Latifa Khalid Al Thani
First Qatari to work at Microsoft
Latifa Khalid Al Thani
First Qatari to work at Microsoft
Today Qatari women are breaking barriers, swimming against the tide, and walking the paths that no one before them had explored. They do so to create new opportunities for others, especially for women. In this interview, we talk to Latifa Khalid Al Thani, the first Qatari to work at Microsoft. She tells us what it is like to be a young woman working in a global company. So, who is Latifa Khalid AL Thani?
I would describe myself as someone who aspires to have an impact on society and make a difference through my expertise in information systems as I hold a bachelor’s in information systems from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU). I want to actively contribute to the rapid digital transformation that Qatar, and the world, are going through and I believe that working at Microsoft serves as a platform for me to make a difference. I try my best to take advantage of my resources at Microsoft to fulfill those goals. So even if a new idea or project comes to my mind, I try to find a way to do it via Microsoft. Microsoft has a philanthropy team that can aid new initiatives. For example, when I first joined Microsoft, I tried to bring more of “me” to Microsoft, so we launched a project called Erada, a program introducing Microsoft to the Qatari audience.
I strongly believe in the role that technology can play in solving the world’s biggest challenges. I see it as a means of empowerment, we need to put technology in the hands of people to enable their success in an increasingly digital world, and we need to make sure that they have the skills required to operate those technologies in creating new processes and fuel innovation. Whether we realize it or not, we rely on technology for everything, from working remotely with colleagues, ordering deliveries from our favorite restaurants, and securely communicating with our doctors, to powering critical safety services. We all witnessed this firsthand during the covid-19 pandemic when business continuity and critical public safety and security response applications would not have been possible without technology. Every industry is undergoing a technological shift, from manufacturing to agriculture, banking to healthcare, and many more.
Outside of Microsoft, I consciously and actively prioritize my well-being and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. So, I play various sports, and I try to go to the gym. I also enjoy playing games with my friends because it challenges my mind differently. I also bake; it is one of the things that increase my mindfulness and living in the moment and being myself.
Have you always envisioned yourself working in this field?
I would say that I am a practical person and that is why I like technology because it is as clear as 1 + 1 = 2. At the end of my high school journey, I realized that I enjoyed learning about information systems especially when I saw how it can be used to address business challenges. Also, it can create a positive impact, so it felt like the perfect fit for me.
After finishing high school, I chose to study at CMU as it has one of the best programs in this field. I had a few options to choose from to pursue my undergraduate studies, but when I visited CMU at their networking event, and I saw how practical their curriculum is, it intrigued me. I remember that during that event, a student, who is my friend now, was showcasing a project that she did, and it excited me. Her project was applicable to real-life situations and not only based on theoretical knowledge. Moreover, it was the combination of business and technology that intrigued me even more. I was glad that after I joined CMU, their courses met my expectations. They were interesting, and to this day, I still use the knowledge and skills that I gained from those courses in my job at Microsoft. For example, I took a course on accessibility and technology, and it is something I currently work on at Microsoft. Another example of practical work I did at CMU was during my junior year in which we had to collaborate with an external entity to come up with solutions for their business challenges. I worked with a charity facing some technical difficulties, and as a solution, I created an application for them.
In another project, we created a platform where local restaurants can buy all the ingredients they need. The platform provided a list of all the suppliers, so that when someone would search, for example, “milk”, they would see all the suppliers that sell milk. Then they could have their pick depending on the label, price, etc. This was aimed not only to help the restaurants but also to help manage food waste. If a supplier had boxes of milk that were about to expire shortly, then they could offer a discount on them for those restaurants to buy. In my final year at CMU, I did a research project on Eye Gaze technology and heritage, because I wanted to connect it to something local. CMU made sure that their students met the requirements and the needs of the market by involving them in real-life problems and solutions by integrating the students into the market as they are studying
Can you tell us how you started working at Microsoft?
I am an executive at Microsoft, specifically working with the education sector. I partner with educational organizations in Qatar to accelerate their digital transformation. This was the same position I started working in when I first joined Microsoft. I was interning for someone who used to be in my position. We usually label the position that I hold as an orchestrator. As an orchestrator, my job is to make sure that projects are delivered at the right time, and that it meets our customers’ expectations. I make sure that all the instruments, i.e. all the different entities and all the steps of a certain project are met on time and meet the standard.
I work with schools, higher education, and even libraries and museums. I started working as an education industry executive specifically because, as I said, I want to have the maximum impact on my community, and I believe that to do so, we must focus on education because students are at the heart of everything. We say that the students are our future, but how do we make sure that they are ready for the future? How do we make sure that they have the necessary skills to succeed? How do we make sure that whatever they are studying is relevant by the time they graduate? The beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the toughest times for me at my job as education in Qatar took a hard hit. You want to make sure that the students are still receiving their education, and that education is accessible to all students. So, we at Microsoft had to work with entities to ensure that education is not disrupted. We worked very closely with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to ensure a smooth transition to online teaching. We also worked with teachers and faculty on improving their skills in technology so they can do their work with the new resources.
Not many people know this, but Microsoft has been working in Qatar for over 15 years, I did not know that either until I started looking for jobs. When I first started working as an intern, many people were questioning my decision to do so. They would ask me: “why would you choose to intern when you already have job offers from other companies?”. However, for me, it was about the experience and the opportunities for learning and growth at a global company like Microsoft. I was intrigued to see their processes, the way that they propel business, and how they drive impact, and I wanted to see how I could bring those skills to the local market. What we do at Microsoft is study the challenges that our customers are facing and address their business needs, and by using technology, we try to find solutions for them. As a Qatari, I joined Microsoft because I wanted to give back to the country that gave me so much. I wanted to impact the various sectors in Qatar, and I wanted to work for a company that shares similar beliefs as me. I also wanted to see how I could create programs and work with other women like myself to become a part of this global company.
