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Drexel Accepted Students Keynote

I was asked to speak to future Drexel Dragons last weekend during Drexel University’s Accepted Students weekend. I thought it was going to be a small group of about 300-500 for a 15-minute keynote.

I think it was actually 2000+ packed into the basketball arena. I have not had those nerves in a while. 🙂

Through a bit of storytelling, my goal was to nudge them, hopefully inspire them and most importantly communicate with relatability and normalcy that I didn’t have it all figured out when I was 18, 22 or even 24. Plenty of idiot moments on so many fronts.

Too many times people who have had great careers are presented in a manner that portrays them coming out of the womb with an agenda, business card and pitch deck. That’s really not the case and that false portrayal can be discouraging to those earlier in their journey who are no doubt comparing their outcomes to those further up the climb.

We all have the same story. Full commitment, daily grind and a focus on incremental improvement on all fronts. Think of it as the principle of financial compounding – but related to a career, vs money. A lot of little gains over a long time become a large distance traveled or body of work created.

I was, however, the quintessential 5-year-with-3-co-ops Drexel story. The Drexel Program 100% took my rough tech direction and idiot-20-something approach and allowed me to refine, mature and accelerate it toward the best fit and best next opportunity upon graduation. It also showed me very quickly what I should disqualify as potential outcomes and paths.

This is long. Many parts will be enjoyed at my expense. When I get the video I’ll post it. Here is the transcript:

 


 

Good morning Drexel Faculty and prospective students. Thank you for having me today.

My name is Anthony Bucci. In 2004 I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information systems upon completing a 5 year program that included 3 co-ops.

After Drexel I worked in eCommerce for a few years until I founded my own company called RevZilla, here in Philadelphia.

In 2016, 12 years after I graduated, RevZilla was acquired by another company as part of an industry roll up. At 35 years old, I have could have hung it up.

Being asked to be here today and to speak to you is certainly a product of my resume. I worked incredibly hard, got enough right, enough lucky and certainly received a lot of help along the way… But today let’s talk about the foundation that allowed all that to happen.

In 1998 I sat in the same seats that you are sitting in, about to graduate from high school, about to make a major life choices.

I was scared.

I was scared because I knew I was interested in technology, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it.

I was the most frightened about the thought of graduating and not finding a job – or taking a job that I was not passionate about –  potentially choosing the wrong path.

It was also unsettling to think of myself in a role misaligned with my strengths, although I certainly couldn’t articulate things that clearly back then.

Junior year of high school, I’d done a handful of college tours with mom and dad and seen some great programs and campuses from Philly to Boston to New York to Arizona, but nothing really clicked until Drexel.

The day I visited campus it was sweltering. Drexel was overtly brick and concrete back then, fresh off of winning some ugly campus awards in the ‘90s.

Our student guide was quite proud to be oozing punk rock and happy to share more detail than we cared for about his many facial piercings and other non-visible hardware.

I think my mom cried a little bit at some point that day. 

However, things completely changed for me when the tour took a deep dive into the co-op program. This was it.

To me, 3 six-month internships in a city environment would allow me a ton of options to gain experience and hopefully mitigate my early career concerns. I knew on the ride home I’d be a Dragon.

I entered Drexel as a Freshman Computer Science Major in the Fall of 1999 and I quickly learned that I’d be learning about much more than just work and school.

I quickly learned that I loved the city. Even as a broke college student, the city was an amazing playground. I was always surprised by how much time we ventured off campus, really enjoying all that Philly has to offer for a young person open to exploration and new ideas.

That year I also learned how to focus and apply myself differently. I spent high school learning how to learn but not really ever struggling with academics. For the first time I had to really balance life, school and work.

It was an early lesson in “adulting” and being differently responsible for my time, effort and outcomes. I got one C during college, and it was my first semester Freshmen chem.

I also learned that year that music on the internet is not free but DU administrators are reasonable, as long as you are.

A nice lady named Candace, who also happened to be the head of the University’s Information Security Office, explained to me that I could not share all of my MP3s freely across the school’s network if I wanted to remain a student.

I spent the second half of Freshman year on double secret probation.

Lesson learned. My mom and dad were less proud of that one, but I made it.

Sophomore year I learned that while my friends at other schools were only doing core courses, at Drexel I was already hacking through Comp Sci related tech courses in prep for my first co-op.

In the fall of 2000, I landed my first co-op as a software developer at a Philly startup. We built internet applications during the tech boom.

I learned that early stage companies run by young people pay less, move fast, can be unforgiving and could sometimes foster a lifestyle akin to a struggling rock band. I loved that part.

I also learned that internet technology was the wild west and got to work with amazing software developers who showed me what the next level looked like.

I was, however, very happy to go back to being a student when the dot-com economy bubble burst that spring and the company, like many in the space, struggled.

