Blog 2018 01 20 Coders at work: Fran Allen

Coders at work: Fran Allen

How famous computer scientists emerge? She wanted to be a math teacher, but in order to pay her student loan, she had to take a job. She took a temporary programming job at IBM to teach the new Fortran to IBM people. Then she stayed there for 45 years.

For her, a program is beautiful when it shows an obviousness of the solution even when the problem is not obvious itself.

Just like Ken Thompson she also thinks that in a candidate enthusiasm is the most important quality. But she goes further because according to her this enthusiasm doesn’t have to be about programming, it can be about anything.

About the managerial career path, she thinks that you can be a good manager even without strong technical skills (in a technical company), but you have to be really aware of that and you have to be able to distinguish who is good and who is not.

But she thinks you’d better earn your technical reputation first before going to manage people.

She considers herself a scientist and having a look at her career is quite obvious that she doesn’t consider herself as a programmer. She stopped programming when C came out.

Maybe because of this she has a really strong opinion on C. Maybe even she continued to write code, she would think the same. Anyway, she’s not the first and not the last one in the book who think that C is good in certain hands, but it’s used for too many things.

But she goes further. She thinks that “C has destroyed our ability to advance the state of the art in automatic optimization, automatic parallelization, automatic mapping of a high-level language to the machine.” She adds that maybe that’s why compilers haven’t progressed that much and that’s why they are barely taught in school.

I think it’s not surprising for anyone who read the first half of the interview that she identifies herself as a scientist. Indeed she is a scientist. As a woman, she was assumed to be very attentive to details. But it turned out that she was not in line with the assumptions. In fact, she was very bad in details but she was thinking much more about the system itself.

Today you can read at almost every corner that you must be a finisher. She says she is a starter, not a finisher. Exceptions are everywhere!

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