Niharika Bitra

Welcome to our first Female Feature! I’m Niharika, a Senior Information Analyst at a not-for-profit organization. I have been working in the IT industry for 7 years and specialize in all things data.

Why did you choose a career in IT?

I wish I could say that I chose the IT field because I was passionate and wanted to break down gender barriers. The truth is I majored in Computer Science in college because my dad was a database administrator and he pushed me into the field. His specialty was keeping databases up and running, performing maintenance, and performance tuning. My father became a software engineer because it provided an opportunity to come to the United States and earn financial freedom. When you come from India during a time when the poverty rate is 30%, coming to America is a golden ticket. As an immigrant growing up in the US, you are pushed into careers that lead to traditional and stable jobs. This is how my dad convinced me that this was the only way to be successful and stay in America.

After a Bachelors and Masters in the IT field, I became obsessed with technology and I loved the liberation it gave me. When I realized that writing code wasn’t just for school assignments or work, I started finding ways to incorporate into my everyday life. I would write a script to gather data from Instagram with the hopes to learn how to increase my engagement on my account. I built my own free solutions as an alternative to paying for mobiles apps that are expensive or limited in its functionality. Programming gave me the power to research and answer my own questions without relying on anyone else.

Can you walk through us through your career?

Undergraduate: I graduated with a Bachelors in Computer Science from George Mason University. It was ranked #68 in the US and was one of the top three engineering schools in the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) area. I struggled a lot in my first semester and almost failed my first computer science class. I’ve never failed anything in my life and it was soul crushing that coding just didn’t click for me. By the end of the semester, many of my friends switched majors to either IT or engineering. I almost convinced myself that I should do the same thing, but I didn’t feel that failure was the right reason to switch. I kept going and I dedicated all my time and efforts into learning to code. The thing with programming is that it takes a really good professor to teach you how to think about coding and tons of practice outside of classes.

First Internship: During my time in college, I started my first internship at a non-profit where I utilized my skills in java, web development, writing requirements, and exploring business process management tools. I learned to develop using BEA Aqualogic, a BPM tool which makes it easy to develop applications. I was working during the day and taking classes in the evenings. This part-time internship helped me see my place in the tech industry and that I really could do this!

Second Internship/First Full-Time Job: While my time at the non-profit was amazing, I took a class in databases at GMU which made me want to explore data analysis. I took up an internship at a larger corporation as part of the Data Warehouse Team. I leveraged my SQL skills and started to learn about ETL and Teradata. My main project is to work with the Sales Team to increase the adoption rate of an application and develop metrics to support my action plan. I presented my findings to my director and he was baffled by the amount of information I was able to gather in such a short amount of time. One of the things he appreciated was how succinctly I put together the information so that anyone could understand the message being conveyed. I explained to him that I had an internship at a non-profit before and I was working part time while going to school and he offered to extend my internship until graduation.

I felt so proud that I was offered to continue my internship, while the rest of the interns went back to school. My director didn’t have to do it, but he went out of his way to make it happen. Not only was this a huge confidence booster, but it was the first time I realized that I have a skill set that was valued and in demand.

Once I converted to a full time employee, I started creating reports for the executives on Salesforce funnels and orders. Later, I started to take on large scale projects and covered everything from design to development to testing to release in production. Everything was going smoothly and I started to feel comfortable. All of a sudden one day, I was told that my director was laid off. Few months later, I was told that due to reorganization of the company, I was moved to the Project Management Team. I had no experience in PM work and I never really saw myself becoming a Project Manager. I wanted to be a developer and code away all day. Reorganization and layoffs were extremely common at Verizon and I was afraid that this was a sign that I may be laid off as well.

Unfortunately, I was right. Six months later, I was laid off.

Second Full-Time Job: When I was at the non-profit, I loved using BEA Aqualogic. In college, we were not told that there are alternatives to coding applications from scratch. BPM tools made it easier and faster to build applications. I started to look at the market of BPM tools to see the competitors of BEA Aqualogic and I landed on a startup’s home page. The company took BPM tools to whole new level by taking reusable components and making them out of the box functionality. I loved that I longer had to write javascript or html or css to create user interfaces and everything was drag and drop. The cherry on the top is that it was responsive AND automatically works on all devices.

I was passionate about the product and I joined the company as a Solutions Engineer. I worked directly with clients and learned a lot about infrastructure. Up until now, I only knew how to code and this opportunity showed me that there is a lot of infrastructure that needs to be in place to be able to deploy my programs into production. I learned what an OSI model is and how to troubleshoot issues at every level, whether it is in JBOSS, Apache HTTP Server, MySQL, Appian or the AWS EC2 instance itself. There was an entire world of networking, which I never learned in school that I was gaining exposure to.

After a year and half, I was nearing the end of my Masters program and I wanted to transition to data driven roles. I explored positions within the company as a developer focused in databases and after a lot of thought, the best decision was to move a company where data is the core of what they do. Just as how building applications easier and faster was the core of Appian, I wanted to work for a company that analyzes data and uses it to drive their business.

My Current Job: I am currently leading a team at a another non-profit. We are in an exciting transformation phase where we are moving ETL processes from on-premise Oracle and Informatica based solutions to a cloud based solution in AWS. Our primary responsibility is to deliver student and school data to one of our white glove customers, in order to determine scholarship eligibility. I do everything from writing requirements, analyzing data, developing code to flag data issues, and working with the customer to ensure we deliver clean high quality data files.

