IEEE

Oral-History:Anita Borg

SHARE |

From GHN

(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
(Growing Up and Moving All Over the US)
(College Years)
Line 81: Line 81:
 
Well, yes, the math in particular. I was interested in lots of things. I think by the time I was in high school, I had actually had a couple of bad experiences with the English end of my classes, and so that bad experience probably nudged me more towards the math and science.
 
Well, yes, the math in particular. I was interested in lots of things. I think by the time I was in high school, I had actually had a couple of bad experiences with the English end of my classes, and so that bad experience probably nudged me more towards the math and science.
  
==College Years==
+
===College Years===
  
 
'''Abbate:'''
 
'''Abbate:'''
Line 121: Line 121:
 
'''Borg:'''
 
'''Borg:'''
  
I didn’t declare a major. I think you had to declare one by your junior year, and I kept going to whatever advisor had to sign, and I’d be signing up for the next advanced math courses, and I remember the advisor saying, “Why don’t you just go to the math advisor?” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know what I want to major in. I’m not sure yet.” He’d say, “I don’t know anything about these math courses,” and I’d say, “I know what I should take; it says in the book.” And he’d say, “Oh, all right,” and he’d sign up for me.  
+
I didn’t declare a major. I think you had to declare one by your junior year, and I kept going to whatever advisor had to sign, and I’d be signing up for the next advanced math courses, and I remember the advisor saying, “Why don’t you just go to the math advisor?” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know what I want to major in. I’m not sure yet.” He’d say, “I don’t know anything about these math courses,” and I’d say, “I know what I should take; it says in the book.” And he’d say, “Oh, all right,” and he’d sign up for me.
  
 
==Stepping into the Data Processing Field==
 
==Stepping into the Data Processing Field==

Revision as of 17:06, 17 April 2012

Contents

About Anita Borg

Anita Borg Naffz was born on January 17, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, she grew up and traveled with her family all over the US. She received her Ph.D. in computer science from New York University and embarked on a trailblazing research career in computing and technology. Anita Borg became a pillar of strength for women in the field of computing and technology, founding several important communities and organizations that would change the lives of many women in the field, bringing them closer together to share their accomplishments, ideas, fears and successes as women working in and with technology.

Borg founded the Systers online community in 1987. In 1994, Anita co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 1997, she founded the Institute for Women and Technology. Anita Borg died of brain cancer in 2003. After her death, the Institute was renamed the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

In this interview, Borg talks about her childhood, her parents' influence on her views on life and success, her college years, and how she got involved in the field of data processing and computing. Borg discusses the founding of Systers and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She also reflects on her career, sharing her opinion on women in computing.

About the Interview

ANITA BORG: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 5 January 2001

Interview # 580 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics 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:

Anita Borg, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Anita Borg
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 5 January 2001
PLACE: Palo Alto, CA

Growing Up and Moving All Over the US

Abbate:

I’ll start with your family background. You were born in 1949 in Chicago?

Borg:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did you grow up there?

Borg:

Outside of Chicago. We moved when I was about one year old, to Palatine. At that time it was a small town, with both farms and commuters, about 35 miles outside of the city. My Dad commuted into the city. Now it’s part of Chicago. But we lived outside of the town in a little area, so it was very neat; it felt like living in the country. There were farms around, and lots of cornfields, and a racehorse farm. We could run around loose, so we loved it.

We were there till I was twelve, although we took a year off in 1959-1960. We camped across the country and then lived in Hawaii for a year. I went to fifth grade in a bizarre place in Hawaii: having grown up in a place that was entirely white, in the middle of Illinois, we went to a working-class school on the windward side of Oahu that had every race you could imagine. It was quite an eye-opening situation for me and for my family. In order to get us back to Chicago, my grandparents bribed my folks and said, “If you come back, we’ll treat you to two months in Europe in the summer.” So they pulled us out of school early, and we went to Europe for a couple of months, and then came back to the Chicago area. That lasted for a couple of years—because once we’d done that, there was no way my parents wanted to live in Illinois anymore, and we wound up moving to Washington state. One winter my Dad just got in the car and drove to the west coast. The plan was for him to start from Vancouver, go south, and find us a place to live. He got as far as Mukilteo, Washington, which is about 25 miles north of Seattle, and loved it. He called Mom and said, “Put the house on the market; I bought one.” As soon as school was out, we moved. We were an adventurous family.

