Two alumni who happen to be star-quality technology executives came back to Berkeley in May to give graduation speeches.
Expect change and profit from it
Shantanu Narayen, the CEO of Adobe Systems returned on Saturday, May 19, to address the Haas School’s Class of 2012. In congratulating the new grads, he recalled earning his (’93) M.B.A. at night “while working at Apple full-time during the day.” Rather than doling out “thoughtful quotes from historical figures like Kennedy or Mark Twain or Sun Tzu,” he decided “to deconstruct my own life lessons” and share those secrets.
Among them: “The answer isn’t in a spreadsheet.” In building a new business, you need to rely on your gut: “every business or market starts as a zero-billion-dollar business.” On the face of it, “the case for Photoshop was not that compelling. Our founders thought they might sell a few hundred copies.” Photoshop is now, of course, “at the core of a multibillion-dollar business.” What happened? “Digital photography became reality; imagery in new channels like the web exploded; and the rest is history.”
A second secret: “Know your zen.” Understand what’s important to you. The conventional wisdom when Narayen was earning his MBA was that product management and business development were more lucrative career tracks than engineering. He loved to invent, and “I wanted the products that I built to be used by millions and to be commercially successful.” So he continued in engineering, but added management skills. “You have the power to reinvent yourself as often as you choose.”
Third secret: “Surround yourself with people smarter than you.” You might think you’re supposed to be the smartest person in the room, but if one of your staff is a pro at something you’re not so good at, “does that reflect badly on you? No, it makes you look like a genius for hiring them!”
Overall, expect things to continue to change, in industry, personally, politically, economically, and technologically, “faster than they ever have before.” Embrace it, roll with it, and profit from it. “Think back two years ago — you were just receiving your admissions notification from Haas. Tablets were only starting to gain ground. Instagram didn’t exist. The Arab Spring was just a dream, but within a year multiple regimes were toppling. China unseated Japan as the world’s second largest economy.”
Technology’s just a tool — don’t let it rule you
A week earlier, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, gave the keynote speech at a campus-wide ceremony for all 2012 graduates. (Schmidt is a two-degree Berkeley alumnus, with a 1979 M.S. and a 1982 Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.)
Like Narayen, Schmidt gave advice. It was, appropriately, less business-oriented, but inevitably referred to technology, even in his nostalgia — “I walked across this stage in 1982. That year, the computer was Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’.”
“Computers,” he continued, “were just entering the mainstream, big blocky contraptions, lugged into houses and plunked down on desks. Most of America had no idea of the power in those machines. But most Americans started to find they suddenly had more time for dreams. Even in their wildest dreams, though, there is no way they thought that 30 years later their children, their grandchildren, would carry something exponentially more powerful with them everywhere they go, on their laps, in their pockets — digital connections forged among millions around the world, tethered together at all times in a form of worldwide community.”
He asked, “What’s the first thing you do when you get up? Check your phone? Your laptop? Read some email, comb through your social networks?” He told a joke “about the college kid getting mugged who says, ‘Hold on — let me update my status, letting my friends know I’m getting mugged, then you can have my phone.’ This is ridiculous, obviously…but it’s also a stark depiction of just how essential technology has become to your generation’s identity.”
He told the new grads that while some people “bemoan a generation who grew up living life in front of screens,” it’s actually a competitive edge. “You have an innate mastery of technology, and ability to build and foster connections that no generation before you ever possessed.” He called that connection ability “a blessing, not a curse,” because it can help solve many problems in the world.”
But: “Just because we know much more than we used to doesn’t mean our problems just go away.” Technology, he said, “doesn’t work on its own. It’s just a tool. You are the ones who harness its power.”
While he fully believes in “the power of technology to change the world for the better,” he nevertheless warned: “You can’t let technology rule you.” He urged them (and, really, everyone) to “take at least one hour a day and turn off your devices.” Instead of staring at the screen, he said, “look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a real conversation. Engage with the world around you.”
Upon leaving, he suggested, keep the friendships “you forged when the times were good, when the times were bad — and when you realized you just overslept your lecture” as the people you’ve met at Berkeley ”will be some of the strongest friends and closest allies you will ever meet in your lives.”
Finally, he said, “say Yes” — to new friends, a new country, a new language. “Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job. Yes is how you find your spouse.”
Schmidt was honored in March as the Cal Alumni Association’s Alumnus of the Year.