I’m stoked to have Mahak here to kick us off for the new year/decade! This is Mahak’s second appearance on the blog, as part of our Where are they now? series. Back in 2015 when we featured Mahak for the first time she was an intern at Microsoft and studying in Texas, and since then she’s moved to Seattle full-time and is back to tell us about how she set her sights on a team and secured an offer there (and all of the other side projects she has going on to keep her busy!)
Tell us a little about you?
My name is Mahak Mithani and I’m an incessantly sarcastic Program Manager 2 on the Mixed Reality team at Microsoft. I moved to the Seattle area from Houston two years ago and have been trying to find my niche ever since.
I went to Texas A&M University where I got my Bachelor’s in Computer Science. I was an avid dancer growing up and captain of my university’s Bollywood dance team. Since moving here, I’ve constantly been looking for places to learn new styles or people to collaborate with to keep that part of me alive. Recently, I was accepted onto the University of Washington’s Bollywood dance team, where I am desperately trying to pose as a college student. I also have a food blog @mahak.masala on Instagram. Currently, I use it to review restaurants, but I’m hoping to go back to filming recipe videos again soon.
How has your style evolved to what it is now?
It was a rough transition from broke college student to paycheck-receiving techie, and my wardrobe was definitely affected. In school, I shopped from budget-friendly places like Forever 21, H&M, Rue 21, Plato’s Closet, and Etiquette, and even continued to do so after I began working. It took a few unfortunate incidents with my washer-dryer to learn that these clothes were not the fittest to survive. Eventually, I changed my perspective and began to value quality of my clothes over quantity. This meant saying no to buy-one-get-one-for-$1 sales, but that was probably for the best. Sometimes I’m still shocked at my receipt after a shopping spree, and sometimes I avoid wearing my nice clothes, saying they’re only for a “special occasion.” But when you realize that you don’t need a special occasion to dress up, that’s when the next part of your life begins.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have some pieces in my collection from my college days, but I’ve worked out a deal with myself to help purge those: for every new piece that I buy, I donate a piece from my collection. (In full disclosure, sometimes my sister claims my donations. Hey, she’s still in college. ‘One man’s trash’ and all.) In ridding myself of my old pieces, my wardrobe has evolved to more business casual all-around, which is no accident. People compliment me so much when I wear a dress to work, but really, I just avoided putting on pants in the morning. Business casual is definitely my preferred style, and always has been. The difference is that now my blazers and dresses are more structured and no longer shrink in the wash.
My friends and coworkers can tell when I’m not feeling my best just by the shoes I wear. If I come to work three inches shorter, they ask me what’s wrong. Heels are pretty much a staple in my work wardrobe, and that may be the biggest difference between my work style and personal style. At work, I’m mostly sitting, so I love donning my block heels. But on the weekends, I’m usually running around the city, so I like to stay mobile with flats or sneakers. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I don’t actually own a lot of shoes. I feel like I just need two of each kind of shoe: heels, boots, flats, each in black and brown. My accessory selection is pretty algorithmic – I only own a handful, but can always find something to map to my current outfit.
What are you working on at the moment, and what do you love about it?
I’m currently working on Microsoft Dynamics 365 Product Visualize. It’s a mobile iOS application that uses mixed reality to make the sales process quicker and more efficient. I love that I get to build real-life applications of mixed reality for the enterprise world. I’ve never really been a ‘gamer,’ so I’m actually much more in my element making a business application than a first-person shooter game.
What do you wish you’d known when you were studying?
