Mill member profiles

Sharlene Toney

by Feb 22, 2021

Mill member Sharlene Toney fairly crackles with energy. “I’m a little embarrassed by the number of hours a week I’m working right now,” she admits. In part, she says, she’s filling the hours of isolation created by the pandemic. But it’s also clear that Sharlene is a person who engages with the world: with her work, with ideas, with art and culture. She’s just interested in a lot of stuff—and that creates opportunities for her.

By day Sharlene works for UITS (University Information Technology Services) at Indiana University (IU) as part of a team creating applications for academic advisors. In addition, she has a side gig with Babbletype, a transcription company for market research, where she works closely with the CEO. And until last semester, she was also teaching in the school of social work at IU-Bloomington.

Like other UITS employees, Sharlene’s been working from home since March 2020 due to COVID, and expects to be home until the end of May 2021. Two days a week, Sharlene drives from her house in Ellettsville into Bloomington to cowork at The Mill.

“I’ve been working from home for months on end, and after a while you start to go stir crazy, no matter how nice your home office is. It sounds wonderful until that’s your only option.”

Though she talks confidently today about agile versus waterfall approaches, Sharlene’s career path has taken a left turn from her original plans. Having grown up in Indianapolis, she first came to Bloomington for an undergraduate degree. Later, she got a masters at IUPUI in macro social work, which she explains is not counseling, but rather community organization and social action, political advocacy, and nonprofit management.

“I finished my final practicum at a university in New Zealand, then came back and got a job in Indianapolis doing exactly what I thought I wanted to be doing, managing what was called Helpline 2-1-1 for central Indiana. I quickly realized how disconnected I was from working with clients. It just didn’t feel like a good fit. And I really wanted to come back to Bloomington.”

So Sharlene took a position as an academic advisor at IU, working with students and with IU’s data systems for advisors, thus developing what the startup world calls “domain expertise.” Eight years later, a job opened up for an analyst to work with the IT team developing statewide technology and tools for IU’s academic advisors.

“They didn’t care whether you had the technical background,” Sharlene says, “they felt like they could teach that. But you can’t teach the experience of having been an advisor and knowing what advisors need and how they go about their daily work.” Sharlene’s job now is to help the tech team understand that experience and design tools to better support it.

Sharlene joined UITS at the right time for a beginner; they transitioned from waterfall to agile a year after she started, and the whole team went through training. “We were all in it together. But I knew nothing! I knew everything about the front end of the applications. I knew how to navigate it. I knew where the pain points were, and they hired me for that knowledge. But it was probably two years before I really understood the back end. I asked a lot of questions, and thankfully, I work with developers who are amazing and who can explain things in terminology I understand.”

“At UITS, we’re a team of developers, user experience (UX) designers, and business analysts. We have a set of academic owners who represent all of the campuses, who set our priorities. Once we know what the next big project is, I sit down and write what are called user stories. We have this big project that now is to be broken up into smaller pieces, so the developers can work on one piece at a time. Since I’m going to test it, I need to make sure that that acceptance criteria reflects everything that that specific piece of functionality can do. So they build it based on the specs that I’m giving them.”

“We have conversations as a team. I never tell them how, I tell them what; this is what we need it to do. How they do that on the backend, what they decide is the best way to develop that, that’s out of my wheelhouse.”

The team’s combination of domain and technical expertise is powerful for designing products that will be deeply implemented by end users.

“Right now I work mostly on advising records. This is the program that all academic advisors on all campuses use to keep their notes and keep track of the students that they advise. They can see the students’ GPAs, what they’re majoring in, all the notes from other advisors, if faculty members have put alerts because of low grades or poor performance.”

“We have a lot of different kinds of users. An academic advisor is going to have access to everything. But there are also tutors. They can leave notes on students, but they don’t have access to students’ GPAs and their classes and all that protected data. So we have to make sure: do the right people have access to the right information? And is there anybody who is being granted access to things they shouldn’t be allowed?”

