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Oral-History:Paula Hawthorn

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Revision as of 17:21, 11 June 2012

Contents

About Paula Hawthorn

Paula Hawthorn was born in 1943 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She attended the University of Houston and planned to be a math teacher, but after an arrest for involvement in a civil rights protest, she was barred from teaching in Texas. After graduating from Houston with a degree in mathematics, she worked with computers at Texaco, processing credit-card information. From there she moved to the University of California, Berkeley to receive her PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which was granted in 1979. Her dissertation was on the performance of database systems.

She then worked at Hewlett-Packard, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a number of influential start-up companies, where she was usually Vice-President of Software Development. At the time of this interview, Hawthorn had semi-retired and was performing part-time consulting work.

In this interview, Hawthorn discusses the problems with being a single-mother and working through a graduate program, her efforts to start women's support groups at colleges and companies she worked for, and the development of general versus special-purpose machinery.


About the Interview

PAULA HAWTHORN: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 5 July 2002.

Interview #600 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:

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


Interview

INTERVIEW: Paula Hawthorn
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 5 July 2002
PLACE: Hawthorn's home in Oakland, California


Background and Education

Abbate:

I’m talking with Paula Hawthorn, July 5th, 2002.

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

Hawthorn:

I was born in 1943, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I was the child of a serviceman and a nurse. Apparently it was a shotgun wedding. They divorced when I was two, and my mother took me on an odyssey out to California. (She had relatives in California.) She became an alcoholic, had a lot of problems, and would periodically abandon me with my relatives. When I was nine they got tired of that, and they shipped me back to Texas to stay with my paternal grandmother for the summer—to shock my mother into taking better care of me, or something. But my father, who then was living in Indiana with his second wife and two children, came down to Texas that summer and took me.

So at nine I went to live with my father and stepmother, in an environment where they were trying to do the best they could with this “street child.” But the only way I had to feel good about myself—I was overweight, I didn’t talk correct English, I was unkempt—was that I was very good at math. I’d always been very good at math. My stepmother and my two younger brothers could not comprehend mathematics, [but] my father loved mathematics, had always loved the math problems in the various science magazines and stuff. The fact that I was good in math was my way of showing everyone that I could do what I wanted. So I was going to be a math teacher.

My parents were from Texas, and they moved back to Texas when I was twelve; I grew up from that point in Dallas. I was always going to be a math teacher. I escaped the house at eighteen, married my first husband, and he and I went to school at the University of Houston. I was going to be a math teacher; that was an approved vocation for women of my generation and my upbringing. But because of the way I’d been brought up, when we moved back to Texas when I was twelve, I simply could not understand—it didn’t make any sense to me—all the things that happened with black people. I would always sit at the back of the bus; I would always drink out of the black drinking fountains. I thought it was the most stupid thing. You know kids—I just thought it was stupid. It was illogical; it was stupid. My parents would say, “Well, black people are dirty,” and then I’d say, “Well, then why does Aunt Patsy have Martha Kay taking care of the kitchen? I mean, if they’re dirty . . . . She does a great job in the kitchen.” So my husband and I were involved in the civil rights movement, and we were arrested; and because I was arrested, I was not able to do my student teaching in the Houston Independent School District, which was segregated at the time. To have been arrested for civil rights meant you couldn’t teach. They wouldn’t employ you.

Abbate:

Do you think it was specifically a ban on people who were arrested for civil rights, or if you’d been arrested for anything?

Hawthorn:

God knows. I didn’t contest it. I hadn’t found the education courses I’d taken to be all that interesting; I didn’t feel that I had found my vocation. But here I was, one semester away from graduating from the University of Houston with a degree in math, and nothing to do! A friend of ours said, “Have you ever thought of computers?” And I said, “No.” Then he said, “Well, you like math; you could be good at that stuff. Why don’t take this course in computers?” He’d taken it and found it very interesting, so I took it.

That was in 1965. At the time, at the University of Houston, we didn’t have a computer. We wrote the programs, we punched the punch cards on the punch-card machine, they wrapped them up, and they sent them off by bus to Austin, where they had a computer. They ran the program there, and a day later we’d get it; so we had about thirty-six hour turnaround on running our computer programs. You got very good at desk checking! I loved it. I aced the course; I just did fantastic. It was wonderful.

Interview time came around, and people from various companies were interviewing people to see if they could be programmers. Bell Labs was also there. Bell Labs was interviewing people to see if they could go into their program (which they had for years) where they would send you to school for a Master’s degree and then you would agree to work with Bell. They talked with me, and they told me I would have gotten it except I was a married woman, and they expected that I would drop out and have children. Again, I did not contest that.

Texaco was there, and Texaco was hiring math majors: women who had As in math and men who had Bs and above.

Abbate:

Oh, my goodness! Was that explicit?

Hawthorn:

That was very explicit. Nobody thought anything about that.

I took a lot of engineering math—engineering math was just applied mathematics, but they called it “engineering math”—and I was good at it. My teacher said, “Haven’t you ever thought of being an engineer?” and I just giggled. I remember that conversation to this day. I said, “Of course not! I’m a girl.” He gave me this look like I had said something that made absolutely no sense, and I thought, “Hmm! That’s interesting.” You know, it had never occurred to me.

It never occurred to any of us that computer programming would eventually become something that was thought of as a men’s field. At the time—just as now, actually—in the intro, beginning, lower levels of employment, it was at least half women. There were a lot of women who made straight As in math! [laughs]

Starting at Texaco

Hawthorn:

I went to work for Texaco in Houston. I was in the Maintenance Group, which means that I helped to figure out what was wrong with programs that other people had written. I had a ball! It was just the most fun. It was challenging. You’d have a problem, and you’d figure out what it was—by deduction, mostly, and by reading other people’s code. It was so challenging—mentally challenging—and it was a lot of fun. You always felt like the heroine when you found out what the problem was.

Abbate:

May I ask what kind of system that was?

Hawthorn:

This was the Texaco First Credit Card facility, and it was really fancy. That was when they were first bar-coding. What happened when you went to the Texaco gas station was that they had this roller thing that would roll your credit card number, and then the person would fill in the amount, or they would have keys where they could roll in the amount. It would record your credit card number and five dollars and twenty-five cents for the gas, and then those cards would come in to the Houston facility. They would go through Recognition Equipment Incorporated’s readers, which would read the account number and the amount and then bar-code on the back what it was. From then on, they would go through bar-code readers in order to sort all these things. We always returned the receipts to the customers. You’d sort it all, and you’d get all the receipts for a single account, and they would go into massive bins. Every day of the month you were doing a billing cycle for a different group of people, and so each day you would take a month’s worth [of receipts] for that group and run those through and do the bills for them.

In a career-altering decision, the head of the credit-card billing had decided not to go with IBM, but to go with RCA; so an RCA Spectra 70 was the machine that was used for doing the actual billing. The Recognition Equipment machines were programmed with punched paper tape. There was one machine that we used where you could put in your punch cards, and it would compile the program and punch out the paper tape, and then the rest of the machines would just read that paper tape. I became an absolute expert on patching paper tape—if it tore, there was a problem—and on doing binary patches, so that you didn’t have to go back and recompile.

I said it was a career-changing decision for that manager, because of course RCA stopped making the Spectra 70s, and they eventually had to move over to IBM.

Abbate:

I’d never heard of anyone who used the RCA, until now.

Hawthorn:

Well, you got one! It was a good machine, actually.

Computer Courses

Abbate:

What machine did you use in school when you took that computer course?

Hawthorn:

It was an IBM 7090.

