Role Model Sophia Ding

Role Model: Sophia Ding

Role Model: Sophia Ding

Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!

I was born and raised in Germany and grew up in the Bavarian countryside. My sister and I were two of the very few students with a “migratory background” in our school (our parents are originally from China). When I was 17 we moved to Shanghai for my dad’s job at an international telecommunications company, where we attended the German school together with a bunch of other expat kids from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Moving to China had quite a strong influence on my personal development and was a very strong contrast to my life back in Germany. I was exposed to an extremely international environment – which was one of the best experiences of my life, but I also got to see the consequences of globalization with my own eyes. We had moved to a gated community just next to a street where migrant workers were living in extremely precarious conditions.

Before moving to China I was planning to study some subject related to art and culture such as theater studies or literature. However, my experiences there prompted me to attend the philosophy & economics programme at the University of Bayreuth. I wanted to understand more about topics such as global justice, political philosophy, international trade and development, etc.

Back then my plan was to work for an international organization and I decided to join the Master’s program in International Economics at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva next. After internships in international affairs and innovation policy at the Körber Foundation and the OECD I realized that I wanted to pursue a PhD focusing on econometrics first to keep my options open. I moved to Zurich, where I wrote a very technical dissertation on “Selection Models in the Presence of Networks: Theory and Application for Panel Data” at ETH Zurich.

I quickly realized though that academia was not for me: in the field of economics it takes several years to publish a paper and my dissertation was focusing on the development of innovative statistical methods and not on their application. I am somebody who likes to see the immediate impact of their work – ideally quickly. That is why during my PhD, I also co-founded SEET – Support Education, Empower Together, an NGO that empowers female refugees who want to return or take up their studies in Switzerland. I felt the urge to contribute to something impactful.

After my PhD I transitioned into industry, where I am now working in IT and management consulting at AWK Group/eraneos. I joined AWK in 2020 because Stefan Preuss, Head of Tech-driven Audits & Assessments, had started to work on a framework to audit algorithmic decision-making systems such as AI – a topic that resonated strongly with my growing interest in the impact of emerging technologies on our society. Two years later, I am now Head of Trustworthy responsible for the development of AWK’s service portfolio in Trustworthy AI & Responsible Tech. Since May 2022, I am also Co-President of the Label Expert Committee of the Swiss Digital Initiative’s Digital Trust Label.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

From my mom: Take care of your health before you take care of your career – which is why I am very conscious of keeping my personal work-life-balance.

From my Dad: Be compassionate – both my parents are Buddhists and compassion in the Buddhist sense means having the “capacity to open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing”. In the professional context this advice has recently helped me to understand that a major conflict I had with a colleague was caused by the difficult situation this person was in and to address it with empathy and kindness instead of anger and annoyance.

How did you become interested in tech?

Ever since I started studying, I was intrigued by the idea of data-driven decision making. This is why I specialized in applied econometrics during my Masters. However, I was left with a ton of questions after my Master’s degree. We had very little insight in the inner workings of statistical methods and algorithms. While my classmates were totally fine writing a line of code to implement a model, I wanted to understand from A to Z how and why it was working. This is why I decided to develop my own methods for my PhD – it forced me to understand every single detail of the model, the assumptions behind them and the code.

However, I also learned that I was more interested in the social implications of algorithmic systems than the models and techniques themselves. There is no industry or individual that will not be affected by the digital transformation.

Given my technical knowledge, multicultural background and interest in ethics, I realized very early that we will be facing enormous hurdles ensuring that we as citizens and consumers can trust digital services such as AI driven systems. I also believe that we as a society are not ready for the changes that we will be facing (e.g., lack of digital and data literacy). So, I decided that I wanted to contribute to finding solutions to these challenges.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

I am extremely proud of the fact that we as a team are considered thought leaders in the field of Trustworthy AI in Switzerland and beyond. Our opinion matters e.g., in the ongoing debates regarding regulatory developments.

We are in a position to shape the Swiss landscape in trustworthy AI by organizing innovation workshops with both the public and the financial services sector. We connect them with each other and actors from academia and civil society to facilitate the much needed knowledge exchange when it comes to translating AI principles into practice.

