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

The kind of diversity that I think really matters isn’t skin shade and body shape, but different ways of thinking. Yes, it’s great to have some of the people that desperately want to start writing code once they hear about a few special cases. But it’s also good to have other types of people, like me, that like to think about the problem a lot, from lots of different angles, and then realize the right problem to solve and the simple, general-purpose solution that will handle all the cases.

So it’s a real problem if a hiring manager has one specific notion of what an “engineer” should be like.

Another gender stereotype is that women are not as good about the kind of relentless self-promotion and politicking with powerful people that leads to rising through the ranks. It could be that a higher percentage of men are like that, and a higher percentage of women are self-deprecating, but I certainly know many men whose careers suffer because they are too humble, and I know some women that are as self-promoting as any man I’ve ever known.

Are there any specific instances or situations that you experience today that stand out to you as particularly significant or telling regarding women in technology? Any comments made by bosses or colleagues?

Again, pretty much nothing is purely gender-related. Though one woman told me she has a problem because her group likes to do team-building extreme sports together. They are all huge burly men. She, the only woman, is tiny, even for a woman. She can’t really play these sorts of sports with them. When she attempts to participate, like in ultimate Frisbee, they don’t throw to her (they don’t want her to get hurt). She feels left out. She suggested to her manager that the group do other things, like perhaps a pot-luck cooking party, but her manager sadly pointed out that nobody else in the group would want to do that.

One thing that I hate is when women “pick the wrong battles,” for instance, complaining if people use what women perceive as non-gender-neutral terms, e.g., in an email saying “Hey guys! That design has the following technical problem…” I cringe when some woman on the mailing list says “We are not all guys!”

That being said, of course there are genuinely hostile work environments with cases of genuine sexual harassment, and those have to be dealt with. But I think women would be much better off if we let the superficial stuff slide.

I had a manager once who was wonderful in almost all ways…really smart, really well-meaning, but I always made him nervous. He admired the tall pompous guys in the group, but he never quite knew what to make of me. When I did something really clever, he was smart enough to understand its importance, but then he’d look at me all confused and say “How did *you* think of that?” He meant well…

If you could, what advice would you give to your younger self? What do you wish you had known? What do you think you did right?

“What I did right” was pretty much due to a bunch of accidents. I just happened to get exactly the right job at the right time in the right place, so it was my job to design routing protocols at a time when the field was in its infancy. It was because of the way I approach problems, thinking it through conceptually rather than diving right in and solving each special case, that the designs wound up being so successful.

But I was not good about making a big deal out of what I did. My designs were so deceptively simple that it was easy for people to assume I just had easy problems, whereas others, who made super-complicated designs (that were technically unsound and never worked) and were able to talk about them in ways that nobody understood, were considered geniuses.

But what changed my life professionally was again a happy accident. I wrote the book Interconnections, all about layers 2 and 3 of computer networks. The field was really murky, full of jargon and hype. My book created order. It was easy to understand while being conceptually thought-provoking, and a large part of the technology described was stuff I’d invented. That changed people’s perception of me. I didn’t have to act condescending and scary when people learned the field from my book.

In terms of “What do you wish you had known”…I actually was the graduation speaker at the Rochester Institute of Technology once. The theme of my speech was “10 things I wish I’d known when I was your age.” I don’t remember them all, but here are a few that stick with me today:

  • Life is unfair: it drives me crazy, because I want it to be fair, but obnoxious backstabbing people do well for themselves while really nice deserving people don’t do as well as they should, but this will never change, and you have to not let it bother you too much. The best thing you can do is try to help other people by mentioning their contributions whenever you get a chance.
  • Everyone is insecure—especially pompous people. Really smart people are actually sweet and generous.
  • It’s OK to ask for help. When doing a final exam, all the work must be yours, but in engineering, the point is to get the job done, and people are happy to help. Corollaries: You should be generous with credit, and you should be happy to help others

You've been called the Mother of the Internet, and you've also said that you do not like that title. What bothers you about it?

The Internet was not invented by any individual. There are lots of people who like to take credit for it, and it drives them crazy when anyone other than them seems to want credit, so it seems best to just stay out of their way. I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed. And sometimes, things get invented multiple times until the time just happens to be right. The thing that happened to be there at the right time isn’t necessarily better than the other ones.

But the Internet’s success isn’t due to the specific technologies, but rather the surprising ways in which it has come to be used. For instance, Internet search. It’s astonishing that Internet search is possible at all, but it works amazingly well, and is probably one of the most important reasons that the Internet is ubiquitous. 

Presented by

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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