Abbate:

So you already knew the IBM. And was that in the math department?

Hawthorn:

Was that course taught in the math department? Yes, it must have been. They did not have a computer department; it must have been in the math department. The other place it could have been would have been in one of the engineering departments, but I believe it was in the math department.

Abbate:

Now, there were probably a lot of women majoring in math. Were there also a lot in the computer course?

Hawthorn:

I have no memory of how many women there were in the computer course. I can tell you that it didn’t dawn on me to even wonder. I suspect there were a lot; I think that probably there were. I know that when I went to Texaco, it was at least half women that were there. I was the only woman in Maintenance, but that was out of five people. It was no problem. I mean, it’s never been a problem, but it was not anything that anyone even remarked upon.

As I’m sure other people have told you, in the beginning in computer science, it was much more female, because the bar to entry was not at that time an engineering education, and there wasn’t this sense of, “Well, computers are for guys.” For a lot of women, it was simply an extension of accounting, and there are a lot of women accountants. Especially at Texaco, where it was accounting, really; we were taking credit cards and summing up the information. This was one step above having an adding machine. None of us really thought of it as an engineering field, especially.

Abbate:

So do you think it’s actually become harder for women, in a sense?

Hawthorn:

I absolutely do.

In the early days, as I’m sure other people have told you, you didn’t have to have a certain set of prerequisites to be a computer scientist or to be a computer programmer. You had to have a good mind. By “good,” I mean you had to understand logic and be able to do that. There wasn’t this sense that you had to have a degree in computer science. So there were lots more women, who came from lots of other occupations. I’ll tell you more about some of those women as we go through my life story.

Abbate:

Did you know, as soon as you took that first computer class, that you wanted to work with computers?

Hawthorn:

Oh, absolutely! I just couldn’t believe someone would—I still can’t believe somebody would pay you to do that! It was the most fun ever. I’ve always been very spiritual, and I felt like this was fated. It was so much fun, and they paid you! And it still is, and they still pay me an enormous amount, when I choose to work. It’s amazing. Yes, I loved it; I just loved it. I felt like I’d found my vocation.

Return to School

Hawthorn:

But then the problem was, I wanted to have children. I had my first son. I’d worked for three years; I worked up until almost the day he was born. I got huge when I got pregnant—he was almost ten pounds—and there was a guy who refused to ride on the elevator with me, I was just so huge. He was afraid I would have that baby right then! I had always planned on staying home with the kids, of course. You know, this was 1969; Andrew was born in ‘69. So I was going to stay home, and then I just got so bored, I wanted to go back to work part time, but they wouldn’t let me. They did not allow part-time workers. In spite of the fact that I had been outstanding and would have been outstanding as a part-time worker, they wouldn’t let me; and I wasn’t going to go to work full time, because of the child-care situation.

Abbate:

What did your husband do?

Hawthorn:

My husband worked at Shell Chemical Company. As I was getting my degree, he got his degree in chemistry. Then eventually he went into teaching. He was sort of transitioning between the two around this time.

Anyway, I felt like I had to do something, so I decided to go back and get a Master’s Degree in computer science at the University of Houston. That you could do part-time, on your own schedule, and you could still keep your brain alive. So I started doing that when my first child was about six months old. Then the second one was born, sixteen months after the first one. Another six months later—with two kids—the marriage broke up.

I had to do something, so I went to my professor at the University of Houston and I said, “I’m going to have to drop out of the Master’s Program, because my marriage is breaking up and I have to support myself. I can’t do this.” His name is Steve Sherman. He was always so careful around all of his students, or maybe it’s just him, but he absolutely never touched anybody; but he reached across his desk and touched my arm. He said, “Paula, you have to stay in school. You have a real future, and you must not drop out now. I’ll help you get scholarships, get loans, whatever you need; I’ll write you recommendations; but you must stay in school.”

Abbate:

Wow.

Hawthorn:

Wow! Absolutely marvelous. So I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll give it a try”—because I loved it. I just loved studying computer science. After having practiced it for three years, to come back and then understand some of the theory behind things: it was like I’d died and gone to heaven.

Abbate:

So they had a Computer Science Department?

Hawthorn:

By that time, they had a Computer Science Department. The University of Houston had surprisingly good computer facilities, in fact.

I got my Master’s at University of Houston in 1974. The divorce was going terribly; my husband was screaming and yelling at me every time we exchanged kids. I had to get out of Houston. Steve was encouraging me to get my Ph.D., which I thought was a silly idea. Honestly, the reason I applied to graduate schools was to get out of Houston. This was a socially acceptable way to pull my kids out of there and go someplace else.

In the meantime, my parents had moved from Dallas to Walnut Creek, in the San Francisco Bay area, just over the hill from here [Oakland]. We’d not gotten along that well, but we’d not not gotten along, and I thought maybe they could be a help. So when the University of California accepted me, I came out here.

When I got to the University of California at Berkeley, I was absolutely surprised that it had much worse facilities than the University of Houston—the “backwater” University of Houston.

Abbate:

Really?

Hawthorn:

Yes, really! Computer facilities, classroom facilities, painted classrooms—you name it. The University—then and even now—has a hard time convincing the State of California to fund it the way it ought to be funded. Even now, if you go out on campus, what you see is things that have been privately given. The University of Houston is funded out of oil money. It’s that great largesse that happened when they allowed the leasing of the oil fields in North Texas, and the University of Houston gets a certain amount of that money. It has always been a beautiful campus—nice facilities; nice computers; a nice computer center. I was absolutely amazed [at the contrast]. Of course, I spent the first six months crying when I got here, anyway. You know, you move away from your family and friends and all that stuff—although my parents were here, which was really cool.

At the time, the Computer Center was in the basement of Evans Hall. I wanted to study operating systems, and the way that you study operating systems is that you run various experiments on computers. I’d done that at Houston for my Master’s degree. When I got out here, the guy who was in charge of the operating systems course said, “Oh, yes, we have that. The time when you can have stand-alone time on the computer is from twelve at night till three in the morning.” I said, “I’m a single parent. I can’t do that.” And he said, “Well, you’re just going to have to arrange for someone to take your kids or something.” Well, my parents were nice, but not that nice, and I thought, “What am I going to do?” So I called Steve, and I said, “I think I’m going to have to come home.” He said, “Don’t do that. There is another guy there. He does database work, but he has his own computers, and you could run your experiments on his computers.” I said, “Okay, I’ll try to figure that out.”

That’s when I went and talked to Mike Stonebraker. Mike Stonebraker is a database professor at Cal. I said, “What I’m interested in is the low-level operating system stuff.” He said, “Well, that’s really not much interest to me, but if you’re really good, then we might take you on.” So I took his course. I did well in his course. I took a bunch of other courses and did well in a bunch of other courses, and eventually the guy who was the lead programmer on Mike’s project—Bob Epstein, who became the founder of Sybase—told Mike Stonebraker that I was doing good work and to hire me. So that’s how I got onto the INGRES Project.

Abbate:

Oh, INGRES. I didn’t realize that you’d done that. I used that.

Hawthorn:

Yes. That was how I got onto the INGRES Project, and I then graduated and got out of there.

But in the midst of all of that, my friend Barbara—have you interviewed Barbara Simons yet?

Abbate:

I’m going to. I haven’t yet.

