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.