I attended the LDS Tech Talk meeting presented by the IT department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last night in Provo. It was really a great experience, and I want to offer special praise to the Church CIO, Brother Joel Dehlin, whom I had the opportunity to chat with one on one for a while after the meetings had finished.
Brother Dehlin comes to the church after many years of industry experience, most recently at Microsoft, and he has a great vision for how technology can be used to build up the Kingdom of God.
I asked brother Dehlin for permission to blog about the content of his presentation, and he granted it, including permission to post about an upcoming website from the Church that has not yet been made public. I’ll cover his presentation below.
The Tech Talk featured eight simultaneous presentations by various teams within the department, repeated thrice so that each attendee could choose to attend three of the eight presentations. The presentations were about the new LDS Tech Online Community, Development and Quality Assurance, Infrastructure and Operations, Solutions Delivery, Family History Technology, Interaction Design and User Experience, Stake Conference Media Streaming, and a Church Technology Overview, Mission, and Vision presentation by CIO Dehlin.
I would have liked to attend many of the available presentations, but chose the attend the LDS Tech Community, Infrastructure and Operations, and CIO presentations.
What follows are brief reports on the presentations I attended based on my sparse notes and (imperfect) memory:
First I attended the Tech Community presentation by brother Tom Welch , who is in charge of managing the nascent community at tech.lds.org (technically still in beta, though all of the non beta URLs already resolve to the site). I missed the beginning of this presentation, but was already familiar with some of the content, having already been participating in the community website.
The tech forum is the very first official, online community participation forum in the Church. They had to receive permission directly from the Brethren, who gave the go ahead, but gave instructions to watch it very carefully. If they have problems with participants bashing and “flaming” each other, they will have to shut it down.
They are interested in releasing code and data publicly with which members of the community can develop software and services. The process requires not only that they identify what can and should be released, but what policies and practices need to be implemented, what Open Source and Content licenses they will use (they are debating, for instance, Creative Commons licensing). Part of the problem with establishing good policies is that the church is a huge, multi-national organization. In some countries, there are legal restrictions on what kinds of information can be kept on web-based applications and they want to make sure that the Church is protected legally.
The church contributes to open source projects, but rather than credit the contributions to the Church itself, contributions are made under the name of the software developer who worked on them.
Brother Welch emphasized that the Church encourages members to take on their own technology-church related projects and that the new community is meant to foster them.
After the presentation, I was able to chat briefly with Brother Welch. I asked some follow up questions about the need to moderate the public forums and what steps they had taken to prevent it from becoming over run by anti-mormons, apostates and disaffected members. He told me that they had made a careful selection of the forum software and chose vBulletin partially for its moderation features. The software allows participants to give a virtual thumbs up or down to posts. Over time, members will build a reputation. There is also functionality to allow individual posts to be reported to moderators as inappropriate. Posts reported as inappropriate by members with good forum reputations will be given greater weight than those by participants with bad or no reputations. He encouraged participants to build up the reputations of those who make good contributions and to quickly report abuse.
Infrastructure and Operations
I was sorely tempted to go to the Interaction Design and User Experience presentation, which interests me immensely, but since I am already subscribed to their team blog at NorthTemple.com and I had already had some of my basic questions about the technologies the Church uses for their websites on the community forum (here). I opted instead to attend the Infrastructure and Operations presentation by brother Dave Prestwich , who is the Director of Infrastructure at the Church.
I probably should have gone to the Development and Quality Assurance presentation, since I am more of a software guy than a hardware guy. However the information I noted from the Infrastructure presentation was great and will probably be more interesting to you.
Brother Prestwich started out by explaining that a lot of people draw their impression of church technology from their perceptions of the technology available in a typical ward-clerk’s office. He emphasized that ward building computer systems are not at all representative of church technology at all.
Most of these statistics don’t include the servers, technology, etc for BYU, which has its own technology department.
The church technology department manages about 1,600 servers world-wide. They have three modern data centers, in Utah, Virginia, and Australia, which have lots of room but not enough power.
The church handles about 200 Oracle databases containing 36 terabytes (1 terabyte = 240 bytes) and a total of 500 terabytes of information.
The handle about 23,000 centrally managed workstations and 10,000 corporate email mailboxes and 60,000 hosted email mailboxes (including email addresses for Stake Presidents and Missionaries). They handle almost 1,000,000 email messages every day!
The stream video and audio on the web in 40 different languages.
Their technical support / help desk is housed on the Campus of Brigham Young university and staffed by about 500 people (many of whom are part-time student employees).
They manage the Church Communication Network (CCN) with over 500 connected sites and 115 Temples with redundant satellite links.
They have Satellite coverage of about 85% of the entire earth (most everywhere except for much of Africa).
They manage 25,000+ phone lines and they are in the process of converting to Voice over IP (VOIP) telephony.
They have offices on 50 different countries.
The have implemented wireless access throughout the church campus (office building, temple square, conference center etc.)
They are examining and in some places implementing internet connectivity and wireless access in Stake Centers and Ward Buildings.
One attendee asked about disaster recovery and data backups and redundancy. Brother Prestwich said that while they do have some disaster recovery technology in place that is is mostly inadequate. Interestingly, he said that the Prophet had indicated that disaster data recovery was not a priority and that they shouldn’t spend resources on it.
CIO Presentation on Church technology
After the Infrastructure I was fortunate enough to meet up with the friend of a friend who was in town for an interview and decided to attend the Tech talk at the same time. We attended brother Joel Dehlin CIO presentation together.
Brother Dehlin is quite a good speaker. He had filled the enite chapel in the first hour, but by the time we got there for the third iteration, there was a much sparser crowd.
