Uli Chi: An Interview with a Wise Leader, Part 2

By Chelsea Logan

May 10, 2024


One of the primary goals of the De Pree Center is to nurture a redemptive imagination in leaders. We want to help leaders see the world as filled with opportunities to live and lead in a distinctly Christian and gospel-focused way. Our hope is that leaders will see just how their spheres of influence, big or small, are avenues to let their redemptive imaginations run wild.

Uli Chi is a prime example of a leader who leads redemptively. Throughout his career, Uli has set his eyes on the goal of creating and promoting technology that enhances human capacity and creativity—and not for financial gain or recognition, but for the sake of participating in the kind of redemption the biblical story invites us into.

In Part 2 of my interview, Uli explores why it’s important to think about technology through a gospel-lens, how he became an entrepreneur, and why having thoughtful, yet different-minded people around him offers clarity in seasons of discernment.

How have you seen God present in your career path?

When I was in grad school, my wife became pregnant with our first child. At the time, she was the primary breadwinner in the family, so I had to quickly find a job. I interviewed with several companies and was offered a great opportunity with the defense contractor Honeywell Marine Systems. In many ways, it seemed like a great fit for my newly minted graduate computer science credentials. But at the last minute, I got a call from the R&D division of the forest product giant, the Weyerhaeuser Company. It would have been easy to dismiss Weyerhaeuser as the wrong choice for a promising high-tech career. After all, what did growing trees and manufacturing lumber and plywood have to do with creating leading-edge software technology?

But in the wisdom of God, beginning my career at Weyerhaeuser turned out to be the providentially perfect choice. Unknown to me when I started in the late 1970s, Weyerhaeuser was in the middle of a remarkable research program that resulted in incredibly innovative work. My first assignment was to build an industrial video game for loggers using flight simulator technology—something unheard of at the time. I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled into one of the most creative and coolest jobs ever!

The people and the culture of the organization were also remarkable. I had the chance to work with world-class scientists and engineers in their respective fields. And the organizational culture prized imagination and creativity put to practical use. The larger Weyerhaeuser culture—again unknown to me then—had deep roots in the Christian tradition. Their stewardship of the land was exemplary. A great example of their leadership was pioneering the practice of reforestation of commercial timberlands. And their corporate culture valued open communication between management and staff. They pioneered the corporate use of open office spaces rather than having private executive offices.

At a more personal level, God shaped my particular career trajectory through my time at Weyerhaeuser. For one, Weyerhaeuser funded my PhD studies in computer science and gave me a paid sabbatical to finish my dissertation. By then, we had two young toddlers, and completing a doctorate would have been impossible without either the time off or the financial resources. For another, I met my future business partner at Weyerhaeuser. He was my first boss, and we became fast friends and collaborators in designing the most technically innovative projects of my career. Finally, through Weyerhaeuser, I was introduced to Max De Pree’s company, Herman Miller. And Max De Pree’s company was instrumental in launching us into the commercial success we experienced as a new software company.

In retrospect (and even along the way), it was evident that God was guiding and directing my career path. From redirecting my initial job choice to finding just the right organizational context for me to flourish as a technologist and as a leader to meeting just the right people with whom I would launch a successful technology venture, God’s fingerprints are all over my work history.

In retrospect (and even along the way), it was evident that God was guiding and directing my career path.

What have you spent your professional life doing?

My life’s work and the businesses I’ve created have focused on technology that enhances human capacity and imagination. Whether it’s an industrial video game for loggers that helped them imagine how to cut trees better, or a place like “The Design Center,” where people could go into a Lowe’s or a Home Depot in the 1980s and design their own backyard deck or outdoor project, we created technologies that augment rather than merely replace human work. My Jewish partner and I shared a common view that technology is meant to be a servant, not a master. Designing new technologies that embody that kind of vision is a very live issue today.

Why did/does this field of computer science feel important to you?

Someone once said that the technology we create not only shapes the world around us but invariably shapes us as well. That was certainly the case with the Industrial Revolution. Information technology and the revolution that computer science makes possible are just more recent examples.

That’s why the design and use of technology is so important. Technology needs to serve the human vocation rather than the other way around. In particular, technology must empower people and extend human agency rather than diminishing them.

When we created our technology back in the 1980s, like the video game for loggers and “The Design Center,” our design philosophy was to enhance people’s imaginations by (1) helping them explore their decision-making options and preferences without being overly directive, (2) providing visual and economic feedback of the consequences of their decisions, and (3) minimizing the complex details that obscure their essential concerns. In each case, we respected the dignity of human agency and sought to enlarge its capacity rather than reduce its scope.

