Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky delivered the keynote speech for the University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information class of 2020 graduation. This is his speech from the virtual recognition ceremony, which took place on Sunday, May 17th, 2020.
Thank you Dean Cohen, and hello graduates, family members, friends, and faculty.
I’m Bryan Salesky, CEO and co-founder of a company called Argo AI, based right here in Pittsburgh. We build autonomous vehicle technology, and we like to say that we’re on a mission to build self-driving technology that you can trust. Someday soon that technology will be integrated into vehicles and deployed around the world with our partners Ford Motor Company and Volkswagen.
And, like you, I am a proud graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, so I’m extremely honored to be asked to speak with you today.
Now, I know that I may not be your typical technology CEO. I don’t live in Silicon Valley. I deliberately headquartered our company here in Pittsburgh because the Steel City embodies everything we wanted Argo to stand for. We are smart. Scrappy. Hard-working. And we believe in substance over flash. Humility over self-promotion. And because of this, we can sometimes be overlooked. But we’re okay with that.
When I was an undergraduate Engineering student in the early 2000s, I decided that I didn’t want to follow the same path as many of my peers, who were heading off to grad school. I wanted to get straight to work.
My first job out of Pitt was working at Union Switch & Signal, the railroad company that George Westinghouse founded in 1881. The job was straightforward: keep the trains running. The specific software that I wrote was part of a mission critical command center that gives railroad operators visibility into their vast network of rail operations. The stakes were high because that software needed to be reliable or it was “lights out” for those who needed to keep a watchful eye over their thousands of miles of operations.
That first job made it very real for me just how high stakes software engineering can be. More and more of the world runs on software. It has to work, and it has work all the time. Pitt is special in that it grounded me in the practical schoolwork required to gain the skills necessary to have a positive impact in the real world.
I learned quickly not to let my degree, or anything else for that matter, define me, as I later went to work at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, surrounded by some very smart PhD’s, where I helped create autonomous mining trucks for Caterpillar and many other autonomous systems for a wide range of applications and industries. Then I left for Google, where I explored how to make autonomous cars. Then that founding team was on a mission to save lives by eliminating car crashes, which is one of the top causes of death worldwide.
My career has been focused on engineering that helps to move things from A to B. Trains, cars, trucks, wheeled or tracked, big or small — I’ve had an opportunity to contribute to a myriad of different applications and platforms, all within the broader context of transportation.
And so you might conclude that I must be passionate about transportation, or love trains, or maybe I’m a robotics guy since I started a self-driving company. Or maybe I just really like a challenge?
What I have chased in my career was not something intentionally in the field of transportation or the automotive industry. I have been chasing the opportunity to work on fulfilling projects that will have a positive impact on the world, alongside the smartest, most passionate and driven people in the world. If you do that — it’s not work, it’s a mission and under all of that — you will find happiness and fulfillment.
I tell you my story in this way to point out that regardless of what label you or others put on you, regardless of your age, experience level, degree or any of that — you will find success if you find a mission you identify with and you’re addressing a world need.
You are graduating at a time that has not been better in terms of the world’s need for your unique skills and talent. The vast amount of computational resources that are increasingly connected in the world we live in presents an unprecedented amount of opportunity to tap. We are still in the very beginning stages of a digital transformation that continues to change the world, in many positive ways, and certainly not without some consequences along the way.
Anyone who isn’t certain about what exactly the future holds for you, I challenge you to simply find what you are passionate about and chase it. Build or join a team that shares the same values as you, one that is mission-driven to change the world for the better. In doing this, you cannot make a wrong turn. And all of the hard work you’ve put in to getting to this moment will be worth it. Because you have gained the knowledge and skill to meaningfully contribute to the world and make it a better place, you will find happiness.
Right now, our world is more uncertain and unpredictable as it’s been in any of our lifetimes. We need your talent and skills. We need your energy, perseverance, your optimism and hope.
No matter where your family came from, what you look like, or what position you hold, you should know that you’ve got power. Regardless of what career you choose, you have the capacity and drive to succeed. Whether you stay in Pittsburgh — as I hope at least some of you do — or take your talents elsewhere, you should refuse to be overlooked.
I look forward to meeting you in person someday and welcoming you to this brave new world we all face.
Best of luck in all of your worldly pursuits!