By Stephanie Walden
When Jyothi Bandakka arrived at SJCE College in Mysore, India, to pursue a career in engineering, she had only seen computers on television. This was the 1990s, so the machines were still relatively novel. Not to mention, back in her small hometown of Pavagada, an “engineer” typically meant someone who built houses or worked in construction—not a programmer.
In her third semester, Jyothi was exposed to computer science and programming modules. She instantly fell for the puzzle-solving nature and “poetry” of programming. A friend in her class who had prior experience with the subject guided her through some of the beginner’s learning hurdles.
“Many of the city kids had some exposure to computers,” explains Jyothi. “I didn’t have any exposure. My friend brought me up to speed and helped me develop a basic understanding of the very fundamentals of computer programming and how I might approach it; what the thought process should be. After that, it was really fun. And the most interesting part for me in the engineering studies [became] programming.”
By the end of Jyothi’s time at university, the tables had turned: “In the final years, my friends used to copy my programs and use them for reference,” she recalls with a chuckle.
A confluence of factors led to Jyothi’s educational achievements. In India, when students head to university, they vie for “seats,” a certain number of slots allocated to freshmen for different areas of study. For students from small towns like Jyothi’s, it used to be relatively rare for girls to pursue engineering seats—some towns didn’t even offer “streams” to enter into a science-focused track. To enter this field, most had to move far afield.
Even pre-university colleges (which provide two years of study before university, around the age of 17-18) taught very few science courses—and only general science was offered; specialist computer sciences were not catered for. The only pre-university college offering the science stream was the government pre-university college that Jyothi attended.
“My educational route into computer science was auspicious in many ways,” Jyothi says, “My state had many engineering colleges and a good number of seats allocated from the common entrance by the state government. But still, in the kind of town where I was from, we used to see very few girls go into science.”
Jyothi’s work ethic also saw her excel, where many others would have fallen through the cracks. “The teaching quality at the pre-university colleges was often poor. In my year, only five people passed the exams, out of 70-80 students,” she explains. “To pass you needed to put in a lot of extra work. And to do that you needed a supportive, pedagogical home environment.”
Jyothi had that family support in spades—both her father and brother were advocates for her STEM studies.
“I was not from a financially [well-off] background,” Jyothi says. “My parents used to struggle but my dad was a steadfast supporter of mine. He would maintain that nothing will get in the way of me completing my studies. In this regard, he was a trailblazer. He put female education above all else. This was quite unique in our small town.”
Meanwhile, Jyothi’s brother, Mahesh, introduced her to electronics. Mahesh had pursued an education stream in this area, and when he came home for the holidays, they would bond over his electronics kit. Together, they created circuits for lots of different novelties, from a water level indicator to an electronic piano.
Gaining Wisdom at Wyse
After university, Jyothi went on to take additional courses in Bangalore to learn the programming language C and the Unix operating system.
“That was one of the turning points in my professional career,” she notes. Dabbling in new concepts like modular and reusable code opened her eyes to the possibilities of engineering on a larger, enterprise-level scale. She landed her first job as an engineer shortly after, and quickly became a module leader and then a project leader.
“I became a go-to person for everything [at that first company],” she remembers.
The path eventually led her to join a new organization, Wyse Technologies, which had just launched an India branch. She became the second employee.
“At Wyse, it was a different kind of experience in terms of building teams. It involved a lot of [strategic thinking],” she says.
Jyothi spent the initial years at Wyse developing completely new proofs of concept. “I was proud to architect and single-handedly develop the first iteration of Merlin, a firmware deployment engine, which was then used in three different products.”
An Acquisition Leads to New Opportunities
In 2012, Dell Technologies acquired Wyse. The acquisition enabled Jyothi to expand Wyse’s culture of innovation and use events such as global hackathons to grow its patent program. To date, the innovation initiatives led by Jyothi’s team in India have resulted in around 60-70 patents.
“The team’s motto was that, not only should highly experienced architects or technical leads be filing patents but any group of engineers should be able to file them,” explains Jyothi. “I created platforms to turn that motto into a reality.”
Very early on at Dell Technologies, her product was selected for productization. She also had the opportunity to try out different types of roles, including management roles. In 2019, she was recognized as a Distinguished Engineer.
Today she gets her kicks from problem-solving. “If a day is full of working with different teams for different problems, it’s a fulfilling day for me,” she says.
Advice for Young Girls in STEM
For young girls from similar backgrounds interested in pursuing STEM, Jyothi notes that a support system will more than compensate for other shortfalls. Her own family’s support has a constant theme throughout her career—her father’s words of encouragement stuck with her long after finishing university.
“My dad always used to say that anything that you earn from your hard work, you’ll never lose in your lifetime. Your contribution to your work will stay with you. This motivated me,” she says.
Jyothi recognizes that, for many women, the choice between having a family and pursuing professional dreams may seem like an either/or scenario—she’s seen several women opt for less technical roles because they think it will be more manageable than a tech-focused track. But having experienced both, she says that perception isn’t necessarily accurate.
“Whether you’re in a management role or a technical role, both have their own challenges,” notes Jyothi. “So, if you are good at technology, good at programming, architecture, design thinking, all that stuff, I would call more girls to come towards the technology side.”
Finally, Jyothi advises that a go-getter mentality paired with hard work can really pay off.
“For boys and girls, getting into professional courses is often beset with challenges, sometimes from stiff competition, sometimes from financial pressures. Of course, girls have the added complication of having to battle stereotypes. But the opportunity is the same.”
“If you put the hard work in, nothing is impossible.”
Jyothi Bandakka is a Dell Technologies Distinguished Engineer, a distinction given to the most accomplished technology leaders in the company.
This article is part of the “Rebel Women” series that features female trailblazers in technology as they share the stories of their careers and advice for women interested in STEM.
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