It is the conventional wisdom that by the time people reach their 70s, they have made up their minds what to believe or not to believe about God. Paul Ely, former Hewlett Packard executive vice president and board member, built his career defying conventional wisdom. On the God question, he defied conventional wisdom as well. At the age of 76, a sudden and unexpected revelation from God caused him to seriously investigate the evidence for the existence and identity of God, ending in his full acceptance of Jesus Christ as his savior.
Regarding Ely’s conversion, Tom Steipp, a former HP manager who worked several levels below Ely and who is a follower of Christ himself, comments:
I suspect that many of my colleagues at HP were surprised when they heard about Paul’s conversion. I don’t think that any of us ever thought that Paul Ely would submit to anyone’s authority, except his own. On the other hand, when that conversion finally occurred, Paul did what he always does; he put all his energy into knowing and serving the Lord.”
Although Ely attended church as a child with his parents, faith never resonated with him. He quickly stopped attending church, and gave little consideration to religious beliefs or practice in college and in his career. Ely comments,
Although I would have said I believed in God and was a Christian, faith never penetrated my thinking. I was not interested. I was born to be an engineer. That is where my interest was.
As a child, Ely loved math and science and was fascinated by mechanical and electrical things. His Dad, an engineer, had a major influence on young Ely – building various devices with him; sharing life lessons with him; and challenging Ely’s thinking and opinions in extended dinner conversations. His Dad also taught him not to accept the status quo and to question people’s opinions and assumptions.
Throughout my career all my good ideas and successes came when I refused to accept when people said, “You can’t do that. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.”
Business Background – From Sperry to HP
Ely’s career started at Sperry where he worked as an engineer for nine years. In 1962, he was recruited to join Hewlett-Packard (HP) as an engineer doing research using microwave wavelengths to identify gaseous compounds. He loved HP’s open style of management and the so-called “HP Way” of doing business: integrity in all relationships; bold leadership; opportunism which grew out of HP’s decentralized organization; and quality people who were given the freedom to innovate. While working at HP, Ely took advantage of HP’s tuition reimbursement benefit and earned his Master’s degree from Stanford in engineering.
Ely rapidly advanced to upper management positions – often questioning the conventional wisdom along the way. He got to know HP’s founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard and impressed them with his work and attitude.
HP’s first foray in the business computing occurred in 1971. It did not go well due to prematurely releasing a product. Packard asked Ely to take over the division to straighten it out. That he did. In fact, Ely helped establish HP as a major player in the computer business, and is best known for that accomplishment. His success led to his appointment to HP’s board of directors.
Ready, Fire, Aim
Ely’s style, which was epitomized by the phrase “ready, fire, aim,” was well suited for the fast moving computer business. Ely opted for taking action quickly, evaluating the results, and adapting the strategy if necessary. He uses a metaphor to describe this style of management:
It’s like the British inventing tracer bullets during the Second World War. They were firing at moving targets, and when things changed quickly, they needed to fire and then aim. That is like the computer business.
The moniker “ready, fire, aim” stayed with Ely throughout his career at HP and is the title of his 2013 memoir.
Ely Leaves HP
Ely’s worked well with CEO John Young for years, until Young adopted a consensus style of management which contrasted with Ely’s “ready, fire, aim” approach. Ely’s frustration led to his parting HP after 23 years at the company. He now admits that he regretted his decision to leave HP.
Ely was recruited to join Convergent Technology as the company’s CEO. Convergent was a hot company at the time, but it had serious cash flow problems. Ely helped put Convergent on the right track. He departed Convergent soon after the company’s acquisition by Unisys.
After leaving Unisys, he worked eight years in venture capital and took seats on several company boards. In addition, Ely helped his sons in their own businesses. But much of his time during this period was spent caring for his wife, Barbara, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1987. She died in early 2000.
Ely married Geri Cherem, a woman who had been his administrative assistant since 1968. She was not only a loyal employee, but also a committed follower of Christ.
Ely never gave serious consideration to God; that is, until the morning of April 15, 2008. In his memoir he writes,
As I lay there, quite suddenly an overwhelming feeling of intense gratitude and thankfulness for the good fortune that had filled my life swept over me. The intensity and depth of the experience are well beyond my limited ability to describe or relate. It continued as I saw my entire life flashing before me like a YouTube video.
He realized that God had been working in his life all along. “It wasn’t my great skill, it wasn’t my “ready, aim, fire” [approach], and it wasn’t my education. It was God in my life who had provided all my good fortune,” remarks Ely.
When he told his wife what had happened, she quipped “I had been expecting something like this to happen, now it has.” Geri had been praying for Ely for years.
Ely’s revelation led him on an eight-month journey to find out who God was. He started attending church on a regular basis, joined a class on prayer, and started reading the Bible. He also read other books on his quest to find the evidence for God and the basis of Christian faith. Among the books he read were: The Shack by William Young; The Language of God by Francis Collins, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis; and Loving Monday by John Beckett.
Develops a New Purpose
In February, 2009, at the age of 76, Ely prayed, with tears of gratitude, to accept Christ as his savior. Paul Ely, a Silicon Valley icon, discovered God for himself after many years of ignoring Him. Ely’s conversion changed his life. “Faith” he says, “led to new purpose and direction in my life.” He wanted an authentic relationship with God. He wanted to know the Bible and wanted to “be like the other Christian men I met.”
At the age of 82, Ely’s life is now different. His goal in life “is to become a mature Christian.” He attends church regularly, attends two Bible studies and a men’s fellowship, and prays regularly. In addition, he wants to see others know the joy that comes from having a relationship with Christ. He volunteers part time with Global Media Outreach, an evangelistic Internet-based ministry which helps people with questions about Jesus. According to GMO’s website, over 100 million people have made decisions for Christ in the ministry’s ten years of existence.
You can read more of Paul Ely’s story in his book, Ready, Fire, Aim.