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Ülkü Rowe

 

Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

I am an engineer and a global citizen, who believes in the power of technical innovation to change the world for the better.

 

Currently I work at Google as the Technical Director of Financial Services. Google’s goal has always been to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible. As an engineer who believes in the Fulbright values, Google’s commitment to using the power of engineering and technical innovation to create opportunities for everyone really resonates with me.

 

The story of how I got here starts in Istanbul.

 

I grew up in the residential neighborhood of Üsküdar. My father was from Samsun, a city about a 12-hour bus-ride away, in the Black Sea region of Turkey. My mother’s family had settled down in Edirne, in western Turkey, following the exodus of Turks from the Balkans after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, cross-cultural interactions, immigration, and being away from home were very familiar concepts from an early age.

 

Education and learning were also big topics in our household. My parents were both strong advocates for education. There were times when money was tight in the household, but they would never hold back from educational expenses and books, even when we couldn’t afford a second pair of shoes. Our modest home was full of books, and I was a voracious reader. By the time I had finished elementary school, I had already read many of the classics from English, Russian, American and Turkish literature, like the works of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Twain, Yasar Kemal, Resat Nuri Guntekin and Sait Faik.

 

I am the oldest and the only girl among three siblings. The fact that I was a little girl growing up in conservative Turkey, didn’t stop my parents from encouraging me to believe I could achieve anything. We would have these talks around the dinner table, where my dad would ask: “Çocuklar, büyüyünce ne olacaksınız?” (“Kids, what are you going to be when you grow up?”). I would announce: “Ordinaryus profesor, or general, askeri doktor!” (“Professor ordinarius, four star general, doctor!”)

 

After elementary school, I attended the Üsküdar American Academy for middle school and high school, followed by a Computer Engineering degree at Boğaziçi University. A Fulbright scholarship brought me to the U.S. and I received my master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

After graduation, I wanted to work in a field where cutting edge technology was being used to solve real life problems. My first job was in Chicago, working for an international investment bank modeling the financial markets using computational algorithms. These algorithms were modeling the true value and risks associated with financial instruments and companies, bringing transparency and fairness to the financial markets.

 

Throughout my career, I got the chance to work at some of the most prestigious financial institutions in the world, building trading and risk management systems. I got to have a front seat to the biggest ups and downs of the financial markets in the last two decades. At Google, I am the Technical Director of Financial Services for Google Cloud. I lead our efforts in Google’s cloud technology products and platforms for banking, finance and insurance sectors.

 

Life has taken me from Istanbul to Chicago to London to Paris to New York City, where I now live with my husband and two sons.

 

How did you make the decision to become a Computer Engineer? Is there a particular person or event that motivated you?

I had my first encounter with a computer in high school, at the Üsküdar American Academy. I took Ms. Stendahl’s elective BASIC programming class. That was the first year our school had opened a computer lab, outfitted with brand new Apple IIes. But, there was no computer teacher at the school, so Ms. Stendahl (who was our math teacher) was tasked with teaching the class. I had signed up for the class just because I liked math and Ms. Stendahl! That class ended up being a turning point for me, I became fascinated with computers and programming. I had always been very good at math and sciences, was always the quiet, studious kid who loved reading. I was the nerdy, geeky kid way before the computer entered my life, but when it did, it was a match made in heaven!

 

How did you make the decision to apply for the Fulbright Student Program? 

While studying computer engineering at Boğaziçi University, I began to think about the next steps in my career. At the time, I wanted to stay in academia, so the obvious next step was to get a graduate degree abroad. I was attracted to the Fulbright Program because it is not just a way to fund graduate education, but it has this huge cultural component. I had always been fascinated by other cultures, whether it was about our family roots in the Black Sea region and the Balkans, or through books. I read about Twain’s New York, Dickens’ London, and Tolstoy’s Russia. With the Fulbright program, you get to be a part of a community with other students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists from all over the world. In my Fulbright orientation program in 1995, there were approximately 40 Fulbrighters, from 40 different countries and 40 different fields of study. It was like a mini-United Nations for a group of young, smart, well-educated, aspiring, energetic, hopeful individuals, ready to change the world through academic advancement and cross-cultural understanding.

 

In what ways did your Fulbright experience help you professionally and personally?

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect going in, but the idea that someone can change the world for the better through science and arts, and through cross-cultural collaboration, was amplified during my Fulbright experience. Using cultural similarities and differences as a means to collaborate better, instead of them being barriers to cooperation, has become a world view for me. I decided to build a career working in global, international settings, where science and technology was being used to solve real world problems.

 

What kind of career plans did you make for yourself when you were a Master’s student?

I was keen to extend the Fulbright experience to my professional career. When I was looking for my first job, I had three requirements: first, I wanted to work with smart, driven people; second, I was looking for a space where applied innovation in computer science was being used to solve real world problems; and third, I wanted to work in an international setting. Those requirements have stayed the same for every role I’ve accepted in my entire career.

 

You are also a member of the Board of Directors at the Fulbright Association. Can you tell us about your responsibilities at the Fulbright Association?

Changing the world through cross-cultural collaboration and the power of technology is what I believe in. Being able to do that for an institution I care deeply about is what attracted me to the Fulbright Association.

