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Commencement Address – College of Engineering – University of California, Davis

Under Secretary of Commerce for IP David J. Kappos

University of California, Davis

Commencement Address – College of Engineering, June 10, 2011

Remarks as prepared for delivery

 

Thank you for that wonderful introduction.  It’s a pleasure to be back home, and a thrill to be among my family of fellow Aggies. To Chancellor Katehi, Dean Lavernia, the University of California Regents, the faculty, parents, family, friends, and, most importantly, the Class of 2011, congratulations—congratulations on reaching this day! And thank you for allowing me to be a part of it. It is a sincere privilege to address this class of 445 engineers, truly representative of our nation’s next generation of doers and makers, thinkers and innovators. It is also a humbling honor to be able to do so at the very institution that paved the way for me to stand here before you today. 

Now, my guess is that you graduates, like me, learned most every important, basic life lesson, from your mothers and fathers; and there is little advice I can give you that mom and dad haven’t already imparted. Trust me, they may look unassuming as they sit there in the audience, but in truth their wisdom is vast, and even though today you wear the cap & gown, they’ll always have value to offer—and I mean beyond helping with those student loans. To this day, my mother’s advice adds value even where I’m supposed to be the expert. So I’ll keep the gratuitous advice to a minimum and instead tell you why I am so optimistic about you—your future and your prospects to improve our collective lot on this planet.

Your class convenes amidst sweeping and historic change. From global uprisings demanding new governments abroad, to the aftermath of a world-wide recession hitting hard at home, to the threats of pandemic disease—you grew up staring monumental challenges squarely in the face, and to a degree seldom seen in previous generations. And too often, we find ourselves focusing on differences in values and opinions, which leads to rifts in our ability to cooperate and address these most human of tests, together.

But the story of the class of 2011—much like the story of our country itself—is one that found shared growth in those differences, by channeling them into in a willingness to innovate, together. You come from every corner of the globe: from every stripe, every sect, and every religion—and yet it is here that you’ve found common opportunity—to learn together, to build together, to code together and to create together. Along the way you’ve created smart phone applications to better navigate your own campus; you’ve built optical chips that convert light pulses into digital signals faster than ever before—transforming the world of ultra-high-speed communications; and in between the blur of Picnic Day memories and late night bites at The Graduate, you’ve still managed to develop a laser probe for early-stage oral cancer detection.

It is your thirst to explore the horizons of science and your tenacity to build the tools that navigate those terrains that I want to applaud today. Through your education, your cutting-edge ideas, and your problem-solving skills—engineers prove to be society’s most powerful and most potent “makers” and, “innovators” and we need you now more than ever. In the face of some of the most pressing challenges we’ve ever faced on this planet, the power to innovate is the power to lead—not just by protest, not just by ballot—but by design and solution.

Ladies and gentleman—with the degrees conferred upon you today, you will lead the course of history by innovating & implementing; and by building & making. Innovation bridges cultures through new channels of communication; innovation renews hope in villages plagued by disease; innovation stems the tide of environmental degradation; innovation builds new industry; and innovation affords a young mind the chance to dream and the chance to make those dreams come true.

In a world that all too often provides a soapbox to those who just to talk—and by the way I see enough of that in Washington DC—the 21st century will be defined by those that do—By economies that manufacture exciting new products, as well as mundane ones, by using exciting new techniques; by programmers who write the code for those exciting products & techniques; and by engineers who imagine and implement the way we interact with the world around us.

You are, in turn, our nation’s next job creators: The very people, who by your work will create opportunity for others. I know right now landing a job of your own makes you happy enough, and you’re probably not thinking of yourselves as creating opportunity for others. But this is what makes engineers and programmers so special—so vital: You work at the proverbial “coalface,” where innovation meets implementation; where thinking meets doing; where creativity meets practicality. The doers make the world move forward, and as doers you all will write the next great chapter of advancement for our country and our planet.

Seizing this opportunity is especially critical because American exceptionalism has never been a birthright. It has from the beginning, and continues to be, deeply rooted in innovation—molded and preserved by the talent, creativity, and the “maker” instinct of engineers—the doers of our modern world. But the soaring heights engineers have reached, have never been attained overnight. Your willingness to take a leap of faith on an idea and persevere in the face of incremental results, and even in the face of incremental defeat, is the hallmark of the engineering gene. 

And there’s a reason our mothers have been telling us this from a young age—not about the engineering gene, but about overcoming setbacks. Because trial and error teaches us where to build, and how to grow; what boundaries we can push and what limits we have yet to test. In fact, I’d go further and declare that success in engineering and indeed in this world is significantly about “n” – where “N” is the number of ideas you test and the number of hypotheses you prove or disprove. So maximize N. Don’t worry that some of our ideas won’t be as bright as others. To borrow from a now famous hockey player, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Every person you meet, every data point you record, every idea that pops into your head—is an opportunity. An opportunity you can seize and wrestle with, and leverage, and use to test what others say is improbable, and push to build what the world never believed was possible. Because if engineers only stayed within the confines of what was probable, I assure you that neither you, nor I, would be standing where we are today. And you wouldn’t be able to update your Facebook status either!

