Martin Casado is a legend in his own corner of the tech world for inventing a technology that radically alters the way computer networks are built.
He invented the tech while he was a PhD student at Stanford. He took that invention, and two of the professors advising him (legends in their own right) Nick McKeown from Stanford and Scott Shenker from University of California, Berkeley, and founded a startup back in 2012. It was called Nicira and it was backed by VCs like Andreessen Horowitz (“a16z“).
“Nicira launched into the networking industry like a cannonball hitting placid water,” a16z founder Marc Horowitz wrote of Nicira and of Casado. That’s true.
The company was quietly founded in 2007, but didn’t officially launch until early 2012. Five months later, it sold to VMware for a stunning $US1.26 billion. And the network industry has never been the same.
After staying with VMware for a few years, Casado left in early 2016 to become a VC with a16z. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t think of himself as a runaway success. He thinks of himself as someone who “got good at failure.”
Or so he told the 2017 graduating class at his first alma mater, Northern Arizona University, where he spoke after receiving an honorary PhD on May 13.
“When I was standing where you are, I wanted to be the world’s best computational physicist,” Casado confessed to the crowd. “And soon after I wanted to be the world’s foremost cyber policy expert. But instead I went to grad school, and then I wanted to be the world’s best academic. And I certainly didn’t accomplish that.”
“I only found computer science because I couldn’t hack it as a physicist, and then I failed as a microbiology student. I made many, many missteps as the first time founder of a company,” he said.
Casado’s speech was short, sweet, funny, and profound.
I heard it because I was in the audience that day, proudly watching my own daughter graduate with a degree in astrophysics (notice how I slipped in that motherly brag?). While I’m insanely proud of my kid, I’m also biting my nails over what her degree will lead to.
She doesn’t want to go to grad school right now. And although she knows forms of maths that I didn’t even know existed, what kind of career will she have? I don’t know. And neither does she.
But Casado’s speech flipped my view on it. He offered four solid bits of advice to students, which is good advice for anyone, at any age:
No. 1: “You’re unlikely to achieve your goals.”
Since no one can predict the future, while on the path to a goal, a better goal “is likely to smack you while you’re looking the other way, and you’d be an idiot not to follow it,” he said.
His advice is to “take some fraction of that effort and work on being open to change, and to opportunity,” while working toward your goals.
If he hadn’t been open to change in his career, he never would have invented an industry-changing technology.
No. 2: “You are going to fail. A lot. It’s inevitable.”
He suggests that it is really “failure,” not “progress” that indicates whether you are living up to your potential.
If you are failing, you are truly pushing yourself, and “not stalling your own progress by hiding.”
The true skill, then, is “to learn to embrace failure. Not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned, and hit reset.”
No. 3: “No one really knows what contributes to success.”
Every person is unique, and that means what’s right for others isn’t always right for you. When it comes to advice, listen to the parts that ring true for you, and disregard the rest.
“You’re going to take one path out of an infinite number of possibilities,” Casado said. “And you’re going to navigate it your way.”
No. 4: “The universe is a messy place.”
So, if there is a secret to life, happiness, and success, it’s this: “The opportunity is hidden in the sloppiness. If you hold too hard to specific ideas of where you want to go, or what the landscape will look like, or what the world will provide you, I can guarantee you’ll be disappointed.”
Here is the full transcript of his speech with the video embedded below, if you’d rather listen than read:
CASADO: “Graduates, I am deeply honored to have a few minutes with you. So let me first thank you for the opportunity and your attention.
Right now. This moment. Is one of the most significant inflection points in your life. And perhaps not in the way you’d expect. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to explain why.
Getting to this point. This space we’re all sharing right now, has taken a tremendous amount of work and dedication. No doubt. And for that, I applaud you, and you have my deepest respect.
However, a university education, no matter how windy, is a path with a clear goal. It was challenging, sure. Yet generally the objective was pretty obvious: Work hard and get the hell out.
All of that is about to change.
Almost two decades ago I was standing where you are now. I was nervous. I was excited. And I was largely over it.
And so I took that proverbial step. And very quickly, I realised that where I landed was very, very different from where I left.
