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Oral-History:Telle Whitney

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Revision as of 15:17, 9 May 2014

Contents

About Telle Whitney

Telle Whitney is currently the CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Whitney earned her Bachlors in Computer Science from the University of Utah in 1978 and a Ph.D from Caltech in 1985. After graduating from Caltech she moved to Silicon Valley to design computer chips and the software that support them. Over her career she has held senior technical management positions at Actel and Malleable Technologies and was the Vice President of the Canadian company PMC-Sierra.

Since 2001, she has been associated with the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. First as an advisor, then Interim President, and then in 2002 she was named as President and CEO. Under her leadership, the Institute has expanded its scope nationally and internationally. Its global expansion is best represented by holding its Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference in India in 2010.

In this interview Whitney goes into detail about her college career at University of Utah and Caltech. She describes why she moved to Silicon Valley after graduating and her experiences of working for different companies. She ends the interview by discussing her leaving the corporate world and starting at the Anita Borg Institute. At the time of the interview she had only been Interim President of the Institute for 6 months. Throughout the interview she articulates her experiences as a woman at each stage of her career.

About the Interview

TELLE WHITNEY: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, July 16, 2002.

Interview #633 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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

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

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

Telle Whitney, an oral history conducted in 2001 by IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Telle Whitney
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 16, July 2002
PLACE: Whitney’s office in Palo Alto, California

Family

Abbate:

It’s July 16, 2002, and I’m talking with Telle Whitney.

Whitney:

This is Telle Whitney, President of the Institute for Women and Technology.

Abbate:

I always start at the very beginning, so could you tell me when you were born and where did you grow up?

Whitney:

I was born in 1956 in Salt Lake City, Utah. My family is a long Mormon family. I’m descended from Brigham Young.

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Whitney:

Yes, half of Utah’s descended from Brigham Young! [laughs.] I’m long since not practicing. I did move to Southern California when I was seven, and I spent about half of my life in Southern California. I moved back to Utah when I was fifteen, when my mother died.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Whitney:

My father is a lawyer. My mother was a housewife, primarily, but had gone back to be a teacher—had gotten her teaching credentials—shortly before she died. My stepmother was a piano teacher; a musician.

Abbate:

What did your mother teach?

Whitney:

History. She loved history.

Abbate:

And did you have brothers and sisters?

Whitney:

I have two sisters, but they’re in the “yours, mine, and ours” family that I ended up in, there are seven of us. I have one stepbrother, two stepsisters, a half-sister, and then two sister—so lots of girls.

Abbate:

Did any of them go into anything technical?

Whitney:

Not at all! [laughs.] Not even remotely technical. My family . . . I mean, in this day and age, they’ve all now got computers, so I can send email to all of them; but it’s very much the liberal arts, humanities, and not technical at all.

College and Working with Computers

Abbate:

Were you interested in math or science from an early age?

Whitney:

No. The way that I got into technology is that, first of all, I was very good at math. Math came very easily to me, and I took it and really aced it and didn’t have to work at it at all. Somewhere in high school—I was a pretty headstrong little girl—I decided that math was not worth anything, and you couldn’t really do anything with it, and I stopped taking it.

When I went to college, I went to the University of Utah, which was local, and it was a pretty good state school. I started in theater and then moved around and almost dropped out of school, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I took what they call an “interest test,” an interest inventory test, after about two years in college, and unlike most people—this is not a common experience—but for me, computer technology was head and shoulders about anything else. So it was like I was handed it on a silver platter, and I took my first class. That would have been around seventy-six.

Abbate:

Because of that test, you decided to take it?

Whitney:

That’s right! I took a COBOL class. Are you familiar with COBOL?

Abbate:

Oh, yes.

Whitney:

And I loved it! I’m very passionate about what I do, and that’s such a great way to start, because I chose what I do. It’s because I love it; I didn’t do it because my parents wanted me to. It really was a passion from the time I started. I’ve always loved it.

Abbate:

The first time you got to use a computer, what kind of computer would that have been?

Whitney:

It was a UNIVAC. I don’t remember the name anymore. In my undergraduate computer science curriculum, we had punch cards: you typed them up, and you turned them in, and then you got back a listing, and you evaluated your programming, and then you resubmitted it; and that’s how you programmed it! Very much the whole old mainframe model.

Abbate:

So you never got to actually go near the machine?

Whitney:

No, I didn’t. Not as an undergraduate, but when I took my first job: I took a year off after my undergraduate and I went to work for UNIVAC. The reason we had a UNIVAC machine, and the reason I went to work for UNIVAC, is that they were local in Salt Lake City.

I worked for a networking project for the Israeli Army. It was a really cool little project; it sort of set the theme for the fact that I love working on innovative new projects, and that was the first time I had done that. They convinced the powers that be that they were going to redevelop their operating system! [laughs.] Everything from scratch! In hindsight, it was a really stupid project; but it was a great first job, because we got to sit in front of the computer, with the switches, and we had a debugger that we actually could [use to interact with the computer in] hex: you’d input hex into the computer. I certainly got a very good understanding of how computers worked from the ground up, with that first job. So it was a great experience.

Abbate:

Weren’t they doing a lot of graphics at Utah? Or was that not something you did?

Whitney:

Actually, yes. Rich Riesenfeld: I took [his course]. I loved computer graphics, and in particular I had this hankering to work on CAD, which at the time really meant, to me, architecture CAD. I had a friend who was working in architecture, and that just seemed really neat. I had taken a computer graphics course taught by a man named Rich Riesenfeld, who was at the time was one of the faculty members there. It’s interesting, because his wife is also on the faculty there, a woman named Elaine Cohen, and I think that he had a real awareness of women who worked in technology, and he noticed me in the class. I was a little geek and I was very nervous and I didn’t notice him, but he noticed me, and he introduced me to a man named Ivan Sutherland, who was, at that time, starting a computer science department at Cal Tech. Rich introduced me to Ivan—so Rich was really in essence my first mentor, and he really believed in me where I would never have even considered doing something like that. He introduced me to Ivan, and through Ivan I was accepted at Cal—the California Institute of Technology—for graduate school. I turned them down! [laughs.] I had some personal things, and I said, “I need to take a year off,” and I took a year off. Then I went back to them, and they let me go in, and so I went out there to go to graduate school.

