Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Top Ten Women in Technology

Women who have changed the course of computing history.
To celebrate International Women's Day Shaun and I decided to devote the Top 10 to women who have been pivotal in the development of the computing world.

Technology is still largely dominated by men, both in implementation and management. The reasons for this are complicated and still not fully understood. Some say that male brains are better adapted to the concentrated focus that many computing tasks require, while others point to the male-dominated engineering culture that much of computing is taken from. Another theory is that the problem starts in schools, where girls are steered away from computing, either by social pressure or by stupid teachers.

But, as this list will show, none of these reasons provide the answer. Women, given the opportunity, outperform men time after time, which suggests that the chief factor holding women back in the industry is men.
One note about the list. As we explained yesterday, you won't find the likes of Carly Fiorina or Carol Bartz on this list (with one small exception). Running a technology company isn't too difficult; you simply need to be a good business manager.
This list is composed of women who've been involved in the guts of technology - the engineers and visionaries who have changed not only how we used computers but, in some cases, the very cornerstones of computing itself.

Honourable mention: Meg Whitman

Shaun Nichols: While we've tried to focus on engineers and researchers for our list, a few business types were able to sneak in. Among them is eBay's Meg Whitman.

Whitman was able to seal her place in technology history by leading eBay through the dot-com boom, the market crash, and the eventual recovery as a market leader. That she did so at a time when the industry was largely a boys club earns Meg Whitman a spot on our list.

At a time when many companies did themselves in with overly ambitious agendas and foolish purchases, Whitman turned eBay into an internet icon by focusing on what worked and by building a proven business model. Now she has reincarnated herself as a moderate conservative political candidate and is tempting many left-leaning voters, myself included, to elect her as the next governor of financially-strapped California.

Iain Thomson: Well don't get your hopes up, Shaun; I've got my doubts about her ability to be a moderate state governor given the rabid state of the Republican Party at the moment. But it can't be denied that she did a good job at eBay.

Whitman was a very successful manager. At a time when the rest of the industry crashed, Whitman kept eBay profitable, well-organised, and in the perfect position to capitalise on the wreckage of the dot-com boom. But that's not the key reason in my mind that she deserves to be on the list, rather it's that she broke the glass ceiling on management of tech companies by women.

There had been women running small technology companies before Whitman, but eBay was synonymous with the internet revolution and accustomed many consumers to the idea of buying online with confidence. To head up such an organisation was an important step in getting senior figures in the notoriously boysy technology industry to accept having a woman as boss. But more importantly it hasn't all been a bed of roses. The Skype acquisition was a mistake but one that she has acknowledged. Nevertheless she enabled a new generation of women to rise and provided an important case to defeat the sexists who say women can't make it in tech.

Honourable mention: Caterina Fake
Iain Thomson: Caterina Fake is probably best known as the co-creator of the Flickr photo sharing service but she has been involved in much more than that.
On the Flickr side of things we all owe her a debt of gratitude, since at last a tech fix has been provided to the problem of holiday photos. In days of yore whenever someone went on holiday you could be forced to look at their pictures when they got back. There's only so many times you can say “what a wonderful view” without wanting to strangle someone. Now we just put them up on Flickr.
But Fake has more of a role than Flickr. She's on the board of directors for Creative Commons and was pivotal in the development of Salon.com, which broke much of the ground in making online magazines feasible. She also ran Yahoo's Technology Development group, which nurtured new ways of interacting using the internet.

Her latest venture, Hunch, looks very promising for developing ways to make decisions based on multiple data inputs. If it's anything like the rest of her career Hunch could be very effective indeed.

Shaun Nichols: Ahh, the list of great technological university programmes in America: MIT, Stanford and… Vassar? Yes, the esteemed Seven Sister college in New York contributed a pair of names on our top ten list, of which the first is Catarena Fake. Take that, Harvard.

Flickr was one of the first photo sharing services that really embraced a social networking approach. Rather than just uploading pictures and embedding a URL somewhere, Flickr allowed users to share and categorise photos both amongst themselves and with other users through tagging features.

