Feb 3, 2012

A Christian in Silicon Valley: An Interview with Gary Starkweather

11 Min Read

I recently had the opportunity to interview a man whom most of you will have never heard of, but the fruit of whose labor almost all of you enjoy on a weekly—if not daily—basis. That man is Gary Starkweather, a Christian, and the inventor of the laser printer.

Nathan W. Bingham: Tell us briefly how you came to know the Lord.

Gary Starkweather: Since my earliest childhood, I had been going to church. We consistently went to either Baptist, or Methodist churches and Sunday school as well. One of my maternal grandmother's brothers was a Methodist pastor. As such, I heard the gospel all the time as well as at summer camps, but had not made a personal commitment until age 17. At 17, I realized by virtue of attending Christian youth groups that I had not made a clear commitment to a trust in Christ and made that commitment real. As I had grown up in church, it was not easy to see earlier that I was not a Christian. Once I made a commitment to Christ, there was a real feeling of peace that came over me and while I did not yet realize all the detail of imputed righteousness, the angst that I had felt prior to making this commitment was gone.

NWB: One of your most notable achievements is being credited as the inventor of the laser printer. This was a project that received quite a bit of opposition; with one article quoting your wife as saying you had to work on it "covertly" at one time. Briefly tell us about this.

GS: I have spent over 44 years in Research and Development. The usual expectation from those not familiar with the "real world" of business is that new ideas are welcomed as that drives the business. Well, in reality this is generally not true. The corporate immune system often rises up to kill an new idea that threatens to challenge the way business is presently being done. My experience at Xerox was no different. My manager at Xerox really disliked the idea of anything "laser" as that was some wild new invention that was impractical in his view. As such he did everything he could to discourage working on a laser printer or anything like it. Thus, I had to work on the project in a covert area of a laboratory where he rarely visited. He threatened to lay off any one who worked with me on this project. I felt very strongly that this effort would yield a new way of printing and hence, contrary to his wishes I continued to work on the idea in hiding so to speak. This, by the way, is often true of several ideas that really have paid off in practice in almost every company.

NWB: Has your theology of God—that He is a creative Creator—in any way influenced or motivated your desire to innovate and invent?

GS: Since I can remember, I always thought that God was a rational being and that based on my knowledge of prior scientists who were Christians such as Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, etc. that He made the world discoverable, hence, His power and majesty knowable. Otherwise we might just as well be like most animals that are unaware of what makes things tick. Thus, I asked Him to show me a little bit of how the Universe works and what might be done with what He has made. Thus, the discoverability of our world and the fact that he is Creator and has made us in His image gave me reason to believe that when we build things and create things from our ideas this could be a way of worshipping as well. As Eric Liddel, the great athlete said, "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." I felt the same way in my field of endeavor.

NWB: In Tim Challies' The Next Story, he states:

"Technology becomes an idol when we start to believe that humanity's hope, humanity's future, will be found in more and better technology. It becomes an idol when we place greater hope in technology than in God and when we measure human progress, not by the state of our hearts, but by new innovations in technology..."

That technology can become an idol, and is an idol for many, seems almost self-evident. However, how do inventors of such technology and those on the forefront of technological innovation view themselves? Do they see themselves as "saviors" of humanity? If so, how does a Christian in this industry resist this kind of thinking?

GS: It has not been my general observation that most inventors think about this a great deal. The usual fascination is in making something that makes life better, more efficient or more creative. There are certainly some who feel that they can create a perfect world if only they had the right technology but that has not been true of most of the folks I have known. They are often more interested in making something unusual that benefits, business, education or medicine. There is always a danger of thinking that mankind's problems are technologically solvable but the Christian realizes that in making life better they are in a sense loving their neighbor. If the computer improves the speed of communication or the ease of printing ( a' la' Gutenberg ), many will benefit from being able to get things they were not able to get earlier. Personally, I see technology as a way of using what God has made available in creation to enable us to live better here and increase His Kingdom. People who could not get a Bible in China for example, can now readily read or print one from the Internet. Technology is no more an idol capable field than is cooking, finance, fashion or any other field of endeavor in my view.

NWB: Thinking more broadly, what particular dangers and temptations have you observed in the corporate business world and how have you sought by God's grace to overcome them in your life?

GS: There are some large dangers in the business world that one needs God's grace to overcome and stay clear of. First, there is the danger of over commitment. The business world will use as much of your time as you will give it and this can make one improperly use time. There is also the danger of saying or doing things that get you the permission you need to proceed without always being honest about a project. Some of this is management's fault for not being properly analytical but it is fundamentally the employee's responsibility to be up front about risks and rewards not just "selling" the idea to skeptical managers. One needs to constantly ask the Holy Spirit to keep one's conscience active and alert to such temptations. One key risk is valuing success so much that you will do anything to achieve it. Real success in research or business is keeping one's integrity. If the dog is not going to hunt, say so not make excuses. I killed a project once that was not making the right progress and looked like it was hopeless. I had several corporate teams visit me to ask how I got the project stopped. I had to tell them that I just quit spending money after I realized it was not going to work. One has to keep one's ego out of the problem. Otherwise, you are often tempted to press on even when there is little hope of success. Also, as employees, we are spending stockholder money and have to be good stewards of that responsibility no matter where we sit on the corporate ladder.

NWB: From God's perspective you are not only an engineer and an inventor, but a husband and father. How does a person live coram Deo out there in their vocation as well as at home?

