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== About Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley ==
 
== About Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley ==
  
Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley is a highly successful entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist. In 1962, she founded the software company originally named F.I. group (later named Xansa, since acquired by Steria). It developed a unique business model as it outsourced all its software development to women software developers who worked from home. This “cottage industry” model originally targeted women with dependents. Throughout her entrepreneur career, she pioneered employment opportunities for female programmers and allowed them to continue their education and professional development.  
+
Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley is a highly successful entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist. In 1962, she founded the software company originally named Freelance Programmers Ltd. (later named renamed Xansa, and then acquired by Steria). It developed a unique business model as it outsourced all its software development to women software developers who worked from home. This “cottage industry” model originally targeted women with dependents. Throughout her entrepreneurial career, she pioneered employment opportunities for female programmers and allowed them to continue their education and professional development.  
  
Since her retirement, she has gained additional notoriety for her philanthropic efforts. The Shirley Foundation has given over £50m to various charities, targeting those that support autistic people and emerging technology fields. For instance, Shirley was the major funder of the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of Oxford University.  
+
Since her retirement, she has gained additional renown for her philanthropic efforts through the Shirley Foundation. The foundation has given over £50 million to various charities, targeting those that support autistic people and emerging technology fields. For instance, it was the major funder of the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of Oxford University.  
  
She was one of the founders of British Computer Society. Additionally, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and promoted to Dame Commander in 2000. From May 2009 to May 2010, she served as the UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy.  
+
Shirley was one of the founders of British Computer Society. Additionally, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and promoted to Dame Commander in 2000. From May 2009 to May 2010, she served as the UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy.  
  
In this interview Shirley focuses primarily on her career. She talks about her initial training in computers, the formation of her software developer company and some of the challenges she faced throughout her career. This interview has a strong gender component as she discusses the discrimination she endured and why she initially only hired women with dependents.  
+
In this interview Shirley focuses primarily on her career. She talks about her initial training in computers, the formation of her software development company and some of the challenges she faced throughout her career. This interview has a strong gender component as she discusses the discrimination she endured and why she initially only hired women with dependents.  
  
For a longer and more comprehensive oral history done by Stephanie Shirley, please visit the one conducted by the [http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Eminent-scientists/021M-C1379X0028XX-0001V0 British Library].  
+
For a longer and more comprehensive oral history done by Stephanie Shirley, please see the one conducted by the [http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Eminent-scientists/021M-C1379X0028XX-0001V0 British Library].
  
 
== About the Interview ==
 
== About the Interview ==
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== Interview ==
 
== Interview ==
  
INTERVIEW: Dame Stephanie Shirley <br>INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate <br>DATE: April 20th, 2001 <br> PLACE: Stephanie Shirley’s Study in Henley-on-Thames  
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INTERVIEWEE: Dame Stephanie Shirley <br>INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate <br>DATE: April 20th, 2001 <br> PLACE: Stephanie Shirley’s Study in Henley-on-Thames  
  
=== Coming to England and Early Years in England ===
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=== Kindertransport and Childhood in England ===
  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
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In the Midlands of England, just outside—well, well outside Birmingham, but Uncle worked in Birmingham. It seemed very countrified, a little red brick detached house facing onto fields and woods. We did have a lot of air-raids during the war, because the bombers were going in for Birmingham. We were not bombed, luckily, but we went down into an underground air raid shelter most nights. But I felt very secure and safe there. He only died a few years ago; I miss him terribly. Auntie died many years ago.  
 
In the Midlands of England, just outside—well, well outside Birmingham, but Uncle worked in Birmingham. It seemed very countrified, a little red brick detached house facing onto fields and woods. We did have a lot of air-raids during the war, because the bombers were going in for Birmingham. We were not bombed, luckily, but we went down into an underground air raid shelter most nights. But I felt very secure and safe there. He only died a few years ago; I miss him terribly. Auntie died many years ago.  
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=== Education ===
  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
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There are some refugees who remain refugees, who remain embittered about what’s happened to them; never on their feet, always mourning what they’ve lost. After the war, Germany did something which I think is unusual in history, in that it tried to make reparation to Jewish people who had suffered. There was some social pressure, and a lot of discussion among Jewish people (which I was not really part of, because I hadn’t had any religion, and neither did my family have any) of the sort of monstrous, “So much [compensation] for a parent, so much for a brother . . .” But we had merely lost education and lost material things; our parents had survived. We actually started this reparation process, but eventually I said, “This is ridiculous. I feel fine. I don’t need this, and I don’t want the hassle of going over and over and over again the trauma of our childhood.” And after much psychological counseling—I had six years of analysis—I just don’t think it’s . . . I occasionally work now with refugees, but it’s always on the basis of how to get people jobs, things like that. It’s not really a movement that I feel I can give very much to—simply because I no longer feel a refugee.  
 
There are some refugees who remain refugees, who remain embittered about what’s happened to them; never on their feet, always mourning what they’ve lost. After the war, Germany did something which I think is unusual in history, in that it tried to make reparation to Jewish people who had suffered. There was some social pressure, and a lot of discussion among Jewish people (which I was not really part of, because I hadn’t had any religion, and neither did my family have any) of the sort of monstrous, “So much [compensation] for a parent, so much for a brother . . .” But we had merely lost education and lost material things; our parents had survived. We actually started this reparation process, but eventually I said, “This is ridiculous. I feel fine. I don’t need this, and I don’t want the hassle of going over and over and over again the trauma of our childhood.” And after much psychological counseling—I had six years of analysis—I just don’t think it’s . . . I occasionally work now with refugees, but it’s always on the basis of how to get people jobs, things like that. It’s not really a movement that I feel I can give very much to—simply because I no longer feel a refugee.  
  
=== First Jobs ===
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=== First Employment ===
  
 
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There’s never been a more exciting career path offering the flexibility valued by women’s life styles. Go for it!
 
There’s never been a more exciting career path offering the flexibility valued by women’s life styles. Go for it!
  
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[[Category:Business|Shirley]] [[Category:Business continuity|Shirley]] [[Category:Customer relationship management|Shirley]] [[Category:Industrial relations|Shirley]] [[Category:Computer industry|Shirley]] [[Category:Quality management|Shirley]] [[Category:Software development management|Shirley]] [[Category:Technology management|Shirley]] [[Category:Corporations|Shirley]]
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[[Category:Quality_management|{{PAGENAME}}]]
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Revision as of 15:15, 9 October 2012

Contents

About Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley

Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley is a highly successful entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist. In 1962, she founded the software company originally named Freelance Programmers Ltd. (later named renamed Xansa, and then acquired by Steria). It developed a unique business model as it outsourced all its software development to women software developers who worked from home. This “cottage industry” model originally targeted women with dependents. Throughout her entrepreneurial career, she pioneered employment opportunities for female programmers and allowed them to continue their education and professional development.

Since her retirement, she has gained additional renown for her philanthropic efforts through the Shirley Foundation. The foundation has given over £50 million to various charities, targeting those that support autistic people and emerging technology fields. For instance, it was the major funder of the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of Oxford University.

Shirley was one of the founders of British Computer Society. Additionally, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and promoted to Dame Commander in 2000. From May 2009 to May 2010, she served as the UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy.

In this interview Shirley focuses primarily on her career. She talks about her initial training in computers, the formation of her software development company and some of the challenges she faced throughout her career. This interview has a strong gender component as she discusses the discrimination she endured and why she initially only hired women with dependents.

For a longer and more comprehensive oral history done by Stephanie Shirley, please see the one conducted by the British Library.

