What do Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Jessica Alba have in common? Prachi Gupta identifies all three as role models in her career as a software engineer. As engineers-cum-entrepreneurs, Bezos and Musk are fairly typical role models for the most ambitious denizens of Silicon Valley. Prachi’s identification with Alba is more interesting. Alba first came to Prachi’s attention in her breakout role on the science fiction television series Dark Angel. But it was Alba’s reincarnation as an entrepreneur—as founder of the Honest Company—that really ignited Prachi’s interest. “To have that strong will and the ability to show people you’re more than one thing—I really admire that,” explains Prachi.
Prachi came to her career via a more direct route than did Alba, but through a similar exertion of will. She grew up in New Delhi, India, the daughter of a homemaker and a chemical-engineer-turned-businessman. Prachi is the only member of her immediate family to have pursued a career in a STEM field. Her introduction to computers was thus “very, very coincidental,” she says.
“I was maybe six or seven years old,” Prachi recalls. “And I happened to walk by my school’s computer lab in the middle of a class.” The class’s teacher pulled Prachi into the lab, sat her in front of a computer, and quickly gave her the instructions to operate the drawing program Lego. “After the first two minutes of fiddling with the program,” Prachi says. “I was hooked for life. Here was something that did exactly what I told it to do!” For a six-year-old, accustomed to obeying the dictates of her elders, this was tremendously empowering.
Computers may be work now, but, as a child, Prachi developed her computer literacy in the interests of fun. She played computer games—“anything, pretty much”—particularly, games whose free demo versions were distributed in PC Magazine. “In India,” Prachi explains. “Buying software is the most expensive thing you can do…there was no way my dad was going to give me money to go buy computer games.” So, Prachi played free demos. Her attempts to circumvent regular game play through cheats and hacks pushed her to learn more about computer systems.
Prachi didn’t stop at games. She founded her high school’s first computer club and served as its president for two years. She talked her way into an internship at an IT firm, though, at the time, internships were practically unheard of. She secured a master’s degree in computer science and worked at several software companies in India and in the United States, before making her way to LinkedIn, where she is now a Director of Engineering.
“If you think about why I got into computers,” says Prachi. “It’s not because someone told me, ‘Here’s a potential career for you.’ I got interested in computers because they were introduced to me as a fun thing.” This perspective guides Prachi’s work as a board member of Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), an organization that trains girls and women in the recording arts—and in the STEM principles that underlie sound production—with the aim of ameliorating the gender gap in the recording industry. “It’s a fun thing,” says Prachi. “You introduce someone to technology and science concepts, but make it fun.”
--Thea De Armond