Volume 4, Number 2; September 2012
'From Here, It's Possible': It Is Clearly True for Texas Tech Graduates
About the Author
Jerry S. Rawls has crafted a career serving society through corporate leadership including especially Finisar, the Sunnyvale, California, company founded by him and his partner in 1988. He is a native of Houston, Texas, and graduated from Texas Tech with a BS in mechanical engineering in 1967. Shortly thereafter, he earned an MS in industrial administration from Purdue University's Krannert School of Management. He began his career at Raychem Corporation, where he worked in sales, marketing, and management positions from 1968 through 1988. His success at Finisar, now employing 9,000 people in facilities across Europe, Asia, and the United States, led in part to his record-breaking twenty-five million dollar cash gift to the College of Business Administration in 2000. The college now appropriately bears his name.
This paper is based on his May 19, 2012, commencement addresses to Texas Tech University graduates in Lubbock, TX.
Written by Jerry S. Rawls
I wish all of you could be up here. This is a great view. Wow!
Chancellor, Regents, Provost Smith, members of the Faculty, Graduates of 2012, family and friends, I am truly honored to be here with you today, and I am very proud to be a Red Raider. My wife, Pam, is with me today. We traveled from California yesterday, and she is sitting in a box up there someplace. I want to thank her very much, and if you run into her, say "hi."
May I offer my heartiest congratulations to all graduates. It is truly a day for celebration, and as I was sitting listening to Jerry Turner talking about celebration I remembered words from the song by Kool & the Gang, "We're gonna celebrate and have a good time." Well, I imagine you will be doing a fair amount of that. This is Saturday, isn't it?
Parents and family and spouses, thank you, and congratulations. Without your support, all of these wonderful young people wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be sharing their successes with you today. All of you who have supported them have made a difference, and that's a big deal. Graduates, I think you made a very wise decision a few years ago when you chose Texas Tech. Tech offers this wonderful balance of academics, activities, social life, and athletics, and it's all imbedded into a cultural structure with the West Texas work ethic serving as cornerstone.
Akin to Chancellor Hance, I remember my days at Texas Tech with great fondness. It was a great time. We had a lot of fun. However, I will tell you, there was a flaw. As an engineer, I was in school here for five years, because we had to take many more hours in those days than engineering students do today. Every single semester for five years, that's ten semesters, I had classes six days a week—regularly scheduled classes six days a week. I imagine that many of you did not go to school on Friday, much less on Saturday. Anyway, it was awful. I can remember sitting in class at 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays when there was football game ready to start at 1:00 p.m. There was no tailgating for me. But, other than the Saturday class challenge, I can say that my experiences here were incredibly positive. My graduation, as I recall it, was a really bittersweet time, and I suspect some of you feel the same. It felt great to achieve a really positive result after working so many years, but it was sad that probably the most carefree and happy-go-lucky time of my life was coming to an end. At Tech I had more free time, more fun, and the largest peer group that I have ever experienced. And I'm sure all of you appreciate that, so I would say: Stay in touch with your peer group. But recognize that it won't ever quite be the same and you won't have quite that much free time. And, believe me you aren't going to get Fridays off the rest of your life.
Texas Tech has a slogan, "From here, it's possible." From my experience that slogan is true. Texas Tech prepares us well to compete in this world, to be successful, but the rest is up to us. As Chancellor Hance mentioned in his introduction, after I graduated from Tech, I went to Purdue University for graduate school. I joined a California company, worked in a number of functional areas, and then in 1988 a colleague and I started a company, or what I would call—an adventure. We were interested in high-speed fiber optics for data centers, and we named our company Finisar.
At Finisar, we were focused on developing innovative fiber optics technology. All along, however, we ran into skeptics—people who would say things like: "Oh that's impossible. Oh you can't do that." Thus, we had to work our way through each of these criticisms at seemingly "impossible moments."
Our goal at the time was to build low-cost gigabit-per-second optical transmitters and receivers for data centers. We didn't want to engage in telecom research because Alcatel, Nortel, and Lucent dominated it, and that competition was way too big for us. But, I can remember one of those "impossible moments" in 1992 when my partner and I went to Austin for a committee meeting of the Fiber Channel Standards Committee. We were at the meeting to present a paper to a room full of PhD-level scientists and engineers from big companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Texas Instruments, and AT&T—companies whose personnel had drafted a new standard for how data centers were expected to communicate among all pieces of equipment. And, we were delivering a challenging message: "You folks have got it wrong. Your proposed standards will be too expensive to implement and will never work." Finisar, a little bitty company in California, had a better way. During the Austin presentation, we showed a lot of test data and technical information. After the presentation, several people from the audience stood up and said that's impossible—you can't do that, it can't be done, and here are the reasons why it's impossible. I responded that our solution was not cold fusion. We had an alternative and better way to empower the standard to be successful. I continued by encouraging audience representatives to buy our product and test it. I challenged them: "If we're right, we want to know it. But if we're wrong, we want to know that too because our goal is to try to make this networking standard successful."
Over the next few months, our little company in California received visitors from all over the world. They came and bought a few of our products and took them back to their labs. Then, nine months after the Austin meeting, the same Industry Standards Committee and all the same PhDs who met earlier, convened in in Minneapolis and voted unanimously to change their standard and adopt the physical layer that we had defined for fiber optic data centers. That standard was key to the operations of storage area networks and was later adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for their standard for Gigabit Ethernet optical transmissions. This development essentially served as a "restart" of Finisar. And, soon thereafter, our revenues grew rapidly. Finisar went public in 1999. Today our company has about one billion dollars in annual revenue, and we have over 9,000 people working around the world. We have operations in Europe, Asia, and the United States. So from my perspective, believe me: "From here it is possible."
