Feature Stories 

Deirdre Hanford Challenges USC Viterbi School of Engineering Graduates in Commencement Speech 

On a bright Friday afternoon in mid-May 2014, Synopsys Executive Vice President of Customer Engagement Deirdre Hanford donned a cap and gown and went to school: the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering.

Deirdre Handford with: Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean, graduating USC students
Deirdre (center) with: Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean; Awadi Rathugamage,
USC Viterbi valedictorian; and other graduating students.

On that day, Deirdre delivered a passionate commencement speech where she shared her personal story of major career milestones and lessons learned, some tougher than others. She took the audience of 570 graduating undergraduate engineering Trojans (what USC students call themselves)—30 percent of whom are women—back to her own graduation. "It was close to 31 years ago when I was in your shoes," Deirdre said. "My memories of my graduation ceremony are fuzzy, but my memories of my four undergraduate years are sharp."

As an engineering student at Brown University, she comments that she worked harder than her non-engineering friends who had time to hang out in the afternoons or watch soap operas and work out at the gym. Deirdre earned a BSEE from Brown University and an MSEE from the University of California, Berkeley.

While some things have changed in the span of more than 30 years, Deirdre's style of hard work remains constant: "Let me summarize my career so far: I work in high tech; I work hard." Clearly, Deirdre's hard work has paid off to help grow Synopsys from a fledgling start-up nearly 27 years ago to the leading EDA company that it is today.

Deirdre attributes much of her achievement to four core elements of success: Take Risks, Understand the Technology and the Business, Be Global, Give Back. Deirdre challenged the graduating class of 2014 to think of how they will propel their adult lives and careers forward and gave numerous examples from her own career. Finally, she connected the four elements to the audience's familiar Five Traits of a Trojan: courageous, skillful, ambitious, scholarly, faithful.

Here are some excerpts of Deirdre's speech:

No. 1: Take Risks

"Where I work in Silicon Valley, technologists and entrepreneurs take extraordinary risks, celebrate incredible successes, and embrace sometimes spectacular failure. All are essential steps in innovation. I challenge you to be courageous, Trojan, and take risks right now in your life. Think of Sir Isaac Newton's second law of motion: The change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed on the body. Or in simpler terms: Force = mass * acceleration."

Early in her career Deirdre took a risk by joining Synopsys: "Two years out of graduate school, I joined my second startup that was made up of seven guys, six of them under 25. I was the first woman."

No. 2: Understand the Technology and the Business

"Relish the technology. Be cognizant of its business application and the value that your innovations deliver … My boss and one of my mentors, Synopsys President and Co-CEO Dr. Chi-Foon Chan (a proud parent of two Trojan graduates, by the way) has told me many times during my career: ‘Deirdre, no matter how technical you are, remember that the best engineers really understand the business side of the equation.'"

Midway through her career Deirdre was offered a promotion to be the general manager of a business unit but declined and instead took an assignment in sales as an individual contributor. "Was I nuts? Absolutely not!" Deirdre told the graduates. "I rounded out my engineering geekiness and love of technology with business perspective and polish."

No. 3: Be Global

"The third request I have for you is to engage globally … The reality is that you will likely work in a professional environment that is global. Continue to develop your global skills and listen to where your customers or your market takes you. Be scholarly, Trojans, be a student of this global world as you strive to make a significant impact on our grand and global engineering challenges."

Currently, Deirdre's Global Technical Services (GTS) organization consists of more than 1,200 engineers working in countries around the world, and for her to be successful, she must be able to execute globally. In her speech, Deirdre gave examples of the importance of understanding cultural differences.

No. 4: Give Back

"So far I have encouraged you to take risks, be an engineer who understands the business and make a global impact. I have touched on four of the five traits of a Trojan: courageous, skillful, ambitious and scholarly. I would like to close out and talk about the fifth attribute of a Trojan: faithful. In this context I ask you to be faithful and give back."

Deirdre has given back in many ways, including by taking the time to share insights in her commencement speech. "When I sat in your position, I had no idea what I would accomplish or where life would take me," Deirdre said. "I am proud of where I have gotten to in my life. I have a strong marriage, a great family, close friends and fantastic colleagues."