Silicon Valley or Science Fiction

Cornell Tech Student Graduation Address 2017.

I was asked to present the Students’ address at Cornell Tech’s student recognition ceremony, to the students, faculty and families of v3, the last cohort of Cornell Tech students to be based out of the Chelsea Campus.

I don’t know what brought all of you to Cornell Tech. But, I know what brought me here, and I am sure you can relate.

I was a lawyer working with the most awesome team on cutting edge legal problems. But, after coding a simple reg-tech product in python one weekend, I knew that I had caught the “I want to make things” bug.

Every year group at Cornell Tech has their very own twisted “T” (and, a matching twisted “T” tee!). This was ours.

My father went to the Technion, and so, when I heard about Cornell Tech, the partnership with the Technion in the best city in the world, and the new legal tech degree, I couldn’t help but apply.

When I heard that I had been accepted, the tech world started to hit me immediately. Casual Friday Khakis at the law firm turned into jeans and T-shirts. Microsoft Word gave way to Sublime, and I binge watched every episode of Silicon Valley.

When it came time for kick-off, I knew that I’d find my Gilfoyle and Dinesh, and that I’d be optimizing middle out compression algorithms within months.

Fast forward to flying 48 hours to be in NYC for 48 hours for kick-off. We all met each other and I realized that everyone here was wickedly sharp. And that no matter how amazing the faculty were (and they were amazing), we were going to learn much more from each other than from any class we could take.

That weekend, we played a game of VC Bait where we came up with some wonderful, and some truly horrific startup ideas. I remember pitching a “get me a slice of Margherita pizza” button — what Yo! was to Whatsapp, Pizza Button would be to Seamless. I quickly realized that I was more of a Erlich Bachman than a Richard Hendricks.

And when I arrived in New York City, and semester started properly, I realized that my life wasn’t going the way of that HBO show. Pied piper is about 5 guys, all pure tech guys, building a naive product that had such a small market as to be infeasible. It becomes accidentally useful, and they quite admirably pivot towards its market. But it is still pure tech. It is still not diverse. It is still not driven at all by customer experience. We didn’t come to Cornell Tech to be “Silicon Valley”. We came to Cornell Tech to be something different. To be New York. Silicon Valley may have Hooli, but, New York, we have Beyonce.

Our school is so young. And Because we were so young we could shape our experience as much as we wanted. We lovingly took on traditions from the years before — the corn hole tournament, our Prom, the hockey game at Madison Square Garden — and we created new ones — games of Ambyria in the studio, dancing on tables in Jerusalem on iTrek, having an awesome student band, the Unicorns, (who are playing live today!). We could create what we wanted to be.

If we weren’t Silicon Valley then, what were we?

Easy. Science Fiction.

We were Science Fiction.

In our first few days of class, our very first open studio, some of last years’ class interviewed Greg. We sat in the audience eating up every word, listening to stories about caving (not spelunking) and being chased by armed farmers. And Greg brought up sci-fi. And, as we can tell from the PM class that he led, sci-fi was quite important to him. So when Greg told us that his favorite sci-fi, his favorite book, was Planet of Adventure, I had to read it (no offense, Greg, it is more than a touch cheesy).

Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” (1968). An adventurer from Earth, Adam Reith, crashes on Tschai, a planet 212 light-years from Earth. Hijinks ensue.

But to be fair to Greg, I think that book hits Cornell Tech’s culture pretty square on. All of us came to this strange planet as captains of our own ship, people with a plan. But, as soon as we crash landed on campus, this planet threw some interesting things at us. We may not have had monsters like the Chasch, the Dirdir and the Pnume to fight. I told you this book was odd. But we did have Intellectual Property Law, Machine Learning, and Managerial Finance to study. We had ideas to ideate, eights to crazy, design to validate. We had a bunch of challenges.

And like Jack Vance’s protagonist, alone, we may be butt-kicking ninja warriors, but still no match for the challenges on this Planet of Adventure. But, with a diverse team of different skills, anything is possible.

Yesterday I was asked what my favorite memory at Cornell Tech was.

My first thoughts were to the fun times. [Redacted] dancing like a gorilla at nightclubs. [Redacted 2] channelling Beyoncé at in a Christmas sweater party dance-off with yours truly. The glamorous law crew rocking out in Ithaca.

My second thought was meeting some people that I had a total nerd-crush on, from space-tech, fashion-tech, art-tech, money-tech, law-tech. All the things-tech.

I knew what my strongest memory was. It was struggle.

But I knew what will really stick with me. I knew what my strongest memory was. And it was a difficult one. It was struggle. Struggling to communicate ideas in Engineerese. Struggling to understand why a feature that looked so easy was functionally impossible. It was working with Money Days all day and all night to pull off a demo. It was struggling with my End Human Trafficking, fin-tech, Sears, VR hackathon and ZCT teams, with teammates from literally every faculty. It was struggling to recover from crit that threw our ideas to the ground. It was getting shut down in pitch-offs, and recovering to build something great.

Our very first studio sprint with Alan Lau, KJ Anand, Aamer Hassanaly, Mario Rial and myself hacking away at moneydays: an application that sought to bring financial health to people with volatile incomes.

It was applying the hardest lesson that we were taught in start-up studio — that the only secret to entrepreneurship is to be able to take more punches than your competition. And the critical lesson from leadership in the studio: that the only secret to leadership is to try and draw everyone else’s strength and knowledge out of them. And the most important lesson from PM — build skateboards that tell your story.

So my best memory here was presenting with teams after little or no sleep, with fingers crossed behind our backs that our demos wouldn’t crash.

Like the protagonists that we are on the planet of adventure, we can conquer any challenge by working well together, not despite our diversity, but because of it. With a dash of business, a touch of ORIE, Health Tech, Connective Media, Law and a healthy dose of engineering, we could build anything. But more importantly, we could build something great.

And we wouldn’t just be tech for tech’s sake. We would be law. We would be banking. We would be art. We would be sport. We would be entertainment. We would be health. We would be an expression of New York, and an expression of our increasingly complex world.

We would build applications that help young children with speech impediments. We would build a safety net for the workers in the gig economy. We would revolutionize the way designers speak with their customers, and the way people speak with their machines. We will build real products, with sophisticated technologies, to solve real problems.

We aren’t just tech, we are the “Tech And” campus.

We are Cornell Tech.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Whitehead and Professor Grimmelmann for an amazing first year shaping the first law program of its kind in the world. And to thank Professor Topaloglu for doing the same with ORIE. To all of the teaching staff. To the irreplaceable support staff. And to Dean Dan. And to Greg, David and the studio staff for building a place where we can learn by doing. Thank you.

Thank you to the whole v3 class — what we learned from each other is unforgettable. All of us have built something beautiful in the Chelsea studio. And all of us are excited for our futures at Amazon and Facebook, at Switch, Ursa and Datalogue. We are excited for the future of Cornell Tech in Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt will build on the integrated, weird, challenging and strangely safe environment that Chelsea was. We are the start of something truly tremendous.

Cornell Tech

Written by and for pioneers radically committed to the digital age.

Johanan Ottensooser

Written by

Customer Success @ Datalogue. Fintech @ KWM. Cornell Tech LLM v1.

Cornell Tech

Written by and for pioneers radically committed to the digital age.