Mountain Climbing and Problem Solving: For Lynford Lecturer Frances Allen, They're Not That Different

Climbing Mexico’s 17,802 foot Popocatepetl (better known simply as “Popo”) could seem to most a more appealing option than splitting the bill between 12 people and figuring out tip, but computer scientist Frances Allen has done both — except the mathematical problems she solved didn’t involve waiters and who ordered dessert.

No, Allen is famous for seminal contributions to the field of computer science, specifically her work on parallelization and code optimization. She also played a part in developing intelligence analysis software for the National Security Agency and in designing software for Blue Gene, a supercomputer built to solve protein-folding mysteries. Such accomplishments led to well-earned honors: in 1998, Allen became the first woman to be named an IBM Fellow, and in 2006, she was the first female recipient of the Turing Award, commonly recognized as the Nobel Prize of computing.

This year Allen will deliver Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s 12th Annual Lynford Lecture. (Another first for Allen: She will be the first woman to deliver the lecture in its 12-year history.) She is scheduled to speak at 4pm on Thursday, November 19, in Pfizer Auditorium. We caught up with her beforehand to learn more about her motivations, her views on the future of computer science, and the importance of giving back to the community.

Q: You’re obviously a highly accomplished professional, one of the pioneers of the field of computer science. Will you tell us what drove you to succeed?

A: Since I’ve received these awards, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection about how this all happened to me. And I realize that I love to explore unsolved problems. I’m a mountain climber, for one thing, and I love to climb mountains and explore different parts of the world because I like exploring things I don’t know or understand. Once I’ve achieved that, I sometimes kind of lose interest. I’m a much better starter than I’m a finisher.

Q: You’ve said that being named an IBM Fellow allowed you to “become a role model for women in a very specific way.” Can you expand on what you meant by that?

A.  I took it naturally that women were perfectly capable of doing computing as well as men, but I realized at some point — and I think I felt a little uncomfortable about it — that I had become a role model. Basically, I’m a person that likes to help. I get very distressed when I see people not getting recognition for what they’re doing or not achieving their goals because of some discrimination. That’s intolerable to me.

Q: According to a report released by the College Board in 2006, the number of women working in technology has been on the decline (26.2 percent in 2006 versus 28.9 percent in 2000). What reasons are behind that decrease, and is it important?

A: Oh, it absolutely is, and it’s continuing. It’s become of great concern to the nation, actually. They see [the decline] as an issue in terms of our competitiveness. There are other countries where half the people in computing are women. But back to the theory question — what is causing this — is a huge puzzle to us. And there have been lots of different theories that have been raised. There was the thinking for a while that women were not interested in science and technology, and that’s been disproved now because women are entering socially relevant fields and fields where they can work together often. In medicine, in particular, it’s almost 50-50 [gender representation], and the new biosciences looks like it’s going to be dominated by women.

Q: Regarding computer science, though, that’s a field in which female representation — unlike other scientific fields in America today — is decreasing and no one’s quite sure what the reason is behind that, but there’s a push to involve more women.

A: Yes, and one of the pushes recently is to introduce computer science in the K-12 [grades] and do it in a different way than we’re doing. It’s very hard to change the educational system because there’s so many requirements already and mandates for what needs to be taught, but the biggest push right at the moment is to introduce computer science sooner rather than later.

Q:  In 2000, IBM named an award in honor of you — the “Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award” — and you were its first recipient. Why is mentoring important?

A: Oh, it’s tremendously important. And it’s emerged as one of the key ways of helping women succeed in organizations that are male-dominated. I’ve developed a few guidelines [about mentoring], one of which is to be sure that women are connected into the networks that exist. Very often for getting promotions or getting recognition or getting opportunities, it’s about people who know you or who are in a position to make those things happen. Partly it’s about networking but also it’s about encouraging women to be more open about what their own goals are.

Q: What advice would you give to women considering joining the IT field, and what would you say to women who are already there?

A: They have to want to do whatever they’re working on. I never wanted to go up a management ladder, because I always enjoyed the technical challenge in my field. I just enjoy working on problems. One has to find what makes one happy and how one wants to spend one’s days. Finding what you like is important.

Q:  For those entering the field now, is a computer science background necessary? Is there a particular avenue that’s going to be more important versus another?

A: The wonderful thing that’s happening now is many students work across disciplines, and many students are doing it purposefully. They get a degree maybe in computer science and then they go look at linguistics or they look at biology. They get degrees in multiple fields — a master’s degree in one thing, a doctorate in another. One used to think, “Oh, they can’t make up their minds,” but those are the people who are really changing our field.

Details about Dr. Allen’s upcoming Lynford Lecture

About the Lynford Lecture Series
Each year, NYU-Poly’s Lynford Lecture features a prominent thinker who explains complex information and important ideas with clarity and concision. The series is made possible by philanthropist Jeffrey H. Lynford, vice chairman of the NYU-Poly Board of Trustees, trustee of New York University, New York State Council on the Arts member and chairman of Reis Inc.; his wife, Tondra Lynford, and NYU-Poly’s Institute for Mathematics and Advanced Supercomputing (IMAS). The Lynfords were instrumental in bringing IMAS co-directors Drs. David and Gregory Chudnovsky to NYU-Poly. Past Lynford Lecture speakers include Gerald M. Rubin, genome sequence pioneer, and Alan Kay, pioneer of the modern personal computer.