Policies Against Women at School

Hawthorn:

Barbara and I entered school at the same time, and both of us were nonstandard. You see, by the time I entered Cal, I was thirty; almost thirty-one. At Cal they have a person they call your Major Field Advisor, who is not your research advisor; this is a person who is just supposed to tell you whether you have enough credits or whatever. And I walked in to my Major Field Advisor that first day, and I said something about my kids, and he said, “You have children?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, what does your husband do?” And I said, “It doesn’t matter, because he’s back in Texas.” And he said, “Well, I would highly recommend that you drop out, because you aren’t a serious student. You cannot be a serious student if you have children. You have to understand, to be a graduate student at UC Berkeley, you have to give up everything. This has to be your whole life. There is no time for anything else.”

Abbate:

That’s what he said to you?

Hawthorn:

That’s what he believed. That’s what he said, and that’s what he believed. He said, “If we had known that you had children, we would not have accepted you—because you cannot possibly be a serious student.”

It is still that way at UC Berkeley; you still are not supposed to be going to school part time. You are still not supposed to have a full-time job at the same time. “If you want to have a full-time job and go to school, go to Extension; don’t take the place of a serious student.” Even at the time that I went there, there was enrollment pressure; at the time I was there, there were maybe five applicants for every one position. It’s now up to something like a hundred for every one, and so there’s this incredible sense of, “Well, if you’re not making it, then leave. There’s someone else to take your place.” That was so different than the University of Houston. The University of Houston is mandated by the state to take everybody, and they just flunk them out. If you don’t belong, you’re not going to be there next semester. They just have very, very tough courses, especially freshman courses. But at UC Berkeley, they only take a certain number.

Anyway, when I got to Berkeley was when I really felt that I was an incredible minority: as a single parent; as a woman. I walked into a class—I will never forget: my interest was operating systems, and I walked into the class, and there were maybe ninety people in that class, and I swear, I didn’t see another woman! It turned out there actually was another woman; she just had her hair short; but the class was incredibly male. And until then, I had never really felt that. But by the time I got to Cal, remember, time has marched forward; so by the time I got to Cal, there were these admittance criteria, and it was getting harder and harder—I won’t say harder and harder; I’ll say more restrictive.

When Barbara and I first started, there were a lot of nonstandard women still getting into the major and graduate school.

Abbate:

That was early seventies, at that point?

Hawthorn:

Yes, that was the early seventies. And then, by the time we graduated, the numbers had shot way down. I think it took her the same time as me; it took me six years to get out; and during that time, the number of women who were coming in the graduate courses kept getting smaller and smaller. One year, I even did a little survey: I sent out postcards to women and asked them, “Why didn’t you accept?” And all of them came back and said, “Well, we weren’t offered financial aid.” So, I went to the professors and said, “What happened here?” And the Department got very defensive, and they said, “Well, we only offered aid to people who met certain criteria.” None of it was anything other than the de facto stuff; but a lot of women don’t take four years of mathematics; a lot of women aren’t motivated so that they do really well in Bachelor’s-level math and physics; and so forth.

So Barbara and I started this program, which we called the Re-entry Program. We started working on it when we were still in school, and I think it took another year after we got out of school before it finally got approved through the bureaucracy. It was started by Barbara and I and Sheila Humphreys, who still works at the university; Sheila was at the Women’s Center at the time. The Re-entry Program was to take women who had nonstandard degrees—and I always used the example of French literature: I said, “Some woman has got a degree in French literature, and now decides she’s going to get a real degree. She has no chance of getting in at UC Berkeley, but let’s have this program where she can come in; she can take these courses, which would be the same courses that undergraduates took; and if she did well in a certain set of courses, then she could apply—not guaranteed, but apply—to go into graduate school. (Of course, it turns out Sheila Humphreys has her Ph.D. in French literature! [laughs.]) But anyway, we got the whole thing approved; we raised money for it: private money, Ford Foundation money, some other people; and we got the bureaucracy to accept these students on the same kind of thing that they did for the Extension: sort of special student status. And that program went on for maybe twelve or fifteen years—before Prop 209 was passed.

We had sort of grafted it into the department; a lot of the Professors didn’t especially think it was necessary or want it. Our main advocate, Gene Lawler, died of colon cancer; and maybe two years after he died, Prop 209 was passed; and without Gene there to help push it . . . It probably would have been illegal anyway under 209. It’s hard to tell.

Abbate:

Now, what does 209 say?

Hawthorn:

Oh, Prop 209 was this thing that said that the State Universities can’t have any race- or gender-based programs.

Abbate:

Oh, right! That was fairly recently?

Hawthorn:

Yes, yes. [Proposition 209 was passed in 1996.] And that’s when they stopped the Re-entry Program. But because of the Re-entry program, we still have a lot of women who wouldn’t be here otherwise.

We got a lot of women into graduate school, but only maybe five or six got Ph.D.’s. I had wanted it to be a Ph.D. producer. A lot of women used it to get a Master’s Degree, to then be able to go out and work. That’s okay, but I wanted the Ph.D.s. I really want to see more women at the top, and getting the Ph.D., for a woman, is a wonderful thing to do. It is instant credibility, and it’s credibility that is well deserved, because you really do know something. So I always wanted to have more women who were at the Ph.D. level. The Re-entry Program didn’t do it for us, and I don’t know what would do it for us. Women are still, at Cal, at about ten percent of the graduating class.

Abbate:

Of Ph.D.’s, you mean?

Hawthorn:

Ph.D.’s, yes.

Abbate:

Yes, I think that’s about average.

Hawthorn:

Yes, yes. It has not changed. And I got my degree a long time ago: sixteen, twenty years ago.

Abbate:

That was interesting, your comment about credibility. Do you have a sense that if you have a Ph.D.—I guess if you’re going on just subjective criteria, it’s easy to have conscious or unconscious discrimination against women; but if you have something where you could say, “Well I have a Ph.D.,” does that counteract that tendency?

Hawthorn:

I think it absolutely does.

Abbate:

Gives you something more objective to go on?

Hawthorn:

I think it does. And especially someone like me. You know, I’ve always been this little round person, and I had a Southern accent for a long time (I managed to gradually lose it). I don’t believe I have a demeanor that is especially . . .

Abbate:

Commanding?

Hawthorn:

Or, you know, like Anita Borg. You just look at that woman and think, “This is a brilliant woman.” Me: I was often mistaken as the janitor! I’m not kidding. I’d be in in the middle of the night; I’d be walking around, carrying my keys in my hands, in blue jeans; and someone would say, “Well, have you looked at that bathroom over here?” [laughs.]

Abbate:

They had female janitors?

Hawthorn:

Yes. That was at the University of Houston, I think. Cleaning people, whatever.

And you never know whether it is that other people view you differently, or that you simply view yourself differently, and therefore you’re projecting differently; but I had that Ph.D., and for me, it simply opened up the world. Everyone—all of my friends—had told me that trying to get a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley with two small children was setting myself up for failure; that I was trying to be superwoman; and also that it wouldn’t pay off. There is that theory that the time that you spend going to school, if you instead were out making money, that you would be making more money than you would ever get if you got the degree. But for me, I loved it. I loved being in school. I loved having the freedom to raise my children on my time schedule, not that of an employer. I personally think that having kids and being in school is just a wonderful combination.

Abbate:

How did you manage the child care?

