IEEE

Oral-History:Barbara Simons

SHARE |

From GHN

(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
(Leaving IBM)
(Taking a package to leave IBM)
Line 667: Line 667:
 
But the SDI thing had got me interested in technology policy issues, and then, in between all this, I got involved with this crazy idea of doing a study on federal funding of academic computer science. I’m doing all this when I’m supposed to be doing research—I mean, I’m doing research too, but obviously this is taking time. During the Reagan years, as you know, a lot of money was shifted to military stuff. I hired Joel Yudken, who was just finishing his Ph.D. in Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford; he’s now with the AFL-CIO. We had an interesting time, he and I. For example, in ‘76, if you look at computer science in the United States, it was about fifty-fifty NSF/DOD; by ‘88 it was two-to-one DOD/NSF. Furthermore, a lot of DOD funding was becoming more applied. It was definitely having an impact. Joel was actually doing the work. He was interviewing people and getting information and getting statistics; at one point we had more information than anybody else did on this subject—more than the NSF, I think, because we were looking at other things.  
 
But the SDI thing had got me interested in technology policy issues, and then, in between all this, I got involved with this crazy idea of doing a study on federal funding of academic computer science. I’m doing all this when I’m supposed to be doing research—I mean, I’m doing research too, but obviously this is taking time. During the Reagan years, as you know, a lot of money was shifted to military stuff. I hired Joel Yudken, who was just finishing his Ph.D. in Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford; he’s now with the AFL-CIO. We had an interesting time, he and I. For example, in ‘76, if you look at computer science in the United States, it was about fifty-fifty NSF/DOD; by ‘88 it was two-to-one DOD/NSF. Furthermore, a lot of DOD funding was becoming more applied. It was definitely having an impact. Joel was actually doing the work. He was interviewing people and getting information and getting statistics; at one point we had more information than anybody else did on this subject—more than the NSF, I think, because we were looking at other things.  
  
===Taking a package to leave IBM ===
+
===Taking a Package to Leave IBM ===
  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
 
'''Abbate:'''  
Line 685: Line 685:
 
I was very unhappy at IBM by that point. When the stock dropped to almost zero—it was down to 40, when it had been up to 170 a year or two before—we started getting more and more pressure—especially me, because I was doing more and more policy stuff, I was doing less and less of what they wanted me to do, and the stuff I was doing wasn’t the kind they wanted me to do. I was doing compiler optimization; I was doing communicating sequential processes; but this was not mainstream theory. It was theory, but it wasn’t mainstream. So my manager starts saying, “Barbara, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to have IBM impact.” In fact, that’s what the guy said to me when he said I couldn’t run for President: “You’ve got to have more IBM impact.” Well, what is IBM impact? How do you have IBM impact? Here we are stuck in this nice building up on a hill away from the rest of IBM. What does it mean to have IBM impact?
 
I was very unhappy at IBM by that point. When the stock dropped to almost zero—it was down to 40, when it had been up to 170 a year or two before—we started getting more and more pressure—especially me, because I was doing more and more policy stuff, I was doing less and less of what they wanted me to do, and the stuff I was doing wasn’t the kind they wanted me to do. I was doing compiler optimization; I was doing communicating sequential processes; but this was not mainstream theory. It was theory, but it wasn’t mainstream. So my manager starts saying, “Barbara, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to have IBM impact.” In fact, that’s what the guy said to me when he said I couldn’t run for President: “You’ve got to have more IBM impact.” Well, what is IBM impact? How do you have IBM impact? Here we are stuck in this nice building up on a hill away from the rest of IBM. What does it mean to have IBM impact?
  
So in ‘92, it was the first package they had for people to leave IBM, and my manager comes to me and says, “I think it would be a good idea if you would take it.” Augh! On Wednesday; the deadline’s Friday. Susan Landau—I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her—was coming to visit me that day. We didn’t know each other very well. She was going to stay here, and she comes in the middle of my life being in total chaos, which she remembers quite well! I was supposed to have someone come and visit me over the summer to work with me, a guy I was working with on communicating sequential processes research. I talked to him, I think, about this too, and he came up with the suggestion that if I take the package, I should at least tell them I’d like to remain over the summer. So what happened was: on Friday, I decided to take the package, and they agreed that I could stay on over the summer. I wouldn’t be a regular Research Staff Member anymore; I’d be a visitor or whatever, so that I could continue working with Peter over the summer. I took the package on Friday. The following Thursday I get a phone call from the Vivek Sarkar, with whom I had done some research on compiler optimization, saying, “Barbara, I’m starting this new group on compiler optimization. I’d love to have you join. It’s going to be in Santa Theresa.” Vivek had been in Theory, but he had left and come back as a manager. He said he was starting this new group, and I had worked with Vivek and I really loved working with Vivek. He knows about applied stuff, but he can also talk about theoretical stuff, and we work together well. So he calls me on Thursday and says he’s starting a new group he wants me to join. “Vivek, I just left IBM!” [laughs.]  
+
So in ‘92, it was the first package they had for people to leave IBM, and my manager comes to me and says, “I think it would be a good idea if you would take it.” Augh! On Wednesday; the deadline’s Friday. Susan Landau—I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her—was coming to visit me that day. We didn’t know each other very well. She was going to stay here, and she comes in the middle of my life being in total chaos, which she remembers quite well! I was supposed to have someone come and visit me over the summer to work with me, a guy I was working with on communicating sequential processes research. I talked to him, I think, about this too, and he came up with the suggestion that if I take the package, I should at least tell them I’d like to remain over the summer. So what happened was: on Friday, I decided to take the package, and they agreed that I could stay on over the summer. I wouldn’t be a regular Research Staff Member anymore; I’d be a visitor or whatever, so that I could continue working with Peter over the summer. I took the package on Friday. The following Thursday I get a phone call from the Vivek Sarkar, with whom I had done some research on compiler optimization, saying, “Barbara, I’m starting this new group on compiler optimization. I’d love to have you join. It’s going to be in Santa Theresa.” Vivek had been in Theory, but he had left and come back as a manager. He said he was starting this new group, and I had worked with Vivek and I really loved working with Vivek. He knows about applied stuff, but he can also talk about theoretical stuff, and we work together well. So he calls me on Thursday and says he’s starting a new group he wants me to join. “Vivek, I just left IBM!” [laughs.]
  
 
===Continuing at IBM ===
 
===Continuing at IBM ===

Revision as of 19:10, 9 October 2012

Contents

About Barbara Simons

Barbara Simons received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from University of California, Berkeley in 1981. Following an on campus interview, she joined the Research Division of IBM. There she focused on compiler optimization, algorithm analysis and design and scheduling theory. Her work on clock synchronization won an IBM Research Division Award. Over her career, she became more focused on technology policy and regulations. Before she left IBM, she had been promoted to Senior Technology Advisor.

After leaving IBM, she became president of the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM). Under her direction the ACM became a more public and political organization becoming involved in shaping technology legislation. Recently, Simons has taught classes at Stanford and recently co-authored a book highlighting the flaws in electronic ballots.

In this interview, Simons touches on various topics throughout her life beginning with her early education, leaving college without a degree, returning to school, her Ph.D., her time at IBM and current interests. She goes in depth on her early research interests and her current job developing technology regulations.

About the Interview

BARBARA SIMONS: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, July 11, 2002.

Interview #629 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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

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

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

Barbara Simons an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Barbara Simons
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: July 11, 2002
PLACE: Barbara Simon’s home in Palo Alto, CA

Family and Early Life

Abbate:

It’s July 11th, and I’m speaking with Barbara Simons.

I always start at the very beginning, so can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Simons:

I was born January 26, 1941, in Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Simons:

My dad was a lawyer. Well, my dad was trained as a lawyer, but he actually ended up being—how would you call it? I’m not sure if “executive” is quite the right word, but basically, he was running non-profit Jewish institutions. When I was growing up in Cincinnati, he was the Assistant to the President of Hebrew Union College, which is the major institution for training Reform rabbis in the United States. He was the Assistant to the President, but the President, who was Nelson Gluck, was always off digging in Israel as an archaeologist, and so my dad ran the place. From there he went to Brandeis, where he was Assistant to the President, but he got tired of being under him; the President was a difficult guy to work with. Eventually my father ended up being the Executive Director of the National Jewish Hospital, the last eighteen working years of his life, and he basically took it from an institution which was on the verge of closing to a major medical research institution. He was very proud of that.

At my daughter’s wedding, my father got drunk, and when he got up to make his toast, he said, “If my name had been Heising”—which was the name of the man my daughter was marrying, although she kept the name Simons—“If my name had been Heising, I would have been Senator!” Because his name was Bluestein, and when he grew up, it was impossible for a Jew to be elected to an office like that in this country—at least, certainly, from Ohio; although there is a Jewish Senator now, I think, from Ohio. But he was always interested in politics; my mother was, too; so I grew up—in the Midwest, in the Eisenhower years, in the most conservative major city in the United States—as a liberal Democrat. We would talk about politics at the dinner table, which is something that I think most Americans still don’t do. I was always very aware. And my dad was a real good politician. That’s why he was such a good executive: because he was very good at dealing with people. I use the word “politician” in a positive way—unlike most people.

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Simons:

I have a brother, who is three-and-a-half years younger. He’s off in New York.

Abbate:

And what did he end up doing?

Simons:

He ended up getting a law degree, in spite of the fact that my father had a law degree and he didn’t really want to follow in my father’s footsteps. But he never liked the law, and he’s actually now working—has been working for a number of years—for my former husband, who, after we got divorced, went off and became extremely wealthy.

Abbate:

But nothing to do with computers.

Simons:

Well, he was a mathematician, and in fact, the major source of his wealth is a hedge fund that he started, and it’s heavily, heavily reliant on computers.

Abbate:

Ah, interesting.

Did you go to the regular public schools?

Simons:

Yes, I went to Walnut Hills. If you were from Cincinnati, you’d know about it. It’s a college preparatory public school that goes from grade seven through twelve. I had to take Latin for the first three years I was there. They had just ended their Classical Greek requirement a few years before I started.

It was an interesting place, because Walnut Hills was in a black neighborhood when I went there. It was the best black neighborhood in Cincinnati, which was a very segregated city. It was white when it was built, but it was older; it was not such a new school; and as a result, there were a number of black kids there. It’s the only time in my life when I’ve really been in a reasonably integrated environment, when I had some significant number of black friends. Also, I just assumed that all public schools had copies of Greek and Roman statues in the halls! [laughs.] With fig leaves, of course; they wouldn’t have had them without. [laughs.]

Abbate:

I don’t think that was common!

Simons:

No! I mean, it was actually a very privileged experience. And being a public school, it meant that for the first time in my life, when I started going to Walnut Hills, I met a very diverse group of kids—even though there were also ways in which we were segregated, by academic achievement and so on. But everybody had to pass a test to get into the school. When I was about to go to college, I thought, “Well, now I’ll meet some really smart people,” and I discovered that they weren’t any smarter than my friends from high school.

Math in High School

Abbate:

Were you particularly drawn to math or science in school?

Simons:

Yes. When I was younger, I was a really lousy student [laughs], and even when I got to be a bit older, I wasn’t so good; but I discovered that arithmetic, and then algebra, was just really easy. I remember when I went to take algebra in the eighth grade, I heard from everybody about how horrible algebra is. You know, everybody says, “Oh, it’s really terrible. It’s going to be a horrible experience.” I was shocked: it was just like doing puzzles; it was great fun.

Then, a couple years later, I found myself in the A.P. math class. It was the second year they had A.P. math. When I went to school, any kind of A.P. was very new; I think it started with math. It was the second year they’d had an A.P. math class, so the class before me was the first year, and it started in tenth grade, so I did grades ten through twelve. Walnut Hills was one of the first schools in the country to do it. Maybe Bronx School of Science did first, I don’t know; but it was that level.

I worked incredibly hard! All of a sudden I discovered what it meant to work hard, because we had a teacher who scared everybody. Her name was Miss Becker. She was a big woman: about six feet tall, very broad shoulders, with a booming voice. She called all the boys by their last name, all the girls by their first; I don’t know why. The first year we took this class, we had a homework assignment due every week and a test every week, and if you didn’t do your work, she gave you hell! So I would stay up really late doing my math assignments, working with a friend on the telephone sometimes.

Unfortunately, she retired after my junior year, and we had this man who wasn’t very good, who didn’t know calculus. He was supposed to teach us calculus; he did a lousy job. Then he fell out of a tree and broke his leg in the middle of the year, and she came back and was just shocked at the horrible state we were all in. I went to college shortly after that, and I have to confess that even though I have a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science, my calculus background is much spottier than it should be! [laughs.]

Abbate:

But it must have been much stronger up until the male teacher took over.

