Scenes From The Alumni VIP Intersect 2018 Pre-Event at The Google Garage!

Sebastian Thrun addresses Udacity Alumni VIPs at The Google Garage
Sebastian Thrun addresses Udacity Alumni VIPs at The Google Garage

It’s 4:30 pm on a sunny Northern California afternoon. I’ve just arrived on the Google Campus, and as you might expect, it’s bustling with busses, share bikes, and pedestrians. In one grassy courtyard made especially beautiful by a playfully percolating fountain, white tent tops catch the sunlight as the shadow line slowly approaches. This is my destination.

4:45 pm

People are starting to congregate, and the low hum of conversation is subtly rising in volume. The individuals gathered are members of Udacity’s Alumni community, here to experience an incredible Alumni VIP event on the eve of Intersect 2018.

Under a theme of “Innovation and Creativity” our Alumni VIPs are here as guests of Google, and of Dr. Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, and Founder of the “The Garage.” Joining Dr. Pferdt as hosts are Peter Lubbers (Senior Program Manager, Google Developer Training) and the Google Developer Certifications Team. As the centerpiece of the event, Dr. Pferdt will be conducting an interactive Innovation Workshop for our Alumni group.

4:55 pm

Sebastian Thrun has just arrived. He’ll be delivering a keynote to the group shortly; for now, he mingles, chats, and checks in with the Udacity team. With him is Christian Plagemann, Udacity’s VP of Learning Products. Everyone seems happy and excited to be here. Those of us from Udacity are wearing our badges and shirts, but honestly, we’d be easy to spot without them—we’re the ones smiling the widest.

5:05 pm

My evening is off to a perfect start. I’ve just finished speaking with a graduate of our Deep Learning Nanodegree program, and in addition to detailing for me her work supporting and encouraging young students in a project to build a self-driving car on their own, she let slip that she’s just gotten a job at Apple! She couldn’t give me more detail than that, other than to acknowledge that her first Udacity course helped her to be confident and prepared for the interview. But such wonderful news!

As elated as I am by this, it’s when she describes her motivation for supporting young learners, that the pull on my heartstrings truly becomes almost too much to bear:

“I believe that when you have a group of self-selected highly motivated students, and you support them with good teachers, the latest technology, and a supportive community, then there are no limits to what they can achieve.”

5:10 pm

I’m in The Garage itself now, and the first of our Alumni begin to enter. They’ve come from as close as Mountain View, and from as far away as India to be here. It’s wonderful to hear the different accents, observe the different ages, see the different styles. It’s a diverse and wonderful group.

5:15 pm

Jane Sheppard, who heads up our Alumni community, is the event’s Master of Ceremonies. She welcomes the group, and introduces Sebastian Thrun with a quote from Theodore Levitt:

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

And with that, Sebastian Thrun comes to the microphone.

5:20 pm

“Thank you for affording us the privilege and honor to be a part of your personal journey.”

5:24 pm

“You are the lifelong learners. You are our heart, and our purpose.”

5:27 pm

“I believe that education is the most empowering thing in the world.”

5:30pm

It is time for the Innovation Workshop. Dr. Frederik Pferdt steps to the front of the group.

Dr. Frederik addresses Udacity Alumni VIP at The Google Garage
Dr. Frederik addresses Udacity Alumni VIP at The Google Garage

To understand what exactly Frederik does in his role as “Chief Innovation Evangelist,” you could of course read the biographical information contained in our event literature:

Frederik’s passion is to develop the capacity to innovate in everybody and he believes creativity exists in all of us.

He initiated a community of 350 Innovation Evangelists at Google and is co-founder of “The Garage”, Google’s hacker/designer/maker space and creator of the CSI:Lab (Creative Skills for Innovation) program, which is used by 550+ teams/year across Google to solve big problems creatively, generating and testing hundreds of new-to-the-world ideas, fast.

As an Adjunct Professor at Stanford’s d.school, he feels lucky to empower students through user-centered, prototype-driven design so that they can invent cool things that matter in the world.

Impressive as this sounds, it hardly does justice to the experience of actually being in a room with him, and finding yourself enacting the message he imparts.

Portrait of the Author as a Udacity VIP Alumni Event attendee
Portrait of the Author as a Udacity VIP Alumni Event attendee!

If I told you that in the space of a mere 30 minutes, we breathed mindfully, drew portraits of one another, flew paper airplanes, and collaborated on robot designs, would you believe me? What if I told you we gave ourselves permission to be creative, created a culture of openness, evidenced a healthy disregard for the impossible, and created a culture of optimism. Would you believe me?

You should, because we did.

The ultimate success of an experience like this depends on two key factors: the skills of the individual leading the experience, and the willingness on the part of the participants to suspend cynicism, and give themselves wholly to the experience.

It was an incredible experience!

6:05 pm

Kathleen Mullaney, VP of Careers at Udacity, closes the formal portion of the event by sharing some key tips on how to make the most of Intersect 2018. She then exhorts us all to mingle, to network, and perhaps most importantly, to eat! Her final directive is to point us to the food trucks.

As I leave the room, I bump into Christian Plagemann, and he shares a quick story with me that makes abundantly clear the plane Frederik has just had us operating upon.

One of the exercises Frederik took us through involved writing down a pressing question about the future that we’d like to try and answer, then sharing that question with someone else, and having them add to it. These expanded questions were then shared essentially randomly across the larger group. This is what Christian read on the paper he received:

“What if we created a self-aware AI? Yes, and what if that has already happened, and we accidently turned it off?”

Did I mention that “sharing” these questions involved “launching” them as paper airplanes? Because it did.

Launching ideas at the Udacity Alumni VIP event
“Launching” ideas at the Udacity Alumni VIP event

6:15pm

I return to the courtyard, and fall almost immediately into conversation with a Digital Marketing Nanodegree program alum from Michigan; she’s here for Intersect of course, but specifically, she’s got an interview with Facebook tomorrow! Please join me in wishing her luck!

After that, I spend some time chatting with a graduate of our Full Stack Nanodegree program who’s now working through our iOS Developer Nanodegree program. He’s got some great insights to offer about Udacity, thanks to having been both a mentor, and a part of Udacity Connect. By the end of our talk, I’m actively taking notes on ideas to bring back to our teams.

After a few more conversations, I take advantage of a solitary moment to retire to a bench to do some typing. I’m fortunate to hold the position I do with Udacity; it enables me to take a seat at the periphery, and quietly watch everything unfold. Tonight, it’s such a pleasure to witness this living, breathing enactment of Udacity’s promise coming true before my eyes. It’s one thing to SAY “community”; it’s another thing to LIVE it. Our alumni community is living it!

7:00 pm

In the workshop with Frederik, we engaged in a short experiment that allowed us to briefly and directly experience the creation of a culture of openness, and a culture of optimism.

How wonderful then, to spend this time in this beautiful courtyard, experiencing more of the same!

As I walk through the dusk towards my car, feeling slightly cold now in the rising breeze, the conversations continue behind me. On the air, I hear the sound of community. Of lifelong learning. Of happiness.

I Like To Find Answers - Udacity Alumni VIP Event

Intersect 2018 is Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 8am—9pm. You’re invited to watch the livestream here!