In December 2019, I had the distinct honor to deliver the Commencement Keynote Address at Northeastern University Seattle. While this topic isn't immediately related to getting you better prepared to interview with Amazon, I thought that sharing it here would still be relevant. You may find out more about who I am, and possibly get a perspective or two that might help with your own life journey.
The video recording of the event and the text transcript of the speech are below. Enjoy.
"Dean Thurman, Northeastern faculty and staff, fellow Huskies, and supporters – thank you for the opportunity to address you today.
As I look at you now; at all of you, a sea of smiles and gowns and tassels, I am filled with a sense of profound admiration for what you have accomplished. The many sacrifices you’ve endured to be here today have, at last, paid off: the nights you stayed up late; the meals you ate huddled beside your laptop; the weekends you spent on campus. All of that is now behind you and today we celebrate with you – an accomplishment that no one can ever take from you.
If I asked you, “Why did you go through it all?” I will likely hear as many different responses as the number of graduates in this room. But I am sure, all responses will share a common theme around the journey you undertook to bring meaning to your life and joy to your heart.
Along the way you undoubtedly faced some loneliness, some dissatisfaction, and most notably, some fear. Fear so intense that, at times, it forced you to consider a serious choice – do you carry on with your journey of transformation or do you fold, give up, and go no further?
All of you in this room made the decision to carry on. That’s why you are here today for this ceremony. But guess what, your journey is not yet finished; you aren’t done. In a way, today’s occasion marks the opportunity to begin an even larger sacrifice than the hurried meals and studious weekends of your past. You have the opportunity to build on today’s graduation, to grow beyond who you are today, and take on new challenges.
If you don’t, you will diminish the significance of and rob the promise of the accomplishments we celebrate today. So, by all means, celebrate today and tomorrow, and maybe even next week. But then, get back on the trail, barrel forward, and brace yourself for new fears.
Don’t let up. I know you can do better. I know you can be more - happier and more capable - I see it in you. I know you can all grow beyond who you are today. And to do that, you have to jump back on that trail and carry on. You have to reacquaint yourself with that old foe – the fear of the unknown. You’ve done this before or you wouldn’t be here today. You’ve faced your fears, conquered them, and come out the other side happier, stronger, smarter, more resilient. You’ve learned that being scared during intense transformation is perfectly normal – because fear and courage are the two sides of the same coin.
I am here to assure you that when I look back on every important decision I have taken in my life, I realize how afraid I was at the time. I was petrified, and yet I pushed forward. If you can press on, no matter what, even when it’s the darkest, you can transform yourself in ways you haven’t imagined. To prove my point, I want to take you through three transformational moments in my life. Three times when I had to defeat my fears in my search for happiness and fulfillment.
I am an immigrant. I was born in Bulgaria, a small country in Eastern Europe, and I immigrated to America when I was 20. I’ve always had a desire to build things, to create something from scratch that would help improve other people’s lives and outlast my own. When I was a boy, my father would tell me that “A person lives until he is remembered.” And then he would add, “My son, live in such ways, so you would never be forgotten.”
My first transformational moment was when I arrived in the United States on a sunny day in September 1995 from Bulgaria, with exactly $900 in my pocket, to attend Northeastern University as an undergraduate freshman.
Northeastern University had awarded me a merit scholarship covering 50% of my tuition and housing. But in reality, that 50% was as good as zero because the average household income in Bulgaria in 1995 was $4,000 US Dollars. To this day, I don’t know how my parents did it: they liquidated their life savings and borrowed as much as they could, from anyone they knew. When done, they had raised the funds for my first quarter (which was $3,000), a one-way ticket from Bulgaria to Boston, and another $900 for me to live on.
So, on this sunny day in early September, a yellow taxi cab (there was no Lyft back then) unloaded me in the middle of Northeastern’s campus. I found the Student Housing office on the map and went there to get my dorm accommodations. The Student Housing folks, however, told me I had arrived early, and that the school year wouldn’t start for another couple of weeks. That’s when the dorms would open and I could move in. Until then, they suggested I stay at a nearby YMCA. So, that’s what I did - with my belongings stuffed in two suitcases, one in each hand, I walked across to the Y and asked to book a room. “$80 a night,” they said. In a daze, I paid for one night. The room was smaller than this stage, with two bunk beds on one side and just enough space for a person to squeeze through on the other.
I had no idea what to do: Staying at the YMCA would burn through my entire $900 in less than two weeks. I put my suitcases on the ground, one on each side. I put my forehead on the mattress of the top bunk bed and started crying. After about 10 minutes of solid crying, I picked myself up and walked back to Student Housing. I told them they had to help me find another way. A Student Housing employee listened, nodding her head, then went in an office in the back, and emerged 15 minutes later telling me that the Honors dorm was open and I could stay there. She then walked around the reception desk, from her side to mine, holding my Honors dorm permit. I still remember every detail with clarity. She spread her arms and gave me a big hug saying, “Welcome to America!”