About the Interview

STEPHANIE SHIRLEY: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, April 20, 2001

Interview #627 for the IEEE History, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Stephanie Shirley: an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Dame Stephanie Shirley
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: April 20th, 2001
PLACE: Stephanie Shirley’s Study in Henley-on-Thames

Kindertransport and Childhood in England

Abbate:

It’s April 20th, 2001. I’m speaking with Dame Stephanie Shirley.

To start at the beginning, when were you born and where did you grow up?

Shirley:

I was born in 1933, the child of a German jurist and an Austrian—well, my mother didn’t work at all. This was really at the time of horrendous discrimination [against Jews] in Germany. That is relevant, I think, to my serial entrepreneurism, because it has given me a very strong desire to be accepted, to survive, to make my survival worthwhile. People are surprised that sixty years later, that need to justify my existence remains with me. Because I still work pretty well full-time—largely unpaid now, because it’s for philanthropic endeavors. That all really stems from that bad start.

I came on what’s called a Kindertransport, as did ten thousand other children—unaccompanied children—to England. I came with my older sister, and we were fostered by a childless couple in the Midlands of England. To everyone’s surprise—probably their own—their hearts were touched by little pictures in the paper saying, “Homes wanted for two well-brought-up children.” My parents and I were reunited, but sadly, I never really bonded with them again, and I’m really the child of my foster parents.

My sister sublimated her childhood trauma—because they were very difficult times—by working always with children. She worked with adoptions and fostering, and eventually went to Australia. I went to her funeral some years ago, and, probably more than I had realized, she had done a lot for the concept of fostering: because I think we understand what loss and bereavement is, in that sense. Today, in some of the things that I do (not computer things), I am doing very similarly, in that I work with a school for profoundly learning-disabled children, who don’t communicate, and whose parents are themselves going through trauma in letting their children go. Somehow I think I have some understanding of that, because of those early traumas. So I think it’s part of my developmental history.

Abbate:

How old were you when you came to England?

Shirley:

I was five. So I was, I suppose, one of the youngest children that can remember anything at all about the journey. There were some babies, babes in arms, who were escorted by teenage children, some of whom were themselves coming to England to stay. Others had done a deal with the Nazis, that they would bring the children over and then return to Germany—to almost certain death. I always think those young girls were inordinately brave.

Abbate:

Was your sister your only other sibling?

Shirley:

Yes, yes, there were just the two of us. My father later remarried, and so I have a half-sister, also in Australia, but I don’t have any family in this country.

Abbate:

What did your foster parents do for a living?

Shirley:

Uncle had started as an apprentice in a small light-to-heavy engineering company, and he finished up as managing director. And I guess he did act as a bit of a role model in some ways, certainly as regards my values, which come from him. Very upright, very full of Victorian sayings and mottoes—”If a job’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well”—and he really gave me a very good basis on which to ground any philosophy or spirituality. But he didn’t bring work home at all, and I’m not sure whether he actually inspired me in business in any sense. It was years after I’d been in business that I thought, “Of course, Uncle’s in business as well.” We call them Uncle and Auntie, as most adoptive and foster children do.

Auntie had never worked, and was somewhat fragile, and a difficult lady. Tremendous sense of humor, which I think over time I’ve picked up, and that’s nice. She almost had a sort of feyness about her. But it was she who suddenly decided to foster two Jewish children—you know, coming from a sort of bigoted and conventional upbringing, it was quite a big thing for them to do. Uncle was absolutely marvelous with children, he really was. Auntie wasn’t, because she was so egocentric. But we had a lovely time.

Abbate:

Where was that again?

Shirley:

In the Midlands of England, just outside—well, well outside Birmingham, but Uncle worked in Birmingham. It seemed very countrified, a little red brick detached house facing onto fields and woods. We did have a lot of air-raids during the war, because the bombers were going in for Birmingham. We were not bombed, luckily, but we went down into an underground air raid shelter most nights. But I felt very secure and safe there. He only died a few years ago; I miss him terribly. Auntie died many years ago.

Education

Abbate:

What type of schools did you go to?

Shirley:

Well, Auntie and Uncle first of all sent me to the village school. Of course, I didn’t speak a word of English when I arrived—we arrived second of July, and by September, when school started, we were speaking enough English to go to school. I started to pick up the most horrendous Birmingham accent! Nowadays, we welcome that sort of diversity; but Auntie and Uncle were very snobbish, and the thought that a child of theirs should start to speak with such an accent was horrendous! They removed me after one term and sent me to a small private school, which was a Roman Catholic convent. Nuns in those days wore habits. And there again, they didn’t push the religion on me; Auntie and Uncle were nominally Church of England. They taught me not only a good grounding for grammar school, but also gave very good values, as I look back on it. It was a good grounding.

They were not professional teachers, but they had enough professionalism to eventually realize that I had a gift in mathematics, and to go to Auntie and Uncle and say, “This child is gifted; we can’t teach her. She needs to go elsewhere.” And so I sat for, and got, a scholarship—because in those days you had to pay to go to a grammar school—and went to grammar schools for the rest of my education. First in Lichfield, which was with Auntie and Uncle, and then my mother found somewhere where I could stay, and I went to Oswestry, on the border of Wales, where, again, I spent five years or something like that.

I was very obviously a high performer, a high achiever, and very much a driven child. But also, the family, such as it was, was living on charity funds, and being short of money for so long really got to me. And although I did sit one exam—well, we hadn’t even got enough money to pay for sitting examinations (you had to pay to sit for them), so I just sat in on a joint one, and didn’t do well—I was quite happy to leave school at eighteen and start working, which I did. I took my honors maths degree at evening classes in London, and although it was pretty tough, it did mean that at twenty-three I had my honors degree and, at the same time, five years’ work experience. That’s somehow been the pattern of my life: in that, if you don’t have holidays, if you do work weekends, if you do work a very long day, and you have got five years’ experience when you’re twenty-three, you quickly overtake people who are intellectually much more capable, but just haven’t got the drive and the energy and motivation. So I think whatever I have achieved—and I am a totally self-made woman—really came simply by energy and perseverance.

I was also at the beginning of the industry of the twentieth century, really. There I was, pretty well at the beginning. I’m classed as a “late pioneer,” so that’s just at the end of the actual pioneering stage. Some of my software is in the Science Museum. It was a matter of timing, really; but a lot of business, of course, is timing. There are plenty of people who miss the opportunities that are there—and there are many opportunities. I grabbed just one.

Abbate:

Had your foster parents impressed on you the necessity of having a career and supporting yourself, or was that simply obvious in the situation?

Shirley:

They were fairly gender-free. They were not ambitious or academic themselves. Uncle certainly respected wealth; it had given him comfort and security. Certainly the need to support myself and get on my feet, that’s true of most first-generation immigrants: you’ve just got to get going.

There are some refugees who remain refugees, who remain embittered about what’s happened to them; never on their feet, always mourning what they’ve lost. After the war, Germany did something which I think is unusual in history, in that it tried to make reparation to Jewish people who had suffered. There was some social pressure, and a lot of discussion among Jewish people (which I was not really part of, because I hadn’t had any religion, and neither did my family have any) of the sort of monstrous, “So much [compensation] for a parent, so much for a brother . . .” But we had merely lost education and lost material things; our parents had survived. We actually started this reparation process, but eventually I said, “This is ridiculous. I feel fine. I don’t need this, and I don’t want the hassle of going over and over and over again the trauma of our childhood.” And after much psychological counseling—I had six years of analysis—I just don’t think it’s . . . I occasionally work now with refugees, but it’s always on the basis of how to get people jobs, things like that. It’s not really a movement that I feel I can give very much to—simply because I no longer feel a refugee.

First Employment

Abbate:

So how did you end up in London?