He started out by saying that it is sometimes easy for church employees, like the IT team, to start to think of themselves as the church, but the brethren had reminded them that employees are not the church, the members are.
Brother Dehlin loved working at Microsoft, where, among his many contributions, he help create the Microsoft.com website. But he felt that was something missing. He quit his job at Microsoft and moved to Utah without any employment figuring he would try to start a business or something. Brother Eric Denna, who was the previous church CIO and had tried to recruit him in the past, called him up and convinced him to come work for the church for “a few months.”
He spoke about the great contrast coming from the corporate world and entering into a job where meetings begin with prayer and hymn singing. At first it felt really strange to him, but he quickly came to love it.
Brother Dehlin played a short video clip of a talk President Hinckley gave back in 1981, previous to becoming the Prophet, in which he talked about how comming technologies would facilitate the work of the church. Then Brother Dehlin quoted a line from the talk:
“Communication is the sinew that binds us together.”
Then he presented his vision of how to use technology to build up the kingdom. Technology is to be used to:
1. Provide high quality content to every corner of the earth
2. Decrease Administration and increase Ministration
3. bring souls to Christ
He mentioned that the new temple in Helsinki Finland was a technological milestone for the church that not many people are aware of. The Helsinki temple provides broadcast coverage for all of the former Soviet Union. For the first time they can broadcast temple dedications and General Conference throughout the former soviet nations.
He told an inspiring story of one group of Saints in that area that had gathered to their building to participate via satellite broadcast in the dedication of the Helsinki temple. One hour before the dedication was to begin, the electricity in the building failed. The members got together 300 yards (3 football fields) of extension cords and strung them together all the way to the closest member’s home with electricity and where able to participate.
The Church’s websites (excluding the FamilySearch genealogy website) get a cumulative of 50,000,000 page views and 5,000,000 unique visitors every month!
The have 12,000 local congregation websites, 61 country specific websites in 42 different languages.
They are approaching the release of the new lds.org website which is now based around content management technology and XML so that they will be able to manage and update content faster and better than ever before.
Brother Dehlin got special permission from his superiors to tell us about a new church website that has yet to be released. I asked him specific permission to post about it here, which, as I mentioned above, he granted.
The new site will be called ItsAboutLove.org. It is a web portal for unwed, pregnant women and teens who may be embarassed to speak to their parents or bishops. It will have information about LDS Social Services and Adoption and will provide ways for women to get help and information anonymously.
Brother Dehlin spoke briefly about the missionary application technology that has been developed where missionaries now fill out the application electronically and it get automatically routed to first the Bishop and Stake President and then to Church headquarters, where it is combined about missionaries numbers throughout the word, matches medical circumstances etc. Then it arrives to the Brethren where he assured us the Brethren look at each and every individual, their picture, read their essays and all of their information, and the make an inspired decision on every single person’s mission assignment. Even if inspiration sometimes dictates contrary to the information gathered.
Finally, the church CIO listed some future projects that he would like to see implemented.
He mentioned web-accessible Leadership portals where Stake President’s, Bishops, Relief Society Presidents, etc could log in to get home teaching reports and, organizational management, and administration tools. For instance, information about each member’s calling and how long they had been assigned, and tools for staying informed about individual needs (unemployment, food assistence, etc). All of this could be manage on the internet from home between the time the kids are put to bed and they go to bed themselves.
He suggested targeted membership portals where members could report home teaching, customize the content to those aspects of church data that they use and need.
He described online training portals where a new relief society president in South America can go to learn how to do her calling with interactive, electronic learning tools and presentations. (And with Internet connectivity in the Ward building or Stake Center, it will be available.
He also described the ability for a teacher to log into the church portal real time while teaching a class to be able to access lesson materials, outlines, audio-visual aides etc from a centralized, electronic church library and resources.
He also mentioned the possibility of Ward and Stake blogs.
The challenges the church technology department faces involve scale. The church spans many cultures, regions, and languages. There is great complexity, and there is the constant concern about appropriately spending the Lord’s money and the Widow’s mite.
He emphasized that the Brethren make the decisions, not the technology team. They are inspired, methodical, careful, and unanimous in their decisions. He mentioned that Elder Eyring, in particular, is very tech-savvy, and knows how to ask hard questions of technology vendors and evaluate technology.
Brother Dehlin used the opportunity to encourage smart, talented individuals to apply for jobs with the church. He said they are more interested in great people who are good problem solvers than they are in your experience with specific programming language syntax. However, he did indicate that NOT having a college degree might make it hard to get to the interview process, for which they naturally filter by resume. There was some implied indication, however, that they would be watching for bright individuals within this new technology community to recruit, and that the tech talk itself was also a recruitment opportunity.
He mentioned again that the goal was to use technology to lessen the load of Administration in the church and improve our ability to Minister to the people and bring them to Christ. He bore his sincere testimony of the Restored Church and the Prophet.
After the meeting, I was able to meet and chat with various LDS programmers that I had had some interaction with through the Internet, but had never met in person. In particular, Connor Boyack, Richard Miller of the More Good Foundation, and the church design team bloggers I had mentioned above.
Then I got to chat one-on-one for about 10 – 20 minutes with Brother Dehlin about church technology and the challenges and future of LDS blogging, including the blogging experience of brother Michael Otterson, who is the director of Media Relations for the church and blogs as a member of the Washington Post’s On Faith blog. It was an interesting and engaging conversation and I felt uplifted by his insights and thoughts.
Thank you to all of the church staff that spent so much time and effort in putting this event together.
Overall, the Tech talk was an inspiring, informative activity and I am very excited to contribute to the Kingdom through technology.