Wendy Hall Interview: Selected Quotes


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First in family to go to university

And I was the first in my family to go to university. And I remember my grandmother being aghast that I was going to grammar school because what point was there in a girl going to grammar school because I should be going to technical college to learn good secretarial skills.

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Medicine is not a career for women

And I went to an all-girls grammar school -- which was, I think, quite fortunate, there were no problems with that. We had very good science teaching and there were no sort of inhibitions about doing it. But I did want to do medicine and when I did my O-levels, I told my headmistress this, so I wanted to do physics and chemistry and biology to do medicine. And she said, "But you're so good at mathematics. Medicine is not a career for women." This was in the 1960s, late 1960s. So she said, "I really think you should stick with your mathematics and go to university and read mathematics."

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First example of why being a woman is different

And so I applied for a job at ... maths for engineers jobs. And I got turned down for one because I was a woman. They told me -- that's an apocryphal story now -- I was told I couldn't have this job because as a young woman, I probably wouldn't be able to control a class full of male engineers. So that was my first example of why being a woman is different.

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An early interest in how computers could be used in education

I'd taken a FORTRAN course while at university and absolutely loathed it. Loathed it! And I gave it up as soon as I found out it was non-examinable. I gave it up. I just hated the whole punch card, paper tape thing. It seemed an awful lot of effort for very little return. And I was interested in the abstract stuff. But when the Commodore PET came along and I took it home one summer and taught myself BASIC, I began to realize that these machines, actually, because it was much more immediate, what the possible applications were, particularly in education. And so, as Dijkstra would say, I did become mentally mutilated for life, because having taught myself BASIC, I've never really been able to program well since. But I did get very interested in how these machines could be used in education.

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More opportunities in computing than in the pure maths world

Because I was really going through a transition from maths to computer science. And my mathematics professors, [...] computing was part of the maths department, maths faculty -- so the people who interviewed me for the computing job were people who had known me as a pure mathematician doctoral student. And they were aghast that I was thinking of moving into this new subject, moving away from maths, and, of course, I would at some point regain my senses and go back again. I was in a transition phase, and so I wasn't sure I was making the right decision. I did angst about giving up the maths, because I loved maths. But I realised that I was ... you know, 95% of my time I was doing things on computers anyway, thinking about them. And I knew, I just instinctively knew, that there would be more opportunities for me in that world than in the pure maths world.

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Interactive video disk workshop as an inspiration

[S]omebody put a leaflet [...] about an interactive video disk workshop in Brighton. And I went to it and I could see -- and I think that has always been one of my advantages, I could actually ... although I knew the technology wasn't there, I could see what these things were going to be able to do in the future, this type of technology, what it was going to be able to deliver ... Which is, you know, video on the web today, it all comes from those early days of integrating computers and film and video. And I just was sort of in the right place at the right time. It inspired me to become really a pioneer in that area.

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The application (non-technical?) sides of computing

I always felt at a slight disadvantage because I don't enjoy the real technical side of computing. I have always been someone who has been, with computing, on the applications side of things and the user side of things and the social networks that build up around the use of computers, and also a bit of a futurologist. I can see what will emerge when the technology becomes mainstream, and I have never been particularly interested in what widget does what, and what is the best program environment to do this and how many bits or bytes.

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Getting started in committees and what one gets out of it

For a while, the BCS was just something I paid my membership for every year in order to get the BCS and CEng titles. But then, I can't remember, somebody asked me at some point to chair a committee. I was very into digital libraries and the new world of e-publishing that was coming along, and they asked me to chair a committee. And I'm a great organiser and I just got sucked in like lots of people do. What I get out of it is the networking, the communities that you meet and interact with.

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Exciting to be elected, rather than appointed

{Question: And now you have been elected vice-president of the ACM?} Yes I have. And the exciting thing about that is that it was an election, not anything done behind closed doors. People voted for me, around the world. I think that's really exciting, that all those people bothered to fill out a form to vote me in.

