Project-based learning leads to leadership role for College of IST alumna

Emma Riglin
July 22, 2020

This story is part of a series highlighting College of Information Sciences and Technology alumni who are working in various industries and organizations.

Shara Beach Ryan

Shara Beach Ryan

IMAGE: Provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Shara Beach Ryan’s list of career experiences is quite extensive — she has worked as an advertising campaign manager, front-end developer, business analyst, project and product manager, marketer and user-interface designer. But none of that would be possible without the lessons she learned in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Ryan, who graduated in 2005, first became interested in technology through her mother, who started taking computer programming classes at a community college when Ryan was young and eventually became a professional programmer. Ryan was fascinated by her mother’s work and was inspired to pursue a career where she could combine the flexibility and stability offered by a technical career path with her artistic talents and entrepreneurial inclinations. In fact, the two had a 10-year working relationship developing and supporting initiatives for the Convex Group and Discovery Channel.

Ryan is originally from Atlanta and grew up in North Carolina. When she chose to apply to Penn State because of the volleyball program, she learned about the College of IST through mailing-list flyers. She was looking for a program where she could combine her passions for technology, art and business — and she said IST was the perfect fit.

“There were very few other programs that had a combination of business and computer science ... Penn State was the absolute best combination of that,” Ryan said.

Although Ryan liked learning the technical side of things, IST is where she first discovered her skills in organization and communication. She said the team-based approach of IST projects helped her understand how she fit in groups and that she had a natural talent for leadership.

“I was comfortable talking to each member of the team; I found that I was the one who helped people communicate and would translate on the teams,” Ryan said. “The project-based learning within IST I would say really helped drive me to that.”

The College of IST was also where she was first introduced to the skill of project management, which she said changed her life. Ryan said she took her first classes in project management with a professor who could sense that it was the right career for her and encouraged her to pursue it.

“I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a whole class on learning how to plan? I could get paid to do this?’” Ryan said. “That self-discovery and the confidence that it was a talent was the most important thing I learned from IST. It never occurred to me before that period that planning was a marketable skill.”

A natural leader

Ryan said she had been researching, analyzing data and doing surveys as far back as she can remember. In third grade, she compiled a list of the horses being sold in her area, evaluated each one, researched the cost of building a fence in her yard and feeding a horse, and presented the proposal to her parents.

“I’ve been a project manager since I was born but I didn’t know that it was a talent, I thought everyone thought that way,” Ryan said. “Understanding that that was a unique way of thinking was something I discovered in the IST program.”

Ryan said she still uses many of the skills she was taught in the College of IST every single day. One of the most important lessons that Ryan said she learned through her education is how to be comfortable with open-ended challenges. She said professors often assigned problems that didn’t yet have industry solutions and asked students to work through them. That uncertainty and not always having the answer to a question was frustrating, she said, but has helped her in every step of her career.

“It was very uncomfortable, but it absolutely prepared me for the real world. That’s how companies operate,” Ryan said. "Having that space to be uncomfortable and using that opportunity to innovate absolutely prepared me for all of the roles I have been in, to be effective in every job that I’ve had.”

Ryan was hired full-time at HowStuffWorks, where she currently serves as director of program management, during the summer of her junior year at Penn State. She worked remotely full-time while also being a full-time student during her final year of college and graduated with a year’s worth of real-world experience and a full-time job.

After leaving the company for several years while she pursued other endeavors — including designing a website for the Clinton Foundation and running operations for a print magazine — HowStuffWorks asked her to come back. Ryan has now been with HowStuffWorks through four different ownership changes. She has led the technical migrations for the website and helped her team adapt and demonstrate their value to each new leadership team. She now considers herself a “migration expert.” In every position she has been in, Ryan said she has ended up in a leadership role — which she eventually realized was her most marketable skill. Ryan said she believes that the culmination of the variety of positions she's held was the best preparation for her current role.

“I did a bunch of the individual jobs that it takes to have the depth of experience to manage a team in the IT field effectively,” Ryan said.

Finding her voice

While Ryan has had much success in her career, her accomplishments came with their fair share of challenges. She said being a woman in a male-dominated industry and reaching a high level of achievement at such a young age often had negative implications.

“With each leadership team, there are very few females. A lot of men are very accepting, but when you don’t look like them, you’re not wearing the same suit at the same table, it can appear that you’re more junior than them even if you’re not,” Ryan said.

But, Ryan said, she quickly learned how to find — and use — her voice. 

“I had to get the chip off my shoulder from when I was in my 20s that people won’t just recognize value ... I have to show them and demonstrate what I can do. I have to continuously show my value,” Ryan said. “That was a big lesson that I had to learn."

Ryan encourages current students in the College of IST — regardless of their gender or background — to also voice their ideas, whether in a group meeting setting or simply in an email.

“If you don’t get called on to speak, find a way to be heard. It’s your responsibility to find the right time to have your ideas and your voice heard,” she said. “My advice is don't hold yourself back but ... sometimes you have to rock the boat to make your ideas known. I don’t regret pushing forward big ideas. I’ve found that when I combine kindness with competence and confidence, I win the respect of my team and become more easily heard by those judging the ideas.”

Ryan said that the lessons she learned in the College of IST will stay with her forever. She still uses the knowledge she gained there every day and said she wouldn’t be where she is today without the classes and professors that guided her.

“IST was the perfect match for what I was looking for; I couldn’t have imagined a better program for me,” said Ryan.

Last Updated July 22, 2020