CEMS 2019 Graduation Ceremony Speaker

Anthony F. Voellm, UVM Class of 1993

Principal Development Manager, Azure Cosmos DB, Microsoft  | Biography

On Sunday, May 19 Anthony F. Voellm delivered the commencement address to the CEMS Class of 2019.

Congratulations Class of 2019! I’m honored to be sharing this day with all of you. What I’m about to share comes from the heart and mind. At the end of this address I’m going to leave you with a question that has nagged me and spurred me into action every day since I first heard it.

Before we get to that question however, I’d like to share the four core values that have guided my relationships, career, and success. It’s these values that have led me to the pillars of Stonehenge, the depths of CERNs Large Hadron Collider, the top of Mount Mansfield, and on to this stage.

My first value .. and it’s the most import… is open and honest communication. This seems obvious enough but when you have a tough message to deliver to your peers, manager, or significant other it can be quite daunting.

This value began forming right here at UVM and it was brought home by Dr Wu of the physics department. He once said to me “Tony, I’m so disappointed in you. You are not number one this time.” It was sincere honest feedback and rather than internalize the message “You did not do your best,” I used my math brain and justified it with “I was not number two either.”

However, over time I realized it was a sincere message delivered in private. He truly knew I could have done better and he gave me the gift of honest feedback. For others to hear the feedback you have to deliver it from the heart and it make it “safe.” There is a time and place for all feedback. Never embarrass anyone.

My second value… continue to develop your expertise. Many of you... graduates, parents and significant others think you paid for an expertise in engineering or software development. What you paid for is far more valuable…an expertise in how to learn anything.

What you know right now, is only a tiny fraction of what you will learn in your careers. When I started my career we had three common software languages. Now we have dozens and none of what I started with do I use now. Nor do I use Prolog that Maggie Eppstein put on our final exam. However there is something to learn from all of them. Even now.

Knowledge is like a circle. On the inside of the circle is what you know. What is outside the circle is what you don’t know. The border is what you know you don’t know. Your job is to grow the area of the circle. My circle has grown much bigger over time which is why I’m pretty convinced I don’t know anything because I can see how much I know I don’t know.

My third value is teamwork. Teamwork is when everyone works together toward a common goal in a supportive and constructive way... especially when there are differences.

Teams are organic and can be amazingly powerful. At their best they defy all odds in execution, delivery, and quality. I’ve created great teams and terrible teams. A terrible team is a collection of individuals working on disconnected priorities.

I was on a terrible team with amazing and bright people working all night in Votey. We tried to create an AVL sort function. We divided up parts of the algorithm, coded independently, and then came back together to find nothing worked. We did not agree on how the parts should come together, how to test them, the types of inputs, nothing. It was good enough to get a passing grade but really we failed because we worked as individuals vs. individually.

Be a team player. Look to make others around you better and include them. Look to use your unique skills and perspectives to better the team. When building world class products... its people, product, process in that order that will determines success. If you don't have the right people on your team it does not matter how amazing the idea or innovation is.

My fourth value is a valuable one… accountability. This is a value I did not really internalize until a dozen years ago. It’s not that I was lacking the value but rather it was not something I thought much about.

If you do something amazing… take credit for it. If you are part of a team that does something amazing… share the credit and talk about the amazing work the team did. If you do deliver something that is horrible… take credit for it but talk about how to make it better. If you were part of a team… don’t blame the team. Talk about how to make the team better. Talk about behaviors… not people.

People and companies live this value in different ways but one of the most memorable moments was at Microsoft. A peer of mine was asked to help clean up an issue for a customer but as part of the clean up, he ended up deleting the customer’s account. Rather than hide from the issue he immediately let everyone know what happened, and we all worked together to restore the account. We also spent lots of time thanking him rather than blaming him. If he hadn’t taken accountability, leading to a quick repair, we would have lost the customer trust rather than just mildly upset them.

Microsoft calls this the growth mindset. It’s where you focus on the developmental aspects of issues. We all want to move fast, and moving fast means mistakes happen. What we do with those mistakes is what matters.

Please take my four core values of open and honest communication, deep technical expertise, teamwork, and accountability and make them your own. Never settle for good enough and ask yourself the question that has nagged me every day since I first heard it… When was the last time you did something for the first time? You have two firsts today, graduation and becoming a UVM alum, both come with responsibility. Now find some more.