition:

Christians are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire Kingdom of God, beyond just their immediate interests. They never say “that’s not my job”.

How does that sound?

How does realizing that God owns everything and that we will one day inherit all things affect how we approach our work and our life?

Let’s go to the next principle

Principle #2: Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Question number 1: Why is it difficult to have a bias for action?

Any thoughts?

I think it’s tempting to delay decisions until they are made for us because it’s scary to take responsibility for an unknown outcome.

But let me ask, what story from the Bible comes to mind when you think of bias for action?

I think of the time shortly after Saul was anointed king.

He was supposed to attack the Philistines, but instead faithlessly cowered with his 600 men. His son Jonathan on the other hand demonstrated a bias for action that achieved a great victory for Israel. Let me read a snippet from 1 Samuel 14:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” …

Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre. (see full story at 1 Samuel 14:1-14)

How is that for bias for action?

And what was the secret to Jonathan’s bias for action?

I think it was simply, faith in God. And growing in faith is exactly growing in Christ.

Question number 2: How does a bias for action fit with waiting on the Lord?

This is a very deep and tricky theological topic and in our discussions at Amazon it was hard to come to a conclusive summary. We ended up discussing what a bias for action and waiting for the Lord are not.

For example, we should not confuse procrastination or avoiding responsibility with waiting on the Lord—sometimes we already know what God wants us to do, but haven’t accepted his answer. Like the faithless Israelites who refused to enter Canaan when the Lord told them to go and then tried to invade when he told them “no” (Deuteronomy 1).

On the other hand, many Scriptures that speak of waiting on the Lord connote a stillness while he acts on our behalf:

Psalm 40 begins with “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

Psalm 37:5-7 says:

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

So it seems that biblically speaking there is a place for action and stillness, but at the root of both of them is complete trust in the Lord.

Let’s make decisions, act and take calculated risks by faith in God instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis or anxious toil. Growing as a person of faith and courage will result in a bias for action as well as the wisdom to know when to wait on the Lord.

And now we come to Amazon’s first and foremost leadership principle: Customer Obsession.

Principle #3: Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Do any of you know Amazon’s mission statement?

It’s “To be earth’s most customer centric company.”

Many companies start with business goals and what they already have and work forward to figure out how to capture the market and profit. Amazon wants to begin with customers–their values, needs, desires–and work backwards to invent things that will benefit them.

I’m going to share shortly how this one principle changed my whole perspective on business, but first let’s ask some clarifying questions:

What are the limits of customer obsession?

Can the customer ever be wrong?

What is the difference between giving the customer what they want versus what they need or ought to want?

I think it’s funny that lines like this are in the Bible–Proverbs 20:14 says, “It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—then goes off and boasts about the purchase.”

Have you ever experienced that? Maybe after buying a car?

We can’t always take what customers say at face value, can we?

But what we can do is commit to loving our customers and doing what is right for them.

I’d like to recommend a book that goes into this distinction more thoroughly titled The Gift of Work: Spiritual Disciplines for the Workplace (affiliate link) by Bill Heatley (Editor’s Note 1/3/2018: I recently discovered disturbing news about this author and while I benefitted from his book, I want caution the reader and would suggest this book in its place: Connecting Faith and Work in the 21st Century (also an affiliate link)). He writes, “One way of thinking about service is, ‘I love you and I’ll serve you by doing what you want me to do.’ That’s perhaps one of the most common ideas today. The other idea is, ‘I love you and I will serve you by doing what is good for you, whether you want it or not.’”

True customer obsession focuses on what is truly good for customers, not simply satisfying their felt needs and desires.

Question 2: What happens when we lose customer obsession?

If you aren’t obsessed about your customers, who are you obsessed about?

Probably yourself. Or perhaps fearing or envying competitors.

Customer obsession is one way we fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. It protects us from the perils of envy and worshiping money.

Obsessing over customers is obsessing over God’s second greatest commandment.

And this leads me to the question that changed everything for me.

What if God is the customer?

What would it look like to create earth’s most God-centered company?

Could we empathize with what God values and desires and work backwards to invent products and services that deliver the outcomes he wants?

Could we intentionally align all of our labor to create foretastes of his Kingdom?

This is actually why I left Amazon and started my company TheoTech. I’m testing that hypothesis. I want to see if we can create a prosperous business by explicitly serving the interests of God as our customer. Can we be earth’s most God-centered company?

Now, the truth is, you don’t have to quit your job and do a crazy startup to do this. You can make God your ultimate customer where you are right now. And I think he wants you to.

He wants you to deeply empathize with what he values. He wants you to obsess over his desires. He wants you to work backwards from his Kingdom vision to help others experience the glory of the new creation he promised to everyone that trusts in Jesus Christ.

And not only does God want you to make him your customer, but I believe he is already equipping, growing and discipling you to do so through your marketplace experiences by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at Amazon was that discipleship doesn’t really happen through church programs–it happens anywhere and everywhere because the Holy Spirit is with me, guiding, correcting, teaching, prodding, encouraging and growing me.

