Frances Allen: Fusing Passions into a Career
When coding, you probably don’t think about the code behind the code – but that’s exactly what Frances “Fran” Allen spent her life doing. The first female IBM fellow and first woman to win the Turing Award, Fran has been in the computing space since it took off in the 50s! During her illustrious career, she worked on a top-secret NSA computer, helped secure IBM’s future as a leader in mainframes through her research and work on compilers, and made massive contributions to research and development for multiproc. If you’ve ever programmed a computer (or used one for that matter), you’ve likely been impacted by Fran’s work.
Raised in a farmhouse with no electricity, Fran always had big dreams in her small town. Brilliant at math, she graduated from the New York State College For Teachers with a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. After earning her master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan and teaching for two years, she took on work with IBM to pay off her loans. Just two months after Fortran launched, Fran was brought on to teach IBM researchers the language. She planned on staying only until she could pay off her loans but ended up building her entire career at IBM.
For Fran, computing was the perfect storm, combining math, problem-solving, and active learning processes. She’s adventurous – known for taking off on mountain-climbing expeditions – and that adventurous spirit manifests itself in her work. As she told the Times, “Computer science is a field that came out of the problems we solved and the ones we are still trying to solve. It’s in my nature to find the frontiers.”
And find them she did! Fran’s first assignment at IBM was one that proved formative to her career – teaching Fortran to IBM scientists. They scoffed at a compiler language because they didn’t believe a compiler could produce good enough code, but with her teaching skills and tenacity, Fran set out to learn and teach the language. In a 2003 interview she discussed this, saying, “That was of course a learning experience for me too, because I didn’t know the language, and that’s what teaching is often about: you have to learn the subject as you go.”
Teaching Fortran involved having a deep understanding of the language and reading source code for the compiler, and in a way, this experience set the stage for the rest of Fran’s career. “It set my interest in compilers,” she said, “and it also set the way I thought about compilers.”
Fran went on to have an illustrious career in computing, spanning 45 years and including many great accomplishments and contributions. She worked on one of the first supercomputers, known as Stretch/Harvest, for NSA and helped create the first “superscalar processor,” which allows a computer to perform tasks simultaneously and efficiently. During a sabbatical from IBM, Fran shared her extensive expertise on compilers by teaching courses to graduate students at NYU – so she had her chance to teach after all!
In 2006, Fran became the first female recipient of the Turing award, the “equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computing.” In addition, she was awarded the Ada Lovelace Award in 2002. She’s been named a fellow at IBM, IEEE, and ACM.
When reflecting on her career and the process of developing her interests in math, physics, and even history into her life’s work, Fran cited educators as instrumental. “The reasons for all of [my] interests were teachers, teachers in high school and in seventh and eighth grade and even before that. These were people that really excited me about the topics.” Educators always have been and always will be vital – from introducing topics to encouraging exploration, they inspire kids’ futures, just as Fran’s teachers inspired her.
Fran Allen is a true testament to what can be accomplished when determination meets integrated interests. During her career, she fused her passions – math, problem solving, and education – to craft opportunities, lead research teams, and accomplish amazing things. Many of the kids who code with Tynker do the same! We’ve seen projects combining coding with everything from math to social justice, theater, and design. When hard-working people bring their interests together in a meaningful way, incredible things happen!
This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!