In the News

July 1, 2019

Alumni Spotlight: ICS Hall of Fame Inductee Sandy Smart-Ashburn Embraces Life-Long Learning

All it took was one computer course at a community college for Sandy Smart-Ashburn ’87 to fall in love with programming. That class put her on a path toward studying computer science at UCI, becoming a software engineer at Hughes Aircraft and working her way up to becoming vice president of IT applications at DIRECTV. Now a VP of technology at AT&T, the 2018 ICS Hall of Fame inductee still loves learning about new technologies as she strives to stay on top of rapidly changing computing trends. She’s also an advocate for diversity and mentorship programs in the Donald Bren School of ICS, helping shape the next generation of programmers eager to learn.

Sandy Smart-Ashburn with ICS Dean Marios Papaefthymious as she is inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame in March 2018.

What led you to attend UCI and study computer science?
I started using computers when I was in high school and was fascinated by how powerful they were at solving problems and performing mathematical computations. These were early home computers with very limited processing power compared to what we have today, but I was still amazed by what they could do. I took my first computer course while attending community college, and I loved programming. I knew that was what I wanted to study, so when I was ready to transfer, UCI was my first choice. The computer science program was the main attraction, but more generally, UCI had an excellent reputation as a school for science majors.

How was it starting out as a software engineer at Hughes Aircraft?
When I first started my job at Hughes Aircraft Co., I didn’t know how the knowledge and experience that I had gained at school would be used in a real-world environment. My first project was creating a computer model to determine optimal throughput for a manufacturing process, which I had no experience in, so I was using unfamiliar hardware and software. I had to learn quite a few things those first few weeks, but the project was a success. That taught me a lifelong lesson in always being ready to try something new and trust that I have the skills to figure it out.

The best part of my experiences at Hughes was having the opportunity to learn new technologies and explore the many roles available in software — including analyst, programmer, database administrator and tester.

Can you also talk about your roles at DIRECTV and the applications you helped develop?
I started my career at DIRECTV as a database programmer working on a payment calculation system. Much of my first two years was spent analyzing data and determining the best way to store and process large amounts of information. I then moved into a new role helping to develop a middleware system, which then began my journey into management. I was happy as a developer and wasn’t sure that I wanted to leave that role, but the opportunity to learn new things was very compelling.

I started as a manager in the middleware team, which led to my next role as director leading the team. I increased my application portfolio over the following years to include offer and order management systems. I was then promoted to lead the development teams as VP for all of the IT applications, including dotcom, interactive voice response (IVR), customer relationship management (CRM), sales, payments, financial and middleware applications.

What do you like best about your current role as AVP of technology at AT&T?
At AT&T, I have had the opportunity to learn about new lines of business and innovative applications and technologies, while also becoming more involved in machine learning implementations.

How did your UCI education help prepare you for your career?
My education gave me the foundation that I needed to become a lifelong learner. The world of technology is constantly changing with new languages, software and methodologies. UCI taught me how to learn — and continue learning — so I can keep pace with current trends.

Can you share a memorable ICS moment?
My favorite moments were working on my senior project. It helped me pull together all that I had learned as I worked with my team to deliver our project. We put in many, many hours at the lab and late into the night, but we were very proud of the results.

Is it true that your sister also went to UCI, and now her son is a current ICS student?
Yes, and the nice thing about having three computer science majors in the family is that we can talk about what we are working on!

What was your reaction to learning you were being inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame?
I was very honored to be inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame. There are many distinguished ICS alumni, and it was very special to be acknowledged for my career and work with UCI.

Can you talk your roles on the UCI Diversity Committee for ICS and Engineering and on the ICS Leadership Council?
It is important for me to give back to the university and current students now that I’ve had many years of experience in the industry. I’ve dealt with challenges surrounding diversity during my career and, while things have improved, it is clear there is still work to be done. A diverse workforce that mirrors a company’s customer base is key to building successful products and software.

Any words of advice for ICS students?
My advice to ICS students is to hone your self-study skills, don’t fear the unknown but embrace it as the way to learn, and know that the experience you are getting now will serve you well in your career. Software is ubiquitous in our lives, and you are in the right spot to leverage that.

Shani Murray

Alumni Spotlight: ICS Hall of Fame Inductee Sandy Smart-Ashburn Embraces Life-Long Learning

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