Simons:

Well, it’s kind of interesting. In the tenth grade everyone took plane geometry—both A.P. and regular—but the A.P. kids had a different book; and I would consciously put the book face-down onto my notebook so people wouldn’t see it, because I felt very awkward. I didn’t want to have the reputation for being brainy, especially because around that time you start getting interested in boys, and it was pretty clear the boys wouldn’t be interested in a girl who was smarter than they were, or at least who was better in math than they were. So I tried to hide that fact.

Abbate:

So were there not a lot of girls in the A.P. math?

Simons:

No. It started off, I think, eight girls and twenty-four boys in grade ten. By grade twelve, there were four girls and twenty boys—so the absolute loss was the same, but the percentage was much worse for the girls. It was not the done thing, even in that school. I mean math, you know; English, maybe, was okay.

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you to do math and science?

Simons:

Well, they didn’t encourage me. They were very pleased I was good at it—I mean, they encouraged me in that sense—but they didn’t push me in that direction. Neither of them—actually, I suspect my mother had some innate ability, but she never really learned math, and my dad didn’t either—so already in high school I was doing stuff they couldn’t help me with. But they were very proud of me, and I grew up in a family where education was very, very important, so I knew my job was to do well in school.

Meeting and Marrying her First Husband

Abbate:

Where did you go to college?

Simons:

I went to Wellesley for a year. My parents had known the President of Wellesley when they lived in Boston, and my dad always felt that Wellesley was exactly the ideal. It’s a beautiful place; it’s gorgeous. It was his dream of where to go to school, because he we went to the University of Cincinnati, because my parents grew up in the Depression and didn’t have much money—although my mother also got college education. She almost got a Master’s Degree, which was a bit unusual back then, when she went to school in the thirties.

I hated Wellesley! [laughs.] I’d never been in an all-women’s school, and I felt stuck out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it was beautiful, but I didn’t like it. My freshman year, I took a junior/senior math class (although I probably shouldn’t have done that; I wasn’t very good at it ) because I’d already had calculus, supposedly. Actually, the main reason I did that was: When I first went to Wellesley, my parents moved to Boston at the same time. I told you my dad was working at Brandeis as the Assistant to the President; the year I went to Wellesley was the year he took that job, so we all moved to Boston! When we got there, my mother called the mother of the man I eventually married (and got divorced from). Our mothers had lived in the same apartment building together, and he had come to my second birthday party. Anyway, my mother called her, and they fixed us up, and we went out on a blind date. He was at MIT at the time. He was a first-year graduate student in mathematics; he’d done his undergraduate degree in three years—very bright person.

We went out a little bit and didn’t hit it off too much, and we stopped seeing each other, and then I ran into him again; but before we stopped seeing each other, he encouraged me to take this junior/senior math class. He said, “Oh, you should be taking analysis! You’ve done calculus; take analysis.” It took me a long time to get the hang of analysis. It was a struggle, but I got a B; it wasn’t disgraceful. But meanwhile, the other young women in the class were thinking that I was just this brain, because I was this little freshman taking a junior/senior math classes.

Anyway, I ran into Jim again the beginning of my second semester, when I switched dorms. I ended up in a dorm where there was this woman from Bogota, Colombia whom I’d met earlier when I went out with Jim for a little bit. She was dating someone else from Colombia who was a good friend of Jim’s, and through them I ran into Jim, and we started going out again—and after four nights of going out every night, we decided to get married.

Abbate:

Wow!

Simons:

I had just turned 18. That was really dumb! He wasn’t much older; he was 21. We decided to get married, and we got engaged a few months later, and we told our parents we wanted to get married. He was going to Berkeley the following year, so we wanted to get married and have me go out to Berkeley with him. My parents thought I was too young. So we eloped! Actually, we came to California first. My parents gave me permission to come to California. Transferring wasn’t easy, because my grades weren’t so terrific, but I came to California and started going to Cal as an undergrad, my sophomore year. At one point, one of us said “Let’s get married” and the other one said “Okay!” So we scraped together enough money to buy a round-trip bus ticket to Reno.

And then, I think six weeks later, I got pregnant. It was actually after I got married, but I think a lot of people felt that it was a shotgun wedding!

Abbate:

Wow! So you continued as an undergrad at Berkeley all that time?

Simons:

Well, my daughter was born in September; so I finished my sophomore year, and I went to summer school quite pregnant. So: Liz was born, and I think I took off the semester she was born. Then I went back to school part-time, and Jim would stay back [in the apartment] and baby-sit when I’d go to school. He was doing research anyway.

At the end of that year, he got his Ph.D., and he won a special fellowship at MIT. This was only after three years of college for me—less than three, because I took off a semester when she was born, and I was going part-time—so it didn’t even occur to me to stay behind and finish my degree. So we went off to Boston. I applied to Brandeis’s graduate school in mathematics. Well, I didn’t get in. They were quite right in not accepting me, because I really wasn’t ready to do graduate work in mathematics, but I decided, “Well, if they’re not going to accept me, I’m not going to go. That’s it. I quit.” And I became a housewife and mother for nine years. It’s interesting, because I was following in the patterns that my mother had taken, I think; because I think my mother had also dropped out after she married my father—shortly after.

Abbate:

What had she been studying?

Simons:

English. She almost got a Master’s Degree in English. I think she didn’t do her dissertation, but she had done a fair amount of the graduate work.

Following her Husband

Abbate:

Did you get a sense she wanted to avoid having you follow the same path?

Simons:

Yes and no. She certainly didn’t think I should get married at eighteen.

Let’s see: we were two or three years in Boston, and then we went down to Bogota, Colombia in ‘63, I think it was; because Jim was restless. He is a very restless person. He had gotten his Ph.D. in mathematics, but now what? He decided he wanted to invest. He wanted to go into business. And he had these Colombian friends, whom we had met at MIT, and they were going to start a company, so we went down for the summer to see what role he could play in the company. Let me get the chronology straight: In ‘61, he got his Ph.D. He was at MIT ‘61-’62. Then he was thinking about this Colombia thing, but that didn’t work out, so he got a year’s position at Harvard. Then he stayed on another year. Then he got a job at IDA—Institute for Defense Analysis—in Princeton. He ended up doing cryptographic research there, which he’d never done before, and had his first encounter with computers—I mean, in a serious way. It was the CDC-6400, I think, that they had there, and they got a 6600 while he was there. He wasn’t into computers himself, but he could appreciate the power of computers, and there were some good computer people there at the time.

Anyway, we were there, and he was working at IDA, doing cryptographic work. It was during the Vietnam War. Princeton, being a rather conservative school, was one of the last schools to have anti-war demonstrations, but they finally got around to having theirs; and what the students did was blockade the entrance to IDA, which was on campus at the time. Jim went to work that day, saw the students there, talked to his boss, and said, “I really don’t think you should arrest them. Just let them stay there. They’ll get tired, they’ll go home.” Which would have happened; a bunch of Princeton undergrads, they’re not going to [cause a major disturbance]. But people in Washington got nervous about this. Maxwell Taylor was head of IDA at the time, and he was one of the architects of the Vietnam War. Anyway, folks in Washington got nervous because IDA had all this classified stuff on their computers. In fact, an interesting sideline is: IDA had two libraries: classified and unclassified; and when the Pentagon Papers came out in the New York Times, you could not get a copy of the New York Times in the unclassified library—which I think is a lovely little touch. But anyway, they arrested the kids.

Around the same time, within a month or two one way or the other, there was an article in the New York Times Magazine written by Maxwell Taylor, the head of IDA; a pro–Vietnam War article. Now, Jim does not tend to be terribly liberal politically, but he was living with me, and I think I was having an influence on him; besides, it was the times and everything: he was anti-war. Although he was actually anti-war for an interesting reason; he was anti-war because he just thought it was a bad idea for the United States: not for moral reasons, but for economic reasons; economic and societal reasons. Anyway, he wrote a letter, which was published in the “News of the Week in Review” section, saying, “Not everybody at IDA supports the war. In particular, I don’t, for this, this, and this reasons. Signed, Jim Simons, permanent member, IDA.” Well, we subsequently found out that Taylor nearly blew a gut when he saw this and wanted Jim fired immediately, but because he’d done some important research, the head of where he was prevailed, and he wasn’t fired. Also, after the students were arrested, he went to his boss and said, “Look, I’m going to finish the classified work I’m doing now, but I’m not going to do any more classified research till the war is over, as my form of protest.” They said, “Okay.”

Some months later, a stringer for Newsweek came to Princeton to interview people at the university about the anti-war efforts. He talked to some folks in the math department who said, “You ought to go talk to Simons,” because they’d seen his letter in the “News of the Week in Review” section. So they went over and interviewed Jim. Now, at this point he was still under thirty; I mean, we were still pretty young. I just say this to explain what happened, that we were still pretty young and ignorant. So he said to the reporter, “Well, yes: actually, as my form of protest, I’m not doing any classified research till the war’s over.” Then he went and he mentioned to his manager, “Oh, by the way, I talked to this Newsweek reporter.” [laughs.] I think that was on a Friday. On Monday he goes to work, and then he comes back an hour or two later, and he says, “I’ve been fired!” [laughs.] And he was shocked!

It never appeared in Newsweek. I don’t know if someone squelched it, or they didn’t think it was important enough, or what; but it never appeared. But the very fact that he had said this meant that if this had come out in Congress, all hell could have broken loose. They could have been going after IDA—their funding—and that’s what they were worried about. So he was fired! Which was interesting, because he’s someone who had always had success in his life, and this was really quite a shock to him to be fired. I said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.” I wasn’t working; he was supporting the kids. At this point, I guess, we had three kids. A little time went past, and he got a few job offers, and he got this interesting call from Stony Brook, offering him the Chairmanship of the Math Department there. Now, the only thing we’d heard about Stony Brook up to that point was that they’d had a big drug bust a few months before, which was in all the news. That was my image of Stony Brook! [laughs.]

Beginning a Career as a Programmer

Abbate:

This is the State University of New York?

Simons:

State University of New York at Stony Brook.

So Jim thought about it, and he went out, and he took the job, and we moved to Stony Brook. He was Chairman of the department; I was Chairman’s wife. It was very good. I mean, I developed a lot of skills. It was the only period of my life when I could remember people’s names when I met them. I actually made a conscious effort to do it. So I played Chairman’s wife, and at one point he was going to be Acting Provost, and that’s when things really . . . Basically, I was not happy, and I broke up the marriage. It was not a good time. It was a very hard time. I had three little kids. I was stuck out in Stony Brook, which is not exactly a big metropolis. I had no degree. I’d finished maybe three years of college, if you count the A.P. credits, and I went to summer school two summers: maybe three years. No abilities—I mean, nothing I could go out a get a job with.

So: my dad said, “Why don’t you learn to program? I bet you’d be good at it!”

Abbate:

Really! Why?

Simons:

Because he knew I was good at math, and he associated programming with math. Now, actually, we both know you can be a good programmer without being good at math; but he didn’t know. I didn’t know. I said, “Hmm! That’s an interesting idea.” So I decided to go back to school part-time to Stony Brook. This was kind of interesting, because Stony Brook in those days used your Social Security number as your student ID, and I didn’t even have a Social Security number. I’d tutored math, but I’d never had a real job. But I knew the President of the university on a first-name basis! [laughs.] So they worked something out for me.

I started going back to school, and the first semester I went back, I took Intro CS and linear algebra.

Abbate:

Were you actually in the math department?

Simons:

I wasn’t in anything; I was just taking courses part-time. I wasn’t in any department. I was just taking courses, that’s all. But I knew enough to know I had to register for them, that if I was just auditing I wouldn’t do the work—because I had tried auditing, earlier, in my time as a housewife, and as soon as things got bad I stopped working. I’m basically lazy! I knew I had to have some way to force myself to do the work, so I actually registered for courses.

It was really quite a shock: going back after nine years out of school, taking Intro CS, and being in a class with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds when you’re thirty. Feeling like their mother—which of course I was wasn’t really old enough to be, but being in a different world from theirs, for sure—and feeling incredibly insecure. So I took Intro CS and math, and the guy who taught the linear algebra class, who was named David Ebin, said to another math professor who was a friend of mine, “You know, there’s this girl my class who looks a lot like Barbara Simons.” And the guy said, “That is Barbara Simons!” [laughs.] Now, this guy David Ebin had been at our house; I’d entertained him; but I was in this Chairman’s wife niche, and I wasn’t in this student [mode]—undergraduate, yet! I mean, really! Undergraduate, taking linear algebra.

Abbate:

Were you working as well?

Simons:

No, money was never an issue. Jim gave me enough money. So I was fortunate that money was not a problem. I didn’t have to work.

