IEEE
You are not logged in, please sign in to edit > Log in / create account  

Oral-History:Silvia Wilbur

From GHN

(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
(Lecturer in the University of East London)
(7 intermediate revisions by 2 users not shown)
Line 1: Line 1:
== Silvia Wilbur ==
+
== About Silvia Wilbur ==
  
=== About Silvia Wilbur ===
+
Wilbur was born in 1938 in Bromford, Essex 12 miles to the east of London, England. Both her parents were working-class; her father worked in the London Docks. Wilbur has one sibling, ten years her junior. Aged 17 she left school to supplement the family's income, and at 20 she married and later on had two children. As a young mother she worked in various part-time jobs such as a switchboard operator and a clerk. At the age of 26, she began working as a secretary in a local college (now part of the University of East London). The department offered one of the early computer science programs and while working there, Wilbur taught herself the computer language ALGOL. Wilbur then added to her auto-didactic education an A level course in mathematics and a degree in computing from the Open University. In 1974 she was hired as a researcher at the Computer Science department at University College London. There she met Peter Kirstein, and got involved in the ARPANET project. 
  
Wilbur was born in 1938 in Bromford, Essex 12 miles to the east of London, England. Both her parents were working-class; her father worked in the London Docks. Wilbur has one sibling, ten years her junior. Aged 17 she left school to contribute to the family finance, and at 20 she married and later on had two children. As a young mother she worked in various part-time jobs such as a switchboard operator and a clerk. At the age of 26, she began working as a secretary in a local college (now part of the University of East London). The department offered one of the early computer science programs and Wilbur taught herself the computer language ALGOL. Wilbur added to her auto-didactic education an A level course in mathematics and a degree in computing from the Open University. In 1974 she was hired as a researcher at the Computer Science department at University College London. There she met Peter Kirstein, and got involved in the ARPANET project.   
+
In 1979 she was hired as a lecturer in the University of East London. In 1983 she moved to Queen Mary College. In 1986 she started working on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, such as the development of a video-conferencing system. Wilbur became a prominent figure in this field.   
  
In 1979 she was hired as a lecturer in the University of East London. In 1983 she moved to Queen Mary College. In 1986 she started working on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, such as the development of a video conferencing system. Wilbur remained a prominent figure in this field.
+
In the late 1980s, Wilbur got involved in running Women Into Computing workshops targeted at girls from local schools. In addition to introducing them to computers, the workshops included activities to stimulate young women’s interest in science. As part of the initiative, Wilbur offered to substitute the actual meetings with video conferences and web-based activities.
  
In the late 1980s, Wilbur got involved in running Women Into Computing workshops targeted at girls from local schools. In addition to introducing them to computers, the workshops included activities to stimulate young women’s interest in science. As part of the initiative, Wilbur who was working on research related to networks offered to substitute the actual meetings with video conferences and web-based activities.
+
== About the Interview ==
 
+
=== About the Interview ===
+
  
 
Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 4 April 2001
 
Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 4 April 2001
Line 15: Line 13:
 
Interview #634 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers
 
Interview #634 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers
  
=== Copyright Statement ===
+
== 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.  
 
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.  
 
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.  
Line 21: Line 20:
 
Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.  
 
Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.  
  
Interview
+
==Interview==
 +
 
 
INTERVIEW: Sylvia Wilbur  
 
INTERVIEW: Sylvia Wilbur  
 
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
 
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
Line 47: Line 47:
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 +
 
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
 
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
  
Line 76: Line 77:
  
 
No, I just thought I would get married, and have children, and maybe do a little part-time job, but that would be it, you know; I really wasn’t ambitious at all.  
 
No, I just thought I would get married, and have children, and maybe do a little part-time job, but that would be it, you know; I really wasn’t ambitious at all.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 84: Line 84:
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
I was always good at maths; but my friends weren’t - and I think I was influenced by that, as you are, as a teenager: If your friends don’t think something is cool, then you don’t think it is, either! [laughs.] So I really didn’t pursue maths very much, although I was good at it, the extent to which I did it. I did O Levels, which is kind of… exams at 16. And I got a good grade at maths; but as I say, I didn’t pursue it any further, really.  
+
I was always good at maths; but my friends weren’t - and I think I was influenced by that, as you are, as a teenager: If your friends don’t think something is cool, then you don’t think it is, either! [laughs.] So I really didn’t pursue maths very much, although I was good at it, the extent to which I did it. I did O Levels, which is kind of...exams at 16. And I got a good grade at maths; but as I say, I didn’t pursue it any further, really.  
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 153: Line 153:
 
   
 
   
 
Well, I had my children quite quickly after I married, and while they were still young, I needed to go out and earn a little bit of money to help out. So I looked around for part-time jobs, locally. I was fortunate that my mother lived very close to me - well, not that close; I had to get a bus -but she was willing to look after the children while I did some part-time work. So I did a couple of jobs in local offices: operating a switchboard; doing kind of clerical work. Then, when I was about 26 or 27, I applied for a job, advertised as a typing job, in a local college. And that turned out to be, actually, typing programs for students, in what was a very early computer science course. And that was how I met computers—and that totally changed my life!  
 
Well, I had my children quite quickly after I married, and while they were still young, I needed to go out and earn a little bit of money to help out. So I looked around for part-time jobs, locally. I was fortunate that my mother lived very close to me - well, not that close; I had to get a bus -but she was willing to look after the children while I did some part-time work. So I did a couple of jobs in local offices: operating a switchboard; doing kind of clerical work. Then, when I was about 26 or 27, I applied for a job, advertised as a typing job, in a local college. And that turned out to be, actually, typing programs for students, in what was a very early computer science course. And that was how I met computers—and that totally changed my life!  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 180: Line 179:
  
 
I decided I needed to educate myself further, if I was going to have a hope of becoming a programmer and really getting into computing. So I started doing an A Level in mathematics, part-time, during the day; so that kind of brushed up on my maths. And then I was very lucky: an opportunity arose. They had a computer operator, the guy who would feed the tapes into the machine, and he left; he couldn’t get on with it. And I just said, “Well, can I have the job?” And I was fortunate, they let me have a go at doing that. And from there I moved on to programming. So it was just kind of a general progression.
 
I decided I needed to educate myself further, if I was going to have a hope of becoming a programmer and really getting into computing. So I started doing an A Level in mathematics, part-time, during the day; so that kind of brushed up on my maths. And then I was very lucky: an opportunity arose. They had a computer operator, the guy who would feed the tapes into the machine, and he left; he couldn’t get on with it. And I just said, “Well, can I have the job?” And I was fortunate, they let me have a go at doing that. And from there I moved on to programming. So it was just kind of a general progression.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
So you moved up the ladder. . .  
 
So you moved up the ladder. . .  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
Yes! In those days, it was much easier to do that, probably, than it is now. Yes. So I was lucky. Yes.  
 
Yes! In those days, it was much easier to do that, probably, than it is now. Yes. So I was lucky. Yes.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
I’ve heard that. Because there weren’t so many formal credentials at that point. . .  
 
I’ve heard that. Because there weren’t so many formal credentials at that point. . .  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 204: Line 199:
  
 
So you were able to be actually programming at UEL (or whatever it was at that point)...
 
So you were able to be actually programming at UEL (or whatever it was at that point)...
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 214: Line 208:
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
. . . while you were still getting your ‘A’ Level Mathematics?
+
...while you were still getting your ‘A’ Level Mathematics?
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Yes, so while I was. . . So I moved from being the typist to being the operator to being a programmer, and I was programming in COBOL at that time. Do you know COBOL? You’ve heard of it, I’m sure. But, while I was doing that I started studying for my degree, via the Open University. You know, you take their degree by correspondence; so I was doing that kind of in the evenings, and at home, and so forth.  
 
Yes, so while I was. . . So I moved from being the typist to being the operator to being a programmer, and I was programming in COBOL at that time. Do you know COBOL? You’ve heard of it, I’m sure. But, while I was doing that I started studying for my degree, via the Open University. You know, you take their degree by correspondence; so I was doing that kind of in the evenings, and at home, and so forth.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
This was. . . the late ‘60s, at this point?
 
This was. . . the late ‘60s, at this point?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 233: Line 225:
  
 
And then you got the degree in ‘74?  
 
And then you got the degree in ‘74?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Yes, that’s right. And that was the year I moved to University College. So I got thoroughly bored with COBOL programming! [laughs.]
 
Yes, that’s right. And that was the year I moved to University College. So I got thoroughly bored with COBOL programming! [laughs.]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 244: Line 234:
 
You were doing COBOL programming all this time?
 
You were doing COBOL programming all this time?
  
1974, the ARPNET Project at University College
+
=== 1974, the ARPNET Project at University College ===
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Yes! And that got very boring. So I saw this job, and I applied for the job at University College - and again, I was very lucky, because nowadays, you wouldn’t get taken on without a BSc and MSc. You know, at that time I hadn’t quite completed my degree, and I wouldn’t have been taken on as a research assistant—as I was—in these times. And that was where I met Peter Kirstein, and got involved with the Internet.  
 
Yes! And that got very boring. So I saw this job, and I applied for the job at University College - and again, I was very lucky, because nowadays, you wouldn’t get taken on without a BSc and MSc. You know, at that time I hadn’t quite completed my degree, and I wouldn’t have been taken on as a research assistant—as I was—in these times. And that was where I met Peter Kirstein, and got involved with the Internet.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 258: Line 247:
  
 
That’s right, yes.
 
That’s right, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 267: Line 255:
  
 
It was. . . At that time, it was Computer Science/Statistics; they were combined with the statistics department, but later on it just became a Computer Science department.
 
It was. . . At that time, it was Computer Science/Statistics; they were combined with the statistics department, but later on it just became a Computer Science department.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 276: Line 263:
 
   
 
   
 
Yes. I’d been employed to work on that project.
 
Yes. I’d been employed to work on that project.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 285: Line 271:
 
   
 
   
 
Well, I was helping with the actual coding of the TIP. We had a node - it was then called a “TIP” at that point.
 
Well, I was helping with the actual coding of the TIP. We had a node - it was then called a “TIP” at that point.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 302: Line 287:
  
 
Right! Okay, so you know about all this. So we had this TIP, and I think it was a [DEC] PDP-9, I believe; and we had to program it, in order to have a local connection. And the connection was via - I think it was a satellite link in Norway, and then over to the States, yes?
 
Right! Okay, so you know about all this. So we had this TIP, and I think it was a [DEC] PDP-9, I believe; and we had to program it, in order to have a local connection. And the connection was via - I think it was a satellite link in Norway, and then over to the States, yes?
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 321: Line 305:
 
   
 
   
 
Yes, yes. I mean, when we actually got it working, and started sending emails—it was one of the first things we started to do. I was probably one of the first people in this country ever to send an email, back in 1974. And that was really thrilling. You could see the potential! Yes. It was amazing, yes.
 
Yes, yes. I mean, when we actually got it working, and started sending emails—it was one of the first things we started to do. I was probably one of the first people in this country ever to send an email, back in 1974. And that was really thrilling. You could see the potential! Yes. It was amazing, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 333: Line 316:
 
So we had people. . . I remember one of the projects. I actually have the paper here; I brought it along in case you were interested in looking at it. This is a paper I wrote back in ‘76 on it. [Produces a copy of: Sylvia B. Wilbur, “Description and Analysis of the Use of the UCL ARPANET Node During 1976.” INDRA Note No. 602, 3 March 1977.] One of the projects was to do with collecting seismic data, and analyzing it. Now, prior to this link to the ARPANET, people in the U.K. who were collecting seismic data used to store it on a tape, and then send it across by post. And of course this would take at least six weeks to reach the States. And once we had set up the node, they could transfer their data immediately. And this was obviously such a big advance, such a big leap forward! - that all of a sudden the analysis could be done almost instantaneously, rather than waiting months to get it analyzed.  
 