“There’s a lot of complexity, but I like that. I’m somebody who likes being in the weeds.”

“We break each project down into the smallest piece that functionally can do something. We call them thin vertical slices. So for this particular user story, I want to be able to filter the students in my caseload by their GPA. I want to be able to do that by either minimum or maximum GPA, or range of GPA. And so those would be the only things in this slice that we work on.”

In addition to defining the functionality criteria, Sharlene now also writes in accessibility acceptance criteria based on the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). UITS requires strict compliance with level AA guidelines.

“There are lots of really cool technical gadgets out there. But if it can’t be accessed by somebody who is using a screen reader or somebody who doesn’t use a mouse and uses a keyboard to navigate everything, then it’s not a really cool widget.”

In comments like this, Sharlene’s degree in social work and service orientation still shine through. She’s never lost her awareness of the ultimate purpose behind the tools UITS creates, or the purpose of being an advisor to students. “Technically, the work I do now may be a little more difficult than when I was an advisor. But there is no life and death in what we do. Whereas when you have a suicidal student who’s emailing you at 11 o’clock at night, or you have a student who’s coming into your office crying because if they don’t major in business, their parents aren’t going to pay for it. . . .” She shakes her head.

That sense of mission permeates Sharlene’s other work and life, too. She kept her connection to students alive for fourteen years by teaching in the school of social work—while advising, and while working at UITS. She gets energy from connecting, to individuals and to culture.

“I love the arts. What I like about Bloomington is that there’s a lot of access to the arts here: Cardinal Stage, Bloomington Playwrights Project, IU Auditorium, and the art museum on campus and the art galleries in town. And with the cost of living here, I can afford to travel.”

When there’s not a pandemic, Sharlene goes to New York for a week every June to see theater and go to art museums, visits Chicago three or four times a year, and takes at least one trip somewhere else.

“In January I normally get on Spirit Airlines and buy the cheapest ticket to the warmest place. Last year I got a $116 ticket to Las Vegas. I don’t drink, and I don’t gamble. But I went to their arts district and the galleries there. I went to two Cirque de Soleil shows. The Michael Jackson Cirque de Soleil is amazing! And then I did a couple other smaller shows. There’s a place, a big space needle, you can see out over the whole city. There were some afternoons I’d go up there and read a book and get a coffee, just looking out over the mountains.” She smiles. “The sun was out every single day.”

Las Vegas art district

And what about the transcription work for Babbletype? “It’s not just straight transcription,” Sharlene clarifies. “There’s analysis, too, and that was really appealing to me. I applied and was hired 24 hours later. I started transcribing and was getting faster at that. And then the opportunity came along: they reached out to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in reviewing the applicants?’ So I started working with the CEO, who I absolutely love. We’d get together and talk about who we felt should move on and do an interview, and I’ve continued doing that. Eventually they made me a part of the production team.”

The pandemic put a halt to Sharlene’s travels. She has tickets to many shows that she’s saving for a later date. But she found new ways to feed her passion for the arts. During the stay-in-place order last year, she signed up for a mixed media class through a studio in New York. The class ended in December of 2020, but Sharlene’s still experimenting.

mixed media art

“Working in mixed media, I see everything as a potential source of material. I have pieces of bubble wrap, tissue, paper and cardboard. I’m somebody who wants to know the end point in my head and exactly how I’m going to get there before I start. And in my art class the teacher said, ‘This is your first layer. It’s probably all going to be covered anyway. So don’t worry about what’s next.’”

“There are times when I’m like, ‘Well, I kind of have an idea . . . I’m going to wait and think about it for a couple more days.’ But no! Just get down what you have right now—and then come back and see what comes next.”

What comes next for Sharlene could be almost anything. As in her art, her life has accumulated in layers. Each experience informs the next, in subtle and surprising ways, and everything is a potential source for the next adventure.