Abbate:

Sounds like it! Now, what did your parents do for a living?

Borg:

Mom was a housewife until we got out to Washington, and then she worked for Boeing for a while. Dad did a variety of different things. He started out as a salesman for a family company, the Fredrick Post Company, which was a company that sold drafting materials; he worked for them for a while. Then he sold furniture and school furniture in Illinois. In Hawaii he was a used car salesman, which was hysterical—he just never matched the image—he probably gave cars away to people! When we moved to the west coast, to Washington, he started learning how to build houses. He built us a house, and then we moved in and he sold the last one, and then he built another one and we moved in. He was semi-retired, but doing things with investing. They lived fairly frugally, and had a ball.

Abbate:

How big was your family?

Borg:

I have one sister.

They really had a good time. Their attitude about life was always that you should have a good time. My mother’s parents thought my father was a bum, and they just didn’t understand. They had come through the Depression, and you were supposed to work hard! But my sister and I feel absolutely blessed that we had parents that way. We both went in really different directions, but we both wound up really adventurous about what we did. They taught us that we could do anything we wanted, and if we failed, well, what the heck? You try something else. And that was always the attitude that they had. They never pushed us into anything in particular, but told us if you want to do it, try it; what the heck.

Abbate:

You had mentioned in another interview that your mother taught you to love math, or that math was fun. How did she do that? Was she involved in math?

Borg:

Not particularly. It was kind of subtle, it was one of these things where I just remember that when I’d come up to her with homework, she would be curious about it. It was clear that she hit a problem when she got to calculus, but by the time I got there, enjoying math wasn’t an issue for me. She liked the idea of puzzles, and I got that from her: that math was just fun puzzles. So when she was trying to help me with homework (which seems to be different from the way homework goes today), there was no sense of fear of it that got across. So that was really nice. I very much appreciate that from her.

Abbate:

You were always interested in math and science as a kid?

Borg:

Well, yes, the math in particular. I was interested in lots of things. I think by the time I was in high school, I had actually had a couple of bad experiences with the English end of my classes, and so that bad experience probably nudged me more towards the math and science.

College Years

Abbate:

Interesting. When did you first use a computer? Was there some point before college?

Borg:

No. Never in college, either.

Abbate:

Never in college?

Borg:

Well, that’s not true. Not in my first two years of college. And then I quit college for a couple of years.

Abbate:

So the first two years were at the University of Washington?

Borg:

Right.

Abbate:

That was 1967–1969, something like that?

Borg:

Right.

Abbate:

So you weren’t majoring in computer science?

Borg:

I didn’t declare a major. I think you had to declare one by your junior year, and I kept going to whatever advisor had to sign, and I’d be signing up for the next advanced math courses, and I remember the advisor saying, “Why don’t you just go to the math advisor?” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know what I want to major in. I’m not sure yet.” He’d say, “I don’t know anything about these math courses,” and I’d say, “I know what I should take; it says in the book.” And he’d say, “Oh, all right,” and he’d sign up for me.

Stepping into the Data Processing Field

Borg:

At that time I was married—I got married much too young—and my husband was two years older. He graduated from college and went to New York to graduate school. I quit school and was going to—in those days, you know: work and put hubby through graduate school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. What kind of job could I get without a degree or anything? A friend of mine said, “Get into data processing!” [Thoughtfully]: “Data processing? O.K.”

When I got to New York, I was so incredibly naive, it was just amazing. I didn’t know how to look for a job. So I looked in the newspapers. It was still in the days when the ads were separated: jobs for men, jobs for women.

Abbate:

Really.

Borg:

Yes. I don’t know how much longer that lasted; not that long. I found a bunch of jobs, and I wrote letters—hand-written letters! I didn’t know you were supposed to type these things, I didn’t know that there was a form for these things; it was like a hand-written letter from a high-school kid looking for a job. When I think back, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to get one of those [as an employer]. If I got one of those I might have to call the person in, just because it reminded me of me!

The first job I got was some kind of job where they were going to train me to do Fortran, and I was going to do something for them. I took the Fortran class, and then over the long weekend I went to Woodstock. When I came back, I got sick as a dog and turned out to have mono; I was sick for six weeks and lost the job.