I did have my children, and I actually took in a woman to live with me, with whom I became very good friends, and that helped a lot, because I could go off after the kids were in bed, or even after dinner sometimes (they’d go to bed themselves in some cases): I could go off to the Computing Center, and she was there. She knew them, and they knew her, and she knew the house. She was a student, quite a bit younger than I am—although these days the difference is not very much; but in those days it seemed like much more.

It really made a difference that I had that ability to go out, because in those days, this was batch-mode stuff.

Abbate:

So you were probably there in the middle of the night?

Simons:

Yes! You’d have to wait an hour to get the thing back, and if you’d misplaced a comma, you’d have to start all over again.

Then I started going more and more to Computer Science, because I felt more anonymous there. When I was taking math classes, I figured they all knew me, and I thought, “Well, in the Computer Science Department, they don’t know me.” Now, I discovered, a few years ago, that they did know me! [laughs.] But I didn’t know that. I don’t think they knew me when I took Intro CS, but at some point they did. Someone who was on faculty there, John Chernowski, who’s now at the NSF: I run into him now and then, and we would talk a lot, and he said that they knew who I was. But I didn’t know they knew; so that made me feel more comfortable—because I was very insecure, and I wasn’t sure I could do the stuff. You know, there are times when you want to be anonymous!

Abbate:

Oh, yes.

Simons:

And I just didn’t have that in the Math Department. So that’s one reason I veered towards computer science. Plus, as my father said: “You can get a job.” I figured once I had gotten a couple programming courses under my belt, I was already ahead of the game, because I could get a job—especially in those days, when there weren’t many people running around with CS degrees. I didn’t need to get a job, but I wanted to have the ability.

The way I got through all that was: once I had taken my first course, I could look at it and say, “Okay, I’m already ahead of where I was when I started.” So each time I took on something new, I figured, “Well, [even] if I fail at this, I’m ahead of the game.” I never started out to get a Ph.D., because if I had, I wouldn’t have done it. There’s no way. That didn’t occur to me, to get a Ph.D. I was just trying to make these little baby steps. I mean, towards the end it wasn’t quite a baby step any more, but I tried to think of it that way. “This is not that much more that what I’ve already done, so maybe I can do it.” And that’s how I did it. I also liked being in school.

Abbate:

So you got the B.S. at Stony Brook?

Simons:

I don’t have one.

Getting her Ph.D.

Abbate:

But how did you end up getting a Ph.D.? At what point did you go back to Berkeley?

Simons:

Well, I was just taking classes part-time. Chugging along, taking classes part-time. This was in the early seventies, and computer science was still a pretty shallow field. So after two or three years, I found myself starting to take graduate courses. Now, in those days, compilers and operating systems were graduate courses. It’s hard to believe now, but they were in those days! So I started taking graduate courses, and someone said to me, “You’re starting to do the work for a Master’s Degree, but you’re not registered; you’re not enrolled. You could end up doing all the work and not getting anything, so why don’t you enroll?” So I did. I applied to graduate school at Stony Brook in Computer Science. I got in this time, because I had gotten straight A’s when I went back to school, because I was a much more serious student—and also because having little kids was a good excuse if I was late on stuff; they would always give me extensions! [laughs.] I was often late. And I was only going part-time, and I just had a different attitude, so I had done very well. They all knew me. It was a small department, and as I said, they knew me better than I realized they knew me, but they knew me just from my work in taking the courses. So they admitted me, so I got admitted to graduate school.

I spent a year as a graduate student at Stony Brook, during which time I got involved with somebody who had got his Ph.D. in Math from Stony Brook and wasn’t able to get a job. He went back to school, so we were both graduate students together. He got his Master’s Degree during my first year—he did a one-year Master’s—and then he got a job at Sonoma State, out here; so I came out with him. Jim had been planning to go to Switzerland for three months. I suggested to him, “Why don’t you go for the year and take the kids?” He said, “Okay.” So the kids had a year in Switzerland, and I had my first year at Berkeley.

I applied to graduate school at Berkeley. I didn’t get in, because I applied too late, but I went out anyway and knocked on someone’s door, because I had his name from another friend—I didn’t use Jim as a contact, although I could have. He said, “Well, you really should have been admitted, but it’s too late now. But why don’t you take my graduate formal language theory class?” And then someone else gave me a job doing some work. I guess when I first came out, I got a job teaching at the Berkeley Adult School. I taught their intro to computer science course. When I got that job, they were teaching this without using computers. They were teaching computing from a book! This was for the adults. I said, “You know, you really [should have computers]. This is a hands-on thing!” So I managed to get the course moved over to Berkeley High, because I think it was in the evening or something, so we got to use the facilities at Berkeley High. I was teaching them BASIC—which I didn’t know, so I had to learn it, but it’s not very hard.

Abbate:

You’d been working in FORTRAN? Assembler?

Simons:

No, I didn’t know FORTRAN. I guess PL/1; we learned PL/1. My first language was ALGOL-W, and then we were using PL/1; that’s right. First I learned ALGOL-W, and then I took an assembly language course—which I loved, because it actually explained to me a little bit of how the computers worked. I didn’t like being told, “You do this, and you do that,” without understanding why; and in assembly language, you start to get down to it. You understand what memory is and the CPU is and registers are. It makes more sense.

Also, my year when I was a graduate student [at Stony Brook], I had worked part-time at Brookhaven [National Laboratory]. I got a job working part-time in the Crystallography Department for this guy who had a Varian 620i which was archaic even when I worked on it. It was really amazing. He had this machine, which had 16K of memory—16 K!—and then another 4K that was supposed to interact with the experiment. I think they were 16- or 18-bit words. It was nothing! I had to bootstrap it with paper tape. It had a hard disk, and there were two switches, and you first have to turn it on and get it going fast enough, and then you get the head moved over; and when you turn it off, you have to reverse the process. If you do it wrong, you crash the disk. Crash! I think that must be how “crash the disk” came into being as a notion, because the head would literally crash into the disk. I didn’t crash the disk, but apparently someone else in the Crystallography Department had, a few months before I got there, so everybody was telling me how I had to do it.

This machine was so old, floating-point was in software. So my first assignment was to check the floating-point, to make sure it was right. It was a lot of work; I had to basically reverse-engineer this thing. Then it got to the point where I could step through and read the words, just look at the bits and read them; and I could invent new words, because if you know what each field is for, and you set the flags and so forth, you can create instructions that aren’t in the manual. I actually found a slight mistake; I think it had to do with a rounding error or something like that. I also found a mistake at the end in the algorithm that this guy was trying to get me to implement. I found a mistake, and he didn’t like that too much.

I just mention this experience because it has come up again recently with all the policy issues, like the Digital Millennium Copyright act. This is stuff I’m really heavily involved with now, and of course there are all these attacks on reverse engineering. It’s interesting, because if I had just followed what one would normally expect me to [with a theory background, I wouldn’t have had that experience with reverse engineering]. I got hired for this job because I told the guy I loved assembler—which I thought I did. But if I hadn’t had this experience, I wouldn’t really have a good understanding of what it’s all involved with, because as I said, my area of research was theory.

Abbate:

Now, I know you said you got into programming because you thought it was practical, but when you first used a computer, did you think, “Oh this is really fun”? What was your reaction?

Simons:

I did think it was kind of fun. It was a little bit like my reaction to algebra: “It’s like doing puzzles.” It was different from trying to do mathematics, for example, because I knew that you could always solve the problem and you could always write a program. I mean, I realize that things are more complicated than that really, when you start looking at massive programs and so on; but when I was learning this stuff, I knew, “Give me an assignment, and I can write a program that will work eventually. I may not get it to work right away, but in principle, I can make it work.” Whereas if you give me a math problem to solve, I may or may not be able to solve it.

Abbate:

So that was appealing?

Simons:

That made it interesting, yes. I mean, I like math, too, but I thought that was an interesting aspect of programming. I mean, I didn’t know about the halting problem at that point. I didn’t know that there are things that you can’t do.

Abbate:

But at least maybe you can know if you couldn’t do it. Or maybe not; I don’t know.

Simons:

Well, at the level I was doing it, I think my assumptions were correct. I just didn’t understand some of the more sophisticated stuff then.

Berkeley Years

Abbate:

So . . . Where have we gotten to?

Simons:

Where have we gotten? I went to Berkeley. I transferred to Berkeley, and after the first quarter there I was admitted as a graduate student. Typically, at Berkeley—when I was there, in 1975-76—they had you take your Prelims at the end of your first year. These were oral exams, in those days, in five different subjects. I was very nervous about it. I had already had graduate school at Stony Brook a year, but I think if I’d come from one of the higher-rated schools, some of what they were teaching as graduate courses [at Stony Brook] would have been taught as undergraduate courses, even then; so I didn’t really feel like I had all that. There were other students there who were from MIT and places like that, whom I felt knew more than I did about many things. But my mother convinced me. She said, “Take the Prelims! What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you flunk them, you can take them over again.” And they do let you take them over once. So she pressured me to take them, and I almost flunked them, but I did pass, and that was a tremendous relief. So that was the end of my first year at Berkeley.

Then—I believe it was the following year—my [major field advisor got a note from Admissions]. Berkeley has two people you work with: one is your thesis advisor, if you’re a Ph.D. student, and the other is your major field advisor, the person who signs your class cards and is supposed to just give you general advice. Anyway, my Major Field Advisor got a note from Admissions at Berkeley, saying I hadn’t met the admissions requirements because I didn’t have a Bachelor’s Degree! At that point I had done a little piece of research already; I’d done something original. I mean, it wasn’t real deep—I had generalized some papers—but I had done something. So I said to him, “Okay, well, I’ll write this up and get a Master’s Degree for it.” It wasn’t earth-shaking, but it was enough for a Master’s Degree. He said “fine.” [But] no one told me to write it up. I never wrote it up! [laughs.] No one bothered me.

Then I chugged along, and I eventually did a dissertation. I ended up doing that, also, in a funny way. I took a class in scheduling theory from Gene Lawler, who died a few years ago from cancer; he was really a lovely man. Anyway, I took a class in scheduling theory, and he gave us a list of open problems. He said, “If you solve any of these open problems, you don’t have to take a final.” Well, I hate finals! At that point I was living with one of these hotshot MIT-undergraduate graduate students at Berkeley, who was really like my thesis advisor. He’s now a Professor at MIT in the Applied Math Department; his name’s Mike Sipser. Mike said, “Well, why don’t you try this problem? Take a special case of it and see if you can solve it.” He was very encouraging, and I wasn’t intimidated.

My thesis advisor was Dick Karp—you probably know the name.

Abbate:

I’ve heard the name, yes.

Simons:

Yes. Very sharp guy. He’s a Turing Award winner; he was one of the key people in developing the theory of NP-completeness: very, very fast. I was really intimidated by him. But I could talk to Mike about my ideas, and because we were living together, I wasn’t intimidated by him. It was also nice because all the guys in the department knew I was living with Mike, and so it meant I could interact with them in a very free and easy way. I don’t know if you’ve talked to other women about this, but this is something which has come up: If you’re known to be attached, you can then go up to some other guy and say, “Let’s work on this problem together,” and they’re not going to wonder what you mean.

Organizing Women

Abbate:

How many other women were there in the department?

Simons:

Oh, hardly any! Actually, one of the things that I did with a woman named Paula Hawthorn . . . Are you interviewing her?

Abbate:

Yes, I have talked to Paula.

Simons:

Did she talk to you about starting Women in Computer Science?

Abbate:

Yes.

Simons:

Well, she and I did that together.

Abbate:

Oh, right!

Simons:

We started hanging out, because we both were divorced, older women with kids. She was a year ahead of me at school; we were in different areas: she’s in databases; I’m in theory. We’re both politically aware. I think she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Abbate:

Yes, she told me about that.

Simons:

We’re still very good friends. So we decided to start organizing lunches with other women graduate students, because there were so few of us, and we did. Her boyfriend at the time—I think this guy is now her husband—found out that there was money from the Student Association available for student activities, so we decided to organize a conference. Did she tell you about the conference we did in ‘78? This was wonderful: a conference to try to bring in more women to computer science. We’d been having these lunch meetings once a week, a few of us getting together for a bag lunch in the common room, and we heard about this money. Well, you can’t get it unless you’re a student organization, so we decided to become a student organization. We called ourselves Women In Computer Science—WICS—and our method for electing officers was, the first person to go to Sproul Hall to register was the President; the second one was the Vice President ! [laughs.] I think Paula was the first President that we had, and I think I was the second President that we had. We applied for $600 to run a conference and got $60. Well, what do you do with sixty dollars?

Abbate:

Do you know why you got only sixty?

