Aditi Adhikari, a Machine Learning Engineer at the Point of Interest Team at Apple Maps, was not always passionate about computer science. She wanted to pursue dentistry and had chosen the biology stream in plus two. However, it turned out she did not enjoy studying Biology as much as she had thought she would. Regardless, she joined dentistry entrance preparation classes thinking that she would gradually grow into it. Midway into it, she realized that she enjoyed mathematical analysis more than she did biology. She felt that engineering would align better with her interest rather than dentistry.
Getting admission to an engineering college with a biology background and without Mathematics in plus two is difficult. On top of that, Adhikari was confused about which faculty to choose. Juggling through all the doubts and confusion, she eventually joined Computer Engineering at Nepal Engineering College in 2008.
“I did not pick Computer Engineering because it was my first choice. I made my decision via elimination; I kept eliminating all the possibilities that I had no interest in. But now, I feel that my decision to pick Computer Engineering was one of the best decisions I have made! For a lot of us, a common strategy in life is to find what one likes. However, what worked for me was finding and then eliminating what I do not like.”
She would have never guessed that she would enjoy studying computing, let alone coding! After joining Engineering, she realized that there were few women in her class, and it was the same in any other engineering department. At home, she was the youngest of three daughters and had never faced any gender discrimination. The world of gender stereotypes and biases was foreign to her. Although she had heard countless stories of girls being looked down upon, her college experiences made her realize that there need to be more female role models to whom both boys and girls can look up.
“When there are hardly any women in successful tech positions whom they can relate to, it is only natural that girls resort to other career choices. We need to build an environment where girls are empowered and feel that they can make it big in tech. Although it might take time, we must strive for a world with more female tech leaders.”
After graduating from Nepal Engineering College in 2012, Adhikari immediately moved to Singapore, where her elder sister lived at the time. But her sister soon moved to the US for grad school, and she was alone in a foreign country with no job. After applying to multiple positions, she accepted an offer from Advanced Digital Science Center as a Software Engineer.
Adhikari faced few challenges in the initial days at work. She realized that the education she acquired in Nepal was not practical enough. She had to do a lot of self-learning. During the first month of her new job, she was hesitant to ask about the things she was confused about because of the fear of being perceived as incompetent. “Initially, I used to shy away from asking questions. I realized over time that shying away from asking questions, however trivial hinders professional growth. When one is a new employee, sometimes he/she is missing context on some problems and will never figure out problems efficiently on their own. Asking the right questions and seeking help can expedite the process of solving problems, enhances learning, and develops teamwork and collaborative skills.”
Working at a research center gave Adhikari the opportunity to work on front-end, back-end architecture, NLP problems and build Machine learning models. This experience gave her an exposure to work on different projects and guided her decision to pursue a career in data science and Machine learning. After working for two and a half years in Singapore, Adhikari moved to the US to get a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She also earned an assistantship from the school that helped her fund her graduate studies. She recalls that going back to school after being in corporate was challenging for the first couple of months. However, she shortly blended in. She noticed how different the education system was from Nepal. She worked hard at school and was proactive at finding opportunities outside of school. She got an internship at Apple over the summer and got offered a full-time job a year before graduation.
While doing her Masters, she realized that US tech companies champion diversity and inclusion issues. They provide workshops on identifying and dealing with concepts like conscious and unconscious biases in their workplace.
“Although I have been fortunate not to have experienced any gender discrimination in my professional life, I have attended a lot of conferences where I hear women sharing their experiences of discrimination that they face in their workplace. I think if you face any form of discrimination, it is important to raise your concern directly to the person or anyone you feel comfortable with.”
Adhikari has been working in Apple for around three and a half years now, and she says every day has been a learning experience. She hopes to achieve much more in the future. She strives to help other women in tech find the support they need to find their way. She looks forward to the day when girls will have more than enough role models in technology.
“I urge young girls to look for mentors. Relationships and connections are important. Do not worry if you haven’t discovered your passion. Go ahead, take some risk and try different things; eventually, you will figure out your calling!”
This story was written by Ila Adhikari, the Story Series Manager of Nepali Women in Computing.