The next job was “girl Friday” for the data processing department of a small insurance company. I took the job because they promised that they would teach me programming and eventually I would become a programmer—which I didn’t. I did a bunch of programming work, but I was still categorized as a clerk and paid as a clerk. About that time I got divorced, and I quit and went back to school. But while I was there, I got hold of some COBOL Program Instruction manuals. They were like what you get on a computer now [for instructional software]: “Answer these questions. If you get the answer right, go to page this; if you got it wrong, go to page whatever.” So I taught myself basic COBOL and started doing some programming, and then they put me to work, having taught myself this language. It was funny: I did a project, and they were complaining because it took so long; it took twice as long as they expected it to take. Now I know that only twice as long as what I said I thought it would take was a miracle, given that I’d never done anything like this before!

Going Back to School-PhD work at NYU

Then I went back to school. I had been accepted to NYU originally when I was coming to New York, but we’d decided that we couldn’t afford it. [This time] I wound up with scholarships. I went back and decided to major in computer science, because I wasn’t ever going to depend on anybody else to support me again. It wasn’t clear to me that math was a major that was going to give me a way to support myself, but computer science was. As it turns out, I wound up with a Ph.D. in computer science, but essentially a Masters in mathematics along the way.

Abbate:

There must have been a lot of overlap between the two majors.

Borg:

Yes. Particularly at NYU, because at NYU they just had a new computer science department that had grown out of the math department. The way it was set up in the graduate department, if your area was a systems area, in order to balance it you had to take all this theory stuff. Well, most of it was mathematics, so I took logic and automata theory and probability; so more than half of the courses that I was taking were math.

Abbate:

And you went directly from the undergraduate degree to the graduate program at NYU?

Borg:

Yes. I hadn’t actually intended to do this. I’m not sure that the professor who got me into graduate school knew what my plan was. My actual plan was to finish my undergrad degree. At that time I was living with a lawyer, and our plan was: we were going to hop in our van with our two big motorcycles, and we were going to move to Oregon. He was going to be a hippie lawyer, and I was going to be a hippie programmer, and we were going to have hippie babies and grow pot in the backyard.

Abbate:

That’s a great image!

Borg:

But I figured, what the heck, I’ll throw in one application for graduate school. I was totally test-phobic: I didn’t want to take the GRE. I think about it now, and it’s such a shame, because what could I lose? I probably would have done great, and I certainly would advise anyone who was afraid of it to just take it, but I didn’t. But at NYU, because I had been there, I didn’t have to take it. So I threw it in. I applied for the master’s program, but I applied for financial aid, and Martin Davis, who was a wonderful guy, called me in and said, “We don’t give financial aid to master’s students. Had you thought at all of going for a Ph.D.?” Because I had gotten rave reviews from my professors. Quick thinking, I said, “Oh! Well, actually, yes—sure!” (Laughs.) And all the way I’m thinking, “I’ll say anything to get them to pay for it. In a year and a half I’ll have a master’s degree, then I’ll go to Oregon. I think we can do that.”

They gave me full support, and once I was into it, I got hooked. It slowly happened. I don’t know how long it was before I thought of myself as a Ph.D. student; probably sometime in the second year. It wasn’t necessarily a happy thought. It was interesting, it was challenging, but I wasn’t sure that that was where I wanted to be until later. I was in graduate school for eight years. They had a five-year fellowship and then the money ran out. So at that point I wound up working full time and finishing my thesis, so the last three years were very part-time thesis work.

Abbate:

Were there a lot of other women in that program?

Borg:

A lot?

Abbate:

How would you characterize it?

Borg:

There were a few. My office mate was a woman. She didn’t finish. There were a cluster of women who started in the years right around me, and I think that was unusual. I think there were five or six of us that knew each other well. I always felt weird. I always felt thought of as “not serious” by the faculty. On the other hand, only part of it, I thought, was because I was female, and part of it was because I had a very different attitude about what I was doing from a lot of people. I was told that I would never get a Ph.D. with my attitude. I had an attitude sort of like my Dad’s attitude about life, which was: I told them really clearly that graduate school was a five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day job, and I was going to go have fun on the weekends. I was going to go ride motorcycles, I was going to paddle kayaks, I was going to do all the other stuff that I do. I had a relationship, I had a life. And who knows—you could get run over by a truck, why should I wreck my life to get a Ph.D.? The idea that you have to turn yourself into some sort of graduate student all the time is, I think, very foolish. I think it’s foolish of departments and it’s foolish of students. Unfortunately, they get stuck in a position where they don’t have a choice.

