Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I'm going to speak at my next Toastmasters meeting on Thu. It's the sixth out of ten speeches required to earn the Advanced Communicator Bronze designation. I'm working out of a manual entitled "The Professional Speaker." The first assignment is to deliver a 15-20 keynote address. It's easily the longest speech I've ever been asked to give.

I'm looking forward to it.

Here's the text of the speech. I thought I'd post it here for the hell of it. Plus if I lose the text before I speak I can always come here and fetch it.

“The Professional Speaker”
Assignment 1: The Keynote Speech

Target organization: young professionals at the start of their career.

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests:

Opening: One of the things that I love about working for a company like Travelers is seeing so many young people joining the firm. You see them walking through The Link, well-dressed, clutching a Travelers red umbrella like it’s a lost-and-found family heirloom. Eyes wide, ears open, frantically trying to remember the names in this maze of buildings so they’ll have a hope of appearing at their first meetings on time.

For some, this is their first job after earning a college degree. They’re walking with ten league boots: separating themselves from their parents, living on their own, paying bills, being adults. What a huge change! If we view life as a series of decades, each its own transition, this is the foundation for adulthood. This is when you start your career trajectory, think about marriage, and decide how you feel about children. It’s the basis for our entire society.

I remember my first day on the job very well, but my gray hair gives me away. It’s a distant memory: it’s been a long time since then. Let’s inject some humor into this keynote, shall we?

• There was no cable; no CNN or Fox or ESPN.
• There was no Internet; no Facebook or Twitter.
• There were no cell phones; no iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry.
• There was no e-mail.
• Computers were kept in a separate room, with its own air-conditioning under the floor, and shared by an entire department.
• Communicating with that computer meant some interactive terminals, but it also included punched paper cards.
• There was a vault in which vellum blueprints were stored for each component. Computer aided design and manufacturing was in its infancy.

Compared to today’s office, those early state-of-the-art facilities felt like a scene out of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” More coal for the fire?

The scope and scale of technological change is breathtaking, but the human elements are unchanged. As I look back on my career, I thought about what I might have wanted to tell that younger version of myself. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom that I offer for your consideration.

Story 1: Figure out what’s important to you.

What’s your goal? Is it money? Climbing to the top of a corporate ladder? Being an effective individual contributor with deep technical knowledge? Whatever that goal is, spend some time figuring out what is important to you. You can’t reach a goal unless you know what it is and the steps you’ll need to execute to get there.

There is a price to pay for everything. Positions of high reward come with great responsibility. No one will ask about your child’s upcoming weekend activity when they send the limo to your house to whisk you off for a business trip.

Pausing on the advancement ladder has a price as well. Choosing to be an individual contributor might mean enduring the frustration of Cassandra: a prophetess whose advice was ignored when she told the Trojans to leave that wooden horse left by the Greeks outside the city gates.

Know what you want.

Be prepared for the consequences of every decision you make.

Make your own measure of success. Take an alternate path.

Story 2: Consider alternative paths to success.

I grew up in a different time. The prevailing wisdom went like this: “Get a job with a well-regarded company. Work your way up the ladder as high as you can, then retire on the terrific benefits they provided.” There was an implied contract: be loyal to a company, and they’d repay you in kind.

That contract is long gone. Companies require greater labor flexibility, so employees need to take on more of the burden of managing and directing their careers.

Alternative paths are on everyone’s radar now. Your choice depends on your appetite for risk. Perhaps you’d prefer being a contractor to full employee status. Or maybe you’d rather go all in and start your own business. This is not for the faint of heart. There are no off days; all the success or failure will be yours to own. You have to learn how to do the work and all the marketing, too. It’s a balancing act: keeping just enough work coming in to make it possible to build your brand and deliver without working every waking moment or waiting for the phone to ring.

Each of the past three decades has seen defining technologies and companies that drove them: personal computers and Microsoft in the 80s; the Internet and companies like Sun, Cisco, and Amazon in the 90s; search and Google at the start of this century; mobile and Apple going on right now. All these sea changes produce opportunities that a smart person can capitalize on.

Story 3: Keep an eye on market forces.

This leads to my next bit of advice: stay informed about your field and those that affect it. You don’t want to be caught unprepared when the world changes. No matter how comfortable and successful you might be, it pays to keep an eye on world events and extrapolate. Have you noticed that every person in this room is likely to have an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry mobile device? If you’re a software developer, and you aren’t writing for one of these mobile devices, you might be doing your future prospects a disservice.

I went to a wedding recently. One young man, whose first job out of school is sales for Microsoft, was rhapsodizing about a recent company meeting he attended. As excited as he was about hearing Steve Ballmer speak, I hope he’s kept his eye on the rise of the mobile computer and the cloud, and the decline of the desktop. His company may not figure out how to replace their desktop operating system and Office monopolies, but I’m sure he’ll have to soon.

