McMaster Engineering Convocation Address – June 2015

I gave this address at the McMaster University Engineering Convocation, on June 12, 2015.

Thank you Chancellor  Large. President Deane. Provost Wilkinson. Dean Puri. Honoured guests. Distinguished faculty. Fellow graduates and honorees. And, most importantly, parents.

I wanted to start with a very exciting personal announcement. An accomplishment that I think you can all relate to. Here it is: This month, this very month, I will have paid off all of my student loans.

So that’s something you can look forward to. 16 or 18 or 20 years from now. You too might have finished paying for your University education. Really, student loans are a monthly reminder of the great value of your education.

What else can you look forward to? And what does that mean for you now? As I was thinking about this day, I racked my brain, thinking about the past 16 years, thinking about my 22 year old self, and what would have resonated with him.

One thing came to mind. Rogaine.

What I realized is that I certainly have a distorted, imperfect memory of my 22 year old self. I don’t know what I was thinking about. What I was dreaming about. What I was feeling as I sat where you sit now.

I also realized that I almost certainly have a distorted view of the past 16 years, the choices I made and the what I wished I would have known. I see the past through either rose tinted glasses or a darkened lens, depending on how I’m feeling about myself and my ambitions, how I’m feeling about others and the world.

And everyone’s path through life is different.

But life has a funny way of collecting wisdom, little souvenirs that you pick up on the side of the meandering road of life. Now — to kill the metaphor for a moment — some of these souvenirs turn out to be cheap plastic trinkets — that ridiculous fridge magnet I bought in Prague with a built-in thermometer.

On the other hand, some of those souvenirs of wisdom turn out to be pure gold. There are two pieces of wisdom, which I consider pure gold, that I will offer you today.

First, beware accepted truths. Beware the hidden pressures of society. Beware the status quo.

It’s all around you. You’ll experience it in the most overt ways. When your first manager tells you that “we don’t do it that way in this company,” and you realize for the first time that the cubicle you were assigned is not just a physical space, but also a metaphor for how your ideas will be confined.

I certainly experienced this when we were starting Engineers Without Borders. We were welcomed to work on issues of poverty and inequality, but only if we sat our cubicle of technical expertise.

Thankfully, we didn’t listen. And now this organization is amongst the world’s most impactful organizations working to address the most pressing challenges in food and water and small business development. Amongst the most powerful advocacy organizations in Canada. Engineers. Standing up and speaking. Articulately. Imagine that.

Well, thousands around Canada and in Africa did and do. But only because we ignored the naysayers. Disobeyed accepted truths. Refused to submit to the status quo.

I won’t pretend that it doesn’t take courage to behave in this way. It does take courage. You may run off in another direction, arms waving excitedly, yelling follow me, follow me. And turn around a year later to find yourself alone in the wilderness. Failure is most certainly one outcome.

But just remember, you could take the most secure job you can imagine, optimizing the production line at Dofasco for example. And in 3 years you might have a pink slip waiting at your desk, as ArcelorMittal has decided to downsize the Hamilton operation.

If failure is always a possibility, why not follow your heart and your passion? Why not challenge the status quo?

Of course, you can only challenge these accepted truths if you know they are there. The subtle pressures are much more insidious. These are hidden forces that erode possibility and guide our behaviour without us even realizing.

The ads that surround us with supermodels, reminding us all of our physical inadequacy. The separate girl and boy sections of Toy R Us. The hundreds of times in the past weeks that you’ve been asked “what job are you heading to?”, implicitly delivering the message that perhaps taking the next few years off to roam the world or volunteer with a charity would be deviant.

Or at a macro level. Issues are framed as poverty reduction strategies, or climate change mitigation plans.

Climate change mitigation. Why are we satisfied with accepting the inevitability of forever shifting the weather patterns of our earth? Of placing billions of people’s livelihoods at risk? It’s like going to a friends house, picking up an expensive antique vase and saying “sorry, I’m about to smash this to smithereens by throwing it on the ground. But have a really great broom that can pick up at least 70% of the pieces.” No. I want my antique vase. I want my daughter to have a livable earth when she grows up.

But these hidden pressures change the frame — mitigation and reduction — and it’s cozier to just accept them as truths.