Simons:

Well, my theory is that they had a ten-percent algorithm; and if we’d know that, we would have applied for six thousand! But around this time Sheila Humphreys appeared on the scene. She was still at Berkeley, and she was working for the Women’s Center then. The three of us got involved with this, and Sheila ended up organizing the conference in about four months’ period. It was called “Working in Computer Science and Engineering.” She was very organized, and in those days, there was tons of money. I remember Paula and I were once invited to a faculty lunch where we talked about this, and some people who were representing various companies pledged some money for it, and I think the College of Engineering agreed to match what we raised, so we ended up with a total for the conference of six thousand dollars!

That’s the first time this had ever been done at Berkeley. It was held on a Saturday. Elizabeth Scott was one of the people there. Elizabeth Scott at that point was Chair of the Stat Department, a crusty old woman who reminded me of my math teacher from high school! She got into statistics because she had been an astronomy student as a graduate student, and they wouldn’t let her use the telescope because they didn’t want to waste time having a woman using the telescope, so she switched fields and became a life-long feminist. She happened to be present in one of the sessions where one of the Assistant Deans was supposed to be talking about how to get in to the college, or transfer; and he was so negative: he said basically, “You need a 4.0 GPA, and even then you probably won’t get in.” He was exactly not what he should have been, and she got so pissed she wrote a letter, and the guy was fired from being Dean. So that was one of our major accomplishments. We didn’t like him either.

There was also one other thing that I rather enjoyed. Because Paula and I were two of the organizers, we were on the Introductory Panel; we were each given seven minutes to talk. It was interesting, because some of the guys who were graduate students with us came to the conference to watch us, and afterwards one of them said to me, “I finally understand what it’s like for you to be in a class with all men.”

Abbate:

Because he was in a room full of women?

Simons:

Yes; and if he said something, everyone would turn around and look! Which is in fact what happened [to a male Dean]. I was giving statistics from the college, so I started off saying, “As of the Fall of this year, there were this percentage of undergraduates and graduates, and one woman faculty member.” That was Sue Graham, in the College of Engineering. And the Dean—the real Dean, the full Dean—was seated in the audience, and he shouted out, “That’s not true!” I continued reading, and my next sentence said, “As of the next semester, it was doubled to two.” And the audience went apeshit, and the guy didn’t say another word! [laughs.] It was totally unplanned, but he just played right into it.

That’s how bad things were. And they’re not much better at Berkeley now—somewhat better, but still not great.

Ph.D. Research Subject

Abbate:

I’m not sure I heard the end of the scheduling story. I assume you solved the problem . . .

Simons:

Oh, right. Mike told me, “Why don’t you work on this problem?” So I started working on this problem.

I can tell you the problem. It’s real easy. You have a computer science degree?

Abbate:

No, but you can try explaining it.

Simons:

Well, it’s not computer science. Think of it this way: You have a runway, and you have planes you want to land. Now, we’re going to make some very unrealistic assumptions, because that’s what the problem explores. Let’s assume each airplane takes exactly the same amount of time to land. You only have one runway, and you can’t have two planes landing at the same time, obviously. You’re the Air Traffic Controller, and at the beginning of the day you’re given a list of planes. For each plane you’re given a time called the “release time,” which is the time that it can be landed, and the deadline, which is the time by which, if it’s not landed, it runs out of fuel. Let’s suppose another unrealistic assumption: you can land them instantly. You say “Land now,” and it’s down, and it takes a certain amount of time, and then it’s off.

Translating this to computerese, it’s like you want to schedule jobs in the computer. Each job takes the same amount of time to run, and you have a release time and a deadline. The computer can run the jobs consecutively, so you don’t have any interrupts: you just start the job and run it to completion. You can’t start a job before its release time, and you have to complete it by its deadline. So the question is: Can you schedule these jobs such that everybody gets to run and no one misses its deadline, given an arbitrary list?

What was known was, if all the release times and the deadlines are integer, and the running time (or the time to land the plane) is one, then you can solve the problem. [“Solving the problem” doesn’t necessarily mean you can schedule the jobs; it means you know whether or not you can schedule the jobs.] It’s actually, I think, very straightforward, although I once gave this as a test on an exam or a homework assignment and the students found it harder than I thought they would. It’s pretty straightforward. If you want to play with something, you can think about it. for the generalized version, there are two ways of looking at it. One is, suppose that the times that they all take (which are still all the same) are greater than one. The one fits nicely, because you’ve got integer boundaries; there’s no way that something can be released in the middle of something else being run. Or you can say, “Suppose the release times and deadlines aren’t integer.” Either way, they’re more or less the same; not entirely, but more or less equivalent.

So that was an open problem. The open problem was: Can you determine, given a set of release times and deadlines, if you can schedule them? Can you determine that in polynomial time, or is it an NP-complete problem? In those days, a few years before I got my Ph.D., people were still getting Ph.D.s for showing that problems were NP-complete. By the time I got my Ph.D., they weren’t anymore, but it was only a few years before that they were. I think when I came to Berkeley that still might have been a possible way of getting a Ph.D.

The generalization that I looked at—and Mike may have suggested it; I wouldn’t be surprised—was, “Assume they all take two units, instead of one unit.” Integer release times and deadlines, and all the jobs take two minutes. Now you do have the problem where you can start a job at time “three,” say, and something can be released at time “four.” So the question is, “Can you schedule that?” Well, I worked on that problem, and I solved it! I came up with an algorithm. Now, it’s still a very special case.

So I’m feeling terrific, and Gene says, “Oh that’s great!” Then Ashok Chandra, who was at IBM at the time, came to town, and he was there as a recruiter for IBM Research. He was there to interview students who were getting their Ph.D.s about possibly coming to IBM. Now, I knew I wasn’t going to graduate that year, but I thought I might well graduate the next year, because I had a partial result towards a thesis. It wasn’t a thesis but it was a partial one. So I said, “Well, I’ll sign up to see him, just to have the experience. This is just practice.” Our meeting was scheduled for the end of the day, and I was older and more secure, so I said, “Let’s go for coffee.” I’m very relaxed, thinking “This doesn’t count.” So we went out for coffee, and he said, “What have you been doing?” I said, “Well, I have this result.” He said “Oh yes? Tell me about it.” So I told him about it. He said “Very interesting! Very interesting.”

The next day he comes and knocks on my office and says, “You know that problem you’re working? I solved it!” [I thought,] “You what? That was going to be my thesis!” [laughs.] So I’m in a state of quasi-shock, and he says, “Oh, yes! Well, let me just show you how,” and he starts drawing on the board, and I stare at it, but I don’t really follow what he’s doing. He said, “We’ll write a paper. You write the introduction, I’ll write this up, and we’ll have a joint paper.” He leaves, and I run over to Lawler and say, “Gene, Chandra said he solved the problem!” [laughs.] So Lawler comes back to my office, and we look at the board, and neither of us can figure out what he’s done. After a couple days of calming down, I decided to go ahead. Again, Mike said, “Look: work on the problem and see if what you’re doing will come.” What eventually happened was, the version that Chandra claimed he solved was: Suppose that the length of the job is P, for some integer P—so it’s clearly more general than [a job length of] two—and then he said it was polynomial in P. It still wasn’t the most general version. The most general version would be that you can have arbitrary release times and deadlines, as long as they can be compared; so you could have something which is not integer in length. Anyway, I continued working on my approach, which was different from his—it was actually really weird; it was a recursive algorithm—and I solved it for the most general case. In fact, my solution was something like N2log(N), which was better than something which was polynomial in P.

I wrote up the proof and submitted it to a conference, and it was accepted. I remember when I got there, Garey and Johnson—you know who Garey and Johnson are, right? They wrote this book, [Computers and Intractability: A guide to the theory of NP-completeness. W.H. Freeman, 1979]. Mike Garey and Dave Johnson. They’re two prominent theoretical computer scientists, and they were working in scheduling theory. They had heard about this result and they wanted to talk to me, so they were sort of cornering me there. Mike was there, and he was sort of helping me. They were asking me all these questions. Someone else said to me, “Your proof is one of the most complicated proofs I’ve ever seen for an algorithm,” because the algorithm was recursive; to prove it’s correct is rather convoluted. And I still had a feeling that there was a better way of doing it, and then I struggled for another year or two. I think I didn’t come up with it until I went to IBM, but I finally came up with this really clean, simple way of doing it. So easy! And it’s not recursive, and it generalizes to multiple machines, so you have an arbitrary number of runways.

That was my thesis. One thing I screwed up on, because nobody told me. Garey and Johnson, these people I mentioned, were writing a book on NP-completeness, which is the sort of the classic book on it; and in the back of the book they were going to have “Major Open Problems,” and one of the open problems was going to be the problem I solved. But because I solved it just before they went to press, they took it out as one of the Major Open Problems. They referenced me; my name is in their book; but it would have been much better if I could say, “I solved one of the major open problems in Garey and Johnson!” But nobody told me.

Abbate:

What kind of conference was that?

Simons:

It was a theory conference. I think that was IEEE CS. I wasn’t involved with ACM at the time. I didn’t know from ACM and IEEE CS; all I knew was there were two major theory conferences every year, and the same people went to both of them.

Abbate:

So you got the Ph.D. in ‘81?

Simons:

I got the Ph.D. in ‘81—but I almost didn’t get it, because I hadn’t met the Admissions requirements.

Abbate:

Because you still didn’t have a Bachelor’s?

Simons:

So here I am, working at IBM Research, and I’m supposed to go up to Berkeley to get the title page for my dissertation. I’ve done everything: I’ve passed my exams; I’ve written up this really nice result; and so I just had to get the signatures of my thesis committee. So I go to Sproul Hall, and they give me this title page that says, “Master’s Degree from Stony Brook.” Somewhere, someone had flipped a bit saying I’d gotten a Master’s Degree at Stony Brook, which of course I hadn’t. And I stupidly said, “I don’t have any Master’s Degrees!” She said, “Oh! Okay, we’re going to have to retype it then.” So I go back to IBM. A week later I called Dick Karp. I said, “Dick, have you gotten my title page?” And he said “No.” So he called, and he found out that they weren’t going to give it to me! So Dick scrounged around and discovered that you can get a Master’s Degree in Computer Science through taking an oral exam. No one had ever done it, but you could. So we had a virtual oral exam! [laughs.] At any rate, I got a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. at the same time. My parents came, and I was the only woman on stage. I went to the ceremony because my parents came; they hadn’t seen me graduate since high school, and I was forty-one now. They came, and they were very proud of me, and when I went up to be hooded, yelling started in the audience! I mean, my mother started it. She was standing up, screaming. I expect other people joined in because I was the only woman on the stage.

Abbate:

Was that just the School of Engineering?

Simons:

Yes. There were some people there who know me because I had been involved with this conference and other stuff. But it was the loudest applause anyone got. I was the only woman! Anyway, that was nice. It’s nice when you have something like that. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for my parents coming. I would have just taken the Ph.D., but I wouldn’t have gone to the ceremony. There were, I think, one or two other women getting Ph.D.s that year; they just didn’t go to the ceremony. But there weren’t many.

Starting at IBM

Abbate:

Now, you got the job at IBM because of that interview?

Simons:

Oh, no, no. Because Chandra was from Yorktown, and I ended up going to San Jose.

Abbate:

So you interviewed again for IBM?

Simons:

Basically. And they wanted to hire both Mike and me, and they did, so we both started off at IBM Research; but then Mike wanted to have some time off somewhere else, so he went to MIT for a year. That was when we broke up.

I ended up at IBM Research, which was good and bad. The department, when I was there, became one of the top departments in the country for theory—in the world, maybe. At one point, it was really an extraordinarily good department. I’ve always had an interest in politics, and I started doing ACM stuff while I was there, and I got more and more involved with that; and I had more time to do it than I would have had at a university, so in that sense it was good. Of course, it wasn’t valued, but I had more time. But on the other hand, it was also constraining. I got myself into trouble at IBM a couple times, and that wouldn’t have happened at a university.

I started at IBM in ‘81. I was at IBM Research most of the time. I left finally in ‘98.

Abbate:

Now, did they have a specialty in the center?

Simons:

Yes, we had different groups. I was in the Theory Group. The Theory Group started when I came there. As I say, it became very, very good. The first few years I was there were just a great time to be at IBM, because this was before IBM started feeling the pinch. In the late eighties, Microsoft and Intel were up-and-coming, in large part thanks to poor business judgments made by the CEO of IBM at the time.

Abbate:

But the early ‘80s was still the PC boom?

Simons:

Well, it wasn’t just that; it was mainframes. Mainframe was the big thing for IBM. And then they built Almaden [Research Center], and I was there during that period. But then, around the time that they were building Almaden, things started to happen. You started feeling the pinch, and of course it got worse and worse.

Abbate:

Now, were you sort of free to pursue whatever you wanted?

Simons:

I was free to pursue whatever I wanted, but they expected me to produce; to do good research. Of course, “doing good research” had certain definitions that meant papers in specific conferences, and I started getting more peripheral interests relative to the main focus of the group. I discovered, for example, that in scheduling theory, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about “jobs” and “computers,” because that’s not the way it works. It does make sense to look at compilers.

