Josh Coates has a tank and an arsenal of data

The Utah tech mogul is using his technological chops and love of data to take his faith online

Josh Coates points to a soccer ball-sized hole in the ceiling of his workshop. It’s from an explosion, he explains, proceeding to show me several of the very dangerous-looking tools he uses to create his BattleBots. The fighter robots face-off in an enclosed space adjacent to a fully restored and operational World War II tank.

“I’m a slob,” he tells me. “I really am.” But I don’t see slovenliness in the piles of tools and gear scattered on the floor—I see a lot of time and money spent on some wildly interesting and nerdy past times, in the workshop of a guy whom up to this point I had only heard rumors of.

I’m feeling a little starstruck. Coates is something of a reclusive legend in Utah’s tech community, where I spent a good portion of my career. And with any legend comes mystery, and with Coates, there’s a whole lot of it. While other prominent Utah founders and CEOs stood on conference stages, touting successes, Coates was rarely — if ever — seen in the spotlight. For years he was the Willy Wonka of Silicon Slopes.

And now, here I am, standing in the chocolate factory — next to a tank.   

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Coates launched a venture-backed startup in the Bay Area in 1999. Like most startups, it eventually imploded. So he moved his family to Utah in 2004 and in 2005 launched Berkeley Data Systems and its flagship product Mozy, which he would later sell to EMC Corp. in 2007 for $76 million.  

But, even more than his first business windfall, it was his 2005 Connect magazine article “Poison in the well,” on the predatory practices of some angel investors in the state, that catapulted his reputation into prominent Utah tech circles. The piece created fervor, and it also helped shift the funding landscape for entrepreneurs and investors alike. It was a bold move for a new guy in the state and it ruffled more than a few feathers among investors, some of whom published a rebuttal.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about Josh Coates.

After selling Mozy, Coates took some well-deserved (and well-funded) time away from the tech startup scene. He worked with Nepali refugees, restored some military vehicles (re: the tank), played video games and volunteered as an instructor at Brigham Young University where he taught an intro to venture startups course in the computer science department.

During his time teaching, two of his students gave a presentation on a startup they were hoping to launch. Coates made an initial investment in their company, Instructure, then took over as CEO. Five years later, after the success of Instructure’s primary product, Canvas, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Four years after that, Coates left the startup scene for good. “You can only do three things in tech,” he tells me. “Bankrupt a company, sell a company and IPO a company. I did all three over 20 years, and felt like it was time to move on.” 

Josh Coates rings the bell at the New York Stock Exchange when educational technology company Instructure held its initial public offering in 2015. | Josh Coates

Coates now spends his time and money on other potentially dangerous hobbies — from battling his bots in competitions across the country to tinkering with explosive military relics — but perhaps his most terrifying undertaking is writing about his faith on the internet. 

It only takes half a minute on any web forum discussing religion to make anyone want to retreat back to whatever their proverbial personal tank may be. However, if there’s anyone qualified to navigate religion on the web, it may well be a digital native like Coates, who is a committed believer and unabashed data wonk with time (and cash) to burn on getting things right.

In an era when younger generations are battling negative perceptions of belief online, Coates is working to create a path forward for the faithful. And he’s doing it with data.

Coates recently launched the B. H. Roberts Foundation, under which he created Mormonr. While Mormonr still hasn’t reached the size of his Instagram astronomy account (he owns one of the largest private observatories in the country) the Mormonr accounts have gained some modest buzz on Twitter and Instagram where Coates and his team share memes adjacent to Latter-day Saint culture and theology.   

But the memes are only a part of Mormonr’s mission, Coates explains. The broader work is building a comprehensive database of primary-source records related to complex faith-related topics. “It’s never been done before and it just seems like something that should exist,” he tells me. So far he and his team have collected more than 6,000 primary source records.

Though Mormonr is relatively new, Coates says he’s been collecting data on his faith since his youth. As a young missionary in Boston, he borrowed every interesting old book from every ward library where he served. Because he was not an especially active participant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his youth, he wanted to make up for lost learning time.

He read everything he could get his hands on about his religion’s teachings, history, leaders and culture, including criticisms. He even read all the anti-Mormon literature handed to him on the street, a controversial choice for any missionary, he admits. But one that helped him gain a better understanding of how others perceive the faith he was hoping to share. At one point during his mission, he wrote to a biology professor at Brigham Young University and asked him to send all the material the professor had on evolution and the gospel so he could better understand how the scientific principle fits into his faith’s theological framework. Mormonr is a culmination of this decades-long work to seek out as much information as possible and gather the best data. 

With that data and his technological chops, Coates feels uniquely equipped to share his findings and beliefs on the internet. He admits he’s a creature of the web, and he has watched the discourse, and the arguments, surrounding religion evolve and devolve. He’s sometimes witnessed Latter-day Saint apologists — whom he generally supports — resort to polemics or echo chambers in some instances. “It’s rooted in tribalism,” he says, “and ultimately unhelpful to anyone.”

