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October 20, 2017

Nidhi Aggarwal: 2017 Early Career Award recipient

Written By: Staff

Nidhi Aggarwal

Nidhi Aggarwal
Founder, Qwiklabs
MSEE ’06  (PhDCompSci ’08)

Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Nidhi was among 10 engineers to receive awards in 2017 at an Oct. 20 banquet.

We honored her for exemplary leadership and engineering innovation in the cloud computing and learning sectors, and for vigorous support of diversity in engineering education and practice.

Recently, we chatted with Nidhi about everything from her memories as a student at UW-Madison to her career and her family. Here are her responses to some of our questions.

Why did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I actually was working at a company in India, working on virtualization, and I got very interested in looking for graduate programs. I saw that UW-Madison had Jim Smith who was leading some research on virtualization and it was all very new. So, that, and the fact that it’s a great university with a strong engineering program, got me interested in UW.

Do you have a favorite engineering class from your time at UW-Madison?

I loved Introduction to Computer Architecture. I had done programming classes and I was a traditional electrical engineer when I came to UW-Madison. It was such a change for me in terms of coming from India and getting to do a class where I was building a whole microprocessor. I remember that I got very competitive. The challenge was to build a processor with the fewest number of electrical logic gates that also ran the fastest in the class. I spent endless nights trying to build that. I remember the TA telling me my solution wouldn’t work, but I just bowled over the entire logic and proved the TA wrong. It opened my eyes to how learning could be: more interactive, applied, tactical, and creative. It wasn’t about just getting direct answers, but about getting direct answers with the fewest resources and making it transparent.

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

When I was in the last two or three years of my PhD and done with my coursework, another student and I were some of Jim’s last students before he retired. He would travel all the time, but during the summer he would come back to Madison and take us out in his canoe. We would canoe to the Union, discussing computer architecture, virtualization, and our PhD thesis, we would grab a beer, and then canoe back. I think that experience is just unmatched.

What are you doing right now?

I have an advisory role in a startup while I’m on a one-year sabbatical from full-time work. I sold my company Qwiklabs to Google last year and was working for another company, but I have a 5 1/2-year-old daughter and wanted to balance my personal and professional life to spend more time with her. I am currently writing a book about vision driven product management called Radical Product.

Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

Building Qwiklabs. Building a company whose software is used worldwide to learn about Amazon’s cloud or Google’s cloud is a very proud achievement for me. Amazon Web Services became our biggest customer, exclusively using our software to do all of their hands-on training. And now, the company is part of Google, which is something that I am really proud of. Everything I have achieved in my life is because of an emphasis on education and learning. To be able to give back in some form has been very gratifying for me.

What advice would you give students in electrical and computer engineering?

Take advantage of the incredible opportunities that UW offers. There’s a broader world out there and UW has such a fantastic, rich, interdisciplinary environment. Get out and explore and then take advantage of all the resources. Take risks. UW has so many departments that are in the top 10. It’s not just known for one thing. Don’t try to optimize the shortest path to graduation.