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Graduation Address to the class of 2023 by Christopher Reid

June 23, 2023

Dr. Christopher Reid delivered the 2023 Graduation Address for the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. Find the full text of the address is below, and the recording on YouTube.

Dr. Christopher Reid

Good Morning Huskies! Thank you Chair Kientz, staff, and students of the Human Centered Design & Engineering Department of the University of Washington for this great opportunity to address you today. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be here. To the students graduating today, you have made it! 

To your family and friends that are around you witnessing this tremendous achievement, Thank You! Thank you for your tremendous support and passion seeing your graduates through the difficulties and opportunities while pursuing their dreams.

What a pleasure it is for me to be back here in the Puget Sound of Washington State with my wife Dimari and our oldest daughter Ariana. I have very fond memories from my ergonomics internship days here with the Boeing Company. From the times I spent touring the city, with its restaurants, like my favorite Ivar’s, to museums, like the Museum of Flight and also where I remember seeing a Star Trek exhibit years back at the Museum of Pop Culture. I’ve also always been impressed with the beautiful natural landscapes, like Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and the whale watching in the Sound. Yes, Seattle sure is an attractive place to visit and live, so I can see why you all decided to attend this university in particular. And I hope that like me, you have built up a grand collection of fond memories here that you can look back on with pride.

Now just like those in city planning or landscaping, like my Dad’s career, the goal is to tune aspects of the people who live and commune there with nature and the buildings needed in that living space. So if you can understand this landscaping concept, then you can relate to the concept of human centered design. You see, the definition of human centered design is simply designing systems for people. In more words, let’s say, designing useful, usable, and desirable systems for people. The science of human factors and ergonomics teaches us to design systems around the capacities of both the mental and physical characteristics of the populations of people those systems were designed for. Examples of these populations could be specialized to astronauts and the spacesuits they utilize for work, doctors and their medical tools, students and their learning classrooms, or even consumer products like children’s toys.

The fields of human factors and ergonomics or HFE are vast, and that was how it was intended to be…agnostic. Agnostic enough to adapt from where the science started during World War 2 for military equipment, to today, where we’re adjusting for the future of work with emerging technologies like robotics, exoskeletons, extended reality, or artificial intelligence. And beyond this there are more than likely undiscovered fields that will continue to demand our skills that haven’t even been dreamt yet. 

The Dream

Now let’s talk about today. Like many momentous occasions, graduation ceremonies can be considered as turning points… your turning points to be more specific. Every so often life hands you opportunities to test you, whether it be raw resources to create a new capabilities, education to help generate new knowledge, or access to relationships that can help you change the world. Life can also hand you both sweet successes and humbling failures that you can not only learn from, but can help shape you at the core of who you are. So stay with me while I tell you a short story of some of what I’ve seen so far.

Without journeying back too far into my childhood, I can tell you that role models matter. Whether they’re your family, friends, or strangers you’ve never even met, seeing people that you can relate to succeed through difficult circumstances, can be a motivator. For me, that inspiration came through binging large doses of science fiction. Little did I know that inspiring figures in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM), like Commander Geordie La Forge, a Chief Engineer from the USS Enterprise from Star Trek, would stir me to want to be an astronaut. It’s through those astronaut aspirations that I instead became an engineer and later, a Technical Fellow.

However, as the saying goes, the best diamonds are made under great pressure, and for many, it takes grand challenges and difficulties to change the way we perceive our circumstances. One of my initial introductions to a life shaping event, was failing out of university during my undergraduate years. Trying the brute force method of doing the same thing over and over again to improve my grades didn’t work out. But, being on academic dismissal, as it’s officially called, gave me the needed time for intense introspection. In this case, an opportunity for insights during a final talk from my grandmother on her death bed. Never again, would I be caught unprepared for something that I was aspiring to. This humbling experience taught me to do my homework and be more strategic in my academic career, while building relationships with professors and students to help me beyond what I could do on my own.

That pressure to succeed and win… it can be overwhelming. It can make or break you. And the pressure of an immigrant family investing in their children is no less, as even though they never said it, I felt that I owed my parents and family, who immigrated to the US from Jamaica… their success story. So in this case, the pressure both broke me and made me. It showed me what to do and what not to do. Support from family, friends, students, and professors helped me through though. So relationships do matter.

