Oral-History:Judy Clapp

About Judy Clapp

A pioneer of women in computer science, Judy Clapp was born in 1930 and raised outside of New York City. She attended Smith College where she majored in math and physics. She then went on to Harvard where she received her M.S. After graduating, Clapp began working at MIT's Lincoln Laboratories on the Whirlwind Computer, eventually joining MITRE where she worked on the SAGE Project. Clapp was a pioneer for women in computer programming, working on several projects that would change the field of computer science and government defense systems.

In this interview, Clapp talks about her first experiences with computers, the Whirlwind Computer, SAGE system, and other projects she participated in during her time at MIT and MITRE. She also reflects on her career, how she was received in the field as a woman computer programmer, and her opinions on how the field of computer science has progressed. Clapp also shares her thoughts on women in computer programming.

About the Interview

JUDY CLAPP: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, 11 February 2001

Interview # 583 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Samuel C. Williams Library, 3rd Floor, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Judy Clapp, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Judy Clapp
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 11 February 2001
LOCATION: Lexington, MA

Background and Education

Abbate:

I usually start with family background. Can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Clapp:

You mean I really have to release my age? [laughs] I was born in 1930, and I grew up on Long Island, outside New York.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Clapp:

My father was in advertising, and my mother was one of the early women to graduate from college at CCNY, in accounting, and she was comptroller of a hospital and nursing home. She worked almost all my youth, because it was a time when there had been a depression. She did all kinds of jobs, but she was always working.

Abbate:

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Clapp:

I have a brother, who is very different from me. He became a rabbi, so he was the kind who was sort of philosophical, and I was the kind who was factual and analytical, so I guess that’s . . . I was the older of the two.

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you to have a career?

Clapp:

Oh yes. They very much liked the idea, because my mother had always had a career, and she worked at a time when none of her peers worked. I went to Smith College, which is an all-women’s college, because that was a place where women could excel without having the usual sorts of social implications of competing with men, so I think that was another way in which they encouraged me to go do my thing. I went to a public high school. I graduated valedictorian—which was not something that endeared you with your classmates! [laughs.] So yes, I guess you could say I got parental encouragement to go off and study things. In college, even though it was an all-women’s school, there were not very many women in science. I majored in math and physics, and there were three of us in physics in my class, out of maybe 400. When I graduated, I got a scholarship to come to Harvard, which in those days was Radcliffe for women, and once again I studied applied science—computer science, the closest they came to computer science. That was in 1951, and at that time, I bet at most there were ever three women in my class, because all my classes were over at Harvard; it was not something that Radcliffe offered. They had a computation center, and Howard Aiken was the head of it, and he had his Mark—I think at that point Mark I and Mark IV were there; the others had gone off somewhere else. And we learned to do programming both on desktop calculators and on the Mark—probably the Mark I—which was a computer with gigantic paper tapes, punch paper tapes; and you really knew the meaning of “loop,” because they hung off a sprocket and they went round and round.

Abbate:

Was Grace Hopper still there?

Clapp:

No, she was there during the war days. This was now 1951 and ‘2, and she had gone off to war and come back, and I don’t recall if there may have been one other woman, but I’m not sure. Certainly my lab partners were men. Let’s see. What else can I tell you about that time?

Abbate:

To go back a little bit: How early did you get interested in math and science?

Clapp:

Math? In high school. I really liked it, I think because you—at least in those days, you knew whether you were right or wrong at the end! [laughter] And I hated history; I could see no value in it. And I liked languages. So when I went to college, I avoided—I liked English, but I avoided the history classes—forced to take one art and one music class, which I’m glad they forced me to do—but mostly took math and physics courses. No biology, no chemistry: just those two. Does that answer your question?

Abbate:

Yes. Did you know you wanted to go on for graduate study? What did you think you were going to do?

Clapp:

Well that was it: I couldn’t decide what I could do, and graduate school was the easiest solution! [laughter.] And the opportunity to move to Cambridge and go to Harvard was certainly appealing. Yes, it was like extending school another year, and I did get my M.S. from Radcliffe. In those days I had to take my exam by myself in a hall at Radcliffe; I could not take my exam with the men over in Mem[orial] Hall because I was a Radcliffe student, not a Harvard student. And that was itself kind of amusing: to sit there all by yourself with a proctor and take your exam, while everybody else was in this big hall taking their exam.

Abbate:

I remember that hall.

Clapp:

I’m sure both of us have memories of that hall for other reasons, too.

Abbate:

Did you do any teaching while you were there?

Clapp:

No, I was a very much involved student. I was really only there one year. At the end of the year, now I really did have to go look for a job. I was not going to go on for my Ph.D.; I wanted to work. And I went to professor Aiken and I said I was looking for a job, and he said, “I could get you a job in Pennsylvania.” Nowadays of course I understand that it was probably working on one of the early computers that they were developing at the University of Pennsylvania. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Pennsylvania.” And he just looked at me, and he had this incredibly steely look, which people have talked about, and he said, “When the job is more important to you than the location, come back.”

Abbate:

Ooh.

Working on Whirlwind at MIT

Clapp:

And that was that. So I went down the street to MIT. When you live in Cambridge, what other option do you have? And I discovered that I was so lucky; the timing was just perfect. They had just spun off from the Servo Lab a digital computer lab at MIT that was just starting up, and they were really anxious to get people, and they didn’t even know what kind of people they needed or how to pick them. So the team was just forming, and we were designing a new computer. And the computer was going to be used for—we didn’t know what. Oh yes, that’s a very interesting story. It was originally going to be used as a flight simulator.

Abbate:

This is the Whirlwind computer.

Clapp:

Yes. But it was going to be a flight simulator, and it was going to be analog. And the idea was that instead of wasting or periling your aircraft, you could train people to learn to fly a cockpit simulator with all this in analog. And there’s a whole story that goes with that, but the result of that was that somebody said, “I think we ought to try digital technology instead of analog.” So, when I arrived, we were being challenged to keep our money, because it was no longer the original project, because the computer became more important than the cockpit simulator. So we were in a competition to keep the money from the Air Force. (Originally it had been Navy money; I don’t have all the details exactly right, but they are obtainable through this history.) My role was to help program an air defense system, and we had maybe 512 or 256 words of memory. We had to fit the whole thing into this little experimental computer. It had storage tubes . . . . We actually put together what today would look like a very trivial game, because we had a little screen, and we had a gun or something that you—and we simulated an attack on the United States, and all these planes coming in, and you zapped them. And we did all this in like five straight days. It was over Thanksgiving, and all of us just worked straight through to get this thing done in time, and we all remembered that . . . I think the camaraderie was one of the outstanding things about those days. We worked together, we played together—days, nights, weekends¬—we were all together, and we had no precedent for anything we did. We had to invent every solution, and that’s something I think that made an equality among the people.

Abbate:

Who were you working with?

Clapp:

They were all—the particular group I was working with, they were all engineers. They were either MIT graduates, or they were graduate students, or people who had been hired to come there. The women in the group were—this is not to say that there weren’t other women; there were some other women—but this particular group that became so close, in terms of work and play and everything else, the women there tended to be the women who were the secretaries, the computer operators . . . And I don’t honestly recall any of the professional staff (I’ll call them), except myself, in that group.

Abbate:

So you were the only woman programmer on that particular team.

Clapp:

Right. But there were other women who came, and eventually there were some marriages from some of those, and some long-term relationships from some of those. So it was a total life of doing something very exciting and recognizing no distinctions among people—so yes, the secretaries were as much a part of the team, and the computer operators, and all the other people—because we were all working on solving a problem, and getting something done for the first time—which I think is an experience that everybody should have. It’s very exciting, it’s very stimulating, and it is all-consuming. So that’s sort of what it was like. Some of those people are still around; some I’m still in touch with, some have disappeared, we don’t know where; but I think all of them felt the same way about it. And we did, in fact, succeed in what we were doing, and managed to get funding, and eventually what we were doing became so big that MIT decided it was too big for their applied research. And that’s when they formed Lincoln Lab.

Abbate:

And this was the SAGE Project at that point?

