A few weeks ago, I was honoured to give a presentation during an annual event in the Computer Science School of the University of Oviedo (my Alma Mater). This was an unusual presentation for me as it was akin to a commencement speech. I was honoured and humbled to be chosen for this and I tried to find the best message for the students and recent graduates. After some reflection, I decided to focus my narrative around one simple idea. Given my experience and learnings over the last decade, what would have been the best advice I could have received ten years ago when I was a recent graduate?
I am not going to reproduce the presentation word by word but I think the main principles can be applied to many recent graduates, especially for those in Computer Science coming from small or less known universities, as I was at the time.
Explore and expand your point of view as soon as possible
One of the best ways to improve, as people and as professionals, is to discover other points of view. People in Spain tend to live with their relatives while studying, in clear contrast to many other countries and cultures and I was not the exception. I lived with my parents during my BSc and MSc. Also, most people move directly into work after their degree, with many staying in the same country or even region. I believe because of this, many would be missing a key experience in life.
Not leaving one’s region provides us with a biased view of the world. One that, in the case of small regions, cannot be compared to any of the world’s metropolises. I truly believe that if everyone in the world could live for at least a few months in a large city, we will not only fix many problems in our society but we will all be better people and better professionals. I can say that the first few months I lived in London (I was 23 years old and this was the first time I lived alone), were some of the most amazing times for my personal development and discovery.
Of course, this advice has two major caveats. First, COVID is still rampant in society but I am optimistic we will see the light at the end of the tunnel at some point and we will be able to travel again. Secondly, I am aware that I was very privileged since my parents paid all my expenses in the first couple of months in London while I was attending English courses and until I enrolled in my PhD.
You have to be stubborn, have grit and fight for what you want.
Some of the main factors for success are effort and stubbornness, but also creativity and originality to achieve our goals.
The drive (or even obsession in some cases) of pursuing your goals no matter the odds against you is something I saw clearly once we started Signal AI. Not only we were pushing boundaries but as I was more involved in the growing London startup scene, I saw the grit, ambition and courage of many founders following their dreams. Of course, not every adventure and start-up was successful, but I believe we all (especially technical people) can follow some of the same principles and style. If we all behave in this way, we can achieve way more than we can imagine.
Always consider the human aspect.
Whether we like it or not, the world is based on personal relationships and networks. I am not referring to nepotism. Even if the world was a perfect meritocracy, contacts are still critical to enter certain ecosystems. In my case, I was able to create a network of contacts in the research community during my PhD years that would be essential for the research collaborations on Signal AI years later. The vast majority of these contacts were created by interacting with people at conferences without any predetermined agenda. This network effect was also clear during the early years of Signal AI when we were fundraising. The London VC and AI communities are relatively small where reputation is paramount and everyone knows everyone else.
Similarly to the advice of “travelling the world”, I am aware that this is much easier for people with the privilege of being part of or “fit better” with certain communities. However, I believe (and also hope) that the start-up communities are becoming more accessible and open. There are many approaches to start connections, ranging from being more active on twitter or attending more meetups or conferences. However, in order to be effective you have to put effort and understand the importance of connections for your professional future.
Luck exists but you have to identify opportunities and not be afraid to take them
Pablo Picasso said “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. I completely agree but I would like to rephrase the message slightly by saying that “luck exists, but you need the courage to take advantage of it”. I have no doubt that luck is a fundamental variable in almost all success stories. However, I am also clear that the people behind those stories also knew how to take advantage of those opportunities.
I do not know if it is a correct comparison but I have always heard that when elderly people are asked about their life, they always regret what they have not done, instead of what they did. My advice with respect to professional opportunities is the same, especially taking into account that computer science knowledge is one of the most demanded skills worldwide at the moment. This, in general, provides a “safety net” for people in the field in case everything goes wrong.
In my case, in 2012, I joined a meetup group for natural language processing (NLP) researchers, and just a few days later David Benigson, who would be Signal AI CEO sent me an email (that could almost be classified as spam) looking for researchers who would like to work on a “project” that would several months later become Signal AI. This was most certainly luck, being at the right time in the right place. The only challenge is that I was in the last year of my PhD (writing-up my thesis). We were three people with no previous experience in companies, working from a garage, and at that moment I made the most difficult professional decision of my life and decided to move forward. Eight years later, with the thesis finished and Signal AI being a multinational, everything has turned out quite well. What is more important is that even if Signal AI would have failed as a startup, I would have not regretted starting this adventure.
We tend to think we are “smaller” than we really are
This part of the speech was focused on the fact that my old school has produced amazing talented professionals working in all types of organisations across the world, including a handful of fantastic startups appearing in the region.
Behind every success story there is a lot of effort and many mistakes along the way. Also, there is also a tremendous amount of self-doubt at times. One common concept among successful people across many disciplines is the impostor syndrome where we doubt ourselves and believe we are not worthy or have not earn our current position compared to our peers. After interacting with a multitude of entrepreneurs and academics, I can promise you that this feeling is extremely common and it affects even the people who usually seem the most confident. Think about well-known CEOs of unicorns or inspirational TED speakers and I can almost guarantee they have felt this way at some point. However, I also believe that what distinguishes the most successful people is that they push forward despite their doubts and keep investing in their own personal improvements.
2020 was a terrible year for the world and we all hope that 2021 will improve on the way to the famous “new normal”.
An indirect effect of COVID is that many digital transformation trends that have grown over the last decade, have soared in the last year. For example, the volume of online shopping or the possibilities of flexible work. If you are interested in this topic, I absolutely recommend to read Post-Corona:From Crisis to Opportunity. These changes are not going to stop, independently of how COVID will develop in the future. This presents complexities and severe problems for many people, sectors and industries, but it will also create new opportunities, particularly for people with computer science backgrounds or skills. Most businesses have made the leap to digitization and these skills are needed more than ever across the world.
I am sure the new generation of computer scientists will know how to take advantage of all these opportunities in the coming years, hopefully improving the world as a result. I only ask you to not be afraid of having great ambitions and give all you got to achieve them.