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S1E22: Convention-aly Religious, part 3

Last year CiscoLive overlapped with Ramadan which was not a lot of fun for the Muslim attendees. This year it conflicts with Shavuot, requiring observant Jews who planned to attend to arrive a week in advance. Add those challenges to the normal stress an IT person with a strong religious, moral, or ethical POV has: finding a place to pray, navigating how “outwardly” they want to present as a religious person (and if that’s even a choice), managing work-mandated venue choices for food and “entertainment” that push personal boundaries, etc, and it’s a wonder we’re able to make convention attendance work at all. In this episode, I speak with Mike Wise, Al Rasheed, and Keith Townsend about how they make conventions not only possible, but a positive experience religiously as well as professionally. Listen or read the transcript below.

Josh: 00:01 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experiences we have is people with strongly held religious views working in corporate IT. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion. We’re here to explore ways we make our career as it professionals mesh – or at least not conflict – with our religious life. This is Technically Religious.

Leon: 00:23 This is a continuation of the discussion we started last week. Thank you for coming back to join our conversation.

Leon: 00:29 I think there’s another thing. So Mike, you were talking about being, you know, visibly openly religious and I think that sometimes, again for variety of reasons, uh, they decide that this is their opportunity to sort of poke the bear. You know, like, “Oh, you’re, you’re one of those religious people. So! What do you think about the <blahblahblah>?”, right? Whatever it is. And you know, we don’t even need to get into the specifics of it, but they just want to see… There’s, there’s a respectful conversation and, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit, about some, some of the wonderful opportunities, conventions offer us to have deep, really meaningful philosophical conversations. But there’s also these, which is where someone is clearly, you know, “oh, you’re religious. Well, fine, answer me this.”

Mike: 01:18 Right. You know, if you’re so religious, you know, uh, you know, gee on the Statue of Liberty it says, bring me your tired and poor and you know, and then so you don’t, you don’t, uh, believe in all of this, you know, preventing immigration, right?

Keith: 01:37 Yeah. Or the or it’ll be, the more lighthearted stuff. You know, I get teased on, so my peers on The Cube, when Pat from VMware, uh, Pat Gelsinger is on and were like, “oh Keith, you, you and Pat are on together. You guys go to the same church. Right?”

Everyone: 01:56 (disbelief)

Speaker 3: 01:56 You know, cause pat is super, uh, transparent about his faith. So, you know, it’s all in fun, but you know, they, you will get to this. But you know, I say no to certain events and things and uh, you know, so does Pat, or who, whomever else, you know everybody else on this, on this podcast and you know, you’re going to get, you’re going to get a ribbing about it.

Leon: 02:17 Right? Or Al, you know, “Come on, come on. You’ve had a beer. Just one. Who’s gonna know?”

Al: 02:22 “It’s not gonna hurt. Come on.”

Keith: 02:24 I, uh, I ordered Al an O’Douls all the time. Horrible, horrible substitutes.

Al: 02:29 Do they still have those by the way?

Keith: 02:31 They do.

Mike: 02:31 Yes.

Al: 02:32 That’s crazy.

New Speaker: 02:34 So, right. So, so those are, those are some challenges. And I’m just curious, you know, uh, not what conversations, what are those conversations have you had? Cause I think we all have horror stories, but you know, what do you, what do you do about those? Especially I’m going to say, especially when it’s not someone you know. Like if it’s somebody, you know, you can shut it down in very specific ways, but one is a complete stranger who may be coming to your company booth. There’s a relationship you have to maintain. You know, what do you do about that?

New Speaker: 03:05 I almost always… So, so those are no win situations, right? If it’s just not going to end well if you take the bait. So you’ve got to start with the assumption that you’re not going to take the bait first. And so what’s the best way to do that? Well, uh, my, my favorite… And you gotta remember too, from a time standpoint, these conversations normally last three to five minutes right? Before something else happens. So you’re going to get a get out of jail free card if you just can kill some time. So I always say, “Oh, you know, that’s a really, yeah, that’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. It’s a, it’s hard. What do you, what, what do you think? What do you think about it?” You know, and flip it right around.