Clapp:

Right, because the little prototype was called the Cape Cod System, because it only did a couple of aircraft out at Cape Cod. It had radio, telephone—every kind of communication—and was really innovative. And so from there we moved over to Lincoln Lab—and grew and grew and grew.

Abbate:

Let me backtrack a little. The first computer you worked on was Howard Aiken’s Mark I?

Clapp:

Yes. And he had a better one there, but I guess for us students, that was about as basic as you could get.

Abbate:

You hadn’t used a computer before you went to Harvard?

Clapp:

No.

Abbate:

Did you already know you wanted to?

Clapp:

Never heard of them. I went . . .

Abbate:

So Applied Science, [your field of study at Harvard,] was. . .

Clapp:

I just fell into it when I got there. A lot of it was electronics, numerical analysis, things like that.

Abbate:

Did you immediately know when you first used a computer, “Ah, this is really neat, I really want to do this”?

Clapp:

I must have, because I mean, the jobs I was talking to him about certainly dealt with that, and when I went over to MIT I just immediately gravitated to this digital computer lab. Yes, so I’m sure by then I knew that it was computers—partially for the reason I said: Here was an opportunity to do something that people hadn’t done before. I also don’t think it even occurred to me to worry about being a woman or not. I just saw them hungry for people, and that was true. While I was there I was promoted to head up a group, and again, that didn’t seem to cause any problems among the men there either, as far as I can tell. I think it’s conceivable that at the highest levels in the organization they weren’t that aware of women, or else it didn’t make any difference to them. I’m sure there were not that many people attending MIT that were female at that time, as far as I can recall, because this is now the early ‘50s. By the time . . . I forget when we went to Lincoln Lab, but again we could find that out . . . and then eventually we became too big for Lincoln Lab, and that’s how MITRE was formed. So I went to MITRE in ‘58, I think. I never, ever, applied for another job in my life! [laughter] My job just kept moving to different places, and different responsibilities, and with it a technology that was developing so fast, I just . . . I never had to say, “Okay, I’m bored with this job, I think I’ll go find another job.” There was always something new to learn, something new to create, some other big leap to take, and that’s how I wound up my career, just never applying for another job.

From Batch Processing to Interactive Systems

Abbate:

What was it like to use these early computers like the Whirlwind? What did you actually have to do? What was the interface? What were the problems?

Clapp:

Ah. Those were batch jobs, and . . . or else you had to schedule time, because one person at a time could use the computer, and so you tended to use punch cards, and you tended to set up test runs to get the most out of your turn on the computer, and then you were off again and trying to figure out what your results were, and then put in another set of runs. So it was hardly what you’d call interactive: very batch-oriented and very scheduled and very measured, in terms of when you could get on. I can remember the first time. I was working with a group of people on “What kinds of tools should we have for helping programmers to program?” And one of the things that we developed was something called a “checker,” and what this let you do was say, “I’m going to run this run, and here are my expected outputs, and please check what I have [the expected outputs] against what I got—what got computed—and tell me what’s different.” So that was one way to help you take care of getting your run done. Then somebody had a brilliant idea—and I don’t know exactly who—but we were developing a system that was very markedly different from anything that had been done by people using computers before then. They tended to put in some sort of an algorithm, program it so that it would run repetitively, and produce tables of outputs. And I’m sure you’ve found that remark by Howard Aiken about how “We’ll never need more than [half a dozen computers]”—also attributed to someone at IBM—because by then we’d have printed all the [tables of] Laplace transforms, and all the this, and all the that. Our system was interactive with the user. So the user is sitting there and seeing a display, interacting with it; the computer is responding; it’s also receiving real-time radar data inputs. So one day someone said, “What if I put a little place on the display where I displayed what the software was doing?” And it was a miraculous decision that we could be sitting there using this same territory on the screen to show our intermediate results. Okay, so now you could program it to see what the system was doing internally while you were [simultaneously] watching what it was generating externally to the user of the system. So that may have been the first time that anybody interactively ran and debugged their program.

Abbate:

Wow.

Clapp:

Yes. It really was just an eye-opener that you could do this.

Abbate:

Was that just the test versions [of the SAGE program] that did that?

Clapp:

Yes.

Abbate:

And the production version didn’t.

Clapp:

Well, I’ll tell you a funny story about what happened—how we learned something about “should the test versions and the production do the same kind of thing?” I developed one of the first database systems—not by myself, but with a team—and you could ask it queries, and it would respond. But machines were pretty slow in those days, so one day I put in a query, and I left. The next morning my office was filled from floor to ceiling with paper! [laughs] Because apparently it cranked and cranked and cranked; it was supposed to be in operational mode, but it was sending out test data that it printed, so that in case something went wrong, we could tell what was wrong. Oh, after that we thought seriously about whether to combine operational and test, and whether anybody should be allowed to walk off while their run is going. But the other thing that happened was that we discovered in these online systems that people get very impatient if they don’t know whether the system has crashed—believe it or not, software crashed, even in those days, or froze—and also whether it was just churning away at your job. As you know, you get this little thing that flips up and down now on your—[an] hourglass or whatever you got, that tells you that the computer [is working on a task] . . . Well, we didn’t know that. So we had one online thing that you could do, and that was to see what the time was. Don’t ask—I think that was part of what you were asking for—that was kind of to test if the system was still alive. Well, the users found out about that, and pretty soon we couldn’t get any work done, because all the computer was getting was requests for time! [laughter.] Because everybody wanted to know, “Are you alive? Are you alive? Are you alive?” And of course it would respond, because that was priority; and it never got its work done. So we learned a lot about combining, first of all, interactive features in a system, and also test information for us, along with information for the user, which the user rapidly found might be useful for them. So those were just some of the learning curve for how you develop interactive systems and you debug them.

Abbate:

Because that would have been one of the very first interactive systems, as I understand it . . .

Clapp:

It was. Yes, I don’t know of any other. Sitting down and talking with the people who were working on the several different machines at Pennsylvania, all they did was, they knew how to program that computer by changing—they actually had to change some of the wiring, like a telephone switchboard—but once you did that, it just cranked away, and cranked away, and printed—they were tables for aiming guns, and ballistics, and all kinds of things like that. And here we were with this interactive system that had a display, and the equivalent of a cursor; it had a light gun, and things like that—it was a whole other world. But it just took us a while to realize that it was also available to the programmers—that we could use it interactively. So that’s kind of what it was like to program. You usually had to get everything right, submit it, and hope that it worked the first time. And of course it never did! There were two styles [of programmers]. There was what we used to call the “Mod Zero Person,” meaning the very first mod of their program worked, because they spent weeks playing computer and stepping through everything. And then there were those who said, “Let the computer tell me what’s wrong,” and so you might have twenty versions before you got it working. But batch [processing] made you have to think about an approach to how you were going to program. The other thing you might be interested in, if you ask about programming, is: The first programs were written in almost-binary—hex, maybe: hexadecimal—so there were only absolute addresses, and if you made a change—changed where something was located—you had to go change all the references to it. The first time somebody invented symbolic kinds of programming—this is what you would call assembler input—I was working with a group of engineers who said, “That’s dangerous! We won’t do it!” [laughter.] I’m not joking.

Abbate:

In what sense was it dangerous?

Clapp:

Well, you haven’t got total control. You have something that is calculating that when you say, “goto A,” and you put an A here, it’s really going to go to the right place. And furthermore, we then got into relocateable code; so it wasn’t that you were putting it in location 100, but it was loading it all relative to where it started. And I guess, for some reason—I still sometimes talk to the person who told me, “No way, we’re not going to do that!” [laughter.] It’s very funny. A lot of things like that, where you had resistance to change, and not trusting . . . So we used assembly language fairly early, and then we had an operating system, a time-sharing system, which was developed at MIT. But our original operating system—for the SAGE system—had to deal with multiple processes going on, and multiple users simultaneously using the system. And that was a very complex, very large piece of the whole system, probably the guts of the whole thing. And I believe, when you talk to Marlene [Hazle], that’s one of the courses she taught—was the operating system, because it was so complex.