Side note – I just realized that many of you were born around that year. That makes me feel very old and and a little sad.

In between my first and second co-op, in an effort to cover my expenses, I discovered that you can pay your rent playing poker and in Philly there are games all over . . . but I was also informed that even though Drexel is entrepreneur friendly, I could not sell breakfast sandwiches to other students out of the dorm kitchen from 12am to 2am on weekends.

To her credit, the residential director was another reasonable administrator at DU. Stern but fair. Just a warning this time vs more formal sanctions.

For my second co-op, my coding skills were the best they’d ever been and I wanted to go for the brass ring but also try something different.

Big company, big resume builder. Big change.

I’d also trade the startup environment for a bigger corporate paycheck.

I parlayed my experience from my first co-op into landing a second co-op at a premier company and negotiating for the Senior Developer co-op pay scale.

A homerun? Nope – A high paying disaster. I lasted 4 months out of the full 6.

The ability to build new tech was there, but I didn’t have a boss I clicked with, the company moved very slowly and I wasn’t mature enough to navigate my frustration within a less ideal environment.

I ended up having one of those “I quit. Well actually you’re fired.” type conversations that my parents still don’t know about.

This was a huge stubbed toe for me that I took a handful of early career lessons from:

1) I need to move fast to be happy

2) A big company is less exciting to me personally

3) Decisions based solely on money and/or prestige usually don’t turn out well

4) I was no longer sure I really wanted to write code as a career

It was an existential crisis for me at that point, now into my 3rd year of school, but what I learned from comparing both companies and knowing more about what DIDN’T make me happy –  at that point was invaluable.

I also had to explain to the co-op office why I “left” a tier one co-op. Again, reasonable administrators, we got through it. If you’re still here, thanks Helene.

In my third and fourth years of school I applied what was becoming more clear. I switched majors from Comp Sci to Information Systems. I believed the intersection of people, business and technology were a better fit for me.

I also knew that I didn’t want to spend 10-12 hours a day coding – nor did I have the talent or interest to get to the level of the superstar coders I had worked with.

The ability to easily change majors and stay at Drexel allowed me to continue to move forward without a ton of wasted time, effort or tuition.

My 3rd co-op I sourced myself. I scoped, coded, project managed and launched a Web Content Management System for a local chain of 3 nursing homes I’d previously done freelance work for.

While I didn’t enjoy the coding piece the way I once had, I had another data point about myself. I could plan, sell and manage delivery of a real project to a real business.

I also think that the co-op office was happy to let me independently march to my own drummer after the small crater I left behind on co-op #2.

Being on campus every day during co-op #3 also afforded me the opportunity to get to know the head of campus public safety extremely well.

If Rob is still here, someone needs to tell him he’s the man.

Patience and a sense of humor were his superpowers, but my friends and I did manage to get banned from the 7-11 that spring –  that is another story for another time.

By the time I graduated I was ready to begin my career and I had put to bed many of the fears that I had as I was finishing high school.

I knew what I was good at, I knew what I was not so good at.

I knew more about what I liked and most importantly what I really didn’t like.

I had a great degree as well as relevant experiences to help get my resume noticed – but more importantly my experiences would allow me to be a better contributor for the company I’d join.

I’d also grown up a lot, gaining more perspective on what it would take to succeed and be happy – sometimes doing it the hard way with plenty of facepalms to my credit.

After 3 co-ops, I’d created some amazing business relationships as well.

When I ran into the CEO of the small eCommerce agency from my first co-op around graduation time, he offered me a position to return and develop software for his company.

I knew that was not the best fit for me, but I had the confidence and self awareness to ask if I could join the sales or project management teams.

He was open to it, and willing to take the chance on me. In 3.5 years with that company I worked at the leading edge of eCommerce with huge national brands. 18 months in, I was leading the sales department and working directly for the CEO.

24 months after that, I had the confidence and experience to roll the big dice and start my own company. I left and founded RevZilla.

My DU experience, from coursework, to co-ops, to run ins with a multitude of reasonable authority figures – all played a factor in my ability to clearly and confidently make choices taking me closer to my eventual success post graduation.

If you choose Drexel, be ready to hustle and scrap. There will be a lot at your disposal, but, like many things in life, you will get out what you put in.

You will learn how to learn. You will learn how to focus.

You will grow up. This city and business landscape will be your oyster and a part of a huge professional opportunity if you seize it.

I hope you will extract as much value as I did from this ecosystem.

The opportunity is real – and at a minimum the campus is way better looking than it was in 1998.

Good luck in your decisions, college experiences, careers and most importantly, your lives.

It’s real, challenging work, but the best is yet to come. I promise.

If you need me you can find me on the internets.

This was fun and I hope it helps you.

Thank you.

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