This is the point when I appeal to your engineering training and engineering instincts. While each one of us brings a different set of skills and personalities to this profession called engineering, there are at least two common traits between us.

Curiosity. And creativity.

It’s not coincidental that these are the two most powerful antidotes to the status quo. Engineers have a long and proud tradition of heresy. Of asking piercing questions. Of calling out doctrine as outdated or irresponsible.

And, most importantly, of offering a creative and different way forward.

I implore you to lean into this tradition of being curious and creative in the face of accepted truths and the status quo.

My second nugget of wisdom: Your values will drive your choices, and your choices define your life.

Let’s dig into this a little more. Certainly there’s a scientific approach to making great decisions — considering multiple options, getting different perspectives, performing data driven analysis. Our training as engineers prepares us extraordinarily well for most choices you will face.

However, there’s an entire class of decision that, I would argue, your engineering education did a terrible job of preparing you for. These are things like: Where should I work? Should I report this questionable practice in my company even though doing so is risky for my career? Should I be a vegetarian? Where should I buy groceries from? Boxers or briefs? Or maybe commando?

These decisions operate on a different plane than logic. And we make most of them unconsciously, our default settings taking hold.

This is why bringing your values to the fore are so critical.

Practically, it’s about, first, choosing to decide more often about things that seem “settled” — like where you buy groceries. Then, when faced with a choice, just close your eyes and picture yourself a week or two after the choice is made. Picture yourself standing in front of a group of Kindergartners and explaining that choice with passion. Picture how you would feel.

That’s your intuition. And your intuition reflects your values.

What I can say is this: The only decisions I truly regret from the past 16 years are decisions when I went against my intuition; decisions that did not ultimately align with my values.

Those are my two nuggets of gold: Beware the status quo. And make values-based choices.

Let me leave you with a couple of parting thoughts.

First, life has a way of picking up the momentum of an 18-wheeler hurtling downhill without brakes. Today you’re graduating, and tomorrow you’re 57 years old with teenage kids and a house in Dundas. Those nuggets of wisdom and other souvenirs that you pick up along the way get lost in the noise of living.

My advice: Set yourself a tripwire. Many tripwires. They might be a yearly letter to yourself. A camping trip each summer. A friend who will ask you tough questions. A sabbatical every 5 years. For me, all of my computer passwords are names of people in Ghana and Zambia and Malawi who remind me daily of my life’s purpose.

Find your tripwires, set them, protect them. If you do, you’ll wake up at 57 years old with no regrets and a life that you will make you proud.

Fellow graduates. We are at a key moment in human history. We are among the most privilged and fortunate people in the world, living in the greatest, most humane and most diverse country in the world. Graduating from a tremendous University.

Fellow graduates, let us have the finger of history point to our generation, on the engineers of our generation, as the ones who stepped up. Who made values-based choices. Who worked on problems that matter to our world.

I know you have it in you. I wish you luck and skill and courage.

Courage, emotion, intuition and love … and engineering!

University of Calgary Commencement Address – June 9, 2014

By George Roter on receipt of a Honorary Doctor of Laws

Thank you President Cannon, Chancellor Dinning, Dean Rosehart for this tremendous honour. Thank you fellow graduates. And thank you to the incredible supporters of these graduates who are here today—this day is as much yours as anyone else’s.

Since Chancellor Dinning has already set the stage by increasing my likeability, let me begin with a caveat and a thinly veiled attempt at applause! The caveat: I wrote this speech on the plane from Toronto this morning. Why? Well, exactly 59 hours and 29 minutes ago, as the dawn broke the darkness over Toronto, my amazing wife Sari and I welcomed our daughter Aliyah into this world.


As you can imagine, I’ve had about 8 hours of interrupted sleep, in total, in the past 4 days. That makes me about as sharp as most of you were while writing the final lines of your 4th year, Master’s, or PhD theses. I’m convinced that the chronically underslept engineer is why someone came up with the brilliant design idea called “factor of safety”.

Now that I’ve set expectations appropriately, I’d like to tell you an old East African parable.

“It begins with a great, powerful typhoon, with a torrential driving rain that flooded the land. After the storm had subsided, an unforunately monkey found himself stranded on an island. In a secure, protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling, thrashing about in the water, in need of assistance. With love in his heart for all living creatures, the monkey resolved to help the fish.

