Address to Graduates, SCS Diploma Ceremony

May 20, 2012

For the last 15 years, I have sat in the front row during this part of the program and thought, could you just get on with it, so that we can get to the awarding of degrees? And then about 2 months ago, Dean Bryant sent me an email that went something like, <poetic license> "Would you like to be the CS commencement speaker? We're not giving any CS honorary degrees this year, so we're not really beholden to anyone." </poetic license> So I hope to be brief, and hope you don't end up saying, "Can he just get on with it?!"

I came to Carnegie Mellon in 1979, primarily because my CS major advisor said, somewhat incredulously, "You got into Carnegie Mellon? You have to go there! They're one of the best in the world!" Of course, back then I was thinking that I'd get my Ph.D. and be out of here before anyone noticed (after all, I was a New Yorker, and Pittsburgh had exactly 1 "record store" that sold classical music in the entire city). As is often the case in life, neither of those plans turned out exactly as I had envisioned. Two years later, my Ph.D. advisor, Jon Bentley, was leaving to go to Bell Labs, I was unhappy with my research direction, and I was looking for a place to land. As luck would have it, a teaching spot opened up (15-118, Intro to Computing for H&SS), and I volunteered. At the end of that semester, I had received the highest FCE's a CS professor ever had to that point and John McDermott, the Department Head at the time, told me, "You seem to like this, and you're good at it! You're hired!" Twenty-five years and 2500 students later (well, 2650 counting this group), here we are.

I recount this story for two reasons. First, that penultimate sentence speaks volumes about how to have a successful career – do something you enjoy, and you'll enjoy doing it well. There's a quote on my web page from Herb Simon that says, "If you love what you do, every day's a work day." Mediocrity should not be on your agenda. Ian Voysey put it another way at yesterday's honors convocation – find the things you're insanely passionate about and do them. If you don't know what they are yet, keep pushing at the edges of the envelope until you find them. But find the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night to write down an idea, as Ian so aptly put it yesterday.

Look, you've been doing this for the last four years. But realize that CMU is a special place, full of people who are smart and driven. Alumni constantly come back to me to tell me how the work world isn't quite like that. Yes, there are a few places that are, but in most places, you will be an outlier. Revel in that! Keep pushing yourself to be the best you can be. I used to have a sign on my door in Wean Hall (remember Wean Hall?) – "We want only one thing. To be the best. What else is there?" You are all too good and have worked too hard to settle for anything else.

Second, try to keep your planning horizon short. I used to love looking at four-year plans that students brought in to advising sessions. (mostly written, no doubt, by their parents – admit it, how many of you had your son or daughter's life planned from the moment they arrived here? How many of those plans are still viable?). Don't get me wrong, it's good to have long term goals. But don't be afraid to live in the moment – sometimes you need to be agile to take advantage of a new opportunity. Lord knows, there are a lot of people who think it's crazy for me to leave this campus to go to Qatar. Yet, it's a great opportunity for me to do something new, just as you all are about to embark on your new journeys. And parents, if it hasn't occurred to you already, it's now time for you to assume the role of pilot, not captain, as your son or daughter moves out into the world. Trust me on this one – I speak from observing over 2650 parent-child relationships over 25 years.

Students, realize that you are about as risk tolerant at this moment as you will ever be. I was heartened by the number of you who, in your senior surveys, indicated that you're going to work for startups. That's the idea – don't do the comfortable thing right now; do the crazy thing. The time for crazy things is before the encumbrances of adulthood (car payment, mortgage payment, kids) start to manifest themselves. By the way, I am totally jealous of how much money you're making!

I have two other pieces of advice to share with you. First, always be a problem solver. We've taught you problem solving skills in various domains throughout your career here – now it's time to apply them. Not just to academic or work problems. To everything. The best example I ever saw of this was when I was playing intramural football back when I was a graduate student. Rich Korf was our quarterback and he had just gotten pounded. I remember holding up a couple fingers and asking him how many there were. He got that question right. I then asked him what day of the week it was, and he said Saturday which, too, was correct. So we figured he was good to go. It was only much later, well after the game was over, that he told us he had no idea what day it was when I asked him. But he knew we were playing football. And it was daylight. So it couldn't have been Monday-Friday because we always played in the evenings on weekdays. So that left him a 50/50 chance of getting it right and he guessed. Even when he had no idea where he was, he could work the problem!

You're engineers as well as theoreticians. Engineers want to figure out how things work and make them better. When presented with a situation, do as much as you can to make it better. If you can't completely solve a problem, contribute something to its solution. Speaking as a volleyball coach, there's a phrase in volleyball called, "better the ball". Usually applied to the setter, it means that no matter how bad the first pass is, the setter needs to set the ball to the hitter to enable them to get as good a swing as possible. It means you have to work to get that next ball to be as good as you possibly can make it. It means you don't blame the person who left you the mess to clean up, you just get on about the business of cleaning it up. It means you don't fret over the terrible code you were just handed, you refactor it and make it better. It means you take your work seriously, but not yourself. It means you never underestimate your ability to make a difference. It means you worry less about being right and more about being reasonable.

Last, but definitely not least, realize that people matter. People will remember you more for how you treat them than anything else you do. You don't always have to have a smile on your face, but you should always be willing to listen, to understand, to help. And for yourself, find people you can share it all with. The good and the bad; the highs and the lows. While I'm glad I have hundreds of friends on Facebook (and, I'm sure Mark Zuckerberg is happy, too!), I don't need hundreds of friends. I need two or three that I can vent to, ask advice from, celebrate with. In addition to those very close friends and colleagues, I have been fortunate to have a partner and a family who have tolerated my faults and are always there for me. I need them; you do, too.

For 30 years, my wife, Sylvia, has helped keep me sane (and out of trouble). We have rejoiced in the good times, and held on to each other in the bad. 25 of those years have been spent helping to build the edifice that is this undergraduate program. It has been a labor of love in so many ways, and it has been a pleasure to work with so many great students and faculty colleagues. I can proudly say that I can go to any major city in the country (and many outside this country) and easily find a friend to stay with. I have had some unforgettable experiences in this job, mostly helping students believe in themselves to achieve things they didn't think they could. And isn't that what education is all about? My best to you all; may you all be able to look back at this moment as the beginning of the construction of your own edifice, and may you find it as rewarding as I have! As Herb Brooks told the U.S. Olympic hockey team, "This is your time!" Congratulations to all of you.