Texas Engineering alum Michael Linford delivers 2024 commencement speech

Commencement represents a day of success, for everyone involved. 

For students in the Cockrell School of Engineering, it's the culmination of years of hard work to earn a degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. And for everyone else – the family, friends, faculty and staff who helped them along the way – it's the joy of seeing their students succeed and prepare for their next adventure.

However, the path to success is littered with failures big and small; ask anyone who got a bad grade on a paper or project. And that up-and-down experience will continue throughout our graduates' lives, providing constant growth opportunities. This was a critical theme in the keynote speech at the Cockrell School's undergraduate commencement ceremony, delivered by Michael Linford, CFO of leading payments company Affirm and an Outstanding Young Engineering Graduate of the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering. It's not about avoiding failure; it’s about learning from it.

"Each individual success and failure present an opportunity for growth. Celebrate both for what they will do for you," Linford said. "Remember you are never as bad as you feel in your moments of failure, and you're never as good as you feel in your moments of success. The right reaction from both is that you are growing."  

Linford noted he tends to focus more on his failures than successes. He advised graduates to give themselves grace but to remain aggressive in achieving their goals. 

"Be patient with your own failures but impatient with the desire to do great things," Linford said. 

He encouraged new graduates to take risks and not limit themselves. Though an engineering background may not be the conventional path to becoming a CFO, taking leaps of faith in his career led Linford to his greatest successes.  

Linford has been the CFO at Affirm for six years. Just like systems studied in engineering disciplines, Linford views finance and business as a system of equations that can be cracked to bring people better products, which is exactly what Affirm aims to do by providing access to credit without any late fees or hidden charges. He joined the company because he was attracted to its mission and was restless with his own impact on the world. 

He led efforts to take his company public at the height of the pandemic, when many UT undergraduates were starting their college careers online in their own homes. It was a bold endeavor that faced obstacles along the way. The team was ultimately successful because they stayed committed to their larger goal and learned from every setback, which helped them emerge as an even stronger company.

"Strikes and gutters, ups and downs, as the Dude says. It's only truly a failure if you are unable to learn and be better for it," Linford said.

Linford's speech also covered the importance of an engineering degree given the global challenges impacting the world; engineers' critical role in society; and the importance of community and paying it forward for future generations. 

Cockrell School alum Michael Linford and Dean Roger Bonnecaze at commencement

On the importance of a Texas Engineering degree: “When we say, ‘What starts here changes the world,it's not just a great line for a Walter Cronkite ad to rile up the Longhorn faithful at the end of the 3rd quarter at football games. It's both the promise the University gives its students and the mandate that y’all have now. 

You're coming to the end of the ‘Starts here’ part. Now it's time for you to go change the world. Please do not dismiss this as idealistic. This world needs each of you to be audacious in your dreams and fearless in pursuit of solutions.” 

Engineers are at the forefront, regardless of the problem: “Engineers are the best problem solvers in the world, finding solutions where others just see limitations and constraints. And Texas Engineers are the best of the best.  

I won't sugarcoat it. I believe the challenges the world faces today are as severe as they have ever been. We have a crisis brewing in many areas ranging from energy, climate, water, infrastructure, semiconductors, transportation, artificial intelligence and the list goes on. And our global and national economic growth and prosperity are at risk. 

But I'm a true optimist. I do not fear these challenges, as I know we will solve them all. And the world will be better for it.”

The role of community and giving back in success: “No one achieves success alone, and the support of your team, family and community is so incredibly important. To achieve our goals, we need the help, direction, and encouragement of others …” 

“There are many ways to give back. Whether it’s donating your time through mentoring or volunteering, or contributing to an endowed scholarship program like the one my wife and I support, that has supported more than 350 students since it began in 2022. Remember the power of this community, what it has done for you and what it can do for others. 

And do this both because it's moral, but also because it's a great investment. You want the next generation of engineers to solve the next wave of problems coming our way.”