Additionally, Flickr offered APIs and more to other web sites and services to help them embed photos in their sites. "Synergy" is an ugly buzzword that we're not allowed to use, but in this case it might be warranted. The integration between Flickr and other services boosted traffic for all parties involved, showing the wisdom of the move.

10. Mena Trott

Iain Thomson: Mena Trott and her husband created the tools that have enabled the blogging revolution to take off.

They set up Six Apart, so named because they were born six days apart, and that company gave us both TypePad and and Moveable Type. These two tools have turned blogging from something that you needed a lot of expertise to do to something everyone and his dog can get involved with. This ease of creating something in the blogosphere has been one of the milestones in popular engagement with the internet.

Trott still works at Six Apart, despite some very lucrative offers to sell out and retire. I await with interest the next stage in the blogging revolution.
Shaun Nichols: It may not have been the early aim of Six Apart, but TypePad and Moveable Type aren't just services for posting your personal blog. Many professional news organisations, including us, rely on Six Apart publishing tools and services.
The real impact of the platform, however, is at a much lower level than the big newsrooms. While Six Apart and other publishing services didn't invent the concept of the blog, they definitely democratised it.
Before blog services, you pretty much had to craft and manage your blog at the HTML level. Not a big deal for more savvy users, but a major hurdle for casual users who just wanted to share their rants. The role these services played in allowing people to communicate online is fairly major.

9. Hedy Lamarr

Shaun Nichols: No offence to the likes of current techie divas like Olivia Munn, Marissa Mayer and Kari Byron, but Hedy Lamarr was on a completely different level and also definitely gets my vote as the most glamorous geek of all time.
When she wasn't occupying her time as a Hollywood starlet, the Austrian-born Lamarr worked on a side project that more or less laid the foundations for wireless ethernet, mobile broadband and synthesised music markets.
Yes, aside from being a running joke in Blazing Saddles, the lovely Hedy Lamarr helped to develop a technique designed for controlling player pianos that eventually evolved into the frequency-hopping systems which are now used in the Wi-Fi and CDMA standards. Not truly appreciated at the time, the progress of technology seals Hedy Lamarr's place as one of the all-time great combinations of beauty and brains.
Iain Thomson: In a classic moment when we compiled the list I mentioned Lamarr, and Shaun looked puzzled. "Isn't there an actress with the same name?" he said, before I explained that they were one and the same.

In an age where Hollywood stars like Lindsey Lohan seem to have made careers out of being clueless, Lamarr is a classic example of how you can be a glamourpuss but still have brains as well. She took a break from an acting career during World War Two to do research into ways of protecting radio-controlled torpedoes from jamming.

The technology was too far ahead of its time to be practical but it was picked up twenty years later and now forms an important part of much modern mobile and wireless technology.
While her technical achievements are not as great as many people on this list, I feel she deserves the place for showing a generation of women that science and glamour are not incompatible. All too often I fear young women are turned off science because it's seen as unfeminine. Try telling that to the star of 'Samson and Delilah'.

8. Danielle Bunten Berry
Iain Thomson: Now this is a tricky area, and one that occurs with one other person on this list. Danielle Bunten Berry was a male to female transexual and had gender reassignment surgery in 1992. There are those who feel that this makes her a man but both Shaun and I, and thankfully most people these days, disagree.

Danielle was one of the world's greatest computer games designers and has been pivotal in the development of multiplayer games. She created one of the first such games in 1978 for the Apple II. Consider the implications of that: just three years after MITS invented the Altair, the very first PC, Berry was writing multiplayer computer games. It's a staggering thought.

However, the chief reason for her inclusion on this list is her creation of M.U.L.E. in 1983. M.U.L.E, which stands for Multiple Use Labor Element, was arguably the first true multiplayer game, allowing people to play each other over a single console. The game itself was essentially an exercise in economics and allowed users to harvest materials and sell them, or not, for goods and services. Owing to the advanced nature of the economic model, players could gang up on each other or manipulate prices, much like the real world.

Berry was so influential that the world's most popular computer game, The Sims, is dedicated to her memory. Sadly she died of lung cancer (Berry was a heavy smoker) in 1998 while still working on an internet version of M.U.L.E; it would have been fascinating to see that game if she had completed it.

