The Path to Redemption: Remembering Craig Burton
Summary: Last week I spoke at the memorial service for Craig Burton, a giant of the tech industry and my close friend. Here are, slightly edited, my remarks.
When I got word that Craig Burton had died, the news wasn't unexpected. He'd been ill with brain cancer for a some time and we knew his time was limited. Craig is a great man, a good person, a valued advisor, and a fabulous friend. Craig's life is an amazing story of success, challenge, and overcoming.
I first met Craig when I was CIO for Utah and he was the storied co-founder of Novell and the Burton Group. Dave Politis calls Craig "one of Utah's tech industry Original Gangsters". I was a bit intimidated. Craig was starting a new venture with his longtime friend Art Navarez, and wanted to talk to me about it. That first meeting was where I came to appreciate his famous wit and sharp, insightful mind. Over time, our relationship grew and I came to rely him whenever I had a sticky problem to unravel. One of Craig's talents was throwing out the conventional thinking and starting over to reframe a problem in ways that made solutions tractable. That's what he'd done at Novell when he moved up the stack to avoid the tangle of competing network standards and create a market in network services.
When Steve Fulling and I started Kynetx in 2007 we knew we needed Craig as an advisor. He mentored us—sometimes gently and sometimes with a swift kick. He advised us. He dove into the technology and developed applications, even though he wasn't a developer. He introduced us to one of our most important investors, and now good friend, Roy Avondet. He was our biggest cheerleader and we were grateful for his friendship and help. Craig wasn't just an advisor. He was fully engaged.
One of Craig's favorite words was "ubiquity" and he lived his life consistent with that philosophy. Let me share three stories about Craig from the Kynetx days that I hope show a little bit of his personality:
Steve, Craig, and I had flown to Seattle to meet with Microsoft. Flying with Craig is always an adventure, but that's another story. We met with some people on Microsoft's identity team including Kim Cameron, Craig's longtime friend and Microsoft's Chief Identity Architect. During the meeting someone, a product manager, said something stupid and you could just see Craig come up in his chair. Kim, sitting in the corner, was trying not to laugh because he knew what was coming. Craig, very deliberately and logically, took the PM's argument apart. He wasn't mean; he was patient. But his logic cut like a knife. He could be direct. Craig always took charge of a room.
We hosted a developer conference at Kynetx called Impact. Naturally, Craig spoke. But Craig couldn't just give a standard presentation. He sat, in a big chair on the stage and "held forth". He even had his guitar with him and sang during the presentation. Craig loved music. The singing was all Craig. He couldn't just speak, he had to entertain and make people laugh and smile.
At Kynetx, we hosted Free Lunch Friday every week. We'd feed lunch to our team, developers using our product, and anyone else who wanted to come visit the office. We usually brought in something like Jimmy Johns, Costco pizza, or J Dawgs. Not Craig. He and Judith took over the entire break room (for the entire building), brought in portable burners, and cooked a multi-course meal. It was delicious and completely over the top. I can see him with his floppy hat and big, oversized glasses, flamboyant and happy. Ubiquity!
I've been there with Craig in some of the highest points of his life and some of the lowest. I've seen him meet his challenges head on and rise above them. Being his friend was hard sometimes. He demanded much of his friends. But he returned help, joy, and, above all, love. He regretted that his choices hurt others besides himself. Craig loved large and completely.
The last decade of Craig's life was remarkable. Craig, in 2011, was a classic tragic hero: noble, virtuous, and basking in past success but with a seemingly fatal flaw. But Craig's story didn't end in 2011. Drummond Reed, a mutual friend and fellow traveler wrote this for Craig's service:
Ten years ago, when Craig was at one of the lowest points in his life, I had the chance to join a small group of his friends to help intervene and steer him back on an upward path. It was an extraordinary experience I will never forget, both because of what I learned about Craig's amazing life, and what it proved about the power of love to change someone's direction. In fact Craig went on from there not just to another phase of his storied career, but to reconnect and marry his high school sweetheart.
Craig found real happiness in those last years of his life—and he deserved it.
Craig Burton was a mountain of a man, and a mountain of mind. And he moved the mountains of the internet for all of us. The digital future will be safer, richer, and more rewarding for all of us because of the gifts he gave us.
Starting with that intervention, Craig began a long, painful path to eventual happiness and redemption.
Craig overcame his internal demons. This was a battle royale. He had help from friends and family (especially his sisters), but in the end, he had to make the change, tamp down his darkest urges, and face his problems head on. His natural optimism and ability to see things realistically helped. When he finally turned his insightful mind on himself, he began to make progress.
Craig had to live and cope with chronic health challenges, many of which were the result of decisions he'd made earlier in his life. Despite the limitations they placed on him, he met them with his usual optimism and love of life.
Craig refound his faith. I'm not sure he ever really lost it, but he couldn't reconcile some of his choices with what he believed his faith required of him. In 2016, he decided to rejoin the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was privileged to be able to baptize him. A great honor, that he was kind enough to give me.
Craig also refound love and his high school sweetheart, Paula. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Earlier and Craig wouldn't have been ready. Later and it likely would have been too late. They were married in 2017 and later had the marriage sealed in the Seoul Korea Temple. Craig and Paula were living in Seoul at the time, engaged in another adventure. While Craig loved large, I believe he may have come to doubt that he was worthy of love himself. Paula gave him love and a reason to strive for a little more in the last years of his life.
As I think about the last decade of Craig's life and his hard work to set himself straight, I'm reminded of the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. In that parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a man hiring laborers for his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace and hires some, promising them a penny. He goes back later, at the 6th and 9th hours, and hires more. Finally he hires more laborers in the 11th hour. When it comes time to pay them, he gives everyone the same wage—a penny. The point of the parable is that it doesn't matter so much when you start the journey, but where you end up.
I'm a believer in Jesus Christ and the power of his atonement and resurrection. I know Craig was too. He told me once that belief had given him the courage and hope to keep striving when all seemed lost. Craig knew the highest of the highs. He knew the lowest of the lows. The last few years of his life were among the happiest I ever saw him experience. He was a new man. In the end, Craig ended up in a good place.
I will miss my friend, but I'm eternally grateful for his life and example.
Other Tributes and Remembrances
Remembering Craig Burton by Doc Searls
In Honor of Craig Burton from Jamie Lewis
Silicon Slopes Loses A Tech Industry OG: R.I.P., Craig Burton by David Politis
Photo Credits: Craig Burton, 1953-2022 from Doc Searls (CC BY 2.0)