Shirley:

London was where everybody went to get a job.

Abbate:

And what was your first job?

Shirley:

I applied for two jobs: one at the GEC (General Electric Company), a big firm—it’s called something different now—and the other at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, which is a good, well-known research establishment, and was near to where we had our home. It was the Post Office who not only offered the job to an eighteen-year-old, but also offered me training opportunities, and I wanted those. So that was the reason for taking that one; and I was there for eight years. I met my husband there. Again, I had pretty good training.

My first boss was a real bully, and . . .

Abbate:

What were they training you to do?

Shirley:

[I think] it was called a Maths Laboratory. I was a little glorified mathematical clerk, punching desk calculator comptometers. Doing graphs of things; occasionally we would take a measurement, but it was usually purely numerical. I learned about algebras, correlations, statistics. I think I studied a bit in statistics, because I was still studying [for my honors maths degree]. I learned to project-manage a task. I did my first supervision; I had somebody actually reporting to me by the time I was twenty-six. And basically, I suppose, background training for a mathematician—pure mathematician. I loved mathematics. I was going to be the world’s greatest mathematician; it was I who was going to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem; this was my love, and I still get pleasure from it. It soon became obvious, though, that I did not have the intellect to actually contribute to the mathematics that I loved so much. This didn’t matter, in actuality, because suddenly computers came on the scene—one was looking at the very early computers in the ‘50s—and by the nature of what I was doing, immediately, just as I’d always known I wanted to be a mathematician, I immediately knew that that’s what I wanted to do! I was just overwhelmed, absolutely.

Abbate:

How did you first encounter computers?

Shirley:

A friend of mine with whom I was studying at evening classes was working on an early computer, an Elliott 401, I think it was called. And I took my annual holiday and spent the time hanging around his job, sweeping up the little chads that fell on the floor, making myself generally useful so they didn’t throw me out! Oddly enough, that was at GEC [where I had applied for a job earlier]. It was just what I wanted to do, so I went back to my employer and asked to move into the computing side. We didn’t even have the names then; we would solemnly discuss how to spell “programme”: with a single or a double “m”?

I really got a bit of a brush-off. I hadn’t gotten my maths degree at that time, and you needed proper mathematics to work on computers in those days. So I sort of fringed on it for some time. Then eventually, of course, I got my degree, applied for promotion to my boss—said, “I want to go on for the next grade”—and it caused quite a lot of fuss, because they’d never had a woman at the grade that I was applying for. This is part of the British scientific civil service, and the way in which the civil service make appointments is through an interview panel of five people, not including your direct report. Rumors got around to me that my panel kept resigning, the ones that were going to interview me; for some of them had got enough integrity to admit, “I would never appoint a woman. There’s no point in me sitting on this panel. I won’t appoint any woman.” And I mention this because this is from whence computing women come. It was an environment in which it was very discriminated. Even in an employment opportunity where people were paid fixed salaries by age or grade—if you were such-and-such a grade, and such an age—then there was another salary pattern for women. They were different!

Abbate:

Even in the civil service?

Shirley:

Yes, even in the civil service. Because it was very rigid there. They did employ women, but . . . . It was a very different sort of life.

Abbate:

This was the late ‘50s, by this time?

Shirley:

Mid-fifties, really.

I think my first boss acted as a role model to me later—as the sort of boss I didn’t want to be, because he was very, very didactic: “Do this; do that.” My management style was much more collegial, and much more—it has often been described as “feminine,” but I don’t really think it is; it’s just more me, and I happen to be a woman.

But certainly those first years at work were quite important in the sense that I got very good training and enjoyed work. Work to me is not just something I do when I’d rather be doing something else; I really enjoyed work, still do, probably always will. I’m a classic intellectual: I like to learn; I like to do new things; and for me to start off in a research station, however lowly—I was always doing something new! You were never repeating yourself. And when I have to repeat myself—which, obviously, in management you frequently are . . . Every quarter, you do the same thing; every year, you have different situations, but you’re still with the same title, you’re effectively doing the same job. I’m the sort of person that the first time they do something, I might be even brilliant; the second time I do it I’m barely competent; and the third time I do it, I’m just bored, and then I really hardly perform at all. Whereas the professional manager will improve all the time, I’m very much better doing fresh things all the time, so I’m at my peak. I’m a starter of things, I’m a serial entrepreneur. Yet I have managed a large organization. I didn’t enjoy it, but did it dutifully and made sure I was trained and competent to do it. I put the time in, but didn’t have the flair for doing it—no interest in it. I respect professional management very much, but it’s not something I like to do. Although I headed my company for twenty-five years, I should have got out earlier; and now I make sure when I set something up that two, three, four years later I can back off and find somebody else to take it forward. They’re always much better at it than I am! So I’m much respected not only for my early computing work, which is actually trivial, but for my managerial and entrepreneurial drive, and for the way in which I’ve managed succession. I actually drove a whole lot of people—predominantly women—and they are all doing great things, which is really marvelous.

Early Career with Computers

Abbate:

Did you leave the Post Office when they [refused to promote you]?

Shirley:

Yes. Well, I met my dear husband at the Post Office Research Station. Derek was a theoretical physicist; the Research Station had about 2000 people on site, with 200 graduates. Very quiet, very shy; so we’re very complementary in style, which has held us together through thick and thin. And I just didn’t want to go on working at the same place [as my husband-to-be]. There were another couple of dual-career people at the Research Station, and I’d seen the way in which, if they lunched together, people said, “Oh look, they’re lunching together.” If they didn’t lunch together, they’d say, “I wonder why they’re not lunching together?” And I just thought, “No!” and I took myself off. There was a financial incentive as well, in that, as a historic remnant of when women were not allowed to continue as civil servants when married, a concession allowed you to take out your pension payments on marriage. I thought, “Aha!” So I resigned, and we got married on the strength of that payment.

By that time, I had come to terms with my traumatic childhood, but I had been very unsettled in England. (My sister never settled; I think she always felt like a refugee, but that’s another story.) I actually went to Vienna, from whence we came, to lay a few ghosts. Really, in my mind—if they played Viennese music, I would be in floods of tears; I felt I was in the wrong place, I hadn’t got any roots—all those sorts of things immigrants go through. So I went back to Vienna—a big journey in those days, and I hadn’t got much money, and I hadn’t got a bed. Suddenly, I realized when I got there: absolutely nothing’s for me there. And I phoned Derek from Vienna—again, phone calls were very difficult in those days—and said, “I’m coming back. Let’s get married on my return.” So there was some need to really decide that this was my place. Quite ridiculous; but you get like that.

I left the Post Office Research Station on marriage, and my husband continued to work there, and I applied for a job with a computer company. Suddenly, I was no longer a general mathematician. I’d worked on quite a few computers by that time: using computers to solve problems, but secondly, designing computers: special purpose computers. One was concerned with the first electronic telephone exchange, Highgate Wood in north London; another was a special-purpose computer called ERNIE— Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment—which is a lottery-type thing that we had here very early. I did some of the checking software with a more senior colleague; I was very much the junior person on the team.

Abbate:

This was the operating system software? Which part were you doing?

Shirley:

It was the checking of the hardware. I did that quite a bit. Hardware would be designed, and I was writing software to check the hardware. It wasn’t until I left to join ICL that I did anything that you would now call an operating system.

So I’d done majorish sort of computer projects by that time, and I had become a founding member of the British Computer Society [in 1957]. It had an age qualification, so I actually had to join as a student, because I was underage! It makes one think, “What is one doing with some of these regulatory things?”—in which I became much involved, later. Age is certainly not one of the criteria under which we should evaluate people.

Abbate:

What was the purpose of the BCS at that point?

