AFSE Commencement Speech

Four and a half years ago, in January 2012, I announced on this blog that New York City was opening a new high school called the Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE).

Yesterday, AFSE graduated its first class. 110 of the 120 students who enrolled four years ago made it to graduation. And each and every one of these students took four years of computer sciences classes on their way from enrollment to graduation. It was a proud day for me as it was for them and their families.

Seung Yu, AFSE’s founding and current school principal, asked me to give the commencement speech. That was an instant yes.

So I stood in front of the graduates yesterday and talked about three things that have helped me in my professional life.

Here is the draft I wrote. As I got into it, I ad libbed a fair bit, but this is certainly the gist of what I said to the graduates yesterday:

Now for some parting advice for all of you graduating seniors. Listen up, I am going to tell you my secrets of success in business. This speech isn’t really about your family life. I could go on and on about that too but I would just say that you need a balance between your work life and your family life. You need to focus on both and they support each other. A healthy home life makes for a healthy work life. You need both.

So with that, I am here to tell you that the secret to success in your career comes down to three things, take risks, work hard, and get lucky.

You are all risk takers. You chose AFSE as eighth graders when the school literally did not exist. I remember what it was like back then. Parents would tell me “I can’t send my child to a school that doesn’t exist”. Guidance counselors would say “I can’t recommend that school to my students” I would hear people say things like “girls can’t go to a school like that” or “you can’t teach coding skills to every student”. And I am sure you heard the same things. But you came anyway. And standing here today, I will tell you that you attended and graduated from one of the top 25 high schools in NYC. I don’t know if there are actual rankings, but it is my belief that if you measure high schools on things like attendance, graduation rate, regents scores, AP scores, SAT scores, colleges attended, and reputation, AFSE would be an elite high school. One of the very best. And you went there and graduated from there. You took a big risk and it paid off for you. Keep doing that.

I have taken a bunch of risks in my life. I grew up in an army family and I broke ranks and decided not to go to West Point where my dad and his dad went. Instead I went to MIT, even though my parents could not afford to send me there. I worked in a research lab and sold donuts and coffee every morning to pay my way through MIT. I followed my wife Joanne and moved to NYC after college when my dad told me it was too expensive to live here. I went to business school and paid my way by teaching computers to my classmates. I took at job in venture capital when nobody knew what that was instead of going to work on wall street with the rest of my classmates. When the Internet emerged in the mid 90s, I left my safe job and started a new venture capital firm after my wife Joanne had quit her job to raise our three kids. When the Internet blew up and we lost most of our money, I started another venture capital firm and spent almost two years flying around the country spending money we really didn’t have trying to convince people to give me money again to invest in the Internet. I invested in social media when people said you could never make money in it. I invested in crowdfunding when people said that nobody would do that. I invested in Etsy when people said you could not compete with eBay. All of those risks paid off. Every single one of them. Thankfully my wife Joanne backed me every single time when I wanted to take those risks. She believed in me and believed in those bets. She hung in there when times were tough and made it possible for me to take these chances. We are an example of what happens when you hang together and take risks together.

I am not suggesting you take silly risks. I am suggesting you take calculated risks. Each and every time I took a risk there were people telling me not to do it. I listened to them. I did not disregard their advice lightly. I thought about it. And many times I have decided not to take a risk. But when, after listening and carefully considering the risks, my gut tells me to take a risk, i do it.

And then once you do that you have to work your ass off. I get up every morning at 5am. I have worked half a day by the time I get to the office at 9am. I still do that at age 55 when I have no need to anymore. It is what I do. I work hard. Because if you are going to take these risks, you have to work hard to make them pay off. This is not the lottery. You don’t just buy a ticket and sit back and see what happens. You take a risk and you work every day to make sure it comes through for you.

You all have worked hard. You have studied for the regents, the AP exams, the SATs, you have learned hard things like writing software. You have seen that hard work pays off. Keep working hard. It’s the only way to get somewhere.

But taking risks and working hard is not enough. You have to get lucky too. Luck is not just catching a lucky break. You have to be able to recognize it as such. You have to prepare your mind to recognize the lucky break when it comes your way. The Internet emerging as a massive financial opportunity in the mid 90s was my biggest lucky break. But I had put myself in a position to take advantage of that lucky break by deciding to work in venture capital ten years before that, by working hard to get better at my craft, and by paying close attention to the emerging areas of technology. I saw the Internet for what it was long before most people did. That was my luckiest break but I also knew it and jumped on it.

Everyone gets lucky breaks in their life. I can’t tell you when your lucky breaks will come. But I can tell you that they will come. You must be able to see them for what they are, you must be in a position to act on them, and you must not miss them. Pay attention, look carefully, and be prepared for your lucky breaks.

So that’s it. That’s my secret for a happy and productive career. Take risks, work hard, and get lucky. You have already done all three. Keep doing it.