SAY YES: Penn Engineering Masters 2016 Commencement Speech

The Penn Engineering Masters 2016 Commencement speech, delivered by Gayle Laakmann McDowell (founder of CareerCup.com and author of Cracking the Coding Interview). Watch it online.

This is a graduation speech, and I’m what one might call a professional interviewer, so it’s fitting that I would ask you this quintessential interview question: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

But I’m not going to ask you this question because, to be honest, I kind of hate it. I’ve never been a big fan of this question.

It’s not that I object to goals. It’s fine to set some vague goals that you might want to be doing X, Y or Z in 10 years.

But this idea that you can set some vision of being somewhere in 10 years and then detail the steps to get there? I just don’t think that’s realistic.

And to be honest, I’m not even sure it’s a good idea.

Anything But That

If I think back to where I was 10 years ago, I was (pretty much literally) in your seat.

Just about 10 years ago, I graduated from Penn with my masters in computer science. If you would have asked me what I want to do in 10 years, there are two things I would absolutely not have said and that was being a writer and being an entrepreneur.

I didn’t want to be a writer because I didn’t like it, I didn’t think I was particularly good at it and — frankly — it wasn’t exactly known as a lucrative profession. There’s got to be some reason to do something and you’ve pretty much nixed every single reason.

As for being an entrepreneur: that wasn’t something I wanted to do either. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and from everything I’d seen, this was really, really hard — an incredible amount of pressure. This was not the lifestyle I wanted.

I figured I would probably wind up on the technology management track at some big company.

Naturally, 10 years later, here I am doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do: entrepreneur and author. So much for life’s plans…

It Turns Out, I Do Like It

My company, CareerCup, does a bunch different things related to technical hiring, both on the candidate side and the hiring side. One of these things is book publishing. I’ve written three books, two of which are independently published by CareerCup and is among Amazon’s top few hundred best selling books.

It turns out I can write — at least for my kind of books.

As for founding a company, this also is not the lifestyle I imagined. It’s hard at times, of course — and scary and unpredictable.

But I’ve carved out my own version of the entrepreneur lifestyle. And my version comes with a degree of freedom, control and impact that I didn’t really get to see from the outside growing up. This thing that I thought I’d hated — that I had sworn off — actually turns out to be a pretty great fit for me.

I get to take all the things I love — solving hard problems, coding, teaching and explaining concepts, making an impact on people’s lives, building better processes for the future — and blend them into this strange little niche business.

So how did I get to be doing this thing that I absolutely didn’t want to do?

Well, to be honest, it just kind of happened. It found me, more so than I found it.

How I Got Here

It started actually when I was at Penn. Even while I was saying I didn’t want to start a company, I was actually doing exactly that.

I was a TA for Max Mintz — the infamous Max Mintz — and one of my students asked me to take notes on the different companies I was interviewing with and my reactions to that.

Of course, I said yes.

I started a Word document of the different interview questions I was asked and what I thought of all these different companies.

Still an engineer at heart, I thought it would scale better if I posted it on my personal webpage. After all, why create a simple document to email to her when I can spend far more time over-engineering a solution by building a website to do this?

Then, that little toy website grew and grew. And I started adding on this and that feature in my spare time. Two years later, I was running this kind of popular website around interview questions.

Despite all that, I was still saying I did not want to start a company. I didn’t realize I already had.

Becoming a Writer

I became a writer through a somewhat similar path. My users had been asking me for additional resources for interview help — something more specialized for technical interviews. There were a few things already out there, but on a whim I just went ahead and did it.

It wasn’t a real book, per se. It was just a little 20 page document.

But somehow that little document became really successful. People really liked it. Again, it grew and grew and eventually it really was what you could call a book.

Rules are Rules: Part 1

Consulting, too, just kind of happened.

I got an email a few years ago from a CEO of a local startup. He’d seen my book and wanted me to prepare his team for their upcoming acquisition interviews. This entailed basically a week of straight, back-to-back interviews.

I had done all day interviewing like this when I was at Google. It was tedious and exhausting.

I was about to say “no” and then I stopped myself.

See, I had developed this rule for myself. It’s very complicated, so try to pay attention.

The rule is called Say Yes. It goes like this: If I’m about to say no to something, say yes instead. Very complicated, I know.

There were exceptions, of course, for really good reasons. But “I don’t feel like it” doesn’t qualify as a really good reason.

I had realized by then that a lot of the best things that happen in life are not things that we can predict. They’re not things that we could’ve planned out and said, “Oh, to get to point D, I’ll do step A then step B then step C.” A lot of stuff just happens to us. There is so much luck and randomness in life.

Life’s Not Linear

Somewhat begrudgingly, I said yes. I figured I had to follow my own rule, even when I didn’t want to. Rules are rules.

It turned out that interview coaching was totally different from real interviews, where I had to write up lengthy feedback that the vast majority of the time results in a rejection. It was very different from what I had done at Google.

Doing real interviews all day was very tedious. Teaching interviewing all day was actually interesting.

Things went well — and continued to go well. The CEO told his friends and they told their friends. Pretty soon I was doing this weird funky thing that called acquisition interview consulting.

No one could have said that this is something I would be doing one day because no one would have known such a service should exist.

So a linear plan of life of where you going to be in 10 years? Please. That’s not realistic. Life isn’t graphed on some smooth, straight line. It’s worse than a step function; it’s not even two dimensional.

Rules are Rules: Part 2

A few months after this company got acquired, the CEO — now at this big company — approached me again. He said, hey, you seem to know interviewing well. Why don’t you come in and help train our interviewers?

I’d never done that before. All my work was on the candidate side, not on the hiring side. To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure I knew how to do that.

But, shoot. The pesky Say Yes rule. Fine.

And thus was created this new line of business for me. Who knew?

The crazy thing is that none of this could have happened without that one little a “yes” years ago — and dozens of other yesses along the way.

It’s So Easy to No

It’s so easy to say no. We say no because we don’t feel like it. Because it sounds boring. Because we’re busy. Because we don’t see what we will get out of it. Because the opportunity seems too small and not worth our time. Or because it seems too big, and we just don’t think we’re good enough.

But when we do that, we miss out on so much. The truth is that you don’t know where life is going to lead. You don’t know what you’re going to actually love doing until you’re doing it. You don’t know what you’ll really be good at until you’re there.

If you only say yes to the things that get you from point A to point B, you lose out on the luck and randomness in life. You may wind up chasing a dream that you don’t actually want and foreclosing yourself to the things you do.

Say Yes

Say yes to all the unknown and the unpredictable and even the no’s. Open yourself up to the opportunities this brings. And then run like crazy once you get there — wherever you are 10 years from now.

Thank you.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Written by

Founder/CEO of CareerCup. Coder. Author of Cracking the {Coding Interview, PM Interview, Tech Career}. Consults on technical hiring and interviewing.

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