Shirley:

Oh, as it was for many years: setting the standards. The professional qualifications came slightly later, but the concept of qualifications was always there, right at the beginning. Running conferences: I attended one lecture run by the British Computer Society every month, and I was pretty loyal to these lectures. They were on computing in libraries, computing for submarines, computing for . . . you know, an array of people talking about things. Academics, in the main. Yes, it was very academically oriented for many years.

I became its president in 1989-90: the first woman president—only woman president, as always! What I did in the time that I was working towards that senior position within the professional body—and I’ve very proud to have headed it—was help it towards chartered status. This is a seal of quality on the professional approach.

Abbate:

So when the organization got chartered status, then they were able to designate people as Chartered Engineers?

Shirley:

That came later, via the Engineering Council.

So I was very much involved during that period. And then when I was president, I think my contribution was largely to start to move it into a much more marketing stance—because it was all full of academics. Oh, it was dreadful! [laughter.] So I was a very active president, and in retrospect people realized that that was a cusp, that it needed some sort of commercial drive to it.

But [to resume]: I left the Post Office Research Station on marriage and joined ICL for a very important eighteen months in my career. It was my first proper management job; I did have a small team in software. I was twenty-six at that time. I had quite a lot of responsibility, again for testing out the ICT 1301. ICL was then called English Electric ICT, and it was a subsidiary, jointly owned by GEC (it’s amazing how the same names come up over and over again). The subsidiary was called Computer Developments Limited; it was CDL, in Kenton, North London. We had a very bright group of people there, about thirty of us. There were all sorts of disciplines, and I was one of their better software people. But there were hardware people, and what we did was, we commissioned the first ICT 1301, with unbuffered peripherals. It was being commissioned in GEC Coventry, and I did some really very good work there—pretty well on my own, actually—devising tests for different things; working under quite a lot of pressure, very often working through the night.

People weren’t quite happy about women doing this. When you are committed to the full development of women in public life, then you have to stop and think, “Now hold on, we’ve actually got some legislation that stops women and children going down mines, because we say that that is a much too perilous thing for women and children to be doing—but that same legislation stops women working at night.” Et cetera, et cetera. So I was beginning to be interested in women’s issues there. They had been there before, I remember now, because when [the Post Office] had these great comptometer things, you had to carry them around: they were heavy, and I was a “pretty young thing,” and so people would offer to carry it for me. I remember saying, “No, I will carry mine. I believe in equal pay; I will carry my own machine.” I was beginning to get quite assertive fairly early on.

But it was at that CDL, where I was doing good work, and I was very happy, [that I encountered gender issues]. I was having some miscarriages, and women’s careers were very often linked with our child-bearing, and I’d been told to take it a bit easier—and then I hit what we now call the “glass ceiling.” I was making suggestions at management meetings and so on—marketing-oriented suggestions—and was told explicitly, “Keep quiet. It has nothing to do with you. You’re technical.” And the occasion when that particular statement was made to me was so overt that I went home, thought about it very carefully, came back, and resigned the next day. I saw, even in this excellent company, very good, I was not going to get anywhere, if there were such blocks to progress. And, like many women, I set up my own company in order to circumvent the gender issues that were becoming apparent in my career.

Abbate:

Were they saying that you couldn’t have moved into marketing?

Shirley:

They were, yes.

Abbate:

That was a male domain at ICL?

Shirley:

You know, it was management. And later on I’ll talk about Hilary Cropper—remind me about that, because again, she had much the same thing in a different and more senior way. No, most men really boggle, even today, in England; the position of women is not the same as in the States. We only had one female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, and she’s an American. We did a panel recently, in Frankfurt, on women in financial services; I think there were seven of us, and all of us have had exposure in America, and what came out of the discussion was that the can-do approach, and the openness (at least to women, though not yet to blacks), have really made quite a difference to our careers. It was quite clear. Or it may be just a fluke, but all of us spoke about finding it freer in the States. It’s very different here.

Abbate:

Had you gone to the States at that point?

Shirley:

No, no.

Switching to the ICL

Abbate:

Was it hard to get the job at ICL?

Shirley:

No. And for the first time I was well paid—I couldn’t believe that I could be paid so much for doing something that I enjoyed! The civil service didn’t pay me well, and so I quadrupled my pay at ICL, though that was not the motivation.

The decision to go into business on my own account was, I might say, unnatural for me. I’d come from a culture of public service: my sister was a social worker, my mother was a teacher, my father was a judge. That’s what you do; you don’t go into business. And my interest in business was social. I had this idea, first, that software was much more important than anybody else seemed to realize, much more important than hardware—much more interesting, as well; maybe it was the interest rather than the importance. And second, that there were other women [like me]; I was not alone in wanting to work in a different way. Women were coming out of the universities with decent maths degrees, as were required for software, for the first time looking around for jobs to do. Either you were an academic, or you used your maths degree to go into this new computing field.

But anyone that claims, “We knew how wonderful the industry was going to be,” I think they’re telling a great big fib. It was just so exciting, we didn’t look further than the current project. “How were we going to do this? And how were we going to do that?” It was a great time, and very creative. When you’re young, everything you do is new, and so it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that some of the things that we were doing were not just new to me, but were new, full stop. And you have to have some perspective to look back on it and say, “I found it difficult, but of course, I was only twenty-six. Of course I was going to find it difficult then, because I didn’t know very much.” But I’ve tried, later on, to make a virtue out of lack of knowledge, because then you can be creative, and you’re not channeled by some sort of training: “This is the way to do it,” or “That’s the way to do it.”

Starting her own Company

The company that I founded [Freelance Programmers Ltd, 1962] was certainly very different. It was motivated by social needs for me, and women like me, to be able to work in a much more flexible way, without that glass ceiling or people saying, “You shouldn’t be doing this, you shouldn’t be doing that.” It was certainly not intended, was not targeted, to make serious money. My husband had a modest but perfectly adequate job, and a safe job also, in civil service. I even investigated running it as a charity. I didn’t know—women had very little commercial training in those days, and I hadn’t a clue what a business was, or how it might be, and so I literally aimed to break even. I decided not to make it into a charity—much too cumbersome—but for five pounds, or less than that, you could register a business name and get going.

So we started very small, the original freelancer. We called it “Freelance Programmers,” so I must have had—well, I did have some idea of making it grow; but it was incredibly amateur. For many years I didn’t talk about this, because one was then trying to project a much more businesslike approach, but it was enormously amateur. We had this tiny cottage, which didn’t have central heating—it was very cold in winter—and I’d got one person working in the living room with their things on the piano, one person in the guest room, and me and the baby in another room. It was just a buzzing little hive—without knowing what it was that I was trying to do, and getting very surprised at some of the difficulties of business. People took a long time to pay their bills, and the bank was saying to me that I should ask for progress payments; and me getting very uppity and replying, “I’m not a butcher. This is a professional service, and I’ll do the job first and then put my bill in.” I hadn’t got a clue! I learned, of course, because that is how you learn. But it was incredibly modest. I had a baby in this period, and things almost stopped towards the end of my pregnancy; but nominally the business kept going.

Abbate:

Were there other businesses like this that you knew of?

Shirley:

No, not at all. The concept of home-basing, and freelancing, and not employing people, just was not known. I went out of my way to try and meet the few business women in the sector, and I only found one, who was Dina St. Johnston, who ran an organization called Vaughan Programming Services, which stayed around a long time. I went to see her, and she was very helpful in talking about the business, but I came away horrified: “If being in business is going to make me into that sort of person, I don’t want to be it; I want a different sort of business.” Because she talked entirely in terms of figures and measures and numbers; and for me, the numbers are important—they have to be done—but they are not the purpose or the be-all of the business. They are almost a necessary evil; and of course that makes me very “uncommercial” by most commercial people’s standards.

