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Oral-History:Elsie Shutt

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About Elsie Shutt

Elsie Shutt is the Founder and President of Computations, Incorporated (CompInc.) Founded in 1958, CompInc pioneered the use of freelance female programmers in the United States. The company only hired women who worked from home because they were taking care of dependents. At the beginning of her she was a programmer on ENIAC,and later she programmed for Honeywell. After the first of her three children were born, she left Honeywell and became a freelancer. Over time, the projects she worked on grew too large for her handle alone, so she formed CompInc. with two of her friends. Over the years, the company has grown and shrunk based the amount of work it could find. Through her company, over 50 women launched careers in technology.

In this interview Shutt discusses her experiences in school, as a programmer, and as a business owner. She highlights her time in school and her experiences in a graduate program that featured few women. She talks about her first experience with computers. Finally, she talks extensively about the business she formed and the impact it had on her life.

About the Interview

ELSIE SHUTT: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, February 9, 2001.

Interview #628 for the IEEE History, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 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:

Elsie Shutt: an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Elsie Shutt
INTERVIEWER: Janate Abbate
DATE: February 9th, 2001
PLACE: Harvard, MA

Family Background and Early Education

Abbate:

We’re going to start with your family background. Some of this stuff you’ve already told me, on paper, but to make it complete, I’ll go over some of it.

You were born in 1928, and grew up in Baltimore?

Shutt:

I was born in New York, but grew up in Baltimore, yes.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Shutt:

My father was a salesman for the Ford Motor Company. He died when I was four years old. My mother had majored in chemistry in college, and after I went to school, she went to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was a laboratory technician and then a chemical technician, and stayed there until she was 65 and retired.

Abbate:

She was supporting the family?

Shutt:

Yes, yes. I was the only child, and we went back to my mother’s childhood home in Baltimore. My parents had been living in New York, and when my father became ill, they moved back to Baltimore. We lived in the home where my mother had grown up, and by that time my grandmother was deceased, so it was my mother and my grandfather and me. After my mother went to work, it was my grandfather who was at home when I got home from school.

Abbate:

So you had a mother who was a scientist, which was very unusual. Did she convey an interest in science to you?

Shutt:

She was a college graduate, and had gone to Goucher College. Everyone who lived in Baltimore—all the women—who wanted to go to college would try to go to Goucher, because we could commute.

Abbate:

And did she encourage you to go to college and have a career?

Shutt:

I don’t think it needed encouraging; it was a given. It was a given, there was no question but that I would go to college. And as far as what I majored in, there was no pressure there—not at all—but I gravitated towards science, because that’s what I could do most easily. I was comfortable in science, in math, much more than in English or literature.

Abbate:

You were already doing science and math in grade school?

Shutt:

Sure, yes.

Abbate:

So you already knew you wanted to do that. And you went to an all-girls school?

Shutt:

Baltimore had two public high schools that were all women: Eastern High School and Western High School. And then there were two high schools that were for men: City College (which wasn’t a college) and Baltimore Polytechnic. The boys who were interested in science went to Poly, and the boys who were interested in law went to City. The two women’s high schools were established in 1844. I remember that, because I graduated in 1944, and that was the 100th anniversary of their founding. And I think that that was quite early for public women’s high schools; that wasn’t a usual thing. Public schools usually went just up to grade eight, but Baltimore was very forward in its education.

Abbate:

So, was there any consideration of going to a co-ed high school, or did you know you wanted to . .

Shutt:

No, I always was headed toward Eastern. There were co-ed high schools, [but] they did not have quite the same academic standing as Eastern, Western, Poly, and City. The course that I took at Eastern High School was an academic course; most of the people in it were headed for college. Most of them were headed for Goucher College.

Abbate:

And so that’s where you went.

Shutt:

Yes. And that’s where my mother had gone. And my mother had also graduated from Eastern High School, so: I followed her.

Going to College

Abbate:

You went to Goucher . . . and you graduated at age 20?

Shutt:

Yes, I did.

Abbate:

Did you enter early, or did you skip a grade?

Shutt:

Baltimore at that time had what they called the February Class, so that some children started first grade in February, after they were six years old. I was not six in September, but I was six in January, so I was in the February Class. Well, the February classes were smaller than the September classes, and nobody really wanted to stay in the February Class if they could help it. They graduated from high school in the middle of the winter. And so when I was in fourth grade, I had done the first half of fourth grade, and then there was an opportunity to go to summer school—at Johns Hopkins University—to do the second half of the fourth grade in the summer, and about ten of us from my elementary school were enabled to go, so I made up half a year then. And then after I graduated from elementary school in sixth grade, I went to a junior high school which did three years’ work in two, so I made up a year there—so I was a year and a half ahead of where I would have been otherwise. So I graduated from high school at 16, and college at 20. As did my best friend; it wasn’t that unusual.

That’s why I ended up so young. I was always the youngest one in every group, or among the youngest in every group. And I find difficulty now in realizing I’m usually the oldest! [laughs] You kind of get used to being the youngest, or among the younger.

Abbate:

When you were at Goucher, you majored in math?

Shutt:

I majored in math, and minored in chemistry. I liked chemistry, but I loved math. I liked the logic of it.

Abbate:

So you had good experiences with taking math classes at Goucher?

Shutt:

Yes, I enjoyed them very much. In fact, the farther along I went in math, the better I liked it. I never liked arithmetic at all, and didn’t consider math anything I’d ever be interested in until I got to plane geometry. I loved that, and I loved algebra, and I liked calculus, and in graduate school I got into some courses I liked even better. The farther I got from application, the better I seemed to like them! Not that computing isn’t application, but it also has an element of logic that appealed to me, and that was kind of nice.

When I was at graduate school—do you know Tom Lehrer?

Abbate:

Yes.

Shutt:

He was in graduate school when I was. Some of his songs were oriented toward the graduate school things, like the Physical Reviews, and so those are songs which don’t have a popular appeal; but one of them was something about how “In math, you can do research while lying in bed!” [laughs.] Not fiddling with lab work; a non-lab science, that was the idea. I wasn’t crazy about labs.

Abbate:

So that’s why chemistry was only a minor for you.

Shutt:

Yes, I liked math better.

Graduate School

Abbate:

Did your professors at Goucher encourage you to go on to grad school? How did you decide to do that?

Shutt:

I won a Pepsi-Cola graduate fellowship—and yes, my math professor urged me to apply for it. I didn’t think that I would get it, but I got it. I don’t think Pepsi-Cola did that more than one or two years. The Pepsi-Cola Company had undergraduate scholarships, where they would give students four years’ full tuition in a college, but the year that I graduated from college, they decided to do graduate fellowships.