So we had people. . . I remember one of the projects. I actually have the paper here; I brought it along in case you were interested in looking at it. This is a paper I wrote back in ‘76 on it. [Produces a copy of: Sylvia B. Wilbur, “Description and Analysis of the Use of the UCL ARPANET Node During 1976.” INDRA Note No. 602, 3 March 1977.] One of the projects was to do with collecting seismic data, and analyzing it. Now, prior to this link to the ARPANET, people in the U.K. who were collecting seismic data used to store it on a tape, and then send it across by post. And of course this would take at least six weeks to reach the States. And once we had set up the node, they could transfer their data immediately. And this was obviously such a big advance, such a big leap forward! - that all of a sudden the analysis could be done almost instantaneously, rather than waiting months to get it analyzed.  
  
And there were all kinds of other collaborations that were going on, particularly in the physics community, where it was so clear - despite the problems, despite the fact that the link was a bit unreliable, and you’d get this noise, and so forth - despite all of those things, one could see the potential for collaboration, and how this was going to change things.
+
And there were all kinds of other collaborations that were going on, particularly in the physics community, where it was so clear - despite the problems, despite the fact that the link was a bit unreliable, and you’d get this noise, and so forth - despite all of those things, one could see the potential for collaboration, and how this was going to change things. So yes, it was a great time! [laughs.]
So yes, it was a great time! [laughs.]
+
  
 
=== Developing Networks ===
 
=== Developing Networks ===
Line 405: Line 387:
 
   
 
   
 
It was very hard to do research there, because at that time it was a polytechnic, and polytechnics at that time - are you familiar with this?
 
It was very hard to do research there, because at that time it was a polytechnic, and polytechnics at that time - are you familiar with this?
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Yes.
 
Yes.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
We now call them the “new universities.”  
 
We now call them the “new universities.”  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Yes, there’s been a transition. . .
 
Yes, there’s been a transition. . .
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
But it was kind of a two-tier system at that time; so polytechnics provided higher education, but not at the same level as the old universities. And on the whole, they didn’t do research. So, that was a disappointment, that I wasn’t able to continue doing research - and that was really one reason why I left.
 
But it was kind of a two-tier system at that time; so polytechnics provided higher education, but not at the same level as the old universities. And on the whole, they didn’t do research. So, that was a disappointment, that I wasn’t able to continue doing research - and that was really one reason why I left.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
What was the teaching program like there?
 
What was the teaching program like there?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Well, we taught - it was what we called an HND—”Higher National Diploma”—in computer science. So I was teaching computer science, and I was teaching operating systems, and networks, and those kinds of subjects I was interested in. But the standard was not as high as I really would have liked to have done, and that was why I decided to try and move back to the University of London.
 
Well, we taught - it was what we called an HND—”Higher National Diploma”—in computer science. So I was teaching computer science, and I was teaching operating systems, and networks, and those kinds of subjects I was interested in. But the standard was not as high as I really would have liked to have done, and that was why I decided to try and move back to the University of London.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So then after five years you came to Queen Mary College?
 
So then after five years you came to Queen Mary College?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
  
 
Yes.  
 
Yes.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I don’t know what year we’re up to now. . .
 
I don’t know what year we’re up to now. . .
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
  
 
About ‘83, I think?
 
About ‘83, I think?
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Right. Sometime around ‘83. And you’ve been here ever since then.  
 
Right. Sometime around ‘83. And you’ve been here ever since then.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 481: Line 441:
  
 
What are some of the major research projects you’ve been able to work on here?
 
What are some of the major research projects you’ve been able to work on here?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
Well, the first major research project was in CSCW. Are you familiar with CSCW?
 
Well, the first major research project was in CSCW. Are you familiar with CSCW?
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Computer-Supported Cooperative Work?
 
Computer-Supported Cooperative Work?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
Yes. Okay, so this was back in 1986. CSCW was just getting going then. I think they’d had one conference in the States, and everybody was just getting the buzz and the excitement of this new area, yes? And the government launched a funding program, and we and some other sites—universities in the U.K., and BT and another company—put in a bid, and we got this funding. So we started off with this CSCW project, collaborative project, which was the first project of its kind in the U.K. at that time. And I was project manager for it, and doing some of the work as well. So, that was about networks, that was about people collaborating over networks, so I really felt at home with that, because this kind of echoed back to the excitement I’d felt in the early days of the ARPANET node!  
 
Yes. Okay, so this was back in 1986. CSCW was just getting going then. I think they’d had one conference in the States, and everybody was just getting the buzz and the excitement of this new area, yes? And the government launched a funding program, and we and some other sites—universities in the U.K., and BT and another company—put in a bid, and we got this funding. So we started off with this CSCW project, collaborative project, which was the first project of its kind in the U.K. at that time. And I was project manager for it, and doing some of the work as well. So, that was about networks, that was about people collaborating over networks, so I really felt at home with that, because this kind of echoed back to the excitement I’d felt in the early days of the ARPANET node!  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 509: Line 462:
 
Yes! That’s right, yes. This is Irene Greif you’re talking about?
 
Yes! That’s right, yes. This is Irene Greif you’re talking about?
  
 
+
'''Abbate:'''
'''Wilbur:'''
+
  
 
Yes! Yes. . .  
 
Yes! Yes. . .  
Line 517: Line 469:
 
   
 
   
 
Yes, that’s right, yes. Yes, so that opened a lot of interesting doors as well, because that led on to another project, which was about—it’s still about CSCW, but more about kind of synchronous communication: video and audio communication; CSCW where people were using the network to try and achieve the same effects that they have in face-to-face meetings. So, the first CSCW project was asynchronous collaboration, where people collaborated by messaging, yes? The second one was about communicating in real time over networks; so that was really interesting stuff. I got to go over to a workshop in Palo Alto, at Xerox PARC - and that again was another kind of door opening for me, because I met people there, and I’ve maintained some of those collaborative links even now. I’m still working with people at Lucent, which is a kind of a spin-off from. . .  
 
Yes, that’s right, yes. Yes, so that opened a lot of interesting doors as well, because that led on to another project, which was about—it’s still about CSCW, but more about kind of synchronous communication: video and audio communication; CSCW where people were using the network to try and achieve the same effects that they have in face-to-face meetings. So, the first CSCW project was asynchronous collaboration, where people collaborated by messaging, yes? The second one was about communicating in real time over networks; so that was really interesting stuff. I got to go over to a workshop in Palo Alto, at Xerox PARC - and that again was another kind of door opening for me, because I met people there, and I’ve maintained some of those collaborative links even now. I’m still working with people at Lucent, which is a kind of a spin-off from. . .  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Bell Labs.
 
Bell Labs.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
I’d met people from Bell Labs at that workshop. So that was another big door opening that really made life much more exciting for me.
 
I’d met people from Bell Labs at that workshop. So that was another big door opening that really made life much more exciting for me.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
That would have been in the late ‘80s sometime?
 
That would have been in the late ‘80s sometime?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
1989, that was? Yes. That was really exciting! We had a tour of—because again, this was an area that was progressing very fast - and we had a tour of Palo Alto research labs: there was HP, Olivetti, Xerox—all the big names that one had heard of! And to actually go to those labs and meet the people was very stimulating.
 
1989, that was? Yes. That was really exciting! We had a tour of—because again, this was an area that was progressing very fast - and we had a tour of Palo Alto research labs: there was HP, Olivetti, Xerox—all the big names that one had heard of! And to actually go to those labs and meet the people was very stimulating.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
+
So you were actually developing some kind of video conferencing systems, or something?
So you were actually developing some kind of video conferencing systems, or something?  
+
 
+
 
+
=== 1989, A Video Conferencing System ===
+
  
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
Yes! That’s right, yes. Initially based on analog connections. We were over in the old building at the time, in these kind of antiquated Victorian rooms [laughs] with antiquated wiring and electricity, and high ceilings. And so I created this kind of multimedia environment. There were all kinds of problems! - because it was analog, and interference, and echo: all kinds of things went wrong. But we got it going! And that kind of led on to other things.  
+
Yes! That’s right, yes. Initially based on analog connections. We were over in the old building at the time, in these kind of antiquated Victorian rooms [laughs] with antiquated wiring and electricity, and high ceilings. And so I created this kind of multimedia environment. There were all kinds of problems! - because it was analog, and interference, and echo: all kinds of things went wrong. But we got it going! And that kind of led on to other things.
  
 
=== Creating a Virtual Coffee room ===
 
=== Creating a Virtual Coffee room ===
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Were there commercial spin-offs of your work?
 
Were there commercial spin-offs of your work?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
No, not at that time. The first project, BT tried to get it going, but I think because of the naiveté of our ideas at that time . . . We thought we knew about collaborative working, and of course people are still struggling with the concepts, and still struggling to design systems to support it. You know, some of the earlier ideas that we had didn’t work very well.  
 
No, not at that time. The first project, BT tried to get it going, but I think because of the naiveté of our ideas at that time . . . We thought we knew about collaborative working, and of course people are still struggling with the concepts, and still struggling to design systems to support it. You know, some of the earlier ideas that we had didn’t work very well.  
  
 
No, I guess the nearest I have come to commercial exploitation is working with people in industry who have kind of taken the ideas and the approaches away and developed things. The project I’m involved in now, with Lucent Technologies, in fact, has become - well some of it has become - has become a system that’s demonstrated at Bell Labs to clients. But also we’ve been involved in developing an aware system, which is actually running within the distributed Lucent community. That’s been quite interesting!
 
No, I guess the nearest I have come to commercial exploitation is working with people in industry who have kind of taken the ideas and the approaches away and developed things. The project I’m involved in now, with Lucent Technologies, in fact, has become - well some of it has become - has become a system that’s demonstrated at Bell Labs to clients. But also we’ve been involved in developing an aware system, which is actually running within the distributed Lucent community. That’s been quite interesting!
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
“Aware” system?
 
“Aware” system?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 581: Line 515:
 
Awareness! Yes! Okay. . . Awareness is about: When people are collaborating in a kind of collocated environment like this one, we’re kind of aware of what everybody’s doing. You know, if people go along to the tea room, we meet them there; and people pass in the corridor; we’re aware of who is around. In a face-to-face meeting, we’re aware of who’s looking at us, and how people are reacting to what we say—all those are kinds of aspects of awareness, which gives you feedback on how to work with people, and to present opportunities for establishing new collaborations and so forth. And nobody realized that all this was going on until we started looking into CSCW, and people started doing research. And there was some seminal work by - what was the guy’s name? I’ve forgotten now - but anyway, there was some seminal work that established that people who are closely located within a physical environment—in other words, their offices are close together; they share the same coffee room - they are far more likely to collaborate than people who are actually geographically distributed, perhaps on different floors, or different buildings, or whatever. And this led to the whole concept of “awareness” and its importance, and the need to support that kind of awareness in networked collaboration. Okay?  
 
Awareness! Yes! Okay. . . Awareness is about: When people are collaborating in a kind of collocated environment like this one, we’re kind of aware of what everybody’s doing. You know, if people go along to the tea room, we meet them there; and people pass in the corridor; we’re aware of who is around. In a face-to-face meeting, we’re aware of who’s looking at us, and how people are reacting to what we say—all those are kinds of aspects of awareness, which gives you feedback on how to work with people, and to present opportunities for establishing new collaborations and so forth. And nobody realized that all this was going on until we started looking into CSCW, and people started doing research. And there was some seminal work by - what was the guy’s name? I’ve forgotten now - but anyway, there was some seminal work that established that people who are closely located within a physical environment—in other words, their offices are close together; they share the same coffee room - they are far more likely to collaborate than people who are actually geographically distributed, perhaps on different floors, or different buildings, or whatever. And this led to the whole concept of “awareness” and its importance, and the need to support that kind of awareness in networked collaboration. Okay?  
  
So, an awareness system tries to let you know when some guy has arrived at a remote site, if you’re interested in working with that person. So you try to get hold of Bill, and Bill’s located in Paris at the moment. You’ve sat at your workstation, and you’d really like to know when he comes online, so you can actually get in touch with him. It’s that kind of system. And you use images of people, to figure out when they’re around. . .
+
So, an awareness system tries to let you know when some guy has arrived at a remote site, if you’re interested in working with that person. So you try to get hold of Bill, and Bill’s located in Paris at the moment. You’ve sat at your workstation, and you’d really like to know when he comes online, so you can actually get in touch with him. It’s that kind of system. And you use images of people, to figure out when they’re around...
 