Abbate:

You had core memory at some point?

Clapp:

That was introduced later. We first had these Williams storage tubes, which were very flaky; they tended to leak, and you had . . . things just flowed from one memory cell to another! [laughs] So, reliability . . . There are some wonderful articles about the reliability of the early computers—you know, getting five minutes of absolutely working system was considered good, and it goes on. Some of the Bob Everett articles—retrospective—talk about that. I think there’s an issue of the Annals of the History of Computing on the SAGE system that will have some of those things in it.

Abbate:

How did that change your work, to have the core memory instead?

Clapp:

Well, reliability was probably the biggest thing, and speed.

Abbate:

Did you have more memory to work with at that point?

The Start of Egoless Programming

Clapp:

Oh yes. And we moved to one thousand twenty-four, then two thousand forty-eight. Giant leaps! Oh, it was interesting for another reason, because you spent so much time trying to cram things in, being clever rather than being straightforward, that we used to have a contest. We’d post something, [a piece of code,] and say—there were either of two kinds: “Can you make this shorter?” or “Can you figure out what this does?” [laughter.] And when somebody came along with “egoless programming”—have you heard of Jerry—Gerald—Weinberg’s Egoless Programming?

Abbate:

[Shakes head.]

Clapp:

Oh! That’s amazing. When people wrote software in those days, they believed it was their property, so someone would go on vacation, and you were convinced while he was gone that all the failures in the system were in his code. So you’d go get his code and look at it, and he’d come back and say, “You had no right to do that! That’s private! That’s my code!” Okay, and that concept existed, even among the team, that the code was yours; and you delivered what you were supposed to deliver, and it was nobody else’s business. Egoless Programming was a book that came out that said, “Wait a minute; we’re all”—it probably seems strange to you today, that somebody would come up with a concept that we are all here together, and everything you write is a contribution to the system, and you have to show this to people: show people your code! And then of course we eventually had code inspections, and people were allowed not only to look at it but to critique it. It’s hard to believe what a big step that was, that someone actually wrote a book, and it was a very influential book!

Abbate:

So there must have been no concept that in the future, someone else might have to maintain your code.

Clapp:

I guess not! [laughter.] “No, that’s my code! You can’t have it!” Well, maybe the attitude was that it was never going to change. It’s funny, because—I don’t remember the date, but I have an article I wrote on maintaining software systems. I have a whole folder, and I introduced the concept that “Even if”—I had a quote from someone else, right at the start: “Even if the system were perfectly implemented, and met every one of your requirements, it would still require maintenance. Because not only, as you got to use the system, would you change what you wanted; but even software wore out—the way we had hardware curves—and it wore out because there were hidden errors that only surfaced when tables reached their limits, or slowly things eroded. Just introducing that whole concept that you’re going to have to start planning for maintenance of these systems—never occurred to anybody! That was an interesting insight that you had.

Abbate:

And I guess at the beginning . . .

Clapp:

Just getting it going was [enough]! [laughter.] Do you know that the SAGE system stayed in operation 25 years?

Abbate:

That’s to the ‘80s or something?

Clapp:

Yes. ‘85, maybe?

Abbate:

Was that with the original code?

Clapp:

Well, I don’t know how much maintenance they had to do to it. I know some of the things, like things that they were tracking got faster than they actually could handle. Let’s say the fastest thing was, I don’t know, 600 miles an hour? And then all of a sudden you’ve got things going twice that speed, and it wasn’t programmed for that range. There were things like that, of course. I’m sure they must have had to maintain it. I don’t know who maintained it. I think maybe SDC, and whatever they became—they got bought by somebody, too. So, yes, we were the glorious ones that wrote it and then moved on! [laughter.]

Abbate:

Lucky you.

Clapp:

We did, yes, I even spent some time at one of the sites up at Syracuse, doing what was called the Command Center, which was a higher level we were developing. Having developed the original, we were now developing it for the consolidation of a bunch of these centers to a higher center. We developed that system right there.

Being a Pregnant Woman at MITRE

Abbate:

Is that an underground bunker or something? [Note: Abbate was referring to the SAGE site at Syracuse, but Clapp’s reply refers to a building at Lincoln Lab in Lexington.]

Clapp:

Well it looked like that—it had no windows! Well, the building at Lincoln Lab is still there, and I have people who are working in it still: no windows. Which reminds me of an anecdote I have to tell you. My daughter was born in 1965. At that time, they had a rule that pregnant women could not work.

Abbate:

This was at MITRE, at this point?

Clapp:

Yes. But I was working in a building over at Lincoln Lab, anyway—in this bunker building. So I thought about it, and I said, “Okay, I’m not going to say anything; I’m not going to tell anybody I’m pregnant. I’ll just keep working and see what happens.” [laughter.] I think I was six and a half months pregnant when somebody who hadn’t seen me in about a year came up and he said, “You dummies, don’t you recognize a pregnant woman when you see one?” Well, people were too embarrassed to say anything. So right away they called me on the carpet and they said, “Are you pregnant?” And I said, “Yes.” And I was going to lie and say that I was only a few months pregnant, but I consulted my doctor and he said, “Bad idea, because then when your baby’s born they’ll think it’s premature at the hospital. So we’re not going to lie; you’ll have to tell them you’re over six and a half months pregnant.” They had A-line dresses in those days . . . [laughter.] So I said, “Yes I am.” And they said, “Well, you can’t stay here; you’re an insurance risk.” I said, “An insurance risk?” “You might fall, and we’d get sued, and da da da da,” all these things. So I said, “Okay, I want to take a leave.” And they said, “Sorry, we only give leaves for personal reasons.” I said, “Can you think of anything more personal than being pregnant?” [laughter.] And they said, “No, we have things like a death in the family, or having to help out in the family business, or something; we don’t have pregnancy in here.” I said, “Okay, bye-bye, I’m going.” And I left that very same day. Well of course, I was right in the middle of developing some part of the SAGE system still—yes, I remember, because it was tracking—and they called me up and they said, “Ooh, we need you! The team can’t go on without you!” So I said, “Hire me as a consultant!” And they said, “Okay, but you’re not allowed in the building, because you’re an insurance risk.” So we had a coffee table and chairs in the lobby, and we all worked there all day, and I made more money in two weeks than I’d ever made in my life. [laughter.] At the end of two weeks, they said, “We’re reconsidering your being a consultant,” because I was getting paid by the hour. [laughter.] “We think we’re going to change the rules. It’s okay: You can work until—whatever, ninth month or something—and then you get thirty days off.” No, I may have gotten two months off, after the baby was born, and then I went back to work. I don’t know—it’d be interesting to see if I got paid, or whether I just got leave and I could be reinstated. And they said, “Well, no one ever wanted to come back after they had a baby before, so we didn’t know what to do!” So that story rapidly changed the rules.

Abbate:

That’s great.

Clapp:

Isn’t that funny? And after that, some woman at Lincoln Lab worked Friday afternoon and had her baby Friday night! They were all talking about that: “See, you can work right till the last minute!” Now I don’t know what the rule is about how long you can choose to stay away; you can do whatever you want, I think—but in those days that was a huge concession, that they were going to let me come back after. So: a curious story about being a woman in an industry that wasn’t used to women.

Abbate:

That’s great, though, that they . . .

Clapp:

That they were able to change? Well, they couldn’t think what to do; they were losing money paying me by the hour!

Abbate:

Well, if they realized that their own policy was so dysfunctional . . .

Clapp:

They did.

Abbate:

And then . . .

Clapp:

Well, you know, I had something from the Department of Labor, and they interviewed me about whether pregnancy should be considered a disability. And I remember saying at that time—this preceded my being pregnant—I said, “I don’t think it’s a disability. I think if you have a heart attack, and you take off time, you can’t honestly say whether you will come back or not; it depends on your recovery. But I think a pregnancy is much more your own decision—unless something really goes wrong—about whether you choose to come back or not.” They were trying to avoid having people get paid for pregnancy leave and then never come back, okay; they were trying to see whether people would take advantage of it. And I did say that I thought it was distinctly different from having a heart attack or some other . . .that it wasn’t an ailment; it was a life decision or whatever. [laughter.] But these were the kinds of things people were trying to figure out: How does this affect women? What should we do about it that’s fair? But they had never thought about it, until it got put in their face.

