Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Mitali Palekar’s distinctive Univ. of Washington expertise will inform tech profession

Mitali Palekar, a soon-to-be computer science graduate at the University of Washington. (Photo courtesy of Mitali Palekar)

In pursuit of a degree in computer science with interdisciplinary honors at the University of Washington, Mitali Palekar is a recent “Husky 100” awardee, which recognizes 100 undergraduate and graduate students across three UW campuses who have “made the most of their UW experience.”

They should rename it the “Husky Understatement Award” based on just how much Palekar has achieved.

“While it’s so weird to think that I’ll be graduating in a few short months (and starting my first full-time software engineering job!), it’s also allowed me to reflect on how much this university and city has provided me with,” said Palekar, our latest Geek of the Week.

Not content with simply studying, graduating and moving on to professional life, Palekar has immersed herself deeply in the UW community, with a passion for using her experiences to uplift the voices of those around her. She has also interned as an undergrad at tech companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Stripe, as well as Uber, where she contributed to both core engineering projects and diversity initiatives.

Before she moves on to a new job as a software engineer at LinkedIn, here’s what else Palekar has accomplished:

  • Undergraduate research assistant in the UW CSE security & privacy lab, researching ways to tackle the challenges that we face with disinformation, smart homes (they just published a paper) and lack of usable secure email communication methods.
  • Contributed to the engineering, design and brand of a Bottomline, a company that she and her team started to enable new graduate software engineers to understand the true value of their compensation. They just reached the sweet 16 of the Dempsey Startup Competition.
  • Served as senior adviser and past president of UW Society of Women Engineers, a 500+ member organization focused on creating a welcoming community for female engineers and technologists.
  • Served as a peer adviser in the Allen School of Computer Science where she shares her experiences with current and incoming students to help them make the best of their UW experience.
  • Part of the TUNE House scholarship program, where she played a part in encouraging the next generation of female technologists through both the TUNE House Roadshow and annual TUNE House International Women’s Day event.

“As a college student and woman in technology, I’ve learned a ton about the experience of women as technologists in a male dominated world,” Palekar said. “For one, I’ve experienced my own set of off-handed comments and unconscious biases, and learned how to deal with them (and hopefully reduce them in the future). But more importantly, I’ve learned about the struggles and experiences others have faced, experiences that have awakened me to challenges that women and other minorities face around the world. At the end of the day, college has taught me how complex the issue of diversity, inclusivity and belonging is, and I’m really excited to bring these perspectives as I enter the working world of tech.”

When she takes a break from school and work, Palekar enjoys dancing, specifically Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form that she’s done since a young age. She also dabbles a bit in swing, salsa, zumba and more, and she enjoys hanging with friends and family and traveling when she can.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Mitali Palekar:

What do you do, and why do you do it? Right now, I spend most of my time learning as much as I can. As a student, this has involved working as a software engineering intern, a research assistant and entrepreneur. My hope is that through engaging in a variety of technical projects, I can continue honing my engineering skills while also developing a better understanding of where my interests lie.

At the same time, while I continue to develop myself, I also understand my responsibility to give back to my community and the people around me. As such, I also dedicate some of my time to encouraging young women to try out computer science and develop communities for young women and underrepresented minorities in computer science and engineering through my involvement as a student leader and peer adviser on campus. Through these avenues, I hope to play my role in improving representation, inclusion and belonging of underrepresented minorities in technology, ensuring that we continue to hone different sorts of talent and perspectives in tech.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Computer science can be for everyone. For years, there has been a stigma around computer science and programming that you must be a specific type of person to be successful. While over the last few years a lot has been changing, we still do not live in a world where all women and underrepresented minorities feel welcome and included within tech. And so, my hope to our readers is — even if you think you won’t like computer science, just give it a shot. Take that one class, go through that one YouTube video, open that one programming application. You really never know; if you end up loving computer science and programming, you might become a huge asset to the field of computer science due to your unique perspectives and ideas. And if you don’t like computer science, at least you’ve learned something new about yourself, so I call that a big win!

Where do you find your inspiration? I find my inspiration from my parents who have worked so hard to be where they are today while simultaneously being kind, loving and caring parents to both my brother and I. Additionally, all the strong, fearless and passionate young women who are my friends, TUNE house roommates and fellow female technologists.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My phone, without a doubt. It helps me stay connected with my family in the Bay Area, organized with my notes and calendar, reminds me of all my deadlines for the week (so important with all those homework assignments, ha!), enables me to destress with music and encourages me to sleep and stay heathy. Honestly, how did people live without smartphones?

(Photo courtesy of Mitali Palekar)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? As a student, I end up working in a ton of places: the undergraduate labs in the new(!) Gates Center, on the Allen Center sixth floor balcony, in the quad when it’s sunny, on my bed and sometimes on my desk. There’s always some snacks an arm’s length from my desk cause what’s work without some trail mix to go alongside.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Put your phone and laptop on do not disturb / turn off notifications. It’s a life changer, really.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Uhhhh, is it weird that I don’t know what these are?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … invest it into the company that my peers and I are starting, Bottomline, and see where that goes!

I once waited in line for … every ride at Disney cause Disney is my happy place 🙂

Your role models: My parents for how hard they have worked to be where they are today, all while being present and caring towards our family. Beyond that, I have derived role models from the people whom I have met and learned from over the last few years. These include: Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg for being true pioneers of their times, sharing with everyone their journeys and taking the time to talk to and support women and young girls today. Ali Partovi for taking the time and energy to mentor young technology students and always being open to bounce ideas off of. Ed Lazowska for his passion and dedication to making the Allen School such an amazing work environment. And finally, even though I haven’t met her, Lilly Singh for having an incredible work ethic and for being an undeniable pioneer for Indian women like myself.

Greatest game in history: The dinosaur game when your internet doesn’t work.

Best gadget ever: Google Chromecast.

First computer: Just a plain old windows computer.

Current phone: iPhone XR.

Favorite app: Google Calendar.

Favorite cause: Sharing my experiences with women and underrepresented minorities to encourage them to be best versions of themselves.

Most important technology of 2019: Inclusive AI

Most important technology of 2021: Self-driving cars

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Have the courage to follow your heart. And surround yourself with people who care about you, love you and support you for who you are, not what you have done.

Website: Mitali Palekar

Twitter: @mitalipalekar

LinkedIn: Mitali Palekar

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