August 28, 2012

Commencement Speech: Colin Angle

Thank you for having me here. And most importantly, Congratulations Graduates!!! You have achieved one of life's great milestones. You worked hard to complete this stage of your education successfully. I want you to be proud of your accomplishment and remember to enjoy today. It is a well deserved celebration in your honor!

 And while today is about you, the graduates, there is another group here today that sacrificed, worked long hours, and may be as or more excited to see this day arrive. Parents, relatives, and friends of this awesome graduating class, I salute you. Whatever path you took to motivate, facilitate, and finance these wonderful graduates and get them here today, I have two words for you. It worked!

I am going to make three points in my address. I'll point them out when I make them and repeat them at the end in case you doze off. There won't be a quiz, but anyone trying to friend me on Facebook or linkedin after this speech who does not include them will be sadly turned away.

I was on vacation last week. After the plane had passed 15,000 feet and the flight attendant had announced it was safe to use approved electronic devices - or perhaps a minute or two before, I pulled out my iPad. I clicked on a video game. After all, it was vacation - Infinity Blade 2 for the curious. One of those games where you run around a world with big swords trying to save the planet, only to realize, if you ever win, that you just doomed the world to an even worse fate.

Then you have to do it again. And again.

And after playing this game over the course of the vacation, I was able to find a mysterious gem which made my sword capable of even greater virtual mayhem. And, being the modern citizen of technology that I am, I did the obvious thing. I looked up online what it meant and how to get more. I had one gem. I learned that if I was able to find 1,800 more just like it, I could make the uber gem.

And how did I know this? Because someone had done it and was being praised as the Hero of Infinity Blade for dedicating his life for the past year and a half to this quest - he had found a way to be special.

We live in a society where individual accomplishment seems to be praised above all else. The pressure to "pad" one's resume so intense that even marvelously talented folks are prone to do it. You are all part of a generation growing up with social media, which gives even more status to standing out - how many "friends" do you have? “Only 47?” How many people follow your tweets? When was the last time you changed jobs or changed boyfriends? “Are you stuck? Is something wrong?”

I would argue that never before has the pressure to be "special" been so intense. The world is so full of artificial attempts to attract attention that the word SPECIAL itself has been diminished.  And like with our Hero of Infinity Blade, we invest huge amounts of time to be special - amounts of time that cross the line from being fun vacation distractions to being alternatives to actual careers.

And this is a problem.

I will refer to this problem using the term - "petty specialness" and it is not a pretty thing. It is an attitude where individual differentiation for the sake of individual differentiation becomes the ultimate goal and is more important than addressing real problems facing society or the world itself. And the pursuit of “Petty Specialness” drives people to lie, exaggerate, or focus their lives on hollow achievements. And that is my first point of this address.

My charge to you today is to strive for something of greater meaning with your lives. There are tiny handful of true geniuses in the world who fit my classic definition of special. I am not one of them. This speech was not written for them.

For the rest of us I suggest an alternative career path to striving for petty specialness. Becoming PART of something worthwhile.

You don't have to be "the best XYZ in the world." to be PART of a team working on solving some of the coolest or most important real problems in the world. And that is my second take away.

Whether that means helping to colonize Mars, working on a cure for cancer, or helping to improve the educational system in the US, there are many many worthwhile problems we face and they all have one thing in common.  They are hard and solving them is not going to be the result of one person acting alone, it is through teamwork.

 There may be a "first person to walk on Mars" or "the person who had the insight that led to the cure" but these folks will be parts of teams that brought those folks close enough to the goal to make that step possible. And the organization and the team of people that pulled it off get deserved recognition for their achievements. Really. That’s how it works.

I am here addressing you today. Yet I did not invent the Roomba vacuuming robot. I was a part of the team that did. I did not invent the robots that we sent to the Fukushima Nuclear reactor in Japan and have been there cleaning up the disaster resulting from the Tsunami. My role was on the team was to make the decision to send them there and explain to our investors why we just gave away $500,000 of robots. Other awesome folks,stayed up for days getting the robots ready to ship, gave up their lives for many weeks flying to Japan and training the Japanese on how to operate the robots.

I did not invent the robots that found underwater plumes of oil resulting from the Deep Horizon Oil Rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, or explore the Great Pyramid in Gisa. I helped found and run a company that did. I am part of a team of hundreds that over the past 22 years found a way to make real robots that people can afford and changed the world in the process.

When I am on planes or in a new social setting often I am asked the question “what do you do?” My answer is always “I build robots at iRobot.” Being part of the iRobot team and solving the challenges we take on is what makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

Being special in life is not about petty accomplishment, it is about being an effective part of a team in pursuit of something awesome. And that’s my third message today.

One final story and I'll get off the stage.

In 2001 the United States sent soldiers into AFGHANISTAN and they faced some horrific challenges - thousands of caves throughout the countryside. Most empty, some weapons caches, some terrorist bases, and many simply being used as village latrines. Yet we had to search each one… As stories of the challenges of clearing these caves became known to us at iRobot, we knew that we had to help. The soldiers were still crawling into the caves like they did in Vietnam, with ropes tied around their waists so they could be pulled out if something went wrong. And we had a prototype robot that was designed with cameras and incredible mobility to enter rugged situations like caves - the Packbot. We went to our Department of Defense sponsors and asked to help. We kept asking until we found a group, "The Rapid Equipping Force" that recognized the Packbot's potential and had a way of getting the robots over to help our soldiers. No magic, just persistence until we found someone who would listen. That and sending one of our employees to basic training.

After a harrowing flight to Afghanistan in a blacked out cargo plane involving a sudden and dramatic unplanned midnight landing in Pakistan on the way, iRobot and Packbot made it to Bagrahm airforce base. We arrived at the same time as the 82nd Airborne, who were fresh out of the states having received significant training on cave clearing.

Their reaction to the demonstration of our robot was, shall we say, luke warm. Born out of the fact that they had just been trained to clear caves. “Don’t call us…”

Now picture what happened the next day. First cave – a black foul smelling hole in the side of a cliff.

“Do you want to go in?...”


“Do you want to go in?...”

““Hey, lets call the robot guys!”

From that “cave mouth epiphany” forward we have been great partners with the infantry. When our three week experiment was over and we were scheduled to return. The soldiers told us “ok, that’s fine if your people go. But the robots are staying.”

And today there are 5,000 iRobot robots deployed around the world. Which is very cool. But far better are the postcards we get – often very simple – “Dear iRobot, you saved lives today. Thank you. Pvt 1st class so-and-so”

In the fictitious world of Infinity Blade, I am afraid I have left things worse than when I first clicked on the game icon last week. But in this real world, I feel proud to have been part of a team that has had a bit more of a positive impact. And by making sometimes hard choices, you can have an awesome positive impact on the world, too.

As promised, to review.

  1. This mass obsession with petty specialness is a recipe for disaster
  2. You don't have to be uniquely gifted to be part of something special
  3. Being part of something special is awesome.

Thank You and Congratulations, Class of 2012!!!

Colin Angle
Chairman of the Board, CEO and Co-Founder
iRobot Corporation

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