Problems at IBM

Abbate:

Now, where were we? You were at IBM. What were some of the major things you accomplished there, or projects that you worked on?

Simons:

Well, I think some of the work I did on compiler optimization was interesting, and then I got into some other areas, too. I did a little bit of work on communicating sequential processes. Again, all deterministic stuff.

I enjoyed the research, but as I say, I was also getting pulled more and more by policy issues. I guess the first time this really happened was when SDI appeared: the Strategic Defense Initiative [also known as “Star Wars”]. I was at that point organizing a workshop on fault-tolerant distributed computing, which was an area I had also done some work in. Someone on my Program Committee suggested that the computing issues for Star Wars were basically fault-tolerant distributed computing issues, and maybe we should have a debate on that, or a panel on that, or something like that at the workshop. And somebody else said, “No, that’s all political.” So we got into a debate on this. I mean, I felt that there were certainly technical issues, and there clearly are. So I said, “Well, why don’t we try a dry run at IBM and see what it’s like?” So I decided I would organize a debate.

I don’t know if you followed that issue. Do you know about [David] Parnas and his role? Parnas is a computer scientist. He’s now up in Canada, but at the time he was not in Canada. In fact, I think all of this had to do with his going to Canada. Anyway, he was on the SDI Computer Science Panel, and he resigned from it over this, and he wrote ten short papers as to why it wasn’t going to work. He did that, I think, because they asked him why he was resigning, and then it got distributed all over the Net. This was in the early days of the Net, of course. So I got him. I think the first person I asked was Richard Garwin, who, together with Teller, did the hydrogen bomb, and who had been the head of Yorktown Research Lab at one point. He was an IBM Fellow, and I think he’s probably in the National Academy of Science: a prominent guy.

Abbate:

So he was pro-SDI?

Simons:

Anti. And he was speaking out quite publicly about being anti. So I got him—he was an IBMer—and I got Parnas, and then I got the President of Cal Tech to moderate.

Abbate:

So, who was the pro-SDI speaker?

Simons:

I didn’t have him yet! [laughs.] At that point, I mentioned to my second-level manager—who I think was Maria Klawe, who is now President of ACM—that I had all these people lined up. She said, “Well, maybe you ought to go talk to the head of the Lab about this!” So first I talked to this woman who was the head of P.R., and we had what I thought was a lovely conversation. The next day I was scheduled to meet with the head of the Lab, and I walk in there and he says, “We’ve got to kill this.” And she’s sitting there. I said “What? How can you kill it? I’ve got the President of Cal Tech!” And she’s saying, “Oh, we can’t have it here because if the press comes and they hear that people are saying bad things about SDI, they might think that IBM is taking a stand on it.” You see, my idea was to have computer scientists and physicists on each side, and the President of Cal Tech, who happens to be a physicist, to moderate. So I kept on emphasizing the fact that I had Garwin, I had all these people; so he said, “Let’s see what we can do.” So they spoke to some folks at Stanford, and they got Stanford to agree to host it, and IBM would pay the money under the table.

Meanwhile, my former husband was helpful. He knew the Undersecretary of Defense, a guy named John White, and I contacted John White, and he put me in touch with a guy named Major Simon Peter Warden, who was the Chief Scientist for the SDI Office. So I got him, and then I got Dick Lipton, a prominent theoretical computer scientist who was also on the same committee that Parnas was on, but who was supporting it. So I actually put together a very balanced debate. In fact, it was so balanced, I thought actually the pro-SDI side did better—which was not my view of it.

So it was held at Stanford. There was an overflow crowd. Unfortunately, it was right before Christmas, so it didn’t get much press, but it was taped, and then they were projecting it to a couple of overflow rooms. I mean, it was a huge crowd. They acknowledge me as organizing it, and no one ever asked, “Well, she organized it, and she’s at IBM, and this is at Stanford. Why?” Of course, all these worries that these people had at IBM were ridiculous. I mean, there’s no way someone could go to that and say that IBM was taking a position because it was held by IBM. And Garwin, ironically, was speaking against SDI at Yorktown without anyone opposing him! Some people are afraid of their shadows.

So that got me a big black mark against me at IBM. It wouldn’t have been held against me at a university. It was held at a university, and people thought it was great. It would have been considered a plus, probably; but at IBM you’re not supposed to rock the boat. I think people were already nervous, especially these P.R. people, about all these funky researchers who don’t really fit into the IBM mold to begin with. I wasn’t unique in that respect.

I had another amusing experience a few years later—although it really pissed me off at the time. I heard a talk at Xerox PARC by a guy named Bernstein, who was at Stanford in the Disarmament program there. It was something like that; Weapons Control, maybe. And he was talking about the issues of having these treaties that cut down weapons, and all the issues of verifying them and how you do it and so on, and he raised some interesting technical issues. For example, one of the things he said was, “It’s much easier to go to zero than to just cut things by a significant percentage, because if you cut, there’s still justification for the infrastructure, whereas if you go to zero, there is no justification, and frequently it’s easier to spot infrastructure [than weapons].” I thought, “Well, this is a fascinating talk. It would be interesting to have it at IBM.” So I invited him, and I got it on the calendar, except when I saw the announcement, they only printed a portion of the title, and that portion didn’t explain what it was about. So I called up the woman who did the calendar and I said, “Can you redo something, or at least online change the title, because it’s not obvious what it’s about.” So then they noticed it.

So I’m home, and I get a call from somebody: “Do you know that talk was canceled?” I said, “What?” Anyway, I got on the phone. It turned out the P.R. person had seen the title. This was a few weeks before the election. It must have been the Bush election, and Dukakis ran against Bush. And she said, “People are going to think that we’re supporting one candidate.” So she went to the head of the Lab and said, “We’ve got to kill this.” Nobody checked with me about what it was about! In fact, it was not a political talk. He was talking about technical issues surrounding disarmament, which is a perfectly legitimate talk, I think, for a technical lab. Xerox thought it was perfectly legitimate. So I got my manager on the phone, and we’re back and forth, and I had to reach the guy and tell him not to come. Anyway, I think it was un-canceled, but a lot of people didn’t know it was un-canceled. The number two person at the Lab was the one, I think, who made the decision. I went and I talked about it. When it was rescheduled—when they agreed the guy would come—he came to the talk, and then afterwards I talked with him, and he agreed with me; he said it was not political. Of course, meanwhile I had told the guy, “Please be careful what you say!” And some people asked him leading questions, and he wouldn’t touch them.

Abbate:

Was the general atmosphere just very conservative?

Simons:

Not in my group. My group was not. In fact, they put out these brochures for the Lab, I think when Maria [Klawe] was Manager, and we had a picture of us taken with people in a tree! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Do you have a picture of that?

Simons:

I might have it somewhere around. I don’t know if I’ve thrown them out or not. I could try to track it down for you.

Abbate:

It would be fun to see.

Continuing Problems at IBM

Simons:

I think the heading was, “Theory Group in a Tree.” [laughs.] And one day we all came in wearing shorts. My group was not like that, but you know: it’s IBM.

I was frequently told, as the years went on, by my management that I had a lot external visibility, but that I needed to focus more on my research, because the external visibility didn’t count. This was because of all the ACM work I was doing. In ‘93 I started US-ACM, which is the U.S. Public Policy Committee. I was ACM Secretary from ‘90 to ‘92. This is a good story, too. It’s the third of the three top elected positions in ACM; there’s President, Vice President, and then Secretary was the third; and I was being groomed to be the next President. Everybody expected I would be the next President. But basically, I was told by the head of the Lab that if I accepted the nomination, I would be fired.

Abbate:

Really? Because they thought it would just take time away from your research?

Simons:

[Nods.]

Abbate:

Were you advancing on whatever the internal track was?

Simons:

Well, there was no real track. You see, the thing about the Research Lab is that it was pretty flat. You have researchers and then you have managers. First-level managers also do research, and they have a few people under them; they’re usually colleagues and they do research. Second-level managers tend not to do research. But at the bottom, everyone is a Research Staff Member: that’s it. So there are no titles. I mean, there’s Research Staff Member; and I think if you don’t have a Ph.D., you may not be a Research Staff Member, so there may be that discrepancy; but aside from that, once you’re a Research Staff Member, that’s it.

Abbate:

So they just wanted you to accumulate a certain number of publications?

Simons:

Well, clearly salaries vary a lot, and rankings. They would do a total ranking every year, of everybody in the Lab.

Abbate:

And that was based on what?

Simons:

On your managers’ appraisals, basically. The managers would do a total ranking of their group, and then people in the same department get together and do a merge—so then you’d physicists and computer scientists and chemists all merging! How they did that I don’t know.

Abbate:

Did you feel that gender entered into that, in terms of promotions or salaries at IBM?

Simons:

Well, I think gender probably did enter, in terms of my being told I couldn’t run for President. Breaking into policy was not easy, because policy, I think, tends to be viewed as a man’s game. Policy, politics: when you start getting into areas where you’re dealing with power, it’s something the guys like to do. So I felt all along that if I had been six-foot-two and had a nice baritone voice, it would have helped a lot! (And been male [laughs]; those things as female wouldn’t have helped!)

Abbate:

So even though you were being invited to take a position of power, IBM didn’t like that.

Simons:

Well, this guy didn’t like it. It was the head of Department. So it wasn’t my manager; it was my third-level manager. I had been sort of warned that I was spending too much time on policy stuff, on ACM stuff.

Abbate:

But you think if you were a man, that wouldn’t have been such an issue?

Simons:

It seemed to me that with an organization like IBM, one of the things they care about is visibility and prominence in the community, right? And being President of ACM is a big deal! It didn’t dawn on me that they’d give me trouble over that until it happened.

Abbate:

You obviously did become President of ACM . . .

Simons:

But not then!

Abbate:

So you ducked that?

Simons:

I ducked it because I wasn’t prepared to be fired. I don’t know if he would have fired me or not. I mean, I could have said, “Okay, I’m going to do it, and you fire me and I’ll go public.” But I didn’t have anything else lined up, and I wasn’t prepared to be fired, so I didn’t.

But the SDI thing had got me interested in technology policy issues, and then, in between all this, I got involved with this crazy idea of doing a study on federal funding of academic computer science. I’m doing all this when I’m supposed to be doing research—I mean, I’m doing research too, but obviously this is taking time. During the Reagan years, as you know, a lot of money was shifted to military stuff. I hired Joel Yudken, who was just finishing his Ph.D. in Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford; he’s now with the AFL-CIO. We had an interesting time, he and I. For example, in ‘76, if you look at computer science in the United States, it was about fifty-fifty NSF/DOD; by ‘88 it was two-to-one DOD/NSF. Furthermore, a lot of DOD funding was becoming more applied. It was definitely having an impact. Joel was actually doing the work. He was interviewing people and getting information and getting statistics; at one point we had more information than anybody else did on this subject—more than the NSF, I think, because we were looking at other things.

Taking a Package to Leave IBM

Abbate:

When did you finally leave IBM?

Simons:

In ‘98, when I became ACM President. Actually I left before I became President.

Abbate:

Did you consciously think, “Well, I want to do this, so this is going to be the end of my IBM job?”

Simons:

I was very unhappy at IBM by that point. When the stock dropped to almost zero—it was down to 40, when it had been up to 170 a year or two before—we started getting more and more pressure—especially me, because I was doing more and more policy stuff, I was doing less and less of what they wanted me to do, and the stuff I was doing wasn’t the kind they wanted me to do. I was doing compiler optimization; I was doing communicating sequential processes; but this was not mainstream theory. It was theory, but it wasn’t mainstream. So my manager starts saying, “Barbara, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to have IBM impact.” In fact, that’s what the guy said to me when he said I couldn’t run for President: “You’ve got to have more IBM impact.” Well, what is IBM impact? How do you have IBM impact? Here we are stuck in this nice building up on a hill away from the rest of IBM. What does it mean to have IBM impact?

So in ‘92, it was the first package they had for people to leave IBM, and my manager comes to me and says, “I think it would be a good idea if you would take it.” Augh! On Wednesday; the deadline’s Friday. Susan Landau—I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her—was coming to visit me that day. We didn’t know each other very well. She was going to stay here, and she comes in the middle of my life being in total chaos, which she remembers quite well! I was supposed to have someone come and visit me over the summer to work with me, a guy I was working with on communicating sequential processes research. I talked to him, I think, about this too, and he came up with the suggestion that if I take the package, I should at least tell them I’d like to remain over the summer. So what happened was: on Friday, I decided to take the package, and they agreed that I could stay on over the summer. I wouldn’t be a regular Research Staff Member anymore; I’d be a visitor or whatever, so that I could continue working with Peter over the summer. I took the package on Friday. The following Thursday I get a phone call from the Vivek Sarkar, with whom I had done some research on compiler optimization, saying, “Barbara, I’m starting this new group on compiler optimization. I’d love to have you join. It’s going to be in Santa Theresa.” Vivek had been in Theory, but he had left and come back as a manager. He said he was starting this new group, and I had worked with Vivek and I really loved working with Vivek. He knows about applied stuff, but he can also talk about theoretical stuff, and we work together well. So he calls me on Thursday and says he’s starting a new group he wants me to join. “Vivek, I just left IBM!” [laughs.]

