Fran Allen Sees Computer Science as Science

Seibel: Do you think of yourself as a scientist, an engineer, an artist, or a draftsman?

Allen: I think of myself as a computer scientist I was involved in my corner of the field in helping it develop. And those were interesting times—the emergence of computer science—because there was a Ic lot of question about, "Is this a science? Anything that has to have science in its name n't a science." And it was certainly unclear to me what it meant.

But compilers were a very old field—older than operating systems. Some day want I to really look it up. The word compiler comes actually from the embedding of little snippets of instructions to execute. Like an add would be spelled out in very primitive terms for the machine. If you want to do an add, then it would go to its library that defined that and expand it.

But assemblers were also using symbolics. m not sure this is accurate, but I used to believe that the first early use of symbolics for names of variables came from a man named Nat Rochester, on a very early IBM machine, the 701 around 1951. He was in charge of testing it and they wrote programs to test the machine. In the process of doing that, they introduced symbolic variables. Now, I've seen some other things since that make me believe that there were earlier ways of representing information symbolically. It emerged in the early '50s, I think, or maybe even in the '40s. he would have to go back and see exactly how things were expressed in the ENIAC, for one thing.

Seibel: So somewhere along the line, you realized you had become a computer scientist, developing theories about compiler optimization and so forth. But you started out as a programmer, hired to write code. By the time of the PTRAN project you were managing a team of people who were actually writing the software. Why did you make that switch?

Allen: Well, probably two reasons—one, I wasn't a very good programmer, I tended to make quite a few mistakes—unlike the conventional wisdom at the time that said that women make good programmers because they pay attention to details. I didn't fit that category. So I tended to be kind of disinterested in getting all the details right and I was much more interested in the way systems work.

My interest in mathematics was very abstract. If I had had enough money to go 1 to get a PhD, I would have become a geometer. I loved the rigor of that process. That's what I really most enjoy, puzzling through systems—puzzling through the engineering kinds of things without necessarily knowing the details of what one would need to know to be an engineer, which is quite a different area.


Allen started out as a programmer, but became a scientist to perform her job well.

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 Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Seibel , Peter (2009-09-16), Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming, Apress, Retrieved on 2011-04-21
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: information technology programming computer science


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