Shaun Nichols: The gaming industry has arguably pulled hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as a result of the work of Danielle Bunten Berry. You would think that would at least merit an award or scholarship or something in her honour. Thankfully industry vets like Will Wright still pay homage to Berry's work.

Not too many people will trace the online RPG field back much earlier than AOL's Neverwinter Nights, but M.U.L.E. should definitely be credited for planting the seeds of the field. The basic ideas of economics and the trading of finite resources within the game are seen today in the in-game economies of many massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.
Gold farmers aside, the economic aspect of multiplayer worlds add entirely new depths to massively multiplayer games and can tie on countless of additional hours of enjoyment (or frustration, depending on which side of the deal you're on.)

Those of you with shrines to Gary Gygax and Will Wright should really consider adding Danielle Bunten Berry.

7. Mitchell Baker

Shaun Nichols: When icons of open source software come up, names like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds usually dominate the conversation, but Mozilla president Mitchell Baker deserves a spot at that table as well, and it's a bit embarrassing that we haven't mentioned her before.

Baker has served as the legal head of a Mozilla foundation that was inarguably far richer in developer talent than business acumen. Through her work, Baker guided Mozilla from a defunct browser technology to the biggest threat to Microsoft this side of Google.

Talk all you want about the engineering and security benefits of the Firefox model, but none of it gains ground without the guidance of legal savvy and you can thank the ethical dedication of Mitchell Baker for that.

I suppose Baker isn't a technology buff like the rest of the people on this list - her skills are more on the legal side - but her impact on the development and viability of open source technology is too great to be ignored.

Open source is hated by much of the commercial software industry, which has used any means possible to undermine its principles and subvert its core structure. Baker has been its guardian angel, fighting for the rights of the open source community and, in many cases, writing the licenses that make open development possible.

Rejoicing in the title Chief Lizard Wrangler at Mozilla, she is the legal pit bull of the industry. She has guided Mozilla into an organisation that has changed the face of internet use and has done so in a way that will ensure its continuing success.

6. Barbara Liskov

Iain Thomson: I'd have liked to see Liskov higher on the list but sadly the competition was too strong.

Barbara Liskov was the first woman in the US to be awarded a PhD in computer science, in 1968 from Stanford University. Throughout a career that is by no means over she has invented two key computer languages, CLU and Argus, as well as the Venus operating system and the Thor object-orientated database system.

In the past Liskov has specialised in data abstraction, which has allowed the development of far more powerful and sensitive computer code. She's also been a key player in the development of object orientated programming and is currently working on fault recovery systems that will be key to the future of data security, both in terms of recovering from attacks and from plain old system glitches.
She won the technology industry's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Turing Award, in 2008 and still teaches today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where lucky students can learn a lot from this great woman of computer science.

Shaun Nichols: Liskov's doctoral thesis was a computer program designed to play chess games, and for stopping there she deserves credit. A guy named Falken apparently tried that and we ended up with Global Thermonuclear War.

Jokes aside, Liskov deserves a phenomenal amount of credit, and it was great to see her finally receive the Turing Award. Her work was key in the evolution and development of object-oriented programming and she was more than deserving of the industry's top honour.

It's interesting to see the role women have played particularly in the development of programming languages. Engineers such as Liskov brought in different perspectives and approaches that helped to make software development far easier and more efficient. This is yet another example of why we should encourage young women to enter the computer science and engineering fields.

5. Sophie Wilson

If you use a smartphone handset today, you owe a debt of gratitude to Sophie (then Roger) Wilson and her associates. While working on a processor for the Acorn Computer company, the British developer group helped to outline the design of what would become the ARM chip, a low-power processor that today runs many embedded systems and most mobile handsets. A variation on the ARM processor is currently powering many of the hottest gadgets on the market, including the Apple iPhone and iPad.

4. Mary Lou Jepsen

Iain Thomson: When Shaun and I were working on the list we decided to focus on people with a practical effect on technology, not just those who ended up administering the company. Under those criteria Jepson may end up touching more lives than anyone else on this list.