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Europe as a set of computing fiefdoms

Europe is a set of fiefdoms, really, of all different levels of society. And it's much harder for the ACM to just come in, it has to do things in partnership almost in Europe. But I think there is a new, the learned society in Europe -- or let's say there is a confederation of things that -- I don't know if I have got the right word. There is a new organization being set up, which is sort of the European equivalent of the CRA, in a sense, to try and end up with a sort of vigorous "United We Stand" and all that. And it's very embryonic at the moment, but the ACM needs to work out how to interact with that and how to interact with, well the BCS and the ACM. They shouldn't be competing, they should be doing things because we're not ... they have to run as businesses, these organizations, they have got to make a profit to exist or at least not make a loss. But on the other hand, we should all be looking, really, to help the community and do more for the community, and for the public understanding of computing and its applications, and so these different societies really need to be working together, not against each other.

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Computational thinking

There is a phrase being used in the UK, "computational thinking," what do we teach in a computing degree that isn't taught in other degrees. It isn't just programming and how to build applications, it's actually about abstraction and parallelism and storage and all these really quite abstract ideas, retrieval, and those skills are not taught anywhere else.

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Mismatch between what we are teaching and what appeals to women

What I'm passionate about is the fact that we don't have any women in the subject, and this is a hugely big issue and I think that it won't change significantly until we change the style of what we are teaching. Because I think what we are teaching at the moment just doesn't appeal to women.

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Is computing done and dusted?

{Question: Can you tell us about the grand challenges?} Yeah, again this was something to do with trying to convince governments and career teachers and students that computing isn't done and dusted. That people sort of think, "Well we've got the internet and we've got laptops and these big things that the banks use, and it's finished. All the big work's been done." And actually, there are huge unsolved problems in computing, and it's hard to summarize them. You've got things like -- the mathematicians have their unsolved -- we just had someone solve Poincaré's conjecture, or prove it. And the example of a grand challenge is ... what's the man on the moon project for computer science? Well of course the internet, actually, would be an example of that. And I think that what we were trying to do was come up with some topics that were grand challenges, were unsolved problems or things we didn't know how to do. So it's a bubble-up thing from the community, and I helped start it about four years ago.

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"Pot's half full" type of person

Generally, apart from this thing about medicine, I am a no-regrets sort of person. And I'm also one of life's "the pot's half full" type person. And I recognize when I have a crossroads, when I have a decision to make, an either/or. You know, there was one where I had to decide whether I wanted to be only computing and drop the maths, or whether I wanted to try and stay in the maths, and that I recognized as a decision. And there have been others along the way, and ... Oh, another one was very much -- because I'm very interested in entrepreneurship and trying to get companies going out of the research we do -- and I could have at one point in my career sort have gone full-time into that and dropped the academic side of things. And I don't regret not -- I'm very, very happy I stayed an academic. So I don't actually have any regrets [...] I don't think, because I make the best of what happens. When I have made a decision, that's it, I have made the decision.

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What is a career in computing REALLY about?

[A]s far as a career in computing is concerned, people imagine that you have to be ... the only thing you can do is sit and program all day, that it's you and your computer. And actually, you and I know that it's all about people and networks at every level, be they physical networks or people networks ... And women, actually ... oh, and organizational skills, because you usually, whatever you are doing, you are organizing something that is very complex. And women just have the skills that are needed for that and we can excel in it, and because at the moment you are one of the few, you stand out.

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Wanting to be remembered for accomplishments

I'm very proud of the awards I'm getting for my role as a role model and a senior woman in computing. But I really, really want to be remembered for something that isn't just because I'm a woman. I mean actually, I'm beginning to get ... I'm going through one of my phases where I'm beginning to get a bit irritated because most of the invitations I get are being a woman in computing or a woman in engineering, and actually I want people to remember me for what I have done in computing and engineering.

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A new discipline: web science

And the big thing on the horizon, we are announcing it next week, is a new research project I'm setting up with Tim Berners-Lee. It's called the Web Science Research Initiative. And we are really setting up a whole new discipline of web science as opposed to computer science, and it's myself and one of my colleagues here, Nigel Shadbolt, and Tim Berners-Lee, and Danny Weitzner at MIT, so it's a joint Southampton and MIT initiative. That, if it's successful, could be something really new and exciting, but I don't know if it is going to work yet [...]