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Steve Ballmer
Microsoft CEO
Commencement Address at University of Southern California, May 13, 2011

You get some success. You run into some walls...itís how tenacious you are, how irrepressible, how ultimately optimistic and tenacious you are about it that will determine your success.


Well, thanks, President Nikias, Dean Ellis, ladies and gentlemen, award winners, honored award recipients, and most importantly graduates of the Class of 2011.

I was particularly fired up to get the opportunity to speak today at President Nikiasí first commencement. Iím not quite sure what the USC traditions are to schedule a manís first commencement on Friday the 13th. And Iím kind of a little nervous. Iím a little superstitious. I was working on a big project early this week. I was afraid I might not be able to be here. I thought I might have to Skype in. Iím glad to be here today. By the way, to all the families and graduates, post-graduation please Skype on.

I want to start with congratulations to all of the graduates of the Class of 2011. Itís really quite amazing, itís a journey, people will describe it, but at the end of the day I want you to just take one minute and celebrate it, because you deserve it, baby, to the Class of 2011. And to all the parents and family who are here, I know you deserve it.

Until about two years ago, I didnít know much about USC. I had never even been on the campus. So, you can call me, if you will, a newbie. I first visited two years ago. I have a son who just finished his freshman year here at USC. I have to tell you, itís an infectious place. It is really an infectious place. I feel like I really drank the USC Kool-Aid. I show up here for my first Parents Weekend, run into this sort of primitive ritual called the Tailgate. I proceed to a game against the University of Washington in my backyard where Iíve lived for 31 years, and Iím sitting there with Dean Ellis going, ďcome on Trojans.Ē We wonít discuss the outcome.

I also have to tell you, a guy I know in Seattle has a son who goes to the school down the street here, UCLA. And I saw him the other day, yes, thatís right. I saw him the other day, and he starts chirping at me, chirp, chirp, chirp. I said, ďIím going down to USC to speak.Ē Chirp, chirp, chirp, UCLA better, chirp, chirp, chirp. I had it. I whip out my Windows Phone, I Bing the university rankings, and I just show it to him right there in black and white, USC 23 Ė UCLA 25. So, Iíve had the Kool-Aid.

I come here today imbued with a lot of optimism. Iím naturally, itís kind of my personality, a very optimistic personality. And yet, Iím also optimistic because of the opportunity Iíve had to work in the field of information technology. Information technology has shaped the world. Information technology has been able to advance the world in a way thatís like none other, frankly, in human history. Weíre sitting here 60 years, essentially, after the introduction of the first computer. And yet the amount of invention and creation that is continuing to go on to make society smaller, to lead to advances in science, and medicine and education, in communications, in media, is really quite remarkable.

I would ask the parents who are here to think back to about the time you would have been college age. Try writing a term paper without a word processor and without the Internet. That was the world we grew up in. And, of course, itís inconceivable today.

When I decided to go to Microsoft, I was actually in the middle of an academic program. I was going for an MBA. And a friend of mine, Bill Gates, who I had gone to college with, he says, ďHey, Steve, why donít you drop out and come join me?Ē Drop out? My father didnít go to college. Dropping out, bad idea.

So, I went home and I told my mom and dad, I think Iím going to drop out, join a tiny little company, friend of mine. But, boom, my parents jump in. They said, what do they do? Software. Software for personal computers. My father comes up out of his chair. ďWhatís software?Ē Pretty inconceivable today. My mother asked an even more interesting question for the year 1980, why would a person ever need a computer? The opportunities that are proceeding are really quite amazing. And I donít think there would be any better time to really come out of school, and have a chance to make a difference across a broad variety of fields.

Our industry, boom, weíre driving forward. Weíre going to be creating new things. And certainly I had a chance to talk to about 30 Trojans last night who will all be joining Microsoft after graduation. The kind of optimism with which we can talk about the opportunities is incredible. And that same technology base is going to help, as I said, in so many other fields.

I would like you to think about here things, three things that Iíve had a chance to decide are really important based upon the time Iíve spent at Microsoft, and Iíve spent in the information technology industry. Number one, great ideas matter. Number two, find passion. And, number three, be tenacious, be irrepressible. Those three things are just, boom, bake them in, thatís what I encourage at least my poor freshman son to do, bake them in. Theyíll really take you a long way. Microsoft was really founded on a single good idea, an insight, a direction that Bill Gates and Paul Allen had that nobody had had. The microprocessor is a form of free intelligence, and with the right software there will be a computer on every desk, and in every home. And now we can say every pocket and every television set, and every everything.