There was a professor who told me that I would never get a Ph.D. And I said, “Yes, I will! It may take me a long time, but I will get it.” And it may be that I didn’t create the most fabulous thesis—although my advisor thought it was pretty damn good. Unclear that the rest of the department did, but . . . .

Abbate:

Your work was on operating systems?

Borg:

Yes.

Abbate:

How did you pick that?

Borg:

It was a winding course. Initially I was interested in languages and compiling and AI, as they come together around languages for AI. But there was only one professor there who was interested in anything related to this, and he was doing automatic theorem proving, and I wasn’t at all interested in what he had in mind. I did a little bit of work with him on mechanisms for dealing with parallel languages, but he really wasn’t following that, and I just didn’t want to work with him.

At that time a new young professor, Gerald Belpaire, showed up, who had a much more interesting way of thinking about parallelism, and we started talking about that. He was interested in it in the context of operating systems, so I got more interested in the topic. I didn’t know anything about operating systems, and I never took an operating systems course. He and I became very close friends and talked about all this stuff together.

It was very disturbing, because he wound up not getting rehired. At that time NYU had been a mill for new professors; they just hired people and kicked them out: “Well, not that one. No, not that one . . . ” He had a very different attitude from Jack Schwartz about operating systems, and Jack had a much more powerful position. It’s funny: the night before, we had gone out and had drunk a bottle of champagne to celebrate that we were going to work together. The next day, he got the letter saying that he wasn’t going to be renewed. But we decided to go ahead, and I got somebody else to act as my official advisor, and Gerald was the real one.

My thesis was fairly theoretical; somewhere between practical and theoretical work, trying to figure out how synchronization mechanisms worked. I had never really looked at a real operating system, so it was very theoretical in that sense. When I got out and got a job for a startup actually building one, it was a whole different ballgame. Then I learned about the real world. That’s where the real fun started.

Working on Operating Systems at Auragen

Abbate:

That was Auragen?

Borg:

Auragen, yes.

Abbate:

Well, that sounds clearly related to your thesis work, because you were building an operating system for Auragen.

Borg:

You bet.

Abbate:

What was that called? It eventually became a product, this operating system?

Borg:

It eventually became a product for Nixdorf called TARGON. We were creating a fault-tolerant operating system. The founder of Auragen thought that it would be easy to create a cheaper computing system with Tandems. We'd just use off-the-shelf parts—e.g., 68000 processors—rather than custom hardware: quick and dirty. This was somebody who didn’t understand that there was software involved! But we had a really great team. I think I was the eleventh person, and there were three of us looking at software initially, and it was wonderful fun. We had some really, really good ideas. The idea was to embed all the fault tolerance in the operating system, so you could just run ordinary programs, and if the hardware failed, you wouldn’t notice it. Your program didn’t have to be programmed differently. And that was different from Tandem. We didn’t really understand how hard what we were trying to do was. It was brilliant. . . . Unfortunately, we didn’t understand very much about startups, either.

Abbate:

Because this was only 1981 or so.

Borg:

We didn’t know anything. If we’d had a little more time, it would have been great. As it was, it was good.

When the company went down the tubes, Nixdorf stepped in. It had been an investor and had the right to the technology; they had done some parallel development along the way. I was the only person that they hired from Auragen to come to Germany for a year and help them finish up the fault-tolerance part, because that had been the piece that was my baby. It was all sorts of things: it was a multi-processor system, it used message passing, it was fault tolerant—everything that people gave fancy names to later. We didn’t know nobody had ever invented these things. We didn’t know what we were inventing. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Presenting at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference

I was the only person who got a paper out of it, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career. The SOSP (Symposium on Operating System Principles) was coming up, and I thought, “Well, what the heck?” I whipped up a quickie little paper, which was really a terrible little paper. This was still while I was with Auragen.

Abbate:

The SOSP was put on by the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery]?

