As she has written herself, Didem ‘ticks quite a few boxes in the ‘Diversity’ category: female engineer, working mother, Turkish, Muslim, immigrant and probably more’. She is by now an achieved leader and you can see through her warmth and empathy, that she had to clear her own path to the top – and that the journey has not been always easy… Maybe that is why she is committed to making the path easier, smoother, and hopefully more enjoyable for those on a similar journey.
Didem talks to us about how Artificial Intelligence can make us more human and shares her hard learnt tips on how to navigate the corporate environment.
Didem, it is a true pleasure and honor for Moonshot News to make this interview with you.
Thank you, Dimitra, and I really want to wish Moonshot a fantastic, fantastic launch and every success, because we need you. We need this service!
Would you like to start by telling us a bit about your job, your career and your background?
I just returned to Microsoft to accelerate our Data and AI Customer Success efforts in Europe, Middle East and Africa, while until very recently I was the Managing Director overseeing data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) efforts in Accenture’s Microsoft group in Europe. I have always loved technology so I tried to follow my passion and that is what brought me here.
You are an active leader and a very prominent person in the women in tech community working to bring more women in tech and giving them opportunities to grow. Can you share some advice for women that want to achieve more in their careers but have difficulty navigating the corporate world?
The path is not smooth for sure and I am sorry to say that it has gotten even more challenging post pandemic. Since the first wave, in May, women in technology are facing much more lay offs. And then there are the domestic duties – including the home schooling – that are impacting mostly women.
All of this has triggered an even worse exodus from technology and the job market for women.
I would like to share a few tips that have helped me on the way and I hope that they will save some time and pain for others:
We really need to believe in ourselves; we need to break our own glass ceilings; to push our own comfort zone. Yes, it is a challenging period already, but don’t give up! You can put things on hold, pause a little bit, rest a little bit, take the time to recover and then get back on your dreams, on your path!
The most important is to believe in ourselves! We should not be the first ones to diminish our impact, our dreams and what we are capable of doing!
Second I would tell women in tech to build a brand for themselves. To be their own advocate. Don’t expect others to pat them on the back, to acknowledge them or promote them. Everyone is busy, it is not with bad intentions, it is just that you need to get hold of your own career and take it to where you think it should go, to whatever makes your life meaningful and impactful.
The third thing I would recommend is to volunteer! You know your dream, so dream big, be bold for that dream and take baby steps to achieve it. One day at a time. Don’t get impatient, don’t get discouraged because you are struggling. Just take the next baby step by volunteering.
Volunteering is a baby step because it is a low risk step towards the right direction. Do some free project, or something on the side that would allow you to experiment without too much cost! And get to know the people there also and let them get to know you! It is fair to say that, in Microsoft during my eight years there, apart from my first job that got me into the company, all the other jobs were through a volunteer project.
The fourth thing I would suggest is build your tribe! I don’t mean be tribal or act tribally. I mean be a fan of others and create fans for yourself. That way our impact grows, because we become sustainable. In this age, everywhere but also especially in tech, it is not possible to be successful alone.
So be personal, find the right people for your passions, for your dreams and join forces! And keep dreaming big, being bold and, in the end, embrace obstacles! Make them a springboard for yourself! Obstacles can be unpleasant projects, unpleasant people, or a redundancy, or some unwanted domestic duties at home. Try to think outside the box and turn them upside down and make them serve your purpose for your dreams, instead of letting them defeat you!
We are both women who work and have succeeded in other countries than our country of origin, where we had our comfort zone. What was easy for you and what were the biggest difficulties you faced?
I left Istanbul,Turkey, my home town, when I was 17 to study in the US and that was my first big cultural shock. I love discovering, so everything was new, everything was exciting. I loved that part. At that time I was not aware of it, but looking back, it was definitely challenging with the cultural difference. As a Turkish person, I used to think that the UK and US would be more similar, but oh, boy they were different!
So when I moved to the UK 15 years ago, there was a completely different set of business etiquette: Who means what with a specific expression? So it was almost like decoding the language. I mean, it was still English but you still had to make sense of it, to understand the nuances. That took a while to learn and I am not definitely not there yet, but I am still trying my best. As long as we trust ourselves and the team spirit we create, we will be fine. As long as we have good intentions, I think it radiates and comes back to us.
Let’ s move to your core business and artificial intelligence. Why should companies invest in AI and what do you think are the biggest benefits of it?
This may sound a bit too optimistic but I sincerely believe that artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics will force us humans to be more human. I deeply believe that. All the tasks that de-humanise us, that are repetitive, boring, no value added, will be taken care of by machines or software. That leaves us, everyone of us to ask ourselves the hard question: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?
That is the biggest benefit because all the rugs that we previously could hide under will go away. It is also incredibly important for organizations to be clear about what they stand for, what value do they bring and what is their culture? Philosophically this is a very big benefit for humanity. Yes, some jobs will go away certainly, but there will be some amazing new jobs, new jobs for humans to coherently work with the machines. And some jobs will never go away.
So, to wrap it up, I would say AI will a) really bring in the humanity in humanity – which is very ironic but I really believe that. And b) it will really initiate a brand new creativity… And that is already happening!
Do you think that there is a need for transparent legal framework that rules the use of data, or that we can trust companies to self–regulate in that area?
My belief is that all of this is on us! Not on a single entity, no single governments, or an institution, or a big technology company, or commercial organisation! It is actually every individual’s own responsibility and duty to stand up! To be aware, to embrace the technology together with its risks, and with the potential to be good or bad.
We cannot hide! I come from Turkey and I was quiet for decades about the situation in my country. And when you are quiet, you see what happens! I took my lesson the hard way and it will always be a kind of a stain in my personal history. We should not do that with technology, because it is moving so fast and it has such a huge impact everywhere in our lives!
So yes, I agree we should have transparent regulations, legal systems, policies all of that and there are actually great efforts ongoing for which I am incredibly grateful … Will there be enough? Never. There is not any jurisdiction that should be enough. There will always be unfair situations in almost any topic … so it is really up to us to say ‘this is not right’ and ‘I am not going to cooperate with this organisation’ or ‘I am going to change this’ and make an impact.
There is no easy way, there is no lazy or easy way.
Who is who:
Following her Electrical Engineering and Management studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Didem started her career with management consulting at CapGemini and Motorola. After her MBA, Didem continued her career at Greenwich Consulting (now part of EY), British Telecom, and Microsoft in London, UK. In her current role just back again in Microsoft, Didem is leading the Data and AI Customer Success efforts in Europe, Middle East and Africa, while until recently she was Managing Director for Data & AI in Europe for Accenture’s Microsoft Business Group.
As a passionate Diversity & Inclusion and STEM champion, Didem led a global team of volunteers to host ‘Girls and Women in AI’ hackathons and bootcamps to improve gender diversity in AI/ML, starting off at Microsoft and then expanding to Accenture. She has recently won several awards including TechWomen100 Champion, Future Leaders Award, Diversity Role Model, and been selected one of the Top 50 Most Influential Turks in the U.K. She is a member of the Forbes Tech Council.