Graduate School at Caltech

Abbate:

They must have really wanted you!

Whitney:

Well, I hope so; yes! I mean, it’s a great school. It’s a very odd school, but it’s a great school. But they were really just starting up their department, and I came [well recommended]. This is all in hindsight, but Rich gave me a remarkable recommendation, and he convinced somebody else there to give me a remarkable recommendation, and with those two recommendations they wanted me—because my academic credentials weren’t that great. From the time I chose computer science, I had straight A’s; but prior to that I certainly didn’t! [laughs.] It was a calling for me. But Cal Tech is a remarkable school. You know, there’s many places where it would be very difficult to get in there, and I’m sure I was fortunate, because it was really just starting out, in terms of a program.

So that’s where I did my graduate work. I took a year, then went to graduate school there, and had a truly remarkable graduate student experience. My master’s thesis advisor was Ivan Sutherland, and I worked on a CAD project—although it was CAD for integrated circuits; chips. Really, most of my professional life has been working on chips, but that was the first place.

And then Ivan had the audacity to leave! [laughs.]

Abbate:

In the middle of your . . . ?

Whitney:

When I’d just been there for a year. I mean, I went there to be with him, and he left—and reminded me that he had no commitment to stay for me! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did he go to ARPA at that point?

Whitney:

Where did Ivan go? He and Bob Sproull have had a kind of a partnership for years, and I think at that time he went out to CMU. He knocked around a bit, and they did some consulting—Sutherland, Sproull, and Associates—for quite a few years, and he’s at Sun now, as a Fellow. Both Ivan and Bob Sproull are there. I see Ivan on occasion, but I haven’t seen him, recently.

But my Ph.D. thesis advisor, the person whom I went to work with subsequently, was Carver Mead. He’s kind of the father of VLSI [very large scale integration]. He’s a fairly well-known figure within computer science, and in fact he’s getting one of the Computer History Museum’s Pioneer Awards this fall.

So I worked with him. Quite a remarkable man! My Ph.D. thesis was on representation for circuits for chips, so that’s really what the bulk of my work was. I was there for six years.

Abbate:

Graphical representation, or numerical?

Whitney:

Well, more like a model. I think of it as a way of modeling transistors; so part of what I did was develop a graphical user interface for that internal model. This was, at this time, one of the hot topics. If you look at chips: there’s these boxes and wires that go and get laid down, and there are a bunch of different levels that really form, together, the transistors; and the way that things are done is that you really do all of your design description on the computer, and then there’s a whole bunch of numerical crunching that happens that really lays the groundwork, and then you “tape out,” which means you send these big tapes off to a fabrication house. (You don’t send tapes anymore, but they still call it “tape out”! [laughs.]) And by having these representations, you can really ensure that all of those boxes coherently stay together in a reasonable fashion. If you don’t—if you just have a bunch of boxes—you don’t know that right here there is the transistor; so there’s things you can’t do, that you could do if you knew that fact.

Abbate:

Is that sort of object-oriented, in a way?

Whitney:

It is . . .

Abbate:

I mean, you wouldn’t call it that; but in the sense that instead of having just a physical design, you have an idea of what all the functions are? I don’t know.

Whitney:

No, that’s absolutely true, actually! Exactly right. And in fact, it was object-oriented: at Cal Tech we were programming in Simula, which was one of the earliest object-oriented programming languages; so most of my programming career I’ve done object-oriented, long before it was cool. Simula—and MAINSAIL.

Abbate:

What was that other one?

Whitney:

MAINSAIL was a language that was created at Stanford (and there was a small company that supported it) that allowed you to do object-oriented programming. C++ did not exist.

Abbate:

Right.

Whitney:

I think the company name was Xidak: X-I-D-A-K. Thing is, it got pretty much replaced by C++, because C++ was free. You could just go out and get it anywhere, and MAINSAIL you had to pay for. They were really offering the development environment.

So, I was at Cal Tech. Now, even though my Ph.D. was on CAD representation for chips, Carver, during the course while I was there, really moved more into the neural net area; so most of my colleagues, the people that I worked with, were doing very different things. They were really more on this neural net thing, and there was this cool lab where they were building computer eyes and computer ears. [laughs.]

Abbate:

This was the mid-’80’s, right? You got the Ph.D. in ‘85?

Whitney:

‘85; that’s right. So I was at Cal Tech from ‘79 to ‘85, and it was just this wonderful time. These are some of the smartest people on earth at this place. Carver had lots of money—he was very well-funded—so I’d go to conferences in Europe and he’d be able to pay for that. I’d have a paper submitted, so I’d go over there and present these papers; but I’d never been to Europe, and I got to go there. There was a very interesting community going on, and the chips were really just happening, so hanging out with Carver, I met [everyone]. John Doerr was around—I mean, I’ve worked at Silicon Compilers, and was the President of that company; and Jim Clark was just presenting his first chip, the graphics chip that went off and became Silicon Graphics. It was a very heady time; it was exciting; and I loved all of that! It was really interesting.

Now: that’s all the intellectual side. I have to tell you that being at Cal Tech and being one of the few women there was incredibly challenging! [laughs.]

Impact of Gender on Early Career

Abbate:

I was wondering.

Whitney:

As a woman who went to Cal Tech, you just got automatically got all of this attention. All sorts: students and [faculty]. All these people with their left brain—the intellectual side—over-developed, and their social side: they had no social skills. I’d walk into the room, and whatever I said, went. It’s a very odd kind of environment.

There were not a lot of women in the Cal Tech program. There were a few. Sally Browning predated me by a few years; she really had come in with this whole group of people, and they kind of kept to themselves, and so she was always friendly, but busy. There were a few that came in after me that I still see on occasion. Lynette Dyer: do you know her?

Abbate:

No.

