After retiring in 2017, Sharon ONeal was called upon to lead the launch of the College of Engineering’s software engineering program. She decided working with students would be “a cool adventure.”
David Hahn, the Craig M. Berge Dean of the College, asked ONeal to work with faculty to create an industry-aligned bachelor’s program and begin instructing students, building on her career and experiences teaching and mentoring in the college. Since that beginning two years ago, the B.S. program has attracted 177 students majoring or minoring in software engineering, and the college has opened up graduate programs, as well as offerings at University of Arizona Online and the Yuma campus, with plans to extend to Chandler.
And the students?
“They’re learning from the knowledge I gained over my 35-year career. But, at the same time, I'm getting a lot back from them. I walk into the classroom and fall in love with my students and watch them apply the knowledge and skills they are gaining while working on real-world projects,” said the systems and industrial engineering professor of practice.
ONeal was the ideal galvanizer for the much-needed program, which saw its first graduate in December 2023, said Hahn.
“Sharon is an incredibly accomplished professional who managed more than 500 engineers at Raytheon,” he said. “In addition to being a thought leader on software engineering, she cares deeply about students and contributes to their success through scholarship and mentorship. She even goes beyond that service to philanthropic giving. Sharon inspires others in many ways.”
For student Samantha Perry, now a junior and president of the Software Engineering Wildcats club, seeing a presentation from ONeal during her first year decided her major.
“Sharon was so enthusiastic about the new program,” she said. “I trusted Sharon and her abilities to create a program where I could truly apply my desire to be an engineer but follow my passions for coding and technology.”
A Holistic Program
ONeal designed the software engineering program so that students graduate with the essential knowledge they need to hit the ground running in the field.
“I have experienced the critical skills to build very complex, large-scale products,” she said. “I was absolutely thrilled to be part of shaping a program where essential skills are combined to enable a software engineer to be successful and work with interdisciplinary teams.”
Software engineering students take courses in a variety of engineering disciplines so they can collaborate and communicate with other types of engineers.
“We're integrating software knowledge with other engineering knowledge as well as teaching the entire engineering discipline,” ONeal said, adding that the software development life cycle focus is maintained throughout the coursework. This produces software with the highest quality and lowest cost in the shortest time.
Many think of coding in conjunction with software engineering, said ONeal. While it is one important part, there are many more aspects to developing a software product than just writing code.
“Learning how to manage and control that code – control the configuration, the quality of that code, the security of that code – all of that comes with our program,” she said. “And software engineers need to be more aware than ever of preventing hackers from being able to exploit vulnerabilities that can inadvertently be part of the code when it’s developed.”
The SIE department continues to hire new faculty and develop more courses, said ONeal.
“The program is industry relevant – it was built on a foundation of what industry needs,” she said.
Inspired to Give and Guide
Helping students is important to ONeal, partly because a high school teacher encouraged her to become the first in her family to attend college.
“Marilyn Nathanson changed my life. It makes me tear up when I think about it. To this day, I keep in touch with her,” said ONeal.
Nathanson’s belief in ONeal gave her the push she needed to find scholarships and other aid to put herself through college. Now, she has endowed a scholarship to help students access education in perpetuity.
“From now until forever, somebody will be able to have a scholarship based on my gift. If it gives them one more little incentive to continue on, then I want to be part of that,” ONeal said.
Of course, ONeal is also a mentor to students, and Perry has found ONeal’s counsel helpful.
“From the beginning, Sharon has provided guidance on what degree would be best for me. She has also helped me sort through my internship options,” said Perry, who spent the past summer working as a systems engineering intern for Northrop Grumman at its Rolling Meadows, Illinois, site.
ONeal finds it rewarding to shepherd the next generation and strives to be “more than just a professor.”
“I just think: ‘Wow!’ I feel like I'm really helping students launch their careers and set them up for success,” she said. “I’m here to teach them and help them see all the possibilities they can go after in their lives.”