Maria Klawe Interview: Selected Quotes


link to return back to top Maria Klawe Maria Klawe interview excerpt:
Realizations out of childhood

I think the two main things that influenced me, that came out of my childhood -- obviously lots of things came out of it -- but one was that I grew up really completely believing that I was a boy. And I think I was around seven before I literally gave up hoping every day that I would wake up as a boy. I just thought there was a significant error in the universe and that it ought to be fixed. [chuckles] And I was seven before I realized, you know, it's probably not going to happen. You're not going to wake up tomorrow and find out that the mistake has been corrected. And then the other one was this bit about realizing that if you stop doing research, the world moves on. And so if you're really serious about being a researcher, you have to keep doing research. And that's been something that has certainly affected me, not just in having children, but in terms of taking on administrative jobs. I wanted to make sure that I was always still active in research, because if you stopped, it would be very hard to come back.

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Parents' expectations during childhood

[M]y parents, from as long as I can remember, and certainly by the time I was three or four, thought that I was extraordinarily gifted, and that I could do anything. And this was ... I mean, I know from watching my own children grow up, that having your parents really expect you to be enormously successful has a great deal of benefits in terms of giving you confidence about what you can do. It also puts a lot of pressure on you.

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Finding our way out of the childhood image

[A]ll of us as parents do our best to find ways to make each child feel valued and loved and so on, and so I know my parents were trying hard. But I know that we all, including me, [chuckles] spent time finding our way out of the particular image they created for us.

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Can you have more than one passion at a time?

So I had one important encounter with somebody when I was twelve years old. It's interesting mostly because it's a negative encounter. This is somebody who was actually a geographer from the University of British Colombia, it turned out, and he was visiting my father in Edinburgh at the time. I was absolutely convinced that I was going to do art and mathematics and other areas of science, and possibly literature as well, and that nothing was going to stop me from doing this. And we got into this argument where he was telling me that the only way to succeed in the world was to focus, and that I was going to have to pick one thing to be passionate about. And my response was, "Leonardo da Vinci didn't!" And it was a long argument, and very heated. It was something that I carried; it was one of those other pieces that said, "There has to be a way that you can have more than one passion at a time."

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All the ideas in the first two weeks

The first course, or the course that I think really resulted in my becoming a mathematician, was the honors calculus class that was taught by a professor called Jack Mackey. He was very young, he didn't look young to us, but I think he was in his second year of teaching, something like that. He came in, and I was actually ... for some reason, they had a huge number of students enrolling in honors math that year. [...] So they created a new section. Even though I started out in his section, they kicked me and another half of the class out to another section. Of course, I had heard the first lecture, and what he said he was going to do was he was going to take the first two weeks -- and this was a year-long course -- and he was going to present all of the ideas in the first two weeks. And then he would come back and do it in-depth. I heard the first lecture, and it was so exciting, and so fast, that I was afraid to blink. It was like someone had just -- I'd been living in a dark room all of my life and somebody had raised the blinds. It was wonderful!

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Unable to do mathematics after three major results

So I went to Vancouver. I went off to [University of British Columbia]. Discovered that I couldn't do mathematics. I was just much too stressed out to do that. So ... though I ... I mean, I worked the entire year trying to do mathematics. But, here I had three results, major results, in something like five months. I didn't produce another result for, I think, probably about thirteen months. That was a very, very hard time, because I couldn't be productive in mathematics for whatever reason. But I spent my time doing other things. I spent my time learning French. Again. I spent my time learning to play a musical instrument. Again. I spent my time making friends. I had given myself one year.

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Reverse psychology?