Abbate:

It would be interesting to know when they started giving men family leave, if they even did.

Clapp:

A whole lot later, a whole lot later. That’s right. So, that’s the story of my transition to motherhood.

Abbate:

Were there any other cases where you felt like you being a woman was any kind of obstacle in terms of promotions, or . . . ?

Clapp:

Not me personally. But I became a manager, and I did a lot of hiring, and I encountered some incredible misconceptions. I had a boss who said, “We shouldn’t hire women because: Number one, they don’t need the money, so they’re not going to work as hard. They usually get married, and somebody else, or their parents, support them.” Okay? “Number two, they’re going to be sick more—yeah, they get sick much more often than men.” [laughter.] “Then, we’ll get ‘em fully trained and they’re going to go have children and leave us, after we spent all this money training them.” Okay? And on and on about how really, given a choice, you shouldn’t hire a woman. So I took a bunch of resumes, and I blocked out everything that would indicate whether they were male or female, and fed them through the system, just to see if you couldn’t tell. Would it make a difference in who they invited in? And I think I taught them a lesson. I hope I did. The other thing that’s . . . a couple things . . . Again, none of these affected me, except being a witness to them and saying, “Wait a minute guys; that’s not right!” We used to have a whole bunch of stories about, if you were sitting in a room with a bunch of men having a meeting—and it happened to me, and it happened to other people—and somebody outside couldn’t . . . well first of all, if they wanted coffee, you were always the one—and sometimes you just automatically assumed you were the one—that went out and got the coffee for everybody.

Abbate:

Hm.

Clapp:

Similarly, somebody couldn’t find a secretary—and we all laughed about this one for a long time—and he’d be out there trying to use a typewriter (shows you how long ago), and he’d look in and say, “Judy, do you know how to change the ribbon?” Never asked a man; of course it was something I’d know how to do, right? And I’d say “Sorry, no.” [laughter.] But there were many cases where people just assumed a different role; even though you were a peer in the work that was going on, when it came to something a little bit off, in a social situation—whatever—they would ask you to do it. And you just—sometimes you didn’t even realize that you fell into it—that you would go get the coffee!

Abbate:

Did you ever stop getting the coffee?

Clapp:

Eventually! [laughter.] But it takes you a while to realize that you’re doing it! Yeah, you’re the hostess person. If you were in your house, and your husband and you were there, and people wanted coffee, you’re the one who got it, right? Well here’s a room full of husbands! [laughter]—in name or not. So there were lots of things like that. As far as promotions were concerned: We had a group that formed themselves in my company, and they called themselves the Professional Women’s Group. The reason they did that—and I didn’t feel the need for it; I was very protected in a sense, because I’d been there so long, and I knew all the right people who had moved up through the organization at the same time that I had, that I had a high enough position that I never was aware of how they felt. They felt that people couldn’t distinguish them from secretaries; so when they called themselves the Professional Women’s Group, they were trying to say, “We are different; we are not secretaries.” Which in turn made the secretaries say, “I’m professional! I want to join their group!” I mean, they created among women an artificial barrier. One of the things that they did that I found very refreshing and interesting—and when I say “they,” I really was a part of it, but I felt that it was their need, not mine, that was driving it—they said, “We want to understand how salaries are administered.” And they went, and they found a vice president who was willing to talk about it. I knew how it was done, and it was hush-hush, you know. He gave a talk, and the room was jammed with men who had never had the nerve to ask. They did that, and it was amazing. So they just happened to be a good group of people who looked around and said, “We want to know more about how this place works.” Now, there are people who still feel there’s gender bias. And I have trouble now, at my stage, knowing how right or wrong they are, because in my area, people did not to me seem to be treated differently—males and females. I believe it’s fine. I may be wrong. And sometimes people come and complain to me—women—because I do a lot of mentoring, and I listen to them, and I’m not at all sure that they haven’t put the blame on being female, as opposed to not recognizing that it’s something about their attitude that’s doing it. They’ll be given opportunities; they don’t do anything with them; and they don’t recognize it. So, to me it’s a difficult issue as to whether the bias is still there. It was definitely there in the beginning, as I mentioned about hiring. Then, they hired the women in at a lower classification—because they were women, and they were like the women there who were going to do all the programming work and nothing creative, and all that kind of thing—until somebody took a look, in Affirmative Action, and then in one fell swoop they were all promoted to full staff.

Abbate:

Was there a different title if you were a male programmer or a female programmer?

Clapp:

There was. Same college degrees and everything. It was also a snobbism about being an engineer or not. The company had a lot of engineers, and I remember arguing—with people who eventually became the president of the company—that “Engineering was much harder, much harder, than what ‘we women did’—than software.” Okay? And in fact I remember a discussion with Barbara Liskov—she used to work at MITRE, and we worked together—and she said, “Oh yeah! These engineers, they say, ‘I can write FORTRAN; I can write everything I need!’“ And she said, “But, if you had to run it over and over, can you make it run efficiently? Can you make sure it’s correct for all values? Do you really test it?” And she went on and on about some of the important things that they couldn’t do. So that was always part of the rivalry: “We do ‘women’s work’; they do ‘engineers’ work.” Men, it made a big difference in their world, because they were all “hard” electrical engineers, and things like that—until we got a few of them into the company too.

Abbate:

A few women engineers?

Clapp:

Sure, yes.

MITRE as a Government Funded R & D Center

Abbate:

Were you working directly with clients of MITRE’s, or just internally? I don’t know who was buying those systems. Were these government contracts, mainly?

Clapp:

We are what’s called a Federally Funded—FF—Research and Development Center. We can only work for governments—no other. We don’t compete. We can only work for U.S. governments, foreign governments, state governments, local governments, nonprofit, in the public interest. Like utilities, banking (if there’s a banking organization); the F.A.A. is one of our big customers. We used to work for the Department of Justice. We work for the I.R.S. [laughter.]

Abbate:

And were you interacting directly with any of these . . .

Clapp:

Customers?

Abbate:

. . . customers, yes.

Clapp:

Oh sure. You have to. When you’re building a system, you’ve got to understand who they are and what they need.

Abbate:

Did you find . . . Do you think as a woman, those interactions were affected in any way towards them . . . were they surprised?

Clapp:

Ah, that’s interesting. I guess I wasn’t self-conscious enough. I mean, I just . . . Having grown up with the system, I didn’t worry as much about those things, and that’s why I always wondered if the people who came after me, the women who came after me, were more self-conscious, or . . . We would just laugh it off—you know, no, never worried about it. But yes, they were very military, and very hierarchical, and there were a lot of people, a lot of women, who did feel . . . [Women] who worked much more on a day-to-day basis. I tended to come in and go, so my—I didn’t have to work—there are people who literally sat in and worked next to a whole military establishment; I never did that. So in my case, I came in at a level that I just didn’t even think about it. I would teach courses where they were all relatively high-ranking people. So, no, it was not a problem for me, but that is not to say that it wasn’t a problem for other people—until we began to get women officers too in the military.

Working in Artificial Intelligence

Abbate:

What were some of the other memorable projects you did at MITRE, after SAGE?

Clapp:

Oh, after SAGE?

Abbate:

It sounds like you had quite a variety of things going on there.

Clapp:

I think my work shifted from being an implementer of systems . . . Actually, I led a department for a while that was doing a lot of innovative work in artificial intelligence, so most of what we were doing was research. And one of the first systems we actually delivered was an experimental system to monitor the loading of oxygen on the NASA shuttle flights.

Abbate:

Interesting.