It’s that conviction to both innovate and build, that has helped inspire and fuel our economy over the years. But as commerce increasingly cuts across borders, gradually, and in recent memory, we seem to have formed a belief that we can become the world's design house and let others do the building. We even rationalized the decline of "Made in America" as simply a byproduct of our focus on a services-led economy, and the advent of information-age and Web 2.0 products. 

But it’s those who make and those who do; those who understand how to turn invention into innovation, and those who leverage great ideas into even greater opportunities—that will promote the next wave of jobs growth. It’s those engineers and programmers, the do’ers, sitting right here, who will move the next generation of markets, create the next most-downloadable app’s, and build the next big enterprise—ultimately, making the world a healthier, cleaner and more sustainable place. So while America needs to continue leading in research, I believe that what we need even more dearly is what you have been trained to do – to leverage that research into development –to design and build the products that will fuel the next generation of American competitiveness and global leadership. And that’s why I celebrate your accomplishments and prospects: you are now our country’s opportunity creators, and our job-creators.

All of you are in a unique position to be stewards at the helm of this economic renaissance. Because, even though countries around the world anxiously seek to grow new jobs, EE and CS grads remain highly sought after, as your newly minted degrees confer upon you an expertise in doing: in designing, testing, and perfecting the goods and services to be used for generations to come. This demand for doers has long been great—but it’s greater than ever today. That’s why at this very moment in time you have the unique opportunity to lead through doing, and maybe even serve and steer the direction of your country along the way.

When I sat in your chair some years ago, I had no ambition of ever serving my country, no idea what that might mean, and certainly no desire to pick sides in partisan political bickering.  I never dreamed I would some day become a government employee, much less an advisor to the President.  But throughout the years, and through the success brought about by my UC Davis education, I came to appreciate the enormous opportunities given to me by our country. Just as fortunate as I was to have supportive parents, so too was I fortunate to have been afforded the resources offered by this great country we live in.

Starting from this school—part of the greatest public university in the world—the UC system, all the way through to federal Pell grants, loans or even just the use of vast student services—we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the public enterprises that have empowered us to pursue our education and our dreams. As the state of California struggles to keep the doors open at public schools, and families all over the country work hard to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table, we are all called to honor what has brought us to this point today, and seek ways to serve our communities by paying those opportunities forward for future generations. 

Because the gift of our engineering education; and our special “doing” gene, empowers us to do better. And we should do better. Your parents and your grand parents and your brothers and sisters and even the peers sitting to the right and left of you today are going to need you to summon the great American spirit of volunteerism, to see all of us through our current challenges, and add to the legacy of greatness for future Aggies. And yes, there are sacrifices involved. As a great career government employee once told me: there’s a reason why they call it government service. But if my experience is any guide, and if I may reveal another lesson my mother taught me did: when you help others, you almost always get back more in return.

But the service I ask you to consider is not just about running for office, getting petitions signed, or teaching in a public school, it is about doing what engineers do: making, building, solving and implementing. As engineers, it means designing the roads, writing the code, testing the circuit, proving the prototype, bringing up the manufacturing line; and doing it well so that America reclaims our title as the world’s greatest and most visionary builders and makers. You’ll hear economists and politicians talking a lot these days about reigniting the manufacturing sector, as well they should.  The consensus is that it will take more than high-tech-inspired jobs to resolve America's employment challenges—it will take a substantial resurgence of our willingness to manufacture right here at home. 

So I would take my call to service a step further, and offer that we are at the threshold of a 21st century engineer’s dream-world; based on a new model of making—a democratized model of making—inspired by dramatic decreases in the cost of automated manufacturing equipment. The modern tools of making are in turn granting individual do'ers everywhere access to equipment, that until recently was affordable only to large multinational corporations. 

This creates a potent opportunity never previously seen in the industrialized world -- the opportunity for every smart person with a great idea and a little moxie to step up and “do” – to build upon their dream, file a patent, and put the next great American-made product on the market. With ample media to spread ideas, and increased access to the tools of making, the engineers gathered here today have the ingredients at hand to spark the next great industrial revolution 2.0.  And that’s an extraordinary service opportunity, inspired by your personal vision, but realized for public benefit.

Now in closing, I assure you that your parents are at least as excited as you are today, not just because they can now begin putting a few dollars back in their bank accounts, but because they look to you, just like you looked to them—to make, to build and to “do” as engineers and programmers. To do the unexpected; to do what is right even when it may be hard; to do what they couldn’t and to do all they know you are capable of and beyond. You’re the engineers, the do’ers of the world. And with your unique and prized set of skills you’re our lead creators of all future opportunity.

But of course the trial and error of life, much like the trial and error of innovation, comes with no set paths, and no finite trajectories. But you’ll find your own paths and trajectories along the way. And as you do, the one piece of advice I can’t resist imparting that: it will take all of us. It will take all of you. And to echo the words our President:

"It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today, but we have just begun. Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today…We are reminded that with each new discovery and the new power it brings comes new responsibility; that the fragility, the sheer specialness of life requires us to move past our differences and to address our common problems, to endure and continue humanity’s strivings for a better world."

Thank you and congratulations graduates. Let’s go show those social science grads a thing or two and start making a new world!

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Last Modified: 6/10/2011 4:10:37 PM