Keith: 04:02 Yeah. And, and, and Al Al, I’m pretty sure you can relate to this being a follow Islam, I’ve gotten it way worse than, you know, people challenging me on, you know, gay rights or whatever. Just just for… I don’t know if you noticed this, you can’t tell over the podcast waves, but I’m black. So you know, I’ve gotten it way worse than, uh, uncomfortable questions at a conference about my faith and those things. You, unfortunately, those things kinda train you for this, and you’re like, ah, you know, uh, it’s, it’s… People can only take in, a professional environment, people can only take those things so far and they can’t take it as far as they can take, you know, the racial slurs in a nonprofessional environment. So the, that stuff really doesn’t, you know, I don’t, I sometimes I don’t even get the, I don’t even get that they’re a going at me cause it’s, you know, I don’t always read behind between the lines.

Al: 05:00 I was telling Leon, before we started the podcast, “the juice is not worth the squeeze.” Uh, so if you can avoid conflict, uh, you’re going to step away from it. Um, in the, in, in years past, I probably wasn’t as open to speaking about religion or ethnicity as I am, uh, these days. But I will be mindful of who I’m speaking to. And I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful, but if it’s someone that approaches me that has a genuine interest in learning about Islam or Ramadan most recently, and I feel like in their heart that they, they genuinely care and want to know why we practice this. I don’t mind talking about it and I even let them know. “I thank you. I appreciate it. You’re taking a step most people wouldn’t,” they wouldn’t, they fear for whatever reason, crossing that line, we have to get past that. We have to be open and be able to speak to one another.

Speaker 2: 05:55 Right. So I, uh, again, you know, being a very visibly orthodox Jewish person, um, I’m always, when, when I see that somebody is trying to ask something, the first thing I tell them is, “First of all, ask me anything. Second of all, don’t try to be polite about it. Don’t worry if you’re clumsy or awkward. Don’t worry about saying the wrong word. Don’t worry about, you know, asking a question that you think is maybe beyond the pale. It’s okay. I know that you’re sincere. I know that you’re curious. Don’t let, don’t let your own feelings of hesitation stop you from asking a question that you want to know. That’s okay.” Right. Um, and again, that’s the flip side of it and to all of your points when it’s not one of those, when it’s somebody who is very obviously just they just want…

Mike: 06:41 To get you to bite.

Al: 06:41 They want to needle you.

Speaker 1: 06:44 Yeah, they just, uh, you know what… Mike, I love your point. Like you’ve got about 90 seconds. If you can make it through 90 seconds, there is something else shiny is going to distract them and they’re going to be off to something else. That’s a really good piece of advice. Okay. So moving along, moving on. Um, another challenging area for, uh, folks with religious or ethical or moral point of view and conventions is situations that push your limits. Obviously there are moments that you can say no to. Um, and I think we’ve mentioned a few of those already. But some of them are not. Some of them are, “hey, uh, you know, the, the executive is taking everyone out to this place.” It’s like, I, I don’t know about that place, but “No, no, everyone’s going Leon, everyone’s going.” Or you’ve got a client or a customer or you know, you’ve got one of those things and all of a sudden the hard “no” is not available to you. And now you need to balance, you know, some very specific aspects. So I’m curious if you’ve run into that and how you, how you navigate it?

Keith: 07:54 Yeah, I have the advantage that the, the views and tweets of me are the views and tweaks of my employer, so…

Leon: 08:08 that’s awesome!

Keith: 08:08 Yeah. So I don’t, um, you know what? I have this motto in life that has generally served me well. My wife doesn’t like it too much. ‘The worst any employer can do is fire me. And I came from humble means, and I’m not scared, I don’t want to, but I’m not scared to go back to them.’ So there’s not much I get, you know, forced to and to work. You know, I’ve had these confrontations over and over in my career. I’ve just said, you know, I’ve just, I’ve had, the hard “no” from me as a hard “no”.