Hawthorn:

One of those wonderful gifts from God was the student housing. They had two student housing facilities at Cal. I didn’t know that you had to apply for student housing before you were even accepted to Cal. I came; my parents were in Walnut creek, and we camped out at my parents’ house. My two little boys were two and four at the time. I drove from Texas with my boys in the back seat of my car, hauling a five-by-twelve U-Haul trailer with “Adventure In Moving” on the back. It was! Anyway, I came to the housing office and I said, “I’m a single parent, and I have two children, and I’d like to be in student housing.” And they just looked at me and said, “Well, you know the waiting list is ever so long.” So I just broke down and cried: “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” And so this dear lovely woman says, “Well, here, hon, let me show you; there is this one place.” And it turned out I could get a place in the student housing where they had a day-care center! I didn’t know that they even had a day-care center; but they had a day-care center. Years later, I met someone from the Student Housing Department, and I was telling her how I got in, and she said, “Wait a minute: and then you cried.” And I said: “Yes,” and she said “Sally did that all the time!” [laughs.] “All anybody had to do was cry. She just always did that!” [laughs.] There was this great woman in Student Housing who would bump up people who were distressed.

So there was—and still is—a day-care center there; and the day-care center there was very low cost, partly subsidized by the state at the time. So I could have my kids in the day-care center from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. That’s what I did: I put them in from eight until five, no matter what my course schedule was, and then the rest of the time I used to work. You know, it isn’t a life where you can hang out in coffee shops or bars or whatever; I didn’t do a lot of the sitting around and drinking with the graduate students. It was like a job: you go at eight; you come back at five, get the kids. The nice thing was, if a kid was sick, I didn’t have to explain to an employer what I was doing. And then I’d feed the kids dinner, and then I’d put them to bed, and then I’d study some more. Of course, there were times when I would set all the clocks ahead, so that they would think it was later, so I could get them to bed earlier, so I could get more studying done! [laughs.] But for the most part, it sort of worked! It sort of worked.

Abbate:

That’s so progressive, that they had a day-care center. Was that just graduate student housing?

Hawthorn:

No! It was mostly undergraduates; not a lot of graduate students. And in fact, right in the middle of it all, they decided that they were not going to take the graduate students. They were partly funded out of welfare money, and they decided that we graduate students couldn’t qualify, and so they weren’t going to take our kids. And that was one of the times—I mean, at least once a year I had to go and fight for something. For that one, I had to go in and I just had my own little private sit-in. I was good at sit-ins, anyway! I had my own little private sit-in at the Director’s office, to say that I have to do this. And that was when my Major Field Advisor—the same one who had said, “You should just leave, or get your husband to take these children”—he was still my Major Field Advisor, and he wrote this very polite letter saying that I was totally unemployable unless I got my Ph.D. [laughs], so I could keep my kids in this day-care center!

Abbate:

That’s funny!

Hawthorn:

And then the way I supported myself is: my ex-husband sent me two hundred dollars a month for child care, and I promised him if he would just keep sending the money and not screw around with it, that as soon as I graduated and got a job, he would never have to pay child care again. And then if he didn’t, I would kill him! [laughs.] It was just that clear! I still actually celebrate every birthday with the fact that I never killed my ex-husband. [laughs.]

So he paid the child care, almost always, and then I had loans, and then either Teaching Assistant money or my Research Assistantship. And we made it. We got through. We didn’t have a lot. My son Andrew was telling me he can still remember the taste of reconstituted dried milk—you know, at the end of the month, when you run out of money, you always had the non-fat dried milk. So he can remember things like that. But they loved student housing; they really liked it. Even now, if you go over to the UC Berkeley Student Housing—it’s there off of San Pablo, down near Albany—they have the ones that are in quadrangles, and so the kids can play in the middle. Ours was actually sort of a triangle. The kids would play in the middle, and the parents could watch from the windows and keep an eye on the kids. They just had the best time. It was a really nice sort of communal sort of place. It was a cool place to grow up.

After Graduation

Hawthorn:

Of course, when I graduated and I said, “Well, you know, that was nice, but I think what I’d really like to do is get a Ph.D. in civil engineering,” they nearly killed me! [laughs.] They said, “Mom, no! Not anymore.” But by that time, my second husband, Michael, had moved in. We moved in together when I finished school, so by that time we had more people in the family—and a dog, because he came with the dog.

Abbate:

You really wanted to go into civil engineering?

Hawthorn:

Oh, I would love to build bridges. I think the Golden Gate Bridge is the most wonderful thing in the world. I think building bridges would be really cool. Would I really do it? No. I’ve had it. What I’m doing right now is a little consulting, a lot of keeping the grandkids and working in the garden and just nothing. But I really think the science of building bridges has got to be marvelous.

Abbate:

So you saw the Golden Gate Bridge and thought, “Gee . . . “

Hawthorn:

Actually, there’s this book about how they built it. It’s just an amazing book! It’s an amazing piece of engineering. It’s neat. I like bridges in general; I like them all. They’re all fun.

Anyway: I graduated in 1979. When you graduate from UC, they put your name and resume, if you want them to, in this book of people who are graduating. As soon as they did that, I started getting these phone calls, and that’s when I realized that getting my Ph.D. under Mike Stonebraker on the INGRES Project was like having minted gold. I had my choice. I could do anything I wanted to.

I worked for Hewlett-Packard for a while, and then Bob Epstein and my husband, Mike Ubell, and I went to work for a little start-up that made a database machine: Britton-Lee.

Abbate:

Let me back up a little bit. So you did your dissertation on databases: was there a particular problem you were focusing on?

Hawthorn:

Oh, yes: hardware for assisting the performance of database systems. Special-purpose hardware for database systems. David DeWitt at the University of Wisconsin had come up with an idea for a database machine, and I read his paper and I liked it. Stonebraker couldn’t stand it. My thesis was actually on performance evaluation of several different database machines—versus just the plain software, INGRES, with no assists—to see in what cases one was better than another. And there were workload characteristics such that special-purpose hardware would make a lot of difference in the performance of a database system. Stonebraker always said, “Okay, that’s true for now; but just wait until general-purpose machines get faster.” And I said, “But you can always make special-purpose hardware faster, too.”

It turned out I was wrong. But we had this company, Britton-Lee, where we tried making our own special-purpose hardware for databases. The idea keeps coming back. By the way, it’s back again; there are some people who are working on special-purpose hardware for database systems. But in general, what happens is that the general-purpose hardware runs faster than you can run a special-purpose thing—because you’ve got more people working on the general-purpose hardware, and you’ve got economy of scale and that kind of stuff. But we spent several years trying to make Britton-Lee a success. Bob left to form Sybase, and I became Vice President of Engineering at Britton-Lee, and that’s what I’ve been ever since: Vice President of Development for start-ups. That’s what I do.

Abbate:

So HP was the only non–start-up that you worked for ?

Hawthorn:

Yes. I actually went to HP twice: I went to HP in the beginning, and then in the middle of the Britton-Lee thing I went back to HP for a while; I came back twice.

Oh, I also worked for Lawrence Berkeley Lab. That’s what I wanted to tell you about: I worked for Lawrence Berkeley Lab straight out of school. That’s right. I went to school, LBL, then HP, then Britton-Lee, then HP.

Women's Activism at Companies

At Lawrence Berkeley Lab—and everywhere I’ve gone—I’ve always formed women’s groups; ever since I got to Cal. It was so nice: we started this Women in Computer Science group at Cal, and we would—I think it was on Friday noons—get together a brown-bag lunch in the student lounge and just tell stories. There would be things that would happen. There was a Professor who was over-friendly: “How do I handle this? What do I do about this?” I think with any minority group—maybe any group, but certainly a minority group—you need a chance to sit around and compare how you’re feeling, test it out. “Am I crazy, or . . . ?” You know: “I’m working on the computer, and this guy just drapes his arm over me and drapes himself over me. What am I supposed to do?” How do you handle that? Giving each other tips on that kind of stuff; plus, just to be among women. I mean, sometimes we’d walk into those classes and they would be all men. It was nice to relax, and be among other women.

