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Tech leaders to 2011 grads: Go to the bathroom, don’t be a jerk and take risks

New graduates from Duke University, Michigan State University and the University of California might be feeling pretty smart these days, but that doesn't mean the Class of 2011 couldn't still learn a few things from some of the technology industry's most accomplished leaders.

Earlier this month, Cisco CEO John Chambers delivered a commencement speech at Duke, while Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak did the same at Michigan State and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did likewise at USC. They were among a slew of tech bigshots in demand at 2011 commencement ceremonies. Here's a quick summary of their talks, plus videos of the speeches (we only found a snippet of Ballmer's).

Chambers told grads that his parents, both doctors, drilled into his head from an early age the first great equalizer in life is education. He learned after joining Cisco that the Internet is the second great equalizer. The "ability to collaborate and bring social networking to everything we do" will be the third equalizer he said, ticking off impressive Facebook user numbers and citing his 2-year-old granddaughter's penchant for doing math on the iPad.

Chambers, who is taking heat these days for not making changes at Cisco quickly or smoothly enough, complimented Duke itself for not resting on its laurels and changing with the times to become what he believes will be the world's first truly global university. "Cisco has to reinvent itself…as many of you might have read, we're not going through changes," he said.

Chambers' advice to students included that they should listen ("I've had the tremendous honor to talk with almost every global leader…"), not be afraid to fail ("play life on your toes, not your heels") and be there for friends and family when they are in trouble. On a somewhat lighter note, he advised grads to "take time to go to the bathroom" before you do something important -- advice relayed to Chambers from an unnamed leader, who told him this would become more important to him when he got older.

(For more from Chambers, read our piece on his reflections on the past 25 years in networking.)

Wozniak told Michigan State grads that almost none of the PC industry's founders had college degrees and said he was the only one who actually went back and earned his. He cited the influence on his life of his father, an electrical engineer, who pointed out the many choices available in life, including unconventional ones. 

Wozniak also discussed the change in how major technology developments used to be geared for big companies, the military and governments, but how he wished for "consumers to direct the state of the art of technology" – something we are now seeing. "Now the greatest chips in the world are made for our personal computers," he said. Though he also said the United States has fallen in many categories, from technology to education, and urged grads to find ways to turn things around.

Wozniak told grads that how far they go in life depends less on the grades they got in school than on how well liked they are by those above you: "Try to be nice to people even if they're mean to you… If you're a jerk now you're going to be a jerk forever." He also said Happiness equals F cubed: Food, Fun and Friends.

Ballmer told USC grads that "information technology has shaped the world, information technology has been able to advance the world in a way that is like none other in human history." He indicated that some 60 years after the first computer emerged, the pace of innovation hasn't slowed down in fields from communications to healthcare.

My speeches are mercifully limited to140 characters on Twitter, so please follow me.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.


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