In 1999, Michael Beckley took a big step in his career and ventured out on his own. Teaming up with three friends — all devoted to building an institution dedicated to innovation — he co-founded Appian Corporation.

Their mission never faltered, and today Appian is a leader in low-code automation that has transformed the businesses of millions of users worldwide. Currently, Beckley leads Appian’s technology vision and oversees customer initiatives worldwide in his role as chief technology officer and chief customer officer. 

During the Wells Fargo Distinguished Speakers Series “fireside chat” with Pamplin College of Business Dean Robert Sumichrast, Beckley shared that he had no initial aspiration to co-found a multibillion dollar company or even work at one. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College during the early 1990s, he saw his career path heading straight to the family’s Midwest law firm.  

But, just as he was about to take the law boards, his road took a turn. Having been offered a job at a 100-person startup, Beckley called his parents to break the news: he would not be going to law school after all.  

“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, I had come to the realization that you have only one chance to be young, to figure out what you really would like to do. I wanted to accept the challenge of joining a startup and take that chance. What followed was three years of intensive learning at a place that was growing rapidly and where the number of employees jumped from a small group to 1,200.”

That work experience gave him the confidence to start his own business. “More than 20 years later, Appian continues to succeed because of our commitment to innovation.”

Beckley emphasized how Appian is always seeking new ideas and finding the best and brightest talent is critical to their growth. “When we recruit on campuses like Virginia Tech, we look for students who can think, learn, analyze, and find opportunities to change things for the better,” he said.

When students ask him for advice, they are sometimes surprised when he tells them to read. Beckley reads six or seven books at a time, covering many genres. “Reading has been a lifelong habit. Today, reading helps me connect with people and clients from all over the world, stay on top of changing trends, and engage in the community.”

Beckley said he applauds Virginia Tech’s commitment to investing in students, citing the proposed Global Business and Analytics Complex that promotes collaboration and teamwork and supports enhanced advising and career services. “And by expanding its curriculum to areas of high demand, like analytics and security, Pamplin is connecting and better preparing students to enter the real world.”

Since founding Appian, he has always had a Virginia Tech graduate working directly for him. “In general, Virginia Tech students are curious about the world, have a great deal of energy and motivation and are out to prove they can succeed, which they do.” 

The Innovation Campus holds special interest for Beckley. Though the four Appian founders were from various parts of the United States, they chose to base their company in Northern Virginia, right from the start. 

“For years, I have had to explain to people why we are not on the West Coast. The Innovation Campus goes a long way toward ending that question and further solidifies that Northern Virginia is a center of innovation.”

Beckley’s success story encompasses a very personal aspect, one that he is never reluctant to talk about. Ten years ago, after a lifelong medical condition for which he was advised about many activities he could not pursue, he had a heart transplant.  

“This is a big part of who I am, and I want to be a role model for kids who are struggling. I want them to know that you do not have to give up what you want to do. With thoughtful care and accommodations, you can do amazing things,” Beckley said.

Written by Barbara Micale