Radia Perlman: A Pioneer Many Times Over
It takes a brilliant mind to pioneer an algorithm crucial to the functionality of the internet – and lots of determination to put in hours many years later to replace it! Software designer and network engineer Radia Perlman did just that and much more; she created a field of computing as an undergraduate and has had a massive influence on the way network security is taught. With three MIT degrees and over a hundred patents to her name, Radia has found ways to pioneer new solutions with her incredible creativity, extensive knowledge, and problem-solving skills in every branch of computing she’s tackled. Just don’t call her “the Mother of the Internet” (more on that later!).
Radia grew up in New Jersey with a mother and father who were engineers for the U.S. government, doing computer programming and working with radar, respectively. Although she’d always loved and excelled at math and science, in her words, “I was also interested in artsy things. I loved classical music and played piano and French horn. I also loved writing, composing music, and art.” Of all her multidisciplinary interests, it was math that Radia turned into a career.
When she headed to Massachusetts to study math at MIT, Radia had no intention of following her mother’s footsteps into programming; however, it would turn out that the field she’d once spurned in high school would find a way to draw her in. A TA in one of Radia’s sophomore physics courses noticed her intellect and asked her to be a programmer for his project. When she told him didn’t know how to program, he responded with, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m asking you. You’re obviously bright, so I’m sure you can learn and I have no money to pay you. If you knew how to program I’d have to pay you.” Luckily, her boyfriend at the time knew how to program, and she fell in love with the logical, exciting process.
After learning to code, Radia went on to pioneer an entire field known as “tangible computing.” As an undergraduate, she designed a programming language that was paired with special input devices to teach programming concepts to very young children. According to ITWORLD, it was “a child-friendly version of the educational robotics language LOGO, called TORTIS (Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System).” Radia’s work has been cited as “the first and most prominent arrowhead pointing in the right direction.” She continued her trajectory by graduating with a B.S. in math, then staying at MIT to earn an M.S. in math and a Ph.D in Computer Science.
Though she’s spent her whole career solving problems, one solution became Radia’s most recognized accomplishment. The problem? File sharing between computers. Her solution? STP. STP, or Spanning Tree Protocol, configures networks to deliver data and avoid deadly loops. Because her solution changed the way the internet runs, she’s been called “the Mother of the Internet” – but Radia says she doesn’t like the term! As she told the Atlantic, “I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed.” Radia’s nature is one of innovation and constant improvement – to improve on her 1985 STP solution, she’s been working to replace it with a new technology called TRILL (TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links).
Touching on her interests in the arts once more, Radia wrote a poem about how Spanning Tree Protocol works!
Radia also branched into writing – in 1992 she wrote a wildly popular textbook called Interconnections. It pioneered a change in the way networking was taught, turning it into a science. As she recounted to the Atlantic, “The field was really murky, full of jargon and hype. My book created order. It was easy to understand while being conceptually thought-provoking, and a large part of the technology described was stuff I’d invented.” Just a few years later she honed her extensive experience to co-author another popular textbook called Network Security.
Radia Perlman’s innovative career is an inspiration to us; she’s a great role model for young coders! In her interview with ITworld, she gives great advice to future and current engineers, suggesting, “Start out with finding the right problem to solve. This is a combination of ‘what customers are asking for’, ‘what customers don’t even know they want yet’ and ‘what can be solved with something simple to understand and manage.’ Try to think about and understand various approaches, and the tradeoffs between various choices.”
Check out our courses and get your kids on the path to coding success. Who knows – maybe they’ll follow in Radia’s footsteps and pioneer crucial technologies, too!
This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!