Jepson has had an illustrious career in IT. Her PhD work in optics has had in important impact in display technology, notably in HDTV and projectors. She then moved onto holographic systems, designing and building the world's first holographic video system at the MIT Media Lab in 1989 pretty much from scratch, solving problems that had bedevilled the technology for years.

But to my mind her greatest achievement, and the one that could potentially impact billions of lives, is her involvement in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project set up by Nicholas Negroponte. When he called her, Jepsen was in a highly lucrative position as head of Intel's display division, but she dropped all that to become chief technology officer of the OLPC project and to bring computing to the rest of the world.

While there she took her well-proven skills and invented from scratch a display that could be used in sunlight and was also behind the power management system that made the laptop unmatched in energy efficiency. More importantly this was achieved in a way that allowed for mass-production and was as environmentally friendly as possible. The OLPC may not achieve its lofty goals, but without Jepsen it's unlikely to have even got off the ground.

Shaun Nichols: The OLPC project is not without its criticisms, but Mary Lou Jepsen is hardly responsible for those. Since the project launched she has lived up to her reputation as a brilliant engineer.

OLPC may not be able to accomplish its long-term goals, but many of the technology breakthroughs Jepsen and other OLPC engineers are making could enable other projects to develop affordable, rugged, efficient systems for children in rural and developing areas of the world.

Outside of the project, Jepsen has some pretty hardcore engineering accomplishments to her credit. She was responsible for some very cool projects in the high-definition display and hologram projection areas.

Jepsen also indirectly played a part in one of our infamous April Fools articles when she outlined a project which would have been able to project an image on to darkened parts of the moon. An unidentified V3.co.uk reporter re-hashed the idea for a fake story on April 1 2006 and over the years more than a few readers, and one or two supposedly professional news sites, have been fooled by the ruse.
3. Frances Allen

Shaun Nichols: If you have a young daughter, student, or even distant relative who is interested in science or mathematics, do her a favour and mention Frances Allen.

Allen began work with IBM in 1957 and carried on a career that would last until 2002. In that time she would amass a body of work that would lend her legendary status in the software development and high-performance computing fields, particularly in the development of programming languages and code compilers.

In 2006, Allen received the prestigious Turing Award to go along with her IBM fellowship and numerous other accolades. IBM holds Allen in such high esteem that the company's fellowship award for workplace diversity is named after her.

The next time someone tries to tell you that girls are no good at maths and sciences, rattle off the list of Frances Allen's achievements then try not to smile at their stunned silence.

Iain Thomson: As the first woman to win the Turing Award, and the first female IBM Fellow, you'd expect Allen to be on the list but her lifetime of achievement ensured her place in the top three.

Her work in compilers alone is impressive enough. We all depend on compiler technology to develop and run code, and she has pioneered many innovations in the field, notably in the parallel computing sphere, and her achievements form the basis for the theory of program optimisation today. She has also achieved sterling work in the field of high-performance computing.

Allen was also active in the field of national security while working on secondment with the National Security Agency (NSA), where she developed an advanced code-breaking language known as Alpha.

She has also been very keen on getting more women into the industry. She has said that when she started in programming it was seen as woman's work, but as the industry professionalised more and more men moved in. She is a champion of changing the way technology is taught as well, to make it more practical and accessible.

It seems Allen has been breaking barriers her entire life and it's a great pity she has had to retire, although I suspect she may yet have a few more surprises for us.
2. Ada Lovelace

Iain Thomson: Now there's usually a disagreement or two over the table at Morty's when we hammer out the list, but the decision over the placement of the top two names was very hard fought. It's not often that the manager asks us to keep it down but things did get a bit heated.

In the end Ada got the number two spot because the number one choice has had a more direct influence in our lives. While I can see Shaun's point it was a bitter blow as she's been a heroine of mine for many years.

She was the world's first computer programmer, which is remarkable in itself, but even more so considering she was a woman in a time when most of her sex were considered only useful for producing children, preferably male ones.

Lovelace was a close associate of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the mechanical computer. She studied the device he was building and worked out how to get it to work in ways beyond simple number crunching, something Babbage himself had only an inkling of. Babbage called her his 'Enchantress of Numbers.'