Given my experiences, including those noted above, I've learned a few things that might make "things possible" for new graduates. Some are obvious, such as work hard, effort counts, doing your homework. And maybe it goes without saying, but it should be mentioned: Your personal credibility is one of the most valuable things that you carry with you everywhere you go, so don't lose it, because if you do, it is really hard getting it back. So, tell the truth. If you commit that you're going to do something for somebody, do it or die trying.
Besides the subject matter competence that Texas Tech provided us and all the hard work that you're going to put into your careers, a lot of your success is going to come from positive interpersonal relations, which require interpersonal skills.
At Finisar, we work in small groups. Indeed, we solve most of our problems working in those small groups. We recruit people who are competent in their technical field, but who also have good interpersonal skills. Small groups are no fun if there's one person in the group who demands that their ego be satisfied at the expense of others. One jerk ruins the group, and the group won't be effective. It won't be fun. So, my view is that interpersonal skills are important to your career. They are also obviously important to personal relationships. But the nice thing about interpersonal skills is they can be developed. It's all about behavior, and we do have choices, and despite what some might say, we can change our behavior. Keep that in mind and work on it.
Texas Tech has a slogan, "From here, it's possible." From my experience that slogan is true. Texas Tech prepares us well to compete in this world, to be successful, but the rest is up to us.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a page for our employee handbook titled "Guidelines for Successful Behavior." I took on the task because I had started the company and wanted to build a company that was based on a positive culture—a place where people are treated really well. Some of the guidelines may sound like lessons that you already know, but I will share excerpts as they appear on page two of our Finisar Employee Handbook.
Number one: Treat others like you want to be treated. Be courteous, kind, and friendly; treat all people with respect and dignity. That includes the person that parks your car, the people that wait on you in the restaurant, and the people that you're trying to sell your products or your services to. There are no exceptions.
Second: Smile, you'll be happier. And people will receive you and view you as being more approachable.
Third: Criticize in private and do it gently. Praise in public and do it lavishly. Put-downs are inappropriate.
Fourth: Don't use the "I" word unless it's absolutely necessary. We accomplish most everything in teams, so "we" is the operative word.
Fifth: Control your anger. There is no excuse for losing your temper. If you find yourself losing control, take a deep breath, stop, go outside, leave the building, don't say anything, don't issue any orders, and don't make any decisions—not while you are out of emotional control.
Sixth: Demand the highest standards from yourself, and expect excellence from your co-workers, but cut them some slack. Nobody's perfect.
And last, don't gossip—ever. If you can't say something positive about a person, don't say anything.
At Finisar, we promote outstanding individual performers, and we make them managers. But what we really want is leaders exemplifying the personal characteristics noted above as well as having the contagious energy and enthusiasm to move organizations ahead.
One of the most powerful skills for leaders, and one of the most powerful skills for interpersonal relations, is positive feedback—the kind of feedback that empowers your co-workers—the people on your team. Positive feedback sends powerful signals to your co-workers that they are admired, respected, and appreciated, especially for the work they do. The admiration, respect, and appreciation are not intended to give the impression that you are smart or cool. Rather, the effect on the recipient should include their believing that you think they are smart and cool. And, displaying empathy in this matter pays off in the dedication and loyalty of those who work on your team.
As prospective leaders, I have one last piece of advice for all who work in our Internet age. Be really careful—check twice before you hit the send button. Double-check the address list and the copy recipients. Scan to the bottom of the note to make sure you know what's attached, and make sure you want everybody copied seeing the unsent e-mail before you. That e-mail or that Facebook posting is going to be distributed to thousands of people literally forever, and so great care is always called for when using electronic communications. I've seen so many people make mistakes that came back to haunt them.
In summary, Texas Tech has prepared you well, and I am confident that you will have a bright, bright future. Your success will make all of our Texas Tech degrees more valuable, and we will all be looking forward to that.
Along your career journey, find ways to give back to Texas Tech. Tech can use your help, and they make it pretty easy. You can go online and donate to your favorite department, college or other unit at the university. Also, stay in touch with your academic unit, and give them some money every year, providing increases as you are able. Our academic units need your help in order to achieve excellence, and I think once you get into the habit of giving, it will feel good for you, and it will help them enormously―and it will also help you stay engaged with your TTU unit. Again, to all of you―the 2012 Graduates—I say congratulations, and well done. We're all cheering for you, and keep your guns up!
In the Provost's Charge to the TTU graduates on May 18, 2012, the new TTU alumni were admonished to:
- Stop occasionally to remind themselves of the wisdom of TTU Board of Regents Chair Jerry Turner, TTU Chancellor Kent Hance, and Commencement Speaker Mark Lanier.
- Remember those who care for you, especially TTU faculty members and family members
- Remember the learning that occurred at TTU
- But, always remember: Learning—in and of itself—is not wisdom
- Wisdom comes with service
- Service is motivated by caring for others and our environment
- Service is fueled by a focus on the future
- Service is reinforced by humility
- Pursue your journey of lifelong learning
- Always seek wisdom
- Always care about others and our environment
- Constantly give yourself away
- Always, with humility, empathy, and beneficence
- Bon voyage et bonne chance!