I could never have afforded to go to graduate school, but my math professor urged me to apply, and I got it. It paid full tuition for graduate school, and something for living also; a little bit extra. I don’t know when it was that they said that I had it; I hadn’t applied [to graduate programs] anywhere. But once I had that, I was able to go [almost anywhere]. In those days it wasn’t as hard to get into places as it is now! I liked astronomy, and I was sort of tempted to go to the University of Michigan to take math and astronomy, but somehow I ended up at Radcliffe. Everyone seemed to feel that was the best place.

So I came to Radcliffe from an all-girls’ college, where I’d taken all the math they offered. My first semester of graduate study I was taking courses with Harvard sophomores. I remember Garrett Birkhoff saying, “Well, sophomores,” and I thought, “For heaven’s sake!”

Abbate:

Why were you taking classes with sophomores?

Shutt:

Because I had taken all the math that Goucher College offered, but it wasn’t high enough.

Abbate:

So you had to catch up.

Shutt:

Yes. Other graduate students were in the same situation I was. We came from small liberal-arts colleges, and in my case, an all-women’s college where the math offerings were not that wonderful—not that advanced. But it was all right; I managed. I took all the courses I needed. Then when the Pepsi-Cola thing ran out, I had a teaching fellowship.

Abbate:

You had mentioned earlier that teaching at Harvard and Radcliffe was sex-segregated, so that the female graduate students could only teach female undergraduates?

Shutt:

The graduate courses were not segregated, [although] the finals were. Radcliffe had the honor system, and Harvard’s exams were proctored, and so we’d take a course at Harvard, and then when it came to the final, we went over to the Radcliffe Yard and took our exams there. I remember one of my very good friends took logic with Professor Quine, and there was an error printed in the exam, and they forgot she was over there [in Radcliffe Yard]—she was the only woman in the class—and so she didn’t know about the error. Oh, we were very upset, and she was very upset.

Abbate:

So the women went off to take the exams by themselves?

Shutt:

We took our exams at Longfellow Hall, right on Appian way. Yes, we took our exams separate from the Harvard graduate students, because . . . maybe we would have distracted them too much, I don’t know.

When I had a teaching fellowship, I taught Math C, which was a freshman Radcliffe course, my first semester. The second semester, the professor in charge of T.A.’s called me in and said that there weren’t any courses that I could teach second semester, and he wondered if, instead of teaching, I would be interested in working on a grant that one of the professors had, a government project. I said: “You know, I really enjoy the teaching.” He said, “Well, there’s only one calculus course at Radcliffe, and I had planned to give that to one of the male teaching fellows, but I’ll reconsider.” So he gave me that course and took it away from the other guy. I said at the time, “Could I teach at Harvard?” but I knew that I couldn’t. I just said that to see what he would say.

Abbate:

They would let the male graduate students teach the women, but they wouldn’t let the women teach the men?

Shutt:

That’s right. I wasn’t the first female teaching fellow in math—I was the second one. There had been one named Lisl Novak, who was the teaching fellow in math during World War II, and I believe she was the first woman who had been a teaching fellow in math. I was the second one. And do you know, some of those professors addressed me as Miss Novak?

Abbate:

As if there couldn’t be more than one woman! [laughs]

Shutt:

No, that was the woman! [laughs]

Abbate:

It sounds like there were at least several female graduate students, though, when you were there.

Shutt:

The first year, there were about four or five of us, yes. By the time I got to be a candidate for the doctorate, there was [only] one other. And the math professors were a little bit awkward about dealing with us, I think. They were intimidated. There were a lot of things that didn’t worry me that probably should have; didn’t bother me. I mean they never—it would be different today!

First Interaction with Computers

Abbate:

Were you thinking you wanted to go on and be a math professor?

Shutt:

I wanted to teach math, I thought, in a college. But, as I told you, I had not planned to go to graduate school originally. I had been out to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for a job interview, because women who majored in math usually got jobs at desk calculators, and there were a lot of women hired at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds during World War II. They sat at their desks and prepared bombing tables, or something or other. The government was hiring math majors, and my friend Johanna [Luke] and I went out there. (She’s the one who gave you my name; she’s in California now. We went through high school and college together, and she was also a math major.) We went together to be interviewed at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and the person who interviewed us showed us the ENIAC, and told us about computers; and I thought then that I would like to learn that.

Abbate:

Really? So right away you [were interested in computers].

Shutt:

Then I got the graduate fellowship, and pursued that. But I always had in mind that I would like to learn to program, learn to code. The government hired graduate students in the summer at Aberdeen. I worked there three summers and did learn to program there.

Abbate:

There were quite a few women there doing programming?

Shutt:

They were all women. In the office where I worked, the only male was a very handicapped young man with cerebral palsy. He was the only male in that office. They were all women. The women who had worked the desk calculators were now programming ENIAC, and ORDVAC, and EDVAC. But that’s because it was left over from the war; it was the “Rosie the Riveter syndrome” still.

Now, as the men came back—and programming was an interesting job—[the men did begin taking programming jobs.] The desk calculating thing was “women’s work”: you needed to be careful and patient, and not very creative; you had to be willing to just sit and crunch the machine, and fill in the blanks. It was not nearly as interesting as programming. That [desk calculating] was considered women’s work, I think.

Abbate:

Now, in 1952, you were doing programming?

Shutt:

I programmed the ORDVAC, which was a new computer they had, newer than ENIAC and easier to program, because [with] ENIAC you had to actually change the wiring. I mean, you had to build the program in! [With] ORDVAC, we had a memory map, which was a piece of paper with squares on it, and we decided what locations we wanted to put our various data in, and if it was an address that you were going to access very often, you would leave the addresses of the cells around it blank, because sometimes things would spill over [from one memory location to an adjacent one].

Abbate:

Really!

Shutt:

Yes. You really were into what was going on in that computer.

Abbate:

So you really had to be aware of how the hardware worked and all its idiosyncrasies?

Shutt:

Oh, yes. So you did a memory map. You just said, “I’m going to put my data here, and over here I’m going to put PERM”—those are the permanent constants—”and I’ll keep an area free around that, in case it spills over.” You decided where you were going to put things. And there weren’t any operating systems as such. There was a little bit of stuff that you usually put in that would boot your program in, but it was pretty rudimentary stuff. We read it in on paper tapes, but they were just beginning to get a card reader. That was the wave of future, it was going to be cards. So that was ORDVAC.

The ACM had an ENIAC anniversary a few years ago, and they contacted me, and I told them I hadn’t done ENIAC, that I had done ORDVAC. They sent me a 50-year alum ENIAC ribbon. Apparently ORDVAC was good enough!

Abbate:

Same family.

Shutt:

Same family.

