Interview with Sharon Burks

Sharon Burks is the Associate Department Head of the Computer Science Department (CSD) and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs of the School of Computer Science (SCS). This inspirational woman has been an integral part of Carnegie Mellon for 30 years.

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from the South. I lived in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas before I came to Pittsburgh.

Can you tell us a little about your educational and career background?

I have a BA in business education from David Lipscomb in Nashville, TN. I always thought that I was going to be a teacher, but when I got married I moved to Mississippi, and, well, I don’t even want you to know how poorly paid teachers were. I ended up making a lot more money as an administrator at a university. Several years later, I moved to Alabama. I had two children and didn’t work for ten years. Then I came to work at Carnegie Mellon, and I’ve been here for 30 years.

How did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?

When my younger son was finishing up kindergarten, I started thinking about going back to work. Around that time, my husband found a job posting for Carnegie Mellon in the newspaper and I decided to apply. I got the job and ended up here. After two years, I tried moving back to Alabama, but the person who took the job after me didn’t like the job and wanted to move to another position, so I agreed to come back and have been here ever since.

What were your expectations when you first came to Carnegie Mellon? Have those expectations been met?

I didn’t have any initial expectations—I just wanted to make enough money to buy a house, a goal which we achieved. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how things turned out. Despite my position, I tend to think of myself as an employee. I like to think I’m part of a bigger group and do what it takes to get the job done.
I think I had an unusual start coming here because my first day was actually student evaluation day. This is when the whole faculty meets and discusses each PhD student and writes them a letter. Several students were being dismissed for different reasons, like performance and lack of funding, and I didn’t know for sure what was going on. After a while, the department head let me leave which was a relief!

How has your role changed over the years that you’ve spent at Carnegie Mellon?

When I first came here, there were only about 50 students and fewer faculty so our department felt like a little family. The class system was also different in the ‘80s. Students could go to whatever classes they wanted, then had qualifying exams. Then when we switched to a course-based system, my role changed from that of “den mother” to somewhat of a registration problem-solver. As enrollment continued to increase, students tended to bond more with their advisers and assistants, and I became more involved in management.

How have you seen the CS department change during your time at Carnegie Mellon?

For a long time, my office was next door to the main office and students would go through my office whenever they went to check their mail. People would just come by to chat.
Now that we’ve grown so big, I’m not sure if we could ever go back to that. That “family feeling” isn’t totally gone right now—you have some programs, like the Machine Learning Department, which only has 20 PhD students, which goes to show that the family hasn’t disappeared, it’s transferred to smaller environments. But my biggest fear is that these little groups will also grow large and the family feeling will disappear completely. Another difference about the department is that when I started here, our research activities were fully funded. The department would get one large grant and faculty and students didn’t have to worry about where the money was coming from to sponsor their work. But now there’s much more emphasis on getting money and accounting for your money and this has really changed the dynamic of the situation.

Have you run into any “unexpected surprises”? What is the most unexpected, random, crazy thing that you’ve ever encountered in a day’s work?

I tend to not be too rattled or flustered, but there have been some unusual things that happen to students. Once we had a PhD student who had a problem with a rental agency. He had rented a truck planning to live in it, parked in a parking lot. The student said the lease said $30 a day, plus $3 a day thereafter, but it was really $33 for each day thereafter and the agency came looking for him. It turns out the reason he’d decided to live in a truck was because he’d been evicted from the ceiling of the 7th floor of Wean!
So, you never knew what kind of problems students were going to have. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, CS was very different—it was composed of chemists, physicists, and mathematicians who were adventurous. Everything they did in computer science was new and exciting to them, and they were really fun people to be around. There was one student who took a backpacking trip to Hawaii, in the nude. He took lots of photos and made a slideshow for the whole department when he returned—that slideshow was rated X!

Can you describe a “typical day in the life of an Assistant Dean”?

Every day is different. From the time I come in, I do about 2 hours of email. My job is really about talking to people—I’m sort of the “revolving door” of the department. I’ll get a question from someone and send them on to someone else. People often ask me who is going to do this when I’m not here, because the only reason I can do it is because I’ve been here for so long! So, I can spend hours just talking to people, answering questions, holding hands, and more.
Somewhere in there, I also have to do actual work. Parts of my job are cyclical. For example, for three months each year I manage the faculty hiring process which is a fulltime job for that period of time. By the time that’s over, it’s time to move on to managing the faculty reappointments and promotions cases for that year. Then it’s time to process the newly admitted students , including arranging visas and answering questions for international students. My favorite thing is interacting with students because when something goes right, they are so appreciative!
Also, I really have a two-hat job—I’m the associate department head of the CSD and do things that relate directly to the Computer Science Department. My other “hat” is as Assistant Dean for the School of Computer Science, where I act as a liaison between the various units and the dean’s office. College level work probably takes up about 25% of my time and working with CS students, staff and faculty takes up the rest of my time. Almost every day, I have to deal with somebody about space. Somebody needs an office, or doesn’t like their office, or is giving up an office. Space is a constant juggling act. It will be nice when the Gates Building is finished, because for a little while there will be enough space for everyone, but I’m not sure how long that will last. So, some days are chaos, but some other days are normal, and at the end of the day, you just hope things have gotten done.

We found some really gorgeous photos of your house on your website. Do you spend a lot of time working on it?

Actually, my husband and I spend a lot of time in the yard, but my husband really does all the work. He has a 3 move rule—I can’t ask him to move something more than 3 times! 8 years ago we sold our house and moved into a smaller one. It has a much smaller yard, but we still spend as much time outside as we can.

Do you have any other interesting hobbies?

I really have two hobbies. The first is quilting—buying them and making them. I like Amish quilts with patchwork and appliqué. 15 years ago, I made a couple of quilts a year and always gave them away. It’s a little harder now because of my eyesight, but I still think quilting is fun and really part of Pennsylvania culture. My second hobby is gardening. About 5 years ago, my husband and I decided we wanted a pond, so we dug a hole and put a plastic tub in the ground. Every year we get a little more ambitious, and we eventually took out the pond, dug a new one, and added a waterfall and 3 tons of rock. It’s still a work in progress. When we moved, we hadn’t expected to keep gardening and left all of our equipment behind, but within 6 months we’d gone out and bought all of that equipment again. There’s just something relaxing about pulling weeds and sitting in the grass.

What would you say is your personal inspiration, either for the job or life in general?

My goal is to be a good person. I think it’s important to do the best you can in whatever you do and treat people the best that you can. If you do that, it’s easy to sleep at night and you feel good about your life. You don’t have to wish you did something in a different way. I’m really at peace with my life because I feel like I’ve done that,

What’s one thing you’d like to try that you haven’t gotten around to?

I would love to drive a racecar really fast. I probably drive way too fast as it is, but I think it would be fun to get on racetrack and go around and around faster and faster.

What advice do you have for Carnegie Mellon students?

Remember to enjoy these years—they really are the best years of your life. Don’t get so caught up in your work that you forget to enjoy yourself. It only gets harder from here. We all have this feeling that once we get out into the world, life will be perfect, but it’s not really true; these are the years when you have the most opportunity to enjoy life for yourself.