2003 CS Convocation Address
You Ver. 1.0 by
J Allard (BU/CS CAS’91 Microsoft Corp.)
Imagine my surprise when I was asked to speak at graduation this year. I had to re-read the letter 3 times� Invited back? After some legendary undergraduate hijinks, I didn’t think I was allowed back!
As I look out at the class of 2003, I know what each of you is thinking. And I’m thinking the exact same thing. I don’t know who you are either! Now, maybe if I were Colin Powell or David Letterman or Ozzy Osbourne, I could wow you with my power, humor, or with some goofy antics.
Graduation is a sentimental occasion. It’s sentimental for the people who have done so much to bring you to this moment. They’ve given you their time � spent their money � and shared their knowledge, care and love � all stuff you can’t put a value on� at least not yet.
The good news is, those people who have helped you to this moment probably won’t ask anything more in return. Today’s their big payoff.
This is your day, they say. But really, this is their day.
For them, your getting to this day means that you’re now prepared for adulthood, prepared for a career, prepared for the world.
That’s pretty funny, isn’t it?
Because if you’re anything like most newly minted grads � if you’re anything like I was when I was sitting in your chair � you’ve probably rarely, in your life, felt so unprepared.
Are you going to grad school? Good.
Do you have a job lined up? Great.
To you plan to move to Whistler to Snowboard and goof off while you figure out the next step? Well now I’m just jealous.
But is the job, the research or even the mountain in the same universe as what you thought you’d be doing when your grade school teacher asked �what do you want to be when you grow up?� Any similarities between the ideas you had about your life when you chose BU, or chose to go into computer studies and your plans tomorrow?
How would you have known?
Wherever you’re going tomorrow or next week or next month, the sentiments of today won’t have much to do with it. At least not any sentiment other than the elemental one we usually refer to as “What the heck am I doing?”
I’ve been there.
On this day in 1991, I rose from the chair you’re sitting in and was handed an empty tube � no diploma � it turned out I owed a couple of credits and I also wanted to go another round with 294. Okay, I was told I had to go another round with 294. Somehow I didn’t realize that attendance was a major part of the grade despite acing all of the exams. I guess I must have missed that class�
The details of my diploma was hardly the only loose end in my life. I’d been a wreck for at least four months.
I had completely blown a total of two interviews at the career center, and I hated the whole experience. I had no idea what I wanted to do, career-wise. And I had no idea how I was going to find out.
Then one day, over on the other side of the river, my girlfriend and I saw a sign for an upcoming job fair. We scurried home and whipped up some resumes in LaTex in the computer center.
She focused on the format while I did some content, then we swapped roles. As a result, of course, we ended up with practically the exact same resume. They were basically longhand for “no experience”
We went out and bought pretty similar-looking suits, our first, and we were ready.
So the next day, with our fancy leather portfolios under our arms, stuffed with resumes on watermarked paper, we walk into a gymnasium full of� kids in sweatpants and T-shirts.
Anyway, after a couple of horrendous encounters with people who clearly didn’t want to hire me but asked for a resume anyway � and all the while I’m thinking, “Hey, that paper cost me 45 cents a sheet” � a woman named Trish asked me how the job fair was going.
Trish was African American, with a Rastafarian hairstyle and a passion for soccer. She was outgoing, animated and exuded passion for life and all she did. The fact that she was with Microsoft was incidental. I needed a pick-me-up with someone I felt I could relate to.
We ended up talking for 45 minutes, and she made a convincing case that I should give her a resume. Because Microsoft, she said, is the kind of place where you can do whatever you want � and that sounded good to someone who didn’t know what he wanted to do.
It sounded good to Rebecca, too. So we both gave Trish our 45 cent, no experience resumes. And we both got invited to Redmond for interviews and eventually were offered jobs. Go figure.
Within nine days of getting my diploma in 1991, I got married, moved to the west coast, and started working for a company that I had never thought I’d want anything to do with � working on a product that I described as a �carrier virus� during my interviews.
But what did I know? Through a series of random events, I completely stumbled on a place where I’ve been able to do some amazing stuff and have a lot of fun doing it.
I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. My first day at Microsoft, I ran into Trish en route to the cafeteria. Here she was dancing down the hall waving at me and saying, “Hey, MIT!”
I looked over my shoulder to see who she was calling to and asked, “What are you talking about?”
She said, “Yo, it’s Trish. you’re one of the kids I talked to at the MIT job fair. I knew you’d end up here. Welcome.”
I said, “Uh, well, I was actually a BU grad.”
