UNSW CSE Occasional Address / Commencement Speech — Ian Yip

Ian Yip
6 min readFeb 22, 2024

As delivered to the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) graduating class of 2023 at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The word “honoured” is overused, especially on social media. But I don’t think I’m overstating it here. I truly felt honoured to be back at UNSW in December 2023, delivering the occasional address (a.k.a. commencement speech) to CSE’s graduating class of 2023.

What follows is the written version of the speech (note: I made minor alterations in the moment on stage which differ from what’s written).

Delivering the Occasional Address / Commencement Speech at UNSW on 7th December 2023

Introduction

Pro-Chancellor, Dean, distinguished guests, graduating students, and families.

It’s an honour to be standing before you on this momentous occasion. Congratulations to all of you graduating today for this achievement.

However, graduating is easy. Manifesting the life you’re envisioning, is not.

Failure

Around the time most of you were about to finish primary school, I was spending 12 to 18 hours per day building a product all on my own. I designed. I coded. I tested. Launched it. I chased that dream for 2 years. Unpaid.

Today, that product sits on my network storage device at home collecting virtual dust.

Those closest to me were fully supportive through it all. Others told me to get a real job.

I eventually did get a real job, but it took me a long time to decide. I couldn’t work out if it was time to accept defeat, or whether I was caving into external pressure.

One and a half years after I got a real job, a bunch of people I had nothing to do with halfway across the world, started a company doing what my product that was now in virtual mothballs did.

Eight years later, that company sold for billions.

What did I learn? That I had a good handle on identifying problems to solve. But that version of me didn’t possess enough knowledge about how things worked in the real world to get it done.

Even with the right idea, hard work alone isn’t enough to be successful.

Most of all, I realised you can wear failures with pride, as long as you learned something, and got back up.

Ladders

There’s a joke in cybersecurity that refers to two paths taken to being a highly respected cyber expert.

The first: work your way up in the industry over 20 years. Hopefully by then, your peers will realise how good you are.

The second: become a cybercriminal for a year, get arrested, serve 10 years in jail, then get a job as a reformed criminal with the credibility that everyone else took 20 years to attain. You may have a criminal record, but you’ve halved the time required to get there.

I’m not at all suggesting anyone becomes a criminal, obviously. The point is that life is full of hacks. The trick is to find the good ones, and use each to your advantage within ethical and legal boundaries.

Everyone is given the same map in this marathon of life. But life doesn’t need us to run the same race.

When I was your age and in my first year as a graduate at IBM, I worked in a team that managed a large company’s billing system. It wasn’t a difficult job, so by the end of that year, I needed a new challenge.

None of the people and processes available could help me, so I found my own way.

I spoke with as many people that would listen as I could find, and eventually found out about a new team at IBM. I networked my way to one of the managers and impressed them enough to get that job. That team, was IBM’s new Information security consulting unit. And that, is how I started my career in cybersecurity.

In a world full of locked doors in walls, the people that truly succeed are the ones that can build ladders.

Discomfort

After my stint in IBM security consulting, I moved to their software division.

I didn’t know much about selling, marketing, or the commercial side of the professional world. I didn’t think I’d like it. But I wanted to learn how to do business. To do that, I had to proactively seek out a job that I was only partially qualified for. But I managed to convince the hiring manager to see enough in me to give me a shot. I wasn’t very good for the first few months. I wasn’t a good presenter. I really didn’t like public speaking. I didn’t understand how the sales process worked. But I had no choice but to figure it out if I wanted to succeed in that role.

Fast forward 10 years from that point to a very different version of me. Two weeks into my role as CTO of McAfee Asia Pacific, I found myself sitting in Bloomberg’s studio explaining the world’s first high-profile ransomware attack to a global audience on television. Live. There’s no room for error in that situation. Was I nervous? Heck yes.

In 2019, I stood on stage for Antler’s Demo Day at Sydney’s Town Hall in front of a thousand people, with thousands more watching online, launching a new startup to the world.

One of the things I said that evening, was this: “My career has been a training course leading me to this point, standing right here in front of you. This, is what I’m supposed to be doing. Leading. Avertro.”

That is still true today.

There is immense power in being comfortably uncomfortable. Because personal growth happens at velocity when you relentlessly pursue and embrace discomfort.

Get stuff done

At Avertro, during our daily morning standup, each person tells the team if they achieved their key goal yesterday, and declares their key goal for today. We call it our “one thing”.

Former President Barack Obama recently said in an interview:

“The most important advice I give to young people is … just learn how to get stuff done. I’ve seen at every level people who are very good at describing problems, people who are very sophisticated in explaining why something went wrong or why something can’t get fixed, but what I’m always looking for is no matter how small the problem or how big it is, somebody who says, ‘Let me take care of that.’”

End quote.

In analysing people I’ve worked with who have been given life-changing opportunities, one thing ties them together: their ability to get stuff done.

Or as another great philosopher once said: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Potential

At no point in your careers will you have more potential than right now. It is the most powerful advantage you have over anyone older. But potential is meaningless unless you activate it.

So, remember:

  1. Wear failures with pride, as long as you learned, and got back up;
  2. Build ladders when all everyone sees are doors;
  3. Personal growth happens at velocity when you relentlessly pursue and embrace discomfort; and,
  4. Learn to get stuff done.

Summary

As a startup founder, I’m often asked:

  1. Why are you the best person to do this?
  2. What differentiates you from others?

If you want to be the best, you must focus on doing what it takes to answer these questions about yourself.

Today, you are all startup founders; the startup just happens to be you. The goal of every startup is simple: build something people want.

So go. Build the startup of you, that the world wants to invest in.

Ian Yip is the founder and CEO of Avertro, a venture-backed cybersecurity software company.

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Ian Yip

Cyber Risk. Cybersecurity. Business. Tech. Entrepreneur. CEO at Avertro. Former CTO at McAfee Asia Pacific.