My friend Krista Marks (now at Disney – which acquired her first company – Kerpoof) sent me a copy of the graduation speech she gave at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing on May 8th. Krista graduated 21 years ago and her speech embodies the amazing wisdom she’d gained over the years. I asked her if I could reprint it here – it’s applicable to any engineer or future entrepreneur, not just recent college graduates. Enjoy and be inspired! *
Twenty-one years ago I sat exactly where you sit today. In 1989, I graduated with degree in Electrical Engineering from the USC. Since then, I am proud to share that I have accomplished some extraordinary things. I have helped develop a highly effective treatment for cancer – designing custom electronics for true 3D radiotherapy. I have helped further our understanding of the physical universe by developing state of art data acquisition systems for high-energy physics experiments. Most recently, I was the CEO and co-founder of an Internet Startup – called Kerpoof – an unrivalled platform for creative software for kids – a company that was bought after 2.5 years by The Walt Disney Company.
But here is the truth. If you had told me 21 years ago that – that this would be so – that I would have such a career and such and impact – I would not have believed you. At 22, I felt uncertain about what was next – what it would actually mean to work as an engineer.
Today I’m going to share with you three things that I wish someone had shared with me then – three things that I have learned to be true.
The first is to learn from your success.
There is a belief that failure is somehow good – somehow beneficial. You hear people say, failure builds character, or fail early fail often. This is not only wrong – it is dangerous. What you learn from failure is limited at best – you learn what didn’t work. It tells nothing of what will. In contrast, what you learn from success is how to succeed. This is infinitely more valuable.
A perfect example is the success you celebrate today. How many people do you know who started with you, but aren’t sitting next to you today? How often did you have a friend or roommate who would moan and whine at the one or two times during the semester that they actually had to work hard, long hours – knowing that as an Engineer this was your daily reality? This is significant.
In fact, you now know one thing for certain. You know that with talent and determination and hard work, you can accomplish what few others can. You succeeded. In the future, taking on truly hard things – things that seem impossible – you will not be in uncharted waters. On the contrary, you will build more success.
That’s key. Success breeds success. It is not a question of whether you will achieve more success. The question is what it will look like.
The second that I know to be true is build value.
There are many many ways to create value using an Engineering degree.
Let me just tell you a story about my Grandfather and how engineering helped to fix his knees. You would be forgiven if didn’t immediately make the connection, since what actually fixed his knees was an injection.
My Grandfather has always had a hunger to learn, a passion and zest for life. He is spry, vibrant, and alive, and makes others feel the same. At 88, he received what was for him was terrible news. His knees were failing, and he would probably in a short time be limping at best or needing a wheel chair at worse. When he exclaimed that this couldn’t be, his doctor was pretty unmoved. “He was 88, for goodness sake.” “What did he expect?” My Grandfather was frustrated and sad. He went home and started searching on the Internet. Maybe someone else knew something his doctor didn’t. And in probing around, he found a clinical trial that was showing promising results. It involved shooting an experimental drug in his knees, over a period of time. He immediately ran to his doctor and together they figured out how to get him in the trial. Today he is 93 and still walking.
I first thought about this connection when my Mother out of the blue said to me, “don’t you ever wish you made a difference in the world?” At the time, I was leading a team designing 10G interfaces for routers and switches – a technology that is enables what we today view as high-speed Internet. I thought about how only a short time ago, prior to the Internet, my Grandfather simply wouldn’t have had access to this information. That it was my work that at least partly what made his story possible – what made his life better.
That, in fact, more broadly it was entirely because of engineers – that in our life time we have seen the democratization of information – a revolution only rivaled in impact by the printing press.
I suddenly realized that I didn’t only make a difference; I was part of a profession that by its very nature makes a differences. A profession that at its core is about building value – from iPads, to Electric cars, Google, MRI machines – this list just goes on and on.
So my advice here is simple – keep being an engineer – keep building value. In doing so you will not only make a difference, but you will have the kind of satisfaction that can only come from doing truly valuable work. And you will find that this kind of satisfaction will far outweigh any of the other benefits that may come from your career.
The third thing I know to be true is to follow your heart.
Often this means doing what is hard. Choosing a path not because it is easy, but despite that the fact that it is very difficult.