Whitney:

There was a magazine: there’s the academic side of women and there’s the more industry side, and a few years ago there was an article on the fifty best women or something; top-notch entrepreneurs. Fortune, I think it was. Anyway, Lynette Dyer was one of them, and she was an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. She’s now in New York, I think. I haven’t talked to her recently. Marion Mayer, who went on to do MEMS [Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems] work. I think she’s at a small start-up doing some sort of MEMS work, which is these little micromachines. Really cool! But there weren’t very many around, and most women I knew would get themselves attached to a man, and that helped, because if you were a single woman: God forbid! I don’t think I had ever realized, up till that time, how much I counted on my female friends—a network. For me, when I discovered computer science, it was exciting, and it was enriching, and it was intellectually stimulating; I didn’t really consider the fact that I was the only woman sitting in this room. It just was somewhat irrelevant.

Abbate:

So there weren’t a lot of women at Utah, either, in terms of computer science and engineering?

Whitney:

No. The COBOL teacher was a woman, so there were a few women around; but there weren’t very many women. Years later when I went to work, I ran into a guy who had been on the faculty there, and he had noticed me. I mean, everywhere you went, people knew who you were! [laughs.] You were just noticed! At Cal Tech there was something called the Silicon Structures Project: we had these ten or twelve companies, and they’d send these people to come out twice a year to all of us little graduate students, and we had to get up and present our work. So there were all these people in industry, and without exception, they noticed me! I mean, I was the oddity in this group; in the Silicon Structures I probably was the only woman. But, being 22—I was 22 to 29 while I was at Cal—I just assumed that I would be judged on my work. [laughs.]

Abbate:

And was that more or less true, in grad school at least?

Whitney:

Well, ultimately, I was given the Ph.D. for the work I was doing; and when you talked to people, it was a technical conversation. But I think the faculty really liked the idea of having a female student. That was kind of a straw in their cap. So at some level, I was wooed to being their student! [laughs.] I do think that’s true.

Abbate:

Had your parents encouraged you? Did they think this was great, or strange?

Whitney:

They always were [supportive]. You know, it was my father and stepmother, and because I didn’t go to live with them till I was fifteen, it was not always a smooth relationship; but they were always very supportive of this. They thought it was wonderful that I was doing this. I mean, to go to Cal Tech was just a phenomenal opportunity. My father had been in law school and was well-educated. Yes, they were very supportive of it.

They don’t, to this day, really understand what I do. I’ve spent many an hour trying to explain what I do, but they don’t really understand it! [laughs.] I worked in an FPGA company for years, and chip companies are pretty esoteric, and so to try to explain to one’s parents what [one does is difficult].

Abbate:

Now, what is FPGA?

Whitney:

Field-Programmable Gate Array.

Abbate:

Ah! Okay.

Whitney:

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So: at Cal Tech, they were supportive of me being there, and it was a great experience, and I would not trade it for a million years. On the other hand, one of the main impetuses for me to move to the Bay Area, which I did in ‘86, was to meet interesting women.

Career in Silicon Valley

Abbate:

Why did you think you would meet them in the Bay Area?

Whitney:

Well, because there was a professional world up here, and I just thought that I would.

Abbate:

Because there are more computer people in general?

Whitney:

Silicon Valley was up here, and I worked in [the chip area]. I wanted to live near San Francisco; I liked the whole chip industry; but I also thought that in the work world, I would get to know some interesting women. And in fact, the way that I met Anita [Borg] was: the first year that I was here, I was working in a research lab. The wife of my boss had a Stanford Ph.D. in Computer Science, and she had introduced me to a few people at Stanford. I had gone up there to a panel, and I had met Barbara Simons there—that was my first connection—and we had had dinner with a big group of people after that panel. I subsequently went to my boss’s house for a Halloween party, and Barbara Simons was there with Anita. I had had a little bit too much to drink—or at least enough to drink so that I had gotten my nerve up—and I approached Barbara and Anita, and I said “Hi, we’re going to be friends!” [laughs.] And we were! At that point, there was a number of women Ph.D.s, and we got together once a month for dinner, and I got to know both Anita and Barbara better. Anita and I over time became much closer friends than Barbara and I, although I know Barbara well and really enjoy her; but Anita and I have just got to know each other a lot better.

Abbate:

What was the first job that you had?

Whitney:

It’s an interesting story. I had the world on my fingertips, and I went out and I went interviewing, and I got good at it. I had seven job offers: a couple from universities; IBM’s Watson Research Center; Bell Labs; and the Schlumberger Palo Alto Research Center, which was this really cool little research place. It had top-notch talent. They had Dick Lyon there, who did the optical mouse, and did computer modeling of ears, and had done some really interesting things. They had some pretty good people there! So I joined there in 1986, in January. In June of that year, Schlumberger really realized that they didn’t want to be in the computer business, so they fired the Lab Director, and they started withdrawing. I left a year after that, so I was there for only eighteen months, and they closed the lab a year after that. So it kind of showed me that you can think—I mean, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to do, and there was nothing I could do about that! [laughs.]

From Schlumberger Palo Alto Research Center, which is very close to here, I went to Actel, which at that time was making something called FPGAs. It’s a chip company. Have you ever heard of Xilinx?

Abbate:

Yes.

Whitney:

Okay; so it’s like Xilinx. The idea is that you have a set of gates that exist—do you know what a gate is?

Abbate:

Yes, a logic gate.

Whitney:

Yes. So you have a set of gates on a chip that are uncommitted, so a user can decide, after the chip was fabricated, what function they want it to do.

When I joined Actel, it was thirty people. It really had some good ideas. I was coming in as a young engineer—I’d had my Ph.D. for a year and a half—and I stayed there for eleven years and really built my career at Actel. We did a lot of technical work; we did a lot of chip development; and I moved into management. I found that I had a real knack for that, and I can cross [boundaries]: with my technical background and my people skills, I can really pull those two together in a way that is pretty unique. I do think that as a general rule, women tend to be better at some of those communication things.

Actel served me well, and I was there for a long time. It was during that time that Anita and I founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which was her brainchild.

Abbate:

Did Systers [the mailing list for women in computer systems research] come first?

Whitney:

Systers came first. Systers came in 1987. She had been at this conference and started to network with some people, and it just grew—it literally almost had a life of its own. Kind of a cool thing!

Abbate:

She told me a story about meeting in the women’s room! [laughs.]