When Scripture is applied by the Spirit in the circumstances God has arranged for my life, everything ends up molding me into the likeness of Jesus. The joys and trials of the workplace, the incentives and values of the marketplace, the successes and the failures, everything converge to grow me as a follower of Jesus. Discipleship happens in place.

What happens when things go wrong?

Now I’d like to briefly address what happens when things go wrong. Amazon may have some good leadership principles that in many ways align with Scripture, but what happens when people don’t live up to those principles? Or what if some of the principles are lacking or simply wrong?

I think the recent New York Times expose on Amazon is an example of this.

The article described the experiences of several former employees who faced hardships like being put on a performance improvement plan after returning from a pregnancy, being brought tears through bruising disagreements and unsustainably long hours.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent an internal e-mail in response to the article, which was published online and some of my friends asked for my opinion on the matter. I wrote a post titled, “Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose”, which you can read on my blog at www.meritandgrace.com, but let me give you the gist of it here.  

At every all hands company meeting I attended, someone would inevitably ask, “What is the biggest risk for Amazon?”

And in every meeting, Jeff would say something to the effect of:

The biggest risk is that we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

In other words, the biggest threat to Amazon is internal politics. Jeff is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem to be cases where Amazon’s leadership principles were disregarded in favor of corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It creates a culture of fear, selfishness and oppression–the exact opposite of the Kingdom of God.

In response to the article, Jeff Bezos invited any employee who witnessed the abuse of power to report it directly to him, saying, “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

My point is that business as usual is not going to work.

I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.

In preparing for this talk, I asked a friend who was with Amazon for three years,  “What would be the most encouraging thing I could say to you if you were still at Amazon?”

She told me, “I’ve spoken with the people at the top and we’re making changes to make things better.”

Now I haven’t actually spoken with Jeff Bezos or his team of senior vice presidents, but I have been speaking with God and listening to his Word and I think that we can safely say, “We’ve spoken with the top and we are making things better.”

This is exactly why we’re here. This is exactly why Christians are in the marketplace. To make things better. To fulfill the mandate from the top.

To proclaim God’s Kingdom and invite people to submit to God’s leadership in every sphere. To show people how good things are when God is in charge.

As Christians, we not only benefit from marketplace values and economics, but we also raise the bar on the marketplace, as salt and light, so that it better reflects the justice, righteousness and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So to summarize: today I walked you through three Amazon leadership principles. For each principle, we compared its definition with relevant Scriptures to see how conforming to that principle helps us conform to Christ.

First, Ownership: Since God will give us a completely renewed creation as our inheritance, taking long term responsibility and growing as an owner prepares us for the day when the Universe will be ours to govern.

Second, Bias for Action: God wants us to act by faith today on the promises he has made for our future. Growing in faith means growing in a bias for action, which is important for success in business as well as advancing God’s purposes.

Third, Customer Obsession: God wants us to obsess over his will and apply all the best we have to offer to fulfill it. This is nothing less than loving God with our entire being and our neighbors as ourselves.

I hope that these examples make it clear that when we excel in these principles, we not only succeed in great companies like Amazon, but we also grow up to maturity in Christ. Our work and conduct become foretastes of God’s Kingdom, an invitation for people to trust in Jesus because they’ve seen for themselves how good his ways really are and that his promises are what they’ve been really hoping for all along. And I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of success that makes my heart smile.

Practical Steps

So here are two practical steps you can take today:

The first is to simply take your company’s values and leadership principles and examine them in light of Scripture. Figure out the points of alignment with God’s Kingdom and your character. Maximize your pursuit of growth in those areas. It’s all win.

The second step is related to something I’m currently working on.

How many of you pray?

How many of you feel like your prayers tend to be self-centered?

What if there was an easy way to remember to pray for others? Not only Christians or your family, but everyone–colleagues, bosses, employees, clients, vendors, etc.?

If this piques your interest, I’d like to invite you to try a smartphone app my team has been working on called Ceaseless. If we want to see lives transformed in the marketplace, I believe it will begin with regular, earnest and personal prayer.

Ceaseless integrates with the address book on your phone and shows you three people to pray for each day. One day it may show you the love of your life and the next it may show you the annoying coworker you wish would quit already.

The point is that God urges us to pray for all people because he wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV). We invented Ceaseless to help people do what God wants them to do and if just 1% of the earth’s population prayed for 3 friends each day, we could theoretically personally pray for everyone on earth in less than a year. You can be a part of this movement. Learn more at www.ceaselessprayer.com

Thank you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe one situation you are facing at work and how God maybe discipling you through it.
  2. What would it look like to deliver foretastes of God’s kingdom in your marketplace milieu?
  3. How does growing in the values/leadership principles of your business help you grow in Christlikeness?