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Graduation speech for Lisbon MBA

I had the honor of recently delivering the graduation speech for the graduates of The Lisbon MBA program at Catholic University of Portugal. Here goes the full transcript.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by saying that I am very proud of being here. I am very proud of having been a lecturer at the Lisbon MBA.

And it is a great honor to be able to address you, as you are contemplating the rest of your careers.

OutSystems, the company I co-founded in 2001 sells a very complex software product to companies in 25 countries. One of these countries is Japan where we have acquired customers such as Ricoh, Toyota and Honda.

When the Japanese realize we are a Portuguese company they ask, “How can this be possible? The last time the Portuguese brought innovation to Japan was when firearms were introduced in the 16th century!”

OutSystems is my second startup. I have done this twice. When I started the first one in 1997 I was basically at the same stage in my life as most of you are now.

You are at a great stage of your life. A place filled with possibilities. You have experience and education. You can do anything.

Some of you will consider joining a startup. Some will continue as part of a larger corporation. And some will join the ranks of investment banking or management consulting.

Whatever the path you choose to follow you will do it based on some principles. Those principles will guide your decisions. I would like to share mine with you.

I was lucky to be born in this country. A country with no wars. A country with sun, beaches, great coffee and grilled fish. A country with incredibly nice people who treats you well and makes you feel good. A country with a good educational system. I was also lucky that I grew up in freedom. On April 1974 I was in third grade when the dictatorship was toppled.

But I was really lucky because, in spite of being born in a poor family, I had parents who created an environment where some one like me could flourish. They forced my sister and I to study hard. We were the first in our family to graduate from University.

I was also lucky that I have never been told I could not do something. Well, with the exception of hard drugs and gold earrings, my parents never said, “You can’t do it”.

My mother who, in spite of being a neat freak, let me install a full workshop inside my room where I used to saw wood, cut metal and create weird electronic creations. I lived for 6 years with a perpetual coat of dust in my bed.

So, my first principle is the acknowledgement of how lucky I am. My first principle is one of resisting the feeling of entitlement.

With such luck I have always felt that I had no excuse, like Thoreau, to not live deliberately. To not let external context take me into paths I did not choose to go.

You also have that choice. And if you want to create your own startup it is that principle of living deliberately that will fuel your drive and your persistence to succeed.

So, my second principle is the one of living deliberately. Never shifting blame to something else. Never releasing control to someone else.

When asked recently to name the one attribute CEOs will need most to succeed, Michael Dell replied “I would place my bet on curiosity.”

Curiosity is an interesting trait. For starters it makes you want to listen. A curious person is not so much interested in himself or herself but rather in the world.

I am by definition an extremely curious person. I am as fascinated by the workings of the asthma process in lungs as I am about the business model of funeral homes, the rational behind the exponential growth in high-tech valuations and why Sporting never manages to win a championship.

Curiosity provides the fuel for innovation. Enables you, without effort, to flood your brain with a constant stream of new concepts and ideas.

As you open yourself to consider new patterns and points of view, you become better at quickly coming up with solutions no one ever thought possible.

Continuous innovation is the hallmark of OutSystems. And curiosity is at the core of that attribute. The way we have managed to implement such a personal trait at a corporate level is by building a culture that forbids you to do something without understanding “why”.

By forcing people to ask “why?” we exercise the curiosity muscle until a point where everyone does it without effort.

So, my third principle is to be curious about everything and reluctant to accept something without understanding why.

My next principle has to do with change. Change is tough. Humans are hardwired to be content with what they have and therefore there is an inherent reluctance to change things. As you contemplate the future, change always looks much bleaker than what it will end up being in reality.

As you build your career, remember (that) your professional value increases with the amount of experience you have gained across a broader gamut of skills. That experience is not indexed to the years of work but rather to the number of different experiences.

So rather than being driven by short term monetary compensation always procure the next experience that will further enhance your value. Rather than being secure in the knowledge that you are the best at doing something, search constantly for the next thing you are not an expert in, but that will give you more flexibility and a wider reach.

Like curiosity, the capacity to change can also be seen as a muscle. You have to train the capacity to change. And the best way to do that is to assume that failure is part of the process.

As a corporate worker it means searching for a job that lets you try and fail.

As a manager it means creating an environment where your people can fail with no fear — hopefully fast and cheap.

But most important for you, as a person, it means being proud of trying instead of ashamed of failing. It means never being sorry for not having the guts to take that extra step.

So my fourth principle is to embrace change. And doing it without regrets about taking that extra step and failing.

From that time when we were five in a garage to around 400 now I can list a huge amount of achievements. There are a lot of people that look at OutSystems and they cannot believe that such a sophisticated technological product exists. That such a company started in a country with no obvious background in high-tech.

Some still think it a fluke. Most marvel at how unique it is.

And a lot associate it with one person’s brilliance.

I find this weird and uncomfortable. It is not brilliance. The success of OutSystems has many components: persistence, a good vision that became great, and fantastic but rather normal people.

And one important extra ingredient: at no point in our history have we ever considered that there was a limit to what we could achieve.

You might call it ambition. I prefer to see it as never believing we have reached our limits.

If we have reached the peak of the mountain why not shoot for the stars?

So, my fifth principle is the one of never setting limits. In the end limits are fundamentally arbitrary and they are justifications for you to sell yourself short.

And now that I have said that I would like to leave you with a final principle that is all about setting limits.

Ethics. And when I say ethics I mean good ethics.

We live in a corporate world. We need to be aggressive to survive. We need to squash the competition, sell as much as possible and spend as little as possible. So it is sometimes tough to not do certain things.

There are choices we need to make. I have, very early in my professional life, defined mine. I am a pragmatist at heart but I have created and run a company based on a small set of good ethical principles that I have had the opportunity to violate and never did.

I don’t know if I would have done better if I had been less strict about these principles. Probably.

But having a purpose that has goodness at its core has some great outcomes.

Your colleagues work better because they never have to make a murky moral decision. A company that has a transparent and straightforward culture based on good principles will always win the war for talent.

That vibe will reach your customers. They will be more loyal because you worry about making their lives a bit better.

And when you look back and you put in one side of the scale all those years of sweat, frustration and neglecting your family you can balance those, not with the wealth you have accumulated, but with the sense that you have left a mark for good in the world.

And such a life is a life worth living.

Good luck! Thank you!”



Management, Entrepreneurship, IT and other ramblings on stumbling and thriving in the high-tech world

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