Whitney:

Her idea for the conference was that we could bring together and really celebrate the achievements of technical women, and I said, “Okay, we can do this!” She was still at DEC, and we sat down in a restaurant, and we had a blank sheet of paper. Neither one of us had ever done a conference before, and we just sort of looked at each other, and we started! It’s like anything in life: you just start! [laughs.] And it grew from there.

You know, we were very fortunate. CRA, the Computer Research Association, agreed to underwrite it, which was really the thing that you couldn’t do from scratch. You needed a big organization to underwrite it, and ACM sent us all this paperwork, and CRA just said, “We’ll underwrite it”; and with that, we could then set a date, and we could set a hotel, and we could start calling people that she knew. On that first conference, we had Fran Allen speak, and Ruzena Bajcsy, and Irene Greif, and Susan Graham; it was really these top-notch, very technical women who’d been around for a long time, and it was phenomenal. I had worked in the chip industry my whole professional life, and loved it: I really love the work that I do; I love building chips; I love seeing things come to fruition. But to walk into a room with all these women—I mean, nine times out of ten I’m the only woman in the room, and I have been most of my professional life, and it was just something that was both moving and very different.

So: the Grace Hopper celebration started in 1994, while I was still at Actel. Then I left. I had ended up in management—I became a Director at Actel, which was significant—and then wanted to do a start-up, so I left Actel and joined this small start-up called Malleable Technologies [in 1998]. It was a chip start-up—in the telecommunications industry, although when I joined, we didn’t know that. Once again, it was: somebody I knew, a smart guy, had a cool chip idea, and I felt like I could come in and help develop the product. I was the fourth person there, part of the founding management team, VP of Engineering. I took it from four people to forty. We sold out to a company called PMC-Sierra, and it was successful, according to most criteria for success.

Now, PMC-Sierra: about six months after I got there, the market itself started to fall apart. We sold in June of 2000—a good time; a great time—and I didn’t want to sell. I mean, I’ve never been in it [for the money]. It’s nice to make money, but that was never my driving force, and I would have liked to have seen us make a go of it. In hindsight, we wouldn’t have! The market for this product—it was voice-over-packet, basically taking voice and putting it out over the Internet—hasn’t really taken off. That product got killed by PMC-Sierra a year later; they basically took a massive write-off for the Malleable acquisition and laid off all my team a year later. They bought eight start-ups, and they did that with virtually all of them. Eight start-ups in one year, and they basically laid them all off, except for one. The economic climate just changed.

Technical Discussion of FPGAs and the Computer Chip Market in General

Abbate:

I’m going to go back a little bit.

Whitney:

Sure.

Abbate:

I want you to tell me what’s really special about programmable chips—FPGAs. I remember people telling me, “Oh, there are these new chips, and you can program them.” Now, is that an efficiency boost? What’s the appeal of doing it that way, rather than using chips that you can’t do anything to?

Whitney:

Okay. It’s easiest to think about it in terms of the computer market; the computers on your desk. The thing that’s interesting about chips is that they’re useful if they’re in high volumes. If you have a CPU, you know that you can design the CPU and you’re going to sell millions of them; so that works. So you build a chip; Intel builds those. Memory: same thing. Everybody knows you need memory, so you can build zillions of them. The hard part is everything else. So you might get—this isn’t really true, but this is the easiest example—Dell might want their motherboard to look a lot different than Compaq, so that they can differentiate with capabilities that they are offering; so they want to build some functionality that makes them unique, from Dell to Compaq. Now, with motherboards, that’s not really true. But if you think about it in terms of Cisco versus Juniper: if you bought a router from them, this board, they’re going to have specific functionality on that that makes them unique—that’s going to differentiate them, that really is the reason why their customers are buying them. So you’ve got a couple of choices. On the one hand, you’ve got what they call ASICs. For an ASIC design, you decide, “Okay, this is the functionality: I want this design to take a packet in here; to scramble the header of the packet, or sort it according to some criteria; and then ship it out.” To design an ASIC, you have to sit down, figure out what the functionality is, and go through this significant design process—which typically, no matter what the functionality is, takes about a year—and out the other end you get a chip that does exactly that. And often it doesn’t work! You ship it off to fabrication; it comes back; and there were these boo-boos, and so you have to try to fix the boo-boos. It’s a significant investment in terms of development time. On the other hand, if you can buy an FPGA, you actually design that same set of logic, and you push a button, and you literally get it back at that point.

Abbate:

So people can design their own chip and fix it by trial and error ?

Whitney:

Yes, exactly right! It’s a fast-turnaround device, where once you’ve designed the logic, you can get it back instantaneously. It’s instant gratification. Once again, going back to companies like Cisco, where time to market is everything, an FPGA can just be a godsend.

Now, that doesn’t come for free. The trade-off is in speed and power, typically. If you build an ASIC, you really can build a wire that goes from Point A to Point B; whereas if you’re on an FPGA, there are structures in there that route that wire in real time. These are active elements on the path that really make it slower, and they are going to consume more power. Not only that, you’ve got these gates. On an ASIC, since you know “This is an AND gate, and this is a NAND gate, and this is an OR gate,” you just put those down; whereas on an FPGA, they’re really configurable gates, so you put down these blocks that can become an AND gate, a NAND gate, a flip-flop, or whatever else, and that flexibility is going to take up more room. Something that on an ASIC would give you a hundred thousand gates, you might get ten thousand gates in an FPGA; so it’s really about an order of magnitude, in terms of density.

Abbate:

Is it possible to prototype on an FPGA and then do the production model on an ASIC?

Whitney:

Absolutely! I mean, people do all the time. But FPGA companies are betting on the fact that nine times out of ten, you like the fact that you can do that, but in actual fact you won’t! [laughs.] Because you’re always being pushed, in this market of rapid change; you can always do the next better thing. To be successful as a chip company in the FPGA business, you need the volume, and so you don’t really want people to prototype and then go to ASIC. It’s a losing battle if you do that.

Abbate:

Are they affordable enough so that if you’re a researcher somewhere, you can buy them and just sort of play around with them experimentally? You don’t have to be a big corporation?