While I was at Aberdeen I met Richard Clippinger. Dr. Clippinger was one of the directors there, or sub-directors, or something. When I left at the end of the summer, he said, “When you finish graduate work, if you want a job, come see me.” I think if I had a mentor at all, it was Dick Clippinger. I didn’t know him that well that summer, but after I got back from France, and Phil and I got married and I decided not to go back and finish graduate school—at least not then; I needed a job—I discovered that Dick Clippinger was working at Raytheon. He had been caught up in the McCarthy-era problem: a lot of those people had lost their clearance, and Raytheon took them in. We were located in a building on Main Street in Waltham, [Massachusetts,] which was not the main part of Raytheon that had guards and so forth, because he had no security. But I discovered he was up here, and I remembered that he had told me to come see him if I wanted a job, so I went to see him at Raytheon. That was my first full-time job.

He had to fight to get his clearance restored. He did; he managed to; but it was really a very sad time. The Clippingers were building a home down in Havre de Grace, which is near to Aberdeen, and he was planning to stay there forever, I think. He was a friend of John von Neumann, and von Neumann actually was one of the people who testified at his hearing.

Abbate:

For him or against him?

Shutt:

For him. Oh, yes; you didn’t know who was against you. The Clippingers had a friend who’d gone to Spain to fight with the Communist rebels in Spain; and his wife was in the League of Women Voters, and had been in a debate and had taken the Communist side of the debate—things like that. It was a very sad time for this country, really. But that’s another story.

Studying in France

I stayed in graduate school [after the summer at Aberdeen]. After I had the teaching fellowship, I applied for a Fulbright and got that too. I’ve been very fortunate all my life: I apply for things and get them! [laughs.] And so I went to study math in France.

Abbate:

What made you want to do that?

Shutt:

Well, I wanted to go to Europe! [But also,] the kind of math that I liked was set theory, algebra, modern algebra, that kind of thing; and during World War II, the Bourbaki existed in France. Do you know about the Bourbaki?

Abbate:

No, I don’t.

Shutt:

Well, he was supposed to be one person, Nicolas Bourbaki, who lived in Nancy. It really was four or five eminent French mathematicians who didn’t want the Germans who were occupying their country to know that they were all there, concentrated in one place. So they published under the name “Nicholas Bourbaki,” and Nancy was the center. And one of the graduate students whom I knew had been in France the year before I went, and had been to Nancy, and I thought it would be really great to be there and meet some of those people.

The year that I was there, Laurent Schwartz was the only one who still lived in Nancy. Godement was in Paris; one of them was in the U.S., I think, that year. But anyhow, that’s why I went to Nancy; that’s why I chose to go to Nancy: to get to the center there, because the kind of math that they were publishing was the kind I liked.

Abbate:

Which was what?

Shutt:

It was set theory; modern [algebra]: what they called “new math” when it filtered down into the schools.

So I went to Nancy, and what happened was—you know, in France, you want to go from here to there, you always go through Paris to get there. So the Bourbaki had separated—the war was over—and there was one in Paris, and there may have been one in Lyons, I’m not sure. But I know there were a lot of people who were interested in a seminar, and they had a Bourbaki seminar every Saturday, and people came from all over France to attend it. That was really the only thing I had to do while I was there: go to the seminar, which lasted all day Saturday. Between Saturdays I was free, and the Fulbright living stipend was ample to do all kinds of things; we had much more than the French students did. So I traveled a lot! [Laughs.]

Abbate:

Sounds great.

Shutt:

Yes, it was great. It was a wonderful year. I made some good friends there, and I saw a lot.

I sort of decided when I was over there that I would take some time off from grad school and maybe get a programming job. So I did.

Abbate:

When you came back, when did you get married?

Shutt:

I came back from Europe in something like July of ‘53, and was married in November.

Abbate:

So you already . . .

Shutt:

Yes, we were pretty much decided to be married. I might not even have gone, except that Phil said, “You’d better.” When I got the Fulbright, he said, “We’re not going to get married till you come home.” Because I think he thought [that otherwise] he’d hear about it all his life—and he’s probably right! [laughs.] It was a very wise move on his part.

Abbate:

That was forward-thinking.

Shutt:

Yes. [He didn’t want me to say,] “I gave up that Fulbright for you!”

So yes, we hadn’t announced that we were engaged, but we did announce it at Easter while I was in Europe and he was here—which surprised some people, like our parents! [laughs.] Phil needed to get a job, too. He got a job at Raytheon, and so did I.

Abbate:

What does he do?

Shutt:

He was an engineer. He was a graduate student when I met him—in math, and then he switched to applied science. We had a group of graduate students when I was there who were very good friends. As I said, Tom Lehrer was there then. We ate at the graduate dining hall, and we had a good time. Most of the men in graduate school then had been in the war, and they were there on the G.I. Bill, including Phil. So I was a lot younger than them. Not only was I a woman, but I was also younger than the other students.

Abbate:

Were you comfortable with that?

Shutt:

Yes. By the time I’d been there a year, I was fine. The first year was difficult. We were Radcliffe graduate students, we were in a Radcliffe dormitory, and we did not eat with the other graduate students. The Radcliffe graduate students ate at the Episcopal Theological Seminary Refectory on Garden Street. It looked like what I would call a refectory—it had dark wood paneling—and the theological students didn’t speak to us, and we didn’t speak to them. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Were they all men?

Shutt:

They were all men, but we sat at a table here and they sat at tables there. We didn’t like it, and the food wasn’t that good, either.

Joanne Henderson (Pratt), whose name I gave you, she was living in that dorm, too, and she discovered the Vanserg building, which was at that time a graduate dining hall for Harvard. She was a chemistry graduate student. She crashed Vanserg several times. There were a few women in there. But we were supposed to eat at the Theological Seminary.

I don’t know [why it was so awkward]: I guess we were shy, and they were shy; or they probably didn’t like having the Radcliffe women there, I don’t know. Some of them were married; some of them had wives who ate with them. I remember one day, one of the theological students approached our table, and we got really very excited—we thought they would speak to us. And he asked us if any of us would like to babysit! [laughs.]

So my first year of graduate school was . . . Well, I made lots of good friends among the women in the dorm, and so forth. I’m still friendly with many of them. It was quite an experience. It was the first time I had ever been away from home. I had lived at home when I was in college, so I was a little bit homesick. The courses seemed to me to be impossible when I started them. We all said goodbye to each other at Christmas—we weren’t coming back! And we all went back. But I got along all right. It turned out fine.

You could only live in the dormitory one year. That was before the Radcliffe graduate dorm was built, and we were housed in the Reed House and Ames House on Garden Street and Founder’s House on Appian Way. But that was only for first-year graduate students, so for the second year, Joanne and I got an apartment, and beginning that year, we ate in the new graduate dining hall at Harvard, and so we got to know our fellow students. You just didn’t know anybody in your class—you didn’t know any of the men. You didn’t have an opportunity to see them except in class, so that was difficult; and then, as I said, you took the exams separately.

