MIT graduates embrace Sheryl Sandberg's plea for a better workplace

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gives MIT graduates advice on how to improve the workplace. (Screenshot MIT via Yahoo Finance)

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The message of Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg’s speech at this year’s MIT graduation carried an exhortation to pay attention to the human aspects of both the workplace and technology.

The advice also took the form of a cautionary tale. Sandberg’s remarks come as the company has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the platform from being hijacked by political operatives and fake news.

“It’s not enough to be technologists. We have to make sure that technology serves people,” she said, in a speech titled “Technology needs a human heartbeat.”

She added: “It’s not enough to have a good idea — we have to know when to stop a bad one.”

Many graduates in the crowd, poised to join the workforce at some of the world’s most elite companies, told Yahoo Finance that they took these words to heart.

“It’s true what she says that as engineers we’re always thinking about the things we’re going to create and not the potential for other things,” said Xavier Soriano Díaz, a computer science graduate from Ecuador headed to work at Oracle (ORCL) next year. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that for the past year.”

Other graduates echoed Díaz’s sentiments. Yangyang Yang, an integrated design management graduate from Beijing, told Yahoo Finance that similar themes to Sandberg’s speech piloted her own studies, which help unify the design and management aspects of science and technology. Yang plans to do research and graduate studies.

Yang called Sandberg’s speech “encouraging” and said that as a designer coming to engineering, she appreciated the “design for humanity” approach that does not forget the humans.

“People from engineering backgrounds, design backgrounds, engineering backgrounds, and business backgrounds, they do not know each other,” she said. “We are trying to be the link. We try to learn each other’s language and communicate with each other.”

Humanity in the workplace

Another element that MIT students embraced was the idea that the workplace can and should change, and that the change can start immediately.

“I want you to know that you can impact the workplace from the day you enter it,” Sandberg said. She said that a survey recently found that many men may be pulled aside by others to say they should not be alone with women.

“You know they’re wrong,” she said. “You know how to work with people in all settings and behave respectfully. So give them advice instead. Tell them that they have an obligation to make access equal.”

Hugh, a mechanical engineer from Michigan headed to Boeing to work on satellite design, appreciated Sandberg’s advice to begin one’s career with positive action towards equality and diversity.

“Individuals sticking up for other individuals to make sure everyone’s treated fairly — that’s very applicable the second you get into your career,” he said. “That was cool to hear.”

Sandberg’s hope that this new generation produces a paradigm shift that assertively rejects classic workplace problems carried another strong ask, to avoid a situation she was once in.

“In one of my early jobs, I had a boss who treated me quite differently from the two men on my team — and not in a good way,” she said. “He spoke to them with kindness and respect but belittled me publicly.”

Sandberg said the two male co-workers, who were right out of school, stepped up to say something, and the behavior stopped.

“Even if you’re the most junior person in the room, you have power,” she said. “Use it, and use it well.”

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