 

The Fulbright Association’s vision is a world where international exchange is a force for peace. In order to make that a reality, we advocate for the Fulbright Program and promote international education. The Fulbright Association aims to extend Fulbright international exchange into a lifelong experience. Through our 60 chapters, we host regional and national programs for visiting Fulbrighters and alumni, and create forums to exchange ideas, collaborate and continue giving back through service projects in the U.S. and abroad.

 

In your opinion, what kind of work and activities make alumni networks strong?

Recently we had our annual Fulbright Conference in Washington D.C. where I got a chance to hear about some of the incredible work Fulbrighters across the world are doing. The research done by one of our Fulbrighters in South Africa is helping communities with HIV/AIDS treatment. Another Fulbrighter in Rwanda is helping the victims deal with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. We have Fulbrighters documenting the stories of displacement in the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. A Fulbrighter is working on cutting edge technology to defend our governments and institutions against cyber attacks, another one is using virtual reality technology in her work with refugees.

 

The Fulbright community is a very unique alumni network, in that it is a very highly educated, multi-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and extremely influential group. We have 370,000 alumni across 165 countries. Our alumni include 59 Nobel Prize laureates, 80 Pulitzer Prize winners, 30 heads of states, countless professors, business people, artists, scientists and researchers. We all came away from the Fulbright Program with life changing experiences and we all share the same goal: promoting peace through international education. When we come together we have an incredibly strong voice. When alumni networks share common goals, and they provide programming that support those goals, they are most successful. And that’s what we’re trying to do at the Fulbright Association. We bring current Fulbrighters and our alumni together to amplify the Fulbright messages and goals.

 

Are there any difficulties working as a Technical Director of Financial Services at Google Cloud? If so, what are those difficulties? 

My work requires quite a bit of travel to meet with our engineering teams and clients all over the world. On a personal level, balancing travel with family time can be challenging, but I try to combine multiple meetings into a single trip so I can optimize my time.

 

On the business side, there are challenges like in any fast growing field. Cloud Computing and Machine Learning is completely redefining how companies are consuming technology resources. Such a fundamental shift can be hard to navigate, especially for a heavily regulated industry like financial services. I spend a lot of time with clients exploring the art of the possible.

 

What do you enjoy the most about your current position at Google Cloud?

When I think about the technology that was available to me when I was a Fulbrighter in 1997, and I compare that to what is available today, for both individuals and for institutions, the difference is astounding. I believe Cloud Computing and Machine Learning presents the biggest technology shift in our generation. The opportunity to be a part of that change, and to have a role in influencing how that change redefines the financial services industry is fascinating.

 

Have you faced any difficulties in your career because of your nationality and/or your gender?

Not difficulties, but lots of surprises and curiosity. When people think of what a computer scientist looks like, or what someone in finance looks like, I don’t fit the stereotypical image of either of those. Especially since my first name isn’t a very common name in the U.S., people have a hard time guessing my gender or my nationality before they meet me in person, and they are usually surprised.

 

Where do you see yourself in your career in 5 to 10 years’ time?

If you had asked me that question 5 years ago, I would not have answered Director of Engineering at Google. It is hard to guess what I will be doing in 5 to 10 years’ time, but whatever it is that I do, I hope to continue to work with smart, motivated people, in multicultural communities, using applied innovation in computer science to solve real world problems.

 

What I hope to see in the Fulbright Association, is an even stronger and thriving organization, where every Fulbrighter–and anyone who believes in the Fulbright principles–continue to come together as a community, to exchange ideas and collaborate, in support of our shared goal of using international exchange as a force for peace.

 

Have you been involved in any NGO activity for international education? 

In addition to the Fulbright Association, I also keep close ties to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was a Fulbrighter, and my husband is also a Computer Science and Economics graduate. In 2006, we established the Rowe Family Scholarship there, for incoming freshmen in Computer Science. 2006 was the year we welcomed our second son. As we were thinking about the future of our own kids, it was important to us that no child should be denied a great education just because they do not have the financial means.

 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a world-class leader in academics, research and innovation, gave both of us a wonderful education in a thriving international community. This was only made possible by the generosity of others, like the Land Grant Act of the U.S. Government that enabled the founding of the university in the first place, and the Fulbright Program started by the efforts of Senator Fulbright. By establishing this scholarship, we hope to have a part in making the same educational opportunities available for others.

 

What would you advise to Turkish students who are planning to study in the U.S. with a Fulbright grant? 

Two things.

 

First, I’d tell them to take advantage of everything the Fulbright Program has to offer. Beyond a scholarship, Fulbright is a cultural exchange program. Fulbrighters become ambassadors of not just their home countries but also of their host countries. My advice is to spend the time to get involved in the local communities to which you travel.

 

Second, don’t forget to give back and stay involved after your Fulbright experience. Join the Fulbright Association. By joining the association, you will not only be a part of a thriving community of Fulbrighters, but you can also help ensure that the Fulbright Programs continue for future participants.

 

What do you miss the most about Turkey?

I miss my family, friends and the city of Istanbul. I miss taking a ferry boat across the Bosphorus, from Üsküdar to Beşiktaş, sitting outside, with a glass of tea and a simit. I also miss the turquoise waters of the gulf of Gökova in Bodrum.

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