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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Women's Lives in Code

female symbol, blurred

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

In this column, I look at two vivid depictions of programming work: Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine, a memoir from 1997, and the television show "Halt and Catch Fire," which ran for four seasons starting in 2014. Both have central characters whose technology careers began in the 1970s and are followed through the mid-1990s—from the glory days of minicomputers and the first personal computers to the dawn of our current online existence. Both center on women who built their identities around computer programming, sometimes to the detriment of their personal relationships.

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Getting Close to the Machine

When Ullman's book first appeared the computing world it described seemed quite different from the green screen eras described by Steven Levy in Hackers and Tracy Kidder in The Soul of a New Machine (both explored in previous "Historical Reflections" columns this year: January and April). Microsoft Windows had replaced the text interfaces of CP/M and timesharing systems. Most workplaces had already computerized and powerful personal computers were increasingly common in the home. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web was transforming the Internet from an academic enclave into a bustling shopping mall. Experienced programmers, like Ullman, were in great demand as the tech world thrilled with the excitement of unfolding possibilities.


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