Borg:

It’s a conference done by the ACM, and it was the top operating systems conference. I didn’t really know that, I just—well, maybe I did know that. I threw in the paper. (The company knew so little, they didn’t know that they shouldn’t even let me write a paper about what we were doing, because most startups would never let you write this kind of stuff.) I got a letter back from Jim Gray, I think, or maybe it was Al Specter—one of the greats—saying, “Well, we see that the ideas are great, but the paper really needs work, so we’re going to give you a shepherd to help you put together a good paper.” I worked really hard on this paper and created a good paper. I was told later that if the final paper had been the original paper, it would have been a candidate for one of the best papers in the conference. I’d never given a paper before; I’d never even given a talk before; and I gave a stunning paper, a stunning talk, to three hundred of the top people in operating systems. Suddenly I was on the map.

That was 1983. In 1985 I went to Germany, and when I came back, I went to a conference in Asilomar, California and met a bunch of people who were doing fault-tolerant stuff. After a year in Germany in the rain, I was in Asilomar in March, and I was walking on the beach with famous computer scientists in the sun, thinking, “I have to move to California!” I wandered around saying, “I need a job” and wound up getting a job with DEC, at the Western Research Lab. So doing that work, writing that paper. . . I had never really thought about what I was going to do, I never had a plan for my career: things just kind of happened. It feels that way, anyway.

Working at Digital Equipment Corporation

Abbate:

So you ended up at DEC, and you were working on performance analysis of memory systems. Can you explain what that is?

Borg:

Well, initially I was hired there to work on operating systems. But the multiprocessor that we were building was just not far out, so we cancelled it. So I was out of a project, wandering around talking to people, trying to figure out what to do. The work I ended up doing came out of an elevator conversation with my boss. We were going to be working on a single-processor machine, and there was no need for the kind of work that I had been doing. But it was going to be extremely fast, and it was going to need multiple levels of caches. The question was, how should those caches be structured? The idea is that you have different levels of memories: the closer they are to the processor, the faster they are and the more expensive they are, while plain old memory is far away and slow. So how do you structure them, and how fast are they? You can't build a whole bunch [of the fastest caches], because it is too expensive.

The way they’d figured this out in the past was to simulate it. The problem was that the huge caches we could build could hold much more data than was available [for simulation tests]. At that time they just tacked small data sets together to get a lot of data, but the result did not represent reality. In addition, the current data collection mechanisms didn't allow us to get full data for multiple programs simultaneously running.

David Wall and I came up with a way of collecting real traces from real, big programs that were hugely bigger than anybody else had done before. We figured out a way to collect the traces; then stop that and bring in the program that would simulate the cache, without disturbing what we were collecting before; and then trace again for a while. Which may not seem weird—but it’s extremely difficult, because you’re running a test program and paying attention to what the state of the memory is, and then you toss it out and use the memory to run something else (the simulator), and then you bring the test program back in again. The longest traces that anybody had ever worked with before were maybe a million memory references, and that was considered long. We simulated traces of ten billion references, but could simulate till the cows came home! We could run an arbitrarily complex set of real programs and get all the memory references. The next plan was to bring the operating system references in. I had that designed and turned it over to a wonderful graduate student, Brad Chen, who did his Ph.D. on it at CMU [Carnegie Mellon University].

At that point I was getting interested in building Mecca for Systers.

Creating Systers

Abbate:

Can you explain what Mecca is?

Borg:

Well, it’s old, at this point. At that point, the email system for Systers—you have to remember that this is pre-Web—

Abbate:

Let’s back up a little. You created Systers in 1987 as a mailing list for women computer professionals.

Borg:

Right. At that point it started out just for women in operating systems research.

Abbate:

Hence the name “Systers.”

Borg:

Right. Then it was women in computing research, and it just expanded and expanded, and it eventually got to be women in computing.

Abbate:

Why did you start that?

Borg:

Have you heard the bathroom story?

Abbate:

I don’t think I have.

