- Margarita Rodriguez
- BBC News World
Frances Allen’s name may not be well known to the general public, but to the connoisseurs, she was the one who “paved the way for today’s ultra-fast and efficient applications”, and who “helped hardware to I boughtnder to software“.
This is explained in an article by Cade Metz, author and journalist of Technology of The New York Times.
For her part, Janet Abbate, associate professor of the Society’s Science and Technology department at Virginia Polytechnic University (USA) and author of Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (“Recode gender: the changing participation of women in computing”), says it like this to BBC Mundo:
“Every time you use an app that responds instantly, Fran Allen is one of the people you can thank for that effortless experience“.
It took 40 years before a woman was awarded the Turing Prize, considered to be the Nobel Prize for computing. The first was delivered in 1966 and was in 2006 when it was awarded to the first woman: Frances Allen (1932-2020).
Allen’s work is reflected in “almost every software system that anyone uses: every application, every website, every video game or communication system, every government or bank computer, every computer inside a car or in a car. an airplane, “explained Graydon Hoare, creator of the Rust programming language, in the Metz article.
On our cell phones
“All the applications on your beloved phone started out as a program: lines of code written by a programmer in a high-level language like Java,” explains Abbate.
“To run on your phone, the program must be ‘compiled’ or transformed into machine-level code by another program called a compiler.”
But, the expert warns, the work that the compiler does is not a simple translation, since “a good compiler uses all kinds of clever tricks to make the applications they produce run quickly, efficiently and correctly. ”
This process is known as “optimization”.
“Fran Allen was a pioneer who invented many of the optimization techniques used in software today. ”
“Today’s smartphones have powerful processors, but powerful hardware can’t do its job without fast software.”
Therefore, says the teacher, Allen is one of the people we can “thank” for having apps that respond immediately.
Before Allen’s work, compilers already existed.
IBM had created one of the most widely used, FORTRAN, in 1957, a few months before Allen was hired.
“The problem is that the FORTRAN compiler had been created by hand and had innumerable problems,” Sergio Gálvez Rojas, professor of Computer Science at the University of Malaga, in Spain, tells BBC Mundo.
“The worst of all is that, in some preliminary cases, he even went so far as to make a mistake in the translation with the terrible consequences that this could cause.”
Upon entering the company, Allen became a FORTRAN expert and thus he entered the world of compilers, a field of computer science that, at that time, was at the forefront.
“He established the basic translation theory and methods to consistently build robust and efficient compilers.”
“The ‘systematic’ thing is also very important since it allows the creation of new languages quite easily, without having to resort to artisanal methods prior to their time.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, together with researcher John Cocke, Allen published several studies that helped “drive the evolution of computer programming to the present day, when even relatively novice people can easily create apps of fast and efficient software for a world of computers, smartphones and other devices, “explained journalist Cade Metz.
In the Turing Prize statement, Allen’s fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of program optimization and to “the automatic parallelization of programs, which allows programs to use multiple processors simultaneously for faster results. “
From a farm to IBM
Allen was born on August 4, 1932, in upstate New York. She was the oldest of six siblings.
“He grew up on a farm no electricity or running water“His great-nephew Ryan McKee tells BBC Mundo.
“She felt that she could achieve incredible things through the gift of education that she really gave herself.”
“I was going to a small, one-room school. I don’t even know if there was electricity.”
Allen did a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, where he took computer courses.
IBM had gone to campus looking for employees and among the several interviewees was mathematics.
The scientist explained in an interview that the company was “very actively” hiring women.
Allen got the position, but his idea was to work for a year to pay off his student debts and do what he liked: to teach.
But that first year ended up becoming 45 years at the computer giant, where, in 1989, it became the first female IBM Fellow, the highest honor given to the company’s top engineers, scientists, and programmers.
“IBM was not only a major computer manufacturer. It was and continues to be an important center for computer science research, from early innovations like FORTRAN, to the chess-playing supercomputer – Deep Blue – and quantum computing.” , says Professor Janet Abbate.
“Just a small fraction of these computer scientists receive the title of IBM Fellow for extraordinary and sustained technical achievement “.
“The golden age”
Allen said that she had lived through “a kind of golden age of computing” in the 1950s.
On the one hand, Abbate explains, there was a tremendous flowering of computer languages, which was his specialty.
“Compilers make programming as we know it today and in the 1950s and early 1960s, people first realized that they could transform computing, they created all kinds of experimental languages and he won the support of skeptics who said it would never work, “says Abbate.
And on the other hand, it was a time when computing was a welcoming field for women, many of them mathematics.
But in the 1970s, that receptivity began to wane, and Allen actually spoke of the so-called “glass ceiling” for women in the industry.
Professor Abbate believes that part of the explanation is in the global recession, which affected hiring in this sector: “Companies were not doing everything possible to hire women as before.”
The scholar also reflects on the fact that women like Allen, “who had entered the field in the 1950s, were now in half of their careerswhen they should have advanced to positions of authority, but very few companies wanted to have women in management positions, especially if they were going to supervise men. ”
So the glass ceiling became more obvious to them than before.
Like Abbate, Ryan McKee remembers Allen not only for his warmth, intelligence and humility, but also for his sense of humor.
“He had several anecdotes. Perhaps at the time he did not think they were funny, but when he told them he did it with good humor“.
In an interview with Abbate, Allen explained that she was once the only woman invited to a computer conference.
When he entered the hotel reception to check in, the man in charge told him, without looking up, that they were having problems and that everyone should share a room because there were not enough rooms.
“Then he looked up and said: ‘Ah, you are a woman!‘”said the scientist with a laugh, who was given a room just for her.
He also told the story of two certificates hanging on his wall: “These are my IBM Fellow documents,” he said.
They were almost identical, but one of them was written as if the person deserving of the honor was a man.
Realizing the mistake, they made another one. “They wanted this back. I didn’t return it!” He said, laughing again.
McKee believes that he did not return it because he wanted proof that a change was necessary in that industry.
Allen, who died in 2020, is not only admired at IBM for her scientific contributions, but also for being a teacher.
After specializing in FORTRAN, she was the one who taught it to her colleagues.
“In addition to her technical genius, we remember Fran for her love of teaching and her passion for inspiring and mentoring others,” said Arvind Krishna, IBM president and CEO.
But his contribution goes further. Some believe she was a feminist in the computer world.
Although he encouraged young men and women to train, says McKee, he “obviously” had a conviction to encourage women to dabble in science and technology.
“It created spaces for could develop and be successful“.
In fact, Allen made a mark on Ginni Rometry, president and CEO of IBM from 2012 to 2020 and one of the most recognized women in the world of computing.
“Fran will always be an inspiration to me and many others, at IBM and around the world. Not only because of her contributions to the field of computing, but also because of her generosity, mentorship and unending curiosity,” said Rometry.
And simplicity, those who knew her say, always characterized her. He hardly spoke of his many accomplishments.
The Turing Prize was “wonderful,” recalls McKee.
“And she could list all the women who had deserved it before her.”
Surely today she would have made a list of how many have deserved it after her.
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Frances Allen, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in computing (and how it helped you have ultra-fast apps) – BBC News World