Technology needs to serve the human vocation rather than the other way around. In particular, technology must empower people and extend human agency rather than diminishing them.

The challenge to the human vocation is much more significant today. With the advent of AI technology, it is possible to abdicate human responsibility to AI systems. This century’s greatest challenge is cultivating and protecting the human capacity for imagination and discernment. No doubt, AI (much like the machines of the Industrial Revolution) will enable human beings to do good things previously unimaginable. However, AI will also result in massive disruptions and dislocations in human work (look at how many farmers there are today vs. in the 1800s).

The unique challenges posed by computer science and AI today relate to the essential human responsibility regarding moral and aesthetic judgments about what is good, true, and beautiful and the unique human capacity to imagine a better future. That’s why the redemptive imagination is so critical; it concerns both of these fundamental aspects of being human.

What did your path into entrepreneurship look like?

I never thought in college or when I started working that I would start my own business. I began with the love of creating new technology, and my earliest work focused on doing just that. But along the way, I became intrigued by business. One of the great opportunities I had at Weyerhaeuser in the 1980s was exploring entrepreneurial work within a large corporate context.

At that time, Gifford Pinchot III wrote a book called Intrapreneuring. We invited him to Weyerhaeuser to help us think about how to nurture creativity and innovation in an existing corporation. How do you create a culture where trying new things is okay? How do you create organizational space to nurture new ideas and bring them to market? Out of that work, we formed a subsidiary to develop and market products like “The Design Center.” That season of my work was invaluable in developing and honing my entrepreneurial instincts and skills. In retrospect, it was clearly the providence of God that Weyerhaeuser actively sponsored and supported that kind of venture.

Then, in the early 1990s, during an economic downturn coinciding with the Gulf War, Weyerhaeuser decided to exit the software venture. Understandably, Weyerhaeuser wanted to refocus on its core forest products businesses. But that was really tough news for me personally. Not only was I worried about losing my corporate sponsor, but I also wondered how I would support my young family.

But despite an extended period of uncertainty, Weyerhaeuser’s decision turned out to be the turning point of my career. As Weyerhaeuser decided to get out of the software business, we were in the middle of developing a strategic relationship with Max De Pree’s company, Herman Miller. We had already signed commitments to deliver certain technologies for Herman Miller’s commercial office customers. And Weyerhaeuser wanted out of those commitments. So, we agreed to take on those obligations by forming a new software company.

What followed was a decade that became the highlight of my career.

How difficult was it to discern this move into entrepreneurship?

To begin with, it seemed very daunting! I remember wondering what my wife, Gayle, would say when I raised the possibility of going out on our own. I thought she might say something like, “Well, that’s nice, but why don’t you get a real job?!” I could easily have imagined that with a young family, she would want me to get a job with a more established company.

But when I laid out this option, I was surprised by her reaction. I’ve never forgotten what she said: “You’ve talked a lot about starting a business in the past few years. If you don’t do this now, you’ll never do it.” She was right, of course, but I was amazed at her willingness to take the riskier entrepreneurial path.

As I’ve mentioned in my book The Wise Leader, Gayle and I are quite different in our personalities. And that includes our risk tolerance. To have a life partner who is so different from me affirm this sense of call to start a new business was a remarkable affirmation of God’s direction for us. Her response was confirmation that it wasn’t just me going off doing this crazy thing! Instead, we had discerned together that this was God’s calling for us. That was really, very significant.

As I’ve come to learn, wisdom is fundamentally a communal trait, not an individual one. To be a wise leader, you must have a wise community around you that shares common values and commitments but has significantly different perspectives and voices within it. Sometimes, having people who are so different from you may make you wonder whether they’re actually wise or not! But building this tension in leads to some of the most significant breakthroughs. My experience with Gayle taught me the significance of genuinely valuing those who are different from me.

To be a wise leader, you must have a wise community around you that shares common values and commitments but has significantly different perspectives and voices within it.

If you missed Part 1 of my interview with Uli, be sure to check it out.

Chelsea Logan

Content and Production Lead

Chelsea Logan serves as the content and production lead for the De Pree Center. She holds a BA in the Study of Religion from UCLA and an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Chelsea has held leadership positions in various ministry and education settings, including serving a...

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