+
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Sort of a virtual coffee room.
 
Sort of a virtual coffee room.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
And you’d get perhaps - yes, a glance into the coffee room, to see whether they’re there, and so forth. Yes. I think Xerox have done a lot of work with this, both in the States and in Cambridge.  
 
And you’d get perhaps - yes, a glance into the coffee room, to see whether they’re there, and so forth. Yes. I think Xerox have done a lot of work with this, both in the States and in Cambridge.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And do the people have smart badges or something, or do they log in...?
 
And do the people have smart badges or something, or do they log in...?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
Some of them do, yes. That’s one of the ideas. I don’t think that that’s worked terribly well because people find that a bit kind of intrusive, you know?  
 
Some of them do, yes. That’s one of the ideas. I don’t think that that’s worked terribly well because people find that a bit kind of intrusive, you know?  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Invasive, I would think. And you could just kind of leave your badge on the desk and go off for a few hours: “Oh yes, she’s working!” [laughs]
 
Invasive, I would think. And you could just kind of leave your badge on the desk and go off for a few hours: “Oh yes, she’s working!” [laughs]
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
That’s right; that’s the dangers of it, yes!
 
That’s right; that’s the dangers of it, yes!
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 628: Line 550:
 
   
 
   
 
But, one aspect of it that I’d like to mention in this context of women in computing is that we used to run Women Into Computing workshops here. We did this for several years - not just myself, but a lady called Hilary Buxton. I don’t know if you’re talking to her, now, are you?
 
But, one aspect of it that I’d like to mention in this context of women in computing is that we used to run Women Into Computing workshops here. We did this for several years - not just myself, but a lady called Hilary Buxton. I don’t know if you’re talking to her, now, are you?
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I don’t think I have that name. . . I had a big anthology on Women Into Computing - there was a group of papers published, which - I might know her name from that.   
 
I don’t think I have that name. . . I had a big anthology on Women Into Computing - there was a group of papers published, which - I might know her name from that.   
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
Well, Hilary Buxton has done very well. She’s a professor down at - Surrey, I think; or is it Sussex? Anyway, I’m sure you could find her. She’s not as old as me [laughs], but I think she probably comes into your time frame. But both she and I were interested in trying to attract more women into computing; so we used to hold these workshops where we invited girls from the local schools to come into the college, and we would set up interesting activities for them on our machines, and give them little talks, and try to generally interest them in computing. And this went on for several years, and then Hilary left, and I carried on.
 
Well, Hilary Buxton has done very well. She’s a professor down at - Surrey, I think; or is it Sussex? Anyway, I’m sure you could find her. She’s not as old as me [laughs], but I think she probably comes into your time frame. But both she and I were interested in trying to attract more women into computing; so we used to hold these workshops where we invited girls from the local schools to come into the college, and we would set up interesting activities for them on our machines, and give them little talks, and try to generally interest them in computing. And this went on for several years, and then Hilary left, and I carried on.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
This was in the ‘80s?
 
This was in the ‘80s?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
This is - Yes, late ‘80s, I suppose; mid- to late-’80s. But the problem with it was: A) that it got a bit kind of old-hat, because girls were learning computing at school anyway; but also it was very time-consuming, and required a lot of overhead, in terms of organization and administration, and involving people in the department. So the department got a bit fed up with this, and decided, “Well, enough is enough. We did it for a while. We can’t afford the resources any longer.” So it stopped. And it wasn’t clear what the benefits were, anyway. A lot of people had tried these workshops - with mixed claims about the results: but there was no direct evidence that they actually encouraged girls to come into computing! [laughs]
 
This is - Yes, late ‘80s, I suppose; mid- to late-’80s. But the problem with it was: A) that it got a bit kind of old-hat, because girls were learning computing at school anyway; but also it was very time-consuming, and required a lot of overhead, in terms of organization and administration, and involving people in the department. So the department got a bit fed up with this, and decided, “Well, enough is enough. We did it for a while. We can’t afford the resources any longer.” So it stopped. And it wasn’t clear what the benefits were, anyway. A lot of people had tried these workshops - with mixed claims about the results: but there was no direct evidence that they actually encouraged girls to come into computing! [laughs]
  
 
Well, one day, when I was doing my stuff with video communication research, I had this idea that maybe we could use video communication to link schools, instead of actually bringing girls onto site. If we could have links to the girls in their schools, and involve them on a more regular basis, maybe this would be a better approach. So this is a project that I got funding from BT for. And it seemed to work well. I haven’t been able to follow up on the results. I still don’t know whether it really worked, but the idea was that we would connect local schools in London to us - and to Hilary Buxton’s department - via videoconferencing; and we would organize sessions over the network where they kind of collaborated together, and collaborated with us, and we introduced them - this was just at the start of Web programming and Web pages - so we showed them how to do their own Web pages. And they were really excited by using videoconferencing, and doing Web stuff, and learning; and they got on really well! So, I was very encouraged by this, and it seemed to me a very good use of the technology!  
 
Well, one day, when I was doing my stuff with video communication research, I had this idea that maybe we could use video communication to link schools, instead of actually bringing girls onto site. If we could have links to the girls in their schools, and involve them on a more regular basis, maybe this would be a better approach. So this is a project that I got funding from BT for. And it seemed to work well. I haven’t been able to follow up on the results. I still don’t know whether it really worked, but the idea was that we would connect local schools in London to us - and to Hilary Buxton’s department - via videoconferencing; and we would organize sessions over the network where they kind of collaborated together, and collaborated with us, and we introduced them - this was just at the start of Web programming and Web pages - so we showed them how to do their own Web pages. And they were really excited by using videoconferencing, and doing Web stuff, and learning; and they got on really well! So, I was very encouraged by this, and it seemed to me a very good use of the technology!  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Have you been trying to encourage more women to enter the program here?  
 
Have you been trying to encourage more women to enter the program here?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 667: Line 578:
  
 
=== Women in Academia ===
 
=== Women in Academia ===
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
But do you sense that that’s a concern of the department in general? I don’t know what the percentage of women is here, among the students.
 
But do you sense that that’s a concern of the department in general? I don’t know what the percentage of women is here, among the students.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
We’ve always been quite fortunate in having higher than average. The national average is, about 20 percent of computer science students are female; and we, at our peak, managed about 30 percent. And certainly some of those women, I know, have gone on to establish good careers. So that’s something that we’ve always been quite proud of. It’s rather fallen by the wayside in the last few years, because Hilary left, and I kind of took early retirement, and Jean [Dollimore]—Jean wasn’t involved so much, but Jean left; so there weren’t so many women around to drive it forward. And we have some new, younger women now. I don’t know whether they’ll carry the flag.  
 
We’ve always been quite fortunate in having higher than average. The national average is, about 20 percent of computer science students are female; and we, at our peak, managed about 30 percent. And certainly some of those women, I know, have gone on to establish good careers. So that’s something that we’ve always been quite proud of. It’s rather fallen by the wayside in the last few years, because Hilary left, and I kind of took early retirement, and Jean [Dollimore]—Jean wasn’t involved so much, but Jean left; so there weren’t so many women around to drive it forward. And we have some new, younger women now. I don’t know whether they’ll carry the flag.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
On the faculty, you mean?
 
On the faculty, you mean?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
In here, in the department, yes. It’s nice to see some young women coming in! [laughs.] Because I was getting rather worried, because although we were well-represented in the department, we were all getting rather elderly; and I thought, “Well, you know, we need some young women to come through!” And they are starting to come through now, yes.
 
In here, in the department, yes. It’s nice to see some young women coming in! [laughs.] Because I was getting rather worried, because although we were well-represented in the department, we were all getting rather elderly; and I thought, “Well, you know, we need some young women to come through!” And they are starting to come through now, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Has the percentage of women on the faculty increased?  
 
Has the percentage of women on the faculty increased?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
No, I don’t think so. No. Nationally, it’s not increasing. If anything, it’s going down. And it’s all rather depressing, really.  
 
No, I don’t think so. No. Nationally, it’s not increasing. If anything, it’s going down. And it’s all rather depressing, really.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Why do you suppose that is?
 
Why do you suppose that is?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
I think it’s because of the image. Because of the kind of macho, nerdy, work-all-night kind of image that computing has. And also because it is macho, as far as I can tell. You know, in industry. . . There is still quite a lot of sexism in this country. There’s still quite a perception of women as not being really capable of doing that kind of work. And you have to have quite a lot of self-confidence, and be able to put up with a bit of banter from men, in order to succeed - and quite a lot of women don’t choose to do that, I don’t think. They go for easier options.
 
I think it’s because of the image. Because of the kind of macho, nerdy, work-all-night kind of image that computing has. And also because it is macho, as far as I can tell. You know, in industry. . . There is still quite a lot of sexism in this country. There’s still quite a perception of women as not being really capable of doing that kind of work. And you have to have quite a lot of self-confidence, and be able to put up with a bit of banter from men, in order to succeed - and quite a lot of women don’t choose to do that, I don’t think. They go for easier options.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Have you yourself encountered—I don’t know, discrimination, hostility, sexist comments, or anything?
 
Have you yourself encountered—I don’t know, discrimination, hostility, sexist comments, or anything?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Not a great deal, no. I think partly because it’s an academic environment, and because the department has always been a quite liberated department that considered itself non-sexist. So, although I wouldn’t say it’s been straightforward, I can’t honestly say that I’ve encountered a lot of sexist behavior. So yes, I’ve been lucky, I guess.
 
Not a great deal, no. I think partly because it’s an academic environment, and because the department has always been a quite liberated department that considered itself non-sexist. So, although I wouldn’t say it’s been straightforward, I can’t honestly say that I’ve encountered a lot of sexist behavior. So yes, I’ve been lucky, I guess.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Not at any place you worked?  
 
Not at any place you worked?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
[pause.] Not serious, no. But I think I’ve been fortunate. I’m sure there are a lot of women who do encounter that.  
 
[pause.] Not serious, no. But I think I’ve been fortunate. I’m sure there are a lot of women who do encounter that.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And you’ve almost always been in academic sorts of places...
 
And you’ve almost always been in academic sorts of places...
 
   
 
   
 
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
Yes, yes. That’s right.
 
Yes, yes. That’s right.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So you think they’re fairly welcoming for women.
 
So you think they’re fairly welcoming for women.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
I think they’re more welcoming than industry, yes. [laughs.] But I also believe that you have to. . . I don’t believe in actually “protecting” women, or making it easy for them because of it. I think if we’re going to change the way things are, then we have to do it ourselves, and we have to somehow acquire more self-confidence, more ability to stand up for ourselves and stand up for our rights, and to not accept rubbish from men. I’m firmly convinced of that! It’s we that have to change. We can’t wait for men to change - because they have no interest in changing, to be truthful! [laughs]  
 
I think they’re more welcoming than industry, yes. [laughs.] But I also believe that you have to. . . I don’t believe in actually “protecting” women, or making it easy for them because of it. I think if we’re going to change the way things are, then we have to do it ourselves, and we have to somehow acquire more self-confidence, more ability to stand up for ourselves and stand up for our rights, and to not accept rubbish from men. I’m firmly convinced of that! It’s we that have to change. We can’t wait for men to change - because they have no interest in changing, to be truthful! [laughs]  
 
A Vision for the Teaching of Computer Science  
 
A Vision for the Teaching of Computer Science  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
 
  
 
Have you also developed a teaching program here? Do you have some particular vision of what should be taught in computer science?
 
Have you also developed a teaching program here? Do you have some particular vision of what should be taught in computer science?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes. I think we should teach - Obviously programming is the core skill, and that always will have a place; but I think we should also teach the stuff that appeals to students who don’t like programming. There is always a sizable number of students—sometimes the majority—who actually don’t like programming. And if they don’t mind it, they don’t intend to do it for more than a couple of years, because they want to progress. And I firmly believe that, because computing has become such a broad subject now, that we should address some of that breadth—so, for example, I’ve always been keen on teaching networking, when many of my colleagues believed it wasn’t pure computer science. And recently I’ve taught multimedia, including multimedia networking, multimedia applications—giving them other skills, and other forms of knowledge, so that if they don’t want to be Java programmers or C programmers, there are other options open to them. And I believe that a lot of students have found this liberating and kind of stimulating - they’ve told me so. And I really believe this is the right way forward. Computing isn’t just a pure, scientific subject anymore. It takes in all kinds of subjects, right through to how it impacts on people’s work lives, and social lives; and I really think we ought to be taking a broad approach.  
 