Obviously, that’s not where this story ended…otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here today. Still, it was a fundamental turning point. So you think that drama alone was enough of a career curve ball, huh? Well to be honest, I don’t think God or fate was done shaping me yet. Years later, after finishing my undergraduate degree, I experienced my first layoff from my first employer due to cost cutting.
Then years after that, post finishing a PhD in human factors and ergonomics… the world economy itself decided that it wasn’t the right time then either. Anyone remember The Great Recession from around 2008/2009? It was a period that saw millions of workers laid off just in the United States alone. It meant that even freshly minted doctors like me had a hard time finding work. However, I got lucky and was able to land a dream human factors job at Lockheed Martin supporting astronauts at NASA Johnson Space Center. Finally a win, right!?!!?

Nope. Two weeks after landing that job, I received the call that due to budget tightening, they had to rescind that job. Come on man!!! Seriously? All this work since academic dismissal, to getting Masters and Doctorate degrees, and now this?!?

So there you go. Three massive life plot twists from failing out of school, to getting laid off, to having a job offer go from accepted to withdrawn. While these weren’t the last time life threw me lemons, they were critical periods that shaped the core of who I am today and who others depend on. They taught me to control what I could control, so that I could be as resilient and adaptive as possible. From running late nights, countless weekends, to creating new collaborations, capabilities, or technology solutions, to volunteering my time in technical societies, or just learning to meditate to enhance my performance…failure helped both hone me and my future successes. I had learned to fail forward and I had learned to shape wins from loss. In human factors, we call these efficiency upgrades, continuous improvements. In engineering, we call these prototype tests or purposefully failing in order to find the boundaries of an effective product design. 

The Career Outlook

So with that background, let’s talk about your prospects for today in 2023. With economies similar in some ways to 2009, we’re recovering from the COVID pandemic, working through inflation and fighting to stay away from recession once again. We’re watching some companies find their new balance with employee layoffs, while at the same time, seeing others increase hiring. So what’s that mean for you graduating today?

Well, shows that human factors and ergonomics careers in the US have seen over a 4% positive growth since 2004 with over 35,000 new jobs expected by 2029. We’re seeing average salaries range between $60K to over $130K, depending on experience levels and the opportunities themselves. Your future job titles might be usability or user experience practitioner, ergonomist, human factors engineer, or even a safety scientist. You might find your next steps in the public sector, working in local, state, or federal government, like NASA, the Department of Defense, the Federal Drug Administration, or others. Opportunities also lie in the private sector, working in companies like mine that produce services, goods, or products to help make the world go round. Additionally, you could also pursue a career in academia, shaping the next set of minds behind you to fill those previously said jobs. From the tech industry, to manufacturing, health care, transportation, or even the energy sector, the opportunities in front of you to not only shape your career but have your career shape the nation and globe, are tremendous. 


So to wrap up, while as a kid, I dreamt of one day becoming an astronaut/engineer, I had no clue what my path before me would be. I thought I’d be done with a bachelor’s degree and here I am today… a doctor and a Technical Fellow in a major company. Who knew?

So to that point, if you ever find yourself between a rock and a hard place, questioning the air with frustrated why me’s and why now’s…here’s four pieces of advice.

First, find something that inspires you to continue to aspire. For me, it was sitting under some of the products that helped change the world, such as a Saturn V rocket or a 747 jumbo jet… wondering… how could I add to that future.

Second, find people that support your passion and resilience. This could be family, friends, mentors, advisors, coaches, or even other students or co-workers.

Third, don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, learn to fail forward. Through failing often or failing successfully, you’ll learn to leverage the continuous improvements that life and experience tends to drop on you.

And last, give back. Volunteer your time to others or to a positive cause, such as a technical society, for example. Give back and give forward to those around you. Mentor, give talks, and coach. Help bring reality to theory by providing others those critical insights that you’ve learned along the way. Enabling and motivating others has a way of returning the favor back to you.

So to you, the class of 2023, I can’t wait to see what your dreams will accomplish. I can only hope that I get the honor to work with you one day myself. May your drive through your career’s journey be filled with integrity, ethics, impact, and inspiration. And every so often, don’t forget to take a moment to breathe or smell the roses as my Mom likes to say, to celebrate your achievements… like the one you’re having today.

So, congratulations to each of you and Go Huskies!!!