'A lot of success requires self-confidence'

'A lot of success requires self-confidence'

'A lot of success requires self-confidence'

Raised by engineers working for the United States government, Radia Perlman developed a fondness for puzzles and problem solving from a young age. A high-level math and science student — she found these classes “effortless and fascinating” — she credits her parents for their encouragement and support at every step of the way.

Although she admits that she was never the stereotypical “engineer” as “I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts” and, in fact, loved the arts, especially playing the piano and writing music, Radia was drawn to the sciences because “I could control what grade I got just by knowing the right answer”. Going on to study mathematics at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, she was not only one of very few women on campus but also in her mathematics department.

After completing her Master’s degree and the coursework for her PhD, except for the dissertation, she took up a friend’s offer to join a company that received contracts from the government to design technology solutions. After she solved an important network protocol problem, she was noticed by Digital Equipment Corporation, an early leader in large scale computer networks. Today, Radia is credited with ground-breaking innovations that transformed computer networks from small, fragile communities into large, reliable, self-organising networks.

For her groundbreaking work, especially her ‘fundamental contributions’ to the creation of the Internet, she has been felicitated with several awards, including the first Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award for Innovation, the SIGCOMM Award and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was also an Intel Fellow responsible for ensuring Intel Labs’ leadership in network and security, and is presently an EMC Industry Fellow.

In this one-on-one, Radia talks about her most famous innovation and the challenges she faced as a female programmer in a male-dominated profession.

Tell us about your famous discovery that led to the birth of the Internet...
Designing the spanning tree algorithm was only about one week of work for me, but it is what everyone remembers. I did so many other things besides this! In fact, I spent more time writing a poem about the algorithm than I did designing it. But the spanning tree algorithm certainly changed Ethernet from being something that could connect a few hundred computers inside a single building, into something that could support networks of hundreds of thousands of computers.

Biggest challenges you faced...
I feel like I’ve lived a privileged life and have not had nearly as many obstacles as other people. An important obstacle was my own insecurity. Most people are insecure, but people don’t admit this, so I’m hoping that by sharing this, it will reassure other
people. My perception the first time I was in graduate school was that everyone else was ‘smart’, and I’d just gotten into graduate school because I had ‘studied hard’. I couldn’t imagine ‘doing original research’. I wound up dropping out, after completing all requirements but a thesis. Dropping out  turned out to be very fortunate because it was much easier to become an expert by working in the field than by trying to learn it from classes.

Later, after I had my first child, I went back to school to get my PhD in computer science. I thought everyone would stare at me and wonder what this old lady was doing in their classes. After all of my work had been published, I was well known enough that the rest of the faculty treated me as a colleague, a pioneer in the field, instead of the only woman in the class.

Advice to young people thinking about making a career in technology...
A lot of success requires self-confidence. Somehow, you have to keep reassuring yourself that you can do it, and that it is okay to ask for help. Hopefully, you will find colleagues that will delight in helping, and you should do the same for others.

Technology is a great profession. There is the misconception that engineers are the type of people that took things apart, or built computers out of spare parts when they were young. I never did that. And in fact, the best team consists of people with different types of skills. This field can be the basis of accomplishing anything you want. If you are artistic, if you are good at communicating, if you care about doing something socially relevant, there are plenty of opportunities for people with these skills and passions in parts of the world.

WFS(This article is part of UN Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign)

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