A Woman’s Place
June 1, 2013 2:02 PM   Subscribe

The year was 1986, and Lynda had just joined a small cadre of female engineers working for FI, a groundbreaking IT firm that laid the foundations for outsourced development and women’s rights in the workplace. The company, originally called Freelance Programmers, was founded in the early 1960s by Stephanie Shirley, a German who had been evacuated to Britain — along with many fellow Jewish children — as part of the kindertransport shortly before the Second World War.
Gender equality is still a major issue in the technology industry, but 50 years ago one British company was blazing trails.
posted by Foci for Analysis (14 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Favouriting after RTFA.
posted by infini at 2:14 PM on June 1, 2013

Ironically, equality legislation enacted to ensure women’s fair treatment effectively made it impossible for FI’s unique culture to continue.
Well, that and the fact they re-branded, outsourced everything to India, and then sold the remainder of the company for several hundred million dollars in 2002
posted by delmoi at 2:18 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great article. It's strange but true that once programming was a woman's job. I remember telling my mom that some task needed programming (and therefore was difficult), and her eyes rolled back almost to the neck. She was far better at programming than me.
What happened??
posted by mumimor at 2:20 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great story.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:35 PM on June 1, 2013

i've met two women over 70 now who were programmers all their lives, which meant typing up lines of kobalt everytime something needed printing off in one case. She said 'i suppose nobody uses Fortran and Kobalt anymore' and i knew enough to know that they are still in use but not fully mainstream but not enough to make sense of that in plain english..
posted by maiamaia at 2:39 PM on June 1, 2013

Stephanie Shirley was on Desert Island Discs a few years back. Mostly I remember the part about the Kindertransport being quite upsetting and don't remember anything about programming, but it might be of interest.

She said 'i suppose nobody uses Fortran and Kobalt anymore' and i knew enough to know that they are still in use but not fully mainstream but not enough to make sense of that in plain english..

I believe astronomers use Fortran. I don't know who uses COBOL. (Or, more precisely, I think things like banks and whoever else are using software written in COBOL, but I don't know what they're using to develop new software, whether it needs to be COBOL too, or something else.)
posted by hoyland at 2:56 PM on June 1, 2013

Some common libraries for applied math (such as LAPACK) are written in Fortran. It's definitely a living language.
posted by Nomyte at 4:09 PM on June 1, 2013

The first programmer ever? Ada Lovelace, born in 1815.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 5:09 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fascinating story! I knew that many early programmers were female, but I love the subterfuge involved in keeping all the female workers a secret!
posted by Joh at 9:22 PM on June 1, 2013

I read Stephanie Shirley's excellent autobiography Let IT Go recently, glad there's finally a Metafilter post about her.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:44 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

From Wiki: "however, the engine has never been completed, so her code never tested".

Never tested? First programmer, my butt. Ada Lovelace made incredible strides in computational theory, but you can't seriously call an unimplememted, untested algorithm the first computer program. The saddest part is that some prominent people in tech appropriate Ada Lovelace's name to further their own desires for fame. Building a persona that integrates Lovelace's actual really cool accomplishments in homage to her work would be one thing. Calling yourself "Lady Ada" and behaving like that entitles you to accolades for your middling-successful engineering career is quite another.
posted by SakuraK at 2:09 AM on June 2, 2013

Did Shirley refer to herself as "Lady Ada"? I didn't see that mentioned anywhere.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2013

Calling Ada Byron (the countess of Lovelace), the "first programmer" isn't really accurate, she's the first person to write pseudo-code, but it wasn't something you could plug directly into the analytical engine and have it run. The analytical engine was kind of a weird technological orphan. It would have been Turing complete, but people didn't have the mathematical/philosophical basis to understand that at the time.

Turing, Church, etc others didn't really build in Babbage/Lovelace's work when building the first real computers.
posted by delmoi at 9:51 PM on June 2, 2013

It's not exactly a response to the claim that Ada "wasn't really a programmer", but it reminds me of Donald Knuth's famous remark about some code he had written: "Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it."
posted by benito.strauss at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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