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VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger Interview: Being a 'God-Glorifying' Technologist, and Transforming the Silicon Valley With Christ

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Many in Silicon Valley are prominent, but few are significant. Among the prominent technologists in the Bay Area, VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger is one of the most outspoken Christian technologists on faith, chosing the route of significance. Before becoming the CEO of VMWare, a multi-billion dollar and leading software company in the world, he was the first Chief Technology Officer at Intel Corporation, where the first microprocessors were invented. If you've ever plugged a USB into your computer, used WIFI, you've used his technology.
VMWare CEO Pat Gelsiniger gives a talk to technologists in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 2014 Hackathon event titled "Code for the Kingdom." (Photo: The Gospel Herald)

The Silicon Valley, a nickname for the southern part of San Francisco Bay Area, is home to the world's largest high-tech corporations and thousands of start-up companies. Yet, it has the least church-going population of any place in the U.S., according to a Barna research that spanned over a period of 10 years ending in August 2014.

In the U.S., the average percentage of non-church going population sits at around 38 percent; in the greater San Francisco area, that number skyrockets to 61 percent. Many who grew up in a Christian home in the Bible-belt find themselves outnumbered and challenged against their faith after coming out to the Bay Area for school or work, where their colleagues, classmates, supervisors, professors hold a completely different worldview from them.

Despite such trends, Christians have formed fellowships and networks within the leading information technology companies - Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Intel, VMWare, Cisco - and continued to encourage one another to live out their faith. While doing God's work are oftentimes associated with vocational ministry and nonprofit work, believers around the world are taking their business professions as God's calling through "glorifying God" by the way they work and by being a positive example that reflect Jesus' characters.

Many in Silicon Valley are prominent, but few are significant. Among the prominent technologists in the Bay Area, VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger has chosen the route of significance. Before becoming the CEO of VMware, one of the top five software companies in the world, he was the first Chief Technology Officer at Intel Corporation, where the first microprocessors were invented. If you've ever plugged a USB into your computer, used WIFI, you've used his technology.

Gelsinger told The Gospel Herald in an interview on how his Christian faith guides him in all aspects of his life, whether in his profession or family.

Furthermore, Gelsinger has initiated a catalyst movement called Transforming the Bay with Christ (TBC) in recent years that seeks to assist the local churches to plant 1,000 churches in the Bay Area and to facilitate outreachs in the community through charity and volunteer work.

The goal is to "seek revival in our day," said Gelsinger at this year's first TBC large gathering in downtown San Francisco.

Here is the full transcript of the interview with Pat Gelsinger:

GH: What prompted you to start TBC and what is your current role at TBC?

PG: In starting TBC, humorously, when we moved out of the Bay Area in 1990, my wife said that we were never coming back. It's one of those "You should never say never," but we wanted to raise a family, so we moved to Oregon. We were happy to be out of the Bay Area, and we were never coming back. She wanted a more rural setting and more family-oriented. Then we moved to Boston, a small town there. And then I got the job offer to come and be the CEO of VMWare, and it was like, "Ok God, there has to be something bigger than just being CEO." Being CEO is a great job, a great opportunity, but you know, what's the bigger purpose. And, for that, I sort of in my mind, I had been contemplating this idea of city movements, was aware of the Plow effort, the waste-plow association effort in this respect, and really felt sort of this call that there's a bigger purpose in coming to the Bay Area. So, basically, three and three: three business guys, three church guys get together and share a vision for that and maybe God is in it. My three business guys, Promod Haque and Kevin Compton and myself, and the three church guys were Chip Ingram, Francis Chan, and John Ortberg -- all nationally recognized people. The first time I called them all together, they were all leaning back in their chairs, somewhat skeptical of this crazy business guy. But, when the key business guy calls you and asks you to come to a meeting, and the church guys show up, you have that convening power. Curiously, Francis, John and Chip had never met each other before I brought them together. So it was like, 'Wow!' It was very humorous - it was like, "You guys should know each other already." Out of that was born the idea of TBC, which obviously, if you talked to Nancy, so you've got some assessment for it. But it's very much this bigger effort to be an impact to the Bay, and today I'm the Chair of the Board of TBC.