Yes. I think we should teach - Obviously programming is the core skill, and that always will have a place; but I think we should also teach the stuff that appeals to students who don’t like programming. There is always a sizable number of students—sometimes the majority—who actually don’t like programming. And if they don’t mind it, they don’t intend to do it for more than a couple of years, because they want to progress. And I firmly believe that, because computing has become such a broad subject now, that we should address some of that breadth—so, for example, I’ve always been keen on teaching networking, when many of my colleagues believed it wasn’t pure computer science. And recently I’ve taught multimedia, including multimedia networking, multimedia applications—giving them other skills, and other forms of knowledge, so that if they don’t want to be Java programmers or C programmers, there are other options open to them. And I believe that a lot of students have found this liberating and kind of stimulating - they’ve told me so. And I really believe this is the right way forward. Computing isn’t just a pure, scientific subject anymore. It takes in all kinds of subjects, right through to how it impacts on people’s work lives, and social lives; and I really think we ought to be taking a broad approach.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So, more of a focus on applications - or more of a connection to. . .?
 
So, more of a focus on applications - or more of a connection to. . .?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
A mix. I’m not saying watering things down; I’m not saying, “Just teach them how to use  
 
A mix. I’m not saying watering things down; I’m not saying, “Just teach them how to use  
 
software,” but giving them a wider view of what computing is, and what it’s doing for society and for work. And giving them a range of different skills, not just programming skills.
 
software,” but giving them a wider view of what computing is, and what it’s doing for society and for work. And giving them a range of different skills, not just programming skills.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Have you also been active in professional societies?
 
Have you also been active in professional societies?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 798: Line 670:
  
 
=== Work – Life Balance ===
 
=== Work – Life Balance ===
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
How did you manage to balance. . . You have three children, you said?
 
How did you manage to balance. . . You have three children, you said?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Two children.  
 
Two children.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Two children.
 
Two children.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
Yes. With great difficulty! [laughs]
 
Yes. With great difficulty! [laughs]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Work and family: How did that work?
 
Work and family: How did that work?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
 
Great difficulty, yes! [laughing] I don’t know; I’ve always been fortunate in that I have a lot of stamina, and I can work long hours, and I can juggle lots of things. And when I was. . . I remember quite clearly, when I was studying for my first degree, I used to do that while I was kind of with the children, looking at the television; because my first husband wasn’t at all helpful, and he would go off upstairs and do his bit of studying, but I would be stuck with the children, so I would be kind of doing a bit of maths while kind of talking to the children! [laughs.] So I guess I learned to kind of multiprogram in my head quite well! That marriage didn’t last very long. Well, it lasted 17 years, but I remarried when I went to University College.
 
Great difficulty, yes! [laughing] I don’t know; I’ve always been fortunate in that I have a lot of stamina, and I can work long hours, and I can juggle lots of things. And when I was. . . I remember quite clearly, when I was studying for my first degree, I used to do that while I was kind of with the children, looking at the television; because my first husband wasn’t at all helpful, and he would go off upstairs and do his bit of studying, but I would be stuck with the children, so I would be kind of doing a bit of maths while kind of talking to the children! [laughs.] So I guess I learned to kind of multiprogram in my head quite well! That marriage didn’t last very long. Well, it lasted 17 years, but I remarried when I went to University College.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And your second husband was more supportive, in terms of sort of sharing a bit?
 
And your second husband was more supportive, in terms of sort of sharing a bit?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
Yes. Well of course, by that time the children were growing up, and I hadn’t had any more children by him, so it was a different situation; but he’s definitely more supportive, yes. And because he is an academic, he appreciates the long hours I have to work, and he’s very obviously very tolerant -and yes, he’s been a great help, yes!
 
Yes. Well of course, by that time the children were growing up, and I hadn’t had any more children by him, so it was a different situation; but he’s definitely more supportive, yes. And because he is an academic, he appreciates the long hours I have to work, and he’s very obviously very tolerant -and yes, he’s been a great help, yes!
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And I guess you mentioned your mother...
 
And I guess you mentioned your mother...
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
 
   
 
   
 
Yes! I’ve been very fortunate that my mother was there to help me by looking after the children when they came out from school for a couple of hours. I’ve been very lucky, I think.  
 
Yes! I’ve been very fortunate that my mother was there to help me by looking after the children when they came out from school for a couple of hours. I’ve been very lucky, I think.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Are your children also interested in computing?
 
Are your children also interested in computing?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
  
 
No. [laughs.] But their children are!  
 
No. [laughs.] But their children are!  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Interesting.
 
Interesting.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
I think to some extent they maybe kind of rebelled against it.  
 
I think to some extent they maybe kind of rebelled against it.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Really?
 
Really?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
I think children sometimes do that, yes.
 
I think children sometimes do that, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Did you already tell me what your husband did? I don’t remember.  
 
Did you already tell me what your husband did? I don’t remember.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
  
 
My first husband was...yes, he worked in an office; and my second husband is...he’s an academic, at University College.
 
My first husband was...yes, he worked in an office; and my second husband is...he’s an academic, at University College.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 914: Line 750:
 
   
 
   
 
Yes - in computer science, yes.  
 
Yes - in computer science, yes.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Oh, he is in computer science.
 
Oh, he is in computer science.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
He’s now Head of Department in computer science, yes.
 
He’s now Head of Department in computer science, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So no wonder your children want to strike out on their own! [laughs.]  
 
So no wonder your children want to strike out on their own! [laughs.]  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes! [laughs.]
 
Yes! [laughs.]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Did you have any important role models or mentors that sort of helped you get on this track?
 
Did you have any important role models or mentors that sort of helped you get on this track?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
No. . . . Or I don’t think I was aware of any until that time, really. No.  
 
No. . . . Or I don’t think I was aware of any until that time, really. No.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Have you tried to mentor female students that you have?
 
Have you tried to mentor female students that you have?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 962: Line 784:
  
 
But I have tried very much to help the female students, both in tutoring them and when they’ve had problems. To what extent I am able to, I will help them, and encourage them to keep going when things are tough.
 
But I have tried very much to help the female students, both in tutoring them and when they’ve had problems. To what extent I am able to, I will help them, and encourage them to keep going when things are tough.
 
=== Advice for Women Embarking on a Computing Career ===
 
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Do you have any advice for young women who are contemplating a career in computing?
 
Do you have any advice for young women who are contemplating a career in computing?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
Line 978: Line 796:
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Is that the most satisfying thing about computing for you? That it’s always changing?
 
Is that the most satisfying thing about computing for you? That it’s always changing?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes. Because I like change, and because it offers so many challenges, and I like challenges. So you can’t just sit back. If you want an easy life, okay, you could be a programmer, I suppose—you know, in an office or something; but it won’t be interesting. Coding can be excessively boring, if you do it for years on end! [laughs]
 
Yes. Because I like change, and because it offers so many challenges, and I like challenges. So you can’t just sit back. If you want an easy life, okay, you could be a programmer, I suppose—you know, in an office or something; but it won’t be interesting. Coding can be excessively boring, if you do it for years on end! [laughs]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I guess you’ve seen both sides of that!
 
I guess you’ve seen both sides of that!
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
[laughs.] Yes! That’s right, yes.
 
[laughs.] Yes! That’s right, yes.
 
  
 
=== Noting the Changes in the Field ===
 
=== Noting the Changes in the Field ===
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
How do you think the field has changed over the course of your involvement with it, in terms of technology, or how computers are used, or the sort of culture of it?
 
How do you think the field has changed over the course of your involvement with it, in terms of technology, or how computers are used, or the sort of culture of it?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Well, when I started, it was all about mathematics and science, and calculations. Now it’s very much about work, and life, and it’s invading every aspect of life! So now it’s about people, and collaboration, and changing things: changing organizations, changing society...  
 
Well, when I started, it was all about mathematics and science, and calculations. Now it’s very much about work, and life, and it’s invading every aspect of life! So now it’s about people, and collaboration, and changing things: changing organizations, changing society...  
  
 
And I think there is a bad side to this, as well as a good side; and we have to be very much aware of the potential dangers. This kind of image of everybody just staying indoors, and doing all their shopping via the Internet, and just using chat rooms or email to chat with their friends, and never going outside [laughs] - the kind of extreme image that’s sometimes portrayed, I think is a quite terrifying one, because we all need personal interaction with other people; we all need to be part of things, you know. So we have to be very much aware of the dangers, but also ready to exploit the benefits, I think.  
 
And I think there is a bad side to this, as well as a good side; and we have to be very much aware of the potential dangers. This kind of image of everybody just staying indoors, and doing all their shopping via the Internet, and just using chat rooms or email to chat with their friends, and never going outside [laughs] - the kind of extreme image that’s sometimes portrayed, I think is a quite terrifying one, because we all need personal interaction with other people; we all need to be part of things, you know. So we have to be very much aware of the dangers, but also ready to exploit the benefits, I think.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Do you think the culture of computing has changed? In terms of the type of people who are computer professionals, and the atmosphere, or the. . .?
 
Do you think the culture of computing has changed? In terms of the type of people who are computer professionals, and the atmosphere, or the. . .?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Well, it was always, in my experience, a profession where people moved across from other areas. Early computer science academics were originally engineers, or mathematicians, or physicists, who’d got interested and moved across. And now, with the Web and the Internet, an awful lot of people from all kinds of walks of life are moving across, because they see the opportunities, and they’re excited by the opportunities. So you get architects, and all kinds of people are just moving into the area!  
 
Well, it was always, in my experience, a profession where people moved across from other areas. Early computer science academics were originally engineers, or mathematicians, or physicists, who’d got interested and moved across. And now, with the Web and the Internet, an awful lot of people from all kinds of walks of life are moving across, because they see the opportunities, and they’re excited by the opportunities. So you get architects, and all kinds of people are just moving into the area!  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So it’s a kind of continuity, in a way. . .
 
So it’s a kind of continuity, in a way. . .
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes, that’s right; yes. And I guess that’s part of the interest, because people bring their background and their knowledge of other domains into the area, and that’s how it moves forward.
 
Yes, that’s right; yes. And I guess that’s part of the interest, because people bring their background and their knowledge of other domains into the area, and that’s how it moves forward.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So computing is not really just about computers; it’s about all this other stuff. The applications...
 
So computing is not really just about computers; it’s about all this other stuff. The applications...
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes, that’s right. It’s about how people work; and about organizations, how they function; and that whole nature of work. . . All kinds of interesting stuff! [laughs.]
 
Yes, that’s right. It’s about how people work; and about organizations, how they function; and that whole nature of work. . . All kinds of interesting stuff! [laughs.]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Well that’s interesting, because I think the perception is more - if people think about going into computer science, they think about just machines, and being in a room with a machine all day...  
 
Well that’s interesting, because I think the perception is more - if people think about going into computer science, they think about just machines, and being in a room with a machine all day...  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
Yes! And that’s what puts a lot of girls off. Yes. They think it’s just about poring over a machine, and looking a mess, and working all hours, and not talking to people. And being antisocial - because that’s the kind of image that’s often portrayed! [laughs.]
 
Yes! And that’s what puts a lot of girls off. Yes. They think it’s just about poring over a machine, and looking a mess, and working all hours, and not talking to people. And being antisocial - because that’s the kind of image that’s often portrayed! [laughs.]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Do you think that’s truer in industry?  
 
Do you think that’s truer in industry?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
  
 
Well I don’t have a lot of experience, really, of industry. I think there are an awful lot of brash young men in IT now, whose main aim is to climb the ladder very quickly and make lots of money. There are also a lot of young man who are like the young men were in my young day, which was: they’re just fascinated by the whole thing of programming, and the innards of computers, and just want to spend all their time doing it - and there are really actually some of them who are quite antisocial. So there are all these different kinds of people. . . But I do think that yes, it is changing in industry: because it’s becoming so much an integral part of the organization and the organization’s strategy and direction, and underpinning the way that the company makes profits, and its competitiveness, and all those kinds of aspects, it’s bringing a new type of person into the area.  
 
