June 11, 2019

Class of 2019: Sharon Wang didn't follow in her geologist parents' footsteps

Actively work at finding your passions and interests, Computer Science grad advises

Growing up, Sharon Wang thought about becoming a teacher or a lawyer. Entering university, she still wasn’t sure what career path to take. That all changed when, as a Faculty of Science undergraduate student, Wang took an introductory computer science course her first semester.

“I was planning to follow in my parents’ footsteps and study geology, but thought that a programming course might be useful. I ended up loving it!” says Wang. “When I switched to computer science as my major, I still wasn't thinking about my career. I just knew that I wanted to learn more about it. I had found my passion, I guess.”

Immersing herself in hands-on tech experiences

Hooked on computer science, Wang was eager to get hands-on experience. During her second year, she researched available internships and became a junior business technology analyst the summer of 2016. This experience solidified her interest. More intern opportunities followed, in 2017, as a software developer for SMART Technologies and the next summer, working for IBM.

Wang also participated in collaborative projects and competitions as an undergrad. The Calgary Interprofessional Challenge seeks to create an environment for interdisciplinary learning and problem-solving. Wang was part of the winning 2017 team that created an app prototype for tracking the Calgary Transit Access bus.

Networking and hacking at the Vatican

Funding Wang received from the Faculty of Science IDEAS fund made it possible for her to attend three computer science conferences between 2017 and 2019 — Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing, DeveloperWeek, and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

“These conferences allowed me to network with people engaged in tech at various levels and in various industries,” says Wang. “Attending workshops, listening to keynotes and chatting directly with tech professionals gave me valuable insight into different areas I could pursue with a degree in computer science."

A highlight of Wang’s time as an undergrad was being on the winning University of Calgary team at the 2018 VHacks, held that year at the Vatican.

Wang and her teammates wanted to encourage individuals from different religious backgrounds to work together toward various humanitarian and environmental efforts. Their web platform, DUO Collegare, promoted interfaith "doing" by connecting people of every religion and background to timely volunteer opportunities in their community.

“Competing at VHacks was a surreal experience,” says Wang. “Building the prototype for the platform in just 36 hours required a lot of focus and effort. The fact that we were working in a 14th century palace in Rome, just outside the walls of Vatican City, really boosted morale.”

Wang’s team design received the La Croix Prize in addition to being the winner in their Interfaith Dialogue category. “I'm not sure I can describe how we felt in that moment. We were in Rome. We just competed in an international competition. No one expected much of us. Yet there we were, accepting the winning prize.”

Wang and her team at the 2018 VHacks event at the Vatican. Wang’s team design received the La Croix Prize in addition to being the winner in their Interfaith Dialogue category. Their web platform, DUO Collegare, promoted interfaith ‘doing’ by connecting people of every religion and background to timely volunteer opportunities in their community.

Wang and her team at the 2018 VHacks event at the Vatican.

Engaging with the university community

Having experienced the benefits of mentorship herself, Wang wanted to give back. “I’d had formal and informal mentors in my first internship who gave me opportunities to connect and chat with people working in various tech roles about their career paths and decisions,” says Wang.

“When I signed up to be a mentor in the Faculty of Science Mentorship Program, I wasn't sure if I had enough to give to my mentee in terms of advice and resources, but I knew I could at least lend him my support and an open mind.”

Kathleen Ralph, Faculty of Science student experience co-ordinator, describes Wang’s remarkable impact on students and the faculty.

“Sharon and I first became acquainted when she was a mentor in the first year of the Science Mentorship Program. She worked with me as a mentorship leader for two years,” says Ralph. “Sharon also helped us pilot the alumni’s mentorship program and served as a technical mentor twice for Technovation, a 12-week program that allows girls to design mobile apps, gain technology and entrepreneurship skills, and work with women mentors from industry and department of computer science.

“Sharon really committed herself to the work at hand,” adds Ralph. “She is leaving behind programs that are stronger and more capable of meeting our students’ needs.” 

While pursuing her computer science degree, Wang also held a number of volunteer positions with the University of Calgary Homeless Foundation.

“In junior high, I had participated in events related to homelessness, like making sandwiches for Inn From the Cold and putting together holiday hampers for homeless families,” says Wang. “I joined the university’s Homeless Foundation club my first year. Participating in its events made me feel like I was giving back to the larger community and provided perspective into a stigmatized area. Campus clubs and volunteer efforts are a great way to engage students and bring awareness to dire issues.”

Internship led to career opportunity with IBM

Wang completed her Bachelor of Science degree in December 2018 and has been living and working in Ottawa since February. Last summer’s internship led to a full-time position with IBM as a virtual machine software developer.

“If you were to tell my first-year or even second-year self that I would be working here, I wouldn't have believed you,” says Wang. “I wasn't sure where I was headed with my degree and career when I began studying computer science, but I wouldn't have expected to be at IBM working on virtual machine development! I'm really glad to be back. The team is fantastic and the work is challenging.”

She hopes to visit Australia in a few years — the country where she was born but moved from as a toddler. In the immediate future, she’s looking forward to getting back to activities that took a backseat while she was a student.

“I like being outside and want to get back to hiking, running and bouldering. I’m also passionate about aerial silks — the performance art of aerial acrobatics hanging from a fabric. A friend introduced me to this in second year and I managed to keep it up through undergrad. I hope to perform sometime this year.”

Actively work toward finding your passions and interests

“Outside of my courses, participating in various on- and off-campus hackathons/competitions, conferences, and extracurricular volunteering provided so many valuable learning opportunities,” says Wang.

“I would tell new university students to actively work toward finding your passions and interests. Courses are important, but they’re far more valuable if they allow you to build on what you’re genuinely interested in. Make it a habit to look for internships and events in your field. Be open to new experiences, seek them out and engage in them. You might end up with a strengthened interest in your degree, or perhaps in a completely different area — or, on the flip side, you might realize your dis-interest. Regardless, you’ll have developed new skills through these experiences.”

By far, one of the biggest things Wang valued during her university experience was the support of her peers. “I think back to the long nights my friends and I spent on campus, trying to get our code to work or pushing to add another feature to our project. Those nights — and there were a lot of them — were some of the major highlights of my degree.”