It was an honor to be asked to address the 2007 Penn Engineering class as their commencement speaker. The video has been posted on YouTube for years, but I was recently asked to post the text. While it is several years old, I don’t believe the message is out of date.
Good afternoon. I know exactly what you are thinking; what is a guy that you have never heard of doing up here delivering your commencement address? Well, truth be told, I am wondering the very same thing. In fact, when Dean Glandt asked me to be here with you, my fist reaction was, “No. I have not accomplished enough to stand in front of such a distinguished crowd. What wisdom do I have to empart to them?” Well, I will do my best today to share something meaningful with you. Let me assure you though, this is not where I expected to be when I was sitting in your seat 16 years ago, thinking, “now what?”
When you got into Penn Engineering, your parents, like mine, probably breathed a sigh of relief. “At least he’ll have valuable skills and a career – and not just some vague liberal arts degree.” Well, I have some bad news for your parents. Engineering is the new liberal arts. It is the lingua franca of the next generation. Technology has become so pervasive, particularly in western cultures, that we engineers are no longer the geeks in the corner – we are now responsible for nothing less than the economic, media, and communication underpinnings of society. But the good news is, if you speak this new universal language – and all of you do – then your opportunities to contribute – not just to your own success but to society at large – are limited only by your drive, your desire, and your ideas.
When I sat in your seat 16 years ago, I of course knew exactly where I was headed. Had it all mapped out. I wanted to be a rock star – a drummer in a rock and roll band. Granted, that is not the most expedient path to becoming a CEO of a digital music company. But please don’t be misled by my title. Yes, I realize being a CEO opens some doors. It gives me the platform to accomplish things that I might never otherwise do. But CEO is the least important aspect of my career trajectory. It is representative of the fact that I have merged my two passions into my career. And that’s what I’d like you to think about today.
What are your passions and how can you incorporate them into your career? How can you utilize these newfound skills? How can today become a jumping off point for tackling the things you deeply care about?
When I graduated from Penn Engineering, I had two passions: I was really into computers and I was really into music. Like many of you, I was tuned in constantly. I played in bands around campus and here in the greater Philadelphia area. I left the engineering lab as often as I could to practice and play gigs. Yes, I was a musician. But I was also an early adopter of technology. Penn helped open my eyes to that. It was clear where the music was headed – computers – to compose and mix, electronic drums, all the new tools of the trade. But I think I knew then that making a career out of my rock and roll aspirations was a long shot.
I came away with a couple of takeaways from this experience. For one thing, I learned that I had somewhat radical intentions from a very early age. The straight and narrow probably was not going to work for me. But the biggest lesson – and the most empowering one of all – was that it is possible to do what you want to do. Maybe not play Madison Square Garden to 20,000 fans. But I was hopeful that I could combine my passion for music with my keen interest in technology.
So I took the same degree that you are receiving today and I went to work at Apple in California. At that time, Apple was still a huge underdog and its future was by no means certain. I fit in with the culture perfectly. Apple embodied the rebel mentality. It was, pardon the expression, marching to the beat of a different drummer. Working for an underdog and innovator like Apple was a great influence. I learned to “think different.” I learned that consumers will reward you for innovation. And most importantly, I learned that technology could be terribly disruptive to incumbent industries.
Remember the phrase “desktop publishing?” Because of the Macintosh and laser printers, an entire business was upended. Apple (and eventually Microsoft) reaped the benefit. It turned the print industry on its head. I saw a chance to take that very same disruptive psychology and apply it the music industry.
When I was a student here, Penn was an early contributor to the development of the Internet. It was clear that as information and entertainment became digitized, the businesses of distribution and retail of entertainment would be transformed. I already knew that music was my true north. So I devoted my career toward working to accelerate, and hopefully reap the benefits of this transformation in the music business.
After joining the first digital music company and then founding another, and trying multiple times to build a business which would be pivotal in the transition of the music industry, eventually, with some partners, we bought eMusic, an abandoned dot-com company in disarray. Long story short? We turned it around to become the number two digital music service in the world. Second only to my old company, Apple. It’s success is due to the fact that consumers, not the music industry itself, forced a format transition from physical goods to digital goods. All enabled by technology. While the incumbent music industry feared, and even ran from this inevitability, I welcomed the disruptive nature of technology and knew it would fundamentally alter the entertainment industry,
However, I don’t want to set up false expectations that if you stick with the drums, you’ll end up CEO of a music company. Dean Glandt did not ask me here today to talk to you about playing in a rock and roll band. So I asked myself, what can I possibly share with a group as educated and informed as you that would be original and have any possible value whatsoever? I labored over this and as I did, it struck me. It’s not about technology or engineering. It’s about the disruptive nature of it.
