From excelling on the badminton court, to taking up engineering in college and writing code used by thousands of companies across the globe spanning multiple industries, to her work on the Kubernetes Steering Committee and SIG Contributor Experience group and mentoring others in the Google Summer of Code and Outreachy internship programs and beyond, Staff Software Engineer Nikhita Raghunath is a woman breaking barriers in tech.
[Lisa] Hi Nikhita, namaste to you in Mumbai, and in the spirit of celebrating women who are making tremendous impact in the tech community at VMware and beyond, I thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
[Nikhita] Thanks for speaking with me, Lisa.
[Lisa] Since obtaining a bachelor’s four years ago at the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) in Mumbai and embarking on your career, you’ve been written up as one of the best programmers in The Times of India, Top Developer in Business Insider, a core maintainer for the Kubernetes project in InfoWorld, and featured in various podcasts including The New Stack and Google Cloud Platform, all in the last year. You’ve also authored and published numerous articles and keynoted KubeCon Europe 2019 with 8,000 attendees. And worth mentioning twice, writing code used by thousands of companies across the globe spanning multiple industries.
How does an individual in their mid-twenties hold so much knowledge?
[Nikhita] I’m not quite sure how to answer that. All I can say is programming really captivated me in my late teens and my hunger and passion for it intensified from there. I’m a programming sponge, I guess.
[Lisa] If you weren’t programming until your late teens, what were your interests before then?
[Nikhita] I was an avid badminton player on my school team and played in state tournaments. When I was 11, I won my first tournament and my name was published in my city’s newspaper. It was then that I decided that I wanted to become a professional badminton player when I got older.
[Lisa] I understand the sport of badminton is intrinsically intertwined with the history of Indian badminton, and India has played a major role in its emerging popularity the world over.
[Nikhita] There’s been an unprecedented rise in its following in India, sparked by the emergence of global superstars Saina Nehwal ‒ India’s first-ever Olympic medalist for the women’s single event in 2012 ‒ and PV Sindhu, who became the first Indian ever to win a gold medal at the Badminton World Federation Championships in 2019. PV is currently the reigning women’s world champion.
[Lisa] I’m guessing technology eventually got in the way of your pursuit of the sport?
[Nikhita] As I grew up, I started enjoying technology and computers more. It used to get really hot during the summers here and the computer lab in my school was the only place with air conditioning. To be able to spend more time in A/C, I used to spend most of my free time in the computer lab where the older kids used to work on their programming homework and that’s how I first learnt about HTML. It was my quest for air conditioning that got me interested in programming! 🙂
[Lisa] Who knew the road to HTML and programming could be paved by air conditioning! Did you trade in your badminton racquet for immersing yourself into programming in and outside of school?
[Nikhita] I didn’t give up coaching, playing tournaments and mentoring younger kids in badminton until college appeared on the horizon. Electronics engineering seemed like a more stable career option. In hindsight, I don’t regret the decision but there are times when I wonder how my life would have looked if I had chosen sports as a career.
[Lisa] So your love of programming became front and center at university.
[Nikhita] It did, however, I abandoned plans to study electronics engineering, driven to self-learn programming. I initially focused on the C and C++ languages. I enjoyed writing code in them but I was only writing small toy programs. I wanted my code to get utilized in production environments but didn’t know how to go about doing that.
[Lisa] Is this about the time you discovered Go?
[Nikhita] That’s right. I started playing around with the language and applied for a student scholarship to GopherCon India. Luckily, I got selected!
At the conference, everyone was talking about this thing called “Kubernetes.” I wanted to learn more about it, so I went home and researched it. I ended up applying and getting accepted for an internship at Google Summer of Code (GSoC) with a focus on Kubernetes and have been working on Kubernetes ever since.
[Lisa] As a software engineer from May 2017 to March 2020, you did the internship at GSoC and then another at Red Hat before assuming a role at Kubermatic (formerly Loodse), helping with the development of Kubermatic Kubernetes, contributing to upstream Kubernetes and bringing Loodse in as a top five contributor to the Kubernetes project. That’s quite an intense undertaking. Was there a mentor who helped you assimilate so much at the onset of your career?
