Consecrated Computer Geeks

July 29, 2004 | 14 comments
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As some have noticed the over all quality of the Church’s internet presence has been on the increase of late. In part this is no doubt simply the result of the Church cautiously exploiting a new medium, but I think there may be more to it than that, or so my brother-in-law tells me. In the interest of spreading unfounded faith-promoting rumors, here is the story as I understand it.

My brother-in-law, now of Seattle, used to work for an Orem/Pittsburgh-based company called WhizBang! Labs. As near as I can tell, WhizBang! was home for an unusually talented set of computer nerds, most of whom were educated at Stanford, Illinois-Urbana or Carnegie Mellon. Like many internet companies, it seems to have run on venture capital money, done technologically stunning things, and failed to turn any economic profit. A couple of years ago the company folded. One of the founders of the company was a Stanford Ph.D in computer science who once taught at BYU and made his millions at the height of the 1990s tech bubble. From what I gather, he is a very smart and talented person who could go on to further millions in the computer world.

He now works for the Church, more or less for free, trying to bring the Church into the internet age, and has been trying to recruit other high flying Mormon computer nerds to aid him in his crusade. Obviously, there are some financial sacrifices involved in such a move, but I suspect that the biggest ones are cultural. The Church Office Building is pretty buttoned up, staid, dress-like-you-are-going-to-a-stake-leadership-training-meeting kind of place. Tech companies seem to be the land of t-shirts, shorts, sandals, no shaving, lots of candy and snacks in the fridge, and air-hockey at break time. We can only be grateful that some people are willing to put even free work-place soda, fuz-ball, and lax dress codes on the alter of the Gospel.

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14 Responses to Consecrated Computer Geeks

  1. gst on July 29, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    I know of one high flying Mormon computer nerd who can afford to work for free.

  2. danithew on July 29, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    Sigh. I wish I was a computer nerd.

  3. D. Fletcher on July 29, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    My own brother ran all the Church’s computers for a time, in the late 70s.

    I’m not a computer nerd, but I’m certainly responding to these blogs. It’s better than Sunday School, for me. Except for taking the Sacrament and playing the organ, I don’t miss Church because I feel I’ve got it here.

  4. Frank McIntyre on July 29, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Nate,

    Does the aforementioned high-flying computer geek still have ties to the Bay Area? There was a fellow out there who would meet the description you offered, although I don’t know if his job was in the Bay or in SLC.

  5. Nate Oman on July 29, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    Frank: I don’t know.

  6. Gordon Smith on July 29, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    “fuz-ball”? Nate, you must have gone to Korea on a mission. I think you intended to write “foosball” (i.e., football in German).

  7. John on July 29, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    I work for IBM (and I am a Stanford CS grad, maybe they’ll come after me.) I am not aware of any recent LDS Stanford CS people that have gone to work for the Church. However, my group in IBM has done some work for the church and I can say that the quality of the interactions we’ve have with IT people at the Church has improved recently.

    Still, things move slowly and getting approval for new stuff (at least the most recent stuff that we were talking to them about) takes ages. It is also frustrating that if something has to be approved by the 12, you are not allowed to pitch it. First you wait for it to actually hit the agenda. Then you wait for a meeting in which that part of the agenda gets reached. This can take months. Then the people you are working with in the Church IT department or their superiors pitch it. A week later you get back a list of questions that make no sense and implies that the people presenting the idea didn’t understand the idea. Luckily the Church is a church and not a business, right? Alternately, I hope that the parts of the Church that are a business function in a more business-like way.

    I am still waiting for them to find some way of using a bit-torrent like program to stream mp3’s of conference to the members by using other member’s computers without using up a ton of their own bandwidth. That is unless Orrin Hatch finds a way to outlaw such a thing first.

  8. clark on July 29, 2004 at 4:36 pm

    I’d heard that the guys doing the church web sites were a bunch of former Novell employees. I’d heard mixed things about them.

    However I’ve heard really good things about Wizbang and their categorizing technology. Too bad they failed. (I can relate as I’m in a related market and the recession was hard) If the head of Wizbang is doing the church’s services that’s a great thing.

    The Church’s computer department in the 80’s and most of the 90’s was pretty embrassing. I’ve been amazingly impressed at their web presence of the last couple of years. Their online scriptures and talks simply are fantastic and I use them all the times. The recent changes to allow more advanced searching in the scriptures was most welcome.

  9. Jim F. on July 29, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    Gordon, don’t blame Korea for Nate’s spelling. I think Nate has to take credit for it.

  10. Chance on July 29, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    I have to admit the geek factor has gone up, and I for one appreciate it. I personally know nothing about this story, but even if it is true, the bigger picture is more important. With so many questionable things on the internet it is great that a place is provided for the up-and-coming generation that provides everything from music and talks to the ordering of garments. The site has done a 180 from a few years ago, and I visit it at least a few times a day (shhh, don’t tell me boss).

    Sorry to be a Peter Priesthood,
    Chance

  11. Renee on July 29, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Who’s running the familysearch.org site? Is it the church or do they contract out? That site has had some great enhancements, too.

  12. Matt Jacobsen on July 29, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Here is the aforementioned brother-in-law.

    The Stanford PhD, former BYU-prof in question is Dallan Quass. He also worked at WordPerfect back in the day. Dallan and I were at Stanford in the mid to late 90s (in fact, Sergey Brin of Google fame was in our research group — that whole web-page ranking thing seemed like a cool idea at the time — now why did I go work for HP??)

    I will have to correct Nate about the talent pool at Whizbang. Most of the developers came from Utah Valley, quite a few from Novell. Most of the big name researchers that we hired were non-LDS PhDs from back east. They weren’t too keen on moving to Provo, so we started a Pittsburgh branch.

    Dallan is still working for the church for free, as far as I know. He is working on the next generation of software for genealogy and other huge data management. I know of 4 or 5 former Whizbang employees working for the Church as well, not necessarily on his team. Most of them are there on a contract basis for a couple years.

    From what I hear the pay isn’t very competitive (although it is getting better, mostly because other jobs are paying less), the beauracracy is a pain, and the technology in place is quite old. What more could you want in a job? The former Whizbang employees there look at it in part as a form of consecration, or self-imposed mission to the Church.

    Besides Dallan, there have been a few other acquisitions of semi-retired professionals who are trying to improve the Church’s technology and make the IT-type jobs at the church more capable of attracting top talent. Last I heard there is an office in Utah Valley so that people don’t have to commute to Salt Lake every day. I can’t say anything about the dress code at that office though.

    Finally, one exciting possibility Dallan mentioned over a year ago was the thought of making some of the Church programming projects open source. Talk about a perfect fit — a non-profit organization that isn’t even trying to sell its software, and there are a ton of LDS developers who would love to pitch in a few hours a week to make contributions. Chances are slim of this happening any time soon, though.

  13. John on July 29, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    As long as we are name dropping I was once the designated driver for Sergey Brin, before he was famous. :)

  14. dan on July 29, 2004 at 7:39 pm

    I had just figured that out, using the aforementioned article to Google the three founders, I discovered Dallas Quass’ site, where he says, “I am currently the Chief Technology Officer for the Family and Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Brigham Young University.”

    At work we had a team from the family history department come by to talk about partnering with us on one of their projects and they all wore suits. I felt a little underdressed in my tshirt and jeans, but I have to admit that it would be a significant negative to have to wear a suit to work every day. A decrease in pay would be a bummer too.