Udacity Self-Driving Car Graduation 1

It’s 3:35 pm on November 30, 2017. We’re 25 minutes away from the start of “Crossing the Finish Line,” a special event celebrating the pioneering accomplishments of the first graduates of our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program.

As I stand now in the event space, I hear microphone checks through the PA, and the clink of glassware as event staff polish the crystal. I see featured speakers going over speech notes in quiet corners, and I catch a glimpse of the cameraman testing the lighting from the back of the room.

It’s a quiet bustle of activity in here, but this isn’t really where my attention is focused. I’m watching the front entryway, where a line of attendees is starting to form.

3:55 pm

A sudden ripple of conversation runs through the group—Sebastian Thrun is arriving. As the founder of Udacity—and the man history credits as “The Godfather of Self-Driving Cars”—this night has special significance for him. He greets everyone warmly, stops for a handful of pictures, then enters the main space. A few minutes later, a group of journalists comes in from the far door; they meet Sebastian in the middle for a round of handshaking. Around them, the evening’s honored guests start pouring in.

Can this really be happening?

It’s happening. The very first graduates of our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program are being celebrated tonight!

I remember all the work leading up to the initial launch of this program. Those were crazy days. We couldn’t quite believe we were doing it. It felt like such a risk. Would it work? Would people want to enroll? How many? What would it all mean for Udacity? For our students? For our future? For everyone’s future?

4:15 pm

The screen behind the stage lights up, and the slideshow begins. A student selfie with “Carla,” Udacity’s self-driving car. Pictures from a student meetup in Boston. Shots from Thunderhill, where Udacity students raced self-driving cars on a real track. A picture of Team Vulture’s visit to Udacity HQ in Mountain View. They were the first team to successfully complete the program’s capstone project. In the photo, they’re at the foosball table, heads down, looking serious and competitive. As you’d expect.

4:25 pm

Salwa Muhammad, Udacity’s VP of Connect & Admissions, steps to the microphone to request that attendees take their seats. The ceremony is about to begin!

As Salwa formally commences the event, she takes a moment to recognize that attendees have come from all over the world to celebrate this momentous occasion in person—from Australia, Sweden, Germany, India, and more. She notes that, to date, we’ve had over 42,000 applications to the program. As the applause dies down, she highlights what is perhaps an even more remarkable statistic: there are over 10,000 students currently enrolled in the program!

Udacity Self-Driving Car Graduation 7

4:30 pm

Following Salwa’s introduction, David Silver takes the stage. David is the Curriculum Lead for the Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program. It’s at once clear that everyone in the room knows him on sight, though in his tuxedo and bow tie, he cuts a somewhat different figure than he does in the classroom!

David uses his minutes on stage to offer a last piece of advice to the graduating students:

My final piece of advice is directed to those of you who are eager to join the Self-Driving Car industry. When you are trying to break into a new field, the answer to everything always has to be “Yes.” As you go forward, you are going to encounter challenges. The opportunities may not always be what you’re looking for. But they’ll give you experience, credibility, and the skills to get you where you want to go. So my final piece of advice to you, is that as you are trying to break into this new field, your answer to everything must always be “Yes.”

4:35 pm

As Sebastian Thrun takes the microphone, he looks out over the room, then offers up his first six words:

How proud you all make me!

Sebastian proceeds to tell a story about a time he said, not “Yes,” but “No.” That time was in 2008, when Larry Page challenged him to develop a self-driving car that could drive through the streets of San Francisco. Sebastian told him it couldn’t be done. Larry told him to present a technical reason why not. Sebastian couldn’t give him that answer. So he went to work on self-driving cars at Google.

Udacity Self-Driving Car Graduation 2

Sebastian goes on to detail how Udacity’s origin story is another case of doing that which people said couldn’t be done.

He concludes his remarks by noting what the graduates mean to him on a personal level, representing, as they do, both self-driving cars, and education:

You’re the synthesis of my life. I am incredibly grateful.

4:40 pm

A video is played for the group. It includes a blooper reel full of outtakes from classroom videos. A car horn sound effect masks profanities muttered by instructors who muff their lines, sneeze at the wrong times, or stand in the wrong places.

4:45 pm

Members of Udacity’s Self-Driving Car team gather on stage. One by one, the graduates come up to accept a certificate commemorating their accomplishment. They walk across to shake hands with Sebastian, and pose for a photo. Their smiles say it all—happiness, pride, excitement.

When I think of how many hours of mind-numbingly difficult work went into each of these moments, it’s almost too much to comprehend. How hard these pioneering learners have worked! How brave they’ve been. How much they’ve risked. I feel as if I’m watching something akin to an historic presidential inauguration; the future is right here, on this stage, as embodied by these remarkable individuals.

Standing in the shadows at the side, I am privy to something the audience likely can’t see. The expressions as each graduate comes off the stage. Away from the lights, away from the cameras, with the nervousness and anticipation now relieved, there is a different kind of happiness on these faces. They’re almost giddy.

One moment in particular strikes me. A young man comes off stage, down the stairs, passes behind me. He is greeted by a young woman who awaits him. He comes to her, and she slowly drapes her arms around his shoulders. They embrace, just briefly, but in this one moment, I can literally feel in my bones the love, the pride, the relief.

5:20 pm

The formal portion of the event concludes. The volume of chatter in the room goes up significantly. People can finally relax and socialize. The music comes on—vintage soul. “Slippin’ into Darkness,” by War.

That’s what I’m about to do. Slip into darkness. Into the darkness of nighttime in San Carlos. Into the darkness of my non-self-driving car. I have a long drive back to Santa Cruz. A drive that will take me through one of the worst commutes in the country—a route plagued by gridlock, and marred by more new accidents every day. A route that will one day be orders of magnitude safer through the work of the individuals we have celebrated tonight.