Growing up in a family of educators, everyone assumed that Sharon Wheless would become a teacher. She did, though not in the conventional sense.
Wheless’ passion is technology and its applications, and she has taught by example for more than 30 years. She repeatedly demonstrated that smarts, determination and confidence can allow a small-town girl from eastern North Carolina to carve out a niche on the cutting edge of the computer boom — and to carry her around the world.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Wheless says from her home office in Colington Harbour. “Technology is not for the faint of heart. It’s a constant learning process. It is not something where you can say, ‘I’m done, now let me work.’ Every day, there’s some new technology or some new infrastructure that you have to know about or maybe be almost an expert about, that day. It’s not even about learning the specific skill; it’s about learning how to think, more than anything else.”
Wheless, 52, is a commerce software engineer for IBM, dealing mostly with the tech giant’s mega-data aggregator, Watson. Since going to work at IBM in 2010, she has stockpiled various company IT certifications and leadership titles. She has helped train dozens of younger employees, in the U.S., Europe, South America and India.
Before that, she launched her own tech start-up in the mid-1990s, designing custom software for companies and government agencies in seven states, when fit-to-order software was rare and tech companies led by women rarer still. She eventually sold that company to a competitor, which allowed her the freedom to work for herself as a software consultant, and to visit her daughter and son-in-law, who were in the U.S. Army, moving frequently and starting their own family.
Wheless did forensic work for government groups, in computer security risk and digital data re-creation. She wrote video games and traveled extensively here and abroad as a consultant. At IBM, she worked on programs that improved the efficiency of bank lending, scheduling surgery and airplane manufacturing, as well as tailoring advertising to businesses and consumers.
“I like to solve problems,” she says. “I like figuring out ways to do things better.”
Wheless is 5-foot-4, with a runner’s build (she logs 15-20 miles per week), an expressive face and blue eyes that practically glow when she discusses her work, family and experiences. She doesn’t suffer fools and isn’t bashful about sharing her thoughts.
“She’s very passionate about what she does,” says IBM colleague Brady Green, a technical support engineer in cyber security. Based in Idaho, he worked closely with Wheless for two years, and the two still communicate regularly.
“She takes customer satisfaction very seriously,” Green says. “If you’re not as passionate about your work as she is, you probably won’t get along with her.”
Wheless’ journey began almost by accident. She grew up in Snow Hill, N.C., a small town between Greenville and Kinston. Her father, Fred Brann, was an engineer at the DuPont plant in Kinston for 37 years. Her mother, Lorraine, is a retired teacher, as is her older brother, Russell, and older sister, Lori. But teaching didn’t interest her, and she was uncertain what she wanted to do. Her grandmother advised her to become a nurse, because she would never lack for a job.
“That first anatomy course, I said, ‘no, I don’t think so,’” Wheless says. “I’d rather work on an algebra problem.”
Wheless took a couple of computer classes in junior college that piqued her interest, and she never looked back. She wrote code on computer punch cards and used the binary system of zeros and ones to encode data into mainframes. Computer fixes entailed driving to the office and phone calls on land lines to co-workers. She prides herself now on remaining current and staying ahead of the millennials and GenXers with whom she works.
“They think I’m really old,” she jokes, “because I did things they’ve only read about in books.”
Wheless and her husband, Todd, transplanted to Colington from Louisiana in 2013, after her son-in-law, Greg, completed his active duty in the U.S. Army. He and her daughter, Erin, and two children settled in Chesapeake, Virginia, where they both serve in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Wheless said she’d visited and vacationed on the Outer Banks frequently through the years, and being near the ocean allowed her to indulge another passion, fishing.
“IBM didn’t care where I lived, so that gave us the opportunity to be wherever we wanted,” she says. “I go upstairs to my office and look out over the (Albemarle) Sound. I can set my own schedule. I can have conference calls walking on the beach. It’s something peaceful and makes you feel so small and grounds you about being near the ocean, in my opinion.”
Wheless also serves on the board of the Colington Harbour Association, where she is winding down a three-year term.
She applies the same scrutiny and rigor toward her duties as a board member as she does to her work in the computer and technology arena — and her dogged determination to get to the root of an issue and troubleshoot a problem is not always well received by the otherwise all-male board.
“She rattled their cages,” says Carole Warnecki, who served with Wheless on the Colington board, until an abrupt resignation. “She questioned the status quo.”
Warnecki said that she heard some unflattering remarks about Wheless from her male counterparts on the board before meeting her, but they quickly evaporated once the two interacted.
“I consider myself a fairly good judge of people,” Warnecki says, “and I found her intelligent, forthright and diligent in her work. She simply wasn’t going to accept that this is the way we do things. She asked questions and wanted to know why.”
Wheless — who remains the lone female on the 7-member board — good-naturedly referred to her time on the board as challenging, but says it’s been a valuable experience. She routinely pivots from a dynamic field that embraces change and new ideas, to a more static environment and group of people.
“I believe that being on the board has taught me a lot about myself,” she says. “Being tolerant of people who don’t want to change. … It’s difficult, but I have learned the value of patience. I would never compromise what I thought was right, but what is right is almost a perspective for some people. It’s been interesting.”
Though Wheless has no plans to retire, she says that she’s begun pondering an exit strategy and what life beyond work might look like. She knows she will mentor young people, particularly young women, who are interested in technology.
“I think it’s important to give back,” she says. “I have taken in so much, and I feel like I need to put it back out.”
Wheless serves as an official mentor to four women at IBM, but she would like to extend her reach to high school-age women, to make them aware of the opportunities that exist.
Recent advances in the tech field by women aside, she estimates that her teams and projects have an 80-20 ratio of men-to-women. Attracting more women into technology, more talented people in general, simply makes sense to her.
“I think it’s exciting to see people who don’t have a good understanding of how things work, to see that light bulb go on,” she says.
“It may be that teacher part in my genetics that’s coming out. I don’t know. I do not want to teach, but I love to mentor. To me, that’s exciting.”