Well I don’t have a lot of experience, really, of industry. I think there are an awful lot of brash young men in IT now, whose main aim is to climb the ladder very quickly and make lots of money. There are also a lot of young man who are like the young men were in my young day, which was: they’re just fascinated by the whole thing of programming, and the innards of computers, and just want to spend all their time doing it - and there are really actually some of them who are quite antisocial. So there are all these different kinds of people. . . But I do think that yes, it is changing in industry: because it’s becoming so much an integral part of the organization and the organization’s strategy and direction, and underpinning the way that the company makes profits, and its competitiveness, and all those kinds of aspects, it’s bringing a new type of person into the area.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And that would be a male type of person?
 
And that would be a male type of person?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes, yes.  
 
Yes, yes.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
This is a question I sort of wonder about. You know, there’s some evidence that the percentage of women has actually been going down since the mid-’80s; and I’m wondering if that’s because more men are coming in, or fewer women, or some combination. So part of it might be that more men are interested, because it’s got more status.
 
This is a question I sort of wonder about. You know, there’s some evidence that the percentage of women has actually been going down since the mid-’80s; and I’m wondering if that’s because more men are coming in, or fewer women, or some combination. So part of it might be that more men are interested, because it’s got more status.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes. And also the more ambitious kind of man, who’s just interested in getting on, and not particularly interested in helping women come in, and encouraging them. Yes. Certainly. I think that’s true, yes. Whenever I get - I’ve been to many conferences, both academic conferences and conferences where people from industry go, and I’m . . . .
 
Yes. And also the more ambitious kind of man, who’s just interested in getting on, and not particularly interested in helping women come in, and encouraging them. Yes. Certainly. I think that’s true, yes. Whenever I get - I’ve been to many conferences, both academic conferences and conferences where people from industry go, and I’m . . . .
 
  
 
[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]
 
[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
The only exception to that is the CSCW conferences - and this is because there are a lot of social scientists involved in the area, and a lot of those are women. But if I go to a conference on networking, or e-commerce more recently, or multimedia, or any of those subjects in which I’m interested: it’s 95 percent men.  
 
The only exception to that is the CSCW conferences - and this is because there are a lot of social scientists involved in the area, and a lot of those are women. But if I go to a conference on networking, or e-commerce more recently, or multimedia, or any of those subjects in which I’m interested: it’s 95 percent men.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
Is that the same...
 
Is that the same...
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Sometimes I’ve been the only woman.  
 
Sometimes I’ve been the only woman.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Is that the same in the U.K. and the United States? Is there any difference that you can tell?
 
Is that the same in the U.K. and the United States? Is there any difference that you can tell?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
I don’t think there’s much difference, no. I go to a lot of conference in the States, or have been, until recently. Yes, it’s about the same.  
 
I don’t think there’s much difference, no. I go to a lot of conference in the States, or have been, until recently. Yes, it’s about the same.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Hmm…Now that seems odd - I mean, at the academic conferences - because the percentage of women in academic computer science is higher than that.  
 
Hmm…Now that seems odd - I mean, at the academic conferences - because the percentage of women in academic computer science is higher than that.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes, that’s right. Yes.
 
Yes, that’s right. Yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
It’s 20 or 25 percent? Something like that?
 
It’s 20 or 25 percent? Something like that?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes. I’ve actually been very disappointed, because I thought things were different in America - but I haven’t actually perceived a lot of difference, really.
 
Yes. I’ve actually been very disappointed, because I thought things were different in America - but I haven’t actually perceived a lot of difference, really.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I don’t know if you know Anita Borg at Stanford - or actually she’s at, I guess she’s at Xerox PARC now.  
 
I don’t know if you know Anita Borg at Stanford - or actually she’s at, I guess she’s at Xerox PARC now.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
No, I don’t think I know her.
 
No, I don’t think I know her.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
She started this group called Systers—S-Y-S-T-E-R-S—
 
She started this group called Systers—S-Y-S-T-E-R-S—
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Oh, yes.
 
Oh, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
...and she described to me that she had been at a conference, and that all the women got together in the ladies’ room one day, and discussed why there weren’t more women there; and then they started this group as a result of that.
 
...and she described to me that she had been at a conference, and that all the women got together in the ladies’ room one day, and discussed why there weren’t more women there; and then they started this group as a result of that.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Right! Yes! [laughs]
 
Right! Yes! [laughs]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So, I guess her experience wasn’t that different. It wasn’t that long ago.  
 
So, I guess her experience wasn’t that different. It wasn’t that long ago.  
 
  
 
=== Women’s Difficulty to Move beyond the Lectureship Level ===
 
=== Women’s Difficulty to Move beyond the Lectureship Level ===
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
So, I really don’t know what we do about it, actually. It’s very disappointing, but I don’t know. And in my darkest moments I think, “Well, maybe it’s wrong to try and get more women into the industry, anyway, because some of them have such a hard time; maybe they’re better off going off into other areas.” But I don’t think that very often! [laughs]
 
So, I really don’t know what we do about it, actually. It’s very disappointing, but I don’t know. And in my darkest moments I think, “Well, maybe it’s wrong to try and get more women into the industry, anyway, because some of them have such a hard time; maybe they’re better off going off into other areas.” But I don’t think that very often! [laughs]
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I think industry’s really a different environment. But, for - at least for the academic side, because that’s where your experience is - I mean, would you discourage women from going into academic computer science?  
 
I think industry’s really a different environment. But, for - at least for the academic side, because that’s where your experience is - I mean, would you discourage women from going into academic computer science?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
No, no I wouldn’t.  
 
No, no I wouldn’t.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
You don’t think they would have a hard time there, so there’s no reason not to have them there.
 
You don’t think they would have a hard time there, so there’s no reason not to have them there.
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
No. I think it’s fairer in academic circles, yes. I mean, it’s still true, though, that it’s quite easy to become a Lecturer, or even a Senior Lecturer; it’s a darn sight harder to become a Professor. But again, that’s part of how the academic system works - largely by a system of patronage, where Professors choose a more junior member of staff as a kind of protégé, and encourage them, and bring them along. And it’s obviously harder for a male Professor to do that with a female member of staff, I think. They’re more than likely to choose a man from the staff. I mean, Heather has done very well; she’s a Professor, but I think - I don’t know whether she mentioned it - I think there’s only two percent of academic professors who are female - and that’s not just in computer science.  
 
No. I think it’s fairer in academic circles, yes. I mean, it’s still true, though, that it’s quite easy to become a Lecturer, or even a Senior Lecturer; it’s a darn sight harder to become a Professor. But again, that’s part of how the academic system works - largely by a system of patronage, where Professors choose a more junior member of staff as a kind of protégé, and encourage them, and bring them along. And it’s obviously harder for a male Professor to do that with a female member of staff, I think. They’re more than likely to choose a man from the staff. I mean, Heather has done very well; she’s a Professor, but I think - I don’t know whether she mentioned it - I think there’s only two percent of academic professors who are female - and that’s not just in computer science.  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I didn’t realize it was that low.  
 
I didn’t realize it was that low.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes. It’s very low, yes.
 
Yes. It’s very low, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
So, is that sort of the point where - up to the level of Professor it seems more or less...
 
So, is that sort of the point where - up to the level of Professor it seems more or less...
 
   
 
   
 
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
    
 
    
 
 
It’s fairly easy, I would say, yes. It seems to me it’s fairly. . .  
 
It’s fairly easy, I would say, yes. It seems to me it’s fairly. . .  
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
I mean, the percentage of women who enter is more or less the percentage who rise to be Senior Lecturer?
 
I mean, the percentage of women who enter is more or less the percentage who rise to be Senior Lecturer?
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
I don’t have any hard statistics on that, but my impression is that it’s not too hard to get the first steps of promotion to a Senior Lecturer; yes. But then it gets an awful lot harder.
 
I don’t have any hard statistics on that, but my impression is that it’s not too hard to get the first steps of promotion to a Senior Lecturer; yes. But then it gets an awful lot harder.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
  
 
I should find some statistics on that.  
 
I should find some statistics on that.  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
I really don’t think it’s necessarily conscious, kind of holding down of women; it just tends to be the way the system works.
 
I really don’t think it’s necessarily conscious, kind of holding down of women; it just tends to be the way the system works.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
And that would probably be true of ethnic minorities, as well?  
 
And that would probably be true of ethnic minorities, as well?  
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Yes, that’s right, yes.
 
Yes, that’s right, yes.
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
That’s kind of a whole different issue. . . All right! Well, I think you’ve answered all my questions. It’s been very interesting!
 
That’s kind of a whole different issue. . . All right! Well, I think you’ve answered all my questions. It’s been very interesting!
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
   
 
   
 
 
Well, it’s been very enjoyable!
 
Well, it’s been very enjoyable!
 
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
  
 
Thank you so much for talking to me!
 
Thank you so much for talking to me!
 
  
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
'''Wilbur:'''
 
  
 
Okay!
 
Okay!
  
 
+
[[Category:Computers and information processing|Wilbur]] [[Category:Culture and society|Wilbur]] [[Category:People and organizations|Wilbur]]
[[Category:Computers_and_information_processing]]
+
[[Category:Culture_and_society]]
+
[[Category:People_and_organizations]]
+

Revision as of 15:37, 11 December 2012

Contents

About Silvia Wilbur

Wilbur was born in 1938 in Bromford, Essex 12 miles to the east of London, England. Both her parents were working-class; her father worked in the London Docks. Wilbur has one sibling, ten years her junior. Aged 17 she left school to supplement the family's income, and at 20 she married and later on had two children. As a young mother she worked in various part-time jobs such as a switchboard operator and a clerk. At the age of 26, she began working as a secretary in a local college (now part of the University of East London). The department offered one of the early computer science programs and while working there, Wilbur taught herself the computer language ALGOL. Wilbur then added to her auto-didactic education an A level course in mathematics and a degree in computing from the Open University. In 1974 she was hired as a researcher at the Computer Science department at University College London. There she met Peter Kirstein, and got involved in the ARPANET project.

In 1979 she was hired as a lecturer in the University of East London. In 1983 she moved to Queen Mary College. In 1986 she started working on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, such as the development of a video-conferencing system. Wilbur became a prominent figure in this field.

In the late 1980s, Wilbur got involved in running Women Into Computing workshops targeted at girls from local schools. In addition to introducing them to computers, the workshops included activities to stimulate young women’s interest in science. As part of the initiative, Wilbur offered to substitute the actual meetings with video conferences and web-based activities.

About the Interview

Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 4 April 2001

Interview #634 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers

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: Sylvia Wilbur: An Interview Conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Sylvia Wilbur INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate DATE: 4 April 2001 PLACE: Sylvia Wilbur’s office at Queen Mary College in London [Notes courtesy of interviewer Janet Abbate]

Humble Beginnings

Abbate:

This is April 4th, 2001, and I’m talking with Sylvia Wilbur. Now, you were born in 1938?

Wilbur:

Yes.

Abbate:

Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do for a living?

Wilbur:

I grew up in Bromford in Essex, which is about 12 miles to the east of London. My parents were working class; my father worked in the London Docks. Is that enough? [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Wilbur:

Yes, I had one sister. There is ten years’ difference between us. I was born just before the Second World War, and she was born afterwards.

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you to have a career? Were you expected to support yourself? Did you expect that you would need to have a job when you grew up?

Wilbur:

Oh yes, I expected to have a job; particularly because my family were rather poor—not in desperate poverty, but they needed me to help support the family; you know, to pay my own way. And that was really why I left school at 17, rather than go to university, though I’d done well at grammar school. Do you know what grammar schools are here?

Abbate:

Yes, it’s a grade school. . .