Whitney:

Absolutely. I have a good friend who’s a researcher at the University of Utah: they do something called asynchronous design or self-timed systems, and they use FPGAs all the time. Now, for a researcher, what they do is: If you go to Xilinx, they have the newest and hottest and best product, which costs, usually, a thousand dollars for a chip, and it’s got two million gates and all these really exciting features. [But] for a researcher, you buy the two-thousand-gate chip, which is really cheap; I think these days it’s probably a dollar.

Abbate:

So you could have your students buy them?

Whitney:

Absolutely. Not only can you, but Actel and Xilinx and Altera have set them up [to use in courses], because logic design courses these days are taught with FPGAs.

Abbate:

And of course you want them to learn yours!

Whitney:

Of course! [laughs.] Apple got that model down really pat! And it is so true, that if you go into industry . . . Actel, it turns out, unfortunately, is not a big player. It’s really Xilinx and Altera who are the two big players, and Actel has really ended up in more of a niche market. But Xilinx and Altera: people know how to do their designs using those parts, and they’re not interchangeable, and it’s hard to go back and forth; so if you can get them to know how to use your parts, you’ve got them hooked.

It’s an interesting business. But business trends being what they are . . . When I joined Actel in ‘87, all things were possible. This market wasn’t defined; Xilinx and Actel were the same size; and nobody really understood how they would be used—and that’s a really exciting time to be in the marketplace, when you think everything’s possible. Now it’s not. Now it’s a commodity market. That’s what happens in all markets; that’s the cycle.

Abbate:

If you’re any good! [laughs.]

Whitney:

Right! This is the time where, when you go offering products in that marketplace, it’s strictly, “Are you better? Are you faster? Cheaper? Higher density?” That’s it. That’s not to say that there are not innovations, but they’re not nearly as cool as when you’re early on.

Abbate:

Additional Details of Career

Were there some particular high points of your time at Actel?

Whitney:

Well, the really exciting time at Actel: we did the largest FPGA in the world! That was called the 1280. We were a year late. [laughs.] It was a small team, and there were all these politics going on in the management that I was kind of oblivious to. We were designing this chip: my Ph.D. thesis was about transistor-level representation for chips, and what I was doing at Actel was developing this program that helped to generate large portions of the chip, and so we were just doing [what I had described in my thesis].

There was three of us that worked very closely together, and it was very interactive. I remember sitting in this room with four computers, and just rolling on a chair and moving between those computers and doing four different things at the same time, trying to get this chip out! [laughs.] You know, at the time it was massive; we were breaking every single software program that was out there. There was Cadence software, and it wouldn’t run on our size chip: there wasn’t enough disk, and there wasn’t enough memory, and there wasn’t enough time, and it would bomb, and it was crazy-making. But it was really exciting. I mean, there is nothing more exhilarating than trying to create this chip. It’s like giving birth! It is; it’s like giving birth, and then it comes out, and it worked! And it was the dominant chip in the marketplace at the time. It was the biggest chip out there. That was pretty exciting.

I had a similar experience at Malleable, where we did the chip.

Abbate:

And those were also FPGAs, but for communications?

Whitney:

No, they weren’t FPGAs. There’s not even a real term for it, but the technology that we had at Malleable was this programmable processor. It was a proprietary processor—you know, a processor like the Intel—and this had these three data paths that did a unique set of functions on this chip, and they did a particular class of algorithms really well. There were six of them—or maybe four; it’s hard for me to remember—and then there were some I/O systems. So we had to create the processor, and then we had to program it to process voice. So it was different! But it had some of the same characteristics. The processor was brand new; nobody had done anything like that; and we needed to do it quickly. We were using more of a semi-custom design flow, as opposed to custom: at Actel, you literally had to put down every single transistor—my program, or somebody, put down every single transistor of the entire chip—whereas at Malleable, you used standard cells, so you actually had a set library. An ASIC model is really more the semi-custom. But it was the same thing: it’s like giving birth. You’ve got a team of ten people—and at this point, I’m in charge of the team, so you’re just focused so completely on trying to get this out the door. It’s exciting. And it worked! The bloody chip worked. It had a few problems, but they all had workarounds.

Abbate:

That was a commercial product before you got bought out?

Whitney:

Yes. Yes, we had customers.

Now, here’s the downside. [laughs.] Although, as you can see, I’ve spent a fair part on my career designing chips, I’m really a software person by training; and all of these products had software pieces and hardware pieces: they both had to be present in order to make this product work. And we grossly underestimated, at Malleable, the cost of developing the software for a processor that you’d designed from scratch. So that’s why companies use standard processors.

Abbate:

Did that mean the software was late, or was it expensive?

Whitney:

Both. We couldn’t hire enough DSP engineers. I mean, the DSP engineers have a particular style of [programming].

Abbate:

“DSP” is Digital Signal Processing?

Whitney:

That’s correct. The algorithms that we were implementing for this processor were very specific, and so we needed a particular skill set, and it was hard to find the right set of people. We couldn’t hire them fast enough. We grossly underestimated how long it would take to develop for this processor. We really didn’t have the debugging capabilities inside the processor that would allow them to access as much as they needed.

I’m not a DSP expert. Because I wanted to be involved in the software, I had the DSP Group underneath me; but I couldn’t architect the DSP software, and the guy in charge of it was not much of a manager. There were a lot of problems that were both technical in nature and involved pulling together a project, that really in the long run made the development effort grossly inadequate. We had working software, but really no product software. We were a few months late with the chip, and we were six to eight months late with software; and with the marketplace that we were going after, that was a problem!

But still, it was very exciting; one of the best experiences of my life. And yet, when I left there, which was in February of 2001, I was burnt out. I took six months off, because I just couldn’t . . .

Abbate:

So you were working twenty-hour days or something?

Whitney:

A lot of days, a lot of . . . I mean, I always have outside things going on, and I can’t say I worked too many hours, but on the other hand, the pressure was intense. Also, being integrated into a new company was challenging. I came to respect PMC-Sierra immensely from a business perspective, but I didn’t find my place in there. It didn’t really work for me. So that was kind of an interesting combination.

Gender and Later Period of Career

Abbate:

Did they have other women managers at your level, or was that an issue?

