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Sam Palmisano's 2012 commencement remarks

Sam Palmisano

As prepared for Sam Palmisano, chairman of the board of IBM and chair of IBM's executive committee, for the university-wide commencement ceremony on May 24, 2012, at Homewood Field


Thank you, Luke. Also thank you, Ron … distinguished faculty members … and guests.

And congratulations to all of you who are graduating today, the Johns Hopkins class of 2012. Let me also congratulate—and thank—your families, who had a lot to do with why you are here.

Believe me, I know this from personal experience!

But you and I actually have a lot more in common than strong families and a great education. We are both entering a new stage of our lives. We're both "graduating," so to speak, from storied institutions—you from Hopkins, I from IBM.

Of course, as you look at this old guy up here, you may be thinking, "Say what? I don't see myself in Sam."

So, first … let's go back to 1973, when I sat in a chair in the front of Gilman Hall. An unpopular war was ending. A president had just been reelected for a second term—but that didn't end the political turmoil; in fact, it was about to ratchet up. Race riots and student unrest were fresh in our minds. The economy was tepid.

So what's the consensus today?

Unpopular wars are ending. We see protracted unemployment … a tepid economic environment … a political system paralyzed by partisanship … mounting debt and social costs … the prospect of a diminished future for the United States as new nations take their place as global powers.

Almost 40 years, then … but maybe some similarities.

Despite all that was going on back then, neither I nor my classmates were beset by grinding self-doubt or fear of failure. We did not believe that our worst days lay ahead … and I don't believe it now. I don't think you do, either—but just in case, I'm here to persuade you to take another view.

The fact is, you have a more exciting road ahead of you than any generation in recent times. I'm not just saying that because it's the polite sentiment for a commencement address. You are privileged to be entering your working life at one of the great inflection points of modern history.

Several years ago, The New York Times' Tom Friedman declared that the world is flat. He meant that globalization had arrived in full force—and it has.

We know how we got here. Open trade agreements … a striking increase in political stability—both of which would have seemed highly improbable if some other old guy had predicted them at my commencement in 1973.

And then, of course, there's technology.

The revolution in technology that we have seen … and that is still underway today … is not just about the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones and tablets. Those developments are wonderful, but they are just pieces of something much larger, something truly historic.

Let me give you an idea of its scope.

  • There are a billion transistors today for every human being on the planet.
  • Some two billion people are now on the Internet—but there are also upwards of a trillion interconnected and intelligent objects.
  • We are putting computing into things nobody would think of as computers—every product in the world, the power grid, water systems, supply chains, healthcare systems, entire cities.
  • The world is becoming instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.

All of this has generated more information than you can imagine. There will be 44 times more data generated over the next decade, reaching 35 zettabytes in 2020. A zettabyte is a 1 followed by 21 zeros.

If you don't buy it from me, listen to your professors, like Drs. Haine and Bagger, or to alums like Dr. Akabar. They are convinced that the future belongs to those who figure out what to do with all that data.

In effect, an enormous new natural resource has appeared on our planet—a gusher of data. And thanks to advanced computation and analytics, we can now tap into it. We can make sense of it in something like real time.

In so many spheres today, the way the world literally works is changing. For example:

  • We used to fight crime with more police and better equipment. Now, we fight crime with data.
  • We used to deal with traffic congestion by building more and bigger roads. Now, we use real-time information to manage pricing and schedules.
  • We used to guess about things like consumer demand, supply chains and product inventory. Today, retailers and manufacturers adjust to changing consumer wishes in real time.

The same applies to food safety, to energy, to healthcare, to education—to all the systems by which our world works. Every field of science, business and society is being transformed before our eyes.

And the best news of all, ladies and gentlemen, is that the key to winning in this new arena—for a country, a company or an individual—is not technology or natural resources. It is skills and leadership. It has never been so possible for high-skilled, enterprising, imaginative individuals to have a direct impact on that. That's you!—the 2012 graduating class!

Today, every one of you can form communities … can re-imagine institutions and enterprises, even entire industries. It has never been so possible to collaborate across traditional boundaries. It has never been easier to dive in and act.

The opportunities are limitless. What will you do with them? Will you move to the future, or be comfortable complaining about what the past generation has bequeathed to you? Will you look to fit in somewhere … to learn about and adapt to established institutional rules and cultures—say, blue suits, white shirts, wingtip shoes?

In my day, you might have. You might have looked to settle in for a steady lifetime career.

However, for better or for worse—mostly, I believe, for better—that's not the world today. In the era ahead, as in all times of fundamental change, success will go to the bold. To those who see the opportunity to remake their world, rather than just fit into it.

Perhaps the most powerful asset you have—even more than the skills and expertise you have acquired at Hopkins—is a simple awareness of this moment in history, and the impulse to seize it.

I say that because I remember a time in my life when I could easily have followed the course of least resistance. It was a point in my career when I had to choose between taking the top position in one of IBM's U.S. divisions … or going to a largely unstructured job in IBM Japan.

The easier path was clear. But I chose to look at this as just one stage in a long-term journey—one from which I would learn more—and I took the leap.

It meant I was going to have to change. I would need to listen more than I talked. I would need to think in terms of "we," rather than "me." Not the least of it, I would have to function in an impossible language! And I would be asking my family to uproot and move overseas … with no guarantee of my success. I had no safety net!

That was a lesson for me—and not just about the value of exposure to other cultures. It taught me that the path of optimism is not the easy path. In the end, you can't move to the future without changing yourself.

So, what is my advice to you? Maybe the best decision for you is to run away and join the circus … but don't model yourself on one of the animals, performing tricks for the trainers who throw peanuts. Think independently … be passionate about something … and go where the learning will be most intense.

Thankfully, this perspective is on the rise today. I see it infusing a new generation of leaders we are working with—and hiring—in cities, companies and communities around the world … a generation whose ranks you are now joining.

These women and men have a bias toward action. They are impatient to seize the powerful new resources and technologies at our disposal and build smarter cities, businesses and nations. In contrast with the political food fights in our legislatures, these new leaders are refreshingly non-ideological. They are filled with a spirit of pragmatic optimism.

So, in ways that go far beyond this institution—and beyond you and me—today is truly a time of commencement … for the world.

Of my roommates at Hopkins, I was the only one who didn't pursue a graduate degree. Instead, I joined IBM. I am probably still viewed as the underachiever of my graduating class.

Well, if I thought I was escaping from academia, the joke was on me. IBM may be the corporation in the world most like a university. Let me tell you … a place where a PhD is your union card and Nobel Prize winners walk the halls can be a bit … intimidating, at times … for a mere liberal arts major.

But it has never been less than stimulating—and highly educational. I have learned an enormous amount over the course of my career at IBM. I'm a very different person from the immature kid who joined the company 39 years ago, straight out of Hopkins with a pile of student loans.

Now, like you, I'm heading into the next phase of my life. I'm still curious … still excited about what lies ahead … and grateful to be around for what promises to be a new golden age of economic growth, scientific discovery and societal progress.

Most of all, I'm excited for the chance to work toward that future alongside a new generation that is smarter, more clear-headed and more hopeful than any I've seen.

I hope you will keep that spirit—the spirit of this day of commencement … the spirit of seeking new opportunities, of embracing the future with pragmatic optimism—as you embark on your own life travels.

A remarkable new world is opening before all of us. Don't limit your options. Go out and grab it.

Thank you.