[Nikhita] I was extremely fortunate to have been mentored by Dr. Stefan Schimanski at Red Hat. At the end of GSoC, I wanted to keep contributing beyond my original project and that’s when Stefan offered me the internship. He was enormously patient with me ‒ I had asked him a ton of questions as I was learning so many things on the fly ‒ and without his help, I wouldn’t have absorbed the knowledge as quickly as I did and been able to assume work as the Technical Lead for CNCF’s SIG Contributor Experience and serve on the Kubernetes Steering Committee, which presented yet another steep learning curve.
[Lisa] Learning beyond programming, you mean.
[Nikhita] As engineers, we’ve taught ourselves how to write code and design, develop, test, and maintain software systems, but being on the Steering Committee requires an insane amount of people skills. You’re the face of the community’s project, no one other than the Steering Committee can speak on behalf of the project, and it’s definitely taught me a lot more than I could ever imagine.
[Lisa] You came onboard to VMware in 2021 as a Senior Member of the Technical Staff, working on Tanzu Kubernetes Grid (TRG) as a part of the TKG Core Team (R&D Engineering), before assuming your current role as a Staff Software Engineer and Technical Lead for the Kubernetes Upstream Team, focusing on VMware’s Kubernetes open source strategy and contributions. Was there something special — serendipitous or a unique opportunity — for you at VMware?
[Nikhita] A VMware engineer who was active in the upstream Kubernetes community reached out to me and asked if I was interested to join VMware to work open source Kubernetes. That was literally my dream job and I had to even confirm with him twice if this was indeed the role!
[Lisa] Your hard work had paid off. Could you speak to any obstacles you experienced in school or your career?
[Nikhita] The biggest obstacle for me was to get started with programming.
Since I didn’t have a degree in computer science, I pursued teaching myself. The learning curve with coding was steep when I got started but I wanted to be better at it so I stuck with it. At times it was a real struggle but gradually it got easier and celebrating the small wins helped me stay motivated.
[Lisa] It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in tech, especially open source. As someone who has excelled in the field and received due recognition, had you initially encountered challenges in the community?
[Nikhita] Most definitely. There were instances within the community where I’d be assigned “glue work” – unrewarding and tedious tasks or leading certain programs – because no one else on the team would take the initiative or do their part in these secondary matters. I was the only woman on the team and eventually these tasks became my responsibility and my technical contributions weren’t recognized. It’s also been my experience that women’s technical contributions get overshadowed compared to their other work. It’s happened to me multiple times.
[Lisa] You’re currently a LFX mentor on “CNCF – Kubernetes SIG ContribEx: Improvements to Kubernetes maintainers-related automation” and a big advocate for encouraging new contributors to join the community. Have you seen an improvement in recognition where women’s technical contributions are concerned?
[Nikhita] It’s a work in progress. We’re actually striving to embrace diverse perspectives and contributions and making everyone feel welcome to participate. Mentors can help direct new contributors to land in good starting places. And the most valuable contributions come from contributors who stick around for the long haul. Our investment in mentoring them plays out in the long-term because then they go on to mentor thousands of other contributors.
[Lisa] Where can people go if they’re interested in mentoring or would like to be mentored?
[Nikhita] They can check out the CNCF Mentoring Initiatives. CNCF participates in a variety of mentoring programs with a vibrant community of projects, where you can submit an application for mentoring per a specific initiative.
[Lisa] A colleague once said of you: “Nikhita is destined to do great things, no matter where she chooses to apply her skills and passion.” Respectfully, what does the future hold for you?
[Nikhita] A continued place in the community.
I’ve been around in it for so long not just because of the technical aspects but because of the people. I’ve made a lot of good friends in the community, and I think that’s one of the things that I cherish the most and I can’t imagine being without it.
[Lisa] It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, Nikhita. I’m betting there are many people in the community who weren’t aware of your love for the game of badminton and the role air conditioning played in redirecting your path to a prolific career in programming.
[Nikhita] I think you may be right. Thanks for taking the time and interest to learn more about me.