Computer Science was rough. I went through elementary and high school loving math and science. Subjects and studying came easy to me. I was fortunate enough to consistently make good grades and rank first in my class. However, I never took a Computer Science course in school, despite choosing it as my major when applying to universities. When I began college, I was intimidated by all the boys in my class who had been coding for years now and knew way more, or at least acted like they did. This was the first time that learning wasn’t coming naturally to me. I wasn’t doing well and I was scared to ask for help. I even made up my mind to change majors. I sat down with my professor and told her how I was feeling. She was upset for a second, but asked me if this was because I was feeling intimidated by certain individuals in class. I sheepishly admitted I was. She told me that sometimes, some people speak very loudly to appear smarter, but they’re not. She reassured me that there will come a point where their extent of Computer Science knowledge ends, and they will quiet down. She also told me that I’m actually performing very well and that I shouldn’t give up. That bit of reassurance was enough to keep me in the major, however difficult the next few years were. Admittedly, I was always better at theory and weaker in application of what I learned; I understood the subject, but always found it difficult to code successfully.
By the end of my first semester, I had secured an internship with Microsoft, which became the light at the end of the tunnel. They made me aware of the Program Manager position, which sounded perfect for me. I knew that there was a world out there where I could apply everything I had learned in school but would also never be obligated to code. The PM role encompassed all my strengths – organization, people skills, research, design, technical knowledge – and sounded like something I would genuinely enjoy doing. I became a voice for others at school who shared my situation and was even invited to speak at seminars about alternative jobs after graduating with a CS degree.
Being a PM has taught me a lot about the industry and about myself. Firstly, there are a lot of different types of PMs based on the company and team you work in. There are Technical PMs, Product PMs, Producer PMs, Design PMs, the list goes on and on. However, there remains a sort of prejudice towards the role in its entirety. One of my mentors explained it best: being a PM is about managing a team without actually being their manager. You have to get a group of (often resistant) people on the same page as you, without being able to motivate them via their careers. You have to genuinely get them to understand and build for the customer, not themselves. PMs create the production plan, scope features, and generally ask developers to do a bunch of stuff that they may not enjoy doing. A good PM is one that can understand and consolidate different perspectives to rally the team.
Secondly, I learned about my personal obstacles in the workplace. I grew up being extremely introverted and never talked back to elders. It made me a great daughter from my parents’ perspective, but ended up being my Achilles heel as a PM. I’ve constantly had to force myself to speak up and push back in meetings if I don’t agree with something. Giving my opinions was difficult, let alone interrupting someone to do so. It took a few negative 1:1s with my managers to make me realize that I can’t continue to be in a shell at work. Since then, I’ve been making active efforts to adapt my personality for work. Some days, my PM self and introvert self are in direct conflict, while other days they are one and the same.
How did you land where you are now? Did you have a plan?
Funny you should ask that! I actually recounted my path to the Mixed Reality team on my website.
“A lot of what I’ve accomplished in my life started out as a quest to prove someone wrong. Maybe this is a story about resilience. About how I developed a skill no one teaches in school. About how I went from nearly crying in front of my manager to earning a job on a dream team on my own merit. About how I took an opportunity that filled me with a myriad of negative emotions and flipped it in my favor.”
What has surprised you about working in this industry?
I think a lot of us harbor this sense of impenetrability - of invincibility. We hear stories of workplace harassment and mistreatment of women all the time, but unless it’s happened to us, it’s always someone else’s story. We think, “not me, not my manager, not my team…”
A few months ago I had an incident with a manager on my team. The whole experience is written up on my website.
“I felt defeated. I still feel defeated. This experience left me jaded. I once believed I had found some corner of the tech world that was full of rainbows and unicorns and support. But perhaps no such corner exists. Perhaps I just need to keep looking. For now, I am happy just working for a direct manager who has my back, with co-workers that I enjoy getting lunch with, on a product that I believe in. And I guess that just has to be enough for now.”
What’s a project you’ve worked on that you’re proud of?
Last year, I had the opportunity to demo one of my sister products, Remote Assist, on stage during Satya’s corenote at Inspire. I spoke in the T-Mobile arena in Las Vegas and over 40,000 people watched in person and online. It was an incredible opportunity to represent the organization I work for and I was extremely humbled to have been chosen. You can check out the video below, or on my website.
What is the best way for people to connect with you?
You can check out my website at mahakmithani.com
P.S. Check out Mahak’s first appearance on the blog.