Barbara and I started that one; and then I went to LBL, and there hadn’t been a women’s group, so I started a women’s group there. Then I went to Hewlett-Packard; there had been a women’s group, but it had been sort of shut down by the management, but I started it again, because I was a manager at that time. Stuff like that. The one at Hewlett-Packard that had been sort of shut down: some of the women in the group had decided to make it a—I want to use the word “offensive” . . .

Abbate:

“Militant”?

Hawthorn:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

And that’s why the management . . . ?

Hawthorn:

. . . just felt that it was a diversion for women.

You know, there was a woman—I wish I remembered her name: She gave a talk at Mills College when Lenore Blum was at Mills, and in the talk that she gave, she said that she or someone had done these studies that had found that the perception of discrimination is as bad as the discrimination itself. So if someone says to you, “You did a lousy job on that report,” and you think it’s because you’re a woman, you can’t possibly grow from the criticism. And how are you going to know the difference? How are you ever going to know the difference? And that’s why, sitting in a women’s group, you can say, “Well, my boss Jack did this, and he just discriminates against women,” and if it’s a good group, someone else can say, “Absolutely. That happened to me,” or someone else can say, “You know what? You might take a second look at that report. I read it too. I don’t know that that’s his problem.” You know, to help give you a grounding there, because sometimes you don’t know.

It is true that the women that are the most successful are those who absolutely do not believe that they are discriminated against. Barbara and I used to call them the “My Daddy Was An Engineer” women. That was why we never wanted to join SWE, the Society of Women Engineers: there were so many engineers in SWE whose daddies were engineers, who felt that there was absolutely no issue with them being a woman in engineering, and that anyone who talked about anyone being discriminated against was just making it up!

Abbate:

Having a father in engineering just gave them the confidence that they needed to do it?

Hawthorn:

Actually, I think there have even been studies around that; and the fact that my father loved the mathematician in me is yet another example. I think there have even been these studies that have said that for women entering non-traditional, male-dominated fields, to have their fathers be very supportive of that gave them the confidence to do it. I mean, here’s your earliest male figure, who’s saying, “It’s fine. Of course you can be an engineer; you can be anything you want to be.” And so what if this other guy you meet when you’re twenty-two puts you down? I even witnessed it one time, when this guy was saying something that a woman should have just been totally pissed off about; and instead she goes, “Pff! He was just kidding.” She blew it off; totally blew it off. My husband, who’s Jewish, has never heard an anti-Semitic comment in his life. Do you believe that? No: he just blows it off. “They must be kidding. Of course not.” He’s the best-grounded person I’ve ever met. “I don’t see it; I don’t hear it; so it doesn’t bother me.”

In the women’s groups, when you get together, you talk about it. The ones who hear it are saying, “Those women are not doing themselves a service by refusing to agree that this exists, because it does exist.” And you say, “Well, maybe; maybe not! Maybe it’s a good thing to ignore it.” Who knows? I don’t.

Abbate:

A thick skin can be a blessing.

Hawthorn:

Yes; and that well-grounded attitude of “They must be kidding.” Or, “That guy’s an asshole anyway. Why would I listen to him?”

Anyway: I started this women’s group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Abbate:

How did you end up at the Lab?

Hawthorn:

They were hiring at the time that I was graduating, and Mike was still in school, and LBL is right off the campus, so I said, “I want to go here!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did it seem exciting?

Hawthorn:

Yes. They weren’t doing quite the research that I wanted to do, on the hardware for database machines, which is why I left and went to Britton-Lee: to make a database machine. But they had—still have—a really good Computer Science group there.

When I got there, there were a large number of women who had been computer scientists there from early times: women who had no formal training in computer science, who were being slowly edged out. Part of it was that they had been programmers on the CDC machines, and those machines were being replaced by UNIX and VMS on DEC machines, and they needed to change their skills. They needed to learn programming in this new environment. These were people who had done programming with punched cards, and now it’s all interactive, and there are all sorts of new skills there that they needed to learn. They didn’t have time to learn, because their current jobs were very demanding, and so their skills were getting very rusty for the new things. So when I say “edged out,” I mean literally they were of a previous generation, and they weren’t moving forward. Part of what we were doing—the Women’s Group—was to try to encourage them to do something, other than to feel betrayed.

It didn’t end well. At LBL there are periodically layoffs, due to changes in administration in Washington. That was actually the last time that I didn’t vote Democratic: I voted for the Peace and Freedom Party. But Reagan won, and he gutted the Department of Energy funding, and they laid off a bunch of those women.

Abbate:

I didn’t realize. I mean, he built up the defense budget; I didn’t realize he’d taken away from DOE.

Hawthorn:

I forget why they didn’t like DOE. They were going to shut it down for some reason. I forget all of the politics, but I do remember that they did lay off a bunch of those women. That’s the last time I ever said there was no difference between a Democrat and a Republican, and voted something else! [laughs.] Not again! Not ever again.

Working For Startups

Hawthorn:

Anyway: I was at LBL, and then Britton-Lee. It was sort of a failure, it was sort of a success. It lasted for twelve years; I didn’t stay that long. But it wasn’t a resounding success; and when Mike and I joined Britton-Lee, we did not know to bargain. Women are notoriously bad at bargaining anyway. But the fact that you bargained for stock was something we didn’t learn until Britton-Lee went public, and we saw all the stock that other people had, and we said, “Why didn’t we get that much?” Dave Britton says, “You didn’t ask!”

Abbate:

That was the mid-eighties when you started there?

Hawthorn:

I’ll get a resume and send it to you, so we can nail down the dates.

Abbate:

But I guess before stock options became a household word.

Hawthorn:

Oh, yes. I didn’t know anybody who worked for a start-up.

Abbate:

Was that a bit adventurous, to leave a normal, steady job and join a start-up?

Hawthorn:

Oh, it’s so much fun! It always is so much fun. And it was my husband and I working together—we’d worked together as graduate students on the INGRES Project—and working with Bob Epstein, who had also on the INGRES Project; so it was comfortable.

They were paying us. If at any point they had stopped paying us, I would have quit, and I could get another job in a day.

Abbate:

So it didn’t feel risky.

Hawthorn:

It was not a risk. I never felt it was a risk. Until this recession, I have never felt that start-ups were risks. If you have the right skills, you never are going to be without a job—except for now, when I know a lot of people with the right skills who are out of jobs. But for years and years programmers, especially, were in such high demand. Then I was always in high demand, because not only am I a programmer, but I am also a good manager, and articulate; and those things together are a hard combination to get.

Management Skills

Abbate:

Was your first management job at HP?

Hawthorn:

No, LBL. I went to LBL first, and I wasn’t actually a Manager, but I was moved into an Assistant Director position there—because I tend to tell people what to do anyway! [laughs.] But then I went to HP and was a manager at HP.

Abbate:

And that just came naturally to you?

Hawthorn:

Yes. I think if you look at the children of alcoholics, the thing that we get is the ability to organize, very early; because we have been organizing our parents’ lives. The children of abusive alcoholics—which my mother was when she was drunk—tend to be very sensitive to interpersonal things. You have to learn at a very early age how to read someone: “Is she okay? Is she not okay? Should I get out of this room? What should I do?” The thing that you got from it—the thing that I got—is that I am an extraordinarily good organizer, and I do it automatically. When I was working at Texaco, I had a friend who would every once in a while have to go home because her cattle dogs had gotten out and were rounding up the neighbors’ cattle. Well, that’s me! [laughs.] I just do it! It’s just fun. I just do it: start organizing people and managing people.

