Pinewood alumnus Frederick Vallaeys ‘96 was invited back to campus to share some words of wisdom as this year's Junior High Graduation speaker. Frederick was one of the first five-hundred employees at Google, where he spent ten years building AdWords and educating advertisers as Google's AdWords Evangelist. A technologist at heart, Frederick is always on the lookout for ways that technology can simplify the lives of marketers. Frederick advised our junior high graduates to remember that new opportunities will be plentiful in the coming years, to create their own definition of success, to keep trying new things, and to pursue their passions.
Thank you, Mr. Riches, I am honored to be here today as your commencement speaker. You made a brave choice… if you review my transcript, you’ll notice I was a straight-A student, except for ‘speech and debate’. Let’s see how this goes...
It feels like just yesterday I sat in your chairs, graduating from Pinewood. To be invited as a commencement speaker tells me it wasn’t actually just yesterday, though, and I’m old enough that I’m supposed to have some good advice to share.
I’m neither old enough to be as wise as your parents and grandparents (so listen to their advice), nor young enough to remember what it’s like to be in your shoes (so listen to what old people tell you, take the core of that message and translate it to your world which is a lot more complicated than ours was when we were young).
I will share some stories of my time at Pinewood, and afterward at Google and my own startup, Optmyzr.
But remember we are all unique so I am not telling you what to do, but rather sharing one more perspective.
So what is the value of just one more perspective? At Google, we had ten principles for driving innovation, one was to share all information. The premise was that if you give a group of smart people ALL the information, each individual would eventually come to the same conclusion and make the right decision. Presumably, a decision that would lead to a good outcome and we all know that Google has done quite well to this point so I guess that principle of innovation has worked.
One project I was on at Google was about figuring out how to show the most relevant ads for each of the 5.6 billion searches that happen every day. We quickly figured out that asking individual Googlers to make decisions about relevance would be a struggle. Not only because it wouldn’t scale, but also because there are so many specialties in the world that we couldn’t expect ‘relevance raters’ to be experts in each and every area. For example, how could a relevance rater in Phoenix be a good judge of ads shown when you search for something like ‘best places to celebrate graduation in Los Altos’?
So instead of trusting one expert, we listened to many voices and used the wisdom of the crowds. In simple terms, every time an ad was shown and a user clicked on it, that was counted as a positive vote. This was one of the earliest machine learning projects at Google.
But how does that relate to you? Well, you’ll get lots of free advice over the next four years about what to do in life. Take these perspectives offered to you by others as just one input. You are all smart people with the ability to figure out the right decisions to make that will move you one step closer to your next goal.
Let’s talk about preparing for opportunity...
We live in Silicon Valley, so I’m sure this will resonate with at least a few of you. But when I was in school, I could NOT wait to start work. Not because I didn’t enjoy school, I actually loved attending Pinewood. The reason was that I was constantly surrounded by stories of tremendous innovation and success. And I felt I was missing the boat and the years I had left in school would put me far behind all these opportunities that were springing up everywhere.
That was in the 1990s. In 1994, Netscape and Excite were started. Anyone here remember these companies? These were the titans of that era. By the time I graduated from college, Google had just been founded (1998). In 2008, Airbnb, and the next year, Uber.
The point is that it may sometimes feel like we need to be done faster but opportunities evolve constantly. In my company, we just hired a new batch of engineers who will start as soon as school is done in a few weeks. And you know what, they are smarter about AI, one of the hottest topics around today, than almost everyone in my company. Because school prepares them for what is relevant. They are now in a position to be the next innovators, have their own success, and capitalize on the opportunities of today.
Something that has changed a lot from when I was in your shoes is that success has been redefined. As the world has become flatter and more connected, and everyone has access to everything, it also means that if you have a unique skill, product, or service, you will be able to find an audience for it.
That means success is no longer restricted to a handful of professions. You can literally create your own success. You can still follow the traditional paths and be a successful business owner, or work for a cool startup. But you can now also create your own niche, connect with like-minded people, and lead a happy, productive life that way.
It used to be that success was defined for us but today we define success ourselves. In light of that, don’t blindly follow but figure out what drives and motivates you and find ways to turn this into your own success.
And by the way, I mentioned Uber and Airbnb and Google, but let me be clear that while these are successful and important companies, they are not the exclusive ways to be successful. When I was your age, sure I dreamed of starting a unicorn. But now that I’m older and have kids of my own, I realize that I’m fortunate to have pursued my passion in digital marketing and am able to run both a successful company (though one many people have never heard about) and also have a lot of time to travel and spend time with my family.
