Abbasi addresses Class of 2012

5/21/2012 9:02:00 AM

On May 12, the College of Engineering awarded 1,025 bachelor's degrees and 325 master's and PhD degrees to the Class of 2012. 

Families, friends, along with College faculty and staff, gathered in the Assembly Hall to honor our graduates' achievements and cast an eye to the future. The featured speaker for the Engineering at Illinois Commencement was Sohaib Abbasi, president and CEO of Informatica.

A two-time alumnus, Mr. Abbasi graduated with honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1978) and a master’s degree (1980) in computer science. He joined Oracle Corp. in 1982 when it was a 30-person startup, and was instrumental in growing the business to more than $9 billion in annual revenues. After 22 years at Oracle Corp. where he was a senior vice president and member of the executive committee, Mr. Abbasi joined Informatica as president and CEO in July 2004.

Below are the comments Mr. Abbasi offered to the new graduates:

Sohaib Abbasi
Sohaib Abbasi
Thank you, Dean Adesida.

Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, friends and family, and of course, the Class of 2012.

It’s a joy to be back at my Alma Mater and to share this occasion with such a talented group of men and women. Your class has built robots to mine on the moon. You’ve bioengineered models for surgeons. You’ve tested new prosthetics in Guatemala and studied construction management in Australia.

Your interests run the gamut from cancer detection to cryptography, sustainability to supercomputers. And you’ve already achieved what Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have not: You have earned a college degree! 

Congratulations to you and your families and particularly your mothers on this very special combination of Commencement and Mothers’ Day. 

This commencement ceremony, as its name suggests, is the beginning of a new chapter in your lives. It’s natural to feel nervous as well as excited, to wonder whether you know where you’re going—and whether you have what it takes. 

I’m here to reassure you: You are remarkably well-prepared for whatever the future may bring. Because this great school of engineering has given you two great gifts, gifts that will serve you as long as you live—knowledge and a network.

I speak from experience. When I arrived here from Pakistan, it was the first time I’d ever been to America. I had come to study computer science, though I had never seen a computer before.  But I was fascinated by a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. This school gave me, a young man from Karachi, the opportunity of a lifetime: To contribute in ways that I’d never dared dream just as a technological transformation took hold. 

My friends and I were on the frontlines of the IT revolution. Back then, we programmed with punch cards. I’ll always remember heading out to the computer science center and there would be a long line of people waiting to feed their punch card decks into the reader, and another long line waiting for the data center to generate the printout. 

We’d hang out there together—lots of sleepless nights—waiting to get our results, to see if we’d made programming errors and had to punch the cards over again. It took us days to perform a process today’s students can complete in just minutes.  

But I made great friends. I worked with great professors. I stayed on for a master’s degree. And I had a great topic for my thesis: “Design of Relational Database Operators as an Extension of an Experimental Programming Language.”  A blockbuster I am sure you have all read! 

Little did I know it would turn out to be the most important decision of my career. Not long after graduation, I went to my first computer show, and I saw a demonstration of a commercial relational database created by a 30-person startup. I applied for and was offered a job with the company, working on exactly what I had studied.  

I stayed 20 years. Today, that small startup is known to you as Oracle. In other words, what I learned at the University of Illinois directly prepared me for an exciting new field that I’ve been in ever since. And what you have learned here will help you too, in ways you know, and in ways you cannot imagine. Not just the specific courses you took, but the way you’ve learned to think. To question. To meet high expectations. To reach beyond conventional boundaries, for new insights and ideas.

And you can be sure that whatever path you follow, you will be aided by a network of alumni—a “worldwide web” of Illinois engineering graduates, 70,000 strong.  

I’ve seen it in action. When I decided to escape the Illinois winters for California, my boss at Oracle called my Illinois advisor for advice on my replacement. Professor Belford recommended a bright young man.   

You might have heard of him too: Tom Siebel. Little did Tom know that the Illinois connection would be so formative in his career. That, like me, his improbable journey traces back to this campus, these classrooms, this community. And the network thrives in countless arenas of cutting-edge innovation--from digital communications, to space exploration, to cybersecurity, to earthquake resistance.  The Illinois network can help you get your start and make your way. It can be a source of guidance, insight, inspiration, and support. 