So I think I gravitated to it naturally. Also, I complain a lot if things aren’t going right, and what you complain about, you get to fix. Also, remember I was older, and so immediately people would see this older woman and say, “You can help us with this.” And then there’s a lot of caring earth-mother kind of stuff. At Britton-Lee, in the middle of a big celebration, Dave Britton says, “And this is our earth-mother, Paula!” All of the women—by that time, of course, we were all sensitized, and all the women in the Group were going, “Ssssssss!” And I said, “It’s all right. It’s really all right.” A couple of engineers had even called me “Mom,” before I was old enough to be their mother. But yes: it came naturally, and I like it. I like managing people. I love start-ups.

Moving from Company to Company

After I left—Britton-Lee was going down—I went back to Hewlett-Packard, and that was when I went to Illustra. Mike Stonebraker was starting Illustra and asked me if I wanted to be VP Engineering, and I said, “I don’t know,” because I was happy at Hewlett-Packard. But there’s nothing like a start-up, so we did Illustra. That went very well. Then Illustra got bought by Informix, and I stayed at Informix for sixteen months. I don’t like big companies that much.

Abbate:

What was Illustra producing?

Hawthorn:

A database system.

Abbate:

It was the hardware, or was it just software?

Hawthorn:

No, it was all software. I never did hardware again after Britton-Lee. Stonebraker—darn him!—was right. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Temporarily, anyway!

Hawthorn:

Well, I think for always. I think special-purpose hardware will always have a hard time keeping up with general-purpose.

So this was a Stonebraker company. INGRES was the first generation of database system that was his research at UC Berkeley. The next generation was POSTGRES, and this was the commercialization of POSTGRES. It is a relational database system where you could have objects embedded within the system. So we called it an Object-Relational Database System. It was the most fun ever! We had the greatest President, and the VP Marketing was a marvelous guy, and my husband was the Chief Scientist; and Stonebraker was the CTO. A marvelous team that we worked with. It was just the most wonderful thing.

We built it up, and it was great, and we decided to go ahead—they decided; it’s not like anyone had a choice, other than the Board—they decided to sell it to Informix; and we certainly agreed, because we thought it would be a perfect marriage with Informix. It wasn’t a perfect marriage with Informix. Informix was cooking the books and misrepresenting their business, and so right after they bought us—within a year after they bought us—this whole house of cards came down. I still don’t know why those guys aren’t in jail. It was like we had this train, and we had these tracks, and we were going forward—and then everything fell in, and the tracks got ripped out, and the train stopped.

Abbate:

Did they go out of business?

Hawthorn:

No, but they eventually got sold. IBM bought what was left of the business.

Abbate:

And your system: was it actually commercialized?

Hawthorn:

No, I think it disappeared. IBM was a competitor of ours; they were doing something similar; and I think a lot of the ideas disappeared into the IBM system. Too bad! But Informix bought us, and we made a lot of money off of it; and I took my part of that money and salted it away, so that I really don’t have to work, if we don’t live extravagantly. It’s not a huge amount of money, but if we don’t spend a lot—which we don’t—then it’s enough. So it’s okay; it was okay.

So I did that, and I had that money, and I didn’t really have to work. But then there’s a thought of, “But do you really want to retire?” So next I took another job, and that job was at Andromedia. Andromedia was another start-up, and this was absolutely a challenge: to go into a start-up which had already been there and get the engineering team making schedules and delivering quality product on time. Anybody can have an idea, and anybody can hack together a prototype, but can you really produce a product out of it? I worked with them for a year, and then they got bought by Macromedia. I took my stock options, bought a house up a coast with it, and since then I’ve been just consulting. I’m doing the same thing as at Andromedia, for people with start-ups where they have a team that is doing okay; I come in and help them with schedules and with articulating what they have and how to get it to market, and making sure that they know what they’re doing as far as getting a quality product out.

Abbate:

So you take them from the brilliant idea to a functioning . . .

Hawthorn:

They’re always in the middle of that anyway, and all I ever do is just assist them. I always say, “My dog could do it!” I mean, all you’re doing is, you’re just sitting there going, “Yes; yes; and now what?” and making sure that people are thinking about what they need to do. “Okay, if I have a schedule that says that this product is going to be done by this time, do I have QA people to work on it? When do they need to start?” None of it is rocket science. It’s all in books; lots of good books have been written about project management and software management and all that stuff. It’s just that with a lot of the start-ups, especially during the boom, they weren’t paying attention to basics. More are now.

So I’ve been doing consulting, and that has tapered off since the recession started, and I haven’t minded. It’s just nice to do other stuff.

Work With Non-Profits

Abbate:

Now, you’ve also been active in the ACM? I know you’ve been on committees.

Hawthorn:

Yes. I always have something going on with some group. With the ACM, I was on the Lawler Award Committee. I still am. Gene Lawler, the guy who died of colon cancer at the age of forty-something; wonderful Professor at Cal. We made an award in his name for humanitarian contributions using computers in some way.

Abbate:

That’s interesting.

Hawthorn:

It is. Yes, it is. It’s a fun thing. Get Barbara [Simons] to tell you about it. She’s the Chair of the Committee, and it was actually her idea, anyway, to have the Lawler Award.

So I was doing that; and now there’s this new affirmative action program. When Prop 209 was passed, the anti-affirmative action bill, they stopped all these programs at Cal. I’m on the Industrial Advisory Board for the EECS Department at Cal, and the members of the Board said, “Well, we should have some extracurricular, off-campus support for these kinds of programs; private support.” So we started the Berkeley Foundation for Opportunities in Information Technology, and raised money privately, and are doing quite a bit, actually. We hired a nice Director for it, and he’s got a summer program, which starts in a couple of weeks, where we bring in twenty-five kids from the ghetto, basically, and expose them to computers on campus. The whole idea is to get them on campus and let people see that there is a possibility here. It sounds trivial, but it’s really effective to bring people on campus and let them know that professors are people. We bring in professors of color to talk with them and try to get people’s aspirations up.

Abbate:

Yes, it’s hard to imagine even doing it if you haven’t been exposed to people like yourself who have done it.

Hawthorn:

BFOIT, the Berkeley Foundation for Opportunities in Information Technology, helps to underline the program centers back at Cal that help all the students, but that some of the disadvantaged students may not know about. There have been lots of studies showing that children from advantaged families are used to looking around and finding resources—”Are there tutors around to help?”—whereas disadvantaged students aren’t as aware of the kind of support that you can get at school. So we try to help them do that, and then to connect them with potential employers, and help with making the bridge to find summer internships—that kind of thing, to keep people in until they graduate. It’s a full program.

Abbate:

And how has that worked out?

Hawthorn:

It’s okay. Again, as with the Re-entry Program, I can’t say that we have hundreds of people who have benefited: it’s more like three or four; small amounts. We get a lot of students in the Summer Program, but getting into Cal is a different matter. It’s hard to get into Cal; there’s a lot of enrollment pressure at Cal; and if you are good enough to get into Cal, you’re good enough to get into Stanford—and if you get into Stanford, Stanford guarantees your funding for the full four years. Cal can’t; it’s not something they would do. So, which place would you go? [laughs.]

Abbate:

But then it would still be a success, in the sense that if they got into Stanford, that’s certainly . . .

Hawthorn:

Yes, that’s right. And it’s only been going on for a couple years, so we don’t have that yet. The problem is that there aren’t enough kids who are good enough to get into Cal who don’t go to other schools, so we tend to have a low number of minority students at Cal—partly, I think, because of the fact that we can’t fund them like the private schools.