Borg:

(Laughs.) I’ve told it so many times, I’m surprised that nobody’s heard it. I was at SOSP in Austin in 1987. I always look at the list of attendees to see how many women are there. Of four hundred attendees, there were only about thirty women. I ran into a friend of mine in the bathroom. We began talking about why there were so few women. Each time someone came in, she joined the conversation. It’s a little bathroom with only two stalls, and we wound up with about eight of the women from the conference crammed in there, talking about it! We said, “You know, we should meet somewhere else. Why don’t we try to get all the women at the conference to come to dinner together?” We decided to wander around and find every woman and tell her to come to dinner a little bit early; we would take over two tables and meet each other. We got, I think, all but two of the women, and it was great. Anita Jones, Barbara Liskov were there; everything from graduate students, to me in the middle, to these senior women. It was so extraordinary that I collected their email addresses (for those who had it—not everybody had email at that point, or some had email, but it was just inside their companies) and set up a mailing list and came up with this funny little name.

We didn’t really have a sense of how to use it, so I would try to keep it going. I’d ask some question, or encourage a question to be asked. Then a few friends of mine who weren’t in operating systems—Barbara Simons and I don’t remember who else; other women in research—said, “Why operating systems? You don’t just talk about operating systems, do you?” So I said, “No. OK, we’ll open it.” It grew step by step as women asked to join. They needed it; they needed the connection. It is now limited to "technical women in computing."

I think the most extraordinary time for us, in a way, was probably when it was about a few hundred people. It was more of a little community. On the other hand, it was clear that opening it up wider has done something incredible for women in the field. Before Systers existed, there was no community of women in computing. It didn’t exist. We all existed as individuals: we had a few women that we knew, but there was no community. There was no notion of how many women were out there, doing what.

Systers has changed considerably. A lot of the women who were there initially have moved off, because there are too many people there, and it’s hard to manage right now. There’s now a project to revamp Mecca, because Mecca just doesn’t serve the needs. In fact, it acts just about like an email list right now, because the things that I built didn’t get carried on to the state they should be.

Developing Mecca

Abbate:

And Mecca, you developed that at DEC?

Borg:

Yes. I had a bunch of ideas about the way email should work, and I assumed (since I didn’t know anything about how email worked) that somebody must have done it, because it was so obvious. And then I asked around, and it turned out no, nobody had done this; nobody has still done this. The idea was that everybody could have a profile about themselves. On the basis of the profiles, you could send mail to everybody who was in the operating systems field, or who was at a particular place, by just putting a header in your email. You could filter your mail—not at your site, but at the local center. That was really important to me. We had people on all sorts of systems; we had people who had very poor connections, who had just occasional connections, who had to be able to filter their mail, who couldn’t get all that mail; and it was really important to serve them well, and not to overwhelm them; to allow them to be part of the community without getting gobs of mail. If they wanted to go look at the mail, they could look at it somewhere else, and just get the kind that they wanted. So I was trying to build a system that served a very broad group. Most of the email systems that were being built at that time were built to serve people inside a company, where everyone had the same kind of base systems.

I thought it was really great—remember, this was before the Web. Unfortunately, I wound up not getting the kind of support I needed from my management. It was a very difficult situation where I was being told that I was getting the support, but I wasn’t. If I had been told that I wasn’t getting the support, I could have worked it differently. But it was an unpleasant situation for a while.

Hitting the Glass Ceiling and Leaving DEC

Abbate:

So is that why you decided to leave DEC?

Borg:

Eventually. That was one of the reasons that I left that particular lab. It was a couple more years before I left DEC. I sometimes am amazed that I stuck it out as long as I did. Because after that, I hit a glass ceiling. I had helped put together a group to work on a new project. Mecca was working, it was OK; I was trying to get some other people to get involved in holding it together, doing a little work on it on the side, because I had wanted to turn it into a product; but that didn’t happen. So then I went off to do this other thing, which had been somebody else’s idea, but he said he didn’t really want to drive it, and I got it. I loved it, and I pulled together a team of people—who never would have worked together before—and talked to the product groups, talked to all these people, got everybody excited. They were charged, they really wanted to do it.

Then the head of Research called me in and let me know that they actually needed somebody older—with gray hair, who was male—to run it. The person he had in mind actually didn’t really want to; he was the guy who had the original idea. It wound up ending the project—which should have been handled completely differently, even if the company didn’t want to build it at that time. I probably could have fought it, but what’s the purpose of doing something like this unless you have the full support of the people around you? It never would have worked. Anyway, I felt like I had my breath kicked out of me.

Abbate:

Was that the first real encounter with gender discrimination you had had?

