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Justin Rattner, Intel CTO, Delivers MBA Commencement Address



Willamette University Atkinson Graduate School of Management Commencement Speech
Delivered May 13, 2012 in Salem, Oregon

Copyright 2012 Justin Rattner
Photo Courtesy Intel Corp. 

Thank you, Dean Ringold, for that kind introduction. And, thank you students, faculty, family, and friends. It’s an honor for me to speak to you today.

As Intel’s Chief Technology Officer, it’s my business to chart the technological future of the company. It’s therefore not surprising that most people to think it’s my job to predict the future or, at the very least, predict it well enough so that Intel develops the technologies and products it will need five or ten years from now.

Unfortunately, as fun as it sounds, predicting the future is very risky business, especially in this day and age where everything you say is captured on video and stored in the perpetual archives of the Worldwide Web.

And, it’s not that the risk is newly discovered. An ancient Arab proverb actually warned, “He who predicts the future lies, even if he tells the truth.”  For me, predicting the future is best left to psychics and seers.

In my mind there are two fundamentally different views about the future and how it will come to pass.

One view is that the future is a given, set in stone by cosmic forces we have yet to comprehend. Michelangelo provided the perfect metaphor for this view of the future when he said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it. It’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

If you subscribe to this theory, the future is our block of stone, and we are a collection of stone carvers slowly chipping away at it, piece by piece, to ultimately reveal our predetermined future.

The other view of the future is almost the complete opposite. It says that nothing is cast in stone. That our future is whatever we want it to be, assuming we are willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make it so.

My good friend and legendary computer scientist, Alan Kaye, who invented much of what today we call personal computing, captured this view perfectly back in the 70s.

Alan was being pressed by an eager reporter for his predictions about the future of information technology and finally said, largely out of frustration, that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Isn’t that just perfect? You could not express this view of the future in any fewer words.

Needless to say, I am firmly in the Alan Kaye camp. I believe each of us has the power to invent the future, from our personal futures to the future of our planet.

The question then becomes: what futures do we want to invent and what futures would we be better off not inventing at all? At Intel Labs, the primary research arm of the company, we’re using a variety of techniques to answer these questions.

One of them we call the Tomorrow Project. Lead by our resident futurist, Brian David Johnson, we hold regular conversations about the future with the leading thinkers and doers of our age from around the world. We record these conversations and share them on the Web. We also host structured dialogs about these possible futures in an interactive setting on the Web as well.

Another particularly compelling technique, which Brian has pioneered, is called science fiction prototyping. He and his team work with leading science fiction authors to create stories of how a particular technology might impact us, pro and con, as individuals and as a society. And, the idea is spreading. The UK’s New Scientist, for example, has just launched a new digital magazine called Arc, which is a blend of science fact and science fiction, inspired in part by Brian’s work in science fiction prototyping.

Personally, I am much more comfortable deciding what to and what not to invent than to be off looking into a crystal ball. In fact I find the prospect of evaluating a variety of possible futures and choosing a small number to make real to be truly exciting and one of the reasons I get up every morning and go to work. The future needs inventing, and I want to be a part of that invention. I hope you all come to feel that way about your own work.

Once you’ve identified a desirable future, the next challenge is to enlist and empower people to help you achieve that vision. Without them, your vision is only that, a vision. Making it a reality requires you, as a leader, to do a number of things, but time permits me to only mention two of them and even then only briefly.

The first thing you’ll need is persistence. It is absolutely key to successfully building your vision of a desirable future.  I believe it was Schopenhauer, the 18th century philosopher who said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”  

In my career at Intel, I’ve learned that when you truly believe in a future, you can’t take no for an answer. The pattern of early rejection is so predictable, my team has recently taken to describing our version of Schopenhauer’s observation as “you’re stupid, you’re stupid… you’re late.” It seems that by the time a future gets embraced by the greater company, they needed it yesterday.

To appreciate the critical need for persistence, look at any of the great innovators. They persisted and often against terrible odds. Remember, Apple Computer fired Steve Jobs, who went on to invest in Pixar, found Next, and eventually return to Apple as CEO to create the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad all the while fighting a battle with cancer, which he ultimately lost, but not until he had changed the world. You simply have to believe in what you are doing and ignore all the chatter.

The second thing you’ll need is the ability to enlist others in your vision. It’s not enough to simply argue facts and figures.  The trick is to find a way to connect your vision for the future to what’s meaningful to them at an emotional level.

Your vision cannot, therefore, simply be about a new product or service. It also has to represent a set of ideals. It has to capture people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations for something better – a better life, a better society, or a better planet.

By focusing on these ideals, your colleagues, managers, investors, and sponsors will follow you, fund you, and celebrate you, not simply because they think you’ve got a few good ideas, but because your vision brings out something more in them.

It lets them find their own meaning and purpose in your vision. And that meaning will sustain them through some very difficult times and reward them beyond their dreams with the advent of your success.

Well, my time is up.  And, I certainly don’t want to keep you from the honors and ceremonies to come. If you remember anything that I said today, just remember these three things:

  1. Invent your own future, in your work and in yourself. Nothing is written in stone.
  2. Be persistent and patient. Rejection is to be expected and overcome.
  3. Enlist others, not simply in your vision of the future, but in how it relates to the emotional ideals we all share as humans.

Thank you and good luck to all of you. I’ll look forward to being a part of the futures that each of you is now certain to invent.  


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