Whitney:

[laughs.] No! [laughs.] I was their first female Director. I was VP of a start-up, and it’s very common, once it gets bought, that you get demoted by one level. My boss was the CEO; he became VP. I was their first woman Director, ever! And not only that, but PMC-Sierra is a Canadian company. So: chip company, Canadian company, old boy—I’m sure a lot like the computer companies of the seventies. It’s hard to explain, but when I went up there—I mean, I’ve always had people go before me, the real pioneers breaking new ground; and [now] I knew what it was like for them! [laughs.] They were not used to me. I had always been unusual, being a woman in technology, but I was basically supported; at some level or another, my managers attempted to be supportive of what I was doing. Even when they had their own issues having to do with it, they made an attempt to really support me. [But at PMC-Sierra,] they just didn’t know what to do with me. It was very much old-school. Canada, I think, is behind the U.S. in that way. It’s very much more like business was twenty years ago, or ten years ago.

Abbate:

Hmm. I didn’t realize that.

Whitney:

Well, at least that’s what I experienced. There was another wonderful woman who was Head of Software, who subsequently was promoted to Director; so she’s there now, and she and I had a lot of good synergy. But it was not one of the more pleasant parts of my life. It was really tough.

Abbate:

Did you have to actually move to Canada for that?

Whitney:

No. They were in Vancouver, but they were attempting to develop a pretty significant California presence, so they packed their stuff and they leased this beautiful building on Great America [Parkway] and [Highway] 101: Mission Towers. I think they’re stuck with the lease now, because they just are basically empty, and there’s really not a California presence. They intended to really grow; they were gearing up for pretty significant growth, and the bottom fell out of the telecommunications business. I’ve still got a lot of their stock; it’s not worth very much. I’m one of those people that you keep reading about in the newspaper! [laughs.] Hey, at least I didn’t lose money on it!

Abbate:

Did you ever feel, at any of these places, that as a woman you didn’t have equal access to salaries, or promotions, or training? Other than being treated sort of oddly, did you experience any actual discrimination that you could tell?

Whitney:

I’ve moved up fairly fast in my career, and I’ve been supported. My choice has been that I’ve worked at small places, and I’ve been one of the top talents. As I hear it, the stories are different when you work at a larger place. I mean, it wasn’t like I was competing with other people for a similar position and being passed over; to some extent they invented new positions and gave them to me. So it’s not explicit discrimination. But I always worked in areas where I was, a fair amount, the only woman. I know that at Actel I had a reputation for being ambitious—and I am, and I was also eager to try new things—and I think that for many people ambition doesn’t sit well, for a female.

I think the biggest things that I would observe is that I had a good support system of women outside of my work that really helped me through those years, and that made a huge difference. I’ve got these incredible women friends, Anita being one of them. Also a woman named Amy Pearl: she’s the Program Chair for the Grace Hopper Conference this year, and she was a Director at Palm, so she’s had a very similar career to mine. So these are people that could really help me sort through issues at work.

But PMC-Sierra was the first place that was not a very good place to be a woman. There wasn’t any explicit discrimination. In fact, I think that if you talk to Bob Bailey, who’s President, or Greg Aasen, or Kevin [Huscroft]—there was a triad of power, Bob Bailey being the CEO, Greg Aasen being the COO, and Kevin [Huscroft] was VP of engineering and CTO—they would think that they were quite open to a woman who was capable; it would be just fine. But they don’t have any women, and it’s not a particularly inviting environment for women to be in.

Abbate:

Do you think start-ups might be a better environment than bigger companies for women?

Whitney:

Well, I’ll tell you that I love working in start-ups. Most of my professional career has been in start-ups of some fashion or another. It suits my style. I find in general, though, women do not like start-ups. It is true that, since it’s a tiny place, you are respected for doing what you do; so a woman will be respected, and there’s a lot of opportunity if that’s what you so choose. But in general, even today, women tend to be the ones that are trying to balance career and family more frequently; and it’s not a good place to balance work and family! [laughs.] It’s just not. And it’s also high risk, and in general, more women worry about the risk—I think, once again, because they’re trying to balance different aspects of their life. I hired the entire engineering staff at Malleable, and it was very hard for me to hire women! It was challenging. I had a number of women turn me down—young engineers—for some of these reasons that I’m talking about.

The chip industry tends to be fewer women than the computer industry. Having said that, there are some wonderful programs where women entrepreneurs are being supported, like the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. There are women out there who want to be CEOs, and for the right woman, a start-up is a great place to be, is I guess the answer; but you do have to look at what your priorities are and figure out if you can live with high risk.

I also think: I watch the Internet. The Internet included a lot more women. If you look at the companies that came out over the last ten years, you saw much more of a mix of women in Internet companies—I think because there was more of a mix of talent that they needed, so that you didn’t have to have a double-E degree to get a job at an Internet company. So in that sense, they were able to attract a lot of women.

I don’t know. Like I said, in chip companies, you really don’t see that many women; but I know some phenomenal women who do this, so there are some. You get to know them, and it’s really exciting! [laughs.] For example, the woman who chaired the Malleable processor: we actually subcontracted with this little design consulting company in Palo Alto, and there was this woman named Beth Cooper with twenty years of design engineering; processor designing. You don’t see many women CPU designers, but she was phenomenal! She and I are still in contact. I observe that as I meet these really interesting women, the women are the ones that I tend [to stay in touch with]. We make a connection and we stay in contact, more so than the men that I meet along the way.

Abbate:

Had you decided that you didn’t want a family at the beginning of your career, so that you were willing to take risks?

Whitney:

First of all, I think that I would have taken the risks anyway. I think it’s part of my nature. I got married in 1993, and I met my husband in 1988. He works in construction—you know, something completely separate from my work—and he doesn’t want kids, so from the time that we got serious, that was part and parcel of the agreement, and I knew that going in. For me, I found that I was more ambivalent; so if I had ended up with the right man, I would have had children, but it wasn’t such a driving force that I left him, or left my life, to go have children. You know, I’ve checked in over the years, and that’s just continued to be okay, so it seems to have worked for me. It wasn’t part of a grand plan; it was the way it worked out. I find that I need more children than he does, so I bring my nieces out once a year or something like that, and sort of stay in contact that way. But that seems to fulfill my needs around it. So that’s kind of interesting.

