Twitter exec tells UMass Amherst grads to ‘hack the system’

A group of University of Massachusetts graduates wave as they walk to their seats at the start of commencement Friday, May 6, 2016, at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst, Mass. (Jerrey Roberts/The Daily Hampshire Gazette via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Jerrey Roberts/The Daily Hampshire Gazette/AP
A group of UMass Amherst graduates wave as they walk to their seats at the start of commencement May 6, 2016.

AMHERST — It’s not often that a commencement speaker admits to criminal activity and to dropping out of college, then encourages the graduates to “make your own rules, hack the system, and change the world.”

But graduation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday was anything but typical. It poured the entire time. Family members huddled under a sea of colorful umbrellas in McGuirk Alumni Stadium, while graduates sat in sopping folding chairs.

So steady was the rain that many of the estimated 5,500 graduates had fled the stadium before tassels were moved from one side of mortarboard to the other.


Keynote speaker Wayne Chang, a Twitter executive, picked up an honorary doctorate in business even though he never earned his bachelor’s degree.

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Chang, 32, dropped out of UMass Amherst a decade ago, after an unorthodox stint during which his insatiable curiosity nearly got him arrested. He told a story about hacking into the UMass computer system to get encrypted passwords, and then being brought in for questioning by the director of information security and a police officer.

“We know what you did,” they told him, he recounted during his speech. And then they told him they wouldn’t press charges if he told them how he hacked into the system.

Chang, now director of computer strategy at Twitter, urged UMass graduates to not be influenced by the judgments of others, noting he created software that he said is now in more than 10 million apps.

“How did a college dropout with no formal training or credentials do this? I didn’t let others define me,” he said.


Chang went to work at Twitter after it acquired Crashlytics, one of several companies he founded, for $100 million in 2013.

His path to that kind of success was not easy, he said. When he dropped out of college — to the consternation of his family — to start a risky tech startup, he felt like the black sheep of the family.

“People said it was crazy, it couldn’t be done, it wouldn’t work,” he told graduates. “Don’t let others box you in with their rules.”

He warned them that life after college would bring with it challenges they could never imagine now.

“You will be blindsided. You will be broken,” he said. But he urged them to remain true to themselves and the people who love them.


“You will find more satisfaction in giving and helping others,” he said.

Among those listening to Chang was Amy D’Entremont, of Tewksbury, who lined up a job in her field five months before she graduated with a computer science degree. She was wearing a mortarboard emblazoned in the computer language she learned at UMass: “System.out.print.Ln. Hello World.”

“I really liked it here,’’ she said before the ceremony. “There’s going to be a lot of people I’m not going to see as much, but I’m really excited because I really like the job I got.”

She starts her new job at the tech company Hubspot, a Cambridge software company, at the end of May.

D’Entremont comes from a family of proud UMass alums — both parents and an older brother are graduates.

“She has a job, so that’s cool,” said her mother, Lee Ann D’Entremont. “We’re thrilled for her. She worked really hard, 110 percent at UMass.”

Meanwhile, the student speaker at the graduation, Elkhansaa Elguenaoui, of Medford, entertained students with reflections on what they learned outside of class as well as inside.

“If my days here at UMass have showed me one thing, it’s this: It’s not who you are labeled as, me being a first generation Arab-American Muslim woman of color, but more about what I do with that,” she said. “It’s not what I look like, but who I am. And I couldn’t have learned without you all.”

Laurie Loisel can be reached at