I was wrapping up an interview when I got a Twitter DM from Pablo. It was an invitation to give the commencement speech for the University of Seville’s CS School, where I studied. Wow, I was not expecting that at all. I was humbled and very excited to help as much as I could and give back to the education system I owe so much. Furthermore, even though my mother has a hard time grasping what I do, she felt very proud of me when she heard this news.
When the excitement settled and I got some free time to work on the actual speech I realized how tricky the task was. I wanted to do something different from previous years. I wanted students to feel connected and empowered with what I was going to tell. It’s not easy to write something based on your own experience that is motivating but also keeps a down-to-earth and humble tone. I wanted to make sure students could see that I was sitting there a few years ago, struggling with the same problems they had been suffering. Luckily, the inspiration from Steve Jobs helped me to come up with a structure, and ideas flowed pretty easily afterward.
I also really wanted to take advantage of the virtual aspect of the event (due to Covid restrictions) to show up in extremely casual attire. I probably would not have been able to get away from suiting up had it been an on-site event (mom would have killed me 😅). But I felt showing up with a beard, wearing jeans and a t-shirt was certainly going to help to cause an impression with the students. Seville’s tech ecosystem used to be quite corporatey, and programmers would wear suits just to write code. I thought this would be a subtle way to show that it does not really matter how you look like, but what you do.
This is the transcript of the talk. There are details that I would have loved to have a little bit more time to polish, but overall, I am quite happy with how it turned out.
Video of the commencement ceremony (Spanish)
Good evening everyone. Thanks a lot for the introduction and for allowing me to share this evening with all of you, and to come back home even if it is virtually. Of course, I want to start by congratulating all the students that are graduating today, their families, and partners. I can imagine how a subset of you, in which I’d include myself, could never imagine this day happening. It was probably more obvious for others, but everyone has sacrificed and put a lot of effort to get to this point. And finally, you are starting to see the rewards. Today is a day of pride, and all of us should be very happy.
Well, everyone besides me, because it makes me realize how time flies and how old I am getting. It has been 8 years since I finished studying and moved to the United States. But honestly, I am honored for being able to be here today. When Pablo reached out to invite me I accepted immediately, without hesitation. I was not expecting it at all, and honestly, I did not know what I was getting into.
When I had some time to process it, I entered a state that was a combination of excitement and panic. I did not know where to start, or how I would find some time to prepare something that was not super boring. So I did what everybody would have done: search for an example to plagiarize. One of the most popular ones is the commencement speech from Steve Jobs (Stanford 2005). So I am going to take the liberty to take some inspiration from Apple’s co-founder, and not only his jeans and t-shirt look. Steve told 3 different stories in his speech. To not reinvent the wheel, and assuming he already found the optimal number, I am going to talk about 3 personal stories and what I learned along the way.
1. Finding your passion
The first story I want to tell you is called find and chase your passion. Personally, I am privileged for having found my passion at a very young age. I imagine that everyone will have a similar story about how and when you decided to study Computer Science. Maybe some of you have even regretted that day multiple times. For me, the key moment was when my grandfather bought me my first computer when I was 8 years old. It was the Windows 95 era and during that time Bill Gates was the person that everyone was talking about. The wealthiest person in the world. Not only I decided back at that moment that I wanted to become a Software Engineer, but that I have to travel to Silicon Valley, where all the innovation was happening, and start a software company there. The reality is that the world is slightly more complex than what I thought when I was 8. I didn’t even know where Silicon Valley was. This dream started to vanish little by little. It became something like the broken dream that other kids have of becoming professional soccer players or astronauts. And by the time I started my CS degree, I had already given up. So much that only my closest friends and family knew about this. It sounded so crazy that I was even ashamed of sharing it. However, it was always in the back of my mind. I tried to take small steps that, even without knowing it at the moment, would make me be a little bit closer to Silicon Valley. Improve my English, study abroad, learn everything I could about product development… Finally, destiny brought me to Silicon Valley. Initially to work as an internship, later as a full-time Software Engineer. And in 2017, I managed to start a company with a good friend. Today we have employees in 14 different cities around the world. It is certainly not as glamorous as I thought when I was a kid, but it’s as rewarding as the day I presented my master’s degree thesis.
The important part of this story is not me or what I am currently doing. The important part is that no matter how insane your passion is, you should never lose the illusion to chase it. When I got the opportunity to go to Silicon Valley, the decision was not as obvious as you might think. I had to leave my family, friends, and girlfriend behind… it meant getting out of my comfort zone. Eventually, I decided that even if everything went south, I would have always regretted not taking the opportunity to live the experience. Even if it sounds risky, you should always try to take the risk that makes you closer to your goals. Particularly when you are young. Don’t be afraid to fail. You will learn so much more when things go wrong than from successes.
Many of you will not have found your passion yet, and that is totally ok. You still have time! Furthermore, some of you might hate computers after all of these years. The reality is that it does not matter. And from experience, I can assure you that if you persisted and got graduate from this school, you will be able to work on whatever technical role you are interested in. The important thing is that you find something that you are truly passionate about, and fight to achieve it. It does not matter how ridiculous it might sound, or what other people think. It might be becoming the best programmer in the world, academia, open-source software, videogame development, working at Google, or even trying to start a company that ends up acquiring Google. Don’t let others decide for you. Believe me, life is too short to live somebody else’s dream. A couple of days ago I was at the Calculus test review, trying to convince the professor I should pass, and today I am here giving this talk and pretending I am a little bit smart.
