On Friday, May 15, 2009, Northrop Grumman Corporate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Alexis Livanos gave the commencement address at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering. Below are his remarks.
Commencement Address — USC Viterbi School of Engineering
It is a thrill to be here with you on a day as special as this one. I was so honored to be invited to deliver your commencement address.
A commencement speech is always fraught with peril. The speaker must deliver a message that will be remembered; a message that is mercifully short and will hold the attention of the graduates, as well as make sense to their families who have perhaps traveled far to observe this wonderful celebration of your accomplishment.
For engineers like us, that challenge is all the greater. I could speak to you engineer to engineer, but where would that leave your poor families? Engineer-speak would no doubt sound Greek to many of them.
But then it dawned on me: I am Greek. Who better to explain the relationship of science and engineering to a life well lived than a Greek like me? It took many cultures to build our civilization, but the greatest contribution of the Greeks was the revolutionary way they tried to understand the world. Before them, people tried to understand the world by subjecting themselves to religious or royal authority, or by assuming the infallibility of tradition or revelation.
But the Greeks tried to figure out the world through reason and, in the process, they invented philosophy. So, what’s the connection between philosophy, science and engineering, you may ask. Well, the philosopher Epictetus said that the first job of the philosopher was "to throw away self conceit, for it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks he knows.”
From those words you can almost see the first tiny sprout of what would eventually grow into the scientific method. For the Greeks, understanding the natural world and crafting a life well lived were one and the same.
So, in that tradition – the tradition of my birthplace – I would like to offer you five tools. Human beings are tool-using creatures after all. With tools we are everything. Without them, we are nothing. Engineering and mathematics are central to the tool kit. One of the things I have always found sublime about these disciplines is that they are enduring, inviolable and dependable. But I contend that they are also transferable and translatable to other areas of our lives – to business, personal character, and relationships. So, let me offer you a few engineering tools and let’s see what other uses they might have.
Now, the best tools are those that have application across domains. When you can apply one body of solution to an entirely different problem, that is transformational; that induces breakthroughs.
Tool number one: So the first tool I want to offer you is that of transformation.
I learned this tool in a fluid mechanics class I took as a student at Cal Tech in 1967. We were trying to understand lift by studying fluid flow around different objects. Now, the equations governing fluid flow around a cylinder are fairly difficult. But they are easy compared to those governing the fluid flow around a plate, especially a plate at an angle. However, if you apply a simple transformation to the formula used for the solution of cylinder equation – and that simple transformation is one plus Z divided by one minus Z – you can immediately solve the problem of fluid flow over a plate. For all the non-engineers in the audience, you will have to trust me…this is really good stuff!
When you can take a solution that has been proven against a problem in one domain and find a way of applying it to a problem in another domain, then you are innovating, and breakthroughs won’t be far behind. The ability to find a transformation that can be applied across domains is powerful – powerful in engineering, in business, in economics, and in life. Transformation is to engineering what pragmatic problem-solving is to everyday life – apply something that works in one setting to resolve challenges in another setting.
Tool number two: Here is another tool you may have heard of: One half times the mass times velocity squared – the formula for energy. As we know, change requires energy. And the more significant the change, the greater the energy required. You can control that energy by manipulating either the mass or the velocity. In the business world, for example, you can change the mass by adding employees, by building or shedding infrastructure, and other ways as well. But very often a better way is to manipulate the velocity instead – by acting quickly, embracing opportunities, by being decisive and purposeful. In this sense, the computing revolution represents a tremendous increase in velocity. A counter example might be putting men on the moon. That accomplishment represented a manipulation of mass. Of those two examples, which manipulation has had a greater impact on our world?
By changing the velocity, you have a much higher impact on the energy than by changing the mass. Focusing on velocity is also how you leave heritage behind – how, in the words of Epictetus, you throw away self conceit; it’s how you change the culture and think fresh. Focusing on velocity to generate energy is how you drive forward and make change occur. A very significant formula and a very significant tool. Again, for the non-engineers, the message is simple…speed matters, so act quickly and decisively. But, do your homework first.
Tool number three: The concept of frequency and bandwidth will prove useful to this notion of doing your homework.
