Monday, August 17, 2020

Frances Allen, RIP

IBM (via Hacker News):

Frances “Fran” Allen, a pioneer in the world of computing, the first female IBM Fellow and the first woman to win the Turing Award, died on August 4, 2020, the day of her 88th birthday.


In debt with student loans, Fran joined IBM Research in Poughkeepsie, NY as a programmer on July 15, 1957, where she taught incoming employees the basics of FORTRAN. She planned to stay only until her debts were paid, however, she ended up spending her entire career at IBM.


This work led to Fran’s seminal paper on Program Optimization, first published in 1966, describing a robust new framework for implementing program analysis and optimization as well as a powerful set of new algorithms. Fran’s 1970 paper on Control Flow analysis introduced the notion of “intervals” and node dominance relations, important improvements over the control flow abstractions given in her earlier paper. Her 1972 paper, “A Catalog of Optimizing Transformations,” identified and discussed many of the transformations commonly used today.

Kim Lyons:

In a 2002 New York Times profile, Allen said there was much initial skepticism of Fortran and how effective it could be in making computer programming easier and more efficient, which was a main focus of her career. “There was tremendous resistance,” she said. “They were convinced that no higher level language could possibly do as good a job as they could in assembly.” But the work sparked her interest in compiling, she said later, “because it was organized in a way that has a direct heritage to modern compilers.”


Her work represents the road not taken that many, me included, regret.

The chapter about her in Coders at Work is recommended reading.

Cade Metz:

The N.S.A. machine, called Stretch-Harvest, was intended to analyze communications intercepted by listening posts operated by American spies around the globe. Ms. Allen helped build the machine’s programming language and compiler.

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