Alumni spotlight: Aruna Nookala

When Aruna Nookala (B.S. 1994) first enrolled in undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota, she was already a wife and a mother. Even with her family responsibilities and scheduling challenges, she was able to thrive as a non-traditional student due to her determination and intelligence.

Aruna has built a successful career at two of the leading companies in Minnesota (first at 3M, followed by Medtronic, and back to 3M for the last seven years). She's also a strong supporter of empowering women in tech, and she volunteers her time and expertise to promote STEM initiatives at 3M and serves on the board of WomenVenture.

In the interview below, Aruna shares her thoughts on her time at the University of Minnesota, her career progression, and the importance of mentorship and supporting women in computing.

What was your educational background before coming to the University of Minnesota?

I grew up in the central part of India. I was fortunate enough to have a good foundation in my education for a couple of reasons. I went to an English-speaking school that provided a strong base in math and science. It was also a core-education school, which was rare in India at the time. I was able to proceed onto college and take care of two kids because of this foundation I had from my early education.

What drew you to Minnesota as a 'non-traditional student'?

My husband and I moved to the United States so he could attend The Ohio State University. From there, he accepted a new job in the Twin Cities, so we relocated to Minnesota.

Once we moved, going to this university was a no-brainer for me. The University of Minnesota was a top school for computer science and engineering. I knew I wanted to study computer science since it was a rising field at the time and it was a great way for me to learn a lot of applications in other engineering fields as well.

The B.S. in computer science was definitely a hardcore program, but I enjoyed the time I spent in the classroom and the lab as an undergraduate student. The assignments could get very difficult but they prepared me for my future career.

I had many impactful professors that helped me along the way, such as Dr. Maria Gini and Dr. Dan Boley. I remember that Professor Nikos Papanikolopoulos was just starting out, and he was so supportive and really helped me grow as a computer scientist. Dr. Jaideep Srivastava was my advisor. They all made a big impact on my education and helped me build up my resilience. It was all so worth it.

How did you balance your family life and being a student at the same time?

There were definitely tough times. It was not always easy for me, however, I knew I just had to try to get through it. Balancing all my responsibilities was the most difficult during my first two years because I was taking evening classes. It was important to make time [for classes and to study] since I didn't have childcare support during the daytime. During my third and fourth years, I was able to take classes during the day, which worked out much better for sure.

In terms of my kids, they’ve done pretty well. I was never able to take them to the evening activities (my husband would do that instead). Fortunately, they were young, so it worked out fine.

Did you do any internships when you were a student?

I was fortunate to have interned at three different companies during my undergraduate years. My first experience was at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, followed by two years in the co-op program at Unisys. During the last summer before my senior year, I was able to intern at 3M.

The University of Minnesota has so many connections at all of the big companies, so there are many opportunities available for students. The counselors are also very good and helped me navigate the process (because I really didn’t know anything!). I really recommend that students look into internships—even in their first year—since there are so many opportunities. The CSE Career Center definitely played a key role in connecting me with and landing these opportunities.

Tell us about your current position at 3M.

Currently, I am the Safety and Industrial Group Quality Director at 3M. This is a $12 billion dollar business group comprising of seven divisions and manufacturing a very diverse array of products, ranging from roofing granules and abrasives for construction projects to adhesives for the automobile and aerospace industries and PPE equipment for personal safety.

Each one has its own quality group and manager, who are part of my team. Usually, the quality team first gets involved with the design process to ensure we understand how to interpret the customer’s needs and what it means for quality in collaboration with the product development team and manufacturing team.

We get even more involved once the products start getting used and we hear from the customers. They provide feedback as to what is working and what is not working. From there, my team works with the manufacturing plants to ensure reliability and quality consistency in the products being made.

The quality team is really involved in every aspect of the product life cycle. It’s absolutely exciting! All of these divisions are global so our customers and manufacturing are global across these divisions.

How do you best manage so many people and different stages of projects?

I absolutely rely on my leaders and my team. At 3M, I am surrounded by a lot of smart people! My team members are very experienced and highly technical people and they know a lot about the process and how to bring together the products and the quality. I’m just blessed to have a very amazing team.

Have you spent most of your career at 3M?

I worked for Medtronic for about 15 years before joining 3M in 2014. Both are very innovative and again, have a lot of smart people. I learned a lot about leadership and the applications of my background at both of these companies.

How did the university prepare you for your career? Do you see any connections between the work you’ve done at the university and what you are currently working on?

Throughout my career, I have done very diverse things. I have worked in manufacturing and then in e-marketing. I have also worked in digital product development, which helped patients with implantable devices. Later on, I moved into the quality side.

The common theme in all my roles is the data. They are all data-centric work, even though they appear to be functionally different. Initially, in my career, I focused more on problem-solving and how to interpret the data. Now, since computer science is more advanced, it is more about how you predict using the data. What can we predict for quality? How would the customer react to the quality and how can we improve it? This predicting aspect is currently very exciting for me!

When I was a student, it wasn’t about predictability. It was about the collection of data. For half of my career, it was all about using the data collected. A lot of it was helping the clinician to provide the care for the patient.

Now with my work in quality, I collect data to understand a pattern. For the prediction part, it’s not just about the collection. You must rely on the system to do all of that work so my team and I are not as focused on the data analysis, but more on problem-solving.

Can you talk about some of your mentorship roles?

I mostly help people in the technical field or those who are transitioning into leadership roles, with a particular focus on mentoring women. I offer my guidance on where they need to make key decision points and offer my insights to help them. I just hope to make an impact on the progress of their career.

I am also on the board of WomenVenture, a local non-profit organization that helps women start businesses. 3M is really big into STEM and I was privileged with my STEM knowledge, which really helped me connect.

Do you have any thoughts on how we can better support the women in our college community?

During my undergraduate studies, there were very few women in the computer science program. I believe that Dr. Gini was the only woman on the faculty. However, I still felt supported by my other professors, including Nikos Papanikolopoulos, Shashi Shekhar and Jaideep Srivastava.

Now, I have noticed that there are more women on the engineering faculty. This is crucial, as I think connecting women with women so they can witness the presence of each other is so important.

For instance, if you feel like you’re the only woman at the time, you might feel like “oh, would I be able to be THAT person?”. I have gone through the question “Should I strive for changes?” and I understand that which could lead to women entering the field and telling themselves “oh, there are no other women so this must not be the field for me.

There are some moments when I don’t see someone like me up there, and I tend to doubt myself. Overcoming doubt is not easy. In math and physics, there weren’t any women teaching us in those fields—even computer science.