GH: In your sharing at TBC's first large gathering this past January, you mentioned that the primary goal is to see a revival in our day. How can this be accomplished here in the Bay Area?

PG: We laid out the three missions of TBC: Unify" bring the leadership together. Amplify: create this perception of the church that is about doing good and that is not a politically-leaning right, nor is it a leftover, intellectual community like the Bay Area should disregard, but it has a deep purpose. Third, to multiply the churches in the Bay Area. Unify, amplify and multiply taken together the objective is to bring about a renewal of the church, of the Christian community, of faith, and ultimately, revival in the Bay Area.

GH: How did you reconcile your desire to be a minister with your decision to pursue a career in computers?

PG: The question is a little bit inaccurate - I never wanted to be a minister, but soon after becoming a Christian in February of 1980, I felt this call to the ministry. All of the sudden, I was arguing with God saying, "But God, I'm a tech guy. I love this. I'm thrilled by what I'm doing, I'm being successful. Why are you calling me into ministry?" As a very young Christian at that point, I was really quite confused by the entire sequence. So, after arguing with God about this for several months, I laid a fleece before God, kind of the Gideon's fleece experience. As soon as I did that, the answer became clear from God that the workplace is my ministry, and I'm called to be a full-time workplace minister, and that's really been the center of my life and value system ever since then. Yeah, I'm delighted to have a job, I'm delighted to be paid by the company, but ultimately, my CEO is Jesus Christ.

GH: How do you balance work, family and faith?

PG: That topic is one where I wrote a book on the subject trying to address that, "The Juggling Act," because I sort of quipped that, "A stopped clock has the right time twice a day." And the area of balance and juggling, it's not like you just develop, and if you're being successful, work wants a lot of you, if you're being successful you want to give a lot to work. You have this natural collusion of interest to what gets you out of balance. Everything is sort of screaming, work is most important, family - you hear them yelling at you, and God is pretty easily shoved aside. But, our God-given priorities are God, family, work. So you have to take very disciplined and explicit steps to keep your life in balance and realize that this month, you might be out of balance, so you have to take steps to be in balance next month. You might have a big project coming up, so you better be taking steps to date your wife, and your kids, and other things like that, knowing that work demands will ebb and flow over time. You have to put guardrails up in your life to build those elements of balance. That's a lot of the topic of the book.

Pat Gelsinger VMWare CEO
Pat Gelsinger, Chariman of TBC. (Photo: The Gospel Herald)

GH: In your tech and business career, were there times you had to choose between compromising your ethics as a Christian for business gains? Where do you draw the line in your business decisions?

PG: That's an area that - being a Christian that, generally there's a Judeo-Christian value system that's seen as appropriate by most businesses. Now, clearly, as you get to doing business internationally, that becomes more challenged. As you get to more sales and end-of-quarter and that sort of nonsense you have all these reasons to be challenged, but generally, the value system of the company is the thing that allows you to bring these into harmony. At VMWare, we talk about our EPIC values: execution, passion, integrity, customers and community. Building on the value system of the company, you have a lot of opportunity to bring your personal belief system and the company value system in harmony. That is, to me, the pivot point of making these things work. If you're at a company that's not a high-integrity environment, as a Christian, you're probably at the wrong place. You will have challenges, Thessalonians promises this - if you are a Christian, you will be persecuted, so you will have those days of challenge that come as well. You're promised them as a Christian, so you better be ready to handle them. The more public and significant your leadership role and capacity is, there are more challenge opportunities you'll be faced with.

GH: Do you think that if a believer is working at a workplace culture that is largely characterized by immoral values such as condemnation, judgement, blame and immorality, that they should find a different job or search for different company to work for? Or should they stay in that position?