Abbate:

Is it just California residents that Stanford funds, or everybody?

Hawthorn:

Everybody. If you get in at Stanford and you can’t afford to go, then they will certainly help you go. That’s the commitment that Stanford makes. So they don’t admit you unless they intend to help with the funding if you need it. It’s all a part of the admission thing. I think in a sense you’re applying for financial aid at the same time that you apply for admission. But I’m not an expert on Stanford. Barbara would know more, since she’s teaching there.

Abbate:

So the actual student population at Berkeley: Is that still mainly white men, then?

Hawthorn:

And Asian. I taught there a year ago, and I was astounded at how Asian it is. It’s very Asian. My own feeling is that for years they had an informal cap on the number of Asians, and then with Prop 209, and everything being based on merit, the Asian children—who, for various reasons, are always pushed by their parents to succeed more—have been admitted to that school in large numbers. I was teaching this class: there were a hundred and twenty people in the class, and that class was probably three-quarters Asian. A large number of Asian students, and my T.A.’s are all Asian. I was sitting there talking with them, and I said, “Boy, there’s this man in the class, and he is just brilliant!” And they said, “Well who is it?” I said, “I don’t know his name”—because it’s this big lecture hall, and I’m not good with names anyway, and we certainly don’t have seating charts—I said, “He’s this tall Asian guy in the second row.” And they laughed, and they said, “Paula, you have just described most of the people in the class!” [laughs.] I thought with having more Asians that we would also have more women, because Asian women don’t tend to have the gender issues that Caucasian women do when it comes to math and computer science, and there were a few more women; but it still wasn’t the numbers I would have expected.

But yes: at least in the Computer Science Department. And it’s all kinds of Asians.

Abbate:

You mean Indian, Chinese, . . .

Hawthorn:

I wasn’t specifically thinking of Indian, because I think of them as Indian; but Chinese, and Taiwanese, and Vietnamese, and Filipino; people from all over, just an amazing number of people.

Abbate:

Are they Asian-American or Asian Asian?

Hawthorn:

The majority, of course, are Asian-American, because Cal does have quotas on who they will accept from overseas. But still there are also a lot of overseas Asians there as well. I admire them. I mean, imagine learning a language as different as this one is, and doing well, and coming here: it’s just an amazing thing.

Anything else I can tell you?

Joys of Computing

Abbate:

Oh yes, I have a few general questions.

What do you find most satisfying about your work with computers?

Hawthorn:

There’s two answers to that. First of all, in my work with computers themselves, doing programming: for me, it was the sense of accomplishment. Doing it, and solving the problem, and making this computer do what you want it to do, and producing something that people usefully use! Even as a manager—even as a Vice President and no longer programming, never getting my hands directly into code—there is no better sense of satisfaction than walking into a workplace and finding someone using this tool that you made—and using it effectively! Our little database machine, the Britton-Lee machine, was this fast machine that you used with a VAX as a front end. There was a guy in Texas who was way behind on a project and had promised it for a certain amount of money to a customer. So he bought one of our machines and attached it to this VAX that was underperforming, and now he’s able to do this project really fast. It saved his job. So he named his daughter Brittany Lee! [laughs.] I’m not kidding! There’s nothing better, absolutely nothing better. Imagine having such an effect! That little machine: I actually was on a road show with Illustra at one point, and I went over to Goldman-Sachs, and they said, “Oh, we’ve still got our Britton-Lee machine in the basement!” You know, that’s just fun. Programs that I wrote at Texaco were still running ten, fifteen years later. It’s just neat to build things. I mean, it is an engineering science, in that you build something, and people use it! You can’t see it like you can see a bridge, but you still use it, and that’s just a really fun thing.

So that’s the work with the computers. The satisfying part of the management work, of course, is finding what people are good at, putting them in those roles, and watching them be good at it. It’s just the best thing in the world. Of course, it’s easy if you get there, and you hire this person, and they’re very good at doing what you hired them to do. That’s the easy stuff, and then you just reward them and that’s fine. But at least half the time, you find someone, you hire them, and it turns out that the thing you hired them to do, they’re not quite the right person for. So now you’re looking around wondering, “Okay, what else would this person be good at?” Moving them into other roles, and getting them other things, so that you’re maximally exploiting their talents, and making them feel like they’re maximally exploiting their talents. It’s such a buzz. I mean, it’s just really a great thing.

Getting products out on time. Promising you’ll do something, and a year and a half later, really having it done: boy! That is really cool! Just a lot of fun. There’s nothing better.

Obstacles to Women in Computing

Abbate:

I’m curious: do you find that women end up in certain areas of computer science?

Hawthorn:

You bet!

Abbate:

I haven’t found many who did hardware like you have.

Hawthorn:

Exactly. Right, right. And I didn’t actually do the hardware; I just managed people who were building the hardware. You bet. Isn’t that interesting? The more you go toward the humanities side—human-computer interaction; Web design; those kinds of things—lots of women there. The more you progress toward the hardware, fewer and fewer women, down at the hardware level. The only thing we’ve ever thought of that accounts for that is just that the more you go toward the hardware, the more like engineering it is, and the more my nineteen-year-old response to my engineering Professor—”Girls don’t do engineering”—the more that comes in. That’s what I think.

Abbate:

So you think it’s more internal than external?

Hawthorn:

I do. I think the days of people overtly telling women they can’t do it are gone, but I think there’s a lot of the internal stuff. I don’t know! You know, my granddaughter is four years old, and even at four, she is so gender-specific it’s unbelievable! This is a little girl, and it’s clearly a little girl. She doesn’t want to wear blue jeans; she wants to wear her dress. Her mommy only packed one dress for the week? So we wash it every day! Because she wants to wear her dress. “I want my dress, Grandma! I want my pretty dress.” I think it’s just amazing. It’s true: you walk into a hardware class and there are just no women.

Abbate:

Did you read that Carnegie-Mellon study that came out this spring?

Hawthorn:

Oh, I don’t know.

Abbate:

It’s called Unlocking the Clubhouse. It’s kind of interesting, because it starts from childhood and talks about various things, and then there’s a study of actual students at Carnegie-Mellon, and it actually sounds kind of forbidding! That even today, a woman majoring in CS at Carnegie-Mellon would find it fairly hostile—there was overt hostility from male students, and things like that.

Hawthorn:

Oh yes? That’s right; that’s why I didn’t read it. [laughs.] There was one that was done at MIT earlier, along the same lines. Of course, you’re always going to find those things.

Abbate:

Probably the more competitive the school, the worse it would be.

Hawthorn:

Yes, probably so. Although I think a lot is also just what’s tolerated by the school itself. I think part of the women’s group and what we did at Cal was just to really sensitize people. I mean I don’t think that you run into as many problems at Cal; probably some. Every once in a while, I will go in and sit in at the Women in Computer Science meeting, and I think, “I’m not seeing anything worse than when I was there,” which is occasional harassment, more than anything else.

Abbate:

Do you think the culture of computing has changed?

Hawthorn:

No! [laughs.] No. During the boom, it was definitely different; but that’s over.

Abbate:

More business-oriented, you mean?

Hawthorn:

No. During the boom times, when anybody and everybody could get a job, then the culture had definitely changed, and it was much less business-oriented and much more “I’ve got the macho idea here; I know what I’m doing; don’t tell me what to do.” I found there were far more prima donnas at that point, young men who were rich beyond their wildest dreams—in stock options that they couldn’t cash in, because they had handcuffs, and by the time they could cash them in they were worth pennies. There is a book one could write. Oh man, it was just devastating for a lot of people. But also, a lot of us felt that people got their comeuppance during that time, because there was entirely too much arrogance. “I have an idea; I don’t need a business plan.” Someone said that to me! [laughs.] Really! And in fact, people had put money behind him. This was this really smart guy who knew about computers, and everybody was putting money into computers, so he got a lot of money to do his thing and didn’t have a business plan. “We don’t need business plans!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Apparently, one of the Professors in the Business School at the University of Maryland, where I’m affiliated, is making an archive of business plans of failed dot-coms.

