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Ushering in a new technology era

Kelly Chambliss with IBM
Virginia Tech gave her a "fantastic foundation for a great career," says Kelly Chambliss. Courtesy of Kelly Chambliss/IBM

When Business Insider asked IBM two years ago to name some of its rising stars, the company came up with 17 key employees who represent its future. One of them was Kelly Chambliss (MSCI ’92). Chambliss, a managing partner within the tech giant’s global business services unit, came to IBM when it acquired PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) consulting business, shortly after Chambliss had been promoted to partner there.

“I’m not sure I ever envisioned working at a company with the number of employees IBM has, but it’s been a perfect place,” Chambliss says. “Working for a large company like IBM, there are so many opportunities to take on new responsibilities, learn new skills, and take on new challenges.”

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“My family is a huge part of how and why I do what I do,” says Kelly Chambliss, of her husband David Kunkle and their children Alexa and Keegan.

Today’s graduates might not consider a company with a rich history like IBM to be an exciting place to work, Chambliss says, but they’d be wrong. “They might think there’s more opportunity at a small startup or a younger tech company. But the experience you can get in a short amount of time at a company that has consistently reinvented itself should not be overlooked.”

The pace of technological and business change today is so rapid that every company, even institutions like IBM, must constantly work on reinventing themselves, Chambliss says. “We’re seeing an unprecedented convergence of technology and new business models that’s driving an exponential pace of change — and it’s hard to imagine that ever changing now.”

Finding her way into business

Chambliss grew up in Eureka, a small farm town in Central Illinois, and envisioned herself playing volleyball for one of the big Midwest schools — until she took a trip to Virginia Tech. “When I visited Tech, I just felt instantly at home,” she says. “There was no question in my mind that I was going there.”

When she started at Virginia Tech on a full volleyball scholarship, she was majoring in biochemistry. “I gradually found my way to business, though,” she says. “At the time, I was starting to get really passionate about technology. Pamplin had a program they called management science then. It’s now called business information technology. It was at this fascinating intersection of technology, business, and data science. I was in my element at Pamplin.”

After graduation, she wanted to go into consulting and accepted a job at what was then Price Waterhouse — mostly, she says, because she could work in Atlanta. “At that age, you make decisions on some of the smallest things,” she says. “I wanted to live in Atlanta because the Olympics were coming.”

“The experience you can get in a short amount of time at a really large company that has consistently reinvented itself should not be overlooked.”

Her career at Price Waterhouse and PwC followed a traditional path, Chambliss says. She spent her first couple of years focused on hands-on technical aspects, working as a software developer and application architect. Seven years in, she had the opportunity to move to Australia to work on business in the Asia-Pacific region — moving to Sydney just before the next Olympics. Not long after, she was promoted to partner.

Reconnecting with Pamplin

In recent years, Chambliss, who was named to the Pamplin Advisory Council last year, has started to reconnect with the college. “I try to carve out a percentage of my time to help others,” she says. “There are so many people who made the time to help me, coach me, and give me advice. Virginia Tech played a huge role. I was given a fantastic foundation for a great career.”

Re-familiarizing herself with Pamplin, Chambliss says, has reminded her of how forward-looking the college was when she was a student. “One of the courses I took was artificial intelligence,” she says. “It was one of my favorite courses and we even did some coding in LISP, one of the first languages used in programming artificial intelligence. I don’t think many people took AI courses 20 years ago as part of a business degree. And, now I work for IBM where we are applying AI to usher in a new era of technology we call cognitive computing.”

That forward-looking attitude hasn’t changed as far as Chambliss can see. “The courses and the type of professors who’ve been brought in recently are so closely aligned with the market,” she says. “The college is really in touch with what’s coming next and what’s going to have the greatest impact on business, people, and society. The focus is on developing the kinds of skills that graduates need to go on and do great things.”

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Chambliss with Dean Sumichrast.

One significant change she’s seen since her graduation is the emphasis on helping students develop an entrepreneurial mindset. “That’s a relatively sizeable shift, and an important one,” Chambliss says. “It’s such an important attitude, even if people are going to work for a large company.”

And as for teamwork, Chambliss says it wasn’t just on the volleyball court that she learned about its value. “A lot of what I did in Pamplin and the way the courses were structured was all about working with others to achieve common goals. That will always be important to success in business.”

—Dan Radmacher