Clapp:

Yes, it was. It was fascinating, for a couple of reasons: One of the things we did was, we had to map all of the connections of all the sensors and all the systems in the—the various parts of the system—that opened and closed, you know, and let the oxygen flow. And I think people were more enamored of having all of that online and being able to not go through the stacks and stacks of paper and say, “Oh, we’ve got to zoom down into that one valve; let’s go see where that is,” and that’s the hundredth page down . . . You know, they could just work their way through it. But we also had logic that looked at the consistency of what they were doing and could say whether the problem might really be in the sensor and not in the oxygen flow. So there were a number of projects like that. None of—except for that one, which they may have used experimentally for a while—most of them were running labs for people to prototype what systems would look like, proving that you could automate systems. I think that was a big thing, to show people what it would be like to have a system that had displays with which they could interact—a lot of database, what would happen if you could access your database online. All systems priming the pump, sort of, to get somebody to go and develop the real system. And then I moved from that to more of what I do now, which is dealing with the management aspect of how you manage the development of these systems: what kinds of . . . When you have a system that’s very large and very complex—imagine, for instance: I was just talking to people about an upgrade to the systems we use for the FAA—you know, how do you do that so that the system you deliver works, satisfies the user, and is efficient, and on schedule, and all these things that software—large software projects—are notorious for not being able to do. So I started going on a lot of what we call “red teams,” where there’s a program that has a problem, and you go in and you spend a few days interviewing people, and you come back and you say, “I think I know what the problem is; here’s what you have to fix,” or “Uh-uh, there’s no way to fix this; you’d better go back and start over a different way.” Unfortunately, there are too many opportunities for that kind of a job, where you just go off and look at a program in trouble, and try and see if you can figure out how you can get it back on track.

Abbate:

Are you usually able to do that?

Clapp:

Nobody ever gets back on track that quickly, no—because by the time they report it, it’s way down the line. So now, what we’re working hard on is: How do you stop sooner; what are the early warning signs? [TAPE 1, SIDE 2] And now there’s a report that just came out, and it came out a few years ago also, on the percentage of large system developments that are late, that never get completed. It’s just the way it is. So it’s not been easy to find the successful program—the first-time-around successful. But obviously, we field systems, so . . .

Abbate:

Do you think that’s any different between government and industry?

Clapp:

No, we have industry figures, too. Government is another whole issue, but the government is constrained in ways that industry isn’t. We have to do a much more formal competition in the government, because of fairness and all that sort of thing; and it’s very hard to fire someone. You can’t just say, “guys, this isn’t working; let’s stop.” It’s very, very hard. So, as a result, you know you often work really hard to see if you can’t make what you have going work. This is not always possible. So, for the most part, it’s similar to industry, except for the fact that they can make deals that benefit both parties, and they can fire people—fire companies that are developing for them.

On Understanding the Client and Developing Systems

Abbate:

It sounds like your work really requires you to know a lot about the client’s application. You know, like the oxygen system: It sounds like you would need to know about the engineering of that just to even design it. So it’s much more than just knowing how to code.

Clapp:

Oh sure. In fact, the programming, as you know, is probably supposed to be about 20 percent of the effort, in the typical “Waterfall” model. Now we’re into totally different models, where they’re either evolutionary or spiral, where most of the work is in understanding the needs of the ultimate—the end-user of the system. Not only that: We just ran a conference last week on—“Change Management and Technology Diffusion” was the title of our conference that another woman and I ran—and the idea is, how do you get the organization to change when the new technology is there? It’s like—did you ever read Berners-Lee’s book on Weaving the Web?

Abbate:

Yes.

Clapp:

Well, you see how hard it was for him to get people to adopt the technology? And then there has to be a critical mass, or it’s no good. If I’m the only one on this web, all by myself, what good is it? Right? That’s the kind of thing that we deal with, a lot: how you get people not just to reproduce what they’ve always done, or to say to you, “I’m too busy doing what I’m doing, so go away; I don’t have time to listen to you!” Right? That’s a constant thing! You know: “I’m so overwhelmed with work, I can’t listen to you!” And you say, “But I’m here to help!” “Oh, yeah, I heard that before, and then . . . ” Well anyway . . . So we’re looking a lot at that process. When you try to introduce new technology, how do you get people to adapt what they used to do to what you can offer them?

Abbate:

I don’t think I’ve heard of those models before—the Waterfall? What is that supposed to be?

Clapp:

Ah! The Waterfall Model is a classical model of the development of a system, and it says, “I am going to nail down every requirement, right at the beginning. You tell me everything you want, and then I’ll go off and I’ll design the system, and I’ll code it, and then I’ll test it against what you told me—what you told me as best you could, of course—and then I’ll deliver the system.” And the time frame has traditionally—in the early times when we were developing systems—that could be four or five years. Well, five years later, what’s happened? It’s a different set of users, a different technology, and a different set of requirements. So this system that we spent five years developing is no longer relevant to those people! So the evolutionary one says, “I think what we’ll do is we’ll develop you a system that only does part of the job, and you start using it; and you come back and tell us how you’d like to change it. And when that happens, we’ll . . .”—I mean this is part of—also what I have been working on is new models, and getting people to adopt new models, and new management tools . . . So now the evolutionary approach says, “I’m never going to get it right; what I should do is get it out—get something out; and then you guys use it, and you tell me whether it’s doing your job or not. And then we’ll go back and we’ll keep iterating.” That’s what evolutionary is. Spiral makes the evolution go faster, because it says: “I’m going to do some experiments, and as a result of the experiments, we’ll decide whether to really engineer a system—because the experiment doesn’t have to be quite as robust. But [for example,] what would it be like for you if you had a phone that you could get your email off? Why don’t I give you one? You may not be able to get it in every area yet, and it may not be fast, but does that help you?” Okay, and then you say, “Yeah, that’s a good experiment,” or “No, you know what’s wrong with that? I don’t have anything to write down the email with,” or “Is it going to read it to me? I couldn’t understand it; we need better speech generation”—whatever. So, it’s like that: It doesn’t say, “You don’t have to tell me anything you think you’ll ever want, because you’re not gonna talk to me again for five years!” [laughter.]

Abbate:

I don’t think I understand the waterfall metaphor.

Clapp:

The waterfall is: We go only forward from requirements, to design, to code, to test, to field.

Abbate:

You can’t get back up the waterfall.

Clapp:

Well, little tiny backs—but not back that whole distance. Okay, that’s why it’s called “waterfall.” That’s a term that’s been around ever since . . . And then the evolutionary is something that I worked on a team that—with industry—that we pushed, probably in the early ‘80s; but it never quite caught on until people realized that they couldn’t wait five years anymore, because the technology moves so fast! You know, somebody was designing a system in the old Waterfall way, and they had all the requirements, and they had a mainframe computer. Well, the next batch of people graduating from college had laptops, and they said, “I’m not waiting for that system!” And they started developing the software themselves on their laptops, and pretty soon they discovered that nobody wanted this big system, because everybody had . . . It wasn’t as good on the laptops—they weren’t as thorough, it wasn’t as integrated, it didn’t do as many things—but it was theirs, and they used it. Whereas this big system was still being developed. So they had to abandon it, and say, “Aha!” [laughter.] “We have to go back. People are smarter, technology is smaller; do it different.” So! Now we’re putting web front-ends on these old systems, because we never had web front-ends. So yes, the technology is driving the development these days.

Abbate:

How long did the old systems last? If you’re developing something in the ‘70s, let’s say, how long would that be used?

Clapp:

Ten or 15 years, at least. Well, I told you, the SAGE system—25 years! Do you know that in order to keep it going, they had a company that blew the vacuum tubes? The glass vacuum tubes? Because nobody used vacuum tubes anymore.

Abbate:

They were still using vacuum tubes . . . ?

Clapp:

Yes, yes. So they had a company that still supplied them. Right. Now, systems are around ten or 15 years. I worked in my own company in an internal administrative data processing system. Totally batch-driven: paychecks came out every week, or whenever we got them; time sheets got reported for the accountants; they had the most elaborate diagram of the order in which you had to run every batch job. Someone came to see me a few years ago, ‘cause they’d decided after—I don’t know how many years—that they were going to replace it. And this young man said to me, “You know what?” he said, “that system was built before I was born!” And I said, “And I wrote part of it!” [laughter.] That’s the truth! That’s how long these systems stayed around.

