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Women in Business Q&A: Nithya Ruff, Director Open Source Strategy, SanDisk

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Nithya A. Ruff is the Director of SanDisk's Open Source Strategy Office. SanDisk is a global leader in flash storage solutions from edge devices to cloud and enterprise data centers. She has been working in the open source world since 1999 when Linux and Open Source were in their infancy. She has since introduced new support models for open source, been a key member of two open source projects and led the product management and marketing function for the industry's best embedded open source distribution. She currently is working on bringing best in class open source ideas and to grow community and commercial engagement for SanDisk.

She has worked at companies like Wind River (Intel Subsidiary). Synopsys, Avaya, SGI, Eastman Kodak and at start-ups like Movius, Cranite and Tripwire.

Nithya has an MBA from the University of Rochester, NY and an MS in Computer Science from North Dakota State University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two daughters. She is an avid traveler, designer of beautiful jewelry and a student of life and business. She enjoys speaking both on technology issues as well as on women in technology and business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in India where I had amazing role models, such as my father, and a very supportive family. Education was important and it was expected that I would pursue medicine, engineering, or a related field. I mention this because, the expectations parents have, usually influence what their kids pursue as a career. My father's advice to study computer science has made me the person I am today and coming to the US for my graduate degree opened up a whole new world of possibilities for which I'm very grateful.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SanDisk?
I started out at Kodak during the heyday of photography and imaging. That experience helped me understand the role SanDisk plays in the imaging and storage industries. My work at various Silicon Valley companies, both large and small, gave me a broad perspective on technology and trends. It also allowed me to understand how open source was transforming technology creation and collaboration across the industry. I am a highly collaborative person and aim to always be open-minded about new ideas. This allowed me to innately understand open source, its ability to solve big inter-connected problems, and improve the way we develop products. My experience and open source exposure has made me an expert on open innovation and prepared me for my role at SanDisk. Our role is to work with the outside world on collaboration with SanDisk and to encourage innovation internally. My other role is as a board member of the SanDisk Women's Innovation Network. This is an employee resource group that works on empowering women at SanDisk and advocating for them. This is something I care deeply about and this role has allowed me to give back, mentor, and bring programs that enhance our corporate culture.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SanDisk?
While SanDisk is a Fortune 500 company with offices all around the world, it feels surprisingly small and intimate. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to shape my role and align it to my strengths and interests. As I mentioned, I lead our open source strategy, as well as the Women's Innovation Network, and I'm very passionate about both. The challenge in everything I do is to align the work to SanDisk's business objectives and goals. In some of the areas I work in, that may not be so direct or clear, and I challenge myself to make those linkages. I consider myself a change agent and am drawn to these types of roles. Often when you are a change agent, not everyone will get it and support your work. The challenge is to persist in making those changes and having deep belief in what you are doing. I find myself drawing on that when I run into walls.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
It is helpful to have a technical background or a deep interest in how technology works. Whether you are in marketing or on the finance side, you will need to understand it and know what it means to your function. I believe in having a background in technology and some experience in programming. Technology is the backbone of most businesses. The second is to be a strong communicator. It's important to learn how to communicate and sell your ideas. This allows you to be seen as an expert and a go-to-person. Networking in your industry is also very important and helps you gain visibility with others. It is a fast moving industry and you need to be up to speed on the latest in your field to be relevant. Lastly, we work in a people driven business - develop emotional intelligence, get to know yourself better, have the ability to self-regulate, and try not to take things personally.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The most import aspect of a long career is to understand who you are and to take care of yourself. It is easy to be completely focused on your work and ignore your needs. By knowing yourself, you can develop confidence in your choices and your point of view. It sounds like common sense but so many of us forget that if your engine is not strong, you cannot sustain a busy career and life. Create a support system, find time for family, friends and mentors, develop a hobby or other interests and be a lifelong learner.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Balance implies that you balance both work and life without one overtaking the other. With smart phones and the constant connectivity, we have the ability to work from anywhere, and are often expected to be available. It has become more of a work-life integration issue, as the boundaries between work and life are not always clearly defined. The trick becomes seeing life as a whole and how you can set and achieve goals in all areas of it. This is something that I am always striving to do, and will continue to focus on moving forward. I look at each day and see what absolutely needs to be done that day. The stress comes when we try to do too much or too many things at the same time.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workspace?
Historically, one of the biggest challenges in the technology world has been the availability of talent, and specifically women. That's one of the reasons why I got involved in SanDisk's Women Innovation Network. It has established a great mentorship system internally and has improved our corporate culture. It is important to recognize that every company will be more successful with a diverse workforce; it brings different ideas, experiences, and customer understanding.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentors and sponsors are very important when you need advice and help throughout your career. My father was a huge mentor and advisor for many years. My husband is someone I turn to constantly. There are people I admire at work for the way they approach problems. The open source community has been one of the most collaborative and supportive communities I have ever been a part of. I can always look to peers in the community to answer a question or bounce ideas off of. I strongly believe in building a network of experts, supporters, and advisors in various parts of your life. It does not need to be a formal mentor-mentee relationship, but simply someone you can call when you have a question. Always return the favor, give back, be a resource to someone else. What goes around comes around.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There is not one specific female leader that I admire. There are many. One of them is Padmasree Warrior, former CTO at Cisco and now CEO at Nextev USA. She is a visionary when it comes to technology, but is also an amazing communicator and a people person. I also admire Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. All these women defy boundaries and don't leave their unique strengths as a woman behind either. Padmasree talks about the need to digitally detox to "refresh" yourself. It is great to hear a whole-person perspective from these leaders. There are also many amazing women in open source both on the technical side and on the business side. These women support each other and I never hesitate to ask them for help or inspiration.

What do you want SanDisk to accomplish in the next year?
SanDisk has been a great place to work and I have been able to be the change agent on multiple fronts. SanDisk's enlightened leadership has allowed me to align my passion, competency and goals. We have made huge strides in how we work with the open source community and I want to continue to drive this as an engine of innovation for us. On the inclusion and diversity front, we want to broaden awareness and education throughout the company of the strength from diversity. We want to expand our mentorship program and make SanDisk a great place for both women and men to work.

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