35: Ellen Ullman
computer programmer and author
Ellen Ullman is the author of Life in Code, By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on October 2, 2017. Elena Mudd photographed Ellen Ullman in her Manhattan apartment.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
ELLEN: I grew up in a neighborhood that was built six years after World War II. It was a new development, and everyone on the block moved in more or less at the same time. All the doors were open and we played in the streets. We played stick-ball, we played tag, we rode bicycles. It was a very free childhood that most children don’t have anymore. I was very happy until the age of about twelve. This was more or less due to a change in my relationship with my mother, which is another story, but it involved my separating from her if I was going to be myself. From then on it was a matter of school, which I adored.
SOPHIA: Do you want to talk about your flannel-wearing, lesbian-separatist days?
ELLEN: I write about it in Close to the Machine. [That time] was really glorious in the sense that, when I looked at billboards advertising all this glamour stuff, I would know that it didn’t apply to me. It was liberating to know that I could look around the world with no sense that I had to comply with any [images of women] that I was seeing. I would wear tie-up shoes. If you have to run, what are you going to do in those heels? I dislike the idea of women making themselves helpless because of fashion. I like fashion; I wore the highest heels until I could no longer continue to wear them. But not walking on the street late at night!
I also loved being in a society of women. There were all these girls who met at this place called the Full Moon Cafe. I’d go there every afternoon after work, and I knew I could always go there if I needed anything. Del [Martin] and Phyllis [Lyon], the first [lesbian] couple to get married in San Francisco, were always there. Judy Grahn would read poetry. Many of the greats came to talk to us. It was small. And I have to tell you, then I became a lipstick lesbian.
ELLEN: I wear makeup. If you want to dress in flannel shirts, that’s fine! If you want to wear negligee, that’s fine. I do, too. [laughs] I’m catholic in my tastes. I have no idea what a woman should be. What she wants to be is a really big question. So that’s what I was exploring.
Our desires change over time, and I felt free to go through changes in my life as things unfolded, and tried not to rule things out. I am historically bisexual, and I married a man when I was in my mid-fifties. My deepest friendships, however, are with my girlfriends of many years who are gay. We are all family to each other now.
SOPHIA: In one of the essays in Life in Code, you wrote about a man who understood the relative isolation of his tech job as a license to stop shaving and bathing...
SOPHIA: And a woman who claimed to have “no interest whatsoever in physical existence.” How did programming —either the act itself or the culture— affect your relationship with your body?
ELLEN: Either after work or during lunch hour I would run, so that kept me from being completely sedentary. I was surrounded by machinery. A server humming in the corner. I worked weekends. But I loved working alone. I love the concentration of it. I suppose people who write like it, too. It’s striving to get that singular focus. You’re just there. How fleeting that is, and how rare. How often one goes back looking for it. I suppose anyone who is involved in art or sports looks for that.
But in terms of bodies, and solitary bodies, coding is a collaborative art. It’s often discussed as a solitary thing, the software engineer who sleeps under his desk. That exists, I assure you: young men who are putting off adulthood—sub-adults in a way. But the best software engineering comes from people who understand that they are not writing the whole system. Hundreds, maybe thousands of programmers came before you to write the operating systems, the device drivers, the other code you’re interacting with. I could go on and on. Yet, you continue to encounter men who are taciturn and closed into their own work. I described one of them in the book who was the most extreme example, who would not talk to me! He was incapable! It wasn’t just willfulness on his part. We had a meeting when he first came, describing the work we were doing, and he had his hands in his pockets and was almost vibrating with anxiety. Finally, he said, “I can’t do it like this!” And I said, “What do you mean?” After a while I realized, “Do you mean…talking?”
ELLEN: I would work with this other guy’s code who wouldn’t talk to me—only email. Every once in a while he would tell me to look at a whiteboard where he had written or drawn something. That was bizarre for me, and when I looked at his code, it was practically indecipherable!
ELLEN: It did not have a single comment in it. It lacked the generosity. Really good programmers know that other people will follow them. That’s the aspect of the process that I think is lost in the discussion of the brave and heroic software engineer or creative. Steve Jobs was not a solitary genius. The system he designed came from Xerox. The whole microcomputer industry preceded him. I worked on a Trash-80, and before me there were others. RadioShack sold them in a kit that you could assemble. He was not the first to make one. So this whole idea of the solitary genius is a male-heroic myth.