One thing did happen that year of my teaching fellowship, toward the end of the year. I was called by a member of the department and told that there was a remedial math course session, a trigonometry session, to be taught at Harvard: would I like to teach it? And of course I had to say “yes.” My graduate student friends, all the men, thought that was hysterical, because nobody wanted to do that, you know. It was not really a thrill at all. But I taught remedial math to Harvard students.

Abbate:

Those were men?

Shutt:

Yes.

Abbate:

So they made an exception.

Shutt:

And I think the professor did that because we had had that conversation earlier about not being able to give me a class to teach.

One of the math professors gave a party for teaching fellows every year, and the year I was a teaching fellow it was a stag party! I wasn’t invited. [laughs.] Funny, isn’t it?

Abbate:

In retrospect, I guess.

Shutt:

At the time, it didn’t bother me. I was shy; I didn’t want to go. But they called me—some of my friends called me from the party, to tease me! [laughs] So if you wonder if things have changed: they have. They’ve changed a lot.

Starting Career as a Programmer

Abbate:

Let’s see. You came back from France, you got married, and then you finished one more year of graduate school?

Shutt:

No, I didn’t go back to Harvard after I came back from Europe. I went right to work, and I programmed in that job at Raytheon.

Raytheon at that time was developing a computer; they were going to get into the computer business. It was called “Raycom,” and while they were working on Raycom, they had another smaller computer called the SC-101 that they had built. That was housed on Main Street in Waltham, and we did a lot of software-type stuff for that. Clippinger was in charge of that department, and we did all kinds of programs that would help people who were using the computer.

That computer had a drum, a magnetic drum, and it died after a couple years because the drum got dirty—there was grit under the reading heads. In the meantime, the development of Raycom was turning out to be very, very expensive. It wasn’t going anywhere very fast, and Honeywell wanted to get into the computer business, and so Honeywell and Raytheon formed a new company called Datamatic. It was 60 percent Honeywell and 40 percent Raytheon, I think, to begin with—something like that—but all the people who worked for it were the Raytheon people. It was Raytheon people and computer design and Honeywell money, I guess. And they changed the name of Raycom to the D1000: Datamatic 1000. Then we worked on software for that.

During those years when I was working—that would be from ‘53 to ‘57—we used assembly programs at first, and the first compiler for FORTRAN became available during that time. We didn’t think we wanted to learn it, because it was too far from the computer; you didn’t know what was really going on. But while they were waiting for Raycom to be finished, in order to keep that department viable, they did computing services for outside customers. One of the customers that we worked for was the Army Corps of Engineers, and it was a program to simulate the dams and dam-flow on the Missouri River: flood control. It was a flood-control thing, and that was to be written in Univac.

Univac was a one-address computer. We were used to four addresses, three or four addresses, where every order had the address, two data addresses, and then the address of the next order you were to perform. Whereas Univac was single address, and you would move A into the accumulator and then add B to the accumulator and then move the accumulator to C; and if you wanted to go to some other place, you would put a transfer—a GOTO—in.

The Univac that we used was at the Army Map Service in Washington. We wrote all the programs, got everything ready and all the test programs ready, and then went to Washington for a couple of weeks to get on the computer.

Abbate:

You wrote all the programs without touching the computer?

Shutt:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Abbate:

How did that work when you finally ran them on the computer?

Shutt:

Oh, there was a technique to it. You had to have your test programs—you had to know exactly what you were going to do; you were paying a lot per hour for those mainframes. There was a technique to it that probably anyone who worked in programming at that time has brought along with them.

Abbate:

Do you think you had to be more careful?

Shutt:

I think you did. You certainly didn’t do any online anything except testing. Of course, when you got on the computer, it was yours. You were at the console. If you wanted to see what you had, you’d put stops and halts all through the thing—pauses—and you’d get to that point and then you’d look at everything. It was all in octal, of course, and you’d read the lights. You’d display the various accumulators, and see if what was there was what was supposed to be there. We were very proficient in octal arithmetic. We had a desk calculator that worked in octal. [laughs]

Abbate:

I have never seen that!

Shutt:

Haven’t you? No?

Abbate:

How hard was the actual debugging when you went down there to run things? Did the programs run as you thought they would?

Shutt:

Usually. Oh, we were so excited . . .

You were asking about women: By that time, in Clippinger’s department at Raytheon, it was about 50 percent men and 50 percent women—and it really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work! Isn’t that interesting? The women who were there [were] women who had learned to program in that first wave, which I was in at Aberdeen.

We were very proud of that flood control program. UNIVAC had steel magnetic tapes, and they were housed in tape units with great heavy glass doors on them—and if you ever saw a tape break, you’d understand why they were housed in something with good heavy doors! Well, if a steel tape broke, it [gestures as if tape is flying through the air].

Abbate:

Oh, it would be dangerous, I see.

Shutt:

Yes, it would be very dangerous. We had a program where we had three tapes, and we wrote from Tape A to Tape B while we were rewinding Tape C, and then we would move from B to C while we were rewinding A. We were so excited when we saw how that worked—it was wonderful! You had to pay a lot of attention to the timing in those days. The Univac had mercury delay memory, and [when] you would write your program, you would optimize it in such a way that the next piece of data you wanted would be coming along that tube, so you wouldn’t have to wait. The same was true of the IBM machines—we did optimum programming for them too. What we would do was write the program, and then decide where to put the data so that the next thing that was available would be what you wanted. That’s a lost art; you don’t have to do that anymore! And of course, moving tapes was slow, so that if you had this thing where you could be rewinding one tape on free time while you were waiting, [it would save time.]

And the other thing that I remember about programming in those days that is so different—completely different: we had to pay a lot of attention to modifying programs, modifying addresses in orders. You were not only dealing with data; you were also dealing with your instructions, and you had variable addresses, and you would have to set them up before you got to them. I don’t know whether I’m explaining that very well. Programming in those days, we started with a flow chart, and we usually used lots of different colors, and indicated where the variable orders were, because you would sometimes operate on data as data, and sometimes operate on instructions in order to change addresses.

We liked Univac; that was nice. Then after that project was finished, we mostly used IBM machines—701, 704, 7090; I don’t remember all of them. But those had assembly programs, assemblers. The Univac didn’t have an assembler, but we wrote in a mnemonic code. I remember “B” was “BRING” and “A” was “ADD” and so forth. And then we had coders: people who were coders. My friend Elaine, who is my partner now, had a summer job, a part-time job, at Raytheon when I worked there. She was a student at Brandeis College, majored in math, and she worked part-time as a coder. So we would write our programs in mnemonic code, and then give it to a coder, who would translate it into machine notation—octal orders.

