Barbara Lee (In Honor of Ada Lovelace Day)

March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day.  To honor one of the first female computer scientists, the blogosphere has committed to posting articles about women role models in the computer industry.  This is certainly a scheme that I can get behind, and it also gives me the opportunity to talk about one of my earliest mentors.

When I graduated from college in the late 1980’s, my first job was doing Unix support at AT&T Bell Labs Holmdel.  I learned a huge amount at that job, and a lot of it was due to my manager, Barbara Lee.  “Tough broad” are the only words I can think of to describe Barbara, and I think she’d actually take those words as a compliment.  Completely self-taught, Barbara had worked her way up from the bottom and had finally smacked into a glass ceiling after becoming manager of the Unix administrators for the Holmdel Computing Center.  Barbara was also extremely active in the internal Bell Labs Computer Security Forum, and had earned her stripes tracking down and catching an attacker who had been running rampant on the Bell Labs networks many years earlier.

My vivid mental picture of Barbara is her banging away on her AT&T vt100 clone, composing some crazy complex ed or sed expression to pull off some amazing Unix kung fu, while occasionally taking drags on her cigarette (yes kids, you could still smoke in offices in those days).  Unfortunately, it was those cigarettes that ultimately led to Barbara’s death.

As tough and combatative as Barbara was when dealing with most people, she also had a strong caring streak that she mostly kept hidden.  Part Cherokee, Barbara arranged for much of our surplus equipment to make it to reservation schools whenever possible.  As I recall, we even shipped an entire DEC Vax to a reservation while I was there.  I always wondered what they did with that machine, but I’m sure it got put to good use.

And though she didn’t suffer fools gladly, Barbara occasionally took ignorant young savages like me under her wing.  Seeing that I had an interest in computer security, Barbara actually took me along to some of the Bell Labs Computer Security Forum meetings and to the USENIX Security Conference.  Less than I year out of college and I was getting to hang with folks like Bill Cheswick and Steve Bellovin.  How cool was that?  Without this early prodding from Barbara, I doubt my career would have turned out the way it did.

My favorite Barbara Lee story, however, involves an altercation I got into with the manager of another group.  At Bell Labs, the Electricians’ Union handled all wiring jobs, including network wiring.  I was doing a network upgrade one weekend and had arranged for the Electricians to run the cabling for me in advance of the actual cutover.  Unfortunately, Friday afternoon rolled around and the wiring work hadn’t even been started.

So I called the manager for that group and asked what the status was.  He told me that he was understaffed due to a couple of his people being unexpectedly out of the office and wouldn’t be able to get the work done.  The conversation went down hill from there, and ended up with me getting a verbal reaming and the promise of the Union taking the matter up with Barbara first thing Monday morning.

Needless to say, I was sweating bullets all weekend.  And I can remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when Barbara walked into my office Monday morning.  “Hal,” she said to me, “you just can’t talk to other managers like you talk to me.”  Then she turned around and walked out and never said another word to me about the incident again.

I’d have walked through fire for that woman.


5 thoughts on “Barbara Lee (In Honor of Ada Lovelace Day)”

