Radia Perlman: Don't Call Me the Mother of the Internet

The woman who developed the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol reflects on her illustrious career in math, computer science, and networking.
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Perlman as a student, possibly the photo that was used for her MIT student ID (Courtesy of Radia Perlman)

When Radia Perlman attended MIT in the late '60s and '70s, she was one of just a few dozen women (about 50) out of a class of 1,000. There were so few other women around, she told me, that she often didn't even notice the gender imbalance—it became normal to her to never see another woman. It wasn't until she had class with another female, "that I’d notice that it kind of looked weird…this other gender person looking curiously out of place in the crowd. I’d have to remind myself that I was also that 'other gender.' "

Following her years at MIT, Perlman went on to become a leader in the field of computer science, developing the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), an innovation that made today's Internet possible. Today she is a fellow at Intel.

I recently corresponded with Perlman to learn more about her career, what it was like being a woman in the early days of computer science, and why she disapproves of a title sometimes given to her, The Mother of the Internet.

Tell me about growing up. Were you always interested in science and technology?

Both my parents were engineers working for the U.S. government. My father worked on radar; my mother was a computer programmer. Her title was “mathematician.”

As for me, growing up near Asbury Park, NJ, I always liked logic puzzles and I found math and science classes in school effortless and fascinating. However, I did not fit the stereotype of the “engineer.” I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts.

I was also interested in artsy things. I loved classical music and played piano and French horn. I also loved writing, composing music, and art. When there were group projects at school, other students probably had mixed feelings about being in my group. On the plus side, we’d almost certainly get an A. On the minus side, I’d wind up making the project into much more work than the teacher was really requiring. So, for instance, one time our group was supposed to do a book report on something and I turned it into a musical puppet show, composing the music, and having the group make the puppets and scenery and perform it for the class. 

But speaking of grades, for some reason I really cared about getting all As. This definitely wasn’t because of pressure from my parents. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much. Or if I’d gotten a B at some point I wouldn’t have worried so much about my “perfect record”. But because of this obsession with A’s, most of my studying consisted of doing what I hated and was really bad at…memorizing meaningless (to me) dates and names for history class. I’d extract all the “facts” from the reading that might be on the test, memorize them, with my mother quizzing me on them to make sure I knew them all. Then I’d do well on the test, and 10 minutes after the test my brain wisely “cleaned house” and all memory of any of it was gone. Then something might come up on the news and my mother would say “Oh, you were just studying that,” and I’d look at her blankly, because it was completely cleared from my memory.

Although I love writing, my obsession with grades made me more drawn into science and math, because I could control what grade I got just by knowing the right answer. English made me nervous because of the subjective grading.

How did you first get into computer programming? What were the attitudes of friends and family?

Although my mother was a programmer, I didn’t really talk to her about programming. Mostly I remember talking to her about literature and music, although she did help me with my math homework in high school. A teacher commented that when the class was going over the homework problems, the other kids would say “my father said it should be done this way.” I’d say “My mother said it should be done this way.”

My first introduction to computer programming was that somehow a high school teacher managed to get several students (including me) to take a class in programming at a local university, Stevens Institute of Technology. She drove us to the classes. Aren’t teachers awesome!

Anyway, before this class, I was always confident that I’d be the top student in any science or math class. A weird observation though… I wasn’t actually happy about this. I had a fantasy that some boy would beat me at some math or science thing and my plan was to fall in love with him and marry him.

However, back to the computer programming class. I walked into the class, and all the other students were talking about how they had built ham radios when they were seven. I didn’t even know what a ham radio was. They were also asking questions using scary words like “input.” I had no idea what that meant, and it felt like I was so far behind that I’d never catch up. I wound up not getting anything out of that class. This makes me a good teacher though, because I understand the sense of panic and insecurity that can prevent someone from learning.

The way I actually learned how to program was that as a sophomore at MIT I was taking a physics class and the TA said to me “I need a programmer for a project. Would you like to be my programmer?” I said “I don’t know how to program.” He said “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m asking you. You’re obviously bright, so I’m sure you can learn (I was doing very well in the class), and I have no money to pay you. If you knew how to program I’d have to pay you.” At that time, I had a boyfriend who knew how to program. So even though learning programming seemed scary to me, it would be a safe way to learn.

My first paying computer job was in 1971 as a part time programmer at the MIT AI lab, in the Logo group, writing system software like debuggers. I worked there while going to school.

Then I got inspired to design a programming language, together with special “keyboards” and other input devices, for teaching programming concepts similar to Logo, but to much younger children. This was actually a cool project…and decades later some people from the MIT Media project tracked me down and said this project started a whole field known as “tangible computing.” But at the time, I abandoned it because, being the only woman around, I wanted to be taken seriously as a “scientist” and was a little embarrassed that my project involved cute little kids.

In your studies and when you first started working in the field, did you have many female colleagues? What was the environment for a young woman like in those days?

I went to MIT at a time when the number of females was strictly limited by the number that could fit into the single female dorm, so there were very few women (I think 50 out of a class of 1000). But since I was required to live in the women’s dorm I at least knew some women. But when I was a sophomore most of the men’s dorms became “coed,” and that sounded like fun, so I moved out of the women’s dorm and into a “coed” dorm. But with so few women, “coed” pretty much meant I was the “resident female.” I didn’t really see other women in the dorm. And I majored in math, so I didn’t see them in my classes either. It became so normal to me not to see women around that I didn’t notice the gender imbalance. It was only when occasionally there was a(nother) female in a class that I’d notice that it kind of looked weird…this other gender person looking curiously out of place in the crowd. I’d have to remind myself that I was also that “other gender.”

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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