It’s the story that captivates, technology supports.



Early Life

I grew up in Bombay and I was very, very fascinated by Bollywood. I wanted to be part of the movie industry in some way. That was my dream. And when I was about 10 or 11, my dance troupe was invited to be part of a movie called ‘Hum Bacche Hindustan Ke’. Sadly. when my parents took me to see it on the second day, it was gone from the theatre. Kind of tells you the calibre of that movie. But that’s what made me realise, hey, maybe acting or dancing is really not in my cards. I need to find another way to get into showbiz. The ‘aha’ moment came the first time I used a computer. I was a teenager and my father got a state of the art Silicon Graphics machine in his lab at TIFR. It was one of the only few machines in India at that time which could render graphics. As soon as I put my hands on it, I was hooked. My eyes just lit up and I knew that ‘this was the future.’ My father was a scientist, my mom was an artist. So computer graphics kind of combined those two forces in my head - the technical with the artistic. I prepared for IIT with a very focused goal of doing computer science. To get into CS in IIT Bombay, you need a JEE rank below 100 but that didn’t look impossible to me. I studied with the help of Agrawal classes (those were the gold standard back in the day). And I got a rank of 57 - don’t know how, really - but it happened.

Life at IIT Bombay

IIT was an amazing experience - it changed the way I think about problems and gave me lifelong friendships. I fondly recall our midnight snack and cack sessions at the Chinese corner, which I think was called ‘Rainbow’. My best friends are still from the IIT CS class. There are six of us at Google and we are each other’s strongest supporters. Being the only woman in class definitely meant that all the professors knew me, and if I was not in class, they knew I was not in class. But they were always really supportive. They took the time out to make sure that I was doing well and provide extra help when I needed it. I think they did realise it was harder for me. The boys met at eleven in the night to do their homework in a group while I was solving problems all by myself. H10 was at one end of the campus and the boys’ hostels were way off on the other side. But as I got into my junior and senior years I had such good friends in class, we were able to resolve this and did work together in groups from most projects. I also met my husband, Raj, at IIT. We became friends in our senior year and kept in touch. He went to Hawaii while I was at Penn State. Then, it slowly started dawning on us that we probably like each other more than just friends. And so, that’s where it went. And I’ll say that Raj is my biggest supporter. Even if I doubt myself, he never doubts me.

Professional Journey

I had started to see a trend towards computers aiding movie making, as seen in movies like ‘Star Wars’ and early shorts like ‘Tin Toy’ from Pixar. Realizing that would get me to my dreams, I specialized in computer graphics at Penn State and then, I joined Pixar Animation, where I worked on ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’. I was very, very deep in the technology and in the rendering of our movies. Production life is pretty intense. We did 60 to 80 hours a week during production time. As a technical director, I articulated the variables that helped characters come to life. Imagine assigning variables to the arm which say ‘this is how you move the arm up and down’. Those variables were presented to the animators in a visual tool to make it happen in the frame. After the animators did their job, we would add in texturing and lighting, making the whole scene very visually appealing and realistic. We had a farm of Silicon Graphics machines that would render these scenes overnight. In the morning, we would all come in, sit together and comment on the motion. Is it popping? Is it not popping? Then we’d go back and redo it, if needed. Just before launch, Disney had a focus group with kids and they were totally bored, even sleeping and yawning. We knew we had to redo it. It was a mad scramble because theatres were already booked. We redid a whole half hour of the film and in the end, we were able to meet the deadline. The one thing that I have kept with me from my days at Pixar is what Steve Jobs used to tell us: “It’s all about the story. No technology can fix a bad story.”

A Whole New World

After Pixar, I started my own company, where I learned a lot of my business skills without having to do an MBA. When I saw video becoming the next paradigm shift on the internet, I joined Google and moved to Youtube. My role was technical, and it was about forging partnerships. Youtube enabled everyone to be a storyteller and publish their thoughts and stories online. But how do they get the audience they’re looking for, target for revenue and make a sustainable business for themselves? That’s what my team and I helped creators with - what we now call the ‘creator economy’. Around 2016, I started seeing another trend. The appetite for watching content on TVs was back, this time via streaming services. That’s what made me take up a leadership role at Google for TV. I crafted the strategy and we are now executing on bringing our platforms to TV, so that everyone can lean back and enjoy YouTube, Netflix, Hotstar and more in their living rooms. It was quite an entrepreneurial journey, within Google, convincing our execs for the need to invest in this space. The art of storytelling helped me along the way. I was mindful of my audiences and convincing them about what we need to do and why. We launched GoogleTV a few years ago to great fanfare and continue the momentum for this product today, where it has become a full fledged business of its own.

Building Great Products

Right after I left Pixar, Raj said, “Hey, I’m going to learn computer graphics too. Can you help me?” We tried finding books but they were either too basic or too advanced. That’s what inspired us to co-author the book ‘Learning Computer Graphics’, published by Springer. We were thrilled when it was used by many universities as an introductory course. Looking back, I think the best reason to build something is because you want it. A certain kind of content, a certain type of experience - you build it and find the rest of the world wants it too.

Challenges as a Woman

Being the only woman in the room is always a hard challenge. Especially if you’re junior, it’s sometimes really hard to speak up and to feel heard. Now that I am a senior, my role is to be an ally to the next generation workforce. To make sure the voices of younger women are heard. Because in the end, the best businesses are built when there’s diversity of thought.

Work-Life Balance

There is a Pixar movie called ‘Cars’ where the protagonist, Lightning McQueen, wants to race from one end of the of the country to the other. But he ends up on Route 66, he slows down and makes a bunch of friends there. The friendships lead him to greater heights in the end. For me, that is such a compelling narrative for your career journey.. Sometimes, you’re going down that highway really, really fast. So fast that you don’t even have time to smell the roses. Then there are times when you slow down and take an exit. At Pixar, I was in the accelerated mode. In fact, I was expecting Sonal while working on ‘A Bug’s Life’. If you see the end- credits, there’s a section called ‘production babies’. Sonal is one of the ten in that list! After that, I went part time for a few years, left work completely for a year and got back on, without feeling like I had lost out on anything. Of course, it’s never easy. Like all women, I have felt guilty going to an important meeting when my kids wanted me to be at home. One thing that’s helps is that the products I work on are products that my kids love and relate to. My daughter Sonal is working at a biotech company, Genentech, while my son Ronak is a sophomore in computer science and business at USC. Recently, Sonal told me, “Mom, I’m so inspired by the fact that you continued to work and have us kids and did a good job of raising us. That inspires me to want to also do the same.” What more can I ask for?

Advice to Young Women

Keep experimenting. If you’re not sure about something but think you may like it, give it a shot. Even if you don’t like it, experience is never lost.