Fair Lady of Computer Science who Kicks Ass
In honor of women’s history month, I am going to gush about how much I love Frances Allen. Partly, because I’ve met her. Well, I’ve attended a lecture she gave, which is not the same thing. Also, because she has won the Turing Award, the highest honor the computer science community can bestow. She is, incidentally, the first woman to win it. It is fair to say that without her, our compilers wouldn’t work very well. I happen to like compilers. (They are those programs that translate computer programming languages into machine language. I can speak only for myself, of course, but I’m glad these programs work so very well. Programming in assembly language is a thing I usually try to avoid.) She also worked on parallelization, a difficult and necessary topic and a problem that needs to be solved well for computers to continue getting faster.
Ms. Allen started working at IBM just to pay off school loans but ended up staying there for almost 50 years doing incredibly important work on the FORTRAN compiler. One thing I was a little disappointed about from her lecture was that she ran out of time before getting to her “where have all the women gone?” topic. She did briefly explain that back in the 50s, lots of women worked in computing. Computer work was seen as “women’s work” and IBM recruiters advertised for and to women. This wasn’t new, even back in Bletchley Park, a lot of the coders were women. So, what exactly did happen for this to cease being women’s work? I really wanted to hear her thoughts on that.
What she did have time to say in that lecture was that the contribution of computer science to human knowledge is algorithmic thinking, and that for that reason computer science is poised to become queen of the sciences. (Scientists in other fields should, of course, feel free to disagree and tell me how their branch of science is better than mine.) That vision, of contributing algorithmic thinking is what I try to bring to remember in my own struggles with computer science and the teaching thereof.
Featured Image from the IBM archives.