Graduate Commencement 2019

Dr. Tzannes at podium


Dr. Michael Tzannes Commencement Address

Dr. Tzannes received his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Tufts University in 1990.

Good Morning!

Michael TzannesFor all of you out-of-towners: welcome to another glorious day in New England.  The weather is always like this here…  To those of you who live here and know that what I just said isn’t true, the fact that today is such a beautiful one should be seen by all of you as a good omen for your futures.

It is a great honor for me to be here today.  I want to thank Dean Qu for inviting me to speak.  I want to thank Amy and Adam for organizing this event and helping prepare me.  It is a very special day for all of you and it is an honor for me to be here talking to all of you.

Graduates – today is a big deal. Getting a graduate degree in engineering is difficult – as all of you know. When I try to think about how to explain that to people who are not recipients of graduate degrees in engineering, which is worth doing, since your friends and families are here and it would be nice for them to hear, a couple of sayings that are reasonably well-known come to mind.  One of them is that: “In theory, theory and practice are the same, while in practice they are not.”  This of course means, if you think about it, that practice is more important than theory.  And as engineers we are all about practice. The other one I like, and I’m paraphrasing this one somewhat is: “nothing slays a beautiful hypothesis like an ugly fact.”  We’re all about facts.  And, of course, this implies that the facts can trump the hypotheses. 

The irony is that getting a graduate degree in engineering requires mastering both the theory and the practice.  Dean Qu did a very nice job describing the gauntlet, the trajectory that all of you have had to follow to get to today.  It is not easy.  And you’ve had to master both the theory and the practice.  And this makes you really special.  It puts you in an elite class.  Parents, families, friends, loved ones, let me introduce you to the engineering elite of tomorrow.

And of course, today is a day of celebration.

But I would like to point out some things – having been for years now an engineer myself, and having spent a lot of my life working with engineers with graduate degrees, I’d like to point out some baggage that comes along with this elite status.  I don’t know whether this baggage came about because of the program you’ve each gone through, or whether you were already like that, those of you who are, and that is what drove you to pursue a graduate degree in engineering.  But, regardless, you have certain idiosyncrasies:

You overanalyze things – not all of you, but certainly some of you.  I definitely do that.  That is appropriate in our field of study – that is how you have accomplished what you have today.  But, when I pick a restaurant, I drive my family crazy, because I have to research every possibility.  And once I chose one, and they say, that sounds great, I go back, I second guess myself and do it all again. And that…is annoying.

We tend to be know-it-alls.  We think we know things that maybe we really don’t, and that’s because a graduate degree in engineering involves studying, analyzing, learning what others did before us, putting something new together.  This makes us believe that we can apply that process to anything.  In fact, we often think we can do it better than people who actually know how to.  That…is kind of arrogant.

And, as tired a cliché as it may be, some of us, not all of us, are still a bit socially awkward.

Finally, we’re very results oriented.  And results are certainly important, but, as you go forth, you’ll see that in life results are not everything, there are a lot of other things in life that matter a lot.

Let me explain further what I am talking about by using about a concrete example.  And that is here, today and me.

Shortly after I received the very flattering invitation from Dean Qu to speak to all of you here, the next step was preparing this speech.  So, I went about it as any good engineer would, I started with analysis, listening to or reading an inordinate number of previous speeches. I then made notes on them, made graphs of the characteristics of speeches that I liked, made flowcharts and block diagrams showing the inputs and the outputs of the various steps of the speech. I mastered the theory of the commencement speech.  Then I moved to the implementation of the speech.  That involved computational metrics like word count and time of speech and of course the lab work and prototypes, which in this case meant I would rehearse the speech to pretty much anyone who would listen.  And, once all of this was done, because if followed a process that I know is tried and true, I am confident that this is a good speech.

Engineers can also be forgetful and I’ve just forgotten what comes next.

And we can also be funny – but in an awkward sort of way – like just that.

Parents, families, friends, loved one, despite whatever idiosyncrasies your engineers may have, today marks a beautiful day for them and their future has never looked brighter.  You are certainly entitled to be proud of their accomplishment.

Graduates.  You are problem solvers – What drove you here and what enabled you to finish this challenging program that you each have finished, at the end of the day, was hope.  Hope, that you can change, improve, discover, that you could solve problems. Cleaner water, more efficient energy, safer communities, less traffic, better medical sensors, faster and more reliable communications, better processes for creating – breakthroughs in chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil, biomedical or industrial, human-robot interactions or material science, nano and bio materials.