Coates thought he might be able to approach things differently, and better, than those who came before by making data the center of the story. “Mormonr is one of those things that is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Coates says. “We want to challenge people with data ... but do so in a safe and faithful context.” 

Josh Coates, founder of the B. H. Roberts Foundation, poses for a portrait at the foundation’s office in Holladay on Friday, May 20, 2022. The foundation supports research and education related to some of the more controversial aspects of culture, doctrine and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When Coates launched the foundation in 2020, he knew the first step was to gather the data necessary to cover tough questions. He and his team have hunted down original documents in university and church archives and gathered data from each artifact. Coates anticipates they will have gathered 20,000 primary source records by the time they complete the scope of their project.  

The second step was to identify the questions average Latter-day Saints have about their faith that they may not be able to answer on their own due to a lack of information. The Mormonr team came up with over three hundred such questions and wrote them on a single whiteboard.

The third step was to combine the data and the questions. “People just want short, direct answers to their questions and they don’t want sugary sweet answers,” Coates explains. “They want the good, bad and the ugly and we try to give them that within a faithful context.”

When you visit, you’re met with a sunglasses-adorned sunstone header next to the words “Mormonr: Keeping it weird.”

The body of the site reads, “Hello,” and rotates through a list of titles. “Seekers. Curious. House of Israel. Three Nephites? Fishers of Men. Egyptologists. Millennials,” and so on—all are winks to those in the faith who are drawn to some of the more peculiar parts and people of the tradition. 

“Mormonr is one of those things that is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We want to challenge people with data ... but do so in a safe and faithful context.”

Further down the page it reads, “What’s new:” and lists topics like “Blood Atonement and Capital Punishment” or “Kolob,” each with a link to an explainer on the topic. Coates says that some, or all, of the topics covered on the site can be intellectual stumbling blocks when believers encounter them in the wilds of the internet without data or context.

Mormonr is a place where they can turn to find information that doesn’t pull punches but also doesn’t sensationalize or prevaricate. “If Mormonr can bring clarity to help people to put them in context so they can connect with the things that really matter, then I think we’re doing something good,” he says.

But Coates is also quick to emphasize that very few of the topics they cover on Mormonr actually matter. “The basics of the gospel of Jesus Christ are what binds us together,” he says. “We don’t all have to believe the same way about every detail. It’s better to stay in the tent with people you may disagree with than to see them, or yourself, outside of the tent.” He reminds me that humans are messy and history is messy. And that mess doesn’t have to be explored alone. Mormonr offers a guide to navigating it with data as the compass. 

B. H. Roberts, for whom Coates’ foundation is named, embodies the marriage of faith and data that the Mormonr team hopes to share with the world. The early historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was known for being both faithful and intellectually curious, two characteristics that can sometimes create tension for believers, but which made Roberts one of the church’s most prominent figures. “He had absolutely no fear of data. And I think that’s really cool,” Coates says. Data provided Roberts the courage to confront the hard questions in his time, and it provides Coates the courage to confront hard questions in his own.

He reminds me that humans are messy and history is messy. And that mess doesn’t have to be explored alone.

But Coates also has the added modern-day advantage of access to meme generators. 

“Emotions are real and powerful and special,” Coates tells me, as he explains why social media can be especially upsetting. “We have an amygdala in our brains, and when it gets inflamed, we say dumb things, we do dumb things, and we start to gain conviction in things that are unhealthy.” The best way to put out the flame, he says, is to laugh.

To help cool the temperature of discourse, Mormonr releases two memes a day, each poking light fun at Latter-day Saint people and culture. More than one such meme has made me snort upon seeing it in my Twitter feed.

 “Once you smile, I think that’s the first step towards being kind,” he says. “With people online, there needs to be more tail-wagging and less barking. This is our way to help.”

“Josh Coates as in THE Josh Coates?” I asked when someone told me who was behind the Mormonr memes I’d seen shared. I couldn’t fathom why a tech titan was standing on the battlefield of the bloggernacle when he could be traveling the world in a private jet or buying a major league sports team. 

But after spending the afternoon bouncing from Coates’ Mormonr office to his chaotic workshop and sprawling residence on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, it’s clear just how much data — the possession of it and the pursuit of it — drives what he does. He’s a guy who takes on projects where he thinks he can add value, especially when it's an area where others may fear to tread — whether it’s Mormonr, BattleBots or retooling the investment landscape. And he does it all with an arsenal of data.

Data, he tells me as we conclude our time together, is the foundation for knowledge, but data in itself is not knowledge. Data allows knowledge to be built. Data collected on the failures and successes of a career spent in tech leads to smarter business. Data on the wins and losses of BattleBots make better robots. And data collected on the subject of faith ultimately leads to a better knowledge of God, and better disciples.

But data isn’t everything, Coates insists. “For me, data is a necessary piece of the puzzle, but it’s not sufficient — faith is required to make it into something useful.”