She said, “Damn, and here I was thinking you were gutsy as a white guy crashing a minority job fair � I figured you at least went to MIT”
Hey, I’d rather be lucky than good any day � even if it means feeling pretty ignorant, too… here I was feeling like I stood out because of the suit.
My point is, it’s OK not to know. You should be asking questions about what you want to do with what you’ve learned .. and the big swatch of time called your life that’s out there now, staring you in the face.
Whether you’re going to job interviews or not, now’s the time for you to really start interviewing yourself.
Whether you’ve lined up a job, gotten admitted to grad school or have a place lined up at Whistler � or none of the above � it’s important to keep asking big questions � of yourself. And not just now but again and again and again. Just like a software program, you need to evolve yourself – if for no other reason than you want to remain relevant. 1.0 is just your starting point.
it’s important because, as computer scientists, what you do know is so powerful.
I don’t know what drew you all into the field, but I’ll bet it’s much of the same stuff that got me. Scratch a computer geek, and we’re all pretty much the same underneath the skin.
Computers are cool because They’re hugely powerful.
They’re always right.
And trying to beat something that can’t be beat is an irresistible challenge, especially for competitive, analytical and driven people like the people in the room here today.
But computers are especially cool because they can make so much happen so fast. Computers are the basis for all major advances in all fields today and will power this millennium � in our lifetime, we will all see software surround and empower our lives more completely than even water or electricity.
Consider for a moment pharmaceutical development. it’s entirely possible that you could start researching a disease in your 20s and die of it, decades later, before you could find the cure, get it approved, and bring it to market to affect lives during your lifetime.
The application of computer science holds the unique potential of an amazingly short gestation period, incredible scale and is a key enabling technology across all the sciences. With computers, you can go from the big insightful bang, your gee whiz moment, to having a huge impact or result in a matter or months or a few short years. Back to pharmaceuticals, even if you were fortunate enough to work on a study or product that had very quick results, it would be hard to ignore the role that computational theory and application played in its success.
In our field, Moore’s law allows for technology to often outpace our visions for what we want to do with it. In our field, the Internet provides not only a framework to couple systems together for greater scale and impact, but also offers nearly friction-free access to our associates, our customers and our beneficiaries. There are amazing network effects in computing. And network effects are powerful.
At the age of 10, and as I stand here today, I am hard pressed to cite any field which has more potential impact or is advancing as rapidly as the one you have all been trained to take forward.
I grew up as part of the convenience generation. Remote controls, 7-11’s, :30 minute delivery guarantees, drive-thrus and Microwave ovens. Society helped mold me into a super impatient guy. My aptitude with Math (and a minor Atari addiction) drove me into programming. And as I headed off for college, I held a common idealistic mindset: No boundaries. Change the world. And do it fast. Problem was, I didn’t have any idea what that meant or how to go about it beyond knowing that knowing computers would probably help.
Up until a few weeks before I was to leave BU, I had no desire to work for a company like Microsoft. I hated PCs. I hated Windows. And I was absolutely not motivated by the capitalism of computers � in fact, I had no idea what a stock option was back then, and I couldn’t care less.
What I finally realized as a neared my own “1.0” was that I wanted a chance to make a dramatic cultural impact on a lot of peoples� lives through technology. But none of that had dawned on me until I ran into this random woman at a minority job fair I crashed and took the interview.
Everyone who interviewed me at Microsoft asked the expected technical questions, but what surprised me was how quick they were to challenge me on my vision for me version “2.0”. They’d say, it’s obvious you’re not a big company guy. you’re right, I said. I hate big companies. And did I mention that I also hate PCs and I think that Windows is a toy?
So what are you doing here? They’d ask.
And I realized, literally while I was interviewing, what I wanted, and what it meant.
You see, I was all fired up about this thing called the Internet. In fact, at BU I’d taken on the job as a lab TA to get more time on the Internet in good ol’ B19. I wrote a bunch of sockets code, I took every networking class that existed. I read all the books and I wrote TCP checksum algorithms in assembler just for fun.
And now, literally while I was interviewing, I realized that I wanted the Internet to become commercialized so everyone could use it � not just researchers, the DMV and geeks like me. I wanted to marry the Internet to Windows. While the purist in me loathed Windows (back then, a new version “3.0” had just came out), the Internet believer in me was happy to treat it as his carrier virus.
Literally while I was interviewing, I discovered that what I really wanted was to see the day where my Mom would want to, and be able to, get on the Internet so I could exchange email with her.