SOPHIA: In a conversation you had with The New Republic, you said, “it will not work to keep asking men to change because there’s no objective for them to do so,” and the way that you seem to recommend facing that is to hold onto your love for the work and refuse to be diverted. But I guess my question is, how we identify and nurture a love that’s strong enough to face that prejudice in the first place?
ELLEN: First I do want to add that I’m self-taught, and if there had not been sympathetic, smart, helpful men that taught me, I would have never known anything. So first of all, you find compatriots that you’re comfortable with, and who will reinforce your sense that everyone is learning, and no one knows it all.
I also want to go back and clarify that when I say that everyone should be exposed to code, I don’t mean that it should join the humanities as one of the things everyone should know. I mean, people in the humanities should have some understanding of what goes on in the algorithmic world. We are surrounded by algorithms. They are perpetrated upon us, and we are not allowed to scrutinize them. So my hope is that we will demystify the idea of code. If we advocate for change, change can happen. New York City Council Member James Vacca just introduced a bill to mandate examination of the algorithms that the borough is using for everything from police assignments to garbage pickup schedules, to search for potential bias. That is exactly the kind of thing we can accomplish by demystifying code.
In the face of all this prejudice, I think we can take examples from other movements. Take the women’s movement of the 70s. Do you think that Title IX came out of nowhere? Do you think that the right to abortion came out of nowhere? Do you think that men wanted to give this to women? We must understand that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We have to look back and see the contributions of women who got us to this point. The second part of your question addressed…?
SOPHIA: How to create a solid foundation for women and girls in tech.
ELLEN: I think girls should be exposed at a young age to coding. Even to a game of Minecraft, which is algorithmic in its working. Girls should learn from some of these [homosocial] educational videos with all their prejudice, but band together and laugh at them, while still getting what they need. Reinforce each other.
But there’s no “should.” If every woman took this up, it would be a nightmare! See if you love it. See if it intrigues you. It’s a good hard. See if it’s a difficulty you like. Expose yourself; find compatriots in other woman, and some men who are collegial and generous.
We have to be encouraged by others. We will be told, “You’re not good at it.” I’ve spoken to women who will say, “It’s hard. I’m not good at it.” And I’ll ask, “How do you know? Did someone encourage you?” Because coding—you will fail. Like anything hard, you will just fail and fail, and coding is particularly failure-prone. The act of writing programs is the act of creating bugs. Period. And you work over and over to get them out. You have to look failure in the teeth. As a person; I don’t mean in coding only. Find some kind of grit in whatever you do, where you say, “This is hard but I’m going to figure it out.” You need to find that place and encourage it in others.
I can’t be more specific than that, because the idea that all girls should join coding academies is fine, but it’s clearly class-based, and it’s not a general solution. I was just contacted by somebody who works with a workers union, which makes me really happy. It wasn’t just this woman problem that he saw. He saw the social aspects that created it, and understood that tech needs a lower and deeper penetration into other social classes. How can technology help unionize workers who want to earn a living wage? We can’t write this code from on high sitting in WeWork.
ELLEN: That’s how it’s working now. I talk to people who say, “I have a nonprofit and we’re doing this,” and I ask, “Who are you working with? Are you getting in touch with unions? Government organizations? Community organizations? Are they giving you specifications or are you making up your own idea about how to change the world?” It has to come from the bottom up. And we have to find out, if technology can help them, then how?
SOPHIA: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
ELLEN: If I have anything to say about the [recent tech scandals], it’s that none of this is new. Those who are enamored of the present need to look back, because computing is not new. Society has been engulfed by technology for…what are we going on now, twenty-five years? But even before, with data-storing and data-analysis. Those who want to advance in this industry and to fix the problems that arise here need to look back, because how we got here is not new. I’m not denying that there are new elements, but I ask anyone who wants to think about computing technology to look back and get some education on what happened before. Other people lived before you, and contributed to where we are now. That’s why I wrote Life in Code as a lineage of my writing from ’94 to the present. It wasn’t just to collect my work; it was to give some historical perspective as to how we got here.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
ELLEN: I can’t really define that. It’s a wide swath of people. Each group of women, each individual, has to decide where she wants to go and find people who will help her, reinforce her, or challenge her, which is very important. Read widely. Look at things widely. Try to challenge your own preconceptions.
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