Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fran Allen's Keynote Address

Fran Allen draws a lot of excitement from women technologists and I think it's safe to say the audience was very eager to hear her keynote address.

Fran's Background
Fran is a legend in our community, but I still learned something new about her. I'd known about her graduate education and background in mathematics, but hadn't known she originally took a degree in education! No wonder she has consistently been involved with mentoring without her career - it's an example I think we should all look to follow.

Fran started her talk by outlining her work at IBM, including STRETCH (1956-1961) and HARVEST (1958-1962). These projects made advances in both hardware and compilers. But beyond the projects, she wrote papers, went on sabbatical at NYU, and went back to IBM research.

When she returned to IBM Research, she noticed a glass ceiling that hadn't seemed to have been there before. Fran has an interesting insight as to why: she noticed that at this time, computer science emerged as a profession, with better standards for what one needed to know in order to get a job in the field. Companies hired based on a set criteria, often pulling students from engineering schools, which were mostly populated by men. Prior to this time, these standards weren't in place and people from many different educational backgrounds entered the field, leaving more opportunity for women to get involved.

Whither Computing Science?
Fran next talked about where she thinks Computer Science is headed next. She explained a bit of background on Moore's Law and talked about parallelism as a solution. John Hennessy says, "[This is] the biggest problem Computer Science has ever faced.", but Fran has an answer: "[This is] the best opportunity we will ever have to improve user productivity, program performance, and system integrity." I liked Fran's positive approach and how she viewed the challenge as an opportunity.

Where Have All the Women Gone?
Fran mentioned that so many women she worked with were deserving of so much more recognition than they got, although many man were too. Fran wants to change this, especially the way we do recognitions. Just like mentoring, this is highly important. It's important for both men and women, but equity is lacking.

Fran's Hopes for the Future

Fran has high hopes, among which:
  • She wants to see a new generation of women experience the excitement she feels for the field.
  • She wants to see women creating the workplace that meets their needs
  • She wants to see CS become a core science of more interest to women (and others).
  • She wants to see us achieve Anita's goal: 50-50 by 2020!
  • She wants to enjoy the company of many more women Turing Award winners!
Fran ended by remembering a few great women, including Anita Borg, the Wrens at Bletchley Park, the ENIAC "computers" (such as Jean Bartik), and Betty McDonough. Earlier in the Welcome Address we heard it said that among the audience, there is definitely at least one Anita Borg or Grace Hopper.

I really enjoyed Fran's talk and I'd be interesting in hearing what you thought of it too! Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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