Tuesday , July 27 2021

Manny Vellon, 1960-2020: The towering figure in Seattle technology was an engineer at heart

Manny Vellon on a motorcycle tour of Iceland on his 60th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Barry Crist)

Manny Vellon was a software developer and founder of a startup in Seattle that was known among colleagues and customers for his ability to find simple solutions to complex problems. His technology career spanned four decades, from early Microsoft programming languages ​​to modern Internet of Things devices.

He was the son of Cuban immigrants, a Princeton University graduate in electrical engineering and computer science who, according to his friends' best estimates, was at least 6-foot-7 and possibly taller.

Manny Vellon was CTO of the Seattle-based technology experience design office Level 11.

What struck the most, however, was not his size or code, but the way he dealt with others.

"In the manic ups and downs of the startup world, Manny has always been a calm, stabilizing voice," he said Barry Crist, the CEO of the technology company Chef in Seattle, who was the CEO of the former startup of Similarly Software, an identity, security and storage startup where Vellon was CTO and co-founder.

"He was one of the smartest in a field of smart people," said Crist. “He was a person of incredible personal integrity; Manny never failed to do the right thing. It was a pleasure to be with him no matter what the environment. "

Vellon was "always there to put things in the right direction," but he wouldn't try to dissuade members of his team from their ideas, even in cases where he disagreed, he said Glenn Curtis, Technical Director of the Seattle-based Level 11 design company for technology experience, where Vellon was CTO.

"He wouldn't force it on you or be disappointed that you didn't follow his direction," said Curtis. "But you could always go back to him and say," Can you show me how you would have done it? "And he would like to do that. He had the right balance to lead without pulling."

These are some of the memories that long-time friends and colleagues share that reflect on Vellon's life in interviews and messages after his death on May 27th in an accident at Peoh Point Lookout near Cle Elum, Wash. He was 60 years old.

An engineer at the age of 15

Manuel Vellon was born on January 17, 1960 in New York City to Manuel and Amelia Vellon, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1948. The Vellon family moved to Miami as a small child. There he met his wife Sally, his lifelong love, as a student at Miami High School.

In Miami, he was also introduced to computer programming. At 15, he got his first job and helped develop a patient record system for Jacksonville Hospital. It was a full-time job until he graduated from high school. Vellon was able to harmonize the work with his studies and still act as a class validator.

He later worked in Princeton on Exxon's Management Information Systems team and was promoted as a student to lead a team of engineers, some of whom were almost twice his age. After completing his internship at Hewlett Packard, he was hired to work on his early PCs, including his first PC with a touchscreen display – a technology that Vellon believed in early on.

Rob Shurtleff, who helped recruit Vellon for HP, remembered him in a note to his former colleagues as "the very large Cuban-American wizard developer we hired from college in the HP150 days." Shurtleff, now managing partner at Divergent Ventures, described Vellon as "one of the smartest and nicest people you'll ever meet".

After five years at HP, Vellon joined Microsoft in 1987 and moved from the Bay Area to the Seattle region with Sally. As a development manager, he worked on early versions of technologies, including the Windows 1.0 software development kit and the C ++ programming language. He was instrumental in creating the TIFF image file format developed by Aldus and Microsoft and was a co-founder of the company's Virtual Worlds Group in Redmond.

He was a kindhearted manager in Microsoft's heyday, a leader who opened his colleagues home for vacation dinners and is still remembered for taking one of his teams to a portrait studio to produce his own parody an iconic photo of Bill Gates and Paul Allen with the company's first employees.

Manny Vellon's Microsoft Programming Languages ​​team was photographed in 1988 in the style of a classic corporate photo. Back row (left to right): Jerry Weltner, Manny Vellon, Rick Raddatz, Tom Button. Front row (left to right): Todd Warren, Elizabeth Boonin, Nevet Basker, Lisa Wissner-Slivka. (Photo courtesy of Tom Button).

"My vivid memory of working at Manny was that he promoted a team-building environment," he said Lisa Wissner-Slivka, a philanthropist and community leader who worked for Vellon when she returned to Microsoft after completing her MBA. “Our program management team had lunch together most days. It was an informal opportunity for the group to get to know each other outside of our separate projects and to create a culture in which we could all learn from each other. "

Vellon liked to read management books and used them as carefree inspiration and motivation for his team.

"He literally went around with the book" The One-Minute Manager "and stuck his face into every office once a day, giggling and laughing and just asking how you were doing," he said Tom Button, another member of the team in the photo, who is now CEO of migration software technology company Mobilize.Net. "He made the job easier and more fun, you could interact with him every day."

No venture capitalist

After leaving Microsoft, Vellon and his family moved to Spain for two years and tried a new career as a venture capitalist – before realizing that it wasn't for him.

"Destroying other people's dreams was not his style," said Curtis, who worked with Vellon on the "Equal" and "Level 11" levels, recognizing Vellon's leadership and mentoring as driving his own career growth.

Despite all of his success in coaching others, Vellon's happiest days were spent working directly on software and finding a solution to a complex problem.

You can see the sparkle in his eyes in this video that Curtis shared from Vellon and that shows his progress in a "quick and dirty demo" of an Amazon Alexa skill after a day of development. "I'm quick," he says with a grin.

(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8H2vheAqc0 (/ embed)

At the beginning of his tenure at level 11, Vellon was the lead architect for xConnect in 2011, the IoT platform behind the portable MagicBand devices from Walt Disney World.

The project had been a stumbling block for Disney's internal teams, so there was a lot at stake when Level 11 and his partner Synapse transformed the entire third floor of an office building in downtown Seattle into a prototype and demo area for the MagicBand hardware platform, which Disney's theme park attractions were modeled after.

The main use case required the devices to be read from a distance of more than 600 feet during a simulation of a Disney World guest arriving at an attraction, redeeming a FastPass + and moving through the queue and attraction.

"The Magic of Manny"

"The MagicBand was read or recognized flawlessly on all parts of the trip and was the first time that this was a success. It was a very big deal as Disney internally tried twice to develop this system twice without success," he said Mark Hadland, the Level 11 CEO. "Our project sponsors looked at each other with a mixture of elation and unbelief … when they literally experienced magic."

After our trip through Iceland at the airport "we were completely exhausted, but Manny's sunny mood always prevails," recalls his friend and colleague Barry Crist.

When you were in Disney World, Hadland said, "You've experienced some magic from Manny."

Vellon was an advocate of Level 11's philosophy of "solving the problem," which refers to "making a vertical cut through all of the stack's technology levels and solving what is possible" to understand what is technically feasible before everything is set up Hadland explained.

In January, on his 60th birthday, Vellon traveled with friends on motorbikes through Iceland, which was remarkable in part because he had only ridden a year before.

“He asked me to suggest a trip that was fun, unexpected, and took him out of his comfort zone. I'm pretty sure we did it all, ”said Crist, who stayed close with Vellon after working at Likewise. "And yet Manny was a careful, careful person. He was not a risk taker. It was one of the best adventures ever. "

Manny Vellon is survived by his wife Sally Vellon; his children Danielle and Steven Vellon; and his sister Maria.

About Corrie Donnelly

Corrie Donnelly is a computer engineer originally born in Germany. He was writing articles about technology and computer games for websites.

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