A tree precariously dangled over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey inched bit by bit, far out on one of the tree limbs. He reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Quickly, the monkey scurried back to the safety of his shelter and he, ever so carefully, laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement. Soon, the fish settled into a peaceful rest.

Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.”

When I first encountered this parable, I thought the lesson was an obvious one: The world is full of armies of monkeys, travelling down roads paved with good intentions.

But I’ve come to understand this parable differently, especially in the past few days.

In the parable, the monkey’s intentions weren’t empty. These intentions were supposedly driven by love, for all living creatures. That begs the question, “what is love?”

I think I understand it now. Love was the uncontrollable surge of tears I felt when I first saw my daughter in her mother’s arms 60 hours ago, the automatic and repeated “I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m so proud of you” that I spewed forth as a blubbering mess through those tears.

Love was the deep, insatiable curiosity that ran through my mind as I watched young Aliyah sleep and dream on that first day, her breath changing and eyelids flickering, deeply aware of when her sleep was moving between shallow, REM cycles and deep sleep. What could she possibly be dreaming about less than 12 hours out of the womb?

Love was the deeply intuitive sense that I developed even by last night: One type of crying to let us know she was hungry. Another, nearly undetectably different cry to let us know her diaper was full of poo.

And speaking of poo, love was the running commentary at about 1am last night at what was filling her diaper. I honestly would have never guessed at the intense interest I would have of colour, texture, density and volume of her shit. Nor would I have guessed at that pure joy this would bring me.

Right now, love is standing up here on stage delivering a speech to 600 deserving fellow graduates and yet the overwhelming emotion is missing my new daughter and not being able to imagine my life without Aliyah.

The fabulous author Jonathan Franzen once wrote that love is “a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”

So back to the monkey’s love for all living creatures. I doubt it. Just as I now doubt that I myself love all of humanity, or that I love nature. Or that I just love my Android phone, or that I love House of Cards, or this suit that I’m wearing.

Loving any of these things, or even ideas, doesn’t require me to give up anything of myself. Contrast that with loving Aliyah. When she falls and hurts herself—as she inevitably will—that will hurt me at a constitutional level. When she behaves in a way that I would disapprove of, or makes choices I find distasteful—as she likely will—that will tear a little hole in my heart.

And so back to our monkey.

Did he love that fish as the parable claimed? I doubt it. Otherwise, his intentions would not have been so devoid of empathy and context. And while his actions of literally going out on a limb to save the fish were physically dangerous, his choices did not in any way threaten his sense of self.

That leads me to the monkey’s choices and how they were made. Now, perhaps this was because he was only a monkey, but that monkey’s choices surrounding the rescue struck me as lacking any decent technical analysis.

He didn’t sit back to calculate the moment arm of his venturing onto that limb, and whether it was structurally sound enough to avoid catastrophic failure. He certainly didn’t build a partial differential equation that would solve for the variability in the water’s surge, to allow him to take probabilistic approach to assessing the risk of the branch being enveloped in water. Based on this parable, it’s clear this monkey wouldn’t be graduating with a degree in engineering here today.

But the question is this: Was the lack of technical analysis inherently bad? Isolating this for the moment from the broader context of the fish, should the monkey have been more technically minded.

If you take the cue from how all of us were trained as engineers, the answer is obvious: The monkey’s approach was distinctly lacking rigour. In engineering, we worship at the altar of careful calculation, of breaking down problems into their constituent parts, of coming up with multiple alternatives that we can judge against specific criteria. Every course I took in University, and every purely engineering analysis I have come across since has had the same fundamental approach.

What I’ve learned over the past 15 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders is that this approach—which I interpret as an attempt to remove intuition and emotion from decision-making—is both severely limiting and a dramatic practice of self-deception.

In fact, my experience is that the most powerful contributions we make as engineers are when we fully embrace the intuitive and emotional side, in combination with our technical prowess. My own example is telling.

15 years ago, like you are today, I was graduating with a Bachelor’s in Engineering. Also like many of you, I was considering what would come next. Along with my classmate Parker Mitchell, there was this idea of creating an organization called Engineers Without Borders. What was the idea born out of? A deep technical analysis of global poverty, the various organizations and entities working on that problem and it’s root causes? A clear set of options about how to structure an international organization? A well-developed set of policies and project management processes?

