Friday, March 02, 2007

Frances Allen - First Woman to Win the Turing Award

I thought I'd posted this last week, but somehow it ended up as a draft. I must be slipping in my old age.

The Turing Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in computer science. This week, Frances E. Allen became the first women to win the award since its establishment by the Association for Computing Machinery 40 years ago.

Frances E. Allen, 75, was honored for her work at IBM Corp. on techniques for optimizing the performance of compilers, the programs that translate one computer language into another. This process is required to turn programming code into the binary zeros and ones actually read by a computer's colossal array of minuscule switches.

Allen joined IBM in 1957 after completing a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan. At the time, IBM recruited women by circulating a brochure on campuses that was titled "My Fair Ladies."
Allen's work not only advanced computer science, but aided the Allies during WWII.
"Fran Allen's work has led to remarkable advances in compiler design and machine architecture that are at the foundation of modern high-performance computing," said Ruzena Bajcsy, Chair of ACM's Turing Award Committee, and professor of Electrical and Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley. "Her contributions have spanned most of the history of computer science, and have made possible computing techniques that we rely on today in business and technology. It is interesting to note Allen's role in highly secret intelligence work on security codes for the organization now known as the National Security Agency, since it was Alan Turing, the namesake of this prestigious award, who devised techniques to help break the German codes during World War II," said Bajcsy, who is Emeritus Director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at Berkeley.
Not only has she done outstanding work as a computer scientist, but she has spent time mentoring some of the young women (and men) who came after her at IBM.
Allen prides herself on her involvement with IBM's mentor program, as she considers it an essential part of her daily routine. She recalls that in 1957 -- when she first joined IBM Research -- the idea of mentoring was not widespread outside the executive track. However, through formal and informal mentoring, Allen began seeking out new employees to guide them along their own personal paths to success. IBM was so overcome with Allen's commitment to mentoring that they established an award in her name, as an effort to promote the careers of technical men and women in IBM who have demonstrated "exemplary commitment to mentoring of technical women." In 2000, Allen, herself, was the first recipient of the "Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award". It has since been awarded to three of IBM's top mentors, including this year's recipients, June Andersen and Karin Duermeyer.

Encouraging her protégés to set realistic goals, Allen says, "I try to make them aware that moving ahead may not get them where they want to be." She further explains, "Many women enter the industry hoping to climb the corporate ladder rather quickly, but if and when they get there, they realize it is not what they had hoped for."

Allen recalls instances when she could not offer the encouragement protégés came seeking. In the hope to not discourage them, but rather guide them, she nonchalantly responds, "Now, why do you want to do that?" After repeated encounters like this, her protégés soon came to realize that this response was Allen's kind-hearted disapproval.
The Turing Award will be presented to Allen in June.

For more about Allen's work, check out:
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