Rich Barton, the Zillow and Expedia co-founder, drew inspiration from Bill Gates, JFK, an ancient Greek myth and the movie “Weird Science” for his commencement address Friday at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.
Watch his address below, and continue reading for a transcript.
Rich Barton: Thank you to the faculty and staff of the University of Washington Computer Science Department. You’ve created something truly special here, a purple gem of a program in an Emerald City of opportunity for your graduates. UW Computer Science, are you kidding me? Wow. Congratulations on completing the most challenging and rewarding journey of your lives, and I’m not talking to you graduates right now. I’m talking to your parents. It was no small feat getting you from diapers and drool all the way to gowns and diplomas, and you know it. Let’s all, right now, say thank to your parents and supporters.
Now, I address you, graduates of the Class of 2017. For the next few minutes we’re going to talk about Pygmalion and the Wizard of Oz. Pygmalion is the title star in an ancient Greek myth. He was a sculptor who created a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with it. His love was so pure and so strong that his statue came to life. Anyone who’s a fan of 1980’s geek flicks, and I’m sure there are a few of you out there, will recognize this as the plagiarized plot of one of the greats, “Weird Science.” Oh, wow. It stars Anthony Michael Hall, king of the geeks. No? All right, you gotta see it. If you’ve seen it, be honest. Okay, all right, all right. Get it. Put it on your Netflix list.
Two lovable geeks with a computer that used what looks kind of like a CAD program to create a woman who they loved so much that she actually comes to life and now they have a real girlfriend for the first time. Twentieth century sociologists named a human behavioral phenomenon after this myth. They observed that teams that have big audacious dreams achieve their dreams more frequently than is logically predictable. Thus the Pygmalion Effect was born. Great expectations beget great results.
An example. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” When President John F. Kennedy issued this challenge in 1961, most heard it as ludicrous. However, just eight years later, while the whole world watched a scratchy video feed on television, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered these timeless words, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Thank you for the chuckles. Trying to be dramatic up here. OK, that is the Pygmalion Effect. Great expectations beget great results.
Another, more local, example. “Our dream is a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software.” When Bill Gates first said this in the early 1980s along with Paul Allen about their tiny software company, anyone who was paying attention thought this dream far-fetched and silly. Almost no one had a personal computer at work or at home and yet today, you have one in your pocket, you’ll have one on your desk at work at your future job that I hope you have, you have one in your kitchen at home, you drive a computer and increasingly are driven by a computer. Computers are everywhere and clearly they’re not slowing down. Again, this is the Pygmalion Effect. Great expectations beget great results.
Here are just two quick examples from my personal experience. In 1996, when the web was brand new and I was a little older than you all, I told BusinessWeek magazine that Expedia would one day become the largest seller of travel in the world — helping everyone, everywhere make and take better trips. My bosses at Microsoft thought I was crazy. Well, in 2014, Expedia did become the largest seller of travel in the world, selling over $60 billion in travel.
Finally, 10 years ago, my Zillow co-founder Lloyd Frink and I, two geeks at a computer, created another big audacious dream while we were frustratingly shopping for homes and not getting the information that we deserved and needed. We decided we would use our technology skills to tear down the walls that separated regular folks from the real estate data they needed to make informed decisions about where to live. In so doing, we would create the largest real estate marketplace in the world.
Last month, the Zillow Group had over 170 million unique visitors to its sites and maps, and is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest real estate marketplace in the world. Again, and finally, this is the Pygmalion Effect: have a dream, gather or join a talented crew of fellow adventurers and make it so. Great expectations beget great results.
So it’s reasonable now to ask, “OK, Rich. What does it take to achieve these big dreams? Do you just click your heels and it magically happens?” I’m going to answer in an allegory through the three main characters of one of the great movie book Broadway shows of the 20th Century, the Wizard of Oz, and say that it takes a scarecrow, a cowardly lion, and a tin man. Each of these seekers overcame “lions and tigers and bears, oh, my,” wicked witches and flying monkeys as they followed the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, wherein, the great and powerful wizard was to grant each one a wish. Their wishes are what I wish for you as you begin your journey in pursuit of your big audacious dreams.
Rarely do I miss PowerPoint, let me tell you, but I don’t have it right now. I’m gonna ask you to close your eyes and picture the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. He’s got straw coming out of his head and he’s vapidly smiling, his eyes are wide. What was it that the scarecrow sought from the Wizard?