Continuing at IBM

What ended up happening was, after the summer, I went back to Santa Theresa. Then they said they that they don’t want people in that state: a lot of people apparently had taken the package and stayed on like I had, and the goal was to get people out! So the message comes down comes down from on high: “We don’t want people taking the package to stay on.” So they said, “Okay, well I guess we’ll have to make you a regular employee again.” [laughs.] So I was made an employee again! But it was [accidental]; I wouldn’t have chosen to go through that route; but it was like much of my life: kind of nonstandard.

I worked with Vivek for a few years, and then he left. He went East, and the group basically broke up, and I was sort of stuck with having to find a place for myself. I almost got a position doing policy for IBM. It turns out that my getting that job was killed by people in IBM Washington, who knew me but didn’t want me there! I’d gone to visit them once, and I was very unimpressed. They didn’t have anyone technical there. And I don’t really fit into the IBM mold, quite frankly; although I think the IBM mold would be improved if they were more willing to take people like me in.

So I didn’t get that job, and I ended up going to this other part of IBM, which was called Global Services. I was supposed to be working on help desk stuff. I had a manager who expected us to be in at a reasonable hour; I wasn’t used to that. You know, he’d have meetings at nine o’clock in the morning! [laughs.] Nine o’clock? You want me to be dragged down to south San Jose at nine o’clock? You got to be kidding! [laughs] I just didn’t fit in. I worked it out so that I could be liaison between them and folks in Research, so that I could get folks in Research working on some of the problems they were doing. But then it turned out this group was going to be moving to Boulder. People say it’s a nice city, but I wasn’t prepared to move to Boulder; my family’s all here. I was offered another package, so I took it!

Becoming the President of the ACM

Abbate:

[laughs.] So you got to retire twice from IBM!

Simons:

I got to retire twice, yes.

I figured now was the time to become ACM President, and I ended up running against another woman. If I’d run against another man, it would have been a sure thing, because women almost always win, but I ran against Mary Jane Irwin. But I won. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t won.

Meanwhile, I had started US-ACM.

Abbate:

So, was this concurrent with your ACM Presidency?

Simons:

No, no. This is way before, in ‘93. John White was the President when I was Secretary and was now the CEO-Executive Director of ACM. John knew I was really interested in policy and everything, so we worked together on this and decided to start a U.S. Public Policy Committee. We came up with the name US-ACM; it’s actually U.S. Public Policy Committee. The idea was to get ACM into the area of technology policy. It was a very tricky thing to do politically. I mean, for all my horror stories of IBM, you might think I’m a terrible politician, but actually within ACM I’ve been a pretty good politician.

Abbate:

Like your dad?

Simons:

Well, I don’t know if I was as good as he was. I just didn’t fit into IBM. But there was a real reluctance in ACM to get ACM doing policy, because policy is awfully close to politics. In fact, I suppose you could say that they’re maybe the same; maybe they’re not. People were very skittish, and I can understand that, because if we had gone and done something really stupid, it could have had a very bad reflection on ACM. I also think—this is my own personal theory, which I can’t verify—that there’s a lot of reluctance in many institutions like professional societies to engage in something that looks political, because of the repercussions that we’re still feeling from the McCarthy era, because McCarthy went after the intelligentsia of the country. Anyway, for whatever reasons, there was reluctance, and so we had to tailor it very carefully. It started off small, and we were sort of feeling our way.

Around the second half of ‘92, after I stopped being Secretary, I started putting together the Committee. Again, in order to do this, you want to get the right people initially. That’s very important. So I called Dick Karp, my former thesis advisor, and he said Yes. He’s done that for me several times, when I was trying to get something started. I started a science policy committee in the Theory SIG of ACM, and he helped me with that by saying Yes, and he helped me with some other things. So I got Dick, and then I got some other prominent people; I got several people who were well known in the community to agree to be on this committee.

We sort of had to feel our way through. Early on, one of the things that came up was suggesting a new person for the CISE position at NSF, and so I sent out a note saying, “Can people come up with names?” But then it was obvious that it’s easy to suggest people, [but not] very easy to say somebody shouldn’t do it. I mean, if it’s [an email] list, people aren’t going to do that. So I think that’s when we decided we needed an Executive Committee. Or maybe we did it early on; I don’t recall. But anyway, the Executive Committee had the President of ACM; the Executive Director of ACM; I think we had a couple of representatives from the SIGs; so we structured this thing so that a lot of the ACM leadership would be closely linked to US-ACM, so that there were be this oversight. Anyway, the Executive Committee then came up with a list via conference call, because we couldn’t do it any other way. So that was one of the first things we did.

But the first real thing we did was: shortly after U.S. ACM got off the ground—we hadn’t done much yet—the Clipper Chip was announced. So I got this idea that we should do a study. I also knew that Susan Landau, this woman who had shown up at my house when the shit had hit the fan at IBM, was in a difficult situation herself at U. Mass Amherst, where she was at the time. She was also somebody who was very interested in policy and who wrote well. I thought she’d be a fantastic person to be a staff person for the study if we could get her, and she agreed to do it, even though I think she was probably underpaid and she was overworked. And I got Steve Kent, who is a big name in certain areas, to Chair it; and I put together this committee—which was so balanced that they couldn’t come up with any real recommendations, because I had Whit Diffie and Dorothy Denning on it, and they were on opposite sides of the issue. If you’ve heard of Diffie-Hellman [key exchange]: Whit’s well-known in encryption. Public-key encryption, that was their invention.

Then we got NSF funding, and because Susan was so good and so dedicated, they got the thing out in less than a year. It was aimed at the lay reader, so it’s short. It may still be a bit too technical; I’m not sure; but the goal was to produce something that staff members of Congress could read, so they could understand the issues. And even though they didn’t take a position, they did at least find problems and state what the opposing positions were where they didn’t agree. In fact, it became the basis of a subsequent National Academy study called the Crisis Report, which came out in ‘96, where they actually did come out with some recommendations. They had an eight hundred thousand–dollar budget; we had a seventy thousand–dollar budget.

That was really a great way to get things started, because we had this really good piece of work that was the sort of thing that I had had in mind. There are all these political and policy decisions being made that involve technology, where the people making the decisions don’t really understand the issues, and it seemed to me that our goal as technologists was to try to provide, as much as possible, unbiased information (although we’d clearly have our own biases) that would certainly explain how the technology works and what some of the implications could be of various decisions.

Abbate:

A bit akin to what the National Academies do?

Simons:

Somewhat, although I would say it’s different. First of all, the National Academies have more constraints. We take positions; we write letters; we do stuff that the National Academies don’t do. If you go to the Web page—in fact, I can send you a bunch of slides that I just got, which are really nicely written by our Director in Washington, who is great. He’s the former chief staffer for the Technology Subcommittees of the House Science Committee, and he’s really superb. He’s only been there for a year and a half and it’s really made a tremendous difference.

Details on ACM Actions

Abbate:

So you do take positions on some issues?

Simons:

We don’t lobby, though. We don’t lobby on legislation. But we’ve certainly come out very strongly against the anti-circumvention and anti-dissemination provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. We’ve signed onto several amicus briefs. Most recently, we just signed on to a brief written by Pam Samuelson. She’s a Law Professor up at Berkeley. Half in Law School, half in SIMS [School of Information Management and Systems], which is a sort of interdisciplinary area. A MacArthur Fellowship Award winner; you know, those “genius” awards. She’s been very prominent and outspoken fighting some of what she calls these “copyright maximalists.” She’s written for CACM, the ACM major journal, but she’s also written for—what’s that flashy journal?

Abbate:

Wired?

Simons:

Yes, Wired. Anyway, she wrote a brief that was originally just going to be signed by law professors, but she’s on US-ACM, and she and I were talking about it, and I said, “Well, why don’t we get onto that too?”

There have been two interesting cases relating to DVDs. You know that DVDs were encoded with this really crappy encryption called CSS. It’s 40-bit, and they didn’t even use a standard, well-known encryption algorithm; they invented their own, and they depend on obfuscation, and it’s really easily broken. I’m not a cryptographer, but it’s obvious. And it was broken pretty early. In fact, it turns out that you don’t even need to break it; if you want to get to the key, you just need to know a number that tells you how far into something a particular key is. Because the DVDs have to have the keys for all the different machines that they play on, and you just have to know the—what’s the word?

Abbate:

The address of where your machine’s key is?

Simons:

Basically, yes. I mean, that’s how crappy it is.

Anyway, the code itself was broken, and the standard technique for breaking it is called DeCSS. It was developed in Europe. There’s a guy named Jon Johansen, who I think is under indictment in Norway, who was a 15- or 16-year-old kid when he posted it on his Web site. I think he claimed to have broken it; I don’t know if he did or not, because I’ve heard different stories about it. Anyway, it’s all over the Web. And there are two cases involving this. One is a case in New York, which you’ve maybe heard of: The 2600 case. There’s this guy named Eric Corley, who has an e-zine called 2600; he lives in Stony Brook, I think. He was chosen as a defendant by the movie industry because he’s a wonderful defendant. I think he probably has “Fuck you” all over his Web page. I’m not sure; I haven’t looked; but you know: “Up the Establishment.” He wears scruffy tee shirts and his hair in a ponytail. He’s the kind of person, you drag him into court, the Judge looks at him and says, “Yuck! I hope people like that stay away from my daughter!” So he was a well-chosen defendant. Anyway, he had posted this DeCSS on his Web site, so it’s easy, so the movie industry went after him and a couple of other defendants. The others just immediately complied with everything, and so they got dropped, but he didn’t. He did take it off his Web site, but he put up links to other places on the Web where it exists.

I was actually deposed as an Expert Witness for his court case. I missed the court case because we were in Europe on vacation; otherwise I would have loved to have gone. He was found guilty under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [of 1998]. And that’s supposed to implement a WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] Copyright Treaty, but it wasn’t even clear that we needed to do anything to implement it. Anyway, it’s way overkill; it has much more than what the treaty has in it. In particular, it has anti-circumvention and anti-dissemination provisions. So basically, it’s illegal to circumvent copyright protection mechanisms. It’s also illegal to make available tools for circumventing. This has enormous implications for computer science, which is why this is an area where the community is really [united]. The positions we’ve taken have not been controversial at all. This is where the community’s completely behind what we’re doing—which is nice, although we’ve got some pretty formidable opponents.

Anyway, this guy posts this stuff, and he gets convicted, and he’s enjoined from even having links on his Web site. Now, the San Jose Mercury News has [the same] links on their Web site; they said so in court. It doesn’t matter. I wrote an article on this; it’s in the ACM digital library: I give an address where you can find DeCSS in my article, though it’s not a link; you actually have to copy it. But this kid was convicted. Now, he appealed; he lost his initial appeal in the Appeals Court. I think it was a group of three, and I think they may have expanded to the full court, and that was lost too. And I just really hope that he doesn’t take it to the Supreme Court, because he is exactly the wrong person the we want to have as a defendant. I mean, the movie industry is very smart about this.

Now, Felton would have been really good. You know about the Felton case? Ed Felton is a Princeton Professor, but he was at Stanford last year. In fact, he and I co-taught a course this past quarter. This is another really interesting story. The SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative) and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) co-sponsored a contest on the Net. They had these watermarking technologies, four of them; they had four pieces watermarked; and the global contest was to strip the watermarks off the music, such that the music still sounded right. So Felton, who was at Princeton, and someone at Rice University—I mean, these are faculty people—also a graduate student of Felton’s, and someone who was at Xerox PARC: a group of people got together, and they broke it. They submitted their solution, and sure enough, they’d broken all four.

Now, in order to get the prize, you had to sign a statement giving your intellectual property over to the people who ran the contest. They said, “We’re not interested in the prize. We’re going to publish this.” This was not what they [the contest organizers] were expecting! So they submitted it to a workshop, and it was accepted. Two weeks before they were supposed to present their paper, Ed, his co-authors, the Program Committee Members, and all of their employers got threatening letters. “If you present this paper, you’re going to be in violation of the DMCA, the anti-dissemination provisions”—because they were going to talk about how they broke it.

Abbate:

So it wouldn’t be illegal to do it that particular case, but it would be illegal to talk about it, even in that particular case?

Simons:

Right. And there are other situations where that’s also true. I mean, it’s a very Alice-in-Wonderland kind of law.

