24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Frances Allen

[This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women in technology. Over 1500 other bloggers have committed to writing a post about sung and unsung heroes in technology. I've joined them by writing about one of my personal favorites, Frances Allen.]

Frances Allen is (deservedly) one of the most famous women in Computer Science. As the first woman to win the prestigious Turing Award (often considered the "Nobel Prize of Computer Science"), she's been a poster-adult for the first wave of female computer scientists. Allen joined IBM in the late 1950s in order to pay off student loans from her degrees at a teacher's college in Albany and a Master's in math at the University of Michigan. She ended up staying at IBM for a rich career that included revolutionary work in compilers and high performance computing. More about Allen can be found at her IBM profile.

In addition to her work on the technical side of computing, Allen also created a novel product development strategy that involved researchers spending more time with customers, understanding their needs and how they used IBM products. This kind of customer-oriented computing is still a design strategy at IBM today.

To me, Frances Allen is one of the most inspiring women in Computer Science. Her development of a new paradigm for customer-oriented research emphasizes the importance of diversity in the workplace. I don't think it requires a "female mind" to come up with the idea that we should listen to customers, but I do believe that it requires an outsider, someone who is not quite in the club and therefore is not blinded by the "way things are done around here." I strongly believe that the more diversity we encourage---in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identification, outside interests, lifestyles, and so on---the stronger our research will become.

I had the honor of meeting Frances Allen during one of her post-Turing Award speaking tours. In person, her diminutive frame belies Professor Allen's soaring intellect and energy levels. These become apparent, however, the minute she begins speaking. Allen is living her life fully, embodying the idea that Computer Science need not be populated by pale-faced skinny programmers with poor social skills. At her talk, she spoke a bit about her mountaineering trips to Nepal and her connection with a young sherpa who guided her group up the mountains. Thinking about this small, brilliant woman summiting some of the most unforgiving mountains in the world, I was reminded of my own grand plans that, only in my early twenties, I have already cast aside for more serious, “realistic” pursuits. I wonder if I will ever get back to those idealistic plans.

I hope everyone gets a chance to meet Frances Allen some day. Her research story is inspiring, but more importantly, she continues to live a balance of brilliance, compassion and adventure that is worth aspiring to.

Happy Ada Lovelace day, everyone!

21 March 2009


Everyone says you don't quite know how much you know about something until you explain it to someone else.

I say to heck with that. You don't know how much you know about something until you have to grade someone else's explanation of it! Because then, you have to muck through all the bizarre reasoning, the sentences that are meant to sound smart but really don't say anything at all, or worse, that don't even parse syntactically. I don't feel like I know much about the assignment I'm currently grading, though I wish I did and I'm working my butt off to get better at it. Happily, it seems the students know even less. Makes my job that much easier.

19 March 2009

Grad school visit

I don't blog when I'm too overwhelmed with work, and I don't blog when I'm recovering from being overwhelmed with work.... when will I just blog?

Now that the griping is out of the way, onto the real topic for this post: my recent graduate school recruiting visit. This visit was to Decent U, further away from home than might be ideal, with an exceptionally charismatic PI with whom I really clicked. The visit was literally wining and dining: every meal for three full days was eaten out, catered, or (get this!) cooked by a faculty member. I was pretty blown away by the level of effort put into that visit, and if any of the next visits are like that, I'm going to need to really step up my exercise regime!

There were some highlights. One evening, the prospective students and faculty went to a very chichi restaurant---the kind that describes the wines as having "fruity and floral notes." Way out of my normal restaurant class. The faculty were pretty easy going, and there were lots of laughs all around (particularly at the expense of one faculty member, but that professor seemed to really hold his own in the group). I've never had that kind of interaction with such a large group of professors, and it was wonderful! After the dinner, I did stop to wonder if maybe I'd been too relaxed and too social; after all, I was still on an interview of sorts, and they were probably still judging me. I expressed my concerns to another prospective student, who'd had the same thought. There was nothing to be done, but I was extra polite to everyone for the rest of the visit.

Another highlight, on the opposite end of the relaxation spectrum, was the one-on-one meetings with professors. I wasn't interviewing, per se, but again, the feeling of being judged did make the four hours very draining. By my last conversation, I breezed into the professor's office, plopped down in a comfortable chair, and exclaimed "You're my last meeting!" He seemed amused, so I hope my presumptuousness (borne of exhaustion) was not taken the wrong way.

I was told when I applied to PhD programs that graduate students will always tell you the truth. (Actually, I was told that by everyone but the one person I trust most in this process, who said that graduate students will tell you the truth within limits, but to never forget that they're advocating for their PI and their lab.) The grad students I met during this visit were absolutely fantastic in hosting us. They showed us all around town, ferried us from place to place, and were always open to conversation and questions. Most importantly, they were happy. I can't imagine going to a grad program where I'm competing against my lab mates for papers. These students clearly cheered each other on and felt like another student's win was a win for themselves, too. It was so wonderful to see such a warm, intelligent, supportive (but hardcore!) grad community.

So, after all these positive descriptions, why wouldn't I cancel all my other visits and overnight my enrollment forms? Unfortunately, the research doesn't fit, and that kills everything. The work they're doing in the lab I would join utilizes aspect Y of my multidisciplinary background, but I'd really like to focus and hone aspect X. In fact, I would be the expert on aspect X in the lab. That sounds very flattering, but I'm really looking for peers in X that can help drive me to improve my skills. Y is very interesting, but I see it as more tangential than central, and I don't want to be defined by it for the next 5 years (and, let's face it, until I get tenure and can change my research area). Despite the Major Research Flaw, the atmosphere at this school was so good that I'm still not crossing it off my list. (That's right, I have a list. It's hanging in my office. I do literally cross schools off of it.)

This coming week, I have three more grad school visits. I'm traveling a total of 7,700 miles in 7 days. I really need to get my frequent flier miles in order! I will report back during or after this week with impressions of the very different institutions I'm visiting, but in the end, I expect it to be a difficult decision.

11 March 2009


A lot has happened in the last week, and I hope to blog about it all. The number one, biggest, bestest event, however, was:

I got my first peer-reviewed paper accepted!!!

This is so exciting to me because it is what I see as the point of my career from now on: to do good research, and to share that good research with lots of people. I love academic research because I'm thrilled by the idea of a group of smart people getting together to discuss puzzles, and potentially helping the world out through their puzzle-solving. It's interesting to me that helping the world out is less motivating than using my brain to solve puzzles, but maybe that's a topic for a different post.

As for the paper: I'm the second of two authors (pretty standard number for my field) on a paper that only begins to explain the research I've been doing with my advisor (first author) for over 1.5 years now. It's great to finally have a publication on my CV, but it's also great to see the work we've done begin to be accepted by the community. I think it's pretty novel stuff---we're building our own methods rather than relying on existing frameworks---so having documentation of our work is important to avoid getting scooped and also to begin sharing our progress with the wider community. I hope we can publish many more papers that really explore the depths of our novel approach.

My advisor and I submitted another paper this past weekend, which had kept me from blogging for longer than I'd wanted. If that one gets in, it'll be a big win for my year of research.

10 March 2009

01 March 2009

Gender descrimination exists

A New York Times article about the wage gap between men and women.

That was very informative. Now back to your regularly scheduled experiments.