Designer keeps passion for photography in sharp focus

Nitish Kumar Meena's job lets him bring in his artistic interests and nourish his sense of adventure

On most weekends, Nitish Kumar Meena grabs his camera and hiking boots and sets off for places he’s never been to capture unforgettable moments: A burst of pink sunlight over snow-streaked mountains. The tip of a kayak parting a clear-blue lake. A shimmering night sky.

His photography is an artistic testament to the array of natural wonders he’s explored in the nearly two years he’s lived in Washington state, from the majesty of Mount Rainier to the ocean-side cliffs of California to the long shadows and pale glaciers of rugged Alaska.

Nitish Kumar Meena in Seattle
UX Designer Nitish Kumar Meena

But what for most people would be a respite from the workweek is a passion he’s able to incorporate into his. Meena’s managers recognize his talent and enthusiasm for photography and have found many ways for him to bring that pursuit into his daily job at Microsoft.

“That’s one thing I find is really rare,” Meena says. “If I worked at another company, I’m not sure I’d get that same level of opportunity.”

Meena is a user-experience designer for Microsoft Flow, a service that saves people time by uniting their apps to accomplish certain tasks automatically. You can create a flow that saves all your email attachments to a SharePoint site, for example, or logs your Twitter mentions on an Excel spreadsheet, or even makes emails from your boss trigger an alert to your phone.

“The freedom to create really powerful and engaging solutions is the thing that I really like,” Meena says. “And I know what we are creating, millions of people are using.”

In that already creative environment, he says, the unexpected opportunities to tap into his love of photography makes his job even better. He’s been called upon for projects ranging from taking portraits of employees and execs to executing elaborate photo shoots of people and products to be used for product launches and websites across Microsoft’s broad Cloud + Enterprise group.

“We’ve been able to move things forward in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to, and really humanize our products, thanks to his gift with the lens,” says Jonah Sterling, partner director design manager for Business Applications, Platform and Intelligence.

Sterling first met Meena at a design conference in India several years ago and says he could see the potential of someone who, given the right role to fit his personality and allow him to grow, would “be able to do amazing things over the course of time.” His photography was part of that.

“When we hire somebody, we’re not just hiring that one skill, that they can design,” Sterling says. “I look for what else makes them an artist so that we can bring that in — so that we’ve got all of their excitement and all of their ambition behind the product that they’re working on.”

Meena lives life with purpose that’s evident on the Instagram account that documents his devotion to nature and new experiences. “We don’t remember days; we remember moments,” he writes. “New adventures never disappoint.” He urges his followers to “make sure to get offline” on weekends and to “do more things that make you come alive.”

Photo by Nitish Kumar Meena
Photo by Nitish Kumar Meena

Yet his discovery of his artistic side came somewhat by chance. He grew up in India, where he says there were two main tracks for higher education — engineering and medicine. His parents expected that he would study engineering like his older brother. It was considered a safe path as well as a prestigious one, he says, but it just wasn’t that close to his heart.

It wasn’t until he was getting ready to take a college entrance exam that he came across a mention of another discipline he hadn’t realized was a possibility: design. He wasn’t an artist or, as a child, even a good painter. Still, the idea intrigued him. He asked other students about it. It didn’t seem to involve the same long hours of study as engineering — or all the dreaded math.

“It’s a creative career, so there are less rules when you compare it with other disciplines,” he says. “You get more freedom in what you create. And just that sense that many people will use, and actually touch and feel the product or experience that I will be creating — I think that was my incentive.”

Nitish Kumar Meena with his camera

He pursued design at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, and turned his attention to photography when he noticed most of the other students had some sort of hobby. He persuaded his dad to lend him $500 for his first camera.

At first, “it sounds so simple and stupid, but I was just taking pictures of the clouds,” he says. “Every sunset, I had my camera with me. Raindrops, clouds — that was my focus, just to understand that one small thing of nature.”

In his final semester of college, he and his classmates got the chance to work on a project for Microsoft, and he says the experience ultimately landed him a tour of the “super fancy building” that houses Microsoft’s design studio in Hyderabad — and a job offer. 

He began working in user-experience design for Visual Studio in 2012 and recalls being able to develop his skills in a relaxed and supportive setting.

“Everyone was super helpful. Even my manager was like, ‘You can do it. And if you want to do something else, just let me know,’” he says. “There was that sense of freedom when I joined Microsoft.”

A couple of years later, Meena was thinking about what it might be like to work at the company’s headquarters. He’d been to Washington state and says he “fell in love with it.” When Sterling came to India for a design conference, Meena made sure to connect with him in case any opportunities came up.

Photo by Nitish Kumar Meena
Photo by Nitish Kumar Meena

Sterling eventually introduced him to Jesse Francisco, now a principal user-experience manager for Business Applications, Platform and Intelligence, and Francisco hired him for a role at headquarters. Meena struck Francisco as someone who had “a really good eye for aesthetics,” as well as a slick design style that was “very modern and progressive.”

Meena had included some photography in his design portfolio, which also caught Francisco’s eye.

“It’s always great seeing people whose passion and work life start melding into one another,” Francisco says. “So seeing his photography — which is fantastic! — was like the frosting on a very delicious cake.”

He says Meena also had a strong ability to explain the reasoning behind his design work.

 “I think people often think that design is just making things pretty. That is one approach; it’s not our approach,” Francisco says. “For him to be able to articulate what problems he was attempting to solve and then showing the proof of how he solved them was particularly powerful.”

“One thing that I personally love, love, love about Microsoft is the work-life balance.”

Meena says he enjoys designing user experiences in Microsoft Flow, a product he uses himself for things like automatically tweeting photos he posts on Instagram. He’s also grateful his job provides enough flexibility to allow him to explore nature around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

“One thing that I personally love, love, love about Microsoft is the work-life balance, and there are so many inspiring souls on our team,” he says.

He says having a great job also gives him the ability to indulge his passion for photography without feeling like he needs to turn it into a way to support himself. He’s sold a photos here and there, and had some published a few months ago by Business Insider, but he doesn’t feel any need to market his work.

“That’s the best part of it. I don’t put any pressure on myself,” he says. “I think the thing that keeps the freshness in my photographs is the authenticity that comes from having no pressure. Just freedom.”