The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 13, NO. 2     NOVEMBER 2000

AT&T chairman tells graduates about change

In his address to the members of the Class of 2000, C. Michael Armstrong, chairman and CEO of AT&T, focused on change and three principles for meeting and navigating it. Armstrong began his address by noting that WPI is widely admired within AT&T for its history of educational excellence and for the long list of graduates who have gone on to become leaders in their fields. He recounted the story of Bell Laboratories engineer Harold Black, a 1921 WPI graduate, who authored the blueprint for the negative-feedback amplifier, a device that played a vital role in 20th century electronics.

"AT&T's connections with Worcester Polytechnic Institute are rich and long," Armstrong said. "Harold Black was one of more than 150 AT&T people over the years who received degrees from WPI. Many of them made major contributions to WPI, to AT&T, and to society. Their work helped usher in the global Information Age."

To flourish in a rapidly changing world, Armstrong told graduates, one must take change in stride. "It requires grabbing it by the collar and making it your own."

Armstrong, himself, has been at the epicenter of three developments that have helped change the course of the electronics industry and daily life. Near the end of his more than three decades at IBM, he helped oversee the development of the IBM PC and its open-system design that "not only transformed the IBM company, it was a huge influence in transforming the whole computer industry." As chairman and CEO of Hughes Electronics at the end of the Cold War, he steered the company away from its focus on military space systems to commercial systems.

"Remaining open to dynamic change -- learning to thrive when the ground is rolling beneath your feet -- this is tomorrow's measure of success," he said. "To succeed in today's technology-driven world requires that each of us delight in the challenge that comes with the new and the untested."

As his first principle of navigating change, Armstrong told graduates, "Assume nothing. Most of the biggest mistakes of corporate and career history have come from assumptions. Conversely, some of the biggest corporate successes have come from people who challenged the status quo, who refused to accept assumptions, and who just plain knocked down doors to creative change."

"The second operating principle is enjoy what you do, and do what you enjoy," he said. "That's not as self-indulgent as it sounds. Loving your work is really a strength. And if you're in the right job, Monday should be the best day of the week."

Finally, he told his audience to stand for something. "Corporations and people in the end have to stand on their values. At AT&T, for instance, we stand for values like respect for the individual, the best customer service in the world, diversity in the workforce, and community involvement. "Here at WPI, you've received an appreciation of social and ethical issues that must be part of science and technology. Both you and the administration are to be commended for that. Because as technology becomes an ever larger part of our world, we need to be continuously aware of its service to, and effect on, our society."

Armstrong illustrated his point by telling the story of a Scottish farmer who rescued a boy from a bog at the end of the 19th century. Grateful, the boy's father, a member of England's House of Lords, paid to send the farmer's son to a university.

The farmer's son was Alexander Fleming, who went on to become a doctor and discover penicillin. Later, the Lord's son developed pneumonia and was saved by penicillin. His name was Winston Churchill.

"I don't know how many Churchills or Blacks are in this graduating class. But I suspect there are many. The potential of what is ahead of you is great. While you may be the last class of the 20th century, as I look at you, you are also the first class of the 21st century. You have so much that I know will be yours. Take care of our next century. Treat it with respect and deliver all of the potential that you have."

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Last modified: Dec 08, 2000, 11:39 EST