In high school, Nithya Ruff remembers, “I was shy. I was self-conscious. I didn’t have faith in myself.”
Nithya grew up in Bangalore, India, “which is now the Silicon Valley of India.” Nithya’s first inklings of her academic prowess (“that I could be very good, if I applied myself”) came to her in a high school history course. But it was self-doubt more than love of history that brought her to drop math for history, during her pre-university courses. “I wanted to get really good grades,” says Nithya. And history seemed more likely to yield the grades Nithya wanted than did math.
On graduating, Nithya followed a close friend to business school, “just to hang out with her.” During her senior year, a family friend living in Fargo, North Dakota suggested that Nithya—somewhat aimless—consider attending graduate school in the United States. “It was really unknown in those days for a single woman to go off by herself, without being married,” says Nithya. Nevertheless, on her father’s recommendation—“he said, ‘Computer science, that’s the future’”—Nithya applied to the Master’s program in computer science at North Dakota State University. As an undergraduate, Nithya had returned to math (“accounting was a lot of math; operations research was a lot of math”), but she had never taken a computer science class. All the same, Nithya’s “blind shot” paid off. She got in.
During her first year in Fargo, Nithya began dating one of her classmates. She married him during the second year of her Master’s program, on her first day of classes. Nithya laughs: “I remember the person sitting next to me [in class] looking at my wedding band and saying, ‘What are you doing, wearing a wedding band? When did you get that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, this morning.’” Thirty years later, Nithya and her husband are still married. Nithya identifies him as a vital source of support in her career—both as a fellow computer scientist and as a stay-at-home father to their two daughters.
On graduating from North Dakota State, Nithya found a job in IT at Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. She liked coding, but she hated the isolation and on-call hours required by her job. “I think the nail in the coffin for me was—it was 2 am, winter in Rochester, New York, lots of snow on the road, and I got a call from IT,” Nithya remembers. Nithya enjoyed working with people, so she convinced Kodak to appoint her product planner and, then, to sponsor her for an MBA at the University of Rochester. The shy, self-conscious high schooler had begun to find direction.
“When I finished my MBA,” says Nithya. “What I learned about myself was that I drove my career all along. No one really knows you better than you do, and no one really cares about what you want to do next like you do…you should drive [your career].” She adds, “I wanted to be in technology and discovered that there were many ways I could contribute, without being in coding”.
The next stop for Nithya was Silicon Valley. After a stint at Kodak Silicon Valley, Nithya joined Silicon Graphics International (SGI). There, Nithya discovered her love of open source: “It’s collaborative, open, transparent development. It empowers developers—and everybody!—to study software, at no charge, and to modify…and contribute back to it.” From SGI, Nithya proceeded to several start-ups, as well as several larger companies, namely, Avaya and SanDisk. Nowadays, Nithya leads open source practice for the media and technology company Comcast. She is also working to bring more women into open source (it’s even less diverse than the rest of the tech industry). As an evangelist for open source, Nithya recalls her father’s belief in computer science, more than thirty years ago, when Nithya embarked on her career in tech—as computer science was then, open source is now, Nithya says, “the future.”