Wilbur:

You used to have an exam, at eleven; if you passed, you went to a grammar school. This was a very good school, and I did well there, but because I was needed to provide some income for the family—to help out—I left school at seventeen. So, my father: He did encourage me to work while I was at school. He was actually a very intelligent man, and had he been born in a different generation, I’m sure he would have done very well. And he encouraged me to work hard, and to try to pass exams, and so forth. But it was a very traditional household, so I was brought up in the expectation, as was common at that time, that—being a girl—I would get married, raise a family; and that was my principle role in life. So I didn’t really think seriously about going to university or having a career, as such. No.

Abbate:

So you didn’t think you’d necessarily have to support yourself your entire life?

Wilbur:

No, I just thought I would get married, and have children, and maybe do a little part-time job, but that would be it, you know; I really wasn’t ambitious at all.

Abbate:

Were you interested in math and science as a child?

Wilbur:

I was always good at maths; but my friends weren’t - and I think I was influenced by that, as you are, as a teenager: If your friends don’t think something is cool, then you don’t think it is, either! [laughs.] So I really didn’t pursue maths very much, although I was good at it, the extent to which I did it. I did O Levels, which is kind of...exams at 16. And I got a good grade at maths; but as I say, I didn’t pursue it any further, really.

Abbate:

Now, was it a gender thing? Was it that the girls didn’t think it was cool? Or nobody did...

Wilbur:

Well certainly, in my school, it was very traditional. Girls really did more kind of art subjects. If you wanted a career, it was teaching or teaching! [laughs.] And that was about it!—unless you were good at music, or something. And nobody ever talked to me about the possibility of what careers were open to me; so when I left school, I just went into an office. And that was it.

A Clerk-Typist

Abbate:

That was some kind of local job?

Wilbur:

In London, in East London, yes. The City of London, yes. So I was just a. . . I took some typing lessons, I became a secretary - not a secretary, a clerk-typist: you know, doing odd things in an office. And that was it: my life! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So were you partly supporting the family? Were you living at home?

Wilbur:

I was living at home, and handing over part of my salary to my mother, to help out. Yes.

Abbate:

And so you lived at home until you got married.

Wilbur:

Yes, and I got married at 20, so it wasn’t terribly long.

Abbate:

What did your husband do?

Wilbur:

He was in a similar kind of position, a clerk in an office.

Abbate:

Was that where you met him?

Wilbur:

No, no! I met him at a dance, as was common then. [laughs.] Life has changed so much!

Abbate:

I don’t know if it’s changed that much! [laughs.]

Wilbur:

I suppose people do still meet at dances, yes.

Learning to Program

Abbate:

So... At what point did you first use a computer?

Wilbur:

Well, I had my children quite quickly after I married, and while they were still young, I needed to go out and earn a little bit of money to help out. So I looked around for part-time jobs, locally. I was fortunate that my mother lived very close to me - well, not that close; I had to get a bus -but she was willing to look after the children while I did some part-time work. So I did a couple of jobs in local offices: operating a switchboard; doing kind of clerical work. Then, when I was about 26 or 27, I applied for a job, advertised as a typing job, in a local college. And that turned out to be, actually, typing programs for students, in what was a very early computer science course. And that was how I met computers—and that totally changed my life!

Abbate:

What college was that?

Wilbur:

It was a college in East London. It was called Barking at that time; it’s now part of the University of East London. They had a young Lecturer who had done some computing, and he started up a computer science course. They just needed two people to type the students’ programs, because at that time, the input to the computers was via punched tape, on the machine that we had. The students would write a program by hand, and then we would type it up on a teletype, and out would come the punched tape, and the students would then run it.

Abbate:

I see.

Wilbur:

So I’d been doing this about six weeks, and I found I was starting to correct the students’ programs! [laughs.]

Abbate:

How did you learn...?

Wilbur:

Well, I just picked it up! It was a language called ALGOL. First of all, you start to pick up the syntax: so if they have a “BEGIN” and they forget the “END,” you notice that, and you put it in for them; or if they put in the opening quotation marks and forget the closing ones. You know, you start to notice the syntax. And then I started to understand what was going on in the program. And then I thought to myself, “I could do this!” [laughs.] So, I determined that I would, you see; and that was the start.

I decided I needed to educate myself further, if I was going to have a hope of becoming a programmer and really getting into computing. So I started doing an A Level in mathematics, part-time, during the day; so that kind of brushed up on my maths. And then I was very lucky: an opportunity arose. They had a computer operator, the guy who would feed the tapes into the machine, and he left; he couldn’t get on with it. And I just said, “Well, can I have the job?” And I was fortunate, they let me have a go at doing that. And from there I moved on to programming. So it was just kind of a general progression.

Abbate:

So you moved up the ladder. . .

Wilbur:

Yes! In those days, it was much easier to do that, probably, than it is now. Yes. So I was lucky. Yes.

Abbate:

I’ve heard that. Because there weren’t so many formal credentials at that point. . .

Wilbur:

That’s right. It was such a new area.

Abbate:

So you were able to be actually programming at UEL (or whatever it was at that point)...

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right, yes.

Programming in COBOL

Abbate:

...while you were still getting your ‘A’ Level Mathematics?

Wilbur:

Yes, so while I was. . . So I moved from being the typist to being the operator to being a programmer, and I was programming in COBOL at that time. Do you know COBOL? You’ve heard of it, I’m sure. But, while I was doing that I started studying for my degree, via the Open University. You know, you take their degree by correspondence; so I was doing that kind of in the evenings, and at home, and so forth.

Abbate:

This was. . . the late ‘60s, at this point?

Wilbur:

That’s right.

Abbate:

And then you got the degree in ‘74?

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right. And that was the year I moved to University College. So I got thoroughly bored with COBOL programming! [laughs.]

Abbate:

You were doing COBOL programming all this time?

1974, the ARPNET Project at University College

Wilbur:

Yes! And that got very boring. So I saw this job, and I applied for the job at University College - and again, I was very lucky, because nowadays, you wouldn’t get taken on without a BSc and MSc. You know, at that time I hadn’t quite completed my degree, and I wouldn’t have been taken on as a research assistant—as I was—in these times. And that was where I met Peter Kirstein, and got involved with the Internet.

Abbate:

Right. This is 1974 or so, when you were doing a research position in the Computer Science department. . .

Wilbur:

That’s right, yes.

Abbate:

Was it Computer Science, or Mathematics—what was it at that point?

Wilbur:

It was. . . At that time, it was Computer Science/Statistics; they were combined with the statistics department, but later on it just became a Computer Science department.

Abbate:

And you were working with Peter Kirstein...So the project you actually first started out on was the ARPANET project?

Wilbur:

Yes. I’d been employed to work on that project.

Abbate:

What kind of challenges did that present? What were you trying to do?

Wilbur:

Well, I was helping with the actual coding of the TIP. We had a node - it was then called a “TIP” at that point.

Abbate:

Right, “Terminal IMP.”

Wilbur:

Yes. You probably know all about this, don’t you? Didn’t you say you did a history of the Internet?

Abbate:

Yes.

Wilbur:

Right! Okay, so you know about all this. So we had this TIP, and I think it was a [DEC] PDP-9, I believe; and we had to program it, in order to have a local connection. And the connection was via - I think it was a satellite link in Norway, and then over to the States, yes?

Abbate:

Right.

Wilbur:

But we had to program this device, and for a while I helped with that. But then what they needed was somebody - and this was I’d really been employed for - to be a point of liaison between the ARPANET community and the people in the U.K. So the node was not just for the purpose of people in UCL using the ARPANET, but people throughout the U.K. could link to us and collaborate with people in the States. My job was really to help those people get going, and to monitor what they were doing, and help them with any problems they had. So I kind of came off the programming and concentrated full-time on that. And it was so exciting! It really was; it was really exciting!

Sending the First Emails in the UK

Abbate:

It must have been. Kind of Ground Zero for networking. . .

Wilbur:

Yes, yes. I mean, when we actually got it working, and started sending emails—it was one of the first things we started to do. I was probably one of the first people in this country ever to send an email, back in 1974. And that was really thrilling. You could see the potential! Yes. It was amazing, yes.

Abbate:

How did other people reach it? ARPANET, or one of those U.K. research networks? I don’t remember when they were built.

Wilbur:

Some people just had a terminal link to us, so they linked to us over the telephone service. That wasn’t very satisfactory, because it was so slow; and it was not only slow, there was an awful lot of noise and distortion. You’d try to download a file, and it was so full of errors that you couldn’t use it. So increasingly, people had their own private lines into the node - people who were doing more serious work, and could afford that - and they used it that way.

So we had people. . . I remember one of the projects. I actually have the paper here; I brought it along in case you were interested in looking at it. This is a paper I wrote back in ‘76 on it. [Produces a copy of: Sylvia B. Wilbur, “Description and Analysis of the Use of the UCL ARPANET Node During 1976.” INDRA Note No. 602, 3 March 1977.] One of the projects was to do with collecting seismic data, and analyzing it. Now, prior to this link to the ARPANET, people in the U.K. who were collecting seismic data used to store it on a tape, and then send it across by post. And of course this would take at least six weeks to reach the States. And once we had set up the node, they could transfer their data immediately. And this was obviously such a big advance, such a big leap forward! - that all of a sudden the analysis could be done almost instantaneously, rather than waiting months to get it analyzed.

And there were all kinds of other collaborations that were going on, particularly in the physics community, where it was so clear - despite the problems, despite the fact that the link was a bit unreliable, and you’d get this noise, and so forth - despite all of those things, one could see the potential for collaboration, and how this was going to change things. So yes, it was a great time! [laughs.]

Developing Networks

Abbate:

You must have learned a lot about networking.

Wilbur:

Yes, I did! Yes. Yes. And of course that was totally new to me. I hadn’t even had the concept. I mean, networking in general was very new at that time. We had no local networks. I think BT [British Telecom] was kind of experimenting a little bit, and other parts of Europe—but this was the first time I’d encountered it, and, yes, it was a revelation. I’ve never ceased to be inspired, really, by networks, although I kind of went away from them a bit in the middle of my career. I always found that aspect of computer science the most exciting.

Abbate:

You were there at UCL about four years?

Wilbur:

Four years, yes. And then I married somebody in the department, so I thought I ought to leave! Also, I felt there was a danger that I would just drift into administration, because I was reasonably good at it, and writing reports and things. I think I would have been stuck doing that kind of thing for the remainder of my time, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to progress in computer science a bit further. So I decided to leave.

Abbate:

Were there any anti-nepotism laws? Or did you just not want to be in the same department as your husband?

Wilbur:

I just didn’t want to be in the same department, because I just felt that I wanted to have my own career; I wanted to be an independent person. And I felt that, because he was actually supervising a lot of my work at the time, that it would have got in the way; so I decided to make a break.

Lecturer in the University of East London

Abbate:

Where did you end up after that? Did you come here to QMC [Queen Mary College]?

Wilbur:

No, no. I spent a year in an examinations board where they were setting up a computer system. At the time I moved there, I thought this would be a challenge, but in fact it was a very big mistake! [laughs.] So a year later I left, and I took up a post as a Lecturer in the University of East London, where I’d started out as a punch girl. So that was quite nice! [laughs.]

Abbate:

That’s a very nice . . . Were there still people there who remembered you?

Wilbur:

Yes. And they used to stop me in the corridor, and say, “Well, what are you doing now?” [laughs.] Yes!

Abbate:

How long were you there?

Wilbur:

I think I was there about five years, I think.

Abbate:

As a Lecturer at UEL?

Wilbur:

Yes, yes. And then I came here.

Queen Mary College, London

Abbate:

Were there particular projects you were working on there, while you were teaching?

Wilbur:

It was very hard to do research there, because at that time it was a polytechnic, and polytechnics at that time - are you familiar with this?

Abbate:

Yes.

Wilbur:

We now call them the “new universities.”

Abbate:

Yes, there’s been a transition. . .

Wilbur:

But it was kind of a two-tier system at that time; so polytechnics provided higher education, but not at the same level as the old universities. And on the whole, they didn’t do research. So, that was a disappointment, that I wasn’t able to continue doing research - and that was really one reason why I left.

Abbate:

What was the teaching program like there?