But because of that choice, I know that it has given me a huge amount more flexibility in the decisions that I’ve made. Malleable, in particular, would have been very challenging to do with young children, certainly; and from the day I walked through the door, I could just as easily have been looking for a job six months later as not. You have to be able to live with those kinds of risks. Although I did hire—all the guys that worked for me had young children, and they did just decide to take those risks. In some cases they were the sole provider, which in my experience is pretty unusual; but I had a number of sole providers working at the start-up. If they lost their jobs, their family was screwed. Their wives stayed home. And their wives really worried about it. I think that, like any good partnership, they accepted the risks, because that was what their husband needed to do, but I don’t know that they were really comfortable with it. One in particular I’m thinking of, he’s gone back to a much larger company; but he was a risk-taker, and he enjoyed the risk-taking.

I should talk at least a little bit about the Institute [for Women and Technology, now the Anita Bog Institute].

Officer Role at the Anita Borg Institute of Women and Technology

Abbate:

Right! Let’s see, you left Malleable to go on vacation. Anything interesting?

Whitney:

I had such a great time! I took six months off. I went to Alaska with some friends; I went to Italy with my friend Amy Pearl. I spent time with my husband; I really enjoyed it. I said I was burnt out when I left, and in hindsight I was burnt out. I wanted to take six months off, and I took almost exactly six months off.

My objective was to start consulting, to try and find a way to balance my real passion with some sort of reasonable working environment. In particular, finding a way to work with start-ups, which I love—there’s nothing I love more than creating something from scratch; figuring out what this new thing is and then doing it—but doing it, perhaps, in a consulting capacity. So that was my vision. I started in September of last year [2001], and I’ve worked with a start-up in Southern California since then. When I first went back to work I was working half-time with them. They had a couple of Cal Tech grads; young management team; seasoned CEO: he knew his executives needed some help, and I worked half-time with them initially, and now I go down just once a month. But my idea was to do that with a lot of different companies.

In January [2002, I started to work for the Institute]. Anita’s a close friend: we started the Grace Hopper together; when I got married, she and I went on a backpacking trip for my bachelorette party. I knew that she needed help with the Institute. The part that she needed help with was fund-raising, and so I told her I’d be willing to come on half time to help her with fund-raising, and I did. I have more executive management experience than probably a lot of people here, and so, as she really needed to take a break, I agreed to come in as Interim President. So that’s how I ended up here.

Abbate:

When did you actually become Interim President?

Whitney:

Around June first. Six weeks ago! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Wow, I hadn’t realized it was quite that recently.

Whitney:

I still have other commitments besides the Institute, but I’ve minimized them, and I really need to help take it to the next level. We do have a search; we’re looking for a new President; but Anita just needed to get out, and I felt like I could help.

It’s an interesting balance, because I spent all this time doing a lot of soul-searching about what’s really important to me, and where my passion is developing technology: I like building things. The Institute really is more about developing a new way of thinking about technology, as opposed to developing technology; so there may be a marriage there, but right now, in an ideal world, this would be something that I would help with [temporarily]. I mean, it’s something I believe in, but I didn’t intend to do it full-time. And yet, here I am! [laughs.] Having said that, I’ve got a great team, and we’re really excited about what we’re doing—and remember, I said that what I like to do is build things from scratch, and the entrepreneur side is very much present here. We’re inventing; we’re breaking new territory all the time. We need to define what we’re doing and go get money—I mean, our very survival depends upon it—and that, certainly, is something that I love to do. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I like creating new. That’s why technology is so wonderful: it’s because you really can have an idea and go do it. You really can.

Abbate:

Now, at least part of the point of IWT is to integrate women into the design of technology. Is that just computer technology, or technology in general? I don’t remember.

Whitney:

The vision is for technology in general. Our strength, our roots, are in the computer technology field. Certainly, I’d love to take what we’re trying to do and go really envelope all of technology. But first things first! For example, Grace Hopper: I mean, it would be wonderful to take that whole idea and duplicate it for many different kinds of technologies, and really feature top-notch talent of all kinds of different technologies. But my network and the Institute’s network is in the computer field, so that’s really where we’re starting. But the vision—the grand vision—really encompasses all kinds of technology.

Abbate:

So are there demonstration projects underway?

Whitney:

We have four programs. One is Systers. That’s really where we started, and I think that we need to upgrade it. We’ve actually got a new technology under development that Ellen Spertus [is working on]. Do you know her?

Abbate:

I read that article she wrote about women in computer science. I don’t know her personally.

Whitney:

Okay! Well, she’s at Mills [College], a wonderful woman, and she is actually developing the next generation Systers in her spare time. She’s working with a woman named Robin Jeffries, who’s a distinguished engineer at Sun: another wonderful woman with an illustrious computing career. Robin has more of the vision of where Systers is going. Her field is human-computer interactions, and so it really makes sense that she would help set the stage for how Systers might be used in the future. We’ve just hired somebody, very part-time, to work with those two, to try and bring it up. So we’re going to try to take Systers into the next generation; because Anita wrote the current Systers system when HTML didn’t even exist, so it’s a little creaky.

Abbate:

So this would be sort of a conferencing system?

Whitney:

It’s still email-based. But right now, it’s actually set up so that all messages go to all participants; so it’s really allowing the distribution to be more finely tuned to a smaller group, so that you can actually have topics and have a more interactive feel.

So there’s Systers; then there’s the Grace Hopper: both of those predate the Institute, but they’re very much part of the Institute, and I think also allow us this wonderful network that’s part of the Institute through those two portions. We’ve got the Senior Women’s Summit, which actually is a day-long meeting the day before the Grace Hopper conference that brings together senior women to talk about issues of substance that are in the computing field, but typically span the computer field and social change. And then finally there’s something called the Virtual Development Center, which is the newest program, and it’s really taking a model class to universities. We’re working with nine universities, and it’s a year-long class that includes a workshop that really allows non-technical women and [technical] women to come together and talk about products that would be of interest to the community which it serves.

Abbate:

So, women from some particular community . . .