None of the above. In fact, I believe to this day that if we stopped to really think through what we were going to do, we never would have started. Let me try to capture how outrageous this was:

Two privileged 22 year-olds, who had never been to Africa, Asia or anywhere else where poverty was endemic, who had precisely 8 work terms between them of experience, and no resources except a few credit cards. These two people were setting out to tackle one of the world’s most complex challenges, not satisfied with helping a few people get out of poverty, but with a mission to change how the world tackles poverty. They were going to start a movement of thousands of engineers and engineering students across Canada, with a goal of changing how engineers approach their role and contributions to society.

And yet, Parker and I sparked a match that grew into a burning flame of social change, stoked by the incredible contributions of hundreds and thousands of amazing leaders and EWBers. While none of this would have been possible without our engineering training, it also would not have been possible without the emotion and intuition and passion of the thousands of people on whose shoulders I stand today.

In fact, I strongly believe it was emotion and intuition that carried the day through the most important moments. Responding to my leadership failures—the disappointment they represented and the hurt they caused others—with a renewed energy to try again or to try differently. That was driven by emotion and intuition. Constantly revising a vision, coming up with new ideas, never settling—emotion and intuition. Thousands of mind-wrenching, ambiguous decisions on what to do and how to do it—emotion and intuition.

I’ve witnessed the same in so many others, especially around choices about where they should apply their energies in life. My friend and UofC grad—now fellow UofC grad—Dave who is applying his mechanical engineering degree to working for a solar energy company in Kenya. Jason and Eli, UofC grads who work on environmental policy. Dena, a UofC grad who is working to spark a revolution in how engineering is taught. And my fellow graduate today and good friend, Patrick Miller, who is dedicating his immense talent to shaping our urban landscapes. All of these powerful choices were based on a foundation of technical competency, and driven by emotion and intuition.

But sometimes those choices don’t work out, which brings us back to our monkey again. What we realize when hearing this parable is that the monkey is not someone else, an “other”. We are all the monkey.

We can’t hate him any more than we can hate ourselves. We can’t deride his naivete any more than we can deride our own. We can’t make him our enemy without realizing that enemy is within each of us.

And that takes me to a view of the world we live in. A world that has been badly stewarded by generations who came before us. A world that needs us.

I believe humanity is at a turning point. We are faced with a multitude of complex challenges. A changing climate, concentrating wealth and increasing inequality, dwindling natural resources, changing global power structures, among others. Among others.

These challenges are different. The 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration last week reminded me just how different these challenges are. Defeating the Nazis was the defining challenge of our parents’ and grandparents’ time. Storming Juno Beach required bravery and courage. The enemy was clear, the existential threat was palpably urgent, and we knew what we needed to do.

The challenges that our generation are facing are a silent D-Day. Instead of a clear enemy, we are all the enemy. Instead of palpable urgency, the threat is diffuse and hard to see. And instead of clear actions, it is tremendously ambiguous as to how we should act or what is needed.

Faced with this, we have options: We can stand down, choose willful ignorance, engage in self-interested defensiveness, or wait. This is largely how the world is responding today.

And it’s understandable. It’s relatively easy to react to my own privilege—in comparison with my friend Sahada in rural Ghana, or the hundreds on the Siksika First Nation struggling to recover from last year’s flooding— it’s relatively easy to respond with acts of charity. It’s much harder to even ask the question: Does my privilege require their deprivation? What is just and what is right? And that’s before even approaching solutions that will address the fundamental problem.

So let me bring this back to you, fellow graduates. All of you will be on the front lines of these challenges, especially those of you who choose to work in the oil and gas industry. Our climate is changing, it’s urgent that we do something, and this industry is clearly important in any solution.

Faced with this reality, I urge you to be as brave and courageous as those who stormed Juno Beach. Please, don’t ignore there’s a problem. Please, don’t be defensive in justifying your career choices and the quality of life this industry avails you. Please, worst of all, don’t declare that the enemy is either the oil companies themselves or the activists who oppose them.