We also created a Trustworthy AI corporate training which we are also sometimes requested to deliver at Business Schools and Swiss universities. We have recently decided to offer it to a wider audience as a masterclass to the public on 30 November to foster awareness regarding this important topic.

I consider myself a networker by passion and I love nothing more than to connect individuals and organizations to work together towards the common goal of achieving trustworthiness and trust in AI systems. In the field that I work in, interdisciplinary exchanges are essential and I strongly believe we have created an incredible network connecting not only with private sector actors but also academia, the public sector and civil society.

What drives you at work?

I am motivated by having a positive impact on society and giving back. I believe that I grew up in a very privileged environment. My parents allowed me to see much of the world at a young age and I had all the time and resources that I needed to become successful. I received several scholarships throughout my studies that allowed me to meet incredible people that had a huge influence on my career path and decisions.

I am convinced that if my parents had decided to return to China, my life would have unfolded in a very different way. Therefore, I believe that the opportunities we have in life are very much a function of not only talent and hard work, but also knowing or meeting the right people at the right time.

I strive to work towards a society that becomes more equal and that allows people independent of their background to make the most of their talents.
Role Model Sophia Ding
Sophia Ding
AWK Group

What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?

Convincing others that my ideas matter and that they have business value. When we started working on Trustworthy AI & Responsible Tech the initial reactions were sometimes a little bit cautious as this is an innovative topic that requires thought leadership and needs an upfront investment. However, we have had a very successful year speaking about Trustworthy AI at all the relevant conferences in our field such as the SHIFT – the most important conference on digital ethics in the DACH area as well as the ISACA Europe 2022 in Rome, where the who-is-who in IT audit and cyber security meet to foster digital trust.

By now there is not a single ounce of doubt left that we have identified an absolute trend topic that will only increase in importance next year when we expect the European AI Act – the EU regulation on AI – to be finalized. My main learning is that it is easier to ask for support once you have demonstrated successfully that your ideas work – taking into account the perspective of the stakeholder in the argumentation. That requires a little bit of a “just do it attitude” and the confidence that things will work out in the end if you really believe in something and are passionate about it.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

Visibility is key. I think women in particular are sometimes reluctant to engage in self-marketing. Actually, the word often has a negative connotation. My activities on LinkedIn, the public speaking and article writing has helped me a lot to gain visibility and an expert status both within as well as outside of my organization. Lots of women do incredible things, but don’t speak about it publicly because they don’t like the exposure.

It is also very important to understand the processes regarding promotion and to “play the game”. Make sure that you provide your superior with enough good arguments when she or he needs them to defend your case. And ask other people to provide feedback for you on the specific aspects that will matter for your next promotion. Also, always pay it forward: do the same for somebody else, if they have done it for you.

Moreover, find yourself one or several sponsors within your organization who acts as a door opener and advocates for you. And finally:

Who is your role model and why and what would you ask her?

Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley is an absolute role model for me. Ever since I read her memoir “Let it go” I have wanted to ask her how she had the courage to “do it all”. Steve Shirley founded a software company in the 1960s employing an all-female workforce of software developers who worked remotely to accommodate their personal constraints of taking care of kids and husbands.

Later, she had a son suffering from severe autism which led her to become a very active philanthropist in this area. For her, letting go of all the wealth she had acquired was more fulfilling than amassing it in the first place.

In this amazing TED Talk she explains how to recognize ambitious women: They all have flat heads for being patted patronizingly.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast?

Last year, I talked at length about my experience transitioning from academia to industry in Quentin Gallea’s “Unbiased Podcast” and shared some tips on how to make the move yourself.

Muriel Wilkins’ “Coaching real leaders” is a great compagnon on anybody’s leadership journey – I found the episode on “How to become an intrapreneur” particularly helpful for some challenges that I have faced in the last year.

A colleague of mine recommended Susan Cain’s “Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” to me and it has left a lasting impression on me.

Be kind, be brave and be bold. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve in the future.
Role Model Sophia Ding
Sophia Ding
AWK Group

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