You see, you all are sitting in the catbird seat for the next industrial revolution. You can join existing industries and work to build them bigger – or you can be the disrupters. The shapers. The policymakers. Every last one of you can land a job in any technology role. At the biggest and most successful companies! You already speak the language. But is that enough? Do you want to get out of bed every day just to log on? Or do you take this incredible genius you possess – this mastery of bits and bytes – and use it for something that matters to you? Something transformative?
There is an ambassador who comes to mind who also got his start like I did, in music. His name is Bono. You’re probably sick of hearing about him. Why does a scruffy singer from a small country in the North Sea have so much clout on the global stage? Because he took a common language, mastered it, and made it his platform for change. It begs the simple question. What is your platform for change going to be? How will you disrupt?
I understand – you might be scratching your head and saying, “C’mon, it’s happened already. The billions have been made – with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, MySpace, YouTube. All the big bets have been placed. Everything has already been disrupted.” But in fact I don’t think that’s true. Those companies are just the building blocks for the next wave. These companies, these web players did not exist 30 years ago. No one knew where it was going back then and honestly, we don’t know, today. That’s where you come in.
How do you take these Goliathan companies and their all-encompassing technologies and turn them on their head? How do you wrap your arms around this knowledge and do something that no one has thought of yet? How do you take this “language” Penn Engineering has taught you and make it stand for something you care about?
My understanding of the digitization of music gave me an inkling that someday the songs I grew up with would be available in formats we could not imagine as kids. The model was changing and I saw that and embraced it and tweaked it and now I get to wake up every morning and spend my days guaranteeing that people can buy it. Any kind of music on any kind of player. Period. That’s what I believe in. That’s where I staked my tent.
Although I’m a computer scientist by degree, I am no quantum physicist or nanotech engineer. I didn’t invent something that is going to save the world. I foresaw a market trend in a field I was passionate about and was fortunate enough to get on board at the cusp of the transition. Sniffing out market trends? This is a very good skill to hone. And you’re not going to find it in any book. Turn to your instincts on this one.
Here are some more examples: Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the guys who figured out how to do “search” better? They got it. Andreas Pavel? How many of you know THAT name. He and his girlfriend tested a new musical device he’d invented, on a snowy day in the Swiss Alps, listening to a Herbie Mann/Duane Allman composition – outdoors! – while they walked! The Walkman was born. Transformational! The way we listen to music has never been the same. And Steve Jobs can’t take all the credit on this one.
Nick Negroponte from MIT media Lab? One laptop Per Child! He is going to change the way children learn and he aims to do so one laptop at a time.
And it won’t just change the way children learn and think. It will change the way countries pull themselves out of poverty. The way emerging markets become self-sustaining. One man’s vision – and the language of technology – is going to change the lives of kids who never dreamt of having a chance – from Angola to Myanmar to Kazakhstan. These people are all using technology to disrupt the natural order, and making something better for consumers – for people – at the same time
Does this mean you have to invent the next big idea? if you have it, fantastic! But I think your mission is greater. You see, as I said at the outset, you are the new liberal arts generation. Technology is now omnipresent in society and you speak the common language. However, there are a lot of you speaking that language and believe me, the pack is closing in. You’re going to need more. You’re going to have to be aggressive, disruptive, and visionary.
I know many of you are thinking about the jobs you will start tomorrow. If I could spark one thought in you today, it would be to look five years out. Ten years out. Ask yourself, what are your kids are going to be listening to? What are they going to read, and watch? What’s their world going to look like? And how are you going to shape it? What industries are going to be completely disrupted by the inventions of today, and how can you, and society, benefit?
So I offer you a challenge. Look at yourself today, and ask what’s going to matter to you tomorrow. Which one of you is going to use your remarkable talent to feed Africa? Who’s going to tackle global warming? Does any one of you really believe, 20 years from now, that we’re going to still be running our cars on thick black crude pumped 2 miles out of the ground from a desert?
You are the 2007 graduating class of Penn Engineering. But engineering is merely the platform for the future. You will be more than engineers. You can engineer the shape of our society and shape the destiny of our lives. You will be inventors. Designers. Architects. Engineers. But through your ideas and design and architecture, you will become the de facto policymakers of the 21st century. You will define our society, all because you understand technology better than everyone else.
Call it a grave responsibility, or the greatest road trip you’ll ever undertake. Either way, you are empowered. There is no turning back. You are truly on the launching pad.
In closing, I offer these words. Follow your passion. Question the status quo. Bang a few drums. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. Take this awesome new language you speak and use it. Put it to work. We truly are on the cusp of a revolution. Get out there and be disruptive. Be responsible and give a damn. And lead. Show us where we’re headed next. It really does matter.