Yesterday I was granted the rare and spectacular privilege of receiving an honorary degree at Seneca College. It was an amazing affair, flawlessly and warmly executed, at least until the guy giving the convocation address started blubbering at the mic.
It’s a cliché that it’s an incredible honour to be recognized this way, but it’s no less true for being clichéd — and perhaps more for me than for most recipients because I’ve had the opportunity to work with Seneca students. One of the many wonderful opportunities accorded an honorary degree recipient (at Seneca at least) is being part of the barrage of professors and board-of-governors members and faculty who congratulate each graduate. Being able to congratulate some of the students I’ve worked with over the past few years was fantastic, and an unexpected treat.
I wrote some things down before, and then said them — more or less — on the day. They appear below. There is a video of it as well, and because people seem quite interested in watching a grown man cry, I will probably post it once I make it smaller than 100MB.
Thanks to Johnathan Nightingale, who helped me tweak the words, and to everyone at Seneca who listened to them quite politely. And also, of course, to everyone who’s contributed to Mozilla and our work with Seneca.
Thank you Dr. Miner, Professor Humphrey, fellow Senecans.
This is a tremendous and humbling honour; through my own work with Seneca, I’ve come to know first-hand how hard Seneca’s students, faculty and administration work to learn, teach, and make a difference, and I’m very flattered and proud to be counted among you.
“College is for people who do“; Professor Dave Humphrey taught me that, and that certainly describes the Seneca that I’ve come to know and love over the past years. My own Seneca education, if you will, began with some students working on a project with Prof. Humphrey. They wanted to change Firefox, and while there are many schools and classes around the world that undertake such projects every year, it was obvious from the first meeting that there was something qualitatively different going on here. These students were collaborating with industry to make sure that their work was grounded in reality and had practical applications — and it was really interesting work! Long before Apple’s iPhone demonstrated how a touch-based interface could work well with the web, students here at Seneca were making it happen for a small local company. I was hooked; they were about doing.
The more I got to know the students and staff at Seneca, the more I got to see creative, passionate work being nurtured, and people learning at break-neck speed. Not just fundamentals from a textbook, but often things that had probably never been learned or taught in quite this way before. As I remarked several times to my colleagues, it was a good thing that nobody told them that this work was too hard for students! These days, the Mozilla community is virtually littered with Seneca contributions and contributors, and Senecans — some of whom are graduating with us here today — have already affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people; there’s no sign of that great work slowing down. Today the programme of practical academic collaboration that Seneca and Mozilla began together a little over two years is expanding to include even more open source projects, and that programme is the envy of schools around the world. I consider myself incredibly privileged to have witnessed Seneca’s growth into an open source powerhouse, and I will always, always cherish the lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve shared as part of it. I’ve had the opportunity to make friends, make mistakes, make software. I’m a better software developer, teacher, and student myself for that time, and I owe a tremendous debt.
But of course college is also for people who learn, and you’re now coming to the end of the most intensive period of that since you learned not to eat Legos. There’s a pretty fun little exercise you can do, just making a list of all the things you know how to do. Bake a cake, normalize a database, skin a model. Then go back over that list and put a star next to the things you’ve learned in the last year or two; your lists right now would have a lot of stars on them, which is as it should be. I do this every few years — I’d do it more often, but I’m pretty absentminded — and it helps me decide when I need to seek out something new to play with.
Many of you will leave here today looking ahead to new jobs and opportunities, and while the workplace has many things going for it (money, for example, which can be exchanged for goods and services), many workplaces make it too easy for us to forget to learn. You’ll tend to be given work that you already know how to do, which is generally good economics and management, but it means that you’ll have to be much more intentional and deliberate about your own learning. You’ll need to seek out projects that provide an opportunity to do new things, and to seek out mentors and peers to help you learn from the new things you try. And you’ll want to find opportunities to teach as well — a truth that has been proven out dozens of times in my own experiences, especially at Seneca, is that teaching and learning run in both directions when they’re being done well. While my daughter is learning to crawl, she’s also teaching me to never start a game that I am not willing to play for an hour, for example. One of the most wonderful things about working with classes here at Seneca is watching the students teach each other, and share in the joy of each other’s success and discovery. You will certainly use and build on the specific skills and knowledge you’ve learned in your time at Seneca; please also prize and build on the feeling that you should be learning. Remember to learn, remember to teach, and remember to do things that can fail, and you will be on a path to making a difference in the world around you. A bumpy path at times, a path with poor markings to be sure, but I believe the only path that’s worth being on.
Congratulations, graduates, and thank you again to Seneca for this incredible honour.