Wolfram Alpha employee speaks at Research Park CU Women in Tech luncheon

From joining the ranks of the United States Air Force to selling spinal implants to working alongside Siri, Angela Sims has led a successful career. She is now a senior business development associate at Wolfram Alpha. She spoke at the Research Park’s annual CU Women in Tech luncheon Monday.

Laura Bleill, assistant director of external relations at Research Park, said she invited Sims to show the importance of the people who work behind the scenes to promote and develop business for technology companies.

“We thought that it’s important to represent all aspects of women who represent technology fields,” Bleill said.

A “military brat” born to her army father in Landstuhl, Germany, Sims spent most of her early life moving around the world. She attended a total of 14 different schools before graduating from high school.

After her parents divorced when she was 13, Sims settled in Ohio. There, she said, she graduated from Ohio University in Athens — adding an energetic little “Go Bobcats” cheer — with her bachelor’s degree in political science.

At the same time, Sims graduated from ROTC to avoid spending another four to eight years to become a professional student. She was commissioned as second lieutenant when she graduated and spent the next four years as a communications officer at the Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

Sims, as one of four female officers in a group of 40 officers, was deployed once to Guyana, South America, for three months on a humanitarian mission. Her task there was to enable voice and satellite communications back to the U.S.

She left the military after four years — she said her path was too prescribed.

“As long as you’re breathing and not arrested, you’ll be promoted after a set amount of years but never any sooner,” she said.

Sims wanted more control over her personal development and career path.

After leaving the air force, Sims spent nine months in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., selling spinal implants for Johnson & Johnson. When she met her husband, Chris, in central Illinois, she took a job at McGraw-Hill selling college textbooks for four years. She’s been married to Chris for almost 13 years now, and they have five kids together.

With a growing family, Sims said “being on the road wasn’t really fun,” so in June 2004, she decided to settle down and join ranks with Wolfram Research, based in Champaign.

Sims currently works as a senior business development associate for Wolfram Alpha, an online computational knowledge engine. Wolfram Alpha is the knowledge behind Apple’s Siri and Samsung Galaxy Note’s handwriting and voice applications.

Sims’ job is to work with individual developers and outside companies to find a way to bring in Wolfram Alpha’s knowledge and integrate it with their applications or existing services.

“I love what I do because Wolfram Alpha and Mathematica and Wolfram Research are so diverse,” she said. “It’s not like I just talk to one kind of people. I kind of have to morph with every person I speak with.”

Maryka Baraka, publishing programs manager at Wolfram, described her co-worker Sims as a great voice of experience when helping to train new members, thanks to her seniority at the company.

“What I know of her background and other personal experiences and commitments, I’m continuously amazed by how she does it all.”

Whether they are developers, chemists, statisticians or scientists, Sims must absorb what they say, figure out what they are interested in and build upon that.

“You become a mini expert in a lot of different areas,” Sims said.

Sims contributes her ability to morph with customers to her frequent traveling with her military father.

“The pick-up-and-go routine served me very well in being able to morph into what I need to be for whoever I’m speaking with at my current job,” Sims said. “I’m not afraid of meeting new people or doing new things. Change doesn’t really bother me too much.”

Baraka said she also traveled an atypical career path similar to Sims’.

“It’s always great in these kinds of settings and environments for people to see that there’s no right or wrong way to advance in your career or to reach whatever goal you have in mind,” she said.

The best part about working at Wolfram, what makes it exciting, Sims said, is seeing customers take something, innovate it and do something completely unexpected.

“Anybody can copy something that’s been done,” she said. “But for somebody to take it and see a way you never imagined it, that’s a step where you’re like, ‘How did you do this?’ That’s the step that’s a blast.”

Sims, who describes herself as being not technical at all, sometimes wonders how a political science major became involved in a technical position in Wolfram Research. She credits her strength in the ability to think on her feet, figure out what the problem is, address it, learn it and become a “mini expert” while working with customers to get the best results.

She said her time in the Air Force contributed more to her personal development, her presentation skills and confidence. But since then, a lot of her advancement has been based on sales and her ability to push herself to excellence, still following that Air Force tenet: “Excellence in all we do.”

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]