IBM Fellows

Remembering Frances E. Allen

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IBM Fellow Fran Allen spent her career advancing the field of computing and inspired generations of technologists.

Frances Allen

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.

Fran grew up on a farm in Peru, New York. She graduated from The New York State College for Teachers (now SUNY – Albany) with a B.Sc. in mathematics in 1954 and began teaching school back at her local school in Peru.  After two years, she enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned an M.Sc. degree in mathematics in 1957. 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. Fran retired from IBM in 2002, but remained affiliated with the company as a Fellow Emerita.

As a pioneer in compiler organization and optimization algorithms, Fran made seminal contributions to the world of computing. Her work on inter-procedural analysis and automatic parallelization continues to be on the leading edge of compiler research. She successfully reduced this science to practice through the transfer of this technology to products such as the STRETCH HARVEST Compiler, the COBOL Compiler, and the Parallel FORTRAN Product.

As much as Fran will be remembered for her technical vision and her foundational work in computing, she will equally be remembered for her passion to inspire and mentor others, fostering an environment of perseverance and hard work throughout the IBM community.

In many ways, Fran was an accidental scientist. Initially, she didn’t envision herself working in programming. Starting as a programmer, Fran’s first assignment at IBM was to teach the research community FORTRAN, a new complex language IBM had announced just three months before. This was the start of Fran’s career-long focus on compilers for high-performance computing.

Following FORTRAN, Fran became one of three designers for IBM’s Stretch-Harvest project in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. As the language liaison with IBM’s client, the National Security Agency (NSA), Fran helped design and build Alpha, a very high-level code breaking language which featured the ability to create new alphabets beyond the system defined alphabets.

An Experimental Compiler for IBM’s Advanced Computing System (ACS) became her next project. Fran designed and built the machine-independent, language-independent optimizing component of the compiler. The result was a tool to help drive the hardware design and a new way to analyze and transform programs.

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.

As important as distinguishing her work in the world of computing and programming, Fran was also committed to her team by embracing their ideas and synergies and, in particular, supporting women. She spent many years as a mentor through IBM’s mentor program.

In addition to the Turing Award, Fran was awarded with scores of accolades and honors. Earlier this year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) announced it will honor Fran with the IEEE Frances E. Allen Medal, to be awarded for the first time at the IEEE Honors Ceremony in 2022. IBM was instrumental in working with IEEE to create the medal in her honor. Fran would join dozens of other science luminaries who have been honored with eponymous IEEE Medals, IEEE’s highest level of awards. “Professionally, Fran spent a lifetime working to advance the field of computing and pioneer new breakthroughs. Personally, she was equally focused on inspiring and motivating young people – especially women – to do the same,” said Fran’s nephew, Ryan McKee, on the IEEE honor.

In addition, Fran was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was a Fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), the IEEE, and the Computer History Museum and has two honorary doctorate degrees as well as several awards for her work for women in computing. She has been inducted into the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame and received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing.

Frances AllenWhen she wasn’t exploring new computing opportunities, Fran’s passions were climbing mountains and studying environmental issues. She was a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada, participating in exploratory expeditions to the Artic and on the Chinese/Tibet border.

In an interview with author Janet Abbate who wrote a book on female computer scientists, Fran reflected on her love for hiking and the mountains, and equated it to her career: “And, you know, it’s somewhat of the same sort of thing: it’s kind of challenging, and interesting; and how does one involve oneself in it? What capabilities does one bring to it that will make a difference?”

Frances E. Allen, an oral history conducted on August 2, 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, U.S.A.

The IEEE History Center has a collection of more than 800 oral histories in electrical and computer technology which can be accessed, here:

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