Abbate:

The whole principle seems wrong. It sounds like prior restraint or something, because it sounds like it’s illegal to break the encryption even if you’re not actually violating copyright. Suppose I circumvent it, but I don’t actually . . .

Simons:

. . . make any illegal copies? Nobody has ever shown that anyone used DeCSS to make illegal copies. If you want to make pirate copies of these DVDs, you go off to Asia somewhere, you set up a factory; and you copy the whole thing—encoded! It’ll play in people’s DVD players anyway. I think Corley probably has stuff on his Web site about “Oh, we can make illegal copies”; he probably had incriminating stuff like that; but [computer scientists have a different] rationale for what we’re doing, and I think it is a legitimate one. [For example, allowing DVDs to be played on systems such as Linux that are not supported by the industry.] There was an organization that was formed to license people to make [DVD players. In order to be licensed, I think you had to pay a fee, and you also had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, because part of what they were doing was trying to keep all this stuff secret. I’m sure they knew it could be broken—I know they knew it could be broken, because I know that there were scientists who told them it could be broken. Now, if you think about Linux and the whole theory behind the open software movement, signing a non-disclosure agreement is totally contrary to the whole idea. Besides which, even if people [who wanted to make Linux-compatible DVD players] were willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement, who’s qualified to do it? Who has the authority? It’s not like a Microsoft or an IBM, where it’s clear who has the authority. In these open-software movements, no one has the authority. So the argument was, “Well, we have to break this so that we can play DVDs—legally purchased DVDs—under Linux.” I think that’s legitimate. 

Abbate:

And to say you have to incorporate this copyright protection also restricts how you can provide that technology . . .

Simons:

If you have to be licensed. But that’s the way they do it.

So anyway, Ed Felton and the group decided the day before they were supposed to present their paper that they would withdraw it. Basically what Ed told me was that he just didn’t feel comfortable subjecting such a large group to potential financial problems—even though it’s pretty clear, I think, to everybody that they would have won. I mean, you still have to hire a lawyer, and it could be ugly. It’s very intimidating to have somebody threaten to take you to court, especially if they’re very, very powerful, and very, very wealthy. They’ve got a lot of money.

So they withdrew the paper, and then they resubmitted it to another conference [the 10th USENIX Security Symposium]—and the recording industry sued. So Ed and almost all the co-authors—I think one dropped out—counter-sued the RIAA, SDMI, [U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft, and Verance Corporation on the grounds that what they were trying to do was unconstitutional. While this was going on, somebody at the RIAA wised up and said, “This was a really stupid move on our part”—because when he withdrew the paper, there was a lot of press: “Princeton Professor threatened with lawsuit.” And everybody around here was very aware of it. I mean, it didn’t look good. He’s a Princeton Professor. He’s not some punk kid with “Fuck you” on his Web site from Stony Brook; he’s a Princeton Professor, with short hair, and it turns out he speaks very well; he’s a very good public speaker, and he’s smart. And the other people working with him are similar-status people. So they realized they’d screwed up, and they immediately said, “No, no, no! We didn’t mean it. We’re not going to sue; we’re not going to do anything. Do whatever you want! It’s okay. We don’t care.” Meanwhile, of course, he has this threatening letter posted on his Web site. It’s a threat written by lawyers: it’s not explicit, it’s implicit. What happened, which probably could have been predicted, was that the judge threw the case out, because they weren’t being threatened. I think they were able to negotiate something with the RIAA and SDMI that they wouldn’t come after them for any version of this paper or anything, whatever they did. They could make the movie out of it and they wouldn’t come after them.

Abbate:

So that got published?

Simons:

Yes. ACM submitted a declaration, and this took a lot of work on my part. I’ve learned a little bit about the law. A declaration is different from an amicus brief. A declaration is something that says, “We have a specific interest in this case,” and it usually goes in the lower court, the first court; whereas an amicus is usually an opinion, and it’s more often on appeals. The court has to look at a declaration; it doesn’t have to look at an amicus. So a declaration, in some ways, is [stronger], but you have to say, “We have a specific interest in what’s happening”—as opposed to, “We think this is a good idea to do it this way, or a bad idea,” which an amicus would say. So ACM submitted it, saying, “We have an upcoming workshop on digital rights management”—which we did—”and we publish papers in this area, and we’re going to be subject to some of the DMCA restrictions.” I thought our declaration might make the difference, because even if Felton et al. weren’t being threatened, we had to worry. We’re publishers, and we also have a digital library; we have to worry about protecting ourselves, too. Now, there isn’t as much incentive for people to [target us], but that’s a different issue. That was the first time the ACM has ever done that, and that was a real struggle, because the President of ACM was a bit nervous about doing something like that. He was afraid of that they would come after us. And there was no way, legally, they could come after us: none. They can’t come after us for submitting a declaration.

Now, this other case I started telling you about, that we just signed onto an amicus on, is before the California Supreme Court. This is also related to DVDs, but it’s not under the DMCA. There were some other people who posted DeCSS on their Web sites, because it’s all over the Web, and they were gone after by the DVD CCA [Digital Video Disc Copy Control Association], the trade group that’s licensing people to manufacture DVDs. They went after some of these people on the grounds that they were violating trade secrets.

Abbate:

Can you violate a trade secret if you haven’t agreed to keep it?

Simons:

That’s my question, too. But I think there are ways that people who don’t actually sign the agreement can still be guilty of trade-secret violations. I’m pretty sure that’s true. But this seems like a very far-fetched case to me.

Apparently, in the lower court it was argued on a First Amendment basis. First Amendment, and also that it’s not a trade secret; but apparently what the lower court looked at was the First Amendment, and they said, “This isn’t a First Amendment issue.” I think all that happened was that the lower court issued an injunction mandating that DeCSS be removed from these Web sites. That’s all that’s happened so far.

That injunction went to the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court overturned the injunction on the grounds that code is speech, and therefore this is prior restraint of speech. Now, they said a couple of interesting things. They said source code is speech. Object code isn’t; object code generated by a machine isn’t—which sort of gets back to my story of working on the Varian 620i, because I could read that [object code]. But anyway, an interesting question, just from a tactical perspective, looking at all these wars that are going on with copyright, is: Would it be sufficient if we could somehow get protection for source code and not for object code? Would that be sufficient? As a tactical question. As a computer scientist, it seems to me there’s a continuum from object to source; there’s not a clear breaking point; but I guess you could define “object code” for legal purposes as something which is produced by the computers.

The case is now on appeal at the Supreme Court of California, and Pam Samuelson wrote a brief arguing the trade secret issue, saying, “Let’s focus on trade secrets. This is not a trade secret violation. There’s no trade secret here.” But she also talked a bit about reverse engineering, and we signed onto that brief, and I think that’s going to be released tomorrow. So we’ll see. So, that’s the kind of thing we’re doing.

Teaching at Stanford

Abbate:

And you’re also at Stanford now? Visiting or something?

Simons:

I’ve been a Consulting Professor at Stanford. Last year I taught a course in Science, Technology, and Society, and this year I taught a course in computer science. This year we tried doing something different, so Ed and I tried doing what we’re calling a “clinic.” You know about a law school clinics? You know what those are? I think they started maybe as early as the seventies, with environmental clients, or civil rights; areas like that. They would have hands-on work for the law school students, and I think they would sometimes do background work, looking up case law and so on, maybe sometimes help to provide a brief. So my idea—and then I got Ed involved with this—was to see if we could do something like that for computer science.

Abbate:

Policy studies?

Simons:

Yes. Right. It didn’t entirely work. For one thing, a quarter’s too short. But we got three really good papers from students. They had to produce a project, and three of them were very good. I’m going to be working with some students getting their papers published; they’re journal-quality papers. One was fascinating. It was an area I knew nothing about: cyber-trespass. This guy actually wants to be a lawyer, and I think he’ll turn out to be a good one. With a Master’s (or at least an undergraduate degree) in computer science from Stanford and a law degree, he’ll be dynamite. But he looked through this whole question of “What is cyber-trespass?” He looked at the old trespass notions, pre-computer, and how they try to take some really obscure notion of trespass and apply it to computers. Breaking into someone’s system is trespass. But what laws cover it?

Another one that is really interesting is deep linking; preventive linking. When I put a link to someone else’s Web site, there are different ways of doing it. There’s something called “framing,” where I can put my own stuff around it; or I might just have a link to it, and it might be clear that when I click on that link I’m going to someone else’s Web site, or it might not be clear. There was just a case in the Netherlands where some group that was linking to some newspaper articles were found guilty of violating copyright or something and told not to do it. I think it was a search engine. Which is very bizarre, in my opinion. The newspapers were claiming, “This is our material. You can’t publish it.” Well, they were linking to it; they weren’t publishing it. But people aren’t clear as to what’s publishing and what isn’t.

Abbate:

I had heard about that issue of links, that some people had claimed that was copying.

Simons:

Yes. And in some cases, it might be. I mean, she really struggled with this. Her name is Laura Beck, and she really struggled with this: trying to figure out where the line should be drawn. She really struggled with it, and I think she came up with a pretty good paper.

[If you’re interested in policy issues,] you ought to check our Web site: www.acm.org/usacm. And as I said, Jeff Grove, the Director of our Washington office, put together a really nice set of slides, talking about what we’ve done. We’ve also done some work trying to prevent NIST . . . NIST has an Office of Computer Security, or a group that does computer security research, and Bush has been proposing to move that into this new Homeland Security Department. Everybody’s saying this is a terrible idea, because this is a group that does a lot of research; they’re not doing homeland stuff.

Abbate:

They’re doing standards; it’s supposed to be open!

Simons: Exactly. It’s supposed to be standards: precisely. They’re supposed to be coming up with standards, and you don’t want this under the Homeland Defense; it’s just a bad idea. It might be a good idea to put some other group under there that really looks at cyber-security issues. I do think that cyber-security is an issue. One of the best things you could do about that is to get rid of Windows 98 and stuff like that! It is an issue, and some of the most rudimentary things are not being done. I mean, we don’t even need anyone to do research; you need to go around and make sure that everybody’s computer is set so that you have to click on something before you open an attachment.

Have you heard of UCITA? Peter Neumann says he likes the Italian pronunciation, which is “You cheata.” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Peter Neumann edits the RISKS Digest.

Simons:

Yes. Peter’s also on US-ACM. In fact, he’s on the Executive Committee now. We have involved a number of prominent people, and that’s one of the things that’s important to do, to give it credibility.

There was a move, which I guess probably started four or five years ago now. Commerce law is regulated at the state level. There’s something called the Uniform Commercial Code. It exists so that if you’re doing business in California and want to sell something in New York, you don’t have to worry about what the law is in New York. It makes sense. And the way new pieces of this code are developed is that there are these two committees that get together: one is a group lawyers from the American Law Institute, and the other is some sort of Commissioners for the Uniform Commercial Code, or whatever; they’re all at the state level. They get together, and they come up with a new proposal, and when they agree on it, then it comes up as a Recommendation and goes off to the states, and they pass it.

Article 2 [of the UCC] is about contracts. Standard contract law assumes that you’ve got two roughly equal entities that are negotiating a contract. You and I could negotiate a contract, or Microsoft and Sun could negotiate a contract, even though Microsoft is a lot bigger. But now they we have these shrink-wrap licenses, which are a form of contracts, and that’s a little different. So Article 2B was supposed to have been an addition to the Uniform Commercial Code that would deal with mass-market licenses. Well, Microsoft is the main push behind this, and what they came up with is so horrible that the lawyers pulled out. The worked on it for about three years, and the lawyers pulled out, and we thought it was dead. But the Uniform Code Commissioners went ahead with it, renamed it UCITA—Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act—and it’s been passed by Virginia and Maryland. The schtick was that this will bring in high-tech industry, which of course it hasn’t.

Now, the deal with UCITA, and before that Article 2B, is . . . Have you ever read a shrink-wrap license? “We are not liable for anything.” And then there are a number of other cute things that are in a number of them. For example, there are anti-benchmarking clauses in a number of them. That came about because Dave DeWitt, who was at the University of Michigan some years back, did a benchmarking study of three different commercial databases, I believe. He published the results, together with the names of the databases, and one of them—I think it was Oracle; anyway, whichever one got the worst—was really upset. So they started saying—and Microsoft has this in their shrink-wrap licenses—“You cannot publish articles about our product without getting our permission to do so.”

Abbate:

What is the legal standing for doing this?

Simons:

Well, most of this stuff hasn’t been tested in the courts.

Abbate:

So there’s nothing about giving up your First Amendment rights just because you bought a product.

Simons:

It hasn’t been tested in the courts—which is both good and bad.

