Allen started at IBM in 1957 as a teacher of the Fortran (Formula Translation) programming language, but went on to develop parallel computational computing. Her development of parallel processing--the ability for programs to run simultaneously on multiple microprocessors--enables today's high-speed computing. The Big Blue veteran recently shared her insights on the future of computer science and what work was like for a "Greatest Generation" woman of technology.
Q: The Association for Computing Machinery honored you with the A.M. Turing Award for your work on Ptran (Parallel Translation), but what do you see as your greatest achievement as a computer scientist?
Allen: Ptran was just one part of my work, which actually is about enabling users to have access to high-performance computing...being able to achieve high performance by the use of parallel computational computers.
What childhood experiences led you to become interested in computers and technology?
Allen: I was from a very remote farm. Well, not so much remote, but a dairy farm in upstate New York without electricity, without central heat, without running water, and it was before computers really came into existence. I do think that my experience on the farm probably gave me a lot of freedom to be very interested in solving problems.
By the way, this is a little off your question, but I have an impression, and it's a piece of work somebody should do sometime. I think there is something to that farm. Look at the men that joined, that entered computing or built rockets in that early era. When I meet someone of my generation and we start talking about our backgrounds, I will often find that that's where the men came from. Not all of them by any means, but a number of them. Many of them, I think, were Midwest farm boys.
Allen: Yes, somebody has to go look at that thesis.
If you didn't have exposure, as you say, when you were young, when did you realize this tech stuff was something you'd like to turn into a profession?
Allen: I just fell into it. I was trained as a high school mathematics teacher. I went to the University of Michigan for a master's degree in mathematics and was in debt, and IBM came on campus. I just signed up because it could pay off my debts. I had intended to go back to my first love: teaching mathematics.
What was your first computer?
Allen: The 650, the IBM 650.
You're a pioneer both for women and computer scientists. What advice do you give now that you wish you had taken when you started your career?
Allen: Not to get so frustrated sometimes when you can't get your way.
You know, it was a wonderful time in those early days because "computer science" didn't exist yet. There weren't a lot of constraints on thinking, on what you could try to do. So it was kind of free, a period of trying many different things. Now there's much more knowledge about what doesn't work, or presumed knowledge about what doesn't work, and you have to know more. And it was a time when one could (experiment broadly). It was like a fresh wall that you could paint.
You joined IBM to teach Ptran in 1957. How has the environment changed for women since you started your career?
Allen: At that time in the environment that I was in at IBM Research in Poughkeepsie, there were many women that were being hired. Actually, quite a few of them came from Vassar and in that neighborhood. IBM had put out, I've discovered years later, a brochure called "My Fair Ladies" and they were actively recruiting women. Of course, they were actively recruiting a lot of people. There weren't any set requirements that they had to meet. They were just looking for people that had interesting backgrounds.
As a female in a male-dominated profession, were there any "ouch" moments that you can recall over the course of your career?
Allen: Oh boy! Well, yeah! The thing is, you know, in the '60s things got pretty bleak for women.
Why is that?
Allen: Well, it became a profession in the '60s. Computer science became a science and it became much more structured to people that were being hired, and there were mostly men that met the requirements. It significantly changed the workplace.
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