Abbate:

Kind of a human assembler?

Shutt:

Yes, there was no assembler there. Then with the IBM mainframes we did have an assembler.

We don’t need coders anymore, obviously! We don’t need assemblers anymore.

Abbate:

Did you like working on the IBM machines? Was that easier?

Shutt:

I liked Univac. [pause] I don’t know. I’ve programmed so many different computers, I’ve learned so many different languages, and that’s exciting to me. I like that. That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about having my own company, because if I’d worked at one place, I probably would have worked on one computer all the time. This way I got a lot of experience. And I got that kind of experience, too, working at Raytheon in that computing services department, before they got heavily into the D-1000.

Shutt:

I remember learning the first IBM machine, and the decrements and increments and things. That was new to us.

Abbate:

What are the decrements and increments?

Shutt:

Indexes; indexing. Orders were indexed, so that when you did this, the address would change by—would be decremented by—[some amount]. They were index registers. That was a new concept to me.

Typically we would program, and get the programs all done, and then go to the computer. While I was still at Raytheon, we used the computer in Lynn, at G.E. in Lynn; they had an IBM 701 there.

Beginning as a Freelancer and Developing her own Business

When I left work, when my first baby was expected, was just about the time that that department was slowing way down on computing services for outside clients and concentrating almost wholly on the in-house machine, the D-1000, which required a lot of software to be developed. They were also looking for outside customers for that, but the idea of doing things on other computers for other people: that had been a temporary thing, and it just happened that about the time I left was about the time they were slowing down on that. And I was asked—even before the baby was born—I was working for someone for whom we had done work when I was at Raytheon, and Raytheon had said, “We’re not doing it anymore, but you know, Elsie’s available.” So I did that kind of thing for about a year, and my friend Irma Wyman went in with me. She was still working, but we were going to see what it was like to have a company, see if it was possible to get enough work to do, and I remember we had a payroll application that she did almost entirely moonlighting. We decided at the end of the year that it was possible. Dick Clippinger was very interested; he encouraged me to incorporate and move on. He and Irma and some of my other friends were among the first incorporators.

We incorporated. The main reason for the corporation, though, was that I was doing some work for Honeywell then, for the people I used to work for, and the first thing I did for them was a software application for the H-400. I needed help; it was more than I could do by myself.

Abbate:

That was when you were freelancing?

Shutt:

I was freelancing. I had a baby. Elaine Kamowitz in the meantime also had a baby! [laughs] She had been working full-time there. And Barbara Wade had a baby too. And I said [to Honeywell], “Why don’t you—if you subcontract to me, and to Elaine, and to Barbara, the three of us could work on it.” And they couldn’t do it; it was too much subcontracting. So that’s why we incorporated. I incorporated and hired them.

Abbate:

I see. If it was just you, you could have just been freelancing, but to get several people together, it made more sense [to incorporate].

Shutt:

That’s right. That was really the main impetus for actually forming a corporation. We could work together on it, but we couldn’t get a contract where they would be paid by the company. That was it—so we were one entity.

The first work I got was from people who were recommended to me by the place where I used to work, and then it was a question of, we had done something for such-and-such a group and such-and-such a person, and they liked what we did, so they would recommend us. So we didn’t have to do anything more [to generate business] than just that. Just word-of-mouth is how we got started.

Abbate:

To set that up, I guess there were no capital costs, particularly if you already had clients.

Shutt:

No, there was very little. There was no question of having a computer. We didn’t need much. Our biggest expense was the telephone. And we would get together every week, everybody working on the project. One thing we had to learn to do was to take a job and to break it into pieces—meaningful pieces—and then we’d get together, talk about it, assign jobs, and we went to the computer in the evening: non–prime time.

Abbate:

This was the client’s computer?

Shutt:

Not always. There were companies that had mainframes. There was a computer installation that we used to go to, above some stores in Fresh Pond [a neighborhood of Cambridge, MA]. They had a mainframe, and they rented time on it. That’s what they did. They didn’t have any programmers; they just had the people to maintain the computer. I also rented time on the G.E. computer in Lynn. I rented time on a computer at Avco in Wilmington, [Massachusetts]. Most of these big companies that had mainframes were very anxious to keep those computers running, and they would use them themselves during prime time and rent them [during non-peak hours]. It was a long drive: I remember having a flat tire at one o’clock in the morning once, coming back from there. [laughs]

Abbate:

You must have worked late hours to get the cheap rates [for the computer].

Shutt:

We worked late hours, yes.

It was wonderful for me, because I wanted to be home with my children when they were young, and I was. So in the summer there’d be swimming lessons at the beach, and I’d go sit on the beach with the children, and come home and have supper and get them ready for bed and go in to the computer. You have to have a husband who thinks it’s a good idea too . . . [laughs] That’s very important!

Abbate:

What was your plan for the company?

Shutt:

Well, for a while I thought we’d get this thing started, and maybe some of these people like Clippinger and so forth eventually would leave where they are and want to get a big company started, and this would be the nucleus of it. But I didn’t have any ambitions, particularly, to be a wheeler- dealer.

What it turned into was a feeling of mission in providing work for women who were talented and did good work and couldn’t get part-time jobs. Because you couldn’t get them. I might have gone back working as a temp at Honeywell, but they wouldn’t hire women part-time. They said it made their insurance too high to have part-time employees, or something of that ilk; I never did quite understand it. That sort of inspired us to try to do this thing without going to someone else, and it worked.

Abbate:

It was generally difficult to get part-time work?

Shutt:

Very difficult. Very difficult. Job sharing was suggested by someone, but employers didn’t want to do that. They wouldn’t do that, even. Then once this company got started, that became our mission: to keep that going.

Benefits for the Women Hired

Abbate:

You were meeting the needs of women with children. I’m wondering: Was this as much about intelligent women wanting challenges and satisfactions from work as [it was about them] needing money from working?

Shutt:

It was not needing money, because if we had needed a steady income, that wouldn’t have been the way to get it. There were times when we didn’t have work. There was one time, much later—in the seventies, I guess—when Elaine and I thought of just stopping entirely. We didn’t have any work. But I’ll tell you about that in a minute.

Initially, it was mostly—almost entirely, in fact—applied mathematics.

[Elsie Shutt’s family enters the room.]

Hi, this is my son John. And this is my husband Philip. You’re on tape!

Abbate:

Hello, how do you do?

[Back to interview.]

