Security/identity · 2006-02-12

Radia Perlman: cool article, cool speech, cool work

Investor’s Business Daily has published a “Leaders and Success ” article called The ‘Mother Of The Internet’ highlighting the many accomplishments of Sun Labs’ Radia Perlman. Her current favorite research project is “assured delete” file systems, in which files are absolutely recoverable…until their expiration date, at which time they provably disappear for good.

Not only is Radia the mother of the Internet, she’s also a Woman of Vision — officially! The Anita Borg Institute bestowed an award with that name on her a few months ago. I’ve been meaning to link to her acceptance speech ever since; here it is. Her speech charmingly conveys some of the difficulties she’s experienced in her field, musings on improving the situation for technical women, and thoughts on how to go for clear and simple solutions. A few samples (it appears she’s another kind of progenitor as well, going by this first passage):

I wound up programming as a part time job during college, in the MIT Logo lab. Logo is a language for teaching children programming. I designed and built a system for teaching all the concepts to children as young as 3. In my system, computer commands were tangible objects that you plugged together into a program. The project was exciting enough that, although I’d forgotten about it since it was so many years ago, people from the MIT media lab tracked me down a couple of years ago saying “You are the mother of tangible computing!”. I said “What’s tangible computing?”

Which brings me to a gender reference. To be painfully honest, I was a bit embarrassed by the whole project. I was just about the only female around, and I wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist. And my project involved all these cute little kids.

I got an email recently from a recruiter for a high tech company saying that they were very interested in me as a “female thought leader”. I didn’t reply, because I wasn’t interested in the job, but I fantasized replying, “Thank you for your interest. Although my credentials as a thought leader are impeccable, I must warn you that I am not that qualified as a female. I can’t walk in heels, I have no clothing sense, and I am not particularly decorative. What aspects of being female are important to this job?”

Oops, that was my absolute favorite passage from the speech — couldn’t resist quoting it. But there’s more good stuff where that came from. Go and read the whole thing.