History’s Hidden Heroes: Lynn Conway

220pxLynn_Conway_July_2006Building a career in computer engineering is a difficult thing to do once, but Lynn Conway did it twice!

Lynn Conway built her career for the first time when she was recruited by IBM in 1964.  At IBM, she helped invent dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS).  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that when I try to talk about computer science, my eyes start spinning around my head and I have to lie down.  But as far as I can tell, in the simplest terms, what she did was make it so that you could give multiple directions to a computer in various orders instead of being locked into a single order.  This was a crucial stage in the development of modern microprocessors.

Conway was assigned a male gender at birth and was living (unhappily) as a man when she was hired by IBM.  In 1968, Conway was fired by IBM when she disclosed her intention to fully transition to living as a woman.  Conway was also divorced by her wife and lost custody of her children.  The rest of her family disowned her.  Conway persisted in completing her transition, and began a new life as a woman.  She started over completely, with no one close to her knowing that she had lived part of her life with a male identity.

In this next phase of her career, Conway co-authored the book Introduction to VLSI Systems, which became the standard chip design textbook.  She has been an instructor as well as a designer, working with Xerox, Memorex, MIT, and the Department of Defense.  Conway’s work alongside Carver Mead was so important that it’s been called “The Mead and Conway Revolution”.

Eventually Conway realized that Mark Smotherman, a computing professor, was putting together a website full of information about the IBM project that Conway had worked on, and that this might end up “outing” her.  She came out gradually to family and friends and ultimately went public with her story.  Today Conway has reconciled with many members of her family, including her children, and she is a prominent activist for the rights of transgender people.  You can find more about her career as a computer engineer and an activist at her webpage.