Shutt:

Where were we? The early days, it was mostly mathematical applications. Those were relatively easy to test, compared to business applications. Scientific applications are much easier to test, because there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and you see it if you get the right answer. You have to have enough test problems so that you know you’ve gone through all the various paths. You drew a flow chart, you designed your test program and test data in such a way that every branch would be gone through, and then you put it on [the computer] and tested it. And if you didn’t get the right answer, or if it hung up somewhere in the middle, you did whatever was necessary to find out what was wrong. But if you could get these things to work, then you could be pretty sure you had a bug-free program, which was good.

The important thing became having work available for women, and not to supplement their incomes so much as to make it possible to stay up to date in a rapidly changing field, so that when the children were grown and left, you could go back to a career. Because you can imagine how much things changed between 1957, when my first child was born, and—when was it that my last child left? [laughs.] Well, he might leave some day! Those were years when there were many changes, and we just wanted to keep active in the field.

It was more than that, too. It was also the stimulation of it. It gave you something to do other than—child care is very exciting, but you know, it’s an “I can eat my spinach faster than you can” kind of thing!

Abbate:

So you could use the left side of your brain.

Shutt:

Yes, a different side of your brain.

It helped—I can’t say it didn’t help; it helped a lot—to have extra income. But we could never have kept the company afloat—unlike this group in England . I think for them it was really a business thing more than it was for me. For me it was keeping active in the field, giving work to women who wouldn’t otherwise have it. Yes.

Abbate:

Had you seen other women who had taken time off from computing and had had trouble getting back up to date, or did you just reason that it would be difficult?

Shutt:

No, I hadn’t at that time; the field was too new.

Abbate:

I guess that’s really true.

Shutt:

At the end of World War II, women thought they were very happy to stay at home. And then they discovered that it wasn’t all that interesting all the time. I didn’t ever have that problem, because I always had something to do besides child care.

But I’ll tell you what I have seen: I’ve seen very many women, when their children are older, who have changed their field. They go back to school and become something quite different from what they were before. I also have had some women work for me whose children were now in junior high school, and they had always wanted to be programmers. We hired one, I remember, who lived in Newton. She’d never done any programming, and we hired her as a data clerk. We had her key-punch—you know, we used IBM cards—and we had her key-punch for us. She called me so often, she was a squeaky wheel. I kept saying, “No, I don’t have anything, I don’t have anything,” and finally I said, “Would you be willing to do just key-punching?” She said yes. So she did just key-punching for us. Eventually she learned to program; before she retired, she was the head programmer at a large bank in Boston, or something of that ilk! So we got some people started in careers, and that was very satisfying, too.

After the Business Week article , did I have calls from people who wanted us to work for them? No! I had calls from people who wanted to work for us: women who wanted to know if we had anything that they could do.

Abbate:

So your company became known for providing employment for women with children, at least with that 1963 article.

Shutt:

Yes, women with children. We also had one woman work for us who had a mother whom she had to take care of, and she had to be at home with her.

Abbate:

Was that a reputation you sought out, or did people just find out about it?

Shutt:

[Pauses to think.] It just grew.

Abbate:

Just word of mouth?

Shutt:

The Business Week article sort of pointed it out, but I hadn’t seriously—no, we didn’t advertise that this was what we were doing. We were happy for people to know about it, but . . .

Finding and Working with Clients

Abbate:

Did you find that being a mainly- or all-women company was an advantage or a disadvantage when dealing with clients? Or both?

Shutt:

I have a feeling that there may have been people who wouldn’t have wanted us to do the work, because they thought maybe we would trivialize—that we would not be able to do it because we were just women, or we would be working at home and taking care of children at the same time, and therefore it would not be professional. And then there were people who thought it was fine. The people who didn’t think it was fine obviously didn’t hire us! [laughs.] So I think definitely there would have been prejudice, but we found people who thought it was great. People heard about us and called us, but it was always sort of word of mouth.

Abbate:

Your rates were quite competitive.

Shutt:

Our rates were very competitive. And that’s probably another reason why they came after us. But also, we were very proud of the work we did, too. And we did a good job of documenting it; we insisted upon that. And in those days—now this is considered very, very old-fashioned—but we did what we called “desk-checking.” If I wrote a program, I would give it to Elaine, and she would check it before we went to the computer. She’d play computer. And we did that with all of our programs; everybody had their work desk-checked before we took it to the computer.

Abbate:

Was that a common practice?

Shutt:

Yes, it was a common practice. We may have emphasized it more than others did, but then we were doing things that we broke up into more pieces than some people did, too. You learn a lot of programming by carefully reading somebody else’s program; you get techniques that you may not have thought of.

Abbate:

That’s interesting.

Shutt:

Desk-checking isn’t done anymore by many people. We don’t do it anymore. But it was more common then. Of course, you started with a flow chart. You implemented the flow chart with a program; you gave the program to someone else to look at; and then—and only then—did you start paying the big money for the computer. And part of writing a program was to design a test program for it. Another part of it was documenting it—well—so that someone else would be able to maintain it if they needed to. We had a job with the Air Force at Hanscom Field, ray-tracing applications. We had something we did for one of the people we knew at Harvard, which we wrote for Univac; and then rewrote it for a 7090 at MIT; and then rewrote it for a 7090 or 709 or something out at University of Rochester—same program; and rewrote it for a PC [for the Air Force].

Abbate:

Wow.

Shutt:

Yes. That was the last thing we did.

I did some work for Sanders Associates in those days, and that was a customer that we had had when I was in the Computing Services Department at Raytheon, when he also worked at Raytheon. We did some for Litton. Lots of mathematical equations: solving simultaneous differential equations, usually, and numerical integration kind of things; matrix solutions; all sorts of mathematics.

And then, all of a sudden, we didn’t have any more work. In the early ‘70s . . .

Computer Recession in the 1970s

Abbate:

There was a little computer recession then.

Shutt:

There was a lull. And the kind of computing that people were doing was business applications, using COBOL. We didn’t know beans about COBOL! But we’d always said, “We will program in any language. We’ve learned lots of languages, and we will not charge you for the time it takes us to learn.” So that had worked fairly well. And I remember Elaine and I having lunch one day, and saying, “You know, we have to pay $300 a year in Massachusetts corporate income tax, and we’re not getting any money in, and we should let this go another year and then just close our doors. But first, let’s see if we can get some work in business applications.”

As I said, most of our work in the past had been from people who knew we’d done this, or knew we did that, or mentioned it to somebody, or heard about it; somebody at MIT had mentioned it in a lecture, that there was a group of women who programmed. So [laughing at her abrupt change of strategy] we called Data General—you know Data General? They had a computer, a mini—the Nova—and they didn’t have any programming support. Digital did. Digital had programmers; Data General didn’t—I mean, they didn’t have customer support programmers. So we just called them. They said that they would tell their clients about us, and sure enough, they mentioned us to Dean Junior College, which is in Franklin, Mass. They had a Data General machine, which they had bought to use to teach programming to their students, but they wondered if they couldn’t use it for some of their own stuff; and that was our first business application.