I know this well. Since I was 22, I have dreamed of being an entrepreneur – of creating and leading my own company. This is what my father did, and probably to a degree some of my dream is linked to my admiration for him and what he has accomplished.
Regardless, for years it was no more than a dream. I was simply not brave enough to pursue it. I had good jobs that just kept getting better. I was building great value, being rewarded with promotions, and high pay. Why would I leave? Why would I risk failure, when I already had what most people viewed as success?
Well, when I was 37, three things happened. First, I read Guy Kawasaki’s, “Art of the Start” – an inspiring guide to becoming an entrepreneur. The thing that hit me the hardest was that he said the ideal time – the peak time – to be an entrepreneur was between age 28 and 38. I was about to turn 38. I was about to miss the optimal window.
Second, I met Jerry Fiddler on a ski trip with mutual friends. Jerry is an engineer and an uber entrepreneur – an entrepreneur who, among other things, grew a software start-up in his garage to a multi- billion business. But it wasn’t just meeting Jerry. It was that after getting to know me, he said, not just that I would be a great entrepreneur, but that I would be a great entrepreneur and CEO. And it seemed liked he believed it.
Third – and most significantly – I knew three extraordinary engineers who wanted to create a company too. And together we founded Kerpoof. We wanted to succeed, but we didn’t just want to succeed. We first wanted to build value – we believed if we did that the rest would come. We had a vision to transform the computer for kids – to ensure that it wasn’t just a dumb box and extension of the TV – but a powerful platform for creative expression and design.
I have never worked as hard as I did for Kerpoof. And I’ve never been happier.
Follow your heart. And like all great loves, you’ll know when you find it.
And don’t worry if you don’t find it right away. Because here’s another myth – the myth that life is short. Or maybe it is true for some people, but not for you. I don’t even have to know you, just the fact that you sit before me today, tells me with 100% certainty that you will do many things.
And if you are lucky, your life will sometimes be messy, confusing, and downright terrifying. It might lead you down surprising paths – paths that cause others to think you’re crazy. But I promise you this, if you keep learning from your success – if you always seek to build value – and if follow your heart, your life will not only be long, it will be rich, satisfying, and deeply rewarding.
* Krista asked me to include two additional acknowledgements. The first is that when she wrote the speech, she was reading “Rework”, and loved the idea that it is infinitely more powerful to succeed than fail. Second, she watched Steve Jobs give a commencement at Standford, and he said “follow your heart, and like all great loves you’ll know when you find it” which she thought was awesome.
Do you remember the “Let’s Build a Filter” scene from Apollo 13? It remains – at least in my mind – one of the most heroic engineering scenes in the movies. The one minute segment with the meat of the scene follows:
Several times over the past week the BP Gulf Crisis has come up in conversation. The conversations have started in different places (politics, environment, leadership) but in each case quickly cycled toward the concept that the people involved need to try something different. Now, there might be plenty of orthogonal thinking going on in lots of places around the crisis, but I kept thinking about the scene from Apollo 13 whenever we got to this point.
I’ve always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet. My friends at Caltech and Stanford will immediately come to defense of their colleagues and I’ll acknowledge that they are also extremely smart, but I’ve always thought the combination of MIT raw material with the four year undergraduate curriculum creates a unique type of thought process.
It’s summertime and classes are out. It would take a day to identify the top two juniors and seniors from each department. Why not immediately constitute a team of 25 amazing students, give them access to 100% of the data surrounding the crisis, show them the above movie clip, and tell them to come up with a solution to the problem. Pay them each $25k for the rest of the summer – this is tiny compared to the amount of money being spent daily on the outside consultants working on solving the problem.
Then, open source all of their thinking. Have them put their ideas on the web as they evolve. Get anyone involved who wants to try to help solve the problem. MIT has long been a leader in using the web for education – most recently with MIT Open Courseware. MIT and BP already have a longstanding relationship – let’s take it up a level.
If nothing else, this will rally a bunch of smart people to engage in understanding and trying to help with the problem. In the upside case, there is a small chance that it can come up with a solution to the problem. And it will have the added benefit of inspiring a new generation of engineers to go after doing heroic things.