Mike: 08:42 yes, exactly. You know, and two, um, I always, whenever I’m evaluating a decision like this, I always think what would Jesus do? Right? It’s kind of a cliche in Christian circles right now, but you know, um, so Jesus went into all kinds of different places with people and, and when he did, when he did that, he was not judgmental of them. Well, there was a few people that he was judgmental with. Uh, the, the people that were sort of hypocritically religious, right? They would say all these great things, but, but then, you know, on the side, they weren’t really doing what they were saying. That was one thing that he just had no patience for. So, you know, if I just stay away from that, I should be in a good shape, but, you know, so I might go to a, um, uh, you know, a bar that is, uh, you know, has topless women. Right? And, and that is really super hard for me because that’s, you know, I mean, it’s denigrating to women. It’s, it’s, you know, very risky. People could get in trouble. I mean, there’s so many things wrong with that, that I don’t know what’s right with it. But you know, uh, the CEO says we’re going and so I’ll go off in a corner somewhere with somebody else. There’s almost always one or two other people that are in my same shoes, right? That don’t want to be there. And so we’ll find each other like really fast. Like metal pieces on a magnet, right? We’ll just collect and we’ll go somewhere and we’ll do something else. We’re there but we’re not really participating. And then, you know, the next day we can’t make a big deal out of it either. Right? So you don’t want to fall into that trap either of, you know, starting, be judgmental of people the next day. You got to let it lie. Never bring it up again.

Keith: 10:46 Yeah. And I think a, I love your perspective, kinda, the whole, you know, Jesus went everywhere perspective. I draw the line at when it’s not healthy for me. And so there are just certain situations that are not healthy for me. For example, when I was younger, you know, uh, so I guess you can always say you’re recovering, you have a recovering addiction. So I have a recovering addiction to gambling. I am not going, you know, there’s a tradition where the last night of VMworld, they’ve, one goes in, shoots craps at the table with individuals from the community. That’s just not something I’m going to do. Uh, nothing inherently wrong with it. I’m just not going to do it because it’s not healthy for me to do. So that’s kind of where I kind of draw the line of when I know that it will, um, force me to fall into a temptation that I struggle with, I avoid it.

Mike: 11:44 Right, exactly.

Al: 11:46 I was just gonna say there’s two factors for me, and I’m sure one of them applies to all of us. As a parent, we want to act the way we preach to our kids. So you don’t want to put yourself in a situation and then have yourself explain yourself to your kids, why you got to that point? Regrettably. Um, another thing is if you’re surrounded by good people, good friends that respect your opinions and how you approached life, telling them ‘no’ won’t hurt their feelings.

Leon: 12:15 Nice. Good. Um, okay. So we’ve been dancing around the third part of this conversation a little bit and I wanna uh, I wanna dive into that because it’s not all struggle and pain and suffering. Uh, you know, it, there’s some amazing parts about conventions, not just… Again, as IT professionals, you know, there’s amazing parts of conventions, period. The things that you learn and the people that you see in the relationships that you make, the conversations that continue long after the convention is over. The insights that you get. Those are obviously why people spend a not insignificant amount of money and a not insignificant amount of time getting there and doing them. Um, but as folks with a religious, ethical, or moral point of view, I think that conventions represent opportunities that um, you know, that you might not otherwise have. Back to the punchline, you know, the opportunity to be, you know, a Jew, Muslim and Christian who walk into the prayer room all together and like, “hey, you know, this is, we’re all doing the same thing, different language, different style,” you know, that’s not something that you necessarily get the opportunity to do back in your home neighborhood all the time. Um, and you also the opportunity to meet folks who are in IT who are also following a similar or the same path you are. So the opportunity to meet up with folks. I was at, um, I was at re:Invent two years ago and there was a whole contingent of folks from Israel who were there and a bunch of folks from America, and we all got together and we all headed out in the same car to the kosher restaurant, which is sort of 20 minutes off the strip. And we had a great time. We had conversations about, you know, “So what’s happening at your work and how do you do this?” And whatever. And, and that was something that I would never have had the opportunity to do had I not gone to re:Invent. So I’m curious like what experiences have you had that are, that are real opportunities that conventions offer you