Today, that network belongs to you, and you belong to it, as ambassadors of a great institution on the vanguard of bold new frontiers. Because, even in these uncertain economic times, you have amazing opportunities ahead in a world where technology is finding application to almost every aspect of our lives. 

The pace of change is astonishing. It wasn’t so long ago that “text” and “friend” were nouns, not verbs. “Feed” was a verb, not a noun. “Mashup” was what we did with our potatoes. And “going viral” got you sent to the infirmary.   

Or take Facebook, born in 2004—the year many of you started high school. Today, Facebook users are two-and-a-half times the population of the United States. YouTube—another great Illinois invention—was launched in 2005. Today, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video every minute. It took Twitter just three years, two months, and one day to go from its first tweet to its billionth.

Social media—which is being driven by the young—is changing the rules of the game, facilitating community, communication, and collaboration on a scale never seen before. 

Peace Corps Volunteers from Africa to Asia are now sending HIV prevention messages via text. Through Kiva, individuals have loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of developing country entrepreneurs—facilitated by another Illinois achievement, PayPal.

Forget the punch card. Today, we live in a world of limitless possibility.  A world where an idea incubated in a dorm room can lift the lives of millions.

So my challenge to you is: how will you seize that possibility? What will be your generation’s Apple or Facebook or Google? 

And how will you harness your talents on behalf of the greater good? Engineers are the new social entrepreneurs, the problem-solvers for a problem-filled world. And as one of you told me, you know you can have a significant, positive impact—making great strides not simply for yourselves but for all of humanity.

You can be engineers of progress, at home and around the globe, ending hunger, safeguarding energy, protecting the environment, improving access to essential services from health care to education, and making sure our global community can thrive for generations to come.

So let me leave you with three suggestions for success in the world that awaits you. First, let your conviction be your compass. Let your conviction be your compass. Studying relational databases might not have seemed the most logical career move, but I was hooked by the chance to help pioneer an uncharted terrain. 

During my job interview with Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, I actually argued with him over a technical point. In retrospect, I realize that probably wasn’t the smartest career move either! But my Illinois education helped me win the debate. Larry was impressed by my enthusiasm. He gave me the job. And I’ve been able to follow that passion my entire career. 

My second piece of advice is to focus on the outcome. Focus on the outcome. Don’t let temporary setbacks get you down. Disappointments and adversity are inevitable—but what matters is how you respond.   

You’re entering the workforce at a challenging moment, and your prospects may sometimes seem daunting. 1980 was a recession too. I got turned down from 40 or 50 jobs. But I kept at it, and tried to seek out possibilities, wherever they might be. Because, sometimes what feels like the end of the road is really just a bend of the road.

Third and finally, join teams of believers.  Join teams of believers. People who energize and inspire. There’s no substitute for being part of something that is bigger than yourself. We were a small group at Oracle, but we believed our technology could make a difference. That conviction drove us to do what was impossible at the time.  

If you find those colleagues you’re happy to be with late into the night, working on something invigorating and meaningful and worthwhile…you’ll unlock the secret of doing what you love, and loving what you do.

And so, graduates of University of Illinois College of Engineering, it shouldn’t be hard. After all, that’s what your time at Illinois has been about. Not just the thrill of solving tough problems or mastering difficult coursework, but, most of all, the joy of being part of a community of peers. Of learning not just how things work, but of how to work together and of building not just engineering marvels, but relationships that will last you for life.

You have been trained to drive progress and change, but some things are meant to endure: Family. Friendship. And our shared commitment to the University of Illinois. Class of 2012, you will make us proud. We know, because you already have.

May each new day be your best yet. Congratulations to you all!

At Illinois, Mr. Abbasi and his wife, Sara, have established the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Professorship and the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Fellowship in the Department of Computer Science. This fall, Mr. Abbasi will join another elite group of successful alumni as a member of the 2012 class of the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame.