Northwest Missouri State University Commencement Address

30 Apr 2016

Last night, I had the pleasure of delivering the commencement address to several hundred graduate students at my alma mater, Northwest Missouri State University.

It was an honor to receive an invitation after 25 years, thanks in many respects to Dr. Carol Spradling whom I had met during my own undergraduate studies. And, much appreciation goes to the University President, Dr. John Jasinski, for reaching out personally to extend the invitation.

A transcript of the address follows.

Commencement Address

I’d like to start this evening by thanking the wonderful people at Northwest for extending an invitation to deliver the commencement address. I’m humbled by the offer and honored to be in your presence.

Twenty five years ago, I sat where you are, eagerly awaiting my transition from what seemed like an endless era of class rooms, study groups, semester projects and exams, to a new life of compelling and meaningful work. I was thrilled with the idea of closing that chapter and redirecting my energy towards earning income and building a successful career.

In many respects, my career has been much more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. But, what I didn’t know at the time was how little I knew. It turns out that chapter of learning should never be closed. And thankfully, it never did.

The years that I spent here at Northwest taught me one critical lesson—how to learn. In fact, this may be your most important tool as you embark on your own journey in life. What you need to know 25 years from now will almost certainly be radically different than what you know today.

If you don’t think so… in my field of computer science, this phone I’m holding in my hand is 250 times more powerful than the largest computer we had on campus in 1991, which by the way, was serving the entire student population. Technology is rapidly disrupting virtually every industry we know, whether it be the way we hail a taxi, the way we think about money, or even the way education is delivered. Everything is different now. And, everything will be different tomorrow.

My first exposure to computing happened at the ripe age of 10 when my father brought home a fancy new calculator with a cutting-edge feature—the ability to be programmed. That seminal moment in my life started a journey that eventually led to my enrollment in the computer science program at Northwest.

One of the primary reasons I chose Northwest was that each dormitory room had been equipped with a computer terminal. At that time, there were very few universities providing such a service, so Northwest was quite progressive in creating a unique student experience as the age of computing was blossoming. The ability to access a computer at any time of the day gave me the opportunity to pursue personal learning interests outside of academics. Those personal projects would later prove to be instrumental in contributing to a distinguished career as a software engineer.

I went to work for a small health care software company in Kansas City that virtually no one had heard of—Cerner. At the time, they were recruiting quite heavily from Northwest, primarily because they used the same kind of computers we had access to as students. Cerner had fewer than 400 people when I joined and annual revenues of $77 million. Today, we have more than 22,000 associates with offices in 38 countries and annual revenues just shy of $4.5 billion.

Funny story… I found out years later that the VP of Engineering—and we only had one at that time—had almost passed on hiring me for what he cited as concerns over my awkwardness and intelligence. Yes… he was worried that I was too smart for my own good and might get bored. But, in the end, he took a chance because saw the passion and the energy.

Less than three months into the job, my manager approached me with the idea of developing a type of software that had never been attempted before at Cerner. On the surface, there was very little in my academic background that could have prepared me for this particular endeavor. Yet, other than blind ambition, all the tools of success were there. I knew the fundamentals of computer science. I had learned how to learn. And, I had an insatiable appetite for learning new things.

So, I jumped at the opportunity to do something new and exciting, and went on to spend the better part of that decade building software systems that would play a significant role in making Cerner one of the most successful companies in the health care IT industry.

What I discovered is that opportunity is everywhere. However, most of us don’t see it because we’re not looking for it. And, rarely does opportunity present itself without an investment of time and energy. Sometimes we are indeed given opportunities, but the most rewarding are those we seek.

I was having a lot of fun designing systems and writing software, but there was another change happening around me that required a new set of skills. Those skills, I would contend, are the reason I stand before you today.

What are those skills? Communication. Relationships. Leadership.

I spent most of my academic life learning everything I needed to know about computer science and mathematics. Anything that could help me develop better software. I thought to myself, what else was there besides writing great software?

Well, it became increasingly evident during the early stages of my career that communication skills were essential for growth and success. Great ideas are only as good as your ability to influence others to embrace them, and communication is your tool for doing that. Communication is not just about writing and speaking as methods of conveying your thoughts, but also about listening to and empathizing with others.

I quickly recognized my own need to improve communication skills, so I spent a considerable amount of time practicing the art of writing. In fact, I was known to keep a thesaurus on my desk at all times. Today, the physical book may be gone, but there is always a virtual rendition open on my laptop.

Any time I have a chance to speak with students, particularly those in science and technology, I strongly urge them to consider taking a course in creative writing or public speaking. Plant the seeds of communication early and it will serve you well in life.

On relationships… there will almost certainly be a time in your career where the next job or the next opportunity will have more to do with a relationship than anything else. Sure, performance and experience matter, but at the end of the day, people desire to work with those they trust and those they can relate to.

Seven years ago, I stepped away from my day-to-day responsibilities to launch an incubator project that would fundamentally change the way Cerner designed software. The success of that project hinged on recruiting the right people. Fortunately, the relationships I had forged over the years allowed me to essentially hand-pick those individuals.

Relationships can be formed in many ways, but virtually all are built on trust. Relationships open doors. And, those doors represent opportunities.

One of the indirect benefits of joining Cerner at such an early time in its history is that our CEO often spoke about leadership. The growth and survival of the company would depend on the generations of leaders that would be cultivated over the years. Failure to do so meant failure as a company. The lessons in leadership were frequent… and sometimes unpleasant.

The opportunities to lead are actually quite plentiful in this world. But, leadership should not be confused with being in a position of leadership. True leadership is earned, not given. People follow you because they trust you, and that trust must be earned.

I found myself at a very young age being faced with the prospect of leading teams of software developers. In fact, it just sort of happened gradually. But, it happened for a reason. I had earned the trust of executives and peers. Trust comes not only from the achievement of results, but also from the willingness to take risks, serving others, and remaining principled in the face of adversity.

People get appointed to positions of leadership all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that others will follow.

In the context of leadership, we often distinguish between span of control and span of influence. In a typical manager/employee relationship, which is often equated to leadership, the employee is compelled to follow the manager. This relationship is about control.

In contrast, leadership based on influence is much more powerful and effective regardless of one’s position of control. For example, I know a few software engineers at Cerner with far greater capacity to sway the minds of others than many managers and executives. Not surprisingly, the CEO also knows these engineers because he understands the influence they wield on the rest of the company.

Most of my lessons in leadership came from the School of Hard Knocks. And, most of your lessons will follow a similar path. You simply have to learn from your mistakes and move on.

Before I wrap up this evening, let me leave you with some simple words of advice as you embark on your own journey in life.

Never stop learning. Our CEO used to say, in business, you’re either growing or you’re dying.

Teach yourself how to learn.

Learn new things that make you uncomfortable.

Understand that mistakes are human and part of the learning process.

Read books, read papers, read anything you can get your hands on.

Build relationships.

Learn how to communicate.

Keep an open mind about the world and the opportunities it presents.

And finally, give back and teach others.

Your career, whatever you decide to seek, is a lifelong journey that I can assure will bring many wonderful surprises. Today, we celebrate a very important milestone in that journey.

I wish all of you the best of luck while pursuing your dreams. Just remember to have fun along the way.

Thank you.