It was as if I stepped off of a narrow path and into a city. And unlike my university experience, there was no clear goal. There wasn’t a defined string of classes or tests I had to pass. There was no notion of a start or finish.
Instead there was a vast, vast collection of opportunities and perils. Infinite routes, to infinite locations, and none of which I really understood. You could chose to stop or move at any time with equal chance of benefit or loss.
And I found that none of my experiences really prepared me to navigate such a wide open space. There were no platitudes, no cliches, no quippy one liners that provided clear and useful guidance. It wasn’t just about working hard and setting goals. It wasn’t just about perseverance or having a positive attitude. I knew how to do all those things. This new space required something far different.
So with that backdrop I’d like to offer you some advice. Lessons that no one would be able to put on a motivational poster and keep their job. Lessons to keep in mind as you take this next step into the chaos.
First: You’re unlikely to achieve your goals. Really, it’s very unlikely. When I was standing where you are, I wanted to be the world’s best computational physicist. And soon after I wanted to be the world’s foremost cyber policy expert. But instead I went to grad school and then I wanted to be the world’s best academic. And I certainly didn’t accomplish that.
You’re unlikely to achieve your goals. The reason is that you probably don’t realise how many amazing opportunities are out there, and how much you’ll enjoy them. You are unlikely to achieve your goals, because a better one is likely to smack you while you’re looking the other way, and you’d be an idiot not to follow it.
So my guidance to you is as much as you work towards your goals, take some fraction of that effort and work on being open to change, and to opportunity.
Second: You are going to fail. A lot. It’s inevitable. I only found computer science because I couldn’t hack it as a physicist, and then I failed as a microbiology student. I made many, many missteps as the first time founder of a company.
You are going to fail because you’re going to be navigating a shifting landscape with a lot of things not under your control. You’re going to fail because the goals are going to change or be unclear. You’re going to fail because you’ll start something, and realise it’s not what you want to do.
And here’s the key: Failing will be your only true measure of progress. It’s inevitable. The system you’re about to walk into is simply too dynamic and too poorly defined for you not to.
And so my guidance to you is to learn to embrace failure. Not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned, and hit reset.
Third: No one really knows what contributes to success. Not me, not some business guru, or some pundit on the news. No one. And that’s particularly true for your success. Yours. Here’s the reality: Every one of you is a beautiful collection of amazing qualities and strengths. Unique in all the universe you. And you’re going to take one path out of an infinite number of possibilities. And you’re going to navigate it your way.
So right here, I grant you permission to summarily ignore the nonsense of others. Take advice as input, sure. But check it against your absolutely unique perspective and qualities to bring to a problem.
You do you, Boo.
For what it’s worth, of all the advice I’ve given you, this last request will probably be the most difficult. I know you can work hard. I know you’re all smart, and capable, and resourceful. But I don’t know how well you know yourself. I certainly didn’t when I graduated. And it took a lot of inquiry, and a lot of failure, and a lot of false starts to begin to figure it out.
In the words of Dr. Seuss, that he actually didn’t write and I totally made up, “You can’t do you, Boo, if you don’t know you”
OK, let me take a step back. Here’s where all of this is leading.
The universe is a messy place. And the real trick going forward is to acknowledge that, and to embrace it. The opportunity is hidden in the sloppiness. If you hold too hard to specific ideas of where you want to go, or what the landscape will look like, or what the world will provide you, I can guarantee you’ll be disappointed.
And it’s exactly because the beauty is in the chaos. What have I asked of you?
One, focus on being open to change because although you’re all beautiful and bright and creative individuals, the opportunities are for more wondrous than you can possible conceive.
Two, fail. It’s the only way you know that you’re riding the chaos and are not stalling your own progress by hiding.
Three, no one knows what’s best for you. Because really, it’s unknowable. So ignore the pundits and do it your way.
And to do that, know yourself. Because really, this journey is for you. And your priorities. And for those you care about. With that, I’ll leave you with a quote. And this one I didn’t make up.
It’s from the Ashtavakra Gita:
‘Let the waves of the universe
rise and fall as they will.
You have nothing to gain or lose.
You are the ocean.’
Thank you very much, and again many congratulations.”
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