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Fran Allen: 1932-2020

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Fran Allen

Credit: Frank Bececarra, Jr. / USA Today Network

Frances E. Allen, an American computer scientist, ACM Fellow, and the first female recipient of the ACM A.M. Turing Award (2006), passed away on Aug. 4, 2020—her 88th birthday—from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Allen was raised on a dairy farm in Peru, NY, without running water or electricity. She received a BS degree in mathematics from the New York State College for Teachers (now the State University of New York at Albany). Inspired by a beloved math teacher, and by the example of her mother, who had also been a grade-school teacher, Allen started teaching high school math. She needed a master's degree to be certified, so she enrolled in a mathematics master's program at the University of Michigan. There she took one of the first courses ever offered in computer programming. Fran interviewed with IBM on campus and took their offered job with the intent of paying off her student loans before pursuing her intended career as a teacher.

IBM announced FORTRAN, one of the first high-level languages, exactly two months before Allen's arrival in July 1957. She was immediately put to work teaching the language to IBM scientists. To teach herself how the FORTRAN compiler worked, she read its source code. Thus began her interest in compilers. Her "throwaway job," as she called it at first, proved so compelling that she stayed 45 years, becoming the first female IBM Fellow in 1989.

"Fran was a lovely warm person and a strong feminist." BARBARA SIMONS ACM PRESIDENT, 1998–2000

Allen worked on compilers for IBM's first transistorized computer, the IBM 7030 (also known as the Stretch), and the IBM 7950 Harvest, a one-of-a-kind system designed for breaking codes at the U.S. National Security Agency. These were the fastest systems in the world from their introduction 1961 until 1964; NSA used the Harvest until 1976 when its mechanical parts wore out.

IBM's FORTRAN translated human-readable mathematical formulas and algorithms into machine code, but the resulting programs were significantly larger and slower than what programmers fluent in machine code could produce. Allen created an optimizing compiler with John Cocke (1987 ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient) and the rest of the IBM team so that the compiled code would be worthy of the hardware on which it was running. In addition to FORTRAN, the finished compiler could also handle Autocoder, a business language, and Alpha, a language created for code breaking.

Still determined to be a teacher, Allen became the driving force behind seminal papers in optimizing compilers. Her first, "Program Optimization," was distributed internally at IBM in 1966 and published in the 1969 Annual Review in Automatic Programming. Her 1970 paper, "Control Flow Analysis," appeared in SIGPLAN Notices (July 1970). In 1971, she and Cocke published "A Catalog of Optimizing Transformations," an IBM technical report that describes "loop transformations," "redundant subexpression elimination," "constant folding," "dead code elimination," "instruction scheduling," and many other techniques that are still used in optimizing compilers.

Allen was also "an enormously kind and encouraging manager," recalls Paula Newman, a retired computer scientist who reported to Allen in the late 1960s. "When I saw a letter … suggesting a somewhat different method of program structure analysis, she allowed me to pursue that approach, and even sent me to an IBM-wide employee appreciation event in Montreal as reward for my work. I believe she continued that management style for the rest of her career."

These sentiments are echoed by IBM's current CEO, Arvind Krishna: "Fran spent her life working to advance the field of computing. … Apart from her technical genius, we remember Fran for her love of teaching and her passion to inspire and mentor others." To honor Allen and her efforts, IBM established the Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award in 2000.

Allen took sabbaticals at New York University in 1970 and at Stanford University in 1977. "Fran was the only woman professor I had in graduate school," observed Anita Borg (1949–2003), who founded the Institute for Women and Technology (renamed in 2017).

Among many honors, Allen was awarded the Computer Society Babbage Award in 1997, the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing in 2002, and the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award in 2004. Two years later, she was the first woman recipient of the ACM A.M. Turing Award (19 years after her colleague Cocke), "For pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques that laid the foundation for modern optimizing compilers and automatic parallel executions."

A member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Philosophical Society, Allen was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the ACM, the IEEE, and the Computer History Museum. IEEE established the Frances E. Allen medal, to be awarded for the first time in 2022, to honor her career achievements.

"Apart from her technical genius, we remember Fran for her love of teaching and her passion to inspire and mentor others." ARVIND KRISHNA IBM CEO

"Fran was not swayed by short-term recognition, but instead focused on the significance of the research and technical problems that she worked on and encouraged her team to work on," notes ACM fellow Vivek Sarkar. She installed a 'shoot for the moon' attitude in all of us."

Allen also loved exploring, climbing mountains in Austria and China, including a 14,000-foot peak in the Himalayas, and traveling across the Arctic without maps or radio contact. She even established a new route across Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Archipelago, the most northerly point of land in Canada.

"Fran was a lovely warm person and a strong feminist," recalled ACM Fellow and past president Barbara Simons. "I had the pleasure of knowing Fran as a colleague and a friend."

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Simson Garfinkel is the U.S. Census Bureau's Senior Computer Scientist for Confidentiality and a part-time faculty member at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., USA. He is an ACM Fellow.

Eugene H. Spafford is a professor of computer science and the founder and executive director emeritus of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University, W. Lafayette, IN, USA. He is an ACM Fellow.

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