Don’t lose your illusion, don’t be afraid of failure, and stand up every time you fall. If you don’t keep trying, you won’t know if this time was the right time.
The second point I want to touch on today is luck. Or actually, how to understand its effect. When I was young and naive, I thought luck did not exist. With hard work, you can achieve anything, I thought. Most of you will be wiser than me and will already be aware of how wrong I was. How many of you only did not prepare one section when studying for the exam, and it was the section that ended up being tested? And on the other hand, how many of you were lucky enough to be asked the only topic you had studied? When I was a student, my concept of luck was extremely simplistic. If you study everything, you will know how to answer any question and solve any problem. Hard work was always the answer.
After a few months of being an intern in Silicon Valley, the startup I was working at offered me a full-time job. In the US you need a work visa. I thought I had made it. I’ve worked really hard and this is my reward! I am going to be able to stay! The visa made me a little bit closer to being able to start a company someday.
But the luck factor appeared in the most unexpected way to give me a reality check. For the first time in 6 years, there were more applications than available visas. The selection of who would get a visa would be performed randomly by the US Immigration department. No merits, skills, or qualifications. A lottery. That was the moment in my life in which I finally realized that hard work was not everything. My future completely depended on a random algorithm. I will spare you the months of anxiety and I’ll tell you that my application got eventually selected in the lottery. But I will never forget that terrible feeling of lack of control. I cannot say for sure that I would have not achieved my goal of starting a company had the lottery result been different, but it would have been a very tough setback. Needless to say, while chasing my passion, there have been multiples instances in which luck has been a big factor, either for good or bad.
Since then, I have changed my mental framework. The way I see it today, 3 factors impact the result of challenging goals: natural talent, hard work, and luck. Natural talent could be a great advantage, but unfortunately, you cannot do much to influence it. And it is extremely easy to overestimate. With a lot of talent but without hard work or a little bit of luck, it’s going to be difficult to achieve your challenges. So let’s take it out of the equation to simplify the problem.
We are left with 2 variables: hard work, and luck. Good luck can help us not having to work that hard, but bad luck exists and can equally destroy your plans. Don’t underestimate luck. Be mindful that bad and good luck are heavy factors in the equation. At every stage of the way, good or bad, analyze what percentage can be attributed to the luck factor. But do it critically! In general, we tend to blame bad luck for failures and we tend to minimize the effect of good luck when things go well. Don’t fall into this common trap.
Work as hard as you can to minimize the effect of bad luck, but be aware it exists. It will help you calibrate your decisions, take calculated risks, and better understand the bumps in the road.
3. Do the right thing
The third and last story I want to tell you today is about doing the right thing. I had an elective class during my last year as a student called “Technology, Computer Science and Society”, where I learned about ethics and professional deontology. Though unbelievably interesting from a philosophical standpoint, I always thought it was not something I’d use on a daily basis as an engineer. At the end of the day, I was going to be playing with computers. I was not going to contribute to society the same way a doctor or a lawyer does.
Similar to my previous story, it’s obvious how wrong I was about this. You have acquired the most demanded skills in today’s society, and that’s a huge responsibility. Situations that were unimaginable before will be the direct result of the decisions you make. Data handling and analysis equal power, and it can be used for terrible goals. You are aware of how technology can be used as a weapon, to manipulate, create addiction, hate, or even affect election results. Don’t ever forget that with technological advances your actions will have a huge influence on future generations.
But I don’t want to bore you right now. You might even think I am exaggerating. We don’t need to go that far, or even limit this to your professional life. What I am trying to say is something very simple: be a good person. It is super easy to fall into small temptations or shortcuts, but sooner or later they will come back to bite you. Always treat each other the same way you want to be treated. Never take credit from a co-worker’s job. Always listen to other’s opinions as equals, particularly give voice to minorities or people with less experience. Always pay it forward, not expecting anything in return. You never know who could end up being your new co-worker or boss.
For instance, I can tell you how tricky it is to hire really good engineers. Particularly when your product is just a crazy idea. But I managed to convince some classmates from this school to join our team because I had a very good relationship with them. Similarly, treating well all our customers (even when our solution was not a fit), has helped word of mouth and these customers ended up recommending our product.
Some of you will end up in a leadership position. When the day comes, be the example that inspires your team. Don’t become bosses, become leaders.
In my experience in Silicon Valley, I have learned how important reputation is. It’s one of these things I didn’t think was that important initially, but it really influences and feeds the ecosystem. It affects every layer: founders, employees, investors… It is quite common for founders who failed but were honest and responsible with the money, to get funded again for new projects. However, those who cheat, trick or abuse employees have a hard time raising money or even getting a job later.
Your reputation is your most precious treasure, don’t take it for granted. It takes years to build a good reputation, but a single bad action can destroy it forever.
I would like to conclude by reflecting on the current state of the world. Even though it might seem quite pessimistic, I think your future is actually brilliant. Mobility restrictions due to the pandemic have radically accelerated remote work. Not only the world needs more engineers than ever, but job opportunities are for the first time truly global. Today you don’t need a work visa or move to San Francisco. You can work for international companies from Seville, or build new products with a global audience. Don’t think about this situation as a barrier, but an amazing opportunity to develop your skills.
Remember the three stories I told today. If you chase your passion, work really hard, and are good people, the only missing piece will be a little bit of good luck. Don’t stop learning after University. Keep being curious and stand up after each fall. Eventually, good luck will be on your side. Enjoy the ride. I wish you the best of luck. I am extremely excited to see the future you will build. Thank you very much.
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