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!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great post about Fran Allen for Ada Day :)