The way we got that was to bid quite low. For something like a couple thousand dollars, we wrote a program that sent bills to the mothers and fathers! [laughs.] I felt a little guilty about that. We went from that to their academic records. We generated report cards and calculated grade-point averages, and then we did their payroll for them. Their payroll was very interesting, because they had students who were working to pay off their tuition, you know—it was the most complicated payroll system I’d ever seen! We did that on that Data General machine, using a FORTRAN program, “FORTRAN Business . . . .” I can’t remember what it was called. We didn’t use COBOL, we used something that was superimposed on FORTRAN that did business applications, had the kind of orders you would want for that.

That got us started again. We had a lot of work from Dean Junior College, and then we got other jobs that were business applications. Then the husband of someone who once worked for us called me from Sanders and said, “Are you still doing things?” And we said “Yes,” and he said, “Well, we need people,” and so I sent a couple of people up there, and we’ve sort of been there off and on ever since. That job was COBOL.

Abbate:

Was that your first COBOL job?

Shutt:

That was our first COBOL. We hated it! Oh, we hated it. But after you’d been using it a while, it kind of grew on you. [laughs.] It’s a wonderful compiler; it does a lot of error-checking.

How did we get the Harvard job? Barbara Wade, who has been working for us all these years, was in at Harvard on the computer with that differential equations job we did for the Harvard person—the one that we did and redid so often. Someone walked in whom she had known in first grade, who said “Oh, I work at the Business School now, and they need programmers. We’ll call you.” So that’s how we got that. It’s interesting how you get work.

With one exception that comes to mind, we didn’t have people working for us who absolutely had to work. The exception was a single mother who worked for us full-time for several years. Most of our employees were willing, when we had work, to work; and when we didn’t have it, they were willing to sit and wait.

Abbate:

Did the people who worked for you plan to work for a few years part-time and then go back to the workplace, or did they plan to do this as long as their kids were at home?

Shutt:

I don’t know what their plans were. Some of them have gone back. When I decided that I would like to share the ownership of this corporation with some of the people who were working so hard for it—Elaine Kamowitz and Ann Curby—I offered them each shares in the company, which they accepted. Ann eventually decided she wanted to go back to working full-time, and so she sold her shares to Elaine. The gal who worked for us while her mother was ill eventually went back to full-time work. The woman who wanted so badly to learn to program, and managed to learn it with us, eventually went into a full-time job. I can’t say that they planned it, but maybe they did; I don’t know. I don’t know quite how to answer that. We certainly had people who worked for us when they needed to work part time, and then went out [into full-time jobs]. But I have a good feeling about that; I think they were able to go out into work that they could never have done [otherwise]. We have a young woman working for us now who has gotten a lot of good experience with us. I’m not sure that the work she’s doing is going to last as long as she’s going to want to work, but she’s got database experience now that will be invaluable, and she can get a good job. She’s using Sequel.

Abbate:

You were in contact, I guess in the early ‘70s, with another woman who had started a kind of similar company in England . . .

Shutt:

Steve Shirley.

Abbate:

How did you find—how did you get in touch with her?

Shutt:

A young woman from England, who was working on a research grant, was in this country, found out about us, and interviewed me. She told me that there was a similar company in England: Freelance Programmers, Limited. She let Steve Shirley, who was the head of that, know about me, and there was some correspondence between us. Some of the people from that company had visited this country. One of them, Ann Leach, had lunch with Elaine and me at one time. They started much the way we did, providing work for women to do at home. And for men: they had a disabled man who worked for them. They became much bigger than we did. They wanted to become bigger.

Abbate:

Were there other ways the companies were different? In the type of work they did?

Shutt:

I’m not sure, because I don’t know quite enough about the kind of jobs they did. Certainly the jobs I heard about were similar to the kinds of things we were doing—although they developed a program which they then marketed. My understanding of it is that they had a program that they had developed, which they thought would be interesting to other people, and they proceeded to try to interest people in it.

They were much more aggressive about finding work—looking for work—than we were. We were really pretty laid-back about it. We were called “the pregnant programmers”—that was because of the Business Week article that coined that phrase, and we did produce a lot of children. We had five little girls born in 1960, among our employees. The approach of the group in England was different, I think. I’m not interested in business, and management, and that kind of thing, very much. Just interesting work.

Abbate:

Did any of your employees go on to start their own companies?

Shutt:

No. No, and they’ve had great loyalty to me. We have situations from time to time where we do work for someone: one of the kinds we do is for a company that has its own programming staff, but they have a peak overload and they need to temporarily supplement it, and they would call us in. Another kind of work we did was for companies that didn’t have their own computer or own staff at all, and they would call us in for the programming, and then we would arrange to rent computer time somewhere. And on several occasions, we have had clients who have tried to hire away from us one of our employees—which is I think called “piracy”—but our people have been very loyal. They’ve said, “No, I work for Comp Inc.”

Abbate:

How the Industry has changed

How do you think Comp Inc. has changed over the years?

Shutt:

Has changed? [pauses] You know, interestingly enough, I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot. The field has changed. Certainly it has changed in that when we work for someone now, they usually provide us with office space, and we work there, and we are away from home during the day; we work business hours, regular work hours. In the early days, we didn’t. In the early days, we would go in to see the client and find out what his needs were, and then go away, and come back with the finished product. I guess this is the way it has changed: our clients tend to think of us as contract employees, really. We have no benefits, we come and go on our own hours, we’re flexible—but they want us there. They want us there.

Abbate:

Was there ever a stage when you were working at home, but with terminals dialing in to computers?

Shutt:

Yes, we do that some now. On the Harvard job we did a lot of that. In fact, I got my modem because of that Harvard job. But it hasn’t worked too well with the job I have at Sanders.

Abbate:

So telecommuting—in the sense people think of it, as being with a terminal and the computer somewhere else—has not really been very common?

Shutt:

Well, I think it is, but it isn’t what I’ve done so much. As I say, at the Harvard job, Elaine works a lot at home. But they like to have us in an office where they can stop by and say, “Can you do such-and-such and such-and-such?” So that we do work at home as well as there, but . . .

The Sanders job—I was ill a year or so ago, and they gave me all kinds of permission to work at home, but it was not very satisfactory. For one thing, by the time I got clearance to do all the things I wanted to do . . . It was difficult. I wasn’t authorized to do this or that—you know, they guard very jealously their access. You’d have to work for a company—Joanne Pratt could tell you more about this—but you’d have to work for a company that was really set up to do this kind of thing.

