5 Inspiring Graduation Speeches to Motivate Your Tech Team

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Aside from my love for TED Talks, I’m also a sucker for graduation speeches. Maybe it’s their motivational qualities, those inspiring calls to action that excite you about the rest of your life.

Regardless, despite being a graduate for some time, I still love commencement season and all of the graduation speeches it brings.

In the world of IT management, it’s easy for your tech team to get bogged down in the day-to-day operations and complain about your workload. Really settling into a job and all of the responsibilities it requires can be overwhelming and make you lose a bit of heart in what you love.

tech team

This is where graduation speeches come in.

Aside from the motivational aspects they give to me, I’m sure, as an IT manager, you could benefit greatly from some words of wisdom from tech leaders like Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and Elon Musk. And for women in tech, Sheryl Sandberg’s words can reinvigorate you even on your worst days, reminding you of why you do it all in the first place.

It’s no surprise that motivated employees tend to be more productive at work. They feel happy and are energized by what they do. It’s what all teams aspire to be like.

So how to go about this? Watching graduation speeches is one thing, but taking those lessons and applying them to your tech team is another.

Not to worry. I’ve done the work for you.

Below, I’ve listed five of the most inspirational graduation speeches to motivate your tech team from those who have been there themselves, as well as tips and tricks about how to take their knowledge and put it into practice.

Let’s commence!

Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard College 2011

In her speech, Sandberg recalls the authors of Half the Sky visiting the Barnard campus and how they’ve concluded what’s the greatest challenge of the 21st century: overcoming the oppression of young girls and women.

As a rallying cry for this new generation of young women to lead the charge, Sandberg delivers some painful truths about being a woman in the workplace as well as how to overcome them.

Fresh off of her acclaimed TED Talk but before publishing bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg addresses this graduating class with the finding that success and likability negatively correlate for women, often resulting in successful women being scrutinized for their character while those on the sideline remain in good graces, but fall short of their full potential.

Aside from the negative correlation between likeability and success for women, Hunter College professor Pamela Stone also found that “90% left not to care for their families but because of workplace problems, chiefly frustration and long hours.” (With these long hours, of course, not factoring in the average of three extra hours of unpaid work, usually spent on domestic chores and caretaking.)

And what can this frustration be?

Sexual harassment or discrimination doesn’t always happen outright. Thankfully, the EEOC helps curb that problem (but not always eliminating it entirely). The real problem is the build-up of casual sexist remarks that become acceptable in the workplace environment, inevitably chipping away at the patience of many female employees.

Imagine encountering some sexist slight on a regular basis. It’s like Chinese water torture. It’ll get to you, slowly but surely.

“The more common, less intense forms of gender harassment (like office cultures where sexist jokes are tolerated),” Rebecca Adams summarizes, “‘appeared as detrimental for women’s occupational well-being, as the less frequent, high-intensity incidents (like sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention).”

Essentially, no matter the intensity of the harassment or discrimination, it’s still harmful and overall detrimental to what is now nearly half (46.8%) of the U.S. workforce.

“We need women at all levels, including the top,” Sandberg states, “to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.”

In order to defeat these systems of bias and discrimination (at least in Sandberg’s eyes), women have to be the driving force behind this wave of change. Because, after all, graduation is also called commencement, meaning this is only the first step towards the rest of your life.

How: Even as a woman myself, I know I can’t eliminate sexism overnight. It’s like trying to make the tech space more diverse. It takes time and unpacking of unconscious biases that prevent us from hiring people fit for the job rather than people who just look like us.

The great thing, though, is that Sandberg’s book has spawned a nonprofit, LeanIn.org, which includes a plethora of resources for IT managers to help combat gender inequality within the workspace. From hypothetical scenarios with accompanying solutions, to further education and inspiration, take some time to explore her site so you can help create a more inclusive place to work.

Sheryl Sandberg, UC Berkeley 2016

I know this is another from Sandberg, but I’d be remissed if I left it out.

Just over a week ago, Sandberg took the commencement stage at UC Berkeley to give one of the most moving graduation speeches I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t about leaning in. It wasn’t about life. It was about death.

Last year, Sandberg lost her husband of more than ten years unexpectedly. She hadn’t spoken publicly about his death until now, and her words of wisdom to this year’s graduating class are truly heartfelt.

“I learned that in the face of the void or in the face of any challenge, you can choose joy and meaning,” she tells the crowd, addressing psychologist Martin Seligman’s concept of learned optimism, which Sandberg implemented into her life to cope with the death of her husband.

“It is the hard days, the days that challenge you to your very core that will determine who you are. You will be defined by not just what you achieve, but by how you survive,” she says.

But rather than waxing about the importance of strength or resilience (even Sandberg admits that she still succumbs to grief), she states that the biggest help of all has been practicing gratitude. Because for Sandberg and anyone ever in a tight spot, gratitude is perhaps the hardest to practice when your own life isn’t going as planned.

How: Sandberg relays her own ways of practicing gratitude. One tip that stood out to me was her description of her gratitude journal, which helps her remember and savor the happier parts of her day.

While gratitude seems like a fluff quality (especially in IT), gratitude can actually be a key ingredient in the success of your team, not to mention it can improve your overall quality of life.

