Kaarthika Thakker adds communication to tech toolkit

Rice computer science alumna is an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

Kaarthika Thakker standing with hands in pockets under a bridge. Photo by Photo by Kara McKurdy.

“I had two awesome internships at Google while completing my Computer Science degree at Rice University,” said Kaarthika Thakker (BS ’20). “I even got to present in a Google All-Hands as an intern. But I decided that I didn’t want to return full-time so I could wait until the spring to apply to jobs outside of big tech. Then, Covid.”

Graduating into a pandemic economy, Thakker shifted her attention to the 2020 election cycle. She began working as a volunteer on data analysis for a local house race and communication strategies for nationwide voter of color mobilization and was later hired as the Communications Director and Casework Manager for New York State Assembly Member Zohran K. Mamdani.

While Thakker was carving out her space in tech-based data and communication, Americans had been re-evaluating how they learned, played, shopped, and worked. As the nation’s dependence on technology grew more apparent, government policies evolved to shape provider accountability and user access.

“Reading about each new tech policy made me think that no one who actually works on the front-line in tech was involved in making these kinds of decisions,” she said. “I found myself remembering other situations where engineers doing the work were unable to influence product direction or decisions, even though those are the people that often best understand the content. It usually comes down to communication strategy, which policy makers and industry executives understand more than the average engineer.”

The overlap between technology and communication strategy is one of Thakker’s strengths. From their first introductory CS course –COMP 140– she and her Rice peers were taught how to think about real-world problems in ways that could be solved with computation, and they worked in teams to describe and solve the challenges. A natural communicator, Thakker seemed to thrive on making sense of new ideas and concepts.

“It is all about asking good questions,” she said. “Understanding how to express yourself when you don’t know something is also helpful. We use a lot of analogies and metaphors to describe things that have never been done before. Communication underpins and makes sense of all those zeroes and ones.”

Making sense of the explosion of demand for all those zeroes and ones was a problem the government tried to solve with new technology policies. Working for NY Assembly Member Mamdani gave Thakker a closer perspective of the policy makers and their processes. Although she applied on a whim and a wave of excitement for the first South Asian American state politician to be elected in New York, she was uniquely suited for the role.

“I understood how to read tech legislation, I could communicate and distill the issues, and I had concentrated on society and technology for my minor at Rice. I was excited to bring all that to the table,” she said.

Thinking deeply about government, policy and societal issues, Thakker said she sees a need for providing incentives to companies at the highest level, to support what has become an essential infrastructure.

“Even as an intern at Google, I was aware of the immense pride that every Googler felt about our reliability. Google just never goes down. No matter if you are in California or India or Brazil, people can rely on Google to get the information they need. That is the kind of pride and reliability we need to see in all our digital infrastructure providers.

“But, decisions driven by profit are not always the most beneficial for the users, workers, or even the company. As governmental decisions are being made, it is important to think about how a policy will actually impact people –both the consumers who rely on and need the service and the employees who are trying to support those customers.”

Her interest in technology policy has not dwindled, but the constant travel to Albany became unsustainable after 18 months, so Thakker looked closer to home for a suitable cause. These days, she is a tech worker organizer based out of Local 1010 for the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) in New York City. She is one of the three organizers working on tech organizing.

“Both of my colleagues came from Kickstarter, the first tech company to win their contract,” said Thakker. “They won things like four-day work weeks and better layoff provisions –if only we all had that today!”

“A lot of my friends are tech workers; these are people who really care about using technology for good and making good decisions for their users. When an organization cuts a project that the engineers, designers, and product managers have been working on for a long time, it hurts the users and it hurts the employees. It may be natural to assume better pay is the reason a company’s employees are trying to organize, but it is more likely that tech workers are organizing to have a bigger say in product decisions or whether employees can choose to work or decline to work on projects that support an objectionable outcome –like creating tech for ICE #NoTechforICE or the military like #NoTechforApartheid.”

In organizing, in politics, and in her work as a software engineer and product manager, Thakker is always using her communication skills to inform, explain, and shift perspective. She said whether an engineer is launching a company, helping shape policy, organize workers, or even interview for a job, communication underpins every successful venture.

“Communication is core to everything you do in the tech industry. Understanding and communicating problems comes first; coding is secondary. What felt remarkable to me in my industry interviews was getting job offers after I’d obviously arrived at the wrong answer in a tech interview. That is when I realized that it wasn’t about getting the ‘right answer.’ It was more about why we were answering a particular question and being able to explain how we were approaching the solution as we were working through the process.

“Beyond the actual goal of writing code that does what you need, you are building a system that must be easily understood by the next developer who picks up your code. Being able to collaborate with your co-workers, advocate for design changes, plan for capacity for future expansion – that usually comes down to how well you communicate.”

At Rice, one of the ways Thakker improved her communication skills was working as a student teaching assistant (TA) for COMP 140. She had to learn how to explain ideas clearly and quickly because the less time the students needed to ask basic questions, the more time they had to brainstorm the real issues facing their team. Those same skills translate well to technical teams.

“A lot of the product manager’s job is to translate between the software engineers and other team members and higher ups,” said Thakker. “So PM skills are often based in communication skills. The people writing the code know the most about its technical limitations. Taking this nitty gritty thing and explaining it to someone who doesn’t know that language or how to read code is critical to making solid team decisions and decisions about the product.

“Any software engineer who focuses on improving their communication skills will develop into a really good software engineer – not because they are better coders, but because they can explain why what their code does is important.”

Photo at top of Kaarthika Thakker by Kara McKurdy