Abbate:

Do you think part-time work is more common now in the computer industry?

Shutt:

I think it’s more common now—but it’s still not as common as it should be. And they still baulk at shared jobs, which I think would be a very good thing to do. One thing about this company is, we have always had too much or too little work to do. It’s very difficult to keep it even.

So, you asked how it’s changed. Certainly the fact that we don’t work at home as much is a big change. We don’t have the same necessity to be at home. One thing I discovered, even in the early days, is that some people like to work to get out of the house—it wasn’t as important for some as for others—and to be with other people.

Abbate:

Other adults.

Shutt:

If you’re just working all by yourself all the time, it’s a little different. Now, the telecommuting jobs, a lot of those people, I think, are by themselves a lot.

Abbate:

Interesting point.

Shutt:

So it’s changed from that point of view. And as far as my little company is concerned, it’s changed in that we are all older. For a while we were hiring lots of new people and working them in, and we decided not to do that, and we’re not looking for more work now; we’re just going to sort of close shop when the jobs are finished. We’re all old enough to retire. 

But there have been people who have gotten started in the field thanks to us, and that’s a nice feeling. There are people who have had much more creative and meaningful things to do than they would have otherwise, and that’s a nice feeling. And we still enjoy the work. I enjoy it; Elaine enjoys it. Elaine decided a couple years ago she was going to retire, but she changed her mind! [laughs.] I think I’ll miss it. I think I’ll miss it, but . . .

Work and Family

Abbate:

It sounds like you’ve had a lot of support from your family for keeping up with your career. You’ve talked about your husband, and you had mentioned somewhere else that your mother had helped out, I guess in the ‘60s, with child care.

Shutt:

Yes, when my mother retired from her work she moved up here, and she had an apartment on the common in Harvard, and my children used to walk home and stop and get a little sustenance on the way home from school. [To her son:] Right, John?

Abbate:

How important do you think that was for you, in terms of being able to keep up working all that time?

Shutt:

Oh, it certainly wasn’t necessary. It was nice, it was wonderful, but it wasn’t necessary, because I had found a wonderful babysitter. She was a World War I British war bride, and she loved children, and she took care of my children every Wednesday, for at least part of the day—sometimes at her home, sometimes here. This was before my mother retired. I had her signed up for every Wednesday, so that if someone called and said, “Can you come in? I have a job,” I’d say, “I can come in on Wednesday.” I wouldn’t have to say [here she adopts a very tentative voice]: “I’ll see if I can arrange a baby sitter.” So that—and the fact that I went to the computer at night—that was good enough. Once a week was good enough.

But once my mother moved up here, I think it was good for the children to know their grandmother. Phil’s parents were in Indiana, and then in Washington, and then in Florida; my mother was in Baltimore . . . There were no relatives here. That I think is one of the problems today, that you don’t have the extended families that you used to have. I don’t know whether you knew your cousins or not; I grew up in a place where my cousins lived in the same city. These kids don’t even know their cousins.

I don’t think there was any organized day care that was available when my children were little, in this area. I did a lot in the town, too—you know, I was on the nursery school board and so forth. When they were four, they went to nursery school; and when they were five they went to nursery school—in fact, they didn’t have a public kindergarten in this town until after my children were too old for it. The years when they were going to nursery school were in some ways more difficult than when they were little babies, because they had to be taken and called for, and it was only three hours.

I don’t know, I’ve lost the original question, I guess . . .

Abbate:

I was just asking about . . .

Shutt:

Child care, availability of child care. I think what we need is day care centers in the companies; that’s so important. Someone asked me, if I were forty years younger, what would I do? I probably would keep working, and send my children [to day care]—if there were day care in the company. . . . I don’t know. I read an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I very much admired, when my children were little. They said, “Mrs. Roosevelt, what would you do differently if you had your life to live over again?” And she said, “I’d spend more time with my children when they were little,” and I thought, “Aha!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well, it would be nice to have the option, which is what you were sort of setting up.

Shutt:

There was a young woman working at Sanders who had a child, a baby, and they let her work part-time for a while, but then they cut that off. They didn’t let her continue to do that.

There was another woman who worked at Raytheon, who wanted to continue to work after her child was born, so I hired her. She did the same Raytheon work that she had done before, but on our payroll. That’s the only time I’ve done that. I wasn’t involved with what she was doing, but I had done some work for her supervisor, and had worked with her on this project. Then the thing that I was working on was finished, and she was still working there, and then she stopped when her baby was born, and they wouldn’t take her back. So she worked for me.

Women and Technology Today

Abbate:

Do you think computer jobs have gotten more or less open to women?

Shutt:

More or less open . . . ?

Abbate:

Open to women, or welcoming to women. I’ve gotten a lot of different opinions on that.

Shutt:

Okay, I know you’ve mentioned that and I’ve tried to think about it . . . . There certainly are a lot of capable women working as programmers in the places where I’ve been. My feeling is: first it was all women, and then it was fewer women, and now it’s more equal. That’s what I think I’m seeing. There was prejudice against hiring women because they were going to go have children and leave, and I don’t think that prejudice is there as much today, because there are enough women in higher-level places who have children who are still working. They let you work right up to the day before your baby’s born now, too. I had to stop three months ahead; it was a state law. So I stopped—and got some jobs [on my own]! [laughs.] I guess that would be my answer. The thing that I say that surprises everyone is that I thought it was a woman’s field at first, and I do think it was. And then men discovered that it was really interesting.

Abbate:

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

Shutt:

The excitement of designing a system, and implementing it, and seeing it work really nicely. I like design.

Abbate:

You’re seeing it through from start to finish.

Shutt:

Yes. Finding out what the problem is; analyzing it; designing something that will make it work; and then doing it. And seeing it work, and having a client who’s happy with it. That’s very satisfying.

Sometimes the programming is more interesting than others. We did some things in the software field that were sort of tests: testing things; testing the hardware with a software program. That was kind of boring. I like a challenging application. How can you design a file to do it; what should you keep . . . One of the problems that we didn’t get to solve (because they decided not to do anything with it) was people who have summer addresses. It was a big file that included people’s addresses who had to be contacted to raise money for a college, and during part of the year they had a different address. How do you keep that in a file, and how do you decide which address to use? We never did get to do that, and I think about it every once in a while, keep thinking of a new way we could have done that.

Abbate:

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

Shutt:

I would say: Go after it! Don’t be afraid to major in something in college that will lead you to this. I think if there have been fewer women than men [in computing], it’s because they’ve been discouraged back at the education level—from majoring in math, or engineering, or computer science.

It’s fascinating work, and they should certainly not hesitate to do it. You can work for yourself; you can try that. I did! [laughs] That can work, too.

Abbate:

Thank you very much.