Instead, as an engineering graduate, recognize that you—every single one of you in this room—has more power than you might think. Great power. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in the past 15 years with Engineers Without Borders, it is this: That young people, young engineers like all of you absolutely have the power to change the world. That’s not a slogan, it’s a fact. You absolutely have the power to change the world around you.

But only if you choose to. Only if you remember the parable of the monkey and the fish. You must have the courage to see yourself as the monkey. Embrace your emotion and intuition even if they increase the risk of failure. And, most importantly, you must find and embrace love, the kind of love born out of a revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.

On my graduation day today, my daughter Aliyah has redoubled my own efforts and choices. My wish and hope is that she will inspire yours. Congratulations, and good luck.

End of stuff envy?

“Twice as many people (46% vs. 22%) said they personally would rather share things than own them.”

If this shift is underway in the way this article claims, it’s truly disruptive for our economic system. But I remain unconvinced:

  1. How different is the reaction of GenY in their 20s and 30s to the Boomers, peace not war, change the world, etc? Is this just a case of a new generation expressing their idealism and distinguishing themselves from the prior generation?
  2. What’s going on in the larger and faster growing economies that will largely drive economic trends globally in the next 50 years (i.e. India, Indonesia, Kenya, China, etc.)? Is there a similar shift?

Dealiest animal in the world? The Mosquito!

The Deadliest Animal in the World … the Mosquito!

What makes mosquitoes so dangerous? Despite their innocuous-sounding name—Spanish for “little fly”—they carry devastating diseases. The worst is malaria, which kills more than 600,000 people every year; another 200 million cases incapacitate people for days at a time. It threatens half of the world’s population and causes billions of dollars in lost productivity annually. Other mosquito-borne diseases include dengue fever, yellow fever, and encephalitis.

Foreign workers skew the market

I hadn’t really been following the issue of temporary foreign workers. But this article is a must read and helped me see this issue for what it is. This is about rights, power, and the fundamentals of our economy and employment market.

My hope is that the public and media reaction to this starts to move beyond the superficial outrage and inspires a debate about how we want our society structured.

Delta Force Leadership Lessons

I wouldn’t have bought this book myself (besides a few great leadership books, I’m not a big fan of the genre), but a friend sent me a copy, and so I skimmed it for some useful insights:

1) Context: Practice building a “Pause” button for your emotions/reactions in order to take time to build context.

2) Imagine: Take the time, even in pressure-packed or with serious problems, to humour your imagination (even ridiculous ideas) as lateral thinking can help solve very tough problems.

3) Audacity: Once you’ve developed an understanding of the problem or situation you are facing, be “all-in” with your actions.

4) Listen to the field: People who are closest to the action have the best information on what’s actually going on, in any situation. We need to design ways to listen to these individuals, and empower them to make decisions.

5) Mission, Men, Me: The title of the book is basically the last lesson, and an order of operations of sort of decision-making. First comes ‘Mission’ — focus on what you’re setting out to accomplish. Second is ‘Men’ — take care of your team, their health, their performance. Last, and only if the other two are secured, is ‘Me’ — focusing on your own interests.

Parts of the book are an engaging read and illuminating about special forces and their sub-culture of excellence within the broader military culture.

Ghosts of Rana Plaza

This is a disturbing, inspiring, illuminating and excellent piece of journalism on the Rana Plaza collapse 1 year ago. I think what disturbs me the most is how this event that killed 1,133 people has faded so quickly from our memory and resulted in only incremental changes to the global fashion supply chain.

Also a great moment to think about our complicity as consumers, and at the same time the complexity of the global supply chains that we live within.

A small tribute to GGM

Until you’re about the age of twenty, you read everything, and you like it simply because you are reading it. Then between twenty and thirty you pick what you want, and you read the best, you read all the great works. After that you sit and wait for them to be written. But you know, the least known, the least famous writers, they are the better ones.

A small tribute to GGM … Amazing author and a wise man. My late aunt turned me onto his writing in my teens with Hundred Years — she waxed eloquent about his passion and how his writing pushed you into thinking differently. I also melted into Love in the Time of Cholera (the romantic and sentimental side of me).This quote resonated, and then got me thinking “how can I go find those authors who don’t come to me through bestseller lists and prizes?”