Could you tell us about some of your projects as an employee at Microsoft?
The new learning management system for the Ministry of Education is one of the first projects I led when I started at Microsoft. I remember when we first started hearing about Covid-19 pandemic spreading in other countries, I reached out to the Ministry of Education telling them that we need to be prepared to go online if things get worse and later, we worked with them to create the system which is designed for over 150,000 students, their parents, their teachers, and school faculty. Working on a nationwide project like that meant that there were many stakeholders and seeing that project from beginning to end was a proud moment for me. I could not have delivered this on my own and I relied on my team to help me see it through. When you are working on such a big project, you need to have the right people involved, and coming together as a company to deliver this project was a moment of joy for me. It is also one of the Ministry’s most successful projects, so it is a point of pride for them as well.
As I mentioned earlier, I like to be involved in projects for women. At Microsoft, we create programs for young girls, such as DigiGirlz, which is focused on hackathons. As part of the DigiGirlz program, we went to an all-girls school between the ages of 14-16 where we brought Micro:bit, a device that allows students to connect to a coding platform online. It gives the students a chance to learn to code from a young age. As soon as one of the girls succeeds in creating a code, and sees how it functions, she gets so excited that it is something they programmed. For example, the girls programmed things such as a pedometer and a math game. They felt a sense of success because they believed they have done something that many people might view as complicated, but when you simplify it to them and make it something easily digestible, it makes the students want to explore other things in this field. Watching those students have their “eureka” moment, when they understood what they are learning, is something that I hold in a special place. The reason why I focus on these types of programs is that there are not many women in the industry, and in STEM fields in general.
Another program we worked on was with INJAZ Al-Arab, a nonprofit organization for education and learning. We worked with them on a program where people learned how to create their startups with an emphasis on women entrepreneurs. Whilst we make sure these programs are available for everyone, we like to focus on women because they do not get the same opportunities in these fields. Also, we have another program called Imagine Cup, a competition for students from universities and schools. The issue for this year was “Artificial intelligence for social impact” and the students had to come up with solutions that they will be judged on. We were shocked by the brilliant solutions that they proposed and how advanced those solutions were. To encourage them further, we took those solutions and turned them into start-ups. Students tend to have a more optimistic mindset, and it is our duty to harness their skills and nurture their passion. And seeing their work and passion fuels me to come up with solutions.
Another important topic we work on is accessibility. Accessibility is something very important at Microsoft. We worked with Mada Center to create a showcase classroom of what we think is a “perfect classroom” for students with disabilities. We also create workshops with them for teachers on how to use those tools in the classroom.
How has your experience been at Microsoft as a young Qatari woman?
Diversity and inclusion are core to Microsoft’s culture and mission. With a mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, the company believes that it will better serve everyone when it represents everyone. That is why it invests in programs and efforts designed to attract a diverse group of people to work here, placing a premium on creating an inclusive environment to create technologies that very intentionally include, rather than inadvertently exclude. I am very happy to be part of a culture that celebrates and values diversity; I believe that at its core, it is a powerful accelerant for innovation and growth.
While working with other entities, I found that they would get excited to see a fellow Qatari working in a global company. Sometimes, it would even create a sense of trust, and that trust is something I highly value, so I always make sure to uphold it by delivering my best. I have an obligation to Microsoft as an employee, but I also have an obligation toward my country as a citizen who wants to give her country the best. At the end of the day, most of the projects I am working on are for my nation, my family, my friends, the Qatari citizens, and for myself.
How has working at Microsoft contributed to your growth?
Microsoft’s culture is founded on a growth mindset. This means anyone can change, learn, and grow and because potential is nurtured and not predetermined, we should always be learning and stay curious. At Microsoft, I approach all tasks with a growth mindset, and I have become very KPI (Key Performance Indicator) focused. I must be able to measure whatever it is we are trying to achieve. Now, I have reached a point where I know exactly what I need to do, how the company and my colleagues think, and how to adapt depending on who I interact with. I have become more flexible and learned that not every colleague works in a similar way that I do, and I attribute the success of my work to my team. When you are honest and open to those around you, your problems can be solved much faster. Also, it aligns our goals, which is key to our success.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
I am quite fortunate to build a career in the technology industry, a sector that is relatively progressive in terms of driving equality, diversity of thought, and inclusive behaviors in the approach to talent acquisition and retention. We’ve come a long way in terms of women filling IT leadership roles and STEM positions. These are positive steps forward for the industry as a whole. These range from championing women in tech to driving grass-roots initiatives to attract female talent into STEM positions. Nowadays, you will find that more women are working in the technology industry and a lot of the customers I interact with tend to be women. So being a part of that change in the industry shows how things can transform in such a short period. However, there are few things I keep in mind when faced with any challenges.
Firstly, a growth mindset is key where you are always in a learning mode and finding opportunities in challenges. Also, I research and to arm myself with the knowledge that helps me address those challenges. Secondly, I always discuss with my colleagues because I work with the educational organizations only and they cover other sectors. So sometimes when you work across different sectors, you might notice that they face similar challenges, so they may already have a solution. Thirdly, I go directly to my boss. I like to involve her in what I am working on. We work with a mentality that “one Microsoft, one team”, and we believe that one should not take on anything on their own; it should always be a collective effort. If it is a win, it is a win for all of us, and if it is a challenge, then it is a challenge for all of us.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Be supportive of one another. Women face enough challenges as it is, so let’s support each other and provide opportunities for other women. We might think that little changes might have no impact, but with time, they will accumulate and if you help one or two women, they, in turn, will help three or four.
Published on 24/01/2023