Hawthorn:

Is that right? [laughs.]

Abbate:

I think it would be very entertaining reading. I just heard about that, but I will look that up when I get back and see. Cautionary tales. On the bright side, if you’re twenty-four, you can start over again.

Hawthorn:

Oh, sure! And they are. That’s right; absolutely. A lot of them are. A lot of them are unemployed, too, which is too bad, but . . .

So, no: I don’t think that much of the culture has changed at all. In fact, it disappoints me that it hasn’t changed that much. Today I go into a company where there are a bunch of programmers, and they’re using tools that are not that different from the tools that we were using fifteen years ago; they are using processes that are not that much different; they are producing code that has about as many bugs. That’s one reason that I’m not working that much: I find it boring! [laughs.] It’s all the same.

Abbate:

Were you hoping it would be different?

Hawthorn:

Absolutely! I mean, we all wanted . . . Look at how much faster the computers are! Look at how the hardware has improved! Look at everything! I wanted the women’s movement to move forward so much more quickly. I did not want my granddaughter, age four, to say to me, “Grandma, girls wear lipstick”, and for me to say, “No, Sydney, I don’t wear makeup,” and for her to look at me and say, “But Grandma, you have to. You’re a girl!” This is my four-year-old! No! for the civil rights movement, it progressed. I went back to Houston, to a wedding of a friend of mine and her new husband—he was black, she was white—and they had it at this mansion that you could rent, where I am absolutely certain that if the original builders of the mansion had known of such a thing, they would have burned it down! You know what I mean? I mean, this was in Houston. We had an interracial couple in Houston, Texas, getting married, with a completely interracial set of friends and families, and everything was fine! No one had to put a guard on the door. We have moved so fast! Oh, I’m not saying that it’s perfect, but we have moved so fast. With women we have not moved that fast.

With the processes around developing software, we haven’t moved fast at all. It’s still the same. When I first stopped working, I started looking at software engineering, to try to see if there is a better way.

Abbate:

I noticed you’re on the ACM Advisory Panel on Professional Licensing in Software Engineering.

Hawthorn:

Yes, yes. But there’s nothing. The things that people are recommending that people do to change processes and all of that: none of it is really taking with the community—and there’s a reason for that. It isn’t that the community is stupid; it’s that there’s nothing that’s really working very well—well enough that people will take it up and say, “Oh, yes; I’ll do this.” Little bits of progress here and there, but not much.

So things have not changed, unfortunately. Computers have gotten faster. You no longer have 36-hour turnaround time! [laughs.]

Advice for Women

Abbate:

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

Hawthorn:

Oh, to do it! To absolutely do it! I still think, of all the fields open to women, computer science is the most wonderful one. First of all, as a programmer, no one knows what sex you are, what color you are, what your gender preferences are; they just know: Does it work or not? Did you get it done? Is it fast enough? And therefore, it is the field where you are judged by the output—that’s it. That’s all. It’s not someone’s subjective anything. It’s very objective: Did it work? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? So I love it for women. And I would absolutely ignore anyone who was at all discouraging, because there are lots of people who say, “Oh, you can’t do this” or “You can’t do that.” Do it! It’s fun!

I also like management. A lot of women shy away from management, because they want to have families, and they feel that you can’t have a family and be a manager. But you can. You just have to organize things. And I’ve known, at Hewlett-Packard, lots and lots of women who were managers and had families, and even people who did job-sharing kinds of things. It’s entirely possible.

Abbate:

That reminds me of a question I was going to ask. You’ve obviously worked with a lot of start-ups. Do you see a lot of women in leadership positions in start-ups?

Hawthorn:

Not usually in the technical side, but occasionally. More often women in marketing positions, in sales positions; always in personnel positions. If there’s a Vice President of Human Resources, it almost always is a woman. And even though those are the non-technical sides, still, it’s a start-up, and they’re involved in the leadership of the start-up.

On the technical side, I think that women are in start-ups in just the same proportion that they are in the upper management of any of the companies. You see just about as many.

Abbate:

So it’s not a technical thing so much as a managerial issue?

Hawthorn:

Yes; yes. Because as you go up—I don’t know what the numbers are anymore, but if you take a company like Informix: at the bottom level, you’re like sixty percent women, and the next level up it becomes fifty, and then forty, and so on. It’s kind of the glass ceiling kind of stuff.

Abbate:

But it seems like if you’re starting your own company, it seems like you should be able to bypass that, in the sense that if you came up with the idea and wanted to start the company, then you should be able to do it.

Hawthorn:

So, women as the actual founders: that’s been very interesting. There is this wonderful woman entrepreneur, who was head of marketing at Cisco; her name is Cate [Muther]. She started an incubator for women’s start-ups.

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Hawthorn:

I went to a meeting of women entrepreneurs or something where she spoke, and there were all sorts of numbers about how the venture capitalists don’t like to put money behind women. I don’t know whether it’s that they don’t like to put money behind women, or if it’s just the usual old boys’ network. When I am working in a start-up and I’m hiring people, I do only hire people I know. This is really true. I only want someone to go to war with me whom I’ve gone to war with before. I will very reluctantly hire someone I don’t know, and then only based on recommendations from someone I do know, because every hire that you make is so precious, and everyone has to pull their own weight. So I’m not a person who criticizes the old boys’ network. You got a hundred thousand dollars: are you going to put it behind someone you don’t know, or someone you do know? If it’s going to be someone you don’t know, that’s a lot more risky. So it may be that. But for whatever reason, women-owned companies were having a hard time getting money from the venture capitalists; so Cate put together this incubator for women-owned companies.

That was before the recession. I don’t know what’s happened with it since then. But there were lots of numbers about that. And in fact, there are a few women-owned companies now that I know about. I know someone who just went to work for one—Anu Shukla’s company, [Rubric].

But CEO’s, Board Members, all of that: it’s still heavily male-oriented. I was asked to sit in on a board meeting, to advise a board on some stuff having to do with their product and whether their people were getting the product out fast enough, and so forth. They were meeting in this room in this hotel, so I went to the hotel, and I opened up the door to the room, and it was fifteen men. That’s it! [laughs.] And me. And I just thought, “I can’t believe this!” This was a year ago. I walked in and I thought, “I just can’t believe this!” I wanted to shut the door! [laughs.] I said, “Excuse me,” and they were all sitting there as I opened up the door. No, at the top levels it’s still very heavily male.

Abbate:

Well, that’s a good question, how to get more women. I’ll have to find some entrepreneurs. I actually found some interesting entrepreneurs from the early seventies . . .

Hawthorn:

Yes?

Abbate:

. . . who had started their own software services companies, because people were still doing custom software then. Women who had specifically started companies to employ young mothers who wanted to work from home on programming.

Hawthorn:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

But I haven’t found a lot who did more of a technical start-up.

Hawthorn:

Cate will know a whole group of women who have done technical stuff.

Abbate:

Okay. I’ll check that out. Do you know what that incubator was called?

Hawthorn:

The Women’s Technology Cluster.

Abbate:

Anyway: Let me thank you so much for talking with me!

Hawthorn:

Well, thank you! Great!