Brains. I heard it. “Use your brains” might seem like an unnecessary and obvious piece of advice to give to this super-bright class, but suffer me. In my grandfather’s time, the most important assets in the economy were hard assets, factories, ships, trucks, bricks and mortar. People were important mostly for the kinetic output of their muscles in their bodies. Employees were known as labor. Today, in the future that I foresee, people, not things, are the most valuable assets and they are so valuable mainly for the work product of their brains, not their brawn for the intellectual property that they create. Software, algorithms, designs, brands, ideas, these are what drive the information age.
The scarecrow sought brains — plural, not brain. Networks are much smarter, more complex and interesting than nodes. This is true of neurons, bees, servers, homo sapiens. You will need a network as well in order to achieve your dreams. You will need to be part of a team. Your fellow team members will not all be like the people you have been spending most of your time in 002 or 003 with. If you don’t already, you’ll learn to respect people who can’t do math quite as quickly as you can, but who can inspire with words or images, who can connect with people in an emotional way. Together, you will make a diverse team that will accomplish much more collectively than you could as an individual or as part of a homogenous team. Brains. This is what the scarecrow sought and what you will need.
Now close your eyes and picture the cowardly lion. He’s frightened, his shoulders are hunched, he’s holding his tail. He seeks … courage! Good. Excellent. Instead of rallying you around great courageous statements like FDR’s, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” I’m gonna tell you why courage should be an easy one for you all.
I know many of you may feel like you’re tiptoeing on a high-wire tightrope, especially as you graduate into the great unknown. You feel that if you slip or wobble, you might topple to your death. Here’s the secret. Shhh. You have a net under you. You are so lucky because most people don’t have this net. The net is your family and friends, your degree, the network of graduates you are sitting with right now, your professors. The net allows you to walk that tightrope with confidence. Take big swings. There is zero cost to missing the ball.
Actually, there is learning to be gained from swinging and missing. Parents may be cringing right now. They probably want you to take a safer path. They don’t want you back living in their house, in your old bedroom. However, you are at the most risk-tolerant point in your lives. Most of you probably don’t yet have a spouse or dependent children and you hopefully don’t have a huge pile of bills and possessions. Your risk profile will change as you age. Take a chance on pursuing a big, audacious dream now. Courage. This is what the cowardly lion sought and what you will need.
OK. The scarecrow was confused, the lion was scared, but the tin man was really in the worst shape before he met the wizard. The tin man was stoic and mean — standing stiffly with an axe at the ready. Can you see him? He was missing a heart. He didn’t feel. He didn’t have emotion. I’m sure you could see how critical heart will be on your journey. You gotta have heart. Will you do the right thing? Are your motives pure and transparent? Are you fair and kind?
Humans are meaningfully more emotional than we are logical because emotion evolved hundreds of millions of years prior to logic. Emotion is primal. We respond to body language more fundamentally than we do to spoken language and are persuaded more by images than by data, which I know maybe hard to accept for those of you who love your data out there. Our hearts beat faster when we feel passion and hope and excitement. However, our hearts beat faster when we feel fear or humiliation.
Unfortunately, it’s harder to inspire hope than it is fear, so the most common leadership style in human history is leadership by fear. Get it done or you’re fired. Give me your stuff or I will kill you. From Genghis Khan to Machiavelli and Frank Underwood right down to far too many current political leaders, business leaders, and the occasional college professor, fear as effectiveness is indisputable. However, it isn’t any fun nor is it healthy to live in a land of fear. Hope is harder, but much happier and healthier.
Therefore, as you set off to join teams that will change the world, make sure your team leader is not the tin man. As you become leaders yourselves, remember to risk showing and sharing your own heart. Heart. This is what the tin man sought, and what you will need.
The lesson of Pygmalion is to have a big dream. No matter the context or the organization, set ambitious and inspiring goals for yourselves and with your teams. More often than is reasonable to expect, you will find your dreams will come to fruition. Great expectations beget great results. Do not believe that there is a silver-bullet answer, or a wish-granting wizard that will make your dreams come true. In the movie, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz turned out to be a fraud. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” He was just a man.
The wizard’s gift was to simply hold up a mirror to his hopeful supplicants and show them what was inside of them already. You have brains. Take courage, demonstrate heart, and the Emerald City will be yours. Congratulations, and thank you.