TITLE: Adele Goldberg, Computer Scientist and Entrepreneur AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 24, 2009 6:13 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

My slogan is:
computing is too important to be left to men.

-- Karen Sparck-Jones, 1935-2007

We talk a lot about the state of women in computing. Girls have deserted computer science as an academic major in recent years, and female undergrad enrollment is at a historic low relative to boys. Some people say, "Girls don't like to program," but I don't think that explains all of the problem. At least a few women agree with me... During a session of the Rebooting Computing Summit in January, one of the men asserted that girls don't like to program, and one of the women -- Fran Allen, I think -- asked, "Says who?" From the back of the room, a woman's voice called out, "Men!" A lot of people outside of computer science do not know how much pioneering work in our discipline was done by women. Allen won a Turing Award for her work on languages and compilers, and the most recent Turing Award was given to Barbara Liskov, also for work in programming languages. Karen Sparck-Jones, quoted above, discovered the idea of inverse document frequency, laying the foundation for a generation of advances in information retrieval. And these are just the ones ready at hand; there many more. Adele Goldberg When people assert that women don't like (just) to program, they usually mean that women prefer to do computer science in context, where they can see and influence more directly the effects that their creations will have in the world. One of my heroes in computing, Adele Goldberg, has demonstrated that women can like -- and excel -- on both sides of the great divide. (Note: I am not speaking of this Adele Goldberg, who is, I'm sure, a fine computer scientist in her own right!) Goldberg is perhaps best known as co-author of several books on Smalltalk. Many of us fortunate enough to come into contact with Smalltalk back in the 1980s cut our teeth on the fabulous "blue book", Smalltalk-80: The Language and Its Implementation. You can check out a portion of the blue book on-line. This book taught many a programmer how to implement a language like Smalltalk. It is still one of the great books about a language implementation, and it still has a lot to teach us a lot about object-oriented languages. But Goldberg didn't just write about Smalltalk; she was in the lab doing the work that created it. During the 1970s, she was one of the principal researchers at Xerox PARC. The team at PARC not only developed Smalltalk but also created and experimented with graphical user interfaces and other features of the personal computing experience that we all now take for granted. Goldberg's legacy extends beyond the technical side of Smalltalk. She worked with Alan Kay to develop an idea of computing as a medium for everyone and a new way for young people to learn, using the computer as a dynamic medium. They described their vision in Personal Dynamic Media, a paper that appeared in the March 1977 issue of IEEE Computer. This was a vision that most people did not really grasp until the 1990s, and it inspired many people to consider a world far beyond what existed at the time. But this paper did not just talk about vision; it also showed their ideas implemented in hardware and software, tools that children were already using to create ideas. When I look back at this paper, it reminds me of one reason I admire Goldberg's work: it addresses both the technical and the social, the abstract and the concrete, idea and implementation. She and Kay were thinking Big Thoughts and also then testing them in the world. (A PDF of this paper is currently available on-line as part of the New Media Reader. Read it!) After leaving PARC, Goldberg helped found ParcPlace, a company that produced a very nice Smalltalk product suitable for corporate applications and CS research alike. The Intelligent Systems Lab I worked in as a grad student at Michigan State was one of ParcPlace's first clients, and we built all of our lab's software infrastructure on top of its ObjectWorks platform. I still have ObjectWorks on 3.5" floppies, as well as some of the original documentation. (I may want to use it again some day...) Some academics view founding a business as antithetical to the academic enterprise, or at least as not very interesting, but Goldberg sees it as a natural extension of what computer science is:
The theoretical and practical knowledge embodied in CS is interesting as standalone study. But the real opportunity lies in equipping oneself to partner with scientists or business experts, to learn what they know and, together, to change how research or business is conducted.
(I found this quote as a sidebar in Women in Computing -- Take 2, an article in a recent issue of Communications of the ACM.) I suppose that the women-don't-like-to-program crowd might point to Goldberg's career in industry as evidence that she prefers computing in its applied context to the hard-core technical work of computer science, but I don't think that is true. Her work on Smalltalk and real tools at PARC was hard-core technical, and her work at ParcPlace on Smalltalk environments was hard-core technical, too. And she has the mentality of a researcher:
Don't ask whether you can do something, but how to do it.
When no one knows the answer, you figure it out for yourself. That's what Goldberg has done throughout her career. And once she knows how, she does it -- both to test the idea and make it better, and to get the idea out into the world where people can benefit from it. She seems to like working on both sides of the divide. No, she would probably tell us that the divide is an artificial barrier of our own making, and that more of us should be doing both kinds of work. When we are looking for examples of women who have helped invent computer science, we find researchers and practitioners. We find women working in academia and in industry, working in technical laboratories and in social settings where applications dominate theory. We don't have to limit our vision of what women can do in computing to any one kind of work or work place. We can encourage young women who want to be programmers and researchers, working on the most technical of advances. We can encourage young women who want to work out in the world, changing how people do what they do via the dynamic power of software. If you are ever looking for one person to serve as an example of all these possibilities, Adele Goldberg may be the person you seek. -----