Solving Y2K Problems

Abbate:

Did you have any Y2K issues you had to deal with?

Clapp:

Oh, I worked on Y2K for a whole year! Oh yes. Matter of fact, I’ve got a computer downstairs that won’t run anymore but has all my accounting stuff up till 2000. In order to move it to my new system I would have had to do 12 steps to convert the data, so I keep this old Mac around, just in case I need anything before 2000. It was too small and too old to be able to upgrade to the new software—didn’t have a big enough memory! And that’s another whole story, about what’s happened to memory. I mean, every time we move up, things are bigger . . . So yes, I worked for a whole year on looking at how we were going to track that problem in the—I worked primarily for the Air Force—in the Air Force systems. And just generally, what techniques could be used, and tracking the status of all these systems, which often were interdependent. It was a very big job for us; yes.

Abbate:

Everything got fixed successfully?

Clapp:

Well, as a matter of fact, after it was all over, we sat down and said, “How come we thought it was such a big deal?” [laughter.] It didn’t happen! You know, it did a lot of good. It got people—not only in our systems, but we did a lot more of good-will type work with other people, and other places—it got people for the first time to realize—you were talking about the question of maintenance?—how many systems they were running that they had no listings for; how many had nobody who knew anything about them anymore. As one man said to me, “I was going to modernize my system in a couple years, but this kind of made me do it that year.” And he said, “You know what? With the new, modernized system, I’m saving money!” So for a lot of people, it helped. It just forced it early. So, all right! I’m trying to think if there are any other, earlier anecdotes that I can tell you about. The “good old days!” [laughter] They really were . . . good old days. I remember one day talking to somebody I worked with, a man who had like five or six children, and he said, “Oh, I am so tired,” or something like that, “when I go home from work.” He said, “I wish I had a different job.” I said, “You don’t enjoy your work?” He said, “No, I have six children to support.” I said, “I’m so sorry, because I love what I do! I don’t have six children, but I still have to support a lifestyle.” I was surprised to know that somebody was coming to work every day and looking enthusiastic, but hating it. And he went off and started his own company, and he loves what he does now. So there you are!

How Computing Has Changed

Abbate:

How do you think it’s changed over time? Your workplace, or computing in general?

Clapp:

As I say, it’s gotten less and less hands-on. When my daughter was in high school—high school? college!—and she had a programming assignment, she said, “Hey mom, we’re supposed to have a team of two, and I was the last person, and I asked if my mom could be my team.” She said, “Will you help me program?” And we had to program an editor—a bunch of tools, a compiler, and I don’t know, something else. And I sat there and I said, “Oh!” [groans] “I forgot about all this detail.” Because I was—I knew all the principles about how to organize it, how to write it, how to test it; but I made lots of mistakes, because I just wasn’t interested in that finite level of detail. And we got an okay grade, but . . . [laughter]

Abbate:

Good to know!

Clapp:

Yes, that I could still do it after all those years! But no: That’s one way it changed. You moved more toward stepping back and saying, “What’s really going on here, and what needs to be changed?” And then you start talking about the management side of it. One of the big things I got into was managing by metrics, by measures, using a lot of the techniques that the Japanese and others had used, to sort of track what’s going on—“Can I predict? Can I see the trends?”—and trying to impose some sort of discipline on the management. There was almost no discipline. You know, I talked about Egoless Programming, and people thinking it belonged to them. But that same attitude, about: “Programmers are artists; they don’t follow rules. You can’t expect them to follow rules. What do you mean? This is creative work!” [laughter.] So, I was involved in a lot of that kind of thing, looking at, “Gee, we really have to police ourselves and be responsible.” And I still to this day get angry with my mail system that comes from a certain large, large company that just gave us another release that went backwards twenty steps. You know, the things that don’t work anymore, plus wiping out my address book, plus . . . How can they do this to me? And I keep writing them letters, saying, “There’s something wrong with your . . . ” I know what’s wrong—that’s the problem; I know where it’s wrong, and I know when they send me a note saying, “It must be your computer; it’s not our server,” to go back and say, “Sorry, that’s your server; it’s not my computer!” kind of thing, but it gets me nowhere. So I understand what it takes to do it right, and that we have to police and discipline ourselves more than we do, especially in a military system where you can’t have the kind of things happen that happen on my everyday, bought commercial product, right? So that’s one way it changes. I’m also much more interested in developing the people that work with me and for me. And over time I now have a completely enviable no-management-responsibility kind of job. Yes—where I can work across the company, and do things that are cross- cutting, and not have to do the administrative stuff. So this is the—people come up to me and say, “How do I get your job?” [laughter.] I say, “You have to be here for thirty years!”

Abbate:

I’m wondering whether you thought computer jobs have become more open to women, or less open in some ways, over the years?

Clapp:

Looking around, I think they’re certainly open to women. Sometimes, though, I give a—I have a friend who is a professor of computer science at a women’s college, and I’ve talked to her students, just graduating. I think their role models tend to be professors. And I always say to them—and I’m sure the professors don’t agree—that I think you should work for a couple of years before you go on to graduate work, because you have no idea the variety of jobs there are in the computer field until you’ve been out there. And I try to describe just the people that we have associated with computers, and—now I think it’s more obvious—but when I used to talk about the effect the web had on the types of jobs that people did related to computers . . . I’m in the process of having a group of people, about half of whom are women, develop a web site for me. (I used to do them myself, but this is another one of those things I now pass on to the experts.) And there’s a human factors person with a Ph.D.; there’s a graphics person; and there’s a database person . . . I’ve got all these specialists now, doing all these things that I don’t know that they learned before. Although certainly the human factors person I think did, but the way it’s applied . . . And the other big thing is teams: collaboration and teams. Most everything we do is multidisciplinary, this being just a simple example of it—and, I think in the past, universities and colleges have stressed individual work too much. There are people like Barry Boehm who pushed assignments that involved teams. I have a student I mentored at Harvard, who graduated a year ago, and the first time they put her on a team, she was just so furious! She says, “The other members of the team are lazy. They don’t want to do the work, they give me all the hard assignments, and they slow-roll theirs; and they know that I care, so when I finish mine, they say, ‘Oh well, you can do mine!’ So I can’t tolerate this team business!” But that’s the way it is!

Abbate:

Welcome to the real world!

Clapp:

That’s what I said to her. I said, “I still run into those problems, to this very day. And not everybody is matched to you.” And she happens to be very quick and very bright and very dedicated. Not everybody’s going to be as quick, as bright, and as dedicated. So, I don’t know how she’s doing now. She’s out in the real world at a dot-com company that’s probably going to lay her off any minute! She moved right away to Silicon Valley. So we’ll find out, but I know she’s on a team.

Advice for Women Considering Computing

Abbate:

Do you have any other advice for young women to thinking about careers in computing?

Clapp:

Well, let me think . . . I once had a woman . . . Oh: a group of women ganged up on me. It was really amusing, and I don’t know why—it wasn’t so amusing at the time—They said I wasn’t promoting women. And the reason was that I had a job opening for a large lab that I ran, and I picked a man. There was a woman who had applied and a man who had applied, and I picked the man; and so they registered a protest that I should have picked the woman. And I said, “What has she ever done to demonstrate that she’s capable of this? She happens to be an expert in Unix, and all these other things, but running a lab is a lot of other stuff, too.” So my advice to them was two things. “Look for opportunities to demonstrate the characteristics, or the qualities, that the next job you want might requires.” I said, “If she had even volunteered for the United Fund campaign, she would have shown the ability to work on a team, to see the business side of things, if that’s what the job happened to require. And the other thing that has served me very well is, if you see a job that needs to be done, that you want to do: act like it’s yours.” I’ve done this so many times, and pretty soon [people]—all the way up to the president of the company—start thinking it’s my job, and they start calling on me to do more! [laughter.] And I’ve managed to get the job I want. So that’s one of the things: If you look around, and you see something that needs to be done, that you would like to be the one who does . . . . And you’d be surprised: Nobody’s going to slap your hands for doing it—and they may even say, “Why didn’t anybody ever do that before?” So, that’s one of the things that served me extremely well.