And even today that same fundamental idea and where it can take us remains infinitely powerful. Another way to sort of grab this idea about ideas and direction, I like a quote from Wayne Gretzky. He says, good hockey players skate to where the puck is; great hockey players will skate to where the puck is going to be. Ideas and direction really matter, and you had an opportunity here at USC to be educated, to be exposed, to pick up so much that will give you the insights and the ideas that will matter to you and to the world as we move forward.

Second, find passion. This is not an easy one. People think passion is something you either have or you donít. People think passion is something that has to manifest itself in some kind of explosive and emotional format. Itís not. Itís the thing that you find in your life that you can care about, that you can cling to, that you can invest yourself in, heart, body, and soul. Finding passion is kind of your job now.

Itís been your job the last four years at USC, or shorter, or longer, depending on which program youíre in. And itís your job as you go forward into the world. You wonít necessarily find it the minute you get out.

I think about my own personal sort of discovery of passion. I didnít come to the technology industry naturally. I wrote my first computer program in ninth grade, and I hated it. I was shy as a kid. I donít think that I qualify on that anymore. I got to college and I was going to be a physicist or a mathematician. I decided I had way too little patience after about the end of my freshman year, and I groped for other things to do.

The thing that switched me on, actually, I was the football manager for our college football team. And I discovered through that that I like to organize things, that that was kind of my passion. I got out of college, as many of you are, and I went to work for a great company, and I found I didnít have the patience to work marketing brownie mixes and cake mixes. I had to give it up after a year or two.

Then by luck, as I was thinking about a career in the movie business, another business that I thought might match my patience and attention span, my buddy called and I was introduced to this fast paced, wonderful industry, where I could be a little organizer of a 30-person company from day one. And I found my passion. It takes a lot of trial and error. It takes a lot of experimentation. Find your passion, so that every day you can get up, even on the bad days you can get up and say, I really do love what Iím doing. This really does fire me up.

And last but not least, be tenacious. I actually prefer the word irrepressible, but everybody I ran the speech by says itís too hard for people to get. But, irrepressible is kind of tenacious, but with optimism. You just have it in you. You keep going and going. You could say, isnít that the same as passion. Itís not. Passion is the ability to get excited about something. Irrepressibility and tenacity is about the ability to stay with it. If you take a look at all of the companies that have been started in our business, most of them fail. If you take even a look at the companies that have succeeded, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, you name it, all of these companies went through times of hardship. You get some success. You run into some walls. You try a formula for a new idea, a new innovation, it doesnít work. And itís how tenacious you are, how irrepressible, how ultimately optimistic and tenacious you are about it that will determine your success.

I happen to think thatís a good lesson. Itís not just a lesson in our business. Itís not just a lesson that we learned with our Xbox product, or our this, or our that. Itís a lesson that applies whether youíre going into science, or medicine, or business, or any other walk of life. Ideas matter, find your passion, and be tenacious.

One question I think youíve got to ask sitting here today is, how did USC do in preparing you for that, by my kind of short period of time to analyze Iíd say awfully darned well. Youíve had a chance to explore academically. Youíve had a chance to explore through extracurricular activities, through athletics, through social things. Youíve had a chance to develop ideas and opinions that might matter, that you can take forward into the world.

But, I actually think itís on this notion of passion, tenacity that perhaps USC is most special. To me USC seems to have a culture that promotes passion, that promotes tenacity, that promotes irrepressibility. Iíve had a chance over the last couple of years to meet a number of teachers, men and women, who have a chance to work with students here at USC, including a new neighbor of mine lives a few houses down the street, Pete Carroll. I have never met a more passionate, irrepressible human being. He happens to work for one of the founders of Microsoft, Paul Allen, who said to me, Iím not sure what weíre going to get when we put you and Pete in a room, Steve, but itís going to literally sing with energy.

So, I do think USC has a special culture. And, in fact, I think you start learning about passion and tenacity at USC before you ever come here. I think itís the first thing the school teaches. I think you knew it before you ever finished your first tour of the USC campus. The model of this place just sort of, to me, symbolizes passion and tenacity. Fight on, passion and tenacity. Fight on. Passion and tenacity. Fight on.

This is a Steve Ballmer. Thatís a fight on. This is a class with passion and tenacity. Go get them Class of 2011. I know youíll succeed.

Posted on: 06.19.2011