And there were too many students for the classroom. There were perhaps 20 people sitting in the hallways and so forth, and a hundred seats in the classroom. And the instructor says, [...] "There are too many people in this class, and it's an extremely difficult course. So if you are not a star programmer, don't take this course. This is the hardest ... it has the hardest programming projects. If you're not a star programmer, don't take this course." Well, you can imagine. You've already heard: how do you make Maria do anything? You tell her she can't do it! I went up to Scott [the instructor] at the end of the class and I said, "I've never programmed, but I'm willing to work really hard, and I'm going to take this course." He looked at me and he said, "You're going to fail. You don't have a hope in hell of getting through this course." Of course, I was even more determined. Unfortunately, because I didn't know how to program, it was very hard for me to find teammates to work with me, and so ... I ended up with two other people, one of whom really was useless. And the other person, who had been, I believe, an undergraduate at Harvard, and had not had a lot of programming experience, and so had been, sort of, turned down by other teams. So, we were the leftovers. Of course, I was determined that we were going to do very well in this class. I'm happy to say that I got the highest mark in the course, and we had the first ... the whole class was writing a concurrent operating system and making it work. We had the first one in the class that actually compiled and operated correctly.

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Teaching compilers by learning as you go along

So I taught this compilers class, literally, by having a one-hour meeting with Rick once a week to teach me what I would teach for the next week. We were using the Dragon Book by Aho and Ullman. And I taught this course without ever letting on to my students that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. At some point the students would say, "But we don't really see the big picture? Can't you explain to us how all the pieces are going to fit together?" I said, I lied and said, "You know, I think this is one of these courses that you're really going to understand best if we understand one piece at a time. And then I'm going to show you how they all fit together in the end." I can still remember the day when I suddenly saw it myself and said, "Oh my god! I understand! I know how a compiler works! I can do this!" It was about two or three weeks before the last lecture in the class. I got good teaching evaluations in the class. At the very end of the course I said, the very last day, I said "By the way, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I was learning it as I was going along." And they went, "Oh! You shouldn't have told us! That's so worrisome!" And I said, "Well, did you have any idea?" And they said, "No."

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Hard to manage? Start your own group!!

One of the things I now know about myself, that I didn't know about myself then, was I'm an extraordinarily hard person to manage. I am just horrible to my manager. And the obvious thing to do was to start my own group. I started working on this in my third year at IBM Research, tried to start a discrete mathematics group. Took me a whole year of ... I mean, the way you do something like this is that you really have to convince IBM that there's a hole, in research, that ought to be filled, and it would be important to fill it, and that this would be an opportunity for growth, and to make IBM Research stronger and all of those kinds of things.

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Wearing shorts as a potentially damaging career move

One of the graduate students [...] mentioned to me, "How come you always wear shorts when you come to Stanford, and you never wear shorts when you're at IBM?" And I said, "Well, you know, I'm a second-line manager, and I sort of feel uncomfortable." And she said, "Well, you wouldn't feel uncomfortable if everyone else wore shorts." I said, "What a great day! What a great idea! We'll organize a shorts day at IBM!" So we did. [... My] secretary Kim said, "Do you mind if I wear shorts?" And I said, "Kim, to be really honest, I think we can get away with wearing shorts, but I think that because you're a secretary, there will be people higher up on the administration who will not look well upon you if you wear shorts." So I said, "However, I am officially your manager, and it's fine with me if you wear shorts. But I'm just going to have to warn you that I think other people will not like it." Kim said, "I'm wearing shorts." So Friday comes along, and [... all] of a sudden there are fifteen people, virtually the entire ... think, out of the twenty-five people in the department, maybe fifteen or seventeen came in shorts. I came in shorts. Kim came in shorts. And so on. It was only later that I found out that [...] there were several phone calls back and forth between Yorktown, which is where the head of IBM research was, and Almaden about whether or not I should be fired [chuckles] for organizing shorts day. And the thing they were particularly upset about was that I let my secretary wear shorts, because this was damaging to her career. Well, they didn't fire me, but this tells you a little bit about just how ... how strange things ... I mean now, IBM would not even think about that being an issue.

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Inconsistencies in one's personal knowledge base

I just realized that I'm going say something that's completely inconsistent, it just shows one should do this kind of exercise more often because it reveals inconsistencies in your knowledge base, that I hadn't recognized.