GS: Here is a difficult issue. While I may have spent too much time on the job, it is not easy to determine that at the point of action. It would have been better if I had arranged the time I spent at work in a better way. Rather than stay at work until I could not go any longer, I should have come home more on time, had dinner with the family and then returned to work to complete what had to be done. The extra gas and time would have been worth it. To tell someone that they should just spend less time at work is often flawed logic for the creative individual. When you are developing a new and exciting technology or trying to out muscle competitors, etc. you often have to spend a lot of hours working hard. However, the hours do not have to be contiguous. My children would have certainly appreciated more of my time when they were in need of it and I could have then spent the extra time I needed on work issues when they were asleep or doing other things. Therefore, time planning is a key aspect of a driven personality for both career and family success. I wish I could have had better insight on that when I was younger.

NWB: You have worked for Apple and had personal interactions with Steve Jobs. Since his death and the release of his official biography, many have criticized the accounts of Jobs' behavior and character. Is godliness antithetical to being a successful leader in business? Is it possible to be a Christian in such a position, pursuing service, love, and humility?

GS: Steve Jobs was a very creative and innovative character. He could certainly be hard on people and was not always a "smooth" operator. However, compared to some other executives I have worked with, his passion was intoxicating. I think high tech as well as innovative organizations should be run by real leaders and not just a "consensus builder". Management committees just do not work when it comes to innovation. I do believe that the Christian can be in such positions. While as Christians, we need to show love and concern for others, milque toast personalities do not accomplish much. You can be encouraging and driven without being harsh or difficult to live with. Such characteristics may be rare but are important and often too many think that just being nice is being Christian. The Biblical character of Nehemiah was a person of high integrity but he did not tolerate stupidity or perverse behavior. He drove people to get the job done and yet respected the various concerns that they had.

NWB: When the news of Steve Jobs' death broke, I wrote the following on my personal blog:

"We should thank God for His common grace; for the way in which God has used the life of Steve Jobs, and Apple, to bring about so much innovation."

Is it a right response to thank God for technology? Is God at work in Silicon Valley?

GS: There are some wonderful Christians and churches in Silicon Valley. When one thinks of how the world has changed in just my lifetime it is hard not to thank God for His gifts of creative people and companies. My son, who is a doctor, says that everyone longs for "the good old days" but not when it comes to medicine. There are not many things someone can think of that they would give up to go back to 1945. Give up the computer? Airconditioning? The modern car? Joint replacement therapy? Modern medicine? Modern agriculture? Air travel? Modern communication, including cell phones, etc.? I don't think so. We may misuse or overuse some of these things but abandoning them would be truly silly. As long as technology is not seen as our "savior" we are OK. As a way to make our lives better, technology is fine. I truly believe that God's grace in providing us companies and people who have come up with great inventions and products are a blessing from the Creator. It is sad that God is not, in our present era, given the credit for making us in His image. We need to live more and more coram Deo.

NWB: You have experience working with Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, Lucasfilm, and Pixar. You hold 44 patents and have received many awards including being inducted into the Technology Hall of Fame at COMDEX. In addition to being a published writer you have received opportunities to lecture at Stanford University and UCLA. With the unique opportunities your life has brought with it, how do you see Jesus' description of Christians as "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" as being true in your life?

GS: It is very hard (and perhaps risky) I think to self-determine whether one is being salt and light. What one can do is to try their best via a study and application of the scriptures to do what the Word commands. With my skills mix I try to make sure that I do a number of things. First, give God the credit for my skills and opportunities. While I have invented things, it is God who gave me the abilities I attempt to properly use. I try to let others know that fact and that we are made in God's image. In our naturalistic and materialistic world many folks see themselves as self-made or the product of chance mutations over eons. Studying their philosophical positions so that I can rebut their views via scripture and practical observations is an important way to use one's notoriety and accomplishments to challenge their views. The Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 4:6 that we should be ready to give an answer that is "seasoned with salt" so we may know how to answer each one. There are scientists and researchers that I have worked with that would not generally listen to anyone not trained in their way of thinking and reasoning. Being one of their "group" in training and learning, I have a unique opportunity to question, challenge and yes, even protest views that the Bible says are not proper ways to think. In my talks I often refer to "design" rather than another term in seeing how things are. Through this, it is my hope that folks will question what I mean and I can explain the Biblical worldview. This approach has worked many times, especially in Universities.

One's technical accomplishments and achievements in the sciences is the best way to get similar folks who question the Christian position to listen. I have had many interactions with senior technical folks on why they believe something they cannot experimentally verify. Most scientists and technical folks have pretty much swallowed the views, often without serious questioning, that were fed to them in the University. To me salt and light is working with folks to help them see the Truth from a believer's perspective and not that of the skeptic. Most have never seriously confronted Jesus' claims directly in their pursuit of truth. Hopefully I can do that through integrity and accomplishment in a unique way. This is not a choice without cost in one's career. One may be restricted in career growth, ridiculed or ignored but popularity of our position has never been a Biblical expectation. We are to show forth the scriptures and Who it is they declare and what one has a responsibility to do with this truth. As Carl Walenda, the great aerialist once said, "Life is on the wire. All else is watching."

NWB: What are your current projects and passions?

GS: My current projects involve a number of things. I am an avid model railroader and a member of a local club. I study computer technology and how to use it as well as do some consulting for Microsoft. Additionally I enjoy digital photography, music and golf and traveling with my wife of 50 years. Lastly, I do a lot of reading on biology and how God has made us. I want to use my mind and skills as long as I am able and to work with St. Andrew's as an Elder to assist in growing the Kingdom. I love to study the Word deeply and to understand what tells us. To me the combination of revealed truth in the Word and objective truth holds wonders we have yet to fully grasp. Somewhat akin to the "narrow way" described in the scriptures, I always liked a section of the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken" written in 1915. The last section of this poem says the following,

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference."

Gary Starkweather is an American engineer and inventor most notable for the invention of the laser printer. He is also a Christian who serves as a ruling elder at Saint Andrew's.