Abbate:

Kind of inventing your own path.

Clapp:

Yes. Right. I mean, the one with the president of the company was that he asked some people to write a book, and it happened to be on a topic I was very interested in and wanted to learn more about. That’s the other thing: use your job as an opportunity to learn something else, ‘cause I love to learn. So I went to them; I said, “Would you like some help?” And they said, “Ah! Yes!” So I started helping them. Pretty soon I discovered I was the only one left. You know, it’s like: You’re pedaling, and you look behind you, and no one else is there anymore? [laughter] So, I wound up being the person who wrote the thing, and got the recognition, and went all over giving his talks about his book—for his chapter in his book. And so you have fun, besides. And they know who you are. And so you stick your neck out a little bit, and you say, “I think I’m going to do that.” That’s the old Grace Hopper thing.

Abbate:

What?

Clapp:

Her famous saying about, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Abbate:

Oh, yes.

Clapp:

Some variation on that. So you do it! That’s right. And if it was the right thing, and your instinct was right, you’ll get patted on the back; if it wasn’t, you say, “Sorry!”

On Balancing Work and Family

Abbate; How have you balanced work and family over the years?

Clapp:

It’s been hard! I think it’s a lot easier now, with more day care and after-school, but for me it was hard because of having to find people to be at home. And originally I lived in Cambridge, where there were more women who were willing to either come to the house or take your child there, or something, who would pick the child up after school. As time went on, the kids in suburbia were so programmed that they had to be here, there, and the other place, and there [would be] nobody to babysit. Fortunately, my husband decided to work at home.

Abbate:

What does he do? What did he do?

Clapp:

He was also involved in computers. I met him at a computer—no, I actually met him in a Russian class at Harvard—but his opening line to me was, “Haven’t I seen you at a computer conference?” [laughter.] So he was in computers too, and so we had his and her computers, and his and her work, and so forth; and he had his own business, and he was sort of a pioneer in time-sharing. He started the first commercial time-sharing service in this area, and maybe anywhere.

Abbate:

Was that CCA? What was that?

Clapp:

No. CCA was Tom Merrill. That was a big database. No, it was called DialData, and it was in about 1964, and people from MIT and all over would dial in and use his—he had an XDS, which was Xerox; it became—whatever they became . . .

Abbate:

That was SDS originally?

Clapp:

Right, right: large mainframe. And so he decided he would work at home. And as more women in the neighborhood began to go to work, he was the one they called to get somebody’s sick child home from school, and I’d come home and find these other children in my house. And he was the one they rang the doorbell and said, “Can you fix my bicycle?” [laughs] So he was the house daddy.

Abbate:

Quite a pioneer!

Clapp:

Yes, he was. So, I was lucky that he was able to be more flexible with his hours; and eventually he worked at Harvard and he could adjust his hours—because I did traveling, a lot of traveling, too.

Abbate:

Did any of your kids go into computing?

Clapp:

You know, in the beginning, they didn’t want anything to do with it—absolutely! “I don’t want it!” [makes gagging sound.] And then one of them used it extensively, because she got an MBA, and she is still in banking; so she uses it more as a tool. She was never interested in it any other way. The other one—they’re both women—the other one uses it very creatively. I have absolutely no artistic talent, and she uses it artistically. She had a business designing logos, and tee shirts, and things for teams; and she still does a lot of graphics-type work. But she’s the one where I was the lab partner, and that was the last time she ever programmed anything—or we ever programmed anything! So no, I guess not; but in this day and age, everybody’s into computers, one way or the other—mostly as users, I would think. But I think that one doesn’t do that much work; she’s at home with a baby. The other one, I think, probably got the idea that women belong out there in the professional world from watching me. But she’s had a lot of trouble with feeling that she’s not treated fairly. And it could be the field that she’s in.

Abbate:

Which is that, graphics?

Clapp:

No, the other one: the banking—and broker . . . Yes, Merrill Lynch had a big case of women not being treated fairly, and she seemed to have a pretty strong feeling that she was not treated fairly. So it still exists, and there will be battles for some time to come, I’m afraid.

Abbate:

What have been the most satisfying aspects of working with computers, for you?

Clapp:

Hmm. If I were to answer today—and probably yesterday, too—I think it’s the people that I work with. I really like them, and I find now that I’m not as up to date on my technology, I love to be in the groups with the brainstorming people! I just love to see how they think and how they work and how they apply things, and I think it’s the opportunity to learn all the time. I say sometimes, “If I had eyes on all five fingers of one hand, and they were all reading simultaneously, I still couldn’t read everything I wanted to read, or know everything I wanted to know!” Because it is constantly changing. And the opportunities to do something with that, I think, are very satisfying. So: not just the people I relate to, but the opportunities you can give people to go somewhere, to grow, to become something on their own. I’ve been at my company long enough so that almost—they make a joke: “Almost everybody here has worked for you at one point!” Except for maybe the new president or something, who came from some place else. But that happens, and I like that you can sort of give them a hand on their way.

What Makes a Good Mentor

Abbate:

Do you think you have a different approach to mentoring than male managers?

Clapp:

I don’t know how many of them consciously think about it. I don’t know. . . . I think especially in a company that’s so dominated by engineers, sometimes I think they’re totally unaware of people and their feelings—just totally unaware. So one of the ways I get used is as a channel. I can go and say, “If you don’t do something, you’re going to lose so-and-so, because they’re not happy—and here’s what you have to do to keep them.” Or, “This group is just not pulling together, and I think you need to get somebody to give them some help. They’re just having all kinds of problems settling who they are, and who’s in charge of what, and internal competition, and . . . .” You know, I can sense those things. This was not my role when I was younger. I think when I was younger I was probably as wrapped up in “Who am I, and where am I going, and what do I know, and where’s my job?” So I would say, in some senses there’s a whole other career you have after you stop worrying about what your career is going to be. It’s sort of, “What can I do to make others have a career that they want?” and “Where can I find another opportunity to learn?” So . . . . And that’s very different—I’m sure that I was much more interested in building business for my department, and, you know, that kind of thing. I find it interesting that hardcore engineers still value, in promoting people, their technical depth. And I had a conversation recently with someone about a wonderful woman that I found that I thought could be one of our new managers, and he said, “Well, what’s her technical depth?” And I said, “Let me tell you about her. She is one of the best team leads I’ve ever seen. She pulled a group of people together, and she has a style for getting people to work. She has an ability to relate to people outside; she can get new business; she listens well; she responds; she’s bright—I have no idea, in all the time I’ve been working with her, of what her technical background is (I happen to believe it’s at least a masters—an MBA or something like that), but you’re asking the wrong question. You don’t have people with the people skills.” And that’s what they still have to see. And I said, “A good manager can take a group of people who know more than she does and make them productive. You’re asking . . . We have too many people who are technically deep but can’t manage other people.” So yeah, there’s still that—in a high-tech company—that belief that first you have to prove yourself technically; and then if you’re lucky enough, and you have the people skills, great. [laughs.]

Abbate:

So just in case your whole team gets the flu, you can personally code the entire project!

Clapp:

The entire job! Exactly! [laughter.] Or if they all decide they don’t want to work for you. That’s true: I mean, we have people like that—women as well as men—that people just don’t want to work for. And, if they’re an engineer, it’s because they micromanage. “I really know how to do that. Let me tell you.”

Abbate:

A little too much technical depth.

Clapp:

Yes, exactly. Or something of that sort. So: There you have my current-day view of life.

Abbate:

Has it changed a lot?

Clapp:

It has changed a lot, sure. I was in those scrambling days, too, where—I don’t know that I was just hell-bent on getting promoted, but I was very concerned about delivering a good product, getting new business, things like that. And I just don’t remember whether being a woman was a piece of that, or not. As I say, I may have been too thick to recognize when it was an issue, or something! [laughs]—and just ignoring it. And maybe that’s another thing people have to do: Sometimes they have to act like it isn’t there—instead of crying, “Aw, look what someone’s doing to me again because I’m a woman”——and just treat it as if the other person is a little near-sighted, or has a learning disability, or something, and I’ll just go on and do my thing!

