Commencement speech below edited from original version presented by SkyWater COO/CTO Steve Kosier on May 12, 2023 to the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering Spring Graduating Class.
To graduates across the United States — Congratulations!
This is a very special time in your life! You put in the work. You made it through COVID. And you got the diploma!
I am a proud U of M Golden Gopher
I graduated in 1989 with a BSEE. I realize that 1989 is long before most of you were born. In 1989, there was no internet, no GPS, no Google Maps, no ChatGPT. Back then, it was paper maps and your own memory. You looked up articles in the stacks and made copies of them with a photocopier. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But your parents do.
Modern advice for graduates
So, you may be thinking – someone as old as me, with no hair, who graduated more than three decades ago – what can he teach me? Hasn’t the world changed too much? What can he teach me in 2023? Well, that’s a great question. Honestly, I don’t recall what my graduation speaker had to say. But I hope you will find a few things of value in what I have to say.
As I was preparing for this speech today, I thought a lot about what would make a good commencement speech to today’s graduates? Since it’s 2023, I decided to use some AI.
ChatGPT gave me this advice:
- Congratulate the graduates.
- Point out their unique skill set.
- Emphasize their responsibility to shape the future.
- Encourage graduates to collaborate with others and communicate effectively.
- Tell them to stay curious and never stop learning.
What do you think?
These are reasonable things to say and represent conventional wisdom culled from thousands of graduation speeches available on the internet by the algorithms behind this AI software. But it’s of almost no value. Why? Because any one of you could have asked the same question and gotten the same answer without coming here today. Such wisdom is common and easy to obtain. Even though it’s true, it is not very valuable. I want to say something you’ll remember and I want to add value to your graduation ceremony. Which gets to my central message for newly minted graduates.
You need to constantly strive to add value in your career
Value is what gets rewarded. Value is how you get promoted. Value moves the world. But how do you do this? I’ve got two ideas for you.
- Do Differently.
Once you have mastered the basics of a skill or an area of knowledge, you should ask yourself, “What can I do differently?” Don’t wait to be told this, do it yourself. It is your responsibility. But what, exactly, should you do differently? There are infinite possibilities, which leads to my second idea for you.
- Look for the White Space.
White space is unmet need that you can uniquely serve. Unmet need is everywhere, all the time. But it takes practice to see it. And it takes courage to step up and fill it.
I hope you can see that this advice is timeless. It was true in 1989, and it is true in 2023. I believe doing differently by filling the white space and adding value is a more valuable message than what ChatGPT suggested. This has been my approach my entire career and it has served me well.
Add value by finding the white space and doing differently
After my BSEE from the University of Minnesota, I got my Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, and then I returned to Minnesota where I began work at VTC Incorporated. VTC was a small, privately held semiconductor company that made their own products, fabricated their own wafers, developed their own technology, and competed with the big guys. VTC added value by occupying the white space of highly specialized analog bipolar semiconductor chips for hard disk drives. I got the job because I became an expert in bipolar transistors while I was in grad school.
There was one small problem: I learned very quickly that my knowledge from school had little relation to what the company needed. Spoiler alert to all of you: You will find out the same thing in your own careers! But my ability to find white space and my desire to add value for the company set me on my way.
VTC faced the challenge of finding new ways to use a legacy wafer fab. Upgrading semiconductor process equipment is unbelievably expensive. In fact, billions of dollars are required today to build something state of the art. Asian countries have subsidized this for decades, but the U.S. has not — and certainly didn’t back then. So, we did differently by filling the white space available to us. We transformed the business out of disk drive chips and into a pure play foundry.
The company got into power management chips and then high voltage automotive chips — all while expanding the factory and growing the business. In 2000, VTC became Polar Semiconductor and it is still thriving today right here in Minnesota.
Minnesota has a rich semiconductor heritage that extends back to the 1960s
After gathering a variety of experience throughout my career and adding value along the way, I joined SkyWater Technology in 2021. I am privileged to serve as chief operating officer and chief technology officer for the company.
SkyWater adds value for our customers by co-creating new technology and bringing it into production in the same factory. We call this our Technology as a Service business model. This business model allows SkyWater to accelerate new technology to production and it is unique in the industry. We occupy this white space amongst wafer fabs. Our ‘do differently’ is crucial for our country as we seek to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the USA where it was invented many decades ago.
Here’s a fun fact — Both SkyWater and Polar Semiconductor were originally part of the Control Data empire from long ago and part of Minnesota’s rich semiconductor heritage that extends back to the 1960s. You may not expect it, but Minnesota has a thriving high-tech sector. I spent my entire career in high tech — mostly in semiconductors, here in Minnesota. I am proud to have played a role in keeping high-value high-tech jobs right here in our great state. And I’m grateful for the education and learning from the U of M ECE department that started me on my way.
But let me come back to my message for graduates: add value by finding white space and doing differently.
Add value for your employer, your investors, for society
Your future success will depend on whether or not you can add value for your employer, your investor and for society. You will not be given homework assignments or problems to solve and turn in by a certain date. You will not receive a letter grade. Most of you will join a new company. You’ll learn the ropes. You’ll start to contribute to the work. And then it’s time to find some white space! Challenge yourself to do differently, so you can start adding value.
Let me illustrate: You are a new engineer on the job. Your new company has some successful products but has a legacy system for keeping track of revisions. You realize that there is no searchable database of product attributes accessible via mobile. This causes inefficiencies when salespeople have questions. Something you can do differently with your skills from your ECE degree is make a database and an app. Show people how to use it to save time and be more efficient. You can train people how to use it so that it’s adopted across the company. This anecdote is the kind of value companies are looking for and the type of initiative that will help you grow in your career.
Seek out companies and people who encourage you to do differently
Companies and people who encourage you to do differently will be the leaders and the winners in the future. They will move faster, and be more exciting, and you will learn and grow more quickly. Find managers who think this way and challenge you to grow. And quite frankly, you should move on from managers who don’t do this.
As I close, let me circle back to our ChatGPT example. I have done differently than what ChatGPT suggested for this speech. I moved to the white space and provided some real-life examples and principles to connect with you. And I hope I have added value to your commencement as a result.
Congratulations to the class of 2023!