Wilbur:

Well, we taught - it was what we called an HND—”Higher National Diploma”—in computer science. So I was teaching computer science, and I was teaching operating systems, and networks, and those kinds of subjects I was interested in. But the standard was not as high as I really would have liked to have done, and that was why I decided to try and move back to the University of London.

Abbate:

So then after five years you came to Queen Mary College?

Wilbur:

Yes.

Abbate:

I don’t know what year we’re up to now. . .

Wilbur:

About ‘83, I think?

Abbate:

Right. Sometime around ‘83. And you’ve been here ever since then.

Wilbur:

Yes, yes.

1986, Developing Computer-Supported Cooperative Work

Abbate:

What are some of the major research projects you’ve been able to work on here?

Wilbur:

Well, the first major research project was in CSCW. Are you familiar with CSCW?

Abbate:

Computer-Supported Cooperative Work?

Wilbur:

Yes. Okay, so this was back in 1986. CSCW was just getting going then. I think they’d had one conference in the States, and everybody was just getting the buzz and the excitement of this new area, yes? And the government launched a funding program, and we and some other sites—universities in the U.K., and BT and another company—put in a bid, and we got this funding. So we started off with this CSCW project, collaborative project, which was the first project of its kind in the U.K. at that time. And I was project manager for it, and doing some of the work as well. So, that was about networks, that was about people collaborating over networks, so I really felt at home with that, because this kind of echoed back to the excitement I’d felt in the early days of the ARPANET node!

Abbate:

You know, it was a woman who came up with that: CSCW.

Wilbur:

Yes! That’s right, yes. This is Irene Greif you’re talking about?

Abbate:

Yes! Yes. . .

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right, yes. Yes, so that opened a lot of interesting doors as well, because that led on to another project, which was about—it’s still about CSCW, but more about kind of synchronous communication: video and audio communication; CSCW where people were using the network to try and achieve the same effects that they have in face-to-face meetings. So, the first CSCW project was asynchronous collaboration, where people collaborated by messaging, yes? The second one was about communicating in real time over networks; so that was really interesting stuff. I got to go over to a workshop in Palo Alto, at Xerox PARC - and that again was another kind of door opening for me, because I met people there, and I’ve maintained some of those collaborative links even now. I’m still working with people at Lucent, which is a kind of a spin-off from. . .

Abbate:

Bell Labs.

Wilbur:

I’d met people from Bell Labs at that workshop. So that was another big door opening that really made life much more exciting for me.

Abbate:

That would have been in the late ‘80s sometime?

Wilbur:

1989, that was? Yes. That was really exciting! We had a tour of—because again, this was an area that was progressing very fast - and we had a tour of Palo Alto research labs: there was HP, Olivetti, Xerox—all the big names that one had heard of! And to actually go to those labs and meet the people was very stimulating.

Abbate:

So you were actually developing some kind of video conferencing systems, or something?


Wilbur:

Yes! That’s right, yes. Initially based on analog connections. We were over in the old building at the time, in these kind of antiquated Victorian rooms [laughs] with antiquated wiring and electricity, and high ceilings. And so I created this kind of multimedia environment. There were all kinds of problems! - because it was analog, and interference, and echo: all kinds of things went wrong. But we got it going! And that kind of led on to other things.

Creating a Virtual Coffee room

Abbate:

Were there commercial spin-offs of your work?

Wilbur:

No, not at that time. The first project, BT tried to get it going, but I think because of the naiveté of our ideas at that time . . . We thought we knew about collaborative working, and of course people are still struggling with the concepts, and still struggling to design systems to support it. You know, some of the earlier ideas that we had didn’t work very well.

No, I guess the nearest I have come to commercial exploitation is working with people in industry who have kind of taken the ideas and the approaches away and developed things. The project I’m involved in now, with Lucent Technologies, in fact, has become - well some of it has become - has become a system that’s demonstrated at Bell Labs to clients. But also we’ve been involved in developing an aware system, which is actually running within the distributed Lucent community. That’s been quite interesting!

Abbate:

“Aware” system?

Wilbur:

Awareness! Yes! Okay. . . Awareness is about: When people are collaborating in a kind of collocated environment like this one, we’re kind of aware of what everybody’s doing. You know, if people go along to the tea room, we meet them there; and people pass in the corridor; we’re aware of who is around. In a face-to-face meeting, we’re aware of who’s looking at us, and how people are reacting to what we say—all those are kinds of aspects of awareness, which gives you feedback on how to work with people, and to present opportunities for establishing new collaborations and so forth. And nobody realized that all this was going on until we started looking into CSCW, and people started doing research. And there was some seminal work by - what was the guy’s name? I’ve forgotten now - but anyway, there was some seminal work that established that people who are closely located within a physical environment—in other words, their offices are close together; they share the same coffee room - they are far more likely to collaborate than people who are actually geographically distributed, perhaps on different floors, or different buildings, or whatever. And this led to the whole concept of “awareness” and its importance, and the need to support that kind of awareness in networked collaboration. Okay?

So, an awareness system tries to let you know when some guy has arrived at a remote site, if you’re interested in working with that person. So you try to get hold of Bill, and Bill’s located in Paris at the moment. You’ve sat at your workstation, and you’d really like to know when he comes online, so you can actually get in touch with him. It’s that kind of system. And you use images of people, to figure out when they’re around...

Abbate:

Sort of a virtual coffee room.

Wilbur:

And you’d get perhaps - yes, a glance into the coffee room, to see whether they’re there, and so forth. Yes. I think Xerox have done a lot of work with this, both in the States and in Cambridge.

Abbate:

And do the people have smart badges or something, or do they log in...?

Wilbur:

Some of them do, yes. That’s one of the ideas. I don’t think that that’s worked terribly well because people find that a bit kind of intrusive, you know?

Abbate:

Invasive, I would think. And you could just kind of leave your badge on the desk and go off for a few hours: “Oh yes, she’s working!” [laughs]

Wilbur:

That’s right; that’s the dangers of it, yes!

Abbate:

I think that was the problem when they tried to develop video phones. But anyway...

Women Into Computing Workshops

Wilbur:

But, one aspect of it that I’d like to mention in this context of women in computing is that we used to run Women Into Computing workshops here. We did this for several years - not just myself, but a lady called Hilary Buxton. I don’t know if you’re talking to her, now, are you?

Abbate:

I don’t think I have that name. . . I had a big anthology on Women Into Computing - there was a group of papers published, which - I might know her name from that.

Wilbur:

Well, Hilary Buxton has done very well. She’s a professor down at - Surrey, I think; or is it Sussex? Anyway, I’m sure you could find her. She’s not as old as me [laughs], but I think she probably comes into your time frame. But both she and I were interested in trying to attract more women into computing; so we used to hold these workshops where we invited girls from the local schools to come into the college, and we would set up interesting activities for them on our machines, and give them little talks, and try to generally interest them in computing. And this went on for several years, and then Hilary left, and I carried on.

Abbate:

This was in the ‘80s?

Wilbur:

This is - Yes, late ‘80s, I suppose; mid- to late-’80s. But the problem with it was: A) that it got a bit kind of old-hat, because girls were learning computing at school anyway; but also it was very time-consuming, and required a lot of overhead, in terms of organization and administration, and involving people in the department. So the department got a bit fed up with this, and decided, “Well, enough is enough. We did it for a while. We can’t afford the resources any longer.” So it stopped. And it wasn’t clear what the benefits were, anyway. A lot of people had tried these workshops - with mixed claims about the results: but there was no direct evidence that they actually encouraged girls to come into computing! [laughs]

Well, one day, when I was doing my stuff with video communication research, I had this idea that maybe we could use video communication to link schools, instead of actually bringing girls onto site. If we could have links to the girls in their schools, and involve them on a more regular basis, maybe this would be a better approach. So this is a project that I got funding from BT for. And it seemed to work well. I haven’t been able to follow up on the results. I still don’t know whether it really worked, but the idea was that we would connect local schools in London to us - and to Hilary Buxton’s department - via videoconferencing; and we would organize sessions over the network where they kind of collaborated together, and collaborated with us, and we introduced them - this was just at the start of Web programming and Web pages - so we showed them how to do their own Web pages. And they were really excited by using videoconferencing, and doing Web stuff, and learning; and they got on really well! So, I was very encouraged by this, and it seemed to me a very good use of the technology!

Abbate:

Have you been trying to encourage more women to enter the program here?

Wilbur:

I haven’t done so recently, no, because two years ago I actually took early retirement, and so I haven’t had the same opportunities to apply for funding since then.

Women in Academia

Abbate:

But do you sense that that’s a concern of the department in general? I don’t know what the percentage of women is here, among the students.

Wilbur:

We’ve always been quite fortunate in having higher than average. The national average is, about 20 percent of computer science students are female; and we, at our peak, managed about 30 percent. And certainly some of those women, I know, have gone on to establish good careers. So that’s something that we’ve always been quite proud of. It’s rather fallen by the wayside in the last few years, because Hilary left, and I kind of took early retirement, and Jean [Dollimore]—Jean wasn’t involved so much, but Jean left; so there weren’t so many women around to drive it forward. And we have some new, younger women now. I don’t know whether they’ll carry the flag.

Abbate:

On the faculty, you mean?

Wilbur:

In here, in the department, yes. It’s nice to see some young women coming in! [laughs.] Because I was getting rather worried, because although we were well-represented in the department, we were all getting rather elderly; and I thought, “Well, you know, we need some young women to come through!” And they are starting to come through now, yes.

Abbate:

Has the percentage of women on the faculty increased?

Wilbur:

No, I don’t think so. No. Nationally, it’s not increasing. If anything, it’s going down. And it’s all rather depressing, really.

Abbate:

Why do you suppose that is?

Wilbur:

I think it’s because of the image. Because of the kind of macho, nerdy, work-all-night kind of image that computing has. And also because it is macho, as far as I can tell. You know, in industry. . . There is still quite a lot of sexism in this country. There’s still quite a perception of women as not being really capable of doing that kind of work. And you have to have quite a lot of self-confidence, and be able to put up with a bit of banter from men, in order to succeed - and quite a lot of women don’t choose to do that, I don’t think. They go for easier options.

Abbate:

Have you yourself encountered—I don’t know, discrimination, hostility, sexist comments, or anything?

Wilbur:

Not a great deal, no. I think partly because it’s an academic environment, and because the department has always been a quite liberated department that considered itself non-sexist. So, although I wouldn’t say it’s been straightforward, I can’t honestly say that I’ve encountered a lot of sexist behavior. So yes, I’ve been lucky, I guess.

Abbate:

Not at any place you worked?

Wilbur:

[pause.] Not serious, no. But I think I’ve been fortunate. I’m sure there are a lot of women who do encounter that.

Abbate:

And you’ve almost always been in academic sorts of places...

Wilbur:

Yes, yes. That’s right.

Abbate:

So you think they’re fairly welcoming for women.

Wilbur:

I think they’re more welcoming than industry, yes. [laughs.] But I also believe that you have to. . . I don’t believe in actually “protecting” women, or making it easy for them because of it. I think if we’re going to change the way things are, then we have to do it ourselves, and we have to somehow acquire more self-confidence, more ability to stand up for ourselves and stand up for our rights, and to not accept rubbish from men. I’m firmly convinced of that! It’s we that have to change. We can’t wait for men to change - because they have no interest in changing, to be truthful! [laughs] A Vision for the Teaching of Computer Science

Abbate:

Have you also developed a teaching program here? Do you have some particular vision of what should be taught in computer science?

Wilbur:

Yes. I think we should teach - Obviously programming is the core skill, and that always will have a place; but I think we should also teach the stuff that appeals to students who don’t like programming. There is always a sizable number of students—sometimes the majority—who actually don’t like programming. And if they don’t mind it, they don’t intend to do it for more than a couple of years, because they want to progress. And I firmly believe that, because computing has become such a broad subject now, that we should address some of that breadth—so, for example, I’ve always been keen on teaching networking, when many of my colleagues believed it wasn’t pure computer science. And recently I’ve taught multimedia, including multimedia networking, multimedia applications—giving them other skills, and other forms of knowledge, so that if they don’t want to be Java programmers or C programmers, there are other options open to them. And I believe that a lot of students have found this liberating and kind of stimulating - they’ve told me so. And I really believe this is the right way forward. Computing isn’t just a pure, scientific subject anymore. It takes in all kinds of subjects, right through to how it impacts on people’s work lives, and social lives; and I really think we ought to be taking a broad approach.