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Existence proof of having a child and returning to work

So, when I had Janek, I knew no woman who had had a child and gone immediately back to work. I did not know of an existence proof that this was possible. When I was pregnant, everybody told me that ... I was planning on coming straight back to work, because of having watched my mother not be able to keep up with research. I expected to stay out for five or six weeks, and then I was going to come straight back to work. Every ... all of the wives, of ... who had children, of other researchers at IBM, to a person, said, "You will choose to stay home. You will understand, once you have your baby, that you should stay home." I was determined I wasn't going to do this, that I was going to continue to do research.

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Popping away from work to breastfeed

I had my second child ... I guess I was pregnant with Sasha during time I was a manager. And both times I worked right up to, basically, the day, the day before I gave birth. With Sasha I just went back to work, five weeks after she was born. Both Sasha and Janek were with Edie for a while and, like Pat had done -- Pat had established this -- that you could leave IBM and go to Edie's place, which was literally three minutes drive away. Pat had continued breastfeeding her son David by going to breastfeed him at Edie's. I did this for the next several months. This really gives you a sense of just how supportive IBM was.

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Lack of sleep and wonderful things about having children

So due to lack of sleep, I was really very non-productive for those ... for the first nine months of both children. But we couldn't have cared less. We were just absolutely obsessive about these children. We were just ... we were still, when Janek was a year old, fighting over who got to change his diaper. I mean, we just ... we just thought having children was the best thing ever [chuckles]. We had traveled a lot before, when we were ... before we got married. We had ... you know, been to tons of movies and concerts. So we just didn't travel, and really cut out doing all social activities other than things we would do with other parents of small children. So our life completely revolved around the children and our work. And ... I have to say it was a wonderful time in our life.

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A recurrent theme: Expectations vs. reality

When we arrived at [University of British Columbia], and this was, I think, really becoming a recurrent theme in my life by now. I never really ... every time I've taken a job, I thought I understood what I was getting myself into. I thought I understood that when I went to Oakland. I thought I understood that when I took the job teaching at the University of Toronto. I have to tell you, teaching that compilers course was incredibly hairy. I thought I knew what I was doing when I went to IBM. And I thought I knew what I was doing when we moved to UBC. Every single time, when I've gotten there, I have found that the reality was so far different from what I had expected.

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To make dramatic change, go to a place that's demoralized

One of the rules is, if you ... if you would like to change something dramatically, go to a place that's demoralized, where people are really unhappy. Because if you can come into a place where pretty much everyone agrees that everything is broken, you can fix everything! Whereas if you go into a place where everyone agrees that everything ... or at least if half the people think it's working really well, you're going to have tremendous resistance.

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Lack of success in recruiting women

[O]ne thing we were very unsuccessful in doing was we made offers to women every single year, and we didn't hire a single one while I was department chair. I was the first woman faculty member. I was the first woman in computer science there. I was the first woman department head in the faculty of science. By the time, you know, I finished my time as department head, I was still the only woman faculty member there. So, that was one really big failure. And if I think about what happened, I honestly think that the women were less willing to take risks.

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The birth of the CRA committee on the status of women in computing

So I become, in 1990, the first woman on the board of the CRA. Peter Freeman was, I believe, the vice-chair of the board at that point. And Peter Freeman said, "I'd like to introduce you to somebody who has some strong ideas of what the CRA should be doing." It was Nancy Leveson. So Nancy and Peter and I had lunch together. We talked about the possibility of the CRA forming a committee on the status of women in computing. And after lunch, or later at that meeting, I presented the idea, with the support of Peter Freeman, and Nancy, I believe, was allowed to sit there. And we proposed that Nancy and I would co-chair it. And that's how CRA-W started.

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How to leave a senior vice-president position

The other thing that I realized was that you cannot leave a senior vice-president job. You can't resign it. If you want to have a continued career in academic administration, and have the possibility of doing other things, like serious things ... holding serious positions in the future, you have to leave it for something that is regarded as, at least, a lateral, if not an upward move.

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The dean who paints in meetings

The other thing I like about Princeton is I still paint, and Princeton loves the fact that their dean of engineering paints. And I still paint, I started, probably about ... when I started my time as dean of science, I started painting in meetings. I'd paint all the time. I really feel that the world is a much better place for women in science and engineering and in computer science as a whole now than it was twenty years ago. And I think it's going to get better still.