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Inspirational graduation speech given by Dr. Satish Rao on May 25 2003, celebrating the B.A. graduating class of 2003 in Computer Science from UC Berkeley

Introduction by Dr. Umesh Vazirani: "... who was chosen by the students. Satish is an eminent theoretician, but his work also leads to algorithms and how they [????]. That's not what he'll talk about today, but most of you know him in the role that previous students referred to, as the one who makes you suffer through all those 170 homeworks. Please join me in welcoming Satish Rao." (applause)




I went and actually paid for a haircut, see ... [laughter]

ok, uh, um ... I should probably apologize um ... right now ... k .... I haven't even started the speech but um ... [laughter] ...

I try to sing to my kids when they're 1 year old. they were pretty much defenseless, the only thing they can do was cover my mouth.

[Satish sings] "John Henry was a steel-drivin' man!"

[awkward pause followed by hooting and laughter]



John Henry worked on a railroad. He throws steel. This consisted of driving a mountain pike into rock with a hammer. John Henry was the greatest of hammerers, as well as the best of gamblers, the biggest of drinkers, and [???] he is the best of lovers. Real bad ass. [laughter] He was born to the railroad. When he was a baby, he told his momma that he would die with a hammer in his hand. More improtantly, it's how he fed his family. He worked on a legendary -- le-gen-da-ry -- I was not in letters and science -- a legendary connector in West Virginia. Connector is a long tunnel in a mountain, connecting two sections of track. It took years and hundreds of men to build. One day a man bought -- brought -- a steam engine to the tunnel, and said it could drive steel better than any man. So a contest was made, between John Henry and the steam engine. For 12 long hours, John Henry hammered and the steam engine drilled. At the end, the tape was brought in to measure.

... Um ... I'm not sure what this story has to do with computer science. [laughter] ... Uh ... big strong men? [Satish flexes bicep, laughter] ... Who make their living hammering steel? ... Well, for me the story is about someone who did what he did with passion, pride, integrity, and undaunted optimism. I see these same qualities in so many of you. You have faced your connector, which has been graduating in computer science at berkeley. Whether you were born to it as John Henry was, or you were drawn to it, or you were doing it to earn a living, you faced your challenges. Your steam engines were many, from crashing programs, to unfeeling autograders, to difficult problem sets, to mystifying exams. For the exams I really apologize. [laughter] You rose to -- You rose to those challenges with the integrity that comes with working hard and earnestly -- ear-nest-ly -- at what is put before you. To be honest, you young men, and women, mystify me. The harder the course, the more you like it. The more you build, the more you want to build. You run -- don't walk -- to get into courses that I ... run from. Honestly, many people would consider you a little-bit-sick. But I'm--I am--I have not--I have nothing but respect, I'm totally impressed. I hope you know what you accomplished. You passed those tests, satisfied the autograders, you may even have solved a couple of theory problems. Very cool, very cool. Again, the earnestness of your efforts, your thirst for doing things well, and your integrity, generated these accomplishments. This is the sense in which your story is reflected in John Henry's.

To me, this story of John Henry also gives us a guide for the future. Again, a gambling, heart-breaking, steel-drivin' man, and computer science majors at Berkeley. You know ... so ... I probably can't be telling you to go out and drink whiskey and gamble. At least not in front of your parents. [laughter] Still, even that part of the legend suggests that you are and you must be defined by more than just what you do for work. You will of course pursue many other things. You will pursue ... the opposite sex? ... Or maybe the same sex ... [light laughter] Some of you will travel, some of you will do public service, some of you will have children ... which, for me is the hardest and most rewarding thing I've done. All in all, it is a wonderful and beautiful world, but what makes it more wonderful is the energy that you bring to it. And knowing many of you, I am excited for what you bring to our world. Still, the legend of John Henry is about steel-driving, or for me, about injecting passion into his purpose. You know -- I get excited sometimes, when I see ... um ... when I see, something that hasn't been done before and needs to be done. Or something that can be done better. Or something that can make things easier for people. You will see these things to. People with your talents will see the steam engines coming from miles away. You will see an opportunity to make something happen. It may be a program that will make your group better, or make your company better, or make the world better. It may be a sale that brings value to your company and your customers, and the community. It might be an organization that is both nice to people in it, and serves the people it serves well. If you see such things -- if you see such steam engines -- challenge them. Pursue the challenge with a passion. Stay up all night. DON'T SHAVE. DON'T SHOWER. [laughter] Okay, you can shower. [laughter] Please do shower. [laughter] But ... but do what it takes to meet the challenge. and sometimes -- and sometimes -- you will make it real, and that will be cool. People will say, "Look -- look -- look at what she did. That is so neat. It's a glorious thing."

Finally, sometimes talented people such as you need a reminder that you really aren't all that. John Henry hammered the spike better than all takers, but Little Bull (?) and Polly Ann held the spike. With every strike, they would lift the spike, shake it, turn it, and replace it, all before John Henry's hammer came down again. For you too there will always be people around you. They may not appear to be as important or as talented as you, but pay attention. Take the time to undertand what they do, what they want, and their hopes and dreams. The more you consider people aroudn you, the more you will respect their integrity, and their passion. That will make you feel good. And if you are lucky, you may even be able to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. And that will make you feel great.

Oh yeah, what happened to John Henry. He raced the staem engine. When time was called, they brought out the tape measure. 12 feet for John Henry, 9 feet for the steam engine. He didn't just beat the steam engine -- he crushed the steam engine. A glorious result. Um ... of course, right after the race, John Henry died. He died with his hammer in his hand. ... I ... I dunno what to say. I can't take anything away from that. [laughter] But you know, it's not a sad tale. It's an inspiration, it's a model to live by.

Finally, you aren't the women and the men with the hammer in your hands. You are the chosen ones. You will be building the steam engines. Hey, you guys even won the big game against those -- those -- would not be named. [laughter and clapping] The world is the kind of place that with your talents and your skills, you can change it. No one can stop you if that is what you want. And do it -- by all means, do it with the passion that you are filled with. But once in a while, pause for a moment, and maybe even grieve, for the old world while you are creating the new one. Congratulations. Good luck. [applause, hooting, and cow bell sounds]

- Satish Rao

Note: Speech transcribed from tape recorder by William Wu. Question marks in speech denote undecipherable sections. Please send corrections or typos to wwu at ocf.berkeley.edu

Update: (6/12/2003 8:44AM) Dr. Rao has posted his speech on his website! However, the transcription done above is not purposeless, since Rao improvised a little.

Page last modified Sunday, 06-Nov-2011 21:05:10 MST


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