Mike: 14:18 To your point, to your story. Um, the next time you go to re:Invent, you’re probably going to reach out to those people and say to them, “Hey, let’s do that again.” Or “let’s get together again and do this instead.” Or, you know, “hey, I found this other thing.” And so you, so each one that you go to, then year after year, you build stronger and stronger relationships and it makes that event richer and richer and richer. Also say that there’s tremendous opportunity at these events to really act out your faith. Um, from a, from a Christian standpoint, you know, uh, compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, self control. These are the essential elements of Christianity and forgiving, right? And love. And so if you find yourself going to the bar after the event, just to socialize, you can quickly see who, who might be struggling right now. Cause you never know, like we said in the earlier part of the podcast, Somebody, Leon, might’ve gotten a call that morning about, you know, some disaster that happened. Their kid got called into the principal’s office and kicked out of school, or you know, some, some disaster might’ve happened in their life and here they are 12 hours away and Abu Dhabi and you know, there’s nothing they can really do. And you know, if you could go up to them and say, “hey, you look like you’re a little down and out, uh, you know what’s going on?” You know, and there you sit for the next hour just listening to the person, right? Asking them good questions. To me, that, that is the best kind of expression of what I call authentic Christianity.

Leon: 16:10 Nice. Just as a side note, we do have a WhatsApp group that we maintain for, you know, year after year. Like, okay, we’re all coming back like, what’s going on? So, yes, absolutely that does happen. Um, and I like your, I like your idea of being, of it being an opportunity to, um, and we use this as one of the topics for one of our other episodes, being a ‘light unto the nations’ you know, to be, uh, out there and just, you know, walk the walk. Um, that’s great. What other, what other experiences have you had?

Al: 16:38 For me most recently, uh, attending the, the vMug leader summit at the VMware headquarters in February. I was very blessed to meet fellow Muslim vMug leaders from Egypt and Kuwait, and we’ve remained in contact since then. I now consider them friends and I’m sure they feel the same way. Uh, for them, this was, I believe, their first time to the States. So it was kind of an uneasy trip, not knowing what to expect. I think I, it’s not about me when I say this, but the fact that I am Muslim and I am Arabic and I speak Arabic, uh, it made them feel like they were somewhat at home.

Speaker 1: 17:15 You know, here I am with my tzittzit, the fringes hanging out. I got my kipa on my head. I’m very demonstrably Orthodox and I think it’s an opportunity for people who might’ve thought, “Oh, I can’t, I can’t be like that in my IT world. I have to have this whole other sort of crypto-identity that remains hidden.” And to see, to be, for me to be able to be very visible like that gives them permission also maybe to consider ways in which they can be visible and not uncomfortable. And Al, to your point, the fact that you are here, that you’ve made, that you’re comfortable in this space, that you can be an ambassador in that way, I think is an amazing blessing and an opportunity for you and them.

New Speaker: 17:59 it is. And if you’d asked me this five, 10 years ago, I probably would have, and I don’t mean it to sound negative, I don’t know how you describe it, but I probably would have distanced myself, but now I feel more comfortable with who I am, what I represent and how I was raised. And I think it just helps for everybody involved. Regardless of religion. We’re all, we’re all one at the end of the day, we’re just one human race. So we need to coexist. As you guys know, all three major religions started in Jerusalem. So, so, you know, we need to come back to the fundamentals and respect one another, be courteous to one another and be kind.

Keith: 18:38 I love the demonstration of sheer love. Like it’s not just the conferences it’s the, uh, overall community. Not… Maybe a small portion of the community is religious. I don’t know. I just know that when my family was in need, the community stepped up. And whether that’s, you know, uh, my wife’s current situation. My brother with losing his wife. My brother losing his son the year before. It’s amazing to see how much love is generated, uh, from this community. See people and you know, get hugs and, and get energy. You know, my wife will comment that if it’s not a Tech Field Day or VMworld or whatever, that I’m not coming back refreshed. And I’m like, you know what? It’s I come back refreshed. Not, not just because technically I got something now the conference, but emotionally is as much as draining as it is to be around people. I also get an incredible amount of energy from positivity and the amount of positivity that we’ve gotten in this past three years, that’s been coupled with the negativity has been life changing.

Leon: 19:56 Thanks for making time for us this week. To hear more of Technically Religious visit our website, https://www.technicallyreligious.com where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions and connect to us on social media.

Leon: 20:07 Hey, there’s this great convention happening next week in Cleveland who’s in?

Everyone: 20:10 (a lot of nope)

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