First, let’s understand our terms. In my view, bandwidth is “in depth” – understanding your subject well. And frequency is span – the breadth of knowledge that you acquire. Over the course of my academic career, I studied jet propulsion, carbon dioxide lasers, earthquake prediction, diffraction patterns and their applications to what we now call stealth applications, solid state electronics, electro optical fibers and distributed feedback lasers. My business career has been much the same. I get to do many things, and I have never moved on to the next thing until I first acquire an in depth understanding of the thing I am studying. I can tell you that that breadth of experience and the depth I have acquired with each task has served me well. It has made me quicker at spotting the implications of options and has made decision-making faster and easier. Echoing the first tool I mentioned, it has also allowed me to understand how to translate solutions from domain to domain.
Tool number four: Here is another tool for you: Beryllium aluminum silicate. Add a little chromium to give it its famous greenish hue and what you have is the laboratory formula for emerald. The emeralds you can produce in a lab with this formula are flawless. So it is curious that the price of those perfect laboratory emeralds is two or three orders of magnitude less than the flawed emeralds found in nature. Why? The real emeralds, despite their flaws are more highly valued precisely for their scarcity. And this notion of scarcity lends itself very nicely to discussions of ethics.
Aristotle said that, “Virtue is more clearly shown in the performance of fine actions than in the non-performance of base ones.” The Roman historian Tacitus echoed this when he said about someone that, “his character was of an average kind – rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtue.” An ethical code that is average, common, and comfortable, is not scarce and is thus not valuable.
But if you can dig deep and find the courage to stand up for your beliefs and to do the right thing when all around you are making other choices, you will be respected, you will be appreciated, and you will be highly valued precisely because, like a natural emerald, you will be authentic, and thus a scarce commodity indeed. In the engineering and business worlds, an ethical organization is one in which good news travels fast and bad news travels even faster. And remember, ethical organizations are comprised of ethical people. Tools are only as good as the people who use them.
Tool number five: Which brings me to the final tool I will offer you today. Here it is: Thos mi pan sto ke tin yea kinisso. It is ancient Greek, first spoken by Archimedes. It translates as, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” He was talking about the power of leverage.
Now, most people think of leverage as weight times the length of the lever. But the part that’s often ignored is the place that you stand – pan sto – which determines your pivot. Archimedes recognized that without that pivot he could not move the earth. But with it he could do amazing things. It is the pivot that allows a few pounds of pressure on a brake pedal to stop a truck weighing many tons. It was the pivot that probably allowed the Egyptians to build the pyramids.
Nowadays the idea of leverage has seedy connotations. We tend to connect the term to the kinds of financial transactions we have been hearing so much about in the news these days. Many financial institutions have been described as having leveraged – quote, unquote – some of their actions with the different mortgages. But their pivot wasn’t right. They sold them short, shorted them long, bet on them, and the net result was essentially a disaster. Pivot is often a matter of conscious choice – “where do I stand?”
As our leaders ponder the economic stimulus, the question to ask is do we have the right leveraging condition for that stimulus? Do we have the right pivot? Leverage needs to be applied when the pivot is right. If the pivot is just paper or what I would call “financial acrobatics”, there is no real substance to the pivot.
You all, however, leave here today with the right pivot. You leave here today with the intellectual capital to solve problems. You leave here with the ability to contribute to the creation of new ideas, new thoughts, new products, new inventions. You leave with the ability and resources to make good choices. This is how you will help society move ahead. Your pivot creates permanent value. And this is how you will lead us out of our current economic crisis.
So, in closing, here is this is what I ask of you as you start the next chapter of your lives: Understand how important you are to our future, and to the nation that has been so good to us;
First, remember what the historian Arnold Toynbee said about great nations: That the autopsy of history shows that great nations die not by murder, but by suicide. Do not allow that to happen. Work to keep our nation from going the way of so many other great nations of the past, which simply got tired, wound down, stopped creating, stopped inventing, stopped exploring and vanished.
Second, keep generating intellectual property and capital and that you strive to solve not just problems of engineering, but that you use your engineering skills to solve problems across all domains of life;
Third, don’t wait for change to occur, make change occur by acting quickly and with purpose;
Fourth, apply the principles of frequency and bandwidth to your lives by taking risks, varying your activities, and learning all you can about whatever you are doing;
Fifth, make yourself a scarce and valuable commodity by always taking the ethical high road. And choose carefully the place you stand before you try to move the world.
Personally, I think those Greeks were on to something. They believed that understanding the natural world and understanding how best to live your life were one and the same. Their golden age ended two thousand years ago, but that principle did not. Fifteen hundred years later the leaders of the Renaissance believed the same thing – that learning could be used to achieve a better life – an enlightened life. Those of you who choose to apply your educations to your lives and your world will be in good company indeed.
Congratulations and best of luck.