You may not know who Frances Allen is at the top of your head, but you should. Not only was she the first female IBM woman, but she was also the first woman to win the prestigious Turing Award. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Allen also developed the pioneering computer – the process by which the tool we use converts software from high-level coding languages understood by humans into machine-executable source code.
Allen died Aug. 4, his 88th birthday, at a nursing home in Schenectady, New York, of Alzheimer’s disease.
For all her dizzying accomplishments, Allen did not initially aim for a career in computer science. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in mathematics in 1957, Allen got a job with IBM to pay off her student loans. She taught new employees at IBM Fortran, a new kind of high-level programming language that enabled engineers to encode something easier than binary. While Allen had only intended to stay at IBM until her debt was split, she ended up spending the next 45 years there, retiring in 2002.
Initially, Allen was assigned to work as IBM Liaison Officer for the National Security Agency and worked to develop Alpha, which IBM describe as “a very high code breaking language which contains the ability to create new alphabets beyond defined system alphabets.” She managed the optimization compiler team for both harvesting and extension projects, which resulted in the Stretch-Harvest computer. According to New York Times, it was the most advanced computer of that time and was made for the purpose of intercepting communications by spies all over the world.
At the time, compilers were not exactly efficient. This meant that software could be slower, clumsy, more expensive and prone to errors. “Allen and his IBM researcher John Cocke published a series of papers describing how people could communicate more efficiently with computers, including the 1972 seminar.”Catalog of Optimizing Conversions. ”
This may sound far from modern, but in fact, Allen’s work shaped the way we interact. every single technique in our lives. Her work can be found on “every app, every website, every video game or communication system, every government or bank computer, every on-board computer by car or plane,” Graydon Hoare, creator of the Rust programming language, told Allen’s Obituary of the New York Times. Basically, you can thank Allen for creating the foundation that allows today’s developers to write an app or website that your smartphone, tablet, or computer can understand and execute almost instantly.
On top of her accomplishments, Allen also played a major role in introducing more women to computer science. IBM records that she spent “many years as a mentor through the IBM mentor program,” and also received several awards for helping women in the field. Moreover by joining the International Hall of Fame International Women in Technology, she has also received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award.