Women in Tech Thursdays: Talking with Didem Un Ates about tech, education and being TechWomen100 Champion

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Women in Tech Thursdays: Talking with Didem Un Ates about tech, education and being TechWomen100 Champion


This Thursday we did our last interview for Women in Tech Thursdays with absolutely inspiring Woman in Tech, Didem Un Ates. Didem is a General Manager of Customer Success for Microsoft’s Azure Data Platform, Analytics & Artificial Intelligence Business in EMEA, a Non-Executive Director on the Board of ‘Creative Education Trust,’ which oversees 17 high-schools and 16,500 students in underprivileged regions in the UK, and also a member of Forbes Tech Council and TechWomen100 Champion.


How did you become a TechWoman100 champion? What one needs to do in order to follow this path?

I became a TechWomen100 champion because of some of the work that we had been doing at the time together with the amazing volunteer team of about 80 or so of us. What we’ve done is basically establish some bootcamps and hackathons (which were originally longer bootcamps). Then we focused on weekend hackathons for AI to encourage high school girls to try it out themselves and see that they can come up with amazing ideas. We had a few of these pilots in Europe, Middle East Africa, London, Athens, but the more formal pilots took place in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. This was where we got a lot of encouragement and praise from the parents, the girls themselves and also our stakeholders with Microsoft, education philanthropies, and marketing teams. At that time we decided to include these programs as part of country AI plans and subsidiaries so scale it more formally systematically worldwide. So I think that’s why I was awarded with that fantastic honor. 


And what was your biggest takeaway as a result of this?

There were so many takeaways… For me at the core of it were those girls. They would come in on a Saturday morning to the hackathon completely shy and timing, wondering, ‘CanI do this? I don’t know anything about AI or coding?’ They were questioning themselves, which seems to be a pattern with most of us females, and then they would leave Sunday evening completely excited, feeling best of themselves and aiming to have a startup or a business or submit their projects to Microsoft research. And to see that change just in 48 hours was the biggest and most meaningful takeaway – to see how you can change one person at a time.

The second takeaway was of course the parents and the paleo effect all of these events created. The parents were so excited they wanted to invite us to India and about 20 or 30ish other countries to cooperate with the parents or with some other customers and partners of Microsoft. So the amount of triple effect that you can create with these is it was a phenomenal take away from me.

Thirdly, I think something that’s very close to my heart mostly, is the leadership team. We were a volunteer team so nobody had to do it; we were all passionate about the same cause, we wanted to give back to society and to women in tech, to improve the diversity in our sector. But then, we were all very very busy and we all flew in from Europe to Seattle and literally back-to-back weekend. But we did it because we believed in the cause. I think that was one of the most unforgettable leadership experiences I’ve had, it was informal but very powerful and impactful.


You’re a non-executive director for the board of Creative Education Trust which oversees 17 high schools and 16 500 pupils. What are your thoughts on education, children and technology? 

I have three passions: my first is disruptive technology and how can we scale so all of us can live better inclusively and responsibly. Then, as I progressed in my career, two other passions let’s say built up because of that. One of them is diversity in technology, because you can only have good technology if you’re inclusive and if you have this diversity.

The second one is education because that’s actually where we can make a much more sustainable impact and really make sure the society benefits from all these amazing things going on in technology. That’s why I became a NED with Creative Education Trust – I wanted to learn more and help. It’s also a special trust because we help underprivileged areas, and not just any area in the UK, and I think that’s where technology can especially help. 

I come from a middle income family which means basically poor in the undeveloped countries, and had I not have my focus on technology education, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am living my life. I just want to make sure I give back at a scale. We have an amazing opportunity with COVID and remote learning. All the things we wanted to do, I mean what our educators and technologists wanted to do in this sector, happened all of a sudden. Now our teachers, regardless of their focus, are now comfortable with Teams and remote learning tools, and so are the students. So let’s not leave it at that. I’m really doing my best to amplify it and I think we should take it to the next level to bring innovation to our curriculum, and not just UK, but also globally, so technology is natural to us like sports, English or other languages. It is a part of our life so we do need to take it much more seriously than we do today and make it much more normal part of the curriculum, which, unfortunately, in my observation from my own son it’s not the case yet. So that’s what I’m aiming for right now.


How do you think we can simplify education technology? What are your thoughts on that?  What needs to change and where this shift has to happen?

I’m not an educator so I’m not here to make big claims in a subject that I’m not an expert, but I am a parent and I’m trying to learn and contribute to my best abilities. The way I see it there is a top-down and a bottom-up approach and we do need to do both. The top-down is of course governments taking this as an opportunity and saying, ‘Okay, now that you cracked remote learning or hybrid learning, let’s embrace this and include computer science or whatever in the simplest form’. It doesn’t have to be super hardcore programming and I hope that most governments will do that, but then they have of course very strict budget issues these days because of the situation we are in. 

So that brings me to the bottom-up approach where companies trust  non-profit institutions. I think we all need to get together to say: ‘Okay, here’s a hackathon, here’s a webinar, here’s a boot camp,’ whatever works best for them. The good news is that, in my observation, the students are the best part of it. They don’t need a perfect coding teacher to make this happen – actually, I know there’s a talent gap in terms of teachers with coding skills etc., but I don’t see that as a blocker.This is because in these underprivileged schools I visit, most of those families are below the poverty line, and yet every student has an iPhone. I mean as long as these kids, whether they’re in the UK or Africa, have some kind of a mobile, they’re still good to go. That’s my simple mind so that’s where pilots come in – pilots in terms of curriculum innovation –  we just need to join forces to the best of our abilities.


What is your view on the ‘glass ceiling’ for women? Is there a glass ceiling at all and if so, how can women break it?

I sincerely think the biggest glass ceiling is our in our own heads. Maybe that’s not our fault; often it’s because of the upbringing, especially in some cultures, and it’s so ingrained that we aren’t even aware we have the glass ceiling. So that’s why in almost every speech and every vlog I try to say: ‘Crack your own glass ceiling, that’s the worst one of all.’ If there are other glass ceilings, we first need to break our own glass ceiling. Then there are other glass ceilings, for all minorities, and I don’t think we can say only females have the glass ceiling. All of us have bias and as long as we have it and we do not acknowledge it or improve it individually and as a society, there will be glass ceilings.

But I am optimistic as this is probably one of the best times to progress, there’s so much awareness and people are trying so hard to give visibility to females and minorities. We just need to step up. It’s hard work, it takes a lot of time and effort, but individually and as teams and communities we just have to step up to the opportunity.

Thank you, Didem!

You can follow Didem on Linkedin here.

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