Abbate:

Is the technology still fun?

Clapp:

Yes, I would say so! It really is. Every week there’s something else. As I said, this last week [I was] working with a set of people trying to get a web site design. I said, “My goodness, this is like being the user—asking someone to develop a software system for me, because I don’t know what I want until I see it.” And we’ve gone through, like, three prototypes, and the first one, I said [gasps], “No! That’s not what I wanted!” And I thought, “They’re gonna kill me!” The second one was a gigantic leap toward what I want, and now I think there’ll be a third one that will be even closer. And we’ve had to change what we wanted as a result of seeing . . . . So yes, that was last week’s: “How do I get an interesting web site?” And that’s not like what I used to do. That’s more like e-commerce that says, “Here I am, come and use me!” The old ones, nobody had anything else, so they had to come! This is where it was; it was like a library on ethernet, instead of a real portal or a web site. And we’re lucky in our company, because we have a lot of internal courses: lectures, things like that.

Abbate:

Well, great. Do you have anything else to add?

Clapp:

No. I don’t know if you got enough of the “old days”.

Abbate:

Well, if you have any more anecdotes . . .

Teamwork and Team Bonding

Clapp:

I’ll have to think. [Tape pauses, resumes in the middle of a conversation about whether work teams still bond together.]

Clapp:

. . . people who play together—because I see some of it—but to us it was so much a part of our lives.

Abbate:

When you say “play together,” you mean—

Clapp:

After work.

Abbate:

—playing around with the work, or just going and [socializing after work]. . . . ?

Clapp:

Both. Yes. Playing at work— My husband had a business, and I said to him—and I’ve said this to the people who are designing our environment: “Everybody should have play time; that’s where you get your real creativity; that’s where you get your real teams built.” And we’re now in the phase of designing environments where people can just sort of casually sit down and solve problems together. We did it [in the old days] because after work we all went out . . . In fact, somebody, a bunch of them, like seven guys, rented a house—a huge mansion—one of these things that no single family could afford anymore, but seven guys with salaries could do, with the works. And you spent all your time there, and you could move from playing into solving problems, so it was an environment where the creativity just spilled over into the fun time.

Abbate:

When was this?

Clapp:

That was—in the ‘50s?

Abbate:

And so, a team from MITRE, or Lincoln Laboratories . . . ?

Clapp:

At that time we were all probably still at MIT, and Lincoln.

Abbate:

And you were living in this house?

Clapp:

I wasn’t, but the guys were.

Abbate:

The guys were living there, and hanging out, working . . .

Clapp:

They all lived together, and everybody played. Even at MIT, they—every Friday you headed over to the Friday afternoon get-together, and they played on teams together, and they had rugby, and lacrosse, and—no, rugby and touch football, and all those kinds of things. And I think people do it today, I’m just not in that range of people who do it. But that was how much we liked our work—was that we wanted to be with each other after work, as well. And of course we didn’t have families. Gradually we had families, and that kept up—not quite as much, but more people still saw each other as families. And I see that happening at work now, too. So I suppose that’s a part of it: enjoying it as a whole part of your life, your social life, everything. I feel bad if people don’t have it—when it’s just a job that they go to work, they go home, and that’s it. But it may be only at a certain stage in your life when you’re free to do that.

Abbate:

Well, it may be the type of work. I mean, you really have to be working as a team, it seems like, to have that, and if you’re just atomized individuals . . .

Clapp:

That’s true.

Abbate:

. . . which is more like my job, unfortunately . . .

Clapp:

Is it? Aw . . .

Abbate:

Well, professors don’t really. . . there’s not as much . . .

Clapp:

That’s funny, because I was in a book club meeting with Barbara Liskov this week—that’s where I saw her—or last week—and it was a picture of academic life that was very cut-throat.

Abbate:

The book?

Clapp:

The book was. And we asked her if that was true at MIT, and she said “No!” But you know, it had everybody either doing their own thing, or competing, or undercutting each other in ways that certainly weren’t collaborative, or cooperative, or anything else. [Tape pauses.]

On High-Order Languages

Abbate:

Just chatting here. An anecdote about higher-order languages.

Clapp:

Yes. I was thinking about when we were all writing in assembly language. First I told you how people didn’t want to give up binary, because assembly language removed some control over things; and then along came higher-order languages. So I did an experiment where we wrote something in a high-order language, and we were going to look at, “Were we really more efficient?” and “How did it all work?” And I remember that when it was all done, the people on the project hated it [the language], because what they were doing was checking up to see if it generated the kind of assembly language they would have generated! Nobody trusted it. And we found out a number of other things that were wrong with it, and so I wrote a paper—which was probably the first time anybody had ever done it there, and I don’t know where—about why the experiment failed. So I actually documented what went wrong with our experiment, as a report. Normally, you know, everything was success-oriented, and here was this report on why we failed. And of course, circumstances being what they were, the high-order languages went on, and we learned to accept them. But it was part of that technology transition—that we didn’t trust it—so we examined in great detail the code that it produced, and decided we could do better.

Abbate:

So the code was inefficient?

Clapp:

Yeah, right. But it probably didn’t have any errors in it. It wasn’t very readable, either. I mean, they made up—not human-oriented things, where you could put tags on things that said, “okay,” or “new page,” or whatever you wanted to call it—there were just all these invented strings of letters for the names of things. But that’s because we had a built-in process that assumed that when we ran it, we were going to have to go back and look at the assembly code it produced in order to debug it—so that was our accepting of that. And then the same thing with the operating systems. I remember a person I was working for saying something about, “Oh, we wrote our operating system for the SAGE system in 256 words; what is this operating system? Tell me: Why do they need half of my computer for the operating system? Well, what are they doing that I need?” And so, there’s always this technology adoption. And my favorite story about that is that when I discovered there was something like the Internet, early stages of it—and we had been doing experiments with it—

Abbate:

MITRE was on the ARPANET . . .

Clapp:

Yes. But then the Web came along, and some people were doing—the earliest thing they had was something called Gopher that would go look for things—and I discovered three places in MITRE where, underground, people were using this technology—not hiding it or anything, but grass-roots. So I went to the powers that be, and I said, “There’s something going on here that’s really great, and you’ve got to do something about it, or else it’s just going to run wild, and we’re not going to have anything at the corporate-wide level that uses this technology.” And my boss said, “Forget it! It’s only a passing fad!” [laughter.] Fortunately for him, I don’t tell who he was, and I never have, but I always cite “the boss of the moment.” And the other thing was, of course, I didn’t let it go, and I set up the first internal Web site that was corporate-wide. And it’s based on something at the University of Maryland called the Software Experience Factory. You know Vic Basili?

Abbate:

Yes. [Victor Basili is a computer scientist at the University of Maryland.] This was the early ‘90s?

Clapp:

Probably, yes. He said you should capture experiences and make them available to other people. So I did: I set up a web site, and conned people into giving me stuff, and organized it, and made it available to people. So now I’m on the Knowledge Management Committee. That’s another new buzz word, and that’s what my new web site is—a new kind of knowledge management site.

Abbate:

I should take a look at that, if it’s public.

Clapp:

What? The web site? Not yet.

Abbate:

Okay.

Clapp:

But I was just talking about the difficulty in getting people to adopt technology. Gender independent. [laughter.]

Abbate:

Well, I guess some of has to do with changes in the hardware. When you get a much faster processor and much more memory, it’s a little less imperative to be as efficient; and I think the constraints change before people quite have adapted to the new constraints and think, “Oh, I don’t need to . . . “

Clapp:

Yes. When one’s space was the biggest constraint, and you had to tune everything to cram it in . . . . And now, when I think of the gigabytes on my computer, and that I don’t throw things away, and they’re still there a year later, and I haven’t run out of space . . . . Yup, that’s a big change. I mean, memory was very expensive, and so you really, really spent a lot of time conserving it. As I said, at the cost of additional complexity, so . . . . No more anecdotes!

Abbate:

All right.