I’m much more interested in the people; always have been; I think I always shall be. An entrepreneur uses opportunity in a slightly different way: I would make jobs to fit people that were in the business, rather than, as the professionals do (and I’ve occasionally learned to do myself), make a job spec. “What does this require? What are the essential attributes of the successful candidate?” and so on, and then you acquire people to fill that particular profile of something that you want. I’ve always done it the other way: the people are in there first. Anyways, quite different.

Dina St. Johnston is somebody actually who ought to be on your list.

Abbate:

Is she still alive?

Shirley:

Well, I know her husband is, and I’ve got a contact for him if you need it. But she was [in the business] before me.

Abbate:

Was that part-time, or was she doing it full-time?

Shirley:

Oh, I think it was full-time. It was a breakaway group from the Elliott Brothers, and I think they just did Elliott work, and it may just have been three of them. But it was an early software house: Vaughan Programming Services. Years later I was mortified to learn that Elsie Shutt had launched Computations Inc. in Boston back in 1957 and operated it in much the same way as we did, utilising home-based women programmers.

Finding the Programmers

Abbate:

How did you recruit your programmers?

Shirley:

Almost all by word of mouth, and through women’s networks. What I was doing was so strange that I’d get a radio interview or something for thirty seconds, and then there’d be a flood of correspondence coming in from women who also wanted to work—because there was nothing available part-time, home-based, for women doing technical work.

Abbate:

Had you looked for it? Did you try asking, or was it just completely obvious that there was nothing?

Shirley:

Oh, it was completely obvious: There was nothing there. There was an agency that I used; it was a woman’s agency, and it was for part-time. A woman called Joan Wilkins placed part-time positions for various professions—it wasn’t just computing—and again, was one of these tough ladies, very businesslike. We never actually did business together, but I think we tried to.

I’m not a stereotypical businesswoman at all; the fact that I survived was an enormous surprise to all my friends and colleagues—and me too! Because there are so many things that I find much more important in life than money, and business is usually: money is way, way at the top. It may not be the sole thing, but it is right at the top. For me it’s there somewhere, of course. Certainly it became obvious, in the seventies recession, that without some sort of break-even, [we couldn’t stay in business.] I mean, it was a crusade—somebody called it a crusade, and that’s about right. We didn’t use the word “mission”; it was a crusade. It became much more focused on women—opportunities for women to go on working in a professional level—and that was more important than the technology; more important than the money side.

[Recording pauses]

Abbate:

So it sounds like you never had trouble recruiting employees—or associates, rather. Did it literally start out as just you?

Shirley:

Yes. When I was pregnant I told people the company had “one and a bit” staff!

The social scene at that time was that women, especially in the North of England, worked for economic reasons, but wives of men in white-collar type jobs did not work; they looked after the home, looked after the family. It was very difficult to make sure that my husband was not denigrated because I was working. People would say—including my mother, for example—”Oh! I thought Derek had a good job.” And one really had to be very careful to keep that balance; for a long time I struggled to keep my own earnings below my husband’s. Because there was just the sheer macho image that the man was not only the father, the man was the leader of the family, and women were very much secondary citizens. There were many things we couldn’t do: you couldn’t drive a bus, you couldn’t go on the stock exchange, you couldn’t open a bank account: you know, there were lots of things you couldn’t do. Women didn’t; they didn’t want to. They were very happy to be supported.

Abbate: You couldn’t open a bank account?

Shirley:

No. Without his signature, no.

Abbate:

Wow!

Shirley:

“Wow,” yes! Then there were hangovers from the Women to Property Act. You’d have to look up the history, but women were not allowed to own property until quite late on in the nineteenth century. You just didn’t do that. And now, young women—to my delight!—you take it for granted that you can do each and every thing, and there are only a few things that you can’t do. You can’t be a bishop in this country. It’ll come! I remember when the first black bishop was appointed. [Imitates a horrified whisper]: “We can’t have a Negro for a bishop!” So it’s opened up, now. Today all the difficulties are cultural and social, but they’re not legal.

Finding Clients

Abbate:

Where were you living at this point?

Shirley:

In London. And London, I guess, was better than the provinces.

Abbate:

So how did you get your first clients, or jobs?

Shirley:

[Pause.] Bother, I’ve forgotten which it actually was that I first got . . . They were always by introductions, really, in the early days: an ex-colleague.

Abbate:

You mentioned something—was it from ICL?

Shirley:

I did some work for my ex-employer, but I don’t think that was the very first one. One of the important strategic ones was an ex-colleague who introduced me to Urwick-Orr , who were coming in from the States and planning to set up in the U.K.; they became Urwick-Diebold in this country. They wanted a set of standards to be developed for their computer service, before the first person was even appointed. That was a very valuable introduction, to actually have the opportunity to be paid to work on such standards; and we were commissioned to update them later on, also. Of course, they became the basis of our own standards. Certainly that was a personal introduction.

Selection Trust was for the City. I don’t know how that came, but it was an important contract, because it was on something called PERT: Programme Evaluation and Review Technique. And that took us into a whole series of PERT assignments, because we then became specialists.

But what really happened was: I was a scientist. I was used to mathematical programming; I was interested in that and skilled in that; but the market wasn’t there. We wrote an early compiler, for example. There was this commercial work coming up, which I was quite sniffy about; the only interest it had was the big volume stuff: how did you deal with these large files? There were masses of theoretical work about writing Sort routines. We did a lot of this through introductions via a company called Business Operations Research; in fact, they nearly took us over—well, they made a bid to take us over. It was the operational research side: the scientific interest of the commercial work. The money associated, the economic incentive for stock control, and transportation problems, logistics generally—British Rail became a client; and at the same time they had some technical interest that interested me.

But of course, after a time it wasn’t me actually doing the work anymore. I was just saying, “Well, I’ll work as project manager and supervisor”—I didn’t even have the terms!—and was responsible for the work and checking it, but other people were writing the software. What became important was our way of operating: the fact that we had a whole lot of women, each working very remotely, communicating almost entirely by post and phone—we wore little badges, so we would recognize each other when we had to actually turn up with a client! And the dislike of the customers (we called them “clients” then, because we thought it was more professional) to think of their work being done in this cottage industry sort of way.

Abbate:

Was that because they felt they didn’t have control over it?

Shirley:

They didn’t have control. And women! “Goodness gracious, these housewives! What’re they going to do?” And we did [have problems]—you know, the cat walked across the work one day: Grrr! [laughs.] It was difficult to present a professional image, indeed be professional.

But our way of operation forced us into an assessment of work content. It forced us into a strict work regime. It forced us into measuring work done, and payment by work done, so that we could offer customers fixed-priced, fixed-delivery. They were small bits of software; six man-weeks would be the sort of unit that we would think was quite a big job in the first year. Being forced to do that—so that the clients were not really told how the work was done; they knew how it was done, but it was not stressed in any way—actually led us to become a prime mover in the promotion of software, because we could really manage software—and everybody else said it was unmanageable. Programmers always were saying, “It’ll be finished next week; we’ll finish next week.” There was always some other little bug to get out of it. And looking back, I realize that the Urwick-Orr assignment, and the fact that we did go fixed-price, really moved the organization forward.

