Get to Know Nita Patel

POSTED BY on 11.07.2017

Nita describes herself as the black sheep of her family. While her family studied biology and medicine, she showed no interest. While growing up, if she cut herself, her sisters would want to closely examine it and look inside. She could never understand why they wanted to look inside; she just wanted to make it heal faster.  Her parents always said she thought like an engineer, trying to improve everything. With a lot of hard work and encouragement from her parents, her path was set to become one.

Just Part of How I Think

From a young age, Nita had a curious mind and enjoyed problem solving and fixing things. Originally, she thought engineering consisted of just solving the problem at hand with whatever resources were available, whether it was a complex problem or something as trivial as using “five sheets of paper, some paper clips, and a ball point pen to create a catapult.”

Nita’s first interaction with computers and technology was in the late 70s, early 80s.  She said it was “hard to avoid the transfer from mechanical to electrical.” She reminisced about the manual family typewriter and how they upgraded to a word processor, how it could store an entire page of text, and how it could be easily edited before the page was printed. In telling the story, she thought “What if you could do this for your whole document? That would be so cool!” She admitted in hindsight that she knew colleges already had full document word processors.

Nothing Was Going to Stop Me

In high school Nita took her first computing classes and immersed herself in the computer and engineering world. She joined the computer club as well as a science, engineering and math club – a STEM club before STEM became part of our everyday vernacular. She recalls going to challenges and being the only female on the team. As the first and only female team member at the time, the team asked, “What do we do with Nita?” for a competition in Baton Rouge, LA. She recalls overhearing the conversations: “How are we going to chaperone her?” “Who will room with her?” “Can she room by herself?” Nita believes her mom accompanied her on the trip, but said, “It was weird that no one knew how to handle such a simple situation.”

Nita attended college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she majored in electrical engineering and mathematics and minored in computer science. During the last two years, she took most of her “computer flavor” coursework like computer architecture, data structure, and programming language. The number of female students in her classes was small. The women were more likely to be in her computer science classes rather than electrical engineering. She said she did have one electrical engineering female professor and if memory serves her right, two female computer science professors. It was a big deal to have a female professor for Nita because seeing them in that role made it seem possible for her to have a career in the field too.  Seeing them excel in their roles made everything seem possible.

I Don’t Balance, I Choose

Nita first heard of and joined the IEEE Computer Society during her freshmen year. She started volunteering halfway through the year and was an officer at her student branch chapter all four years. Nita has since been involved with all aspects and at all levels of both IEEE and IEEE Computer Society. A sampling of her roles include the following:

  • Women In Engineering International Leadership Conference, Founder & Chair, 2014-Present
  • IEEE Computer Society, Nominations & Appointments Committee, 2017
  • IEEE Computer Society Vice President, Membership & Geographic Activities Board, 2016
  • IEEE Computer Society Board of Governors, 2013-15
  • IEEE Eta Kappa Nu Board of Governors, 2014-15
  • IEEE Computer Society Engagement Ad-Hoc, 2015
  • IEEE Women in Engineering International Chair, 2013-14
  • IEEE Computer Society Elections Chair, 2013
  • IEEE-USA Communications Committee Member, 2013
  • IEEE Computer Society Member and Geographic Awards & Recognition Committee, 2013
  • IEEE-USA Board of Governors, VP Communications and Public Awareness, 2010-12
  • IEEE Computer Society MGAB, Secretary/Treasurer, 2011-12
  • IEEE New Initiatives Committee, 2012
  • IEEE Computer Society IT Week Committee, 2010
  • IEEE-USA Annual Meeting Committee, 2007-11
  • IEEE-USA Annual Meeting Chair, 2009-10
  • IEEE Women In Engineering Committee, 2006-07

Nita Patel Girls at WorkWhen asked particularly about the importance of giving back and volunteering her time to the organization and to the industry in her role with Women In Engineering (WIE) Nita said, “I think it is good to give back in general. There are a lot of reasons to volunteer. And for me one of them is to make a difference. I wanted to be able to impact a path or people, specifically, women In engineering.” She recalls a funny anecdote when she was nominated for WIE by the Board of Governors. When she came home and told her husband, “He said, ‘You never distinguish yourself as female engineer vs. just an engineer.’ And that is true. I’ve always just considered myself an engineer. And maybe I am one of the fortunate people who haven’t felt a lot of bias in my career, but part of it is, I don’t accept it and, if it was there, I didn’t acknowledge it and just moved on and never let it impact my decisions.”

“Women are just as successful engineers as men and there should be recognition and opportunities for them. I really wanted to focus on advancing women in tech and being out there to promote and provide resources and opportunities for them.”

When asked how she balances all of her roles in the Computer Society, IEEE, WIE, her job, and her personal life, Nita said, “I don’t use the word balance, actually. I think that is a misnomer. I don’t think it is about balancing. I think it is about choosing. I choose to do certain things and there are a lot things I choose not to do.” She talked about  how she recently chose to step back in her roles with the Computer Society to focus her time elsewhere. She continued saying, “My choices in six months will be different, and my choices in a year will be different.”

Increasing the Technology Literacy Rate

When asked what she sees and hopes for the future of the field, Nita says, “computer science and computer engineering is significantly impacting people’s lives. I think we need to toot our own horn a little bit and make people understand where all of this impact on their life is coming from.” She continued, “Maybe it is about literacy. So, people are literate, but I don’t know if they are necessarily technically literate. Making people more technically literate, I think that is what is preventing a lot of the young kids from pursuing the STEM fields is they see all of this technology, but at some level it is just magic. They don’t understand the work that goes into it, since they are not pursuing this field. But it’s so exciting, it’s ever-changing. With so many opportunities in different areas you can make a difference. But people aren’t aware of it, so maybe it is about literacy.”

She doesn’t believe schools would necessarily need to change what they are currently doing or remove any of the fundamentals. “I think we just need to tie the fundamentals to the application part of it. This is what engineering is, the application of fundamentals and making that link more obvious.”

Today, Nita Patel is a distinguished computer engineer having won the 2014 L3 Engineer of the Year Award as well as the 2011 New Hampshire Engineer of the Year Award. She is a Senior Director, Engineering, at L3 Technologies which is a private company that contracts primarily with the defense forces with a focus on the special ops community. They develop leading edge technologies that are being first evaluated by the special ops before they are adapted by the broader army. She is also a decorated volunteer member of IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society serving on several committees, on the Board of Governors for both, has been highly involved with Women in Engineering, was the Founder of International Leadership Conference, and has been the chair since 2014. WIE recently held a one-day Women in Computing event in Santa Clara, CA on 21 September. You can see pictures and a quick recap of that event here. 

POSTED IN  |  TAGS:   •    •  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.