Borg:

Yes, it was the first time that it really felt like that to me. I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They just thought that I didn’t have enough experience. And yet I think that if a man with my experience had been in that position, it would have been entirely different. But having just had the breath kicked out of me, I couldn’t even say that to them.

Ideas about Women in Technology, Founding the Institute for Women and Technology

So then I went off and spent a year or so building a project called the Diversity Collection. I decided to go off and work entirely on technology for women’s stuff. I was working with Judith Klavans at Columbia University, and we were trying to get six million dollars from NSF to build an extraordinary, Web-based database of every program in the country dealing with trying to get women and minorities into science, engineering, and technology. It was going to be Web-based.

We didn’t get the money, but at about the time I heard that hadn’t worked, I read this incredible book called The Futures of Women by Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey, and that changed my life. It looks at four scenarios for the future. What it did for me was to make me realize that when we think about getting women into computing, we’re only looking at half of the picture. We’re not really looking at the other half, which is: What do women—all women—want and bring to technology? What should we be creating; how do we bring those two sides together? With the help of Barbara Fittipaldi and the Kellogg Foundation, I put together a meeting at Princeton. There were a dozen women, and I said, “Read this book, and let’s come together and just talk about it.” There was Carol Realini, who has now founded a number of successful companies; Barbara Simons was there; Judith Klavans was there, I think; I can’t remember who everyone else was. I came out of it with a title—“The Institute for Women and Technology”—and I knew that it had something to do with both sides of this issue: getting women into computing and what’s being created. The two have to go together.

Abbate:

So the point is to have women give input into the design of computer products?

Borg:

Yes. And that women do something different [with technology]. It’s not just the women who are creating it, the computer professionals; it’s all the other women, and we have to think about how the technology impacts women.

That was in about February of 1997. At that point I realized that what I wanted to do was create this institute. It was pretty clear that Digital had no interest in supporting this. I talked to John White, who at that time was heading up CSL [the Computer Science Laboratory] here at Xerox PARC; he’s now the executive director at ACM, and I’d known him for years through ACM; and Mark Weiser, who was the Chief Technologist for PARC, and he was a friend of mine as well. They “got” this idea, and got me in to talk to John Seely Brown, who headed up PARC. I must have talked to him in early summer, late spring, and it took about six months to get PARC to agree that this was some kind of reasonable thing, to hire me to do this.

Abbate:

It seems like you have funding for the Institute from a lot of different computer companies. Did they come on board right away? Was it obvious to them that this was a good idea?

Borg:

(Laughs.) Oh, no. With the exception of HP [Hewlett-Packard], every dime has been difficult. There’s usually been somebody who gets it, but figuring out which pot the money can come from is hard. HP has been extraordinary, first because of the people that we got hooked up with—

[Interruption.]

HP has been a very, very strong supporter from early on. But it’s been very hard. There’s a great woman at HP, Nancy Levitt, who just got it immediately and has been an incredible supporter all the way along. She has helped us design our programs; she’s part of us. And that’s been fabulous. I think it’s going to be easier and easier, as we have existing programs that we can show people. But as we were trying to figure out what it was we were doing, the story was hard. [As if talking to potential sponsor:] “We have this thing that we think we want to create.”

[Speaking as potential sponsor:] “Well, what is it that you’re doing?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly what I think I’m doing. I mean, I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know exactly how. Just give me some money, and we’ll be able to do it!” (Laughs.)

But now we’re starting to make some really significant progress, and that’s very, very exciting. It’s particularly exciting for me right now, being in my current health situation, knowing that I have people in place who “get it,” an advisory board and a board of trustees who can carry it forward. Hopefully I’ll be around to carry it forward, too, but I don’t know if that’s the case.

Founding the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Abbate:

Now, you also co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 1994, I guess while you were still at DEC. That was with Telle Whitney?

Borg:

Telle, yes.

Abbate:

How did that happen?