Another one, which is on and off again in these various versions, is something called Self Help. Talk about an Orwellian name! “Self Help” means that I, as the owner of the software—because remember, you just license it; you don’t own it—I as the owner can remotely disconnect you, or turn your software off, if I’ve decided that you’ve violated the license. That’s Self Help. I think they may have to try to give you some notice first, but whether or not you get it is another issue. Suppose you’re away on vacation? And the whole liability thing is also very interesting, because suppose they do this and they cause real damage. Are they liable?

Abbate:

I’m surprised. To me, what’s striking is that they would have any way of getting into your computer and messing with it.

Simons:

Oh, but there’s something that came out about Microsoft recently, where there’s some kind of download patch they sent, and that patch includes some provision that allows them to turn things off on your machine.

Abbate:

But for the software to decide you had violated the license and turn itself off, it must have some capability for . . .

Simons:

Well, presumably something gets sent to it to say, “Turn it off.”

Abbate:

Yes. So it must have something where it’s going to take this incoming message and respond to it, which sounds like the world’s biggest security hole.

Simons:

Right. Tell me about it! That’s the thing, you see. One of the arguments I frequently make is that when you talk about security, let’s look at UCITA, and let’s look at all these efforts to eliminate reverse-engineering—which is really critical for finding viruses. They’re [also] very anti-consumer, to put it mildly, and a significant number of State Attorneys General have written letters about against 2B and probably against UCITA. One of the issues is that in commerce law, apparently, if you buy a product, there are implied licenses—the Magnussen-Moss Act—that a manufacturer cannot disclaim. So there are implied warranties that they can’t walk away from, because there are consumer protection laws that were written. And now all the software manufacturers are saying, “Well, you’re not buying anything. You’re just buying a license, not a product, so it’s not covered.”

Abbate:

So why can’t everyone say that? Why can’t General Motors say, “This is just a license?”

Simons:

Well, there’s an hysterical email with a UCITA warranty for a car. It’s very funny!

Abbate:

What does that even mean? Are they are saying software’s not physical?

Simons:

I think the very fact that they’re saying “It’s just a license” is a fundamental problem. A little over a hundred years ago, there was an interesting case that went to the Supreme Court, where book manufacturers were putting licenses into books saying, “If you resell this book, you have to resell it for the same price that you purchased it for.” Of course, the goal was to eliminate the used-book market. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. And we see how licenses are being used to get around all kinds of protections and legal liabilities.

It’s a tricky business, because we know you can’t write flawless, bug-free software; it’s impossible for anyone to program; so you can’t expect software manufacturers to be liable for any little thing that goes wrong. On the other hand, if they’re not held liable for anything, then there’s no incentive for them to try to produce robust, secure software—especially if they have a monopoly.

Maybe your next book will be on policy! I should probably try to write a book, because that’s one way of getting the status: to write a book. Also, the issues are so important. Last year, before I started teaching privacy, I asked my students what they think should be the privacy policy. These are a bunch of kids who are taking a policy class, so they’re already interested in the subject. And mostly what they said basically amounted to “notice and choice.” Notice and choice means, I tell you what I’m going to do with your information, and you can either participate or not. That’s all the P3P [Platform for Privacy Preferences Project] does; it gives you notice and choice.

Abbate:

Did I ask if you had mentors, or role models?

Simons:

Mike Sipser, the graduate student whom I lived with, was in many ways that for me. It’s sort of funny thinking of him as a mentor, because he was a graduate student; but he was very good.

Changes in Computer Science for Minorities

Abbate:

In terms of how the field of computing has changed since you got involved, which I guess was thirty years ago . . .

Simons:

Yes. Well, Intro CS I took in ‘71.

Abbate:

What are some of the most striking changes from your perspective?

Simons:

There are several. One is, it certainly has developed a lot more. As I say, when I started off, it was pretty shallow: broad and shallow. It’s still pretty broad, but it’s a little bit deeper, at least in some places! In some places, it’s still pretty shallow. There are a lot of con artists in this field.

Abbate:

Hmm!

Simons:

Oh, yes. People pushing the latest super-duper whatever. There are fads; things go in and out fashion. And I’ve also noticed that the wheel is frequently rediscovered over and over again; as different models of computing come up, people rediscover the same thing—which is a sad reflection, really, on the scholarliness of the field, that we don’t know our own history.

The status has changed remarkably, of course. When I first started, there was no problem getting into computer science. I mean, admittedly I knew the President of the university, but it wasn’t as if there were not enough seats in the classroom.

Oh, I didn’t tell you about the Re-entry Program. Did Paula tell you about that? At Berkeley. Paula, Sheila, and I started the Re-entry Program for women and minorities in computer science at Berkeley.

Abbate:

I think she talked about the Re-entry Program.

Simons:

And did she tell you about how we had this wonderful lunch for the faculty when we were trying to convince them? We had both graduated at this point, and we were still both local, and we were still plotting, so we started this Re-entry Program; because at that point in the early ‘80s, seats were at a premium, and doors were closing. I had this really bizarre history, as you can see, and part of [my ability to get into the field] was that I knew, from having been married to an academic, that any rule could be broken, and that’s a very valuable lesson that most women don’t have. But part of it was that there weren’t that many [obstacles]. I mean, there were obstacles, obviously, but there were ways for an oddball like me to get in; and in the early eighties that changed.

In fact, one of the first things that Berkeley did when there was a real crunch—too many people wanting to take classes—was that they eliminated the Extension School students. When I first went to Berkeley, I was allowed to take courses through the Extension School before I became a graduate student, and it was something I always encouraged other women to do, if they were thinking about going back to school or maybe going into computer science. You could sign up for a regular CS course through the Extension School, which was a nice side way to get into learning the stuff. That was closed, and Paula and I were both feeling that they were basically making it so only mainstream people could go, and women are more likely to be non-mainstream.

Abbate:

“Mainstream” being what men do.

Simons:

Certainly both of us were non-mainstream, and a lot of the other women we knew were, too. There are more mainstream women now in the field, but in those days, especially, there weren’t that many. And we also felt that the field was still broad enough that there were ways that you could come into it without having a strong computer science background. You know: get the background and do something interesting.

So the way we sold it to the faculty was, we actually had a lunch we bought: she and I paid for sandwiches and wine, and we fed them!

Abbate:

[laughs.] That was enough?

Simons:

Well, it wasn’t the only thing, but it helped a lot! [laughs.] And we promised them money. We got money raised. Sheila Humphreys was the person who was responsible. In fact, she was the first Director. So we were able to guarantee seats in the classrooms for people, but we raised money for the department. The neat thing about it was that when the Re-entry Program was going really well, it was presented as the Department’s program; they took it on. Then, of course, it was killed by Prop 209; and nobody fought to save it, which really pissed me off.

Abbate:

Do you think computer science has become more open to women since then? Or less, in some ways? Or the same?

Simons:

In the early days, it was very open to women, because it didn’t have any status or stature; so it was okay for women to do it. As it has become more high-status, high-paying, high-stature, I think it has become closed to women. And I don’t think that’s unique to computer science. I was talking to a woman in a different field, who said the same thing had happened in her area: when it was new and ill-defined, a bit amorphous, [it was more open to women].

Abbate:

And low-paid?

Simons:

Yes, exactly. Well, the reverse is happening now with physicians, right? There are more women in medicine, and physicians are making less money and have less status.

Abbate:

Do you find that women end up in certain areas of computing?

Simons:

Yes. Much more likely in software than hardware. I think there are a fair number of women in theory, relatively speaking; not a lot, because there aren’t a lot in anything. Certainly many more in human factors. Human factors is one of the few areas which is almost dominated by women. Ben Shneiderman’s area. But the more the field appears kind of “soft”, as opposed to engineering, it’s more likely to have women. I think part of it is this whole math thing, and part is the social view of what women do. I mean, areas that women work in, like human factors . . . A lot of women, for example, write manuals; they’re technical writers. Well, again, that’s a low-status, low-pay job—even though we sure as hell could use better-written manuals.

Abbate:

Yes!

Simons:

That was one of the main reasons we started the Re-entry Program. We wanted women coming out with advanced degrees from Berkeley, from the top schools. Again, if you look at where the women are in school, they’re more likely to be at the lesser schools, I believe. Although CMU is doing a very good job with women. You know about that, I assume?

Abbate:

Right! Well, I read the study that just came out this year. Unlocking the Clubhouse:

Women in Computing. Something like that.

Simons:

But of course, CMU is a lot smaller than Berkeley.

Abbate:

It sounds like it’s still pretty tough for women at CMU, at least from what their study says.

Simons:

Oh, really? Even their study says it’s tough?

Abbate:

Well, it sounds like the environment was not that friendly, and I guess they have done a lot to counteract what was kind of a hostile situation to begin with. It’s interesting reading.

Well, what do you find most satisfying about your work with computing?

Simons:

Well, I’m not doing research right now, but when I did do research: figuring out how something worked. Getting the theorems—because I mainly wrote theorems, though not exclusively. Getting a thing to finally work; getting the pieces together. When I finally figured out how to solve this problem that was my thesis problem: Wow! It was just marvelous. There’s an excitement when you feel you’re making a breakthrough with some problem you’ve really banged your head against and wrestled with. I have this image of my wrestling this problem, and it was trying to hide its secrets from me, and I knew they were there, somewhere; you just had to somehow get to them! So yes, that was pretty neat.

The policy work is different. In some ways it doesn’t have the depth that doing research can have, when you’re really struggling with understanding something. On the other hand, it’s so important, and we’re at such a critical time right now, when these laws are being passed and decisions are being made that have long-term impact. And it’s very interesting. I think there are more important issues in the world than what I work on, but this is what I have the credentials to do, so this is where I can have the most impact.

Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who might be thinking about going into computing?

Simons:

It’s hard for me to advise women to go into computing. I have a hard time, because I have such mixed feelings about it now. I’m on the Board of Math/Science Network, which means I’m working on trying to help get women into math and science, and I’ve certainly put a lot of my own time and energy into it. But . . .

One of the things we haven’t talked about is the whole issue of surveillance.

Abbate:

I’m not sure what you mean.

Simons:

Well, it’s the fact that everything you do on the Net can be surveilled. You know about Carnivore. All the databases that have been accumulated about you by private entities and certain government agencies, and the ease with which these things can be matched, drawn together. As more and more of our life moves onto computers and the Net, more and more of what we do is going to be exposed. I’m very concerned that we’re moving to a surveillance society, and I think this has only been exacerbated by what’s happened since September 11th [2001].

Abbate:

Do you think that’s a problem that particularly affects women?

Simons:

No.

Abbate:

Or do you just mean in general?

Simons:

Yes. It’s not that I have trouble advising women to go into computing; [it’s anyone]. It’s interesting: some of my students now are planning to study law, the ones who took the policy course. These are all kids out of computer science. In fact, I’m going to be meeting with one who was working at Microsoft; I’m not quite sure what he’s going to do. He’s thinking about going back to school and studying law. I’m pretty encouraging, because I think what we really need are people who have this technical background and a legal background, who can understand these issues. Now, of course, one of the problems is that there aren’t that many jobs for people like that, of the kind that these kids would like to have, because they’re pretty idealistic; and the ones that there are that are pretty low-paying; they tend to be with public interest groups. Or possibly professional societies, maybe; but we [at ACM] don’t have a lawyer on the staff—I mean, doing this kind of work. So more likely they’d end up working in some corporate environment, which might not be what they want.

So, it’s hard. It’s hard to advise people. But even if they’re going to be working in the corporate environment, it’s still probably useful for them to have a good understanding of technology, so that they can at least explain to people what the implications of various decisions might be. I don’t know. I mean, when I originally went into computing, one of my ideas, aside from the fact that I could earn a living, was: back then, you were starting to get punch-cards in with bills. I found this a little bit creepy, so I thought, “Well, if I learn about computer science, I’ll know how to deal with all this stuff.” And of course, what I learned was that you can’t deal with it—that there’s no way you can guarantee that information’s been deleted; it could just have been sent off somewhere else. As I say, I really worry that we’re turning into a surveillance society, and that’s very disturbing. I mean, the political implications are enormous.

The other thing is, Americans are brainwashed about privacy. That’s what I was starting to say earlier, [when I talked about my students’ views on privacy policy].

Abbate:

You mean, Americans are brainwashed to not expect much privacy?

Simons:

Yes. The very fact that my students said “notice and choice.” They didn’t say, “They should be responsible [for protecting out privacy].” And these are my students! I mean, they just hadn’t thought about it. They’d heard “notice and choice,” and that’s all they’d heard. Nobody talked about fair information practices. By the end of the course, they all knew all about it. In fact, one of the kids came up to me and he said, “Professor Simons, I really enjoy your class, but every time I come here, I get more and more scared.”

Abbate:

Well, thank you for talking with me at such great length!

Simons:

Well, thank you for listening to me! I enjoyed it.