PG: Those kinds of things are deeply personal decision and choices and I think in those situations you're faced with a perspective - one of two things to decide. One, that you are called to that place with the purpose of being salt and light, and that your job is, in those environments, to be a standard that lifts up the greater entity. Places that are immoral, unethical, etc, those things will come to light over time, whether there are those dramatic situations like [Bernie] Madoff and so on, or modest situations that get into FCPA or other accounting and audit things over time. Those things will come to light over time. The question is - if you're in one of those situations, you have to be thoughtful about, am I here as an agent of salt and light? Or am I in a situation that's untenable or potentially even dangerous for the individual involved. Those decisions need to be considered very carefully, if that's the case.

GH: What do you think contributed to you being chosen, or offered the job as the CEO of VMWare? What are the qualifications and requirements to be in the position such as yours to rise to this current position in the face of fierce competition?

PG: Some of that, of course, is a decision on the part of the board and you don't always get all of the insights of why they pick you versus somebody else. In this particular case, being CEO of VMWare, obviously being a tech guy is a huge advantage, I'm a technologist, I'm deeply technical, this is a technical-engineering-oriented company, so that's clearly an advantage. Clearly the breadth of experiences I've had in a variety of roles in technology since I was already part of the EMC family of companies, it was sort of an in-the-family move in that respect I worked hard, I was clear on my own preparation and objectives that I had in working to become a CEO which, the saying goes, "The harder I work the luckier I get," where these aren't the kind of roles that you stumble into. For the most part, you work real hard to put yourself in a position where you're a viable candidate for that role over time. Smart, work hard, aggressive, and I do see it also as a position of calling as well.

GH: In recent months, VMWare has been going through some changes that resulted in drops in share values and even several top-level executives have left the company. In uncertain times like this, how do you maintain a clear head and continue to lead as a CEO of the company? What are your future plans?

PG: My life verse has been Colossians 3:23-24: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Good days, bad days - I still work for the Lord Jesus Christ, and with that in mind, if I have a bad day, well, ok, God is still on the throne and he knew it was going to be a bad day. If I have a good day, well, God is still on the throne and He knew I was going to have a good day and it enables you to take a much more unemotional, broader perspective on the to and fro on things that will challenge you as you go through what is arguably a very challenging environment. Seeing the stock down by 40% from its peak - that sucks as a CEO, there's nothing good about that. It's like being the quarterback of the football team in the fourth quarter and you're down by three touchdowns. Everybody sees the score, there's no debate about it, it's up there for all to see. That's one of the primary ways a CEO is measured, and in this case, a lot of things are out of my control with the merger, and so on. But against that, I also feel a great comfort in that I'm working hard, I'm doing my job, I feel good, every night I have no regrets, and ultimately, it's the board. If God wants me in this position, I'll be in the position. If they don't, I won't be in the position. I'm okay with that, because if I'm not in this position, obviously there's something else for me to do in that respect. So, a very calm confidence kind of emerges as you deal with that. And like your question said, a level-headed perspective to deal with these challenges.

GH: As a CEO of top-level technology companies, what management principles do you follow to lead the company to achieve maximum operational results and how do you weave the principles of faith into your relationships with your subordinates, bosses and peers?