Let’s talk about trying something new...
Another core principle at Google was that ideas come from everywhere. In other words, you don’t have to be a computer scientist to come up with the next great thing in computing.
What that means for you is that there’s no singular path you should be on today to achieve your future goals. High school is a great time to try something new. In fact, try a lot of new things! Mr. Riches told me about 65% of you will come back to Pinewood next year. You know the people, you know the teachers and faculty, you know the campus. After school you will go home to the house you grew up in, and to your family. You’re in one of the most familiar and supportive environments you’ll ever be in for the rest of your lives. There’s no better time to take a risk that in the next four years.
And who knows, maybe you’ll discover something you love doing that can eventually give you a great career.
I pushed myself and tried something new in high school. I had moved from Belgium to Los Altos in the middle of freshman year. I didn’t speak English very well, didn’t know the area or customs. I thought I did, but it turns out TV shows like 90210 are not what high school is really like.
So here I am in Mrs. Eichmeier’s English class, reading Julius Caesar by Shakespeare and as an extra credit project, we can recite Marc Anthony’s soliloquy. “My thing is music, period.” Sorry, that’s a different Marc Anthony... “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...”. So I give this soliloquy in my heavily accented English and Mrs. Eichmeier tells me I did a great job and that I should consider auditioning for the theater production.
So I audition and get the part, and before I know it, I’m in a 1920’s era bathing suit, about to go on stage to sing and dance in the musical, The Boyfriend. Man, was that different from reading Shakespeare. At the time, I literally sat backstage hoping an earthquake would cancel the performances. But you know what, I tried something new and everyone was super supportive. And I learned I’d never make it far on American Idol with my voice. But I also learned I had to understand what part of an activity I liked or disliked. I wasn’t into singing, but being on stage was actually okay and if Mr. Riches had let me, maybe I’d even worn that 1920s bathing suit.
I also tried some other things. I played baseball. That’s a sport we didn’t have in Belgium but my friends were playing it after school so I wanted to try it. My swing was described as ‘more golf than baseball’, but I learned and got the most improved award that season. Jerry Rice didn’t play football until his sophomore year. I didn’t turn into a pro athlete but I became a big Giants fan and built some great friendships through that.
Many years later, at Google, I once again took a risk and started playing roller hockey with these two guys not a lot of people had heard much about, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Let me tell you, I didn’t score many goals but I did some of the best networking of my life.
So again, take risks. Do something you don’t know you’ll be good at. Maybe it’ll turn into something great.
Let’s talk about passion...
Being really good at something is not the same as having a passion for it. If you practice enough you can be really good at almost anything. You’ve all heard the 10,000-hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become really good at it. But if something is a passion, something that you love doing, it becomes much easier. It simply won’t take as much work to do that really well.
And if you’re passionate about what you do, it won’t feel like work.
But life won’t always be one exciting thing after another. You may not get to do the thing you’re most passionate about all the time. My advice is to learn how to connect life’s everyday mundane events to your passions. If you have to write a paper on a topic you find less interesting, how can you connect it back to the thing that does get you excited to get out of bed in the morning.
When I moved to Silicon Valley, I’d never been there but I knew I was going home because I was always kind of a nerd and loved computers. Technology was and still is a passion so I look to it to make life more interesting.
About 1994 while at Pinewood, I bought a domain name, Vallaeys.com (my last name). The $70 registration fee was a lot of money for me so I only bought that domain even though tv.com and business.com were also still available.
Then I and my friends started using this website to privately post messages to one another. Without knowing it at the time, we were all learning some very important lessons that would benefit us a long time after.
At Pinewood, I worked on Panther Prints and the Yearbook. I mostly did photography. I was used to taking rolls of film and developing them in the darkroom but then a friend at school figured out how to use this newish software called Photoshop to make some really cool composite images. Learning how to do this well takes a ton of time… advanced software can be time-consuming to learn. High school is a great time to learn these things, even if they’re not in the curriculum.
- New opportunities come along all the time. We live in a fast-paced place but relax and know there will always be fresh opportunities, especially for smart people like you .
- When you seek opportunity, know that more than ever, success is something you can define. Thanks to technology, we have more ways than ever to be successful in life .
- Try something new. You’re in a tremendously supportive environment with a lot of free time. There’s no better time than the next four years to find what you’re great at.
- Pursue your passion. You’ve got long lives ahead of you and you’ll be happier if you pursue something that you are passionate about.
Class of 2019, congrats!