Developing Employee Skills

We took some big risks. When COBOL was introduced, we thought that would be the end of the company, that nobody would be buying software anymore—programming—because it was just so easy. And then we realized, “No, there’s still quite a lot to do,” and we took the risk of training a hundred people in COBOL before we got our first COBOL assignment. They’re quite small things now, but at the time it was achingly stressful to keep going. When the ‘70s recession came, my pride was at stake, and the crusade for women as professional workers in this or any other industry was very much at stake. I was absolutely determined that we were not going to be a fair-weather company that was fine as long as their market was easy, and collapsed. So we hung in there, just—but it was really very bad. I didn’t have the skills, I had no capital, I hadn’t a clue what to do. When we came out, of course, a lot of the competition had gone away, and we were still just there.

I suppose one was determined then to get a few more skills in. I believe, in business, that it’s some of the difficulties that develop strengths. Before the recession, there had been a project, in about 1967, which had gone badly wrong, and which we’d had to salvage at enormous cost—emotional, financial, everything. When we survived that one, we really put in a whole lot of safeguards and standards, and the earlier stuff came in useful. We eventually developed a “cookbook” philosophy: anyone joining the company had very little induction face-to-face, but they had a great big cookbook that told them how to write a letter, how to respond to this, how to do that, how to get their stuff checked, and so on. And this was, of course, when there was nothing online. If you wrote a program using paper and pencil, and a flow-charting template, and so on, you would then send it off to a computer center, and wait perhaps three or four days for it to come back—to be told, “It never even got started, your input routine wasn’t right!” It was pretty cumbersome. We had contracts later on that implied we could only deliver if we got two turn-rounds on the computer every week. Two every week! [laughter.] Now we do it two in a minute: you try something, if it doesn’t work, try something else. It was different. But anyway, we got in there.

The unbundling of software by IBM in the ‘70s really threw us as well—but threw us in a good way, because suddenly people were charging for software for the very first time, and that’s what we’d always been doing. Because previously people got it free. And we launched at that time a company called F2, which was concerned much more with systems and consultancy. Because we were getting categorized as “coders”: whereas “programming” had been everything from the top-level consultancy advising on computer systems, advising on computer hardware, developing systems, writing systems, documenting systems, and training people to use systems, suddenly “programming” began to mean just the writing, and we didn’t want to get stuck there. So we launched a separate company in ‘72.

Abbate:

What was typically the scope of your responsibility? Would a client call and say, “Here’s the general thing we want to do,” and you had to do specifications and coding and all the way through testing? Or how did that typically work?

Shirley:

I can remember sitting in the garden one day, with a senior policeman asking, “Do you think you could write a program for fingerprint analysis, that would match fingerprints? And I said, “That’s a very interesting sort of problem. Let me think about it.” I thought a pretty long time and eventually decided that that was a bit beyond my scope, and had the sense to say “No.” For it took some thirty years before that one came out! Others would be very clear: “Here is the formula. I want it graphed. It’s absolutely a massive computational exercise. Would you do it, check it?” or something.

The standards one was important; the compiler one was important. Alex d’Agapeyeff, who led Computer Analysts and Programmers, tells how he received a telegram: “How much for COBOL compiler, question mark?” [laughter.] All sorts of things happened. It was a very amateur sort of world. And it could be anywhere. By the way in which we were structured, it was easier to do the programming bits, frankly—the coding bits—but to me, it all goes together. And the company still has—it made an acquisition last year of a company called Druid, to take it into more high-level consultancy; because I think one does have to eventually have that, at least a part. It was quite a mix. The scientific work by that time had completely dropped off; the operations research work. You can still see traces of it in the emphasis on logistics.

But I became a businesswoman, really, and got very interested in training of technical staff, and the running of a business—but a hybrid manager, somebody who could understand the management of the business and the IT. Certainly I did quite a bit with the British Computer Society then, and was doing new things. I was involved in the merger of the two trade associations of this country: COSBA, which is something like “Computing something Service Bureaux Association,” and SHA, “Software Houses Association,” and that became the Computing Services and Software Association. I was involved in the merger of that, and was part of setting up the first standing consortium of software houses, and I was involved in quality control.

So I became much more the manager and driver and, in the company, the product saleswoman. It’s sad, when you go into business, that as it grows, you are able to delegate some chunks of it, but they have to be defined chunks that are attractive to somebody else—so I went through phases where I got left with all the nasty, dodgy, itsy-bitsy things! But nobody seemed to be able to sell, and I’m a saleswoman, really. I used to love it, and to me, to make a sale is persuading a customer to look at it my way. It was really quirky. I always saw it in terms of employment, because my motivation was to provide work—as I used to refer to it—”work for women with children.” And I was always thinking, “Well, this will keep three people employed; this is a job for seventeen people; this is a job for only one person, but it’ll run for many years.” My motivation was not the conventional one.

Targeting Women Employees

Abbate:

Did you only hire women with children?

Shirley:

Initially, yes. We characterized them as: high-priority was women who were the breadwinners, unmarried mothers—again, rather different in those days, and not as accepted as they are today—and people with severe disabilities. Then there were women with children, but there was a breadwinner in the background—and during the ‘70s recession, it was quite important that there was. And then women without children, perhaps pregnant. Without capital behind me, without commercial experience, I recall the risk—the stomach-aching risk—of taking on somebody for six weeks in a summer vacation when we hadn’t got any work for them. And saying, “I will get work for them; this person has super skills”—and really thinking, “What am I going to do if we haven’t got work for them?” Because we hadn’t got any savings; there was no money behind the company; it was really very, very small. But I eventually learned to control these things.

Looking back, I believe I was just the right person to go into business. It allowed me to do everything that I’ve always wanted to do. Business allows you to be free to go any direction you like—as long as you can find a market, as long as you remain legal, as long as you can find people to do it for you. And I’m good at picking good people, before they are obviously good.

Managing the Business

Abbate:

Did you try to anticipate the market? You mentioned COBOL; did you decide, “Well, COBOL is the thing of the future; let’s all learn COBOL?” Were you trying to be strategic?

Shirley:

I hadn’t even heard the word. I was a mathematician, not a commercial person. English education didn’t teach commerce. No, I was rushing around in all directions. Anything that moved, I’d have a go at it! [laughs.]

Abbate:

There were enough opportunities?

Shirley:

Yes.

Abbate:

Promoting the Professionalism of the Company

Did you have to work hard to have the company be taken seriously by new clients?

Shirley:

I think everyone was laughing at me! But not to my face. The press were very kind to me, and I asked a journalist many years later why they hadn’t knocked me. He replied, “We saw you as a source of good stories, and didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.” [laughter.] It was laughable! And the headlines: “Steve and Her Girls.” Which reminds me: of course, my name is Stephanie, and in the first year or so I was writing business development letters, trying to get appointments to see people, and getting next to no response. My husband suggested that I abbreviate my name to Steve, and this I did; and it seemed to me that I got a better response—was through that door and facing somebody before people realized my gender! And I’ve been Steve ever since. But you then got “Steve and Her Girls,” and “Steve has been made a Fellow of the British Computer Society”—all sorts of gender jokes, some quite sexist. But we were careful; we were very, very prim and proper, so as not to be seen as sex objects. We never talked about it, but you knew very well that women were not expected to operate at that level. You were somebody to be laughed at, somebody to be flirted with, somebody whose bottom you could pinch. I defy you to sell a major project to somebody who is pinching your bottom!

It was a woman’s company—of women, for women—and we learned to support each other. That’s partly my management style, that you would have a team, and sometimes you would be the leader and I would be the auditor, and other times I would be the leader and you would be auditor and somebody else would be the technician; and we really learned to use each other’s skills to work together, even though we were physically remote. Externally, we had enormous formality. It was always “Mrs. Shirley”; socially, I was very much unavailable! We didn’t allow trousers for a long, long time, because we didn’t want to be seen as “pseudo-men.” It was a quite an effort—now that I think about it, how much effort we put into it without realizing it—to make sure that we were seen as professional, that people didn’t giggle when we came in through the door. Most of the women have moved on and up.

