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SimIS Inc. Founder Grateful for his Chance Introduction to Field of Modeling and Simulation

Johnny Garcia says it was pure chance - a "mistake" - that brought him into the modeling and simulation field and into Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC).

After 17 years, the affable Texan is happy to say it's the best mistake he's ever made.

"It's been sometimes magical making this happen," says Garcia, who in 2007 founded SimIS Inc., a Veteran Owned Small Business (VSOB), 8(a) information technology services corporation headquartered in Portsmouth, and just 10 minutes away from his alma mater.

The Navy brought Garcia to Hampton Roads. Selected to the prestigious Seaman-to-Admiral program in 1994, around the time the Navy was downsizing, Garcia heard that Joint Warfare Simulation and Training (part of what would become Joint Forces Command) was hiring.

After an interview, he was offered a job as a computer operator by the company now known as General Dynamics, operating Navy simulations, and he was discharged from active duty. "I had never been exposed to simulations. That started my simulation career," Garcia says.

Showing real aptitude for his new vocation, Garcia was promoted from computer operator to computer engineer, developing the models himself. In those five years, Garcia became passionate about the science behind modeling and simulation.

In 2003, that interest and his job brought Garcia in contact with Andreas Tolk, professor of engineering management and systems engineering at ODU's Batten College of Engineering and Technology. While he continued to work professionally, Garcia began his doctorate through ODU's VMASC while also working closely with VMASC Executive Director John Sokolowski.

The fit was perfect between Garcia, a roll up-your-sleeves problem-solver his whole career, and Old Dominion University.

"ODU is different," he says. "A Ph.D. in modeling and simulation, any Ph.D., is about theory. What ODU did is take me out of that theoretical thinking and put it in context. How was it going to be used outside of academia?

"It's great to show that what you're doing is valid or not valid, but show me an example. Build me something that's going to leverage that."

In fact, Garcia's doctoral dissertation involved taking military planning architectures, or blueprints, and executing them inside a simulation, to see if they worked.

Now, Garcia presents his work at conferences around the world. "One of my opening lines is (a quote from George Box) that 'all models are wrong, some are useful.' This is true. You can't expect a model or a simulator to give you an answer. It helps you make a decision; however, it doesn't actually give you an answer. It helps you make better decisions with quantitative and qualitative data."

That expertise also helped Garcia take the big step and launch SimIS in 2007. The company has grown to more than 40 employees, but Garcia says General Dynamics is still his largest client, thanks in part to the relationship he has with the company stretching back 17 years.

The Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce named SimIS as its 2012 Portsmouth Small Business of the Year. Garcia could take this business anywhere, but he says he wants to stay right here. The military subcontract M&S work has been reduced, but he says there are tremendous opportunities to work collaboratively in modeling and simulation in the manufacturing and health care fields.

"Health care simulation is the future of M&S in Hampton Roads. We're going to be able to create far more jobs than we did in defense," he says.

The key to that is education. The region needs to train M&S professionals to fill those highly skilled jobs. Garcia says SimIS makes a point of hiring computer science and modeling and simulation engineering students, to give them hands-on experience while they get their degree, like he received back in the 1990s.

"When they graduate with their bachelor's degree, I want them to have experience. And it all has to do with the classes that our schools are providing," Garcia says.

"There is a shortage of M&S experts. After the reduction of work done by Joint Forces Command, a lot of those folks left. We have to work with the academic institutions and give students the training they need. They're not going to learn it from the book. Technology is rapidly advancing, and our professors are the key."