By  Jennifer McManamay
John Koch speaks to students about career advice
John B. Koch told students to trust their training. “I’ve always said the foundation of any success I’ve had professionally is my UVA Engineering education.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

With a wry warning that he was about to get a little fatherly, UVA systems and information engineering Double Hoo John B. Koch (B.S. 1985, M.S., 1986) launched his talk, “Practical Advice for UVA Engineers Entering the Workforce,” a set of dos and don’ts for job- and internship-bound students. 

Among his first bits of wisdom? If anyone was wondering if they’re prepared to be successful, relax.

“The answer for University of Virginia engineers is an overwhelming ‘yes,’” said Koch, the inaugural speaker in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s new series called View From the Top.

Koch retired from PODS Enterprises, a leading moving and storage company, as president and CEO in 2021, and now works in private equity. The previous 35 years he spent steadily advancing — though not in a straight line — from junior engineer to marketing and management executive. Over his career, he worked in consulting, electronic security with ADT and telecommunications with Alltel. 

Koch was introduced by his longtime friend and former classmate, UVA systems and information engineering professor of practice Doug Garland (M.E. 1987). 

Garland, whose own storied career includes senior roles with Google, Yahoo! and Twilio, organized View From the Top, modeling the series after a program he valued as an MBA student at Stanford.

“We brought in prominent executives who can share lessons learned in leadership, careers and personal values, and I can’t think of anyone better to kick off the series than John,” Garland said.

Koch must have done well to be positioned to help establish the John B. and Anne M. Koch Jefferson Scholars Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Systems and Information Engineering, Garland said.

“We were talking at my kitchen table and I said the department could really use some endowed professorships,” Garland recalled. “John said, ‘Tell me more. And how much are you thinking?’”

Graph showing Koch's career path
Koch advised students to “keep a wide aperture,” using his nonlinear career trajectory to demonstrate how sideways moves can also lead to success. 

Words to Succeed By

Koch’s advice to students was simple but powerful — things like treat support staff with respect because they’ll be there for you, know your company’s core values and how your performance will be evaluated against them, and be willing move laterally or jump into new roles.

“You may find an unrecognized work passion,” he said. “When I moved [from engineering] into marketing, I found I liked it and was good at it. It allowed me to get even bigger general management jobs, and that’s what I really enjoyed.”

Koch stressed that there’s no getting around hard work and extra effort to get ahead, and the importance of being involved on the job and in the community should not be underestimated. He once represented engineering on a human resources task force, which entailed performing skits for the entire company.

“I had a great time, and most importantly the person who asked me to do that is sitting right there,” he said, gesturing to Anne Koch, his wife of 30 years.

It was also on a company golf outing that a senior executive took an interest in him. “He had as much to do with the acceleration of my career as anybody else,” said Koch, whose community ties include past service on local non-profit boards in Tampa, Florida, where he is currently a member of the Berkeley Preparatory School board.

‘No Risk It, No Biscuit’

Asked about his appetite for risk, like making the leap from engineering to his first general management position in1994, Koch acknowledged the potential for failure as well as reward. But he was always confident in his engineering training — which applies whole-systems thinking to complex problems — and abilities.

“So, yes, take the risk. ‘No risk it, no biscuit,’” he said, quoting Bruce Arians, former coach of the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Predictably, it was James H. Lambert, the Janet Scott Hamilton and John Downman Hamilton Professor and director of the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems, who questioned Koch about taking chances.

Lambert appreciates what Koch, a UVA Engineering Foundation trustee and former member of the systems engineering department’s advisory board for 12 years, means to his students’ education, and the example Koch sets.

“We want every engineering student to be a life member of the University and come back just like John Koch,” Lambert said with a widening smile. “Every six months. Every year. With their families.”

For first-year Humzah Syed, though, the underlying theme of Koch’s advice had the most to do with character and professionalism.

“How he rose up the ranks was not as much about the hard things you do or what you know, it’s more about the way you act,” said Syed, a just-declared computer science major. “The more effort you put in, the more you get out.” 

Three people talking
UVA Engineering executive director of development Warren Buford chats with John Koch and his wife, Anne, whom John met on the job. Some 30 years later, the couple helped create an endowed professorship in systems and information engineering for an international leader specializing in the foremost research areas of modern systems engineering. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

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