Borg:

The initial idea came from a lunch with Marlene McDaniel, who is the CEO of Women.com. I’ve known Marlene since I first moved to California. She was working for a company that was doing commercial conferences, some of the really big trade conferences, and she said, “Anita, you’ve got this group of all these women on Systers. You should start a conference and make some money.” The whole idea of making money off all these women didn't appeal to me, but the idea of a conference was pretty interesting. I thought, First of all, wouldn’t it be fun to get them all together and meet them? It would make such an even better experience for the community to get together. Then the question was, What kind of a conference could we have where somebody’s boss would pay for them to go—where you could use money that wasn’t out of your own pocket to go to this conference? And we thought: a technical conference. Wouldn’t that be extraordinary, for women to get together and hear what everybody else is doing? So there were all these possibilities. One was, what would a technical conference that was almost all female be like? Would it be the same? I don’t think so! I think it would be wildly different.

So we planned, as close as we could, a top-notch technical conference. We figured that we could probably get a couple hundred women. We hoped that we could get a couple hundred women. I called up famous women I knew, and I got Anita Jones, Fran Allen, Barbara Liskov. When I got those three to say that they would agree to be keynote or plenary speakers, I had it. Then I got money, and I got other speakers, and I got people to come.

I didn’t know exactly what we were going to get. It was really amazing. Some of our principles were: This was not going to be a half-assed conference. I’ve been to lots of get-togethers about women, and it’s always on the cheap. This was not going to be on the cheap. This was going to be at a good place. It was going to be as high-class as SOSP or any other really good computer science conference: at a nice hotel, really well done. We figured we could do that if we raised fifty or a hundred thousand dollars. We raised two hundred and fifty thousand dollars! We had room for four hundred people: we squeezed in four hundred fifty, and we had to turn away a hundred people. This was in Washington. It was extraordinary; it was absolutely extraordinary, and I am wildly, wildly proud of that, because a lot of people said it wouldn’t happen.

I’m sorry that very few men have attended. We hoped that it would be about ten percent men, but they don’t come. But we’ve gotten a fair number of the very senior men to come—and then they get it, then they understand that it’s different. I remember at the first conference hearing Ruzena Bajcsy walking along the hall, kind of mumbling under her breath, saying, “It’s so amazing! There’s no ego!” And it really, really is different. Women are there to share what they’re learning, not to beat their chests and puff up and brag about what they’re doing. They really want to share it and understand in a very, very different way. And as a result, the students learn that there’s an entirely different way of interacting. So even though they go to these other conferences, and they know that it’s rough, they see that it’s not the only way things can go. They can go to the Grace Hopper Celebration and get some strength and really make a connection with people to work with. And that has happened. It’s really great. It’s really wonderful.

Abbate:

It sounds great.

Borg:

It is wonderful.

Reflecting on Career, Women in Computing

Abbate:

I’ll ask you a few general questions about computing in general and issues for women. What would you say is the most satisfying aspect, for you, of working with computers?

Borg:

I always loved the challenge of solving a problem, initially; although later it became more and more important for it to have some use—some important use. But initially it really was the fun of solving the problem. In graduate school, I actually didn’t really enjoy it very much; I didn’t enjoy my thesis work very much. When I got into the startup, I had a great time, because building the system and getting it to work was just this great, great challenge. Figuring out the problem—that was the piece that was fun; and then building it, and making it work—especially if we thought it was something that no one else had ever done. That was fun. It was fun with the performance analysis stuff—although, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really care about the analysis at all. I was making the system work so that we generated the data that somebody else could analyze. It was the building of it that was fun for me. And then with Mecca: again, it was figuring out what was going to serve those people, figuring out how to build it, and then building it. That was the fun part.

Abbate:

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

Borg:

Hmm, I always used to! I think that it’s important not to pay too much attention to the stereotype that you somehow have to be one of these geeky guys, which is completely ridiculous. Not everybody’s like that; most people aren’t like that. Most of the places that I’ve worked in certainly have had some, but you can be anybody you want and enjoy the work. If you like it, there are people whom you’ll find who can share that enjoyment. The stereotype is just a stereotype, it’s not reality; and you shouldn’t let that hinder you.

It’s not always going to be easy. But if you enjoy it, there’s a whole lot of fun; there’s a whole lot of pleasure. And there are great things to be done. It’s hard, sometimes, to see: the way computing and technology are often taught, we lose the connection with the impact of what we’re creating. It’s a really good idea to think about all the incredible things that could be done with all of this, if you care about that; because sometimes people won’t talk about it, and it’s really important. And if that will carry you through, then hang on to it.

Abbate:

Great. Thanks very much.