And as you move on, that hope that drove you here can continue to drive you.  You need to leverage up what you’ve learned so far to the next phase of your lives.  Indeed, life is a lot about leveraging up what you learned in a previous stage into the next phase.  You will face challenges.  Dean Qu mentioned this, there is no doubt there will be paths that don’t lead where you want them to lead.  But you already know how to persevere.   In fact, as Thomas Edison eloquently said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  You will likely do that – and you will be fine.  Because even though you might be a little awkward and a little arrogant and a little annoying, you are persistent.

You’ve developed tools here.  You know how to create, how to break, how to fix, how to debug, how to analyze, and you now can really make a difference. Kaitlin Van Wicklin, graduating today with a Master’s degree in Biomedical engineering, you can make a difference.  Lisa Fantini, getting a masters today in EE, you can make a difference.   The opportunities ahead for each of you are vast.  And this is an especially interesting time for engineering and technology.  The intersection of technology and engineering with society and humanity is at a level of intensity that may be unprecedented.  We have machines that can learn.  Big data can be used to teach a neural network to do just about anything.  We have communications that are ubiquitous enabling anyone in the world to communicate with anyone else, and in fact with large numbers of people, more easily than ever before.  And that is all good.  For the most part.  But technology can also be used for nefarious purposes. It can also mean that misinformation can be spread or cybercrimes performed that threaten security and privacy. Your opportunity, your responsibility in my opinion is to use the skills you’ve developed, to leverage the knowledge you’ve amassed, the ability you have developed to make a difference and use them for good causes.

Imagine a world of people, like yourselves, who are willing to analyze -overanalyze even- to tackle problems, to study what others did before them and engineer solutions. And imagine those people focused on changing the world for the better.  That can be your world and that should be your world.

There is no oath in engineering.  The lawyers and doctors have an oath.  I think an engineering oath that is as simple as: I will use what I learned in engineering to do good for the world, would be appropriate.

As Dean Qu mentioned, I sat where you are today just under 30 years ago, when I finished school here at Tufts.  Since then, I’ve learned a few things and I’d like to share them:

One is that spending your energy on things that you really can’t control is kind of a waste of time.  At Aware, a company in Bedford MA, where I worked for many years, we developed DSL technology that enabled phone lines to transmit data faster than ever before.  Yet, our investors – some of them - questioned whether this would matter - in fact criticized us for pursuing it.  If phone companies didn’t deploy our technology, they said, our technology wouldn’t matter.  And that was true, but that was out of our control.  What was in our control was to make the technology reliable, cost-effective, and scalable as bandwidth became in higher and higher demand. Eventually these things came together and today there are over 500 million phone lines around the world that use DSL.

Another thing that I’ve learned as I look back on my life is the importance of teams.  We usually think of our work team when we think of a team.  Respect and participate in your team at work – whether you are leading or not, that is not important.  Who you are working with may be more important than what you are working on. For happiness and success. And where you are working may not be that important.  I had a mentor who told me to: follow the harvest, meaning to not get tethered to a specific location, especially early in your careers. Other teams in your lives, of course, are also important.  Your friends and family, first and foremost.  Look around you.  These people are the team you went through this journey with.  These are the loved ones who supported you along the way.  Thank them, respect them and celebrate with them today.  It is always important to celebrate your successes. And there are teams in areas that aren’t either professional or personal that are important.   Whether you call them hobbies or extra-curricular activities or charitable causes.  These define another dimension of who you are.  Some of my most cherished interpersonal relationships are with people I play music with, or play sports with, or travel with. Also you should seek mentors within your teams.  Tell them you want them to be your mentor, they will be an invaluable resource. And in the future when you have more time and money, consider those organizations that you believe in, or that helped you get ahead, like Tufts University.

Let me say more about Tufts, a place that is special to me.  Tufts is a world-renowned institution, with depth and breadth in a broad array of disciplines. And yet it remains a small and warm community.  And I think that is a testament to the faculty, and the staff and the administrators who have made this university such a welcoming place.  Eric Miller, who ably chairs the ECE dept.  Ron Lasser, also from the ECE dept who just won his third Teacher of the Year award.  These are just some of the people who make this a special community.  And I’d like to pay tribute to one other such member of our community.  Professor Joseph Noonan, who was my PhD advisor and who passed away last year.  Professor Noonan was a man who used engineering to indeed change the world for the better.

Wrapping up, you have worked hard to get here, you have the tools to make a difference and you will have tremendous opportunity in front of you. Congratulations, good luck and please go change the world for the better.