Abbate:

So, more of a focus on applications - or more of a connection to. . .?

Wilbur:

A mix. I’m not saying watering things down; I’m not saying, “Just teach them how to use software,” but giving them a wider view of what computing is, and what it’s doing for society and for work. And giving them a range of different skills, not just programming skills.

Abbate:

Have you also been active in professional societies?

Wilbur:

Not particularly. One of my problems has always been shortage of time [laughs]—because I’ve done a lot of studying, you know: after I got my B.Sc., I got my M.Sc., all in my own spare time; and because I have a family, who also mean a lot to me; and I have hobbies. And because I work long hours: I worked, on average, sixty hours a week for many, many years. It doesn’t leave an awful lot of time for doing the more kind of professional work. Had I got to the level of Professor, I probably would have done, you know, as Heather [Liddell] has done. But, because I started my career late, I didn’t. I was 36 when I got my degree, and in my early 40s, I think, when I became a Lecturer. Because I started late, I never got to be a Professor, I think; so I never got on to that stage of my career, if you like.

Work – Life Balance

Abbate:

How did you manage to balance. . . You have three children, you said?

Wilbur:

Two children.

Abbate:

Two children.

Wilbur:

Yes. With great difficulty! [laughs]

Abbate:

Work and family: How did that work?

Wilbur:

Great difficulty, yes! [laughing] I don’t know; I’ve always been fortunate in that I have a lot of stamina, and I can work long hours, and I can juggle lots of things. And when I was. . . I remember quite clearly, when I was studying for my first degree, I used to do that while I was kind of with the children, looking at the television; because my first husband wasn’t at all helpful, and he would go off upstairs and do his bit of studying, but I would be stuck with the children, so I would be kind of doing a bit of maths while kind of talking to the children! [laughs.] So I guess I learned to kind of multiprogram in my head quite well! That marriage didn’t last very long. Well, it lasted 17 years, but I remarried when I went to University College.

Abbate:

And your second husband was more supportive, in terms of sort of sharing a bit?

Wilbur:

Yes. Well of course, by that time the children were growing up, and I hadn’t had any more children by him, so it was a different situation; but he’s definitely more supportive, yes. And because he is an academic, he appreciates the long hours I have to work, and he’s very obviously very tolerant -and yes, he’s been a great help, yes!

Abbate:

And I guess you mentioned your mother...

Wilbur:

Yes! I’ve been very fortunate that my mother was there to help me by looking after the children when they came out from school for a couple of hours. I’ve been very lucky, I think.

Abbate:

Are your children also interested in computing?

Wilbur:

No. [laughs.] But their children are!

Abbate:

Interesting.

Wilbur:

I think to some extent they maybe kind of rebelled against it.

Abbate:

Really?

Wilbur:

I think children sometimes do that, yes.

Abbate:

Did you already tell me what your husband did? I don’t remember.

Wilbur:

My first husband was...yes, he worked in an office; and my second husband is...he’s an academic, at University College.

Abbate:

But he’s not actually in computers, so. . .

Wilbur:

Yes - in computer science, yes.

Abbate:

Oh, he is in computer science.

Wilbur:

He’s now Head of Department in computer science, yes.

Abbate:

So no wonder your children want to strike out on their own! [laughs.]

Wilbur:

Yes! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did you have any important role models or mentors that sort of helped you get on this track?

Wilbur:

No. . . . Or I don’t think I was aware of any until that time, really. No.

Abbate:

Have you tried to mentor female students that you have?

Wilbur:

We don’t have a kind of formal mentor system here. I’ve tried very hard both to encourage - to encourage female students and female staff who are in the department. They don’t rely on my encouragement, because they have their own ideas anyway! But insofar as I can help them, I will do it. [laughs]

But I have tried very much to help the female students, both in tutoring them and when they’ve had problems. To what extent I am able to, I will help them, and encourage them to keep going when things are tough.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are contemplating a career in computing?

Wilbur:

Yes. Don’t expect it to be easy; expect it to be tough; expect to come across problems - but just keep going! Yes. And you’ll have a really worthwhile, rewarding, and exciting, and interesting career! [laughs.] It never ceases to excite me and interest me - because it’s progressing all the time; it doesn’t get boring; it doesn’t get stale. And there are so many opportunities, if you only just look for them!

The Most Satisfying thing About Computing

Abbate:

Is that the most satisfying thing about computing for you? That it’s always changing?

Wilbur:

Yes. Because I like change, and because it offers so many challenges, and I like challenges. So you can’t just sit back. If you want an easy life, okay, you could be a programmer, I suppose—you know, in an office or something; but it won’t be interesting. Coding can be excessively boring, if you do it for years on end! [laughs]

Abbate:

I guess you’ve seen both sides of that!

Wilbur:

[laughs.] Yes! That’s right, yes.

Noting the Changes in the Field

Abbate:

How do you think the field has changed over the course of your involvement with it, in terms of technology, or how computers are used, or the sort of culture of it?

Wilbur:

Well, when I started, it was all about mathematics and science, and calculations. Now it’s very much about work, and life, and it’s invading every aspect of life! So now it’s about people, and collaboration, and changing things: changing organizations, changing society...

And I think there is a bad side to this, as well as a good side; and we have to be very much aware of the potential dangers. This kind of image of everybody just staying indoors, and doing all their shopping via the Internet, and just using chat rooms or email to chat with their friends, and never going outside [laughs] - the kind of extreme image that’s sometimes portrayed, I think is a quite terrifying one, because we all need personal interaction with other people; we all need to be part of things, you know. So we have to be very much aware of the dangers, but also ready to exploit the benefits, I think.

Abbate:

Do you think the culture of computing has changed? In terms of the type of people who are computer professionals, and the atmosphere, or the. . .?

Wilbur:

Well, it was always, in my experience, a profession where people moved across from other areas. Early computer science academics were originally engineers, or mathematicians, or physicists, who’d got interested and moved across. And now, with the Web and the Internet, an awful lot of people from all kinds of walks of life are moving across, because they see the opportunities, and they’re excited by the opportunities. So you get architects, and all kinds of people are just moving into the area!

Abbate:

So it’s a kind of continuity, in a way. . .

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right; yes. And I guess that’s part of the interest, because people bring their background and their knowledge of other domains into the area, and that’s how it moves forward.

Abbate:

So computing is not really just about computers; it’s about all this other stuff. The applications...

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right. It’s about how people work; and about organizations, how they function; and that whole nature of work. . . All kinds of interesting stuff! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well that’s interesting, because I think the perception is more - if people think about going into computer science, they think about just machines, and being in a room with a machine all day...

Wilbur:

Yes! And that’s what puts a lot of girls off. Yes. They think it’s just about poring over a machine, and looking a mess, and working all hours, and not talking to people. And being antisocial - because that’s the kind of image that’s often portrayed! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Do you think that’s truer in industry?

Wilbur:

Well I don’t have a lot of experience, really, of industry. I think there are an awful lot of brash young men in IT now, whose main aim is to climb the ladder very quickly and make lots of money. There are also a lot of young man who are like the young men were in my young day, which was: they’re just fascinated by the whole thing of programming, and the innards of computers, and just want to spend all their time doing it - and there are really actually some of them who are quite antisocial. So there are all these different kinds of people. . . But I do think that yes, it is changing in industry: because it’s becoming so much an integral part of the organization and the organization’s strategy and direction, and underpinning the way that the company makes profits, and its competitiveness, and all those kinds of aspects, it’s bringing a new type of person into the area.

Abbate:

And that would be a male type of person?

Wilbur:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

This is a question I sort of wonder about. You know, there’s some evidence that the percentage of women has actually been going down since the mid-’80s; and I’m wondering if that’s because more men are coming in, or fewer women, or some combination. So part of it might be that more men are interested, because it’s got more status.

Wilbur:

Yes. And also the more ambitious kind of man, who’s just interested in getting on, and not particularly interested in helping women come in, and encouraging them. Yes. Certainly. I think that’s true, yes. Whenever I get - I’ve been to many conferences, both academic conferences and conferences where people from industry go, and I’m . . . .

[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

Wilbur:

The only exception to that is the CSCW conferences - and this is because there are a lot of social scientists involved in the area, and a lot of those are women. But if I go to a conference on networking, or e-commerce more recently, or multimedia, or any of those subjects in which I’m interested: it’s 95 percent men.

Abbate:

Is that the same...

Wilbur:

Sometimes I’ve been the only woman.

Abbate:

Is that the same in the U.K. and the United States? Is there any difference that you can tell?

Wilbur:

I don’t think there’s much difference, no. I go to a lot of conference in the States, or have been, until recently. Yes, it’s about the same.

Abbate:

Hmm…Now that seems odd - I mean, at the academic conferences - because the percentage of women in academic computer science is higher than that.

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right. Yes.

Abbate:

It’s 20 or 25 percent? Something like that?

Wilbur:

Yes. I’ve actually been very disappointed, because I thought things were different in America - but I haven’t actually perceived a lot of difference, really.

Abbate:

I don’t know if you know Anita Borg at Stanford - or actually she’s at, I guess she’s at Xerox PARC now.

Wilbur:

No, I don’t think I know her.

Abbate:

She started this group called Systers—S-Y-S-T-E-R-S—

Wilbur:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

...and she described to me that she had been at a conference, and that all the women got together in the ladies’ room one day, and discussed why there weren’t more women there; and then they started this group as a result of that.

Wilbur:

Right! Yes! [laughs]

Abbate:

So, I guess her experience wasn’t that different. It wasn’t that long ago.

Women’s Difficulty to Move beyond the Lectureship Level

Wilbur:

So, I really don’t know what we do about it, actually. It’s very disappointing, but I don’t know. And in my darkest moments I think, “Well, maybe it’s wrong to try and get more women into the industry, anyway, because some of them have such a hard time; maybe they’re better off going off into other areas.” But I don’t think that very often! [laughs]

Abbate:

I think industry’s really a different environment. But, for - at least for the academic side, because that’s where your experience is - I mean, would you discourage women from going into academic computer science?

Wilbur:

No, no I wouldn’t.

Abbate:

You don’t think they would have a hard time there, so there’s no reason not to have them there.

Wilbur:

No. I think it’s fairer in academic circles, yes. I mean, it’s still true, though, that it’s quite easy to become a Lecturer, or even a Senior Lecturer; it’s a darn sight harder to become a Professor. But again, that’s part of how the academic system works - largely by a system of patronage, where Professors choose a more junior member of staff as a kind of protégé, and encourage them, and bring them along. And it’s obviously harder for a male Professor to do that with a female member of staff, I think. They’re more than likely to choose a man from the staff. I mean, Heather has done very well; she’s a Professor, but I think - I don’t know whether she mentioned it - I think there’s only two percent of academic professors who are female - and that’s not just in computer science.

Abbate:

I didn’t realize it was that low.

Wilbur:

Yes. It’s very low, yes.

Abbate:

So, is that sort of the point where - up to the level of Professor it seems more or less...

Wilbur:

It’s fairly easy, I would say, yes. It seems to me it’s fairly. . .

Abbate:

I mean, the percentage of women who enter is more or less the percentage who rise to be Senior Lecturer?

Wilbur:

I don’t have any hard statistics on that, but my impression is that it’s not too hard to get the first steps of promotion to a Senior Lecturer; yes. But then it gets an awful lot harder.

Abbate:

I should find some statistics on that.

Wilbur:

I really don’t think it’s necessarily conscious, kind of holding down of women; it just tends to be the way the system works.

Abbate:

And that would probably be true of ethnic minorities, as well?

Wilbur:

Yes, that’s right, yes.

Abbate:

That’s kind of a whole different issue. . . All right! Well, I think you’ve answered all my questions. It’s been very interesting!

Wilbur:

Well, it’s been very enjoyable!

Abbate:

Thank you so much for talking to me!

Wilbur:

Okay!