But it was that absolute crusade. We did a research contract for government to do an advanced Computer Techniques Project, and there was a big progress meeting, and I turned around and apparently glared at somebody coming through the door with a toddler in a pushchair! Luckily it was a civil servant, the client, [rather than a member of our company]. I would not allow any sign of domesticity to appear, because we were very vulnerable. I had a tape of somebody typing in the background, so that when I was on the phone it would sound as if I’d got an office behind me! [laughter.] And we presented our work very carefully. I was always—well, the same is true today: if I can find a better way of doing it, I’ll immediately change to do it. We had an early white-on-black photocopier. We were always doing the latest thing, partly just for interest, but also for presentational reasons, that our work had to look very good. And there were little disasters, which I remember; where the cat did walk over some letter that was carefully done—and we didn’t have word processors in those days. We couldn’t just churn it off again, but had to sit and do it again. We had spirit duplicators for when we needed lots of copies. Do you remember carbon paper?

Abbate:

Oh, yes.

Shirley:

Yes. It was clumsy, but we had a lot of fun.

When you’re working part-time, you have a lot of time to think about what you’re doing. You’re not going to sit at the desk anymore until tomorrow, but actually, while you’re doing other things you’re still—I think, from the software point of view, you have it mulling around, so when you do sit down, you’re quite effective. I used to claim—without justification, but other people have measured it since—that our productivity was about 20% higher. It’s around that figure. You don’t waste time traveling; you get a lot of that free thinking time; and creative work is done in isolation. You may develop in teams, but creative work, that spark, you do yourself, in the small hours of the night. We were good.

Abbate:

Do you think women tend to bring a different set of skills and attitudes to the job than men might have?

Shirley:

I don’t think so, really. People talk about left brain and right brain, and so on. I copied IBM for a lot of things. It was easy to do so, because for many years IBM would not employ part-time systems engineers; so when some of their good systems engineers—the women—married and wanted to go on to part-time for whatever reason, they had to leave—and they came to us, beautifully trained! [laughter.] Absolutely sharp!

Focus on Training Employees

Abbate:

So, what did you copy from IBM?

Shirley:

Oh, they were always in front: in marketing, in the emphasis on training; they were really good. And I trained, trained, trained . . . .

Abbate:

Did you have in-house training courses, or informally . . .?

Shirley:

We tried to train each other. In the early days, people would ring me up and say, “Hey, we’ve got this course. We need ten people, and we’ve only got eight. Would you like to make up the numbers, so that it doesn’t look too empty?” We used to grab any opportunity like that. A lot of self-training. We got diverted at one time into designing computer-based training, and . . . oh, it wasn’t for long. But we’d try a lot of things, really. How did we train? Just by doing it, I guess. I don’t remember anything specific on training.

This gender issue: I mean, there were a lot of stereotypes. I think we overqualified; we made sure that our people had a qualification to offer. Many of them came in with B.Sc.’s or Ph.D.’s; the fact that it might be in something totally unrelated didn’t seem to matter. When counseling women in that era, I would always say, “Get that qualification!” Certainly I did; I mean, nobody could say I was not qualified to do a job. I wanted to do an M.B.A., for example. I soon found I didn’t know how to run a business, and wanted to go to Harvard, which was then the only place that did an M.B.A.—we didn’t have them in this country—and you had to have (I believe for the bedroom arrangements) women only in pairs! [laughs.] I couldn’t find anyone to pair with; and I couldn’t have found anybody to do the baby-sitting, anyway.

Again, you forget that . . . Well, if you’ve only got double bedrooms or something like that—I mean, everything is very difficult if [the physical environment doesn’t accommodate both sexes]. There was some work at the Post Office Research Station that would have normally had me go on their research ship; it’s a cable ship, Monarch. They didn’t have women’s toilets! When I went to Northampton Polytechnic, doing a postgraduate in statistics: again, no women’s toilet. Well, they didn’t have women students. But everything was very, very difficult, and somebody’s got to be first to push through the door—and then it’s easier for the next one.

I’m conscious—I still do it today—that I try and act as a role model for women. I just this week accepted a fellowship at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t really want it.” And you think, “Because there are so few women engineers, and we need people there to show it can be done, so people will see a few women’s faces.” Not only to show it can be done, but also that it can be done in a feminine way. We developed in the company quite a style of dressing—which was not trouser suits in those days; in fact, we actually had an in-house style that said “no trouser suits” at one time. But years later, women would arrive at the station in Hemel Hempstead—quite a large station; Hemel Hempstead’s quite a large place—and the taxi driver would say to a complete stranger, a woman: “Oh, are you going for an interview at FI?” Because they were sharply dressed; they each had their own style, and they were always well-groomed. And we found this to be quite important, so that we didn’t come over as “butch.”

Abbate:

It’s a fine line.

Shirley:

It’s a very fine line! One woman, called Jenny Williams—beautifully groomed and lovely woman—if she were going on a sales call, she would change just before she got to the client, so that her outfit was not crumpled when she got in. She was like a bandbox! I would keep a list as to what I’ve worn to each client, so they didn’t always see me in the one good suit I’d got, but I wouldn’t go quite to that length. I’m still pretty careful and don’t go out looking scruffy if I can help it.

Balancing Work and Family

Abbate:

How hard was it for you to balance your work and family responsibilities? Because it doesn’t sound like you were really working part-time.

Shirley:

What went was social life. Things that many women would do, like cooking: we eat food; I don’t cook. Things other people would do, reading: it just all went. I mean, I looked after the family—not very well. Somebody did a study of dual career families and wrote about me—and it was under my name, it wasn’t anonymous—using a phrase which I can quote now: “Like many women of her ilk, she is indifferent to the appearance of her home.” And I was devastated! I’m very far from indifferent; I just think there are other things more important. Now I can afford a bit of help. But it really made me think, “My goodness! I live in such a muddle of papers and babies and food and telephones and people working, and stoking up the coal fires to keep the staff warm—quite apart from me—and then just to [be publicly denigrated].” So a lot of things went. I said earlier, if you do actually have some crusade that really is important to you, then you just focus on the things that are important. I only do things that I believe are important. I’m starting to take more holidays, but I haven’t had a holiday for two years. I just don’t spend time on things that other people do, and I regret it sometimes, but in the main, I do the things that I do want to do.

Abbate:

Was your husband still an academic at that point?

Shirley:No, he’s never been an academic. He was a physicist. I overtook him, at least financially; he’s much brighter than I am, but he hasn’t got the drive and the energy; he’s a deep thinker. And while he’s supportive and has been very happy for me to develop my own career, when asked, he has said things like, “I always knew she was going to do something different; I didn’t know what it was.” But he is—apparently without much difficulty—very proud of what I’ve achieved, and does not feel threatened by it. I think I’ve been over-sensitive about it. In the early days, for example, when one used to take one’s washing to the launderette, it was always me that carried the washing. I did not let him be seen doing something very domestic, when men didn’t do that at all. So it was behind the scenes. He now does the cooking and things. Life is just so different now.

But his career has certainly been subsumed in mine. Two things happened, really. Our son was profoundly handicapped, and my husband’s job was transferred when the Post Office Research Station was moved to Martlesham, Suffolk . It would have meant us moving, and with such a very difficult child, for whom we’d got some sort of schooling, and things going on, we just could not move him out of county. So Derek took a job in the city, and—bless his cotton socks—did a job that he hated for many years, because he couldn’t afford to give it up, because there was a pension and all that. We considered whether we could afford to get him out, and we just couldn’t afford to give up that pension, and so he stuck out this foul job for many years, and then took early retirement. That was really to help the family. It was difficult for women, difficult for families; but we’ve somehow managed to stay together.