PG: Clearly the values conversation that we touched on a little bit earlier is a key piece of it, and modern companies today, values, they get that. Even in an atheist and agnostic millennium, they buy into values. It's a very safe place to go; those are the values of our company, and when we talk about the EPIC values of VMWare it's just a great place to lead from. Clearly, as CEO of a public company, I have to be very sensitive as faith-perspectives that are not my own, and the more I am, the more I can be explicit about my faith perspectives as well. Take a very diversity-friendly view of our company, of our values, etc, and say, "Oh, wow, tell me about that, what's that about. You are a sheikh - tell me about that." And the more engaging that you are from a multi-faith perspective, the more explicit you can be about your faith view. Also, I have to make it quite okay for people to not have my faith view, they have to feel like they're valued members of my leadership team and the company and that I don't use my position of leadership in any inappropriate manner whatsoever, even as I'm proud of my faith perspective. The more you do that, the more comfortable people will be with your faith view, that this is a faith-friendly place, including no-faith perspectives. Clearly, you take a Christian charity perspective. Christians should be known for their integrity, for their transparency and for their deep love and passion for the individual. I have 20,000 people -- not a week goes by where I'm not made aware of a personal tragedy in the life of somebody in the company. Statistically, you just get to that perspective, hey, there's a person whose son was in a serious boating accident. Okay, are we, as a company, going to show love, charity and support for that individual and make sure that we do that not just because it's a good Christian thing to do, but because it's a good business thing to do as well, because if that individual feels that our work environment is as concerned about his family life and taking care of his family unit, he's a more loyal employee. You can see this is good business as well as good values. The more that you can bring those into harmony, and you know I mentioned our community value, we have this strong view of giving back citizen philanthropy. People getting excited about that, again, it's a good business decision.

GH: How can Christians in Silicon Valley assist the local church to effectively spread the Gospel?

PG: If I come back to some of the TBC elements - clearly we're encouraging local churches to get more involved with TBC, for more local churches to be involved in the community, for local churches to have more efforts in community, adopting their local schools, being involved in tutoring programs, whatever it means to be connected. And to bring as many shared experiences between the business environment, the community environment, and the church environment. Again, you may have an atheist millennial who deeply believes in doing the right thing in their community, and doing so shoulder-to-shoulder with the church, that's good. There's no animosity there, we're doing good, and they kind of align with many of those do-good aspects, there's a Roman emperor who chastises the Hellenists of the day for being outdone by the love of the Christian church, like "How can they be better at loving our poor people than we are?" Again, that's sort of, I think, Christianity in a place like Silicon Valley, which is very much a post-Christian area. Being able to say "the church is the greatest source of doing good for our communities and our schools" creates a very powerful reset to the perception of the church.

GH: In aspects of technological innovation and bold business ventures, what message do you have for Christians in these particular fields in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond?

PG: I get asked in different settings - you know, I'm an engineer, technologist trained, multiple degrees, patents for technologies. If you've ever used a personal computer, connected on USB or used Wi-Fi, you've used one of my technologies. Just saying - this is a credible technologist who is proclaiming a deep perspective of faith. How do you do that? People say, "How can you be a Christian and still be a technologist?" or, "How do you be a technologist and be a Christian?" bringing those into harmony is a bit of a head-turner for a lot of people in Silicon Valley. Right now, the head of the National Institute for Health, Francis Collins, he's maybe the world's greatest genomic researcher alive today, the human genome project - he's the leader of. He's also a deep Christian believer and friend. To be able to say that, yeah, I am a technologist, I am a business person, I am out to make this one of the greatest companies in the history of technology, and I deeply believe that I can be a Christian, and these two are in harmony.

GH: With the US election just looming around the corner, what do you think believers should pray for?

PG: Clearly, the pollings are showing - there's never been a Democrat and Republican and I try to take a partisan view - there's a general disappointment and frustration with both of the candidates that are being put forward. It's disappointing in that respect, and I think it's been well reported. But against that, I think it could be disappointing to Christians, but Christians are neither Republican or Democrat or Independent - we're Christians by our position in Jesus Christ. That's why, for instance, at one of the TBC events, there was a Q&A session and someone was being pretty much in my face saying I should be expressing a firmer political view and using my position to express a stronger political perspective. I steadfastly refuse that. We're not called to be Republican Christians, we're called to be Christians. We're not called to use our Christian position to drive a political agenda - we're called to use our Christian perspective to drive a Christ agenda. Anything else is getting us distracted from the truth of the Gospel message. If Hillary or Donald becomes president, guess what? My God is still on the throne, and it didn't happen arbitrarily. He rules over the choice of leaders and the hearts of men, and we as Christians can take great solace in that eternal truth.

[Editor's note: reporter Leah Klett contributed to the report]