“By implementing gratitude into company culture,” consulting company Emergenetics asserts, “employees are more willing to spread their positive feelings with others, whether it’s helping out with a project or taking time to notice and recognizing those that have gone the extra mile.”

And don’t forget, happiness is contagious. Contagiousness is also great for team morale, as happy employees are more productive and tend to be more collaborative, the two secret ingredients to any successful team.

Those who don’t put happiness first suffer, and not just on their teams. Unhappy employees are unengaged employees and end up costing U.S. companies roughly $450–$550 billion annually.

Now, there are lots of way to cultivate a culture of gratitude in the workplace. Sometimes a simple ‘thank you’ for a team member’s efforts goes a long way. You can also implement other practices, like a gratitude wall, where the accomplishments and achievements of others at the office can be recognized by all.

At Capterra, we don’t have a gratitude wall (yet), but do recognize individual employee achievements during our monthly all-hands meetings, which is still a great way to show appreciation for the hard work that others may not even be aware of.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005

In this commencement address, Apple founder Steve Jobs relates three stories of his life, culminating with a call to action for Stanford grads to live out their lives with passion and vigor.

In summary, this speech seems pretty run of the mill in terms of topic and structure, but the bittersweet quality of watching it years after Jobs’ death makes his notions about mortality that much more poignant.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards,” Jobs states when talking about his faith that something better awaited him in the future. “Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

But what really hits home is when Jobs cites the now-defunct Whole Earth Catalog’s last message to its readers: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

So don’t forget to live. Don’t forget to always be learning and seeking out opportunities for growth. You’ll get where you want to be as long as you believe it.

How: For IT managers, this seems to be another lofty notion that can’t qute be captured into an actionable step. But not to worry. I’ve got you.

In his call to action, Jobs insists that students continue to chase their dreams and to always keep learning. I mean, Jobs offhandedly took a calligraphy class the ended up revolutionizing computer typefaces all because he learned about the importance of typography.

So as a tech professional, always keep learning about your industry. Whether you choose to spruce up your coding skills (or learn a new one altogether), learn how to craft native apps for your company, or take on learning new IT management software, always challenge yourself. Always keep learning. You may even bring something invaluable to the table that makes you an integral part of the company.

Tim Cook, Auburn University 2010

When was the last time you trusted your gut? Was it a small spur of the moment decision or was it over a life-changing choice that drew you down a new career path?

“There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate,” Apple CEO Tim Cook states in his speech at Auburn University.

“Intuition is something that occurs in the moment,” he continues, “and, if you are open to it, if you listen to it, it has the potential to direct or redirect you in a way that is best for you.”

As an engineer, Cook acknowledges that this goes against his analytical instincts, but he still credits this small voice as the push he needed to take chances, eventually leading him to becoming the CEO of one of the largest and most influential tech companies in the world.

For me, Cook’s call to action greatly reminds me of psychologist Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, where Gladwell dissects “thin slicing” or that quick intuitive feeling you get when meeting a person or making a decision. According to the author’s findings, these small slices prove accurate, even in determining how long married couples will last.

How: Capterra’s own Andrew Marder touches a bit on the subject in his post “Why Capterra Doesn’t Obsess Over the Numbers.”

Delving into the business Moneyball mindset, Marder immediately dismisses that numerical concept, instead stating that “employees don’t come to you as finished products. At Capterra, we love to hire people who have a background in the exact thing that they’ll be working on, but we also like to hire people who have a lot of potential. You can train someone to walk through a customer service call, you can’t teach them how to be a decent person.”

Here, analytics doesn’t work best. I’m sure you’ve even had your fair share of applicants who look great on paper, but don’t live up to their potential in person.

“If you’ve got good people to work with,” he continues, “then you can set the numbers aside. Numbers stop being the thing that drives your business, and become the thing that gives you a relative indicator about the overall health of your business – a simple win-loss record.”

Elon Musk, CalTech 2012

I’ll admit, this one is a bit tough to get through. Not all of us have great public speaking skills, but don’t let that deter you from watching Musk’s speech at CalTech in 2012. (I do promise that it gets better as he becomes more comfortable standing behind the podium.)

Speaking of the magic of technology that fascinated him as a child, Musk delves into his personal story, talking about his own failed attempts and delving into “internet stuff” where he “did a few things,” ultimately discussing some of his latest projects with SpaceX and Tesla.

The admittance of Musk’s failure is an important for both these students and you as an IT professional. It reminds you that even the greats had their own failures and had to change course.

How: As an IT manager, you know that sometimes projects will fail. Things don’t go according to plan. Disappointment ensues.

But as Sheryl Sandberg asserted in her 2016 speech, failure won’t be permanent and can even redirect you on the path towards success.

“[W]hen we focus too much on doing things perfectly (i.e., being good),” Heidi Grant Halvorson states, “we don’t engage in the kind of exploratory thinking and behavior that creates new knowledge and innovation… When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.”

So feel free to fail. Learn from your mistakes and have the capability to move forward. Get out of the box and take those risks. Without them, you may lose out on becoming the next innovative voice in tech.


Can you think of any other inspirational graduation speeches by tech leaders? Let me know in the comments below.

Looking for IT Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best IT Management software solutions.

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At Capterra, we believe that software makes the world a better place. Why? Because software can help every organization become a more efficient, effective version of itself.


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