  1. Barbara Lee. That’s not a name that comes to mind when talking about the pioneers of the Information Security field, yet Barbara did more to set standards in Bell Labs security policy and processes than anyone else I knew. Since she was doing this in the 1980’s, she was too far ahead of her time to be recognized for it, but the people she mentored and influenced still carry her exacting standards. Barbara was handicapped by the same impenetrable glass ceiling that I was: lack of a college degree. This, not gender, prohibited any advancement in Bell Labs, which is why her name remains unknown. Ask Steve Bellovin, Bill Cheswick or Cliff Stoll about her and they should all recall her tenacious attention to detail.
    Barbara was one of the most cantankerous system administrators I’ve ever known (and there have been a lot). As Team Leader in the Holmdel Computer Center (HOCC), she demanded a strict adherence to policy and procedures (that she established), which made the HOCC one of the most efficient of the Bell Labs computing centers. The sharp click of her boots and jingle of her turquoise jewelry provided a warning to offending administrators that would soon be followed by an angry cloud of smoke and fierce blue eyes. Since I shared an office with her, I usually didn’t get the audible warning but quickly learned that honesty worked wonders with Barbara. If you looked her in the eye and gave her the facts without equivocation, she was fine. I recall her telling me about an admin who, fooling around, accidentally entered an “rm –rf /*.*” and then lied about it causing everyone to waste a lot of time looking for a hacker. He was no longer there when I came on board.
    I joined the HOCC in 1983 with previous sysadmin experience running a lab for another department in Bell Labs. Regardless of credentials, Barbara informed me that I would not get any root privileges until she monitored me for 2 weeks. I also had to read and sign the “Code of Ethics for System Administrators” that she established. Even today when security is a multi-billion dollar business – how many organizations require this? I eventually took on responsibility for two AT&T 3B20S computers, Lynx & Unicorn, that the HOCC ran for another organization. Coincidentally, the manager from that organization, Kay Shaloo, was just as tough as Barbara – and just as unyielding. This put me smack in the middle of two formidable forces of nature when I really screwed up. My system, Lynx, was mysteriously having it’s /usr filesystem corrupted with no apparent cause. Long story short, I eventually determined that the cause was a mistake I made when I partitioned the filesystems and made swap one byte too big (it was a manual process to partition filesystems in those days). As soon as the system swapped, /usr got trashed. OK, fine – people make mistakes. My REAL screw up was that I should have checked the sister system, Unicorn, for the same mistake. A month later, Unicorn lost /usr and I had to face telling Kay why I didn’t look for it. “Barbara! Kay is going to kill me – what should I do?!” Barbara gave me a steady look and said “Tell her you screwed up, how you screwed up and that it won’t happen again.” Yeah – like that’ll work. With stomach fluttering, I made it to Kay’s office, followed Barbara’s advice, and braced myself for the abuse I surely would receive only to have Kay say “OK.”
    Rest in Peace houxa!brd

    Carole Fennelly
    March, 2009

  2. I worked for Barbara only too briefly in 1992. I didn’t get to know her well, but there was an aura of respect around her body, and it was palpable. My first impression of her wasn’t that of a technically sharp person, but she was, and my impression was molded only by my own gender bias. She gave really good advice. One of her management mantras was “No surprises” and it was stories like yours that gave birth to it. By “no surprises,” she meant that when you run into difficulty with people, we were to tell HER first, so she could run interference. She said get into whatever trouble you get into, but tell her so people wouldn’t complain to her first.

    I had no idea she died. She left AT&T suddenly because the job stress was getting to be too much, and she couldn’t shake it, no matter how hard she tried. She took things 100% seriously, all the time.

    She earned her respect by working twice as hard as everyone else, as successful minorities and women tell us is necessary.


  3. Barbara Lee…I think of her a lot. She was cantankerous, obstinate and ostensibly tough much of the time. She scared the hell out of me the first time I worked with her as a program and computer counselor at Bell Labs. But under that veneer and over time I realized that she was a pussycat and was always looking for a good conversation and a good time.

    As I reflect back on those days at Bell Labs – given the state of technology changes and the economic changes – I certainly look on them as some of the best in my life.

    Barbara stood up for a lot of great things already mentioned and the world lost one of those rare and special people. To many, she was a little too hard around the edges, but they just never were able to go below the surface. She was snatched from this world much too soon.

    Her contributions to distributed computing, UNIX and security will probably never be recognized, but I was honored to know her.

    I’ll forever miss many of those wonderful times at Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ with Barbara and so many others.


  4. Hal, I’m the only one commenting here so far that doesn’t actually know Barbara but I loved this Ada Lovelace Day post.

    It leaps off the page for me. Your own honesty paved the way for great comments.

  5. I worked in the same department with Barbara (HOCC) but in a different group for several years in the 80s. She was fiercely loyal to and protective of her team and, as an outsider from another team, I remember being a bit intimidated by her because she had a very tough demeanor, almost like a drill sergeant. But as we got to know each other better over time and she began to respect and trust me more, I got a glimpse of her inner side, which was softer and gentler. I think she liked to keep that side hidden from most people. When I think about Barbara, I remember her toughness, but I also remember her wry smile, her sense of humor and how she always focused on doing the very best job she could do.

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