Story 4: Keep learning.

The people who were most expert in those technologies that predominated at the start of my career had to change and learn new things or be pushed aside. The cruel truth is that this situation is only getting worse every day. The pace at which new information is added to the world is only increasing.

I resisted the temptation to insert a statistic stating how many terabytes of information are added to the Internet every day, translating it into Library of Congress equivalents to make it meaningful to the audience. But for ever page of fundamental new knowledge there are probably tens or hundreds of pages of celebrity gossip and other meaningless chaff to sift through. I’ll summarize by saying that there are 6.8 billion people living on earth today, and those who are actively adding their bricks to the wall of knowledge are doing it at a rate that is increasing exponentially.

Chances are good that all of us will have several careers during our working lives. I can speak from personal experience: I’ve had two, and I’m expecting that I might have a third act in me. I would not have had that second opportunity if I hadn’t kept learning.

Story 5: Enjoy what you do.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” This quote is attributed to Confucius and others; it’s still just as true today. You’ll see a lot of stuff written about following your bliss, your passion. The implication is that you just might be able to turn doing something you love into that custom fit career. Whether it is photography or cooking or programming or speaking or something else, your chances of finding happiness pursuing a beloved activity are good. If you’re lucky, financial success and fame might even accompany it.

Story 6: Remember your co-workers.

I was laid off from the first job I got out of school. The economy was not very good at that time; in some ways it was worse off than it is now. Interest rates, inflation, oil prices, and unemployment were all high. A friend of mine recommended that I contact the Navy research lab in New London, CT. It was a department loaded with Ph.D.s; I saw no good reason why they would want a young man without a graduate degree.

Art Carlson, the man who headed Code 44, took pity on me and offered me a job. The two years that I spent there made all the difference in the world. I completed a Masters degree, learned a skill that I loved, and – most important of all – got my confidence back. I moved on from that job and managed to earn a Ph.D. of my own. After graduation I wrote a letter to Art Carlson to thank him for giving me that chance. I said that everything that happened to me subsequent to that interview was because of him.

I was told later by people I worked with that Art showed that letter to everyone he encountered at the lab. It might have meant as much to him as it did to me.

Work is a team sport. All of us are dependent on the good will of fellow contributors to meet our goals. Remember to be the kind of person that co-workers can recall with respect at minimum and fondness at best. You never know when you’ll encounter them again as you progress through your career.

Story 7: Don’t sell yourself short.

My father was an immigrant who came to America from Ireland. He didn’t want to be a farmer, so he left home to find economic opportunity in America. When he landed in New York and came to CT, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He worked at the utility company that maintained the water system in town. He was a backhoe operator; a union guy, through and through.

I grew up imbued with his work ethic. I worked for that water company during the summer between semesters in college, so I had a taste of what manual labor was like. I was grateful to study something that made brain work possible for me.

I’ve always loved the details of technical work, but I think I also absorbed the lesson that managing and directing work wasn’t for me. Underneath it all, I’m also a union guy, a laborer.

Part of me knows that this was a good thing, because I’m an emotional person with a thin skin.

But there’s another part of me that wonders why I never aspired to be the person who directed the activities of others. The people I’ve observed who have been in charge of things where I worked have been a mixed bag. A few have been inspirational, brilliant leaders, but when I think of the majority of them I can’t help but look back and wonder if I couldn’t have done at least as well.

The first step in becoming a leader is believing in your heart that you’re someone worth following; the second is persuading others that they ought to believe it, too. Work hard to have an idea of your own, a vision for how things could be, and then get to work persuading others that you’re right. Don’t hesitate to put yourself forward. You might surprise yourself.


If I could choose one message that my younger self could have heard and taken to heart, I think it would have been the one about alternative paths to success. Oh, and maybe something like “Bill Gates will become the world’s richest man by writing a Quick Basic compiler and having the nerve to call IBM’s bluff over DOS” or “Page and Brin will make themselves the kings of search by solving an eigenvalue problem; you know what that is.”. All of us are limited by what we don’t know. People who prepare themselves well, are attuned to the opportunities that come along are the ones, and are bold enough to act on them are the ones who have the greatest career success.

If you’re one of those well-dressed, wide-eyed young people that I see walking through The Link, I hope that you’ll profit by taking my lessons that still apply to heart, that you are astute enough to spot the changes in the world that will invalidate some of my dogma, and that you derive as much pleasure from your life’s work as I have. Thank you.

profile for duffymo at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers

1 comment:

Max Zalota said...

Very inspirational speech. I wish I heard it live.

Please invite me to the next keynote speach that you will be giving!