Women’s Lives in Code

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Women’s Lives in Code
Communications of the ACM, September 2021, Vol. 64 No. 9, Pages 28-34
Historical Reflections
By Thomas Haigh

“Like Ullman’s memoir, “Halt and Catch Fire” rebuts the technology field’s chronic sexism by allowing its female characters to be as interesting, talented, and flawed as any male antihero.”


In this column, I look at two vivid depictions of programming work: Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine, a memoir from 1997, and the television show “Halt and Catch Fire,” which ran for four seasons starting in 2014. Both have central characters whose technology careers began in the 1970s and are followed through the mid-1990s—from the glory days of minicomputers and the first personal computers to the dawn of our current online existence. Both center on women who built their identities around computer programming, sometimes to the detriment of their personal relationships.

Getting Close to the Machine

When Ullman’s book first appeared the computing world it described seemed quite different from the green screen eras described by Steven Levy in Hackers and Tracy Kidder in The Soul of a New Machine (both explored in previous “Historical Reflections” columns this year: January and April). Microsoft Windows had replaced the text interfaces of CP/M and timesharing systems. Most workplaces had already computerized and powerful personal computers were increasingly common in the home. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web was transforming the Internet from an academic enclave into a bustling shopping mall. Experienced programmers, like Ullman, were in great demand as the tech world thrilled with the excitement of unfolding possibilities.


The bigger shift, though, was literary: from the external perspective of The Soul of a New Machine, itself a classic of literary non-fiction, to a startlingly frank first-person voice. Most discussion of women’s careers in IT focuses on sexism, hostile work and study environments, and ways to overcome barriers standing in the way of more equal participation. Ullman has surprisingly little to say about these issues, but she is acutely aware that as a secular middle-aged Jew, bisexual woman, former communist, and Ivy League English graduate, she falls outside the typical demographic parameters of a software developer. This perhaps challenged her to think more deeply about her life and choices, and certainly equipped her to tie together the personal and professional with exceptional verve. Yet she is more concerned with telling us what it feels like to be a programmer, specifically a programmer who tries to make sense of her own part in the evolution of capitalism, than in documenting the special challenges faced by women in IT.


This, she shows us, is what it feels like to stay up all night trying to configure a DBMS. This is how you square your career as a contract developer working for large corporations with your past as a communist agitator. And over there, Ullman confides as she continues our backstage tour of her own head, just past a prized stack of old Unix manuals and rubbing up against the fear of aging, you will see some disturbingly algorithmic sex with a callow cypherpunk named Brian who “looks exactly the way today’s computing genius is supposed to look: boyish, brilliant, and scary.”

Exploring the Work of Ordinary Developers

In some ways, though, Ullman’s experience is far more typical than that of the celebrated hackers Levy wrote about, or the billionaire entrepreneurs who receive most attention from technology writers. Most programmers, particularly back in the late 1970s when Ullman started out, did not have computer science degrees. In the 1990s, computer systems were generally much more important to people’s work lives than to their personal lives, given the investment made by most organizations to computerize their administrative processes.


Most developers produced custom database-driven application systems for the kinds of user organizations she describes, like banks, small businesses, and non-profits. Yet writers who have looked at software development focus on commercial packages and operating systems. Ullman drops hints of her past as an early employee of Sybase (the original developer of SQL Server) and mentions receiving windfalls from options at two startups. In those jobs she must have sat alongside people who went on to buy vineyards or become famous venture capitalists. But the work she chose to relate in detail is the analysis, design, and implementation of a custom application to handle the needs of local AIDS patients.


If most writing about software mimics Ayn Rand’s narrative in The Fountain-head of the visionary architect determined to create a monumental structure, Ullman’s programming work is more like the typical experience of a commercial architect, taking pride in designs for supermarkets or low-rise apartment buildings. Some of the book’s most interesting passages depict Ullman’s interactions with the “end users” themselves and the managers and supervisors whose desires shaped the systems she was programming. The “fleshy existence” of these users complicates the abstract versions of their needs and behaviors she has built into the system.


The book was published by City Lights books, an imprint of the legendary San Francisco bookstore. One legacy of Ullman’s immersion in radical politics, queer culture, and feminism, three things the city used to be known for, may be her unspoken conviction that her career and life deserve to be unflinchingly documented and publicly exhibited even though she did not start a famous company or invent a technology. Her determination to capture the subjective interior feelings of a character going about her ordinary business and her sense of herself as an outlier in her profession both put Ullman in a distinctively female literary tradition exemplified by pioneering modernist Virginia Woolf.

“Halt and Catch Fire”

The great strength of “Halt and Catch Fire,” which covers the evolution of personal computing and networking from 1983 to 1995, is its ability to capture such moments of creative flow. Even at its worst, in its sputtering first season, the show has a more deeply felt connection to the work of programmers and engineers than anything else on television. As “Halt and Catch Fire” progresses it comes to share something else with Ullman’s memoir and Kidder’s classic book: it affirms the value of careers that do not necessarily lead to fame, power, and great wealth. The show matures into a moving examination of the creative joys and personal sacrifices its characters find in lives built around technological creativity.


Yet early on the show almost collapsed under the weight of the narrative template that has come to dominate the stories we tell about the computer industry: egotistical men becoming billionaires by bending reality to their will. “Halt and Catch Fire” only began to work after it recentered on its female characters and redefined success. It was marketed as AMC’s follow-up to its hit series, and first original drama, “Mad Men.” In its first season the show attempted to do the same things as “Mad Men,” but in the 1980s Texan computer industry and with bad clothes. Its title, best ignored, was explained as an “early computer command” that forced “all instructions to compete for superiority at once.” (HCF was actually a jokey unofficial mnemonic for an undocumented instruction that caused early Motorola processors to cycle relentlessly, probably for diagnostic purposes).

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About the Author:

Thomas Haigh is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and a Comenius visiting professor at Siegen University.