I was genuinely surprised at the conclusion � but that’s what’s so fun about discovering something, especially about yourself.
At the MIT job fair, Trish had told me that you get to write you own job description at Microsoft. And that’s just what I got to do. Where I needed help was in my interviewing skills. I didn’t realize that I had to interview me. What I didn’t realize is that I had to be thinking about me version “2.0” and not just basking in the latest release.
I owe Trish, big-time.
I owe the people who interviewed me � and hired me anyway � big-time.
I know I was lucky. I stumbled into my first opportunity, pretty much with my eyes shut tight � at least until the last minute. The best I can wish for you is that you’ll find the same kind of opportunity � whether it comes now or down the line somewhere.
Your chances are good. In fact, They’re far better than mine were. Because you’re lucky, too. Your luck is that, over the last 10 years, both the number and the scale of the opportunities to change the world with Computer Science have grown exponentially. It turns out that it’s also more likely that you can share what you do with others at a dinner party with fewer blank stares than I used to get.
The people handing out degrees in other schools today may disagree, but I believe that software has evolved to become the DNA of our society and in fact most of all of advanced civilization. it’s the genome driving the evolution of business, entertainment, social services, culture, and everyday life. Yeah, it’s a pretty big thing.
And as CS grads, you’ve got the keys to the car.
Now, that metaphor puts me at risk of sounding like dad when you got your driver’s license, and that’s not really my style.
But here it is, anyway: Take your opportunities seriously.
You can do great work. You deserve to do great work. you’ll do great work if � and only if � you want to do it, you believe in it, and you’re happy doing it.
My advice is, chill out � at least as far as the near term, the first job � whether you’ve got it in your pocket now or not. Get over your Google hit quotient and onto what really matters to you.
If you’re going through anything like what I went through 12 years ago, you may be thinking that your next choice is the biggest choice you’ll ever make.
But that’s not true. We all get to reinvent ourselves. As often as we want. Just like software. And, you can evolve by making incremental revisions, or step up to a completely new version as needed. The design, effort and code to get there is entirely up to you.
By now, you’ve probably had enough tests. So you can file this one under �Weird questions I may have to answer someday.� When I interview job candidates, I like to ask them what they want to be doing in 18 months. And the answer I really like to hear is �
“I don’t know.”
it’s not a trick question. it’s an inspiration to re-evaluate and to evolve your program. Sitcoms are about people who don’t � They’re stuck. They’re living with a bunch of choices that have been made for them, rather than by them. that’s funny to watch, but tragic to live. And we’ve all been there.
So unless you want to live someone else’s choices, you have to re-evaluate at least periodically. You have to ask yourself, “Am I happy? Am I doing what I want to do? Should I be doing something else?”
If you’re like me and have passion for impact, it’s imperative that you are doing what you love. it’s the only way you’ll do you best work.
Since graduating, I have come across a lot of driven, passionate people in a lot of different companies. The tragedy is I see too many of them living to work and not enough of them working to live. I see many of them stuck in career �infinite loops� and not chasing their dreams.
The people I try to surround myself with are driven, passionate, and happy because they intend it that way. And we keep that intention in front of us every day. we’re doing precisely what we want to do and are constantly evolving our programs to line up with our dreams.
Today, you’re version 1.0 of you. you’re not bug-free, but you work well enough. So the good folks here in the department have decided to �release you to market� as we say in the biz. Just remember once you’re out there that you’re open source.
A career is made up of several jobs � if you find yourself feeling stuck in just one, you may need to redefine the job, or find a new one.
And a life is made up of a lot of different careers � if you find yourself feeling stuck in a career, it will be up to you to update the program.
And if you don’t fully buy what I’m selling � consider this. Had I not constantly re-evaluated, I would have probably stuck it out at RPI and gotten a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Windows might just be getting around to adding Internet capabilities � and I wouldn’t have had the chance to help. If I didn’t decide to chase a massive �me� upgrade, Xbox would probably never exist. I would not be here today with you. But most of all, I wouldn’t be as happy with who I am or what I do.
As computer scientists, the huge, pervasive importance of computers in our world is now your responsibility. As people, doing what you want to do and being happy doing it � that’s your responsibility, too.
I want to thank Chairman Bestavros and the department for inviting me back to BU to share this important day with you. it’s exciting to see how much the department has evolved and reinvented itself in such a short time.
And I want to thank each of you and offer my sincere congratulations. Everything good about today and all that will follow from it, you have earned. I look forward to both your impact and your upgrades in the years to come.
Good luck programs!