What did you learn from getting laid off from your first full-time job?

Layoffs and reorganization were a re-occurrence. As an intern, I heard multiple people getting laid off but I never knew who they were. Within the first few months of becoming full time, I witnessed some of the new hires from college being laid off. It had me thinking that maybe I could be laid off one day, as well. We were replaceable.

Even though I was aware of the environment I was working in, I had the mindset that if I worked really hard, it couldn’t happen to me. Until it did. As a college graduate, being laid off from your first full time job feels so defeating. You graduate college thinking that you will change the world with all your new amazing skills and if you work hard, you will easily climb the corporate ladder. It’s heartbreaking to come to terms that no matter how hard you work, you are replaceable. If the company needs to downsize, you could be out of a job one day.

I had to learn the hard way that being laid off didn’t mean I wasn’t smart or unworthy, it meant that the company couldn’t afford me. It showed more about the company than it did on my own performance. I also realized that many people define themselves based on our job and somehow not having a job means that you are a failure. This negative thinking and using a job to define us is a habit I developed over time and now had to let go.

I am an engineer with programming and database skills.

I am NOT an engineer at this company.

This shift in thinking helped me define what I wanted in my career. I strived to be talented. I saw the increase in proficiency and acquiring of new skills as a marker for success, not counting the years I stayed at a company.

Did you ever feel that your gender affected the way you are perceived or treated?

I am a really quiet person when you first meet me and it is mainly due to my introvert personality. A lot of people see silence as being dumb or weak, but I personally feel that it is my greatest strength. Not speaking and allowing others to talk provides me an opportunity to listen and truly understand the other person. I have been in so many meetings when people don’t listen and the meeting goes off track and one hour later, there is no outcome or progress as a result. By being a listener, I am able to effectively drive meetings and push a project forward.

Do you notice a lack of women in technology? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

I think women tend to gravitate to careers that are already paved for them. If we look back in US history, the main reason women started working at all was because the country was in turmoil and all the men were out fighting in a war. This forced women to leave their home and work on jobs left by men, in order to continue to run the country. Careers in teaching, nursing, etc were jobs that existed back then, so it is not surprising that women nowadays continue to fill those jobs. Software engineering is a field that started in early 90s and while we are still figuring out what is and what we can do with it, women may be hesitant when they do not see a women in leaderships roles at tech companies.

We, as women need to realize that it is okay to get out of our comfort zone and rather than following someone else, try and be the person that makes someone else follow you. Create a path when there isn’t one. It will be a lot more rewarding and exciting!

What advice would you give to young women looking to majoring in the tech field?

When I was in high school, all my friends were planning to be doctors, lawyers, or teachers. I wanted to do what everyone else was doing. No one understood what it meant to be an engineer, especially not a software engineer. There was one course on programming with less than 20 students and it wasn’t exactly the cool class to take. If you are girl in high school wondering if you should explore the technology field, I urge you to try it out for yourself and see if you enjoy it.

When you’re applying to colleges, choose top schools that are known for engineering like computer science, information technology, data science, etc. It may seem intimidating to major in something your friends don’t seem to understand and walk into a classroom full of men for four years of college, but trust me, it is worth it. The first few courses will make you want to quit and you may even doubt if you’re enjoying it, but if you stay determined, you will understand that computer science is all about problem solving and being creative in different ways. It helps tremendously if you find a mentor or friend, who keeps you motivated or simply talk to in times of stress.

Who is your inspiration?

I am inspired by many and I constantly look out for people who are doing amazing things in the field. One of the movements on the internet, I Look Like an Engineer is something that hit home for me and I loved seeing all the women who are speaking up. I also loved Reshma Suajani’s TED talk, Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection, which beautifully puts together how I felt while working towards my degree in computer science. It resonates with me deeply and is the motivation for me to keep going when things are hard.

How do you stay up to date?

I love browsing the internet. It probably sounds really generic, but I love watching Youtube, reading Forbes, scrolling through tech Instagram accounts, and looking at new class offerings at GMU.

What do you do when you’re not in the office?

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always loved art. Whether it is drawing, painting, photography, or digital art, I love it all. I started my own photography business in March 2015. I made the conscience decision to focus on photography and share my work on Instagram. As months passed by, people started noticing my work and offered to pay me to get their photo taken. As my followers on Instagram, I started working with companies like Clinique, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Zillow, etc to create sponsored content and promote their new products or brand. Since then, I’ve done portraits, events, and recently, real estate. If you’re interested in seeing my work, check out Celestial Amethyst Photography.

What made you start Female Framework?

As mentioned above, I started photography as a side business to stay creative and make my little impact on social media. As time went on, social media became a likes and followers obsessed place. I eventually fell in the exact rabbit hole where I cared more about the likes than the actual process of creative beautiful photography. Once I reached 5k followers, I no longer cared about growing my account. I was satisfied with 5k followers and lost my motivation to keep creating content.

As an attempt to start fresh and building something from scratch, I am starting Female Framework. I wanted to focus on women in tech, who want a no BS solution to every part of their lives, so they can spend more time achieving their goals. Each and every article will contain a complete guide on a relevant topic containing different perspectives, time saving hacks, tip and tricks, and how to take action.

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