Whitney:

And universities. For example, Berkeley offers this class; it’s one of our sites, and they work with the disabled. So they’ve got a set of students, and they work with a community group that includes blind and hearing-impaired, and they’ve developed products that are really targeted for them. We have a women’s support group for abused women that [develops] products for them. There’s one site that actually works with middle schools, so they’re developing products that are for young girls. But the key is that we start off the year by bringing this group of people together that includes non-technical and technical people to talk about what is really important, and it’s a structured day that allows everybody to have a say in what the outcome is. Some of these projects are taken through the school year, and then we end it with a conference where some of the students come and present their topics. These are twenty-year-old students, and they’re so excited about what they’re doing; it’s a really pretty phenomenal thing.

Mentors over Career

Abbate:

One of the things a lot of these women in computing groups are trying to do is have more mentorship of women, and I was wondering: you had mentioned, I guess, one professor who was a mentor to you. Did you have other mentors, or role models: people you wanted to be like, people who helped you out?

Whitney:

I’ve had some wonderful mentors, just some phenomenal mentors, and I think that it’s hard to really get ahead and not have mentors. Rich Riesenfeld was probably my first mentor. He was at University of Utah, and introduced me to Ivan Sutherland, and really gave me opportunities that I had never even dreamed about. My second mentor, probably—significant mentor—was Carver Meade. He was my Ph.D. thesis advisor, but he continues to be a close personal friend. We get together at least once a year, sometimes more, and he still advises me on what to do. It crosses between personal and mentorship; we stay in touch with each other. One of my last bosses at Actel is somebody whom I’ve really respected, a man named Rob Smith, who was a VP of Software Engineering there. I’m also still in touch with him. He actually had a challenge there; he didn’t really work out that well, and in fact he finally left; but he was a bright man, and he was very supportive of me just reaching for the moon!

The only woman that I would say that I had as a mentor would be Carol Reallini. She was the CEO of a software company called Chordiant Software, and I actually got in touch with her through a mentoring program; so it was actually a mentoring training, and you connected up with somebody. She’s on the Institute Board, so actually I’m seeing her tomorrow! [laughs.] She’s chairing the new President search committee. And Anita: Anita and I kind of mentored each other—we were close personal friends—and Amy the same way. So I did, in that sense, have female mentors. In fact, I think at this point in my career, my mentors tend to be more like that, where you develop a friendship and you kind of co-mentor each other; whereas when I was younger, I think it was more explicit that there was this older person that really kind of helped push you ahead in your career. They’re the people that basically push you to your limits and say, “You really can do this.” And I listened; so when something was suggested, I did it! I mean, I’m spending most of my time right now fundraising and networking and going and asking people for money, and when Anita and I did this in 1994, I could not even imagine doing fundraising. It was beyond my model of being able to do that, because I just feel so awful when you call and they say No! [laughs.] But, by showing up, I [found that I could do it after all].

Changes for Women over Career and Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Do you think computing, or the areas that you know, have become more open to women over the years? Or less, or about the same?

Whitney:

Well, you know, I got in it in ‘75, so . . . It was such a new field that you could—and it was open to women. In some ways, in fact, the [female] enrollment in computer science departments is going down, and I do think it’s kind of solidifying itself into more of what feels more masculine, and sometimes that’s less inviting to women. Having said that, society as a whole has really adopted a more open attitude towards what women can do over the last twenty-five years, and so in that sense it’s really more of a societal thing. I think it has become more open to women. Many, many corporations believe that it is in their best interests to have a wider presence of women, and so they’re actively doing it, and I don’t think it’s just talk. I do think that there are many very capable executives that are actively trying to increase the numbers. Of course, there are many that aren’t; but there are many, and so there are places that you can go that are really very conducive to having a wider group of women present.

Abbate:

Do you find that women are attracted to certain technical areas?

Whitney:

Absolutely! One of the things that’s very frustrating is that if you look at the numbers, in the life sciences they really have pretty much fifty-fifty, whereas engineering and computer science really aren’t.

Abbate:

I was actually thinking within computing.

Whitney:

Within computing? It’s funny: you see certain technical topics that have more women present. Human-computer interface, I think, you would find more women than other areas. Chip design, you really don’t. I really think that, when you look at the numbers, it’s almost like it doesn’t fit the DNA of many women! [laughs.] I don’t know why that is, but the numbers are significantly lower in chip design than human-computer interface, so I think you’d find that that’s more attractive technically.

So there’s the technical side where you might find women drawn to certain areas more than others; but then there’s the working side, and one of the sad things is that you find that in the lowest-paying positions, there are always a lot more women. There was a study done in Silicon Valley that I found fascinating, because it talks about how in junior high school math and science, it’s fifty-fifty [men and women]; and somewhere socially, as [women] go through high school, they start dropping out of math and science, because it’s not cool. It’s just not cool in our society right now. But what happens is that, years later, as they actually go out to get a job, the jobs are in technology; and so they don’t necessarily have the training, but they’re going into technology anyway, and the net result of that is that often they are more prevalent in the lower-paying jobs. For example, if you go to a software engineering organization and you go to the Quality Assurance department, which is the people that test, you’ll find sixty to eighty percent women. They’re the lowest-paying jobs, typically; but you can often get into them without a computer science degree, and so you can kind of come in the back door. Sad to say, but true; it’s one of things that you do observe. In progressive organizations, that’s not so true, and I really do think it’s a top-down and bottom-up kind of thing. Time and time again, if you find an enlightened executive at the top that’s really trying to make a difference, there will be a difference: because they’re going to go out of their way to try and find very capable people that can fill those roles and that are not just multiple genders but multiple ethnic backgrounds—a diversity workplace, because they benefit from that.

Abbate:

What do you find most satisfying about working with computers?

Whitney:

I love technology! Just seeing the results of your actions. So you put together this team, and they build a chip, and it works, and there’s this cool thing! [laughs.] Or you run a computer program, and it sort of does this thing, and you just watch it work. It’s very tactile. That’s what I find. I love seeing the results of what we do.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women thinking of going into computing?

Whitney:

Yes. More than anything else, you need to follow your passion, because ultimately, that’s what really counts: loving what you do. To not be deterred from your path; to really stick with it. That you can make a difference.

Abbate:

Well, great!

Whitney:

Okay.

Abbate:

Thank you so much for talking with me.