Satisfaction of working with Computers

Abbate:

What have you found to be the most satisfying aspects of working with computers?

Shirley:

The people! [laughs.] The people: bright, intelligent, wanting to do innovative things. I like people anyway, but I particularly like bright people, and young people, and that sort of atmosphere. I like doing new things. I like seeing things that I seeded years ago becoming, not necessarily mainstream, but established; and people that I’ve worked with many years ago achieving in their own right.

The technology. The Internet today is at a stage that the software industry was in the ‘60s: needing to be regulated. Absolutely inevitable. There’s a long list of various things that I have innovated. I’m currently in the process of working on an Internet Institute, which will be a first worldwide. I did the first disability conference on the Internet a few years ago, and got a portal site running on the Internet on the condition of autism, and I’m quite proud of that; it has about 10,000 members at the moment. Those are the concepts of mine that I get other people to do in a sort of commercial way. I try always to view things from a strategic level. You asked before, “Was there strategy in the early days?” and the answer was “No.” There certainly is now. Plenty of people doing and buzzing, and I’m thinking always: “How can I move this up? How can I move it up a gear?” And so in ‘97, I think, I was debating in the House of Lords here the philosophy of the Internet, in particular things like pornography, law, ethics, etc. We’d got the Bishop of London on one side, and me on the other—because these are real issues that somebody has got to think about; they’re not technical. Is this a new world? Are there new pieces of legislation required? What is happening to people, as we invent more and more bits of hardware and software? These are issues that I now have time to perhaps contribute to.

I was also on the founding court of the livery company in the City of London, which is now number one hundred. I was not one of the founders; I do respect those founders. I was not one of the three, but was invited to become part of the Founding Court.

Abbate:

This is the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists?

Shirley:

Yes. Which is very active in the three things that livery companies always are, which are commerce—now, that’s me, isn’t it?—education (that’s me), and charity. I’m really a serial entrepreneur now; I start things, largely in the charitable area. So that’s really going great guns; but it’s the Internet now that’s fascinating me. I’ve been an independent director of Tandem Computers from ‘92 to ‘97, and certainly my input was not technical. I think the best thing I did there was to help the founder step back—because he was finding it very difficult, and having done it myself, I was able to help him see that there is a life beyond. Because, I mean, I was thirty-one years with what is now Xansa —a long, long time to then walk away from it.

But the things that are international, that are philosophic, that are strategic, that are legal—I really try now to spend my time on those things. Because technically, I’m sure I’m never going to innovate anything at all; but I’m sometimes able to make a new insight that’s really nothing to do with the technology—and I’ve always been more interested in the social impact.

The e-commerce. The other company that I’m independent director of is the John Lewis Partnership. That’s a co-owned retail organization that employs 55,000 people. My interest in it is because of the co-ownership, but also, they were very stuck in mainframe computing, and I’ve helped to give them confidence to move into electronic commerce. It’s a two-year contract. They’re a super company. Just bought out a dot-com in the U.K. John Lewis Partnership also bought a quarter stake in LMS [Last Mile Solutions], which is going to be the first distribution center. I’m just a businesswoman there. I’ve certainly helped them quite a bit on corporate governance, but I’m trying to add to their ability to see computing as doing the right things, rather than just things right. The first time I went to their computing group, for example, they had terribly clever people, certainly doing things right, and I thought, “They’re not too bad!” But I am able to question, “Are we doing the right things with computing? What I’m hearing is ‘cost-cutting,’ and ‘cost-saving,’ and ‘efficiency,’ and things. Come on! There are new ways of getting to the customers—these are the things that this retail organization needs to be looking at much more seriously. What are we doing on the telecom side? You’re still talking about computing—these are networks!”

I believe there are different roles for people at different stages in life. For example: I’m very interested in contemporary art—built quite a big collection in one of the charities that I started—but the other period of art that I like is the sixties. Why am I so attracted to the sixties? Well, of course, I was doing my best work then—or at least my best technical work—and I’m naturally intrigued by the sort of work that other people were doing in the sixties. It was a very vital period, anyway.

All right, how are we doing?

Abbate:

Pretty good.

Shirley:

In 1981, I started the use of information technology as a communication aid for people with disabilities in this country. It was already being used for logistics, for wheelchair control and things like that; but to use it to allow deaf to hear or blind to see—that was quite new. I spent a couple of years on that, I suppose.

Abbate:

You had asked me to bring up Hilary Cropper. I don’t remember when she came on.

Shirley:

She was the third attempt to manage succession in FI, and she came in in 1985 from ICL. And what my earlier comment reminded me was that after we had made the appointment—she came in as managing director, potentially chief executive—a Board member from ICL said, “Of course, had she been a man, she would have been on the board by now.”

Abbate:

At ICL?

Shirley:

At ICL. In 1985 people were still saying things like that. It was a private conversation, of course; but there was still that enormous blockage.

Abbate:

So she had hit the glass ceiling at ICL?

Shirley:

Yes, which is dreadful. And she has done wonders for the company!

Shirley:

There are a couple of things about Hilary, and so on. I’ve had an enormous disability because I’ve been the first women in most places, very often the only woman; and a lot of the time I still am. I’m in the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame and have been much honored. Each time I think, “Is this good for women?” I care about the position of women in public life, in business, in all sorts of aspects; in career progressions, in career counseling. It is appalling how low the aspirations are for many women.

Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Did you have mentors or role models yourself? Other than the negative one?

Shirley:

Well, no; except the negative one.

But I wanted to mention that I met Grace Hopper—and she must be part of your study—and she acted as a role model. There was a lunch I went to, only about twelve of us or so. She said to me that she envied me, because she had had the choice of either working or having a family, and I had somehow managed to do both. And she must have been in her 70s, but certainly seemed a lot older, and was obviously regretful looking back. She said her sister had made the other choice and had given up working for domesticity and family.

We always discuss whether technical competence is misaligned with femininity, and that’s a real issue when we try to attract women and girls into the industry. And we similarly have this imbalance, that if you’re in business you can’t have a family—well, nowadays people do, by paid childcare, but that’s not really a family life. I think you can have both, but you have to give up something. I have given up quite a bit. But nevertheless, I look back on my career and feel fulfilled; I have done what is in me to do. And I cannot imagine an industry better suited for women today. And I think, on that note, unless you’ve got some particular questions you want to ask. . .

Abbate:

But to follow up on that: Do you think that computing has become more open to women over time, less open, or about the same?

Shirley:

Any discipline that matures, from a sort of start-up discipline, starts to put up barriers; and if the people in authority are themselves male, they will instinctively [laughs] put up barriers that keep it male. So as the industry has become more structured—as it has to be—women are backing off from degree courses called “computer science.” Call the same course “business systems,” and they’ll sign up. So there are some very subtle social and cultural things going on. It is entirely open, but women find it difficult. And it’s this full-time/part-time lack of flexibility, and the demand that “Things should always be done in the way that I do.” Young people are not just younger versions of today’s managers; they will have their own ways of doing things. When we sit on interview boards and all the things that we do, one mustn’t think, “This is how I do it, so this is how everybody else has got to do it.” So there are some barriers to women. But they’re not as bad as they’re perceived. Prospects are really good. Concepts such as diversity are being debated seriously. So we’ve come a long way.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are contemplating computer careers today?

Shirley:

Lots! Do get trained. Present yourself at your aspirational level and apply for interesting jobs. Master finance and marketing and get international experience. Think strategically about how you want to spend your life.

There’s never been a more exciting career path offering the flexibility valued by women’s life styles. Go for it!