Podcast Episode 28: All Things Quidditch with Katie Stack
Announcing our New Diversity & Inclusion Facilitators!

Meet Nimisha Asthagiri

Nimisha Asthagiri gave a talk on Being Assertive and Owning Accomplishmentsat our February networking event hosted by edX.

Nimisha is a reborn software engineer and architect in the EdTech space.  She jumps with glee when she encounters “elegant” code/design and can spend countless hours tackling challenging problems of distributed computing and scalability.  Invigorated by electrifying brainstorms and discussions where “brutal intellectual honesty” triumphs, she enjoys getting lost in the very nature of her craft, be it research, debugging, studying, coding, or design.  Nimisha is enchanted by the intrinsic collaborative climate of the tech world, though somewhat dismayed by the growing number of non-interoperable technologies.

How (and when) did you get into your current field or company?
I thoroughly enjoyed my math and science classes and did well in them at a STEM-focused high school in NY (Stuyvesant).  As an undergrad at MIT, I dabbled between physics, pre-med, and computer science majors.  But it was only after being a finalist in a Lego robot competition that I realized how much I loved creating things, the open-endedness nature of CS problems, and the natural high of collaborating with a team.

I also enjoyed teaching, on the side, throughout my life: tutoring my siblings, volunteering at urban schools, overseeing a tutorial program as president of Eta Kappa Nu, being a TA, and offering free after-school enrichment classes during my early motherhood years.

So it may not seem as a surprise that I ended up at a non-profit EdTech company.

However, the path wasn’t as clear as it seems.

I had to convince my parents to allow me to attend the university of my choice, MIT, rather than attend a local college in NY.  At that time, this decision to invest in my education required careful consideration by my parents.  I was a female child of an Indian immigrant family whose patriarch came to the States with only a few dollars in hand. To the gratitude of my parents, they eventually understood my passion.

Post-college, I loved my work and was completely driven. Within 5 years, I had been promoted from senior engineer to principal engineer to development manager, with momentum to shatter the ceiling even further, at a promising startup in the Boston area, creating patented innovative technologies.

So it came as a surprise to some when I gave notice that I would be moving across the country to follow my husband in his new position in the outskirts of LA.  Although my company invested in telecommuting technology for my sake and allowed me to work remotely full-time, 4 years later I chose to become a full-time mother when my second child was born.  Needless to say, I followed a different tune as I met the other loves of my life.

Fast-forward – 6 years since quitting paid work, 10 years since physically away from other developers – detouring through several lead volunteer positions in the community – I finally decided to re-enter the workforce.  But it had been a while – perhaps too long for the Tech industry.

I considered changing careers to teaching or entrepreneurship – or going back to school.  But I couldn’t stray away from my inherent love of coding when I accidentally regained a taste of it.  I took a large pay cut from where I was a decade before, but I was fortunate to find a company that found me (when I wasn’t even looking), at their own risk, with me as their sole developer.  Suffice to say, I regained confidence in myself when I surpassed their expectations (and mine!), such that after the completion of that year-long project, I interviewed at edX.

What does a typical day look like for you?
Now, with my son aged 14 and my daughter 11, they are mostly self-sufficient except for a few morning, after-school, and dinner duties.  I share those with my hubbie and we take turns having early/late work days.

At work, other than my team’s 15mn daily standup in the morning, no day is ever the same.  There is plenty of context-switching due to the various hats that I wear as tech lead, architect, engineer, and mentor.

At any moment, you may find me engrossed in a debugging session around a table with my team. Or writing/reviewing code listening to classical music through my headphones at my standing desk. Or in a strategic discussion in a conference room with stakeholders from other teams. Or in a 1-1 meeting with a colleague who requested my feedback and advice. Or proposing a design idea as the only woman in an architect’s meeting in a roomful of 20+ men.

What is the favorite part of your day?
Eating dinner together with my family in the evening.

What excites you about working in your industry?
There’s always something new. A new challenge to solve. A new technology to learn. A new design paradigm to explore. A new development methodology to improve our processes. But most of all, a new idea to develop something useful for humanity.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
“Do one thing at a time.”

My maternal uncle, Somchandra Suriji, had given me this advice many years ago. As the head of a congregation with thousands of followers, he is constantly engaged from 3:30am to 10pm, and has positively impacted countless lives in his lifetime. His words still ring in my ears and are ever more important in today’s world.

With constant interruptions via chat, email, smart phones/watches/gears, and open work spaces, unless you consciously make the effort, you don’t get a chance to dive deep in thought and allow the creative juices to flow.  As others have studied, while multitasking can be stimulating, it invariably makes us less productive – splitting our attention to multiple tasks while not fully engaged in any.

Deep work is not at all something I have mastered – far from it.  However, my recent intentional experiences with it have been rewarding – and so I fully support it and will continue to experiment with it.  

What is your favorite part of being a woman in STEM?
My favorite part is STEM itself. There is a titillating sensation when your mind takes over and works through combinations to solve a puzzle or design a solution. At the other end of the spectrum, you feel at peace and one with the universe when a baffling mystery is finally deciphered or when pieces finally come together. Of course, these experiences can be achieved elsewhere – but for me, it’s through STEM.

As for being a woman in a male-dominated industry, I can provide a unique perspective and share thoughts and ideas that may not have been otherwise considered. A female voice in this setting can also question unsaid assumptions and elevate the conversation to a plane of human relevance.

What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I used to create and sell origami jewelry for fundraisers, teaching my son when he was 5. At one point, we trained a volunteer group within his orchestra to help raise funds for them to perform at Carnegie Hall.

I was first introduced to origami at the age of 10 by my paternal grandfather in India when I was at house arrest with a fractured leg for several months.  Since then, it’s always been something I enjoy doing for fun.  In high school, I found others like me and co-founded a club called Imagiro (spelled backwards!) to teach others, share our creations, and raise funds for charity.

What do you geek out about?
Other than computer science? and pedagogy? and child psychology?  <:o

I like to create innovative teaching materials, mixing East and West concepts to teach Jain philosophy.  For example, I’ve created nursery rhymes in the tunes of Jingle Bells, etc as mnemonics to memorize Jain trivia.  Having word and math puzzles in your homework, playing charades and pictionary, and creating “Jain origami” to reinforce concepts are all fun ways for young children to learn.

Most recently, I’ve taken my love for broadway musicals and applied it to writing/co-directing a musical drama, that teaches concepts of nonviolence and self-control, using themes from Western literature (Roald Dahl, George Lucas, etc) and Eastern treasures (Karma philosophy, classical Indian dances, etc).