I lived on my $900 for as long as I could. I remember one particular month when I spent exactly $10 for the full 30 days. I could either get a haircut or buy floppy discs for school – I bought the floppy discs (for those of you who don’t know what those are come see me after the ceremony). Later, in the winter of 1995, I found an on-campus job willing to hire an international student. I had been looking for a paying job for months because my money was rapidly dwindling, no matter how many haircuts I saved on. My new job was to be a proctor in the Northeastern University dorms. I volunteered for the night shifts because they paid the most: $12 an hour, a sheer fortune for me. I went to classes during the day, sleeping 30-40 minutes at a time, and worked at night. I eventually graduated as the Valedictorian of the College of Business in 1999, and Microsoft in Seattle hired me as a full-time employee after I had completed two coops there while at Northeastern.
Looking back on my undergraduate freshman days, I was clearly scared. I keep a token to remind me of that: A framed ATM receipt showing a withdrawal of $20, and a remaining account balance of $567.91. That was my last withdrawal before I landed the night-shift proctor job. And that $567 was all that a scared and culture-shocked 20-year-old Bulgarian had. That was the lowest of all low points for me. But it also serves as a reminder that being scared is OK, that fear is OK, as long as you find the strength, somehow, to push forward.
The second transformational moment I’d like to tell you about was when I left Microsoft in 2013. I’d been there fourteen years and become a Director of Business Development in charge of the Xbox first-party games portfolio. I was negotiating hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars’ worth of deals on behalf of Microsoft; I managed a team of six senior business managers; I had become a US citizen; I owned my house debt-free. Life was good. Life was comfortable and the dream of that immigrant freshman who was saving on haircuts and planning to build something truly remarkable was a distant memory. But one day I looked at my framed ATM receipt and realized I had become too complacent and had abandoned my father’s advice to live so I wouldn’t be forgotten. How could I have allowed a Director-level corporate job to sway me away from the beauty of my immigrant dream; the dream to build what doesn’t yet exist, to help people improve their lives and give meaning to my life in the process?
So in 2013, I decided enough was enough. At the time, Amazon was recruiting me. But mind you, Amazon in 2013 wasn’t the Amazon of today. They made me an offer, but being a highly secretive company, they wouldn’t tell me what I would be working on. Still, I faced my fear and said yes. I left Microsoft and joined Amazon. Shortly after, I found out that I was to be one of four people, tasked to start a new Amazon corporate division dedicated to video games. The new division would be called Amazon Game Studios, and I was to present a plan to Jeff Bezos, on how to accomplish that. I also found out that the Bezos review was scheduled for my fourth week on the job. I didn’t know where the restrooms were, and yet I had to convince Amazon’s CEO to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a market segment in which Amazon had no experience.
If you were a fly on the wall in that Bezos review, you would have seen Jeff Bezos…and a dozen other people in the room. Four of these people are convincing Bezos how to take Amazon in the uncharted direction of video games. And one of those is me, a 4-week Amazon novice. Bezos finishes reading our document, then looks me straight in the eye and asks: “So, what exactly makes games a better bet than anything else we could invest in?” Talk about pressure.
Fast-forward to today and Amazon has invested over a billion dollars in games, acquired the game-streaming platform Twitch, and developed its own 3D game engine. More importantly, when I joined Amazon, a wonderful metamorphosis occurred in me: the fear was back. For months, I would go to work, worried I would be fired by the end of each day. My fear and discomfort had returned, but I was challenged and energized by it.
In hindsight, was this transformation uncomfortable for me? Yes. Was it scary? More than I can describe. But in that process, I also rediscovered myself. I grew beyond my current circumstances, restarted my journey of building, of improving people’s lives, and transforming mine.
Five years later, I embarked on another transformation, leaving Amazon to start my own small business. I had been with Amazon for five years; I was married and had a son. I had learned more than I can describe. But five wonderful years in, my transformation curve was flattening, and I was staring wistfully at my framed ATM receipt once again. The sense of fear and discomfort that had propelled me to perform earlier on, was stunted and dormant. So, guess what I did – I manufactured that fear and jumped, yet again, onto a path of transformation.
In 2018, I left Amazon and more than one million dollars of unvested Amazon stock grants, to start something new. I had no idea what I would do. I just knew I had to invite that fear back and grow beyond who I was.
So, here I am today, standing at this podium after a year of experimentation and prototypes, as the CEO of a small business that helps prepare talented job seekers to interview effectively with technology companies like Amazon. I have six hourly employees and more than 1,200 customers around the world. I don’t know yet if this business will be the truly remarkable thing I have been dreaming to build; that is far from certain yet. But I know that the magic is back. The magic that a lot of my customers are immigrants like me, and like a lot of you. And we all treasure the transformation journeys that my business unlocks for them.
I recently had a customer who pounded her fist on the table saying, “Nick, you don’t understand. The next five hours of interviews will determine the next ten years of my life.” I smiled and nodded, and even though I could not convince her that I understood, I knew right then and there that she would be ok – because I could sense the fear in her voice, but also her determination and grit.
In closing, my advice is this: Don’t let up. Celebrate your graduation tonight and tomorrow, or maybe until the end of next week. But then put your party hats away, and restart your courage. Recapture the fear of your sleepless nights and of the meals beside your laptops. Push yourselves to grow beyond who you are today. Continue to transform yourselves so that one day, many days from now, when you look back on December 13, 2019, and on the framed Northeastern University diploma on your wall, you will feel happy and whole, confident that you are continuing the pursuit of your true self and building a legacy you will leave for the generations to come.
Congratulations again, from the bottom of my heart. And thank you for inspiring me with your achievements today and for allowing me to be a part of your graduation."