On 24 March this year thousands of technical and non-technical people alike will celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, with events around the world to honour the first lady of computers and to rally support to get more women in IT. I still think she should have been number one on the list but some you win and some you lose.

Shaun Nichols: The last time Iain and I had a debate that heated it was over the temperature at which beer should be served.
We've mentioned Lovelace before in our Top 10 lists, but let's rattle off her achievements one more time. As Iain noted, Lovelace not only managed to obtain a solid education as a woman, but was able to understand mathematics and engineering on a level that only a handful of people on the planet could manage at that time.

Lovelace not only thought of ways which Babbage's analytical engine could be manipulated, but she went as far as to write an algorithm which could have been processed and solved by the engine. It wasn't just a theory, it was in fact the first appearance of the computer program.

Had Babbage's invention been appreciated and embraced as it should have, Lovelace likely would have become a historical icon. My apology to Lovelace for leaving her with the number two spot, but it is in no way due to a lack of genius.
1. Grace Hopper

Shaun Nichols: As Iain mentioned there was a bit of a debate here, but ultimately the direct contributions of Grace Hopper beat out the early visions of Ada Lovelace. While Lovelace showed a definite genius for mathematics and saw the huge potential of mechanised computing devices, Hopper's ideas dramatically helped to fashion computing as we know it today.

Whether man or woman, if you've ever written a line of computing code, chances are you owe a debt to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. She helped to push the notion that computers should be able to recognise the notion of plain language. Among the systems that directly bear Hopper's fingerprints are the UNIVAC I commercial computer and the COBOL programming language.

This work helped to establish many of the early programming languages and blazed the trail for the high-level software code that dictates both personal computer and cloud-based application development today. Additionally, her reference to the removal of moths from early computer systems gives Hopper the honour of coining the term "computer bug."

Aside from a spot at the top of our list and countless awards and accolades, Harper's work in computing earned her something that would make any guy jealous: a US Navy Destroyer commissioned in her name, the USS Hopper.

Iain Thomson: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was in at the start of modern computing and has done more to shape the technology world we have today than any other woman, and the vast majority of men.

During the Second World War she left her teaching post at Vassar and went to work on the original Mark One programmable computer and basically never stopped. Recognised as a mathematical genius she worked on the Mark II before moving onto ENIAC and its successors.

She invented the compiler because, she said with characteristic modesty, she was lazy and wanted to get back to mathematics. Similarly COBOL was a successful attempt to bring programming into the mainstream, and its influence is still being felt today.

In later life she became an ambassador for computing. She would famously cut computer wires into 30cm lengths and handed them out to her students as a demonstration of how far light travels in one nanosecond to re-enforce that they should always aim to make their code tighter and faster. She also worked tirelessly on the standards front, making sure that computers, and especially software, were tested rigorously and thoroughly.

However, there's a part of me that wishes she'd been born later. Hopper died in 1992 and so never got to see the full flowering of the internet. We now need a new generation of Grace Hoppers to take us forward into the 21st century and beyond.

It is interesting that an industry which bears such strong roots to the traditionally conservative military field is so socially accepting, but throughout its history the IT industry has welcomed a number of transsexual individuals who have played major roles in the industry, such as Sophie Wilson and Danielle Bunten Berry.

Iain Thomson: When readers pointed out our mistake in the earlier list we were mortified. We already knew that we'd be doing this list for International Women's Day so resolved that she was a dead cert to make it on.

What was particularly gutting was that I learned to program on a computer Wilson had a major hand in designing, the BBC Micro. Sure, the ZX81 might have given me my first hands-on experience with IT but it was a bit of a dog, whereas the Micro was a joy to use. It also ran Elite, which harmed my school work but cemented my fascination with technology.

In a lot of ways Wilson reminds me of Woz. Both came up with ideas and were so confident their ideas would work that they designed them from scratch longhand. Woz wrote operating systems by hand; Wilson did the same with the design of the Acorn Microprocessor, drawing circuit boards on her dining room table.

Her achievements on the ARM processor are immense, particularly when you realise that they were done on a shoestring budget. It's proof positive that you can change the world without spending a fortune.


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