Ellen Ullman has been coding since the 1970s, and she chronicles the waves of technological change in Silicon Valley through an intimate lens in her book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. She talks about the Y2K debacle, the travails of being one of the few women programmers, the dangers of diminishing face-to-face interactions in the age of social media, the risks of AI and other issues. A prolific writer, Ullman has penned essays, novels and the 1997 book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. She joined the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about her experiences through the decades.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: This book is a personal history of your experiences and the general culture in the tech sector.
Ellen Ullman: Yes. What I tried to do in Life in Code is have snapshots of what has happened in the last 20-odd years so we can see what happens in the evolution of technology during that era, what changed and what did not change.
I’m associated with discussing the downside of technology. I do because I’m a skeptic, and I think that’s important. But I’d like to say that I’m also a lover of technology. I couldn’t have spent all those years working in programming and software engineering if I didn’t have a certain love and passion for the work.
Many of the men I worked with are lovely men and helped me. I was self-taught, so I had to learn from my colleagues, and they were very helpful, for the most part. Then there were those guys in the treehouse who were determined to hang a “no girls allowed” sign on the door.
Knowledge at Wharton: What got you interested in working in the industry?
Ullman: I was an English major, and I never imagined going into technology. I then encountered a group called the Ithaca Video Projects. It was the time that Sony released a small video machine called the Portapak, and that was a revolution in technology. You could make videos by yourself or with a small group, in contrast to the enormous corporations that controlled broadcasting. So, it broke a line of domination in media. We could go out and make videos about whatever subject we wanted. What was going on socially, political affairs, arts affairs. There was a headiness about [it and] the sense that we were doing something that was new. It was also a time of people like Nam June Paik, who viewed the TV screen as a canvas for art.
It was an exciting time, and during that period I learned that I loved working with the machines. I loved carrying around the cables. I loved drawing cables across a floor, learning to edit, learning to make videos. It left me thinking, what could these machines do in the hands of local people who were working on their own?
Let’s zoom a few years from 1972, to 1978. I moved to San Francisco. I’m walking down Market Street. In the window of a Radio Shack store there was a machine, an early micro-computer called the TRS-80, affectionately known as the Trash 80. I bought it. Don’t ask me why. I thought, “Oh, there’s another one of these small machines. I wonder what you can do with it?” Then I found out it involved programming. I spent many months tearing my hair out. Finally, when I got my first program working, there was a sense of delight. I developed a passion for that.
“I was an English major, and I never imagined going into technology.”
Of course, I had to earn a living and business computing was exploding. There was a great need for people who knew how to code. I knew how to code. I got a job. I never expected that to go on for 20-odd years. But it did because I found it exciting to work in that culture. It was also distressing because of the culture inside that world. I was both an insider and an outsider. I would say that I was no pioneer in computing in terms of the technical aspects. I was an ordinary computer programmer. Mine was like the role of altos in a chorus. You need them for the background, but you don’t go out singing their songs.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the current culture in Silicon Valley. There have been recent articles about the culture at Uber and Google, including the memo about women written by fired Google engineer James Damore. It has to be distressing to you that some of these things are still going on today.
Ullman: It is distressing and disheartening, I would say. I encountered a great deal of hostility, covert and overt, over the years as I was working. Sometimes I was called a dumb female, stupid. The guys were pretty rough on each other, too. That was part of the rough and tumble of it, kind of very bitter — working to find the bugs in each other’s work. But the fact that I was female added a certain edge to it, an almost vicious edge. The fact that that thread has been pulled through all of these years, as women have succeeded and become software engineers and computer scientists, is very distressing to me.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think we’re getting closer to a wakeup call where these issues are concerned?
Ullman: I do. But nobody gives up power voluntarily. I think what we saw in the Damore memo illustrates that there was and is a simmering undercurrent of men who really don’t want women around because they think they are inferior — inferior in ways that would lead to being a good software engineer and writer of algorithms and so forth.
Knowledge at Wharton: I do believe a lot of companies are changing. Think of what Hewlett Packard Enterprise used to be and now with Meg Whitman as CEO. The hope is that changes in leadership changes the mindset.
Ullman: You could also cite IBM, which has a woman in charge. But IBM is no longer in the forefront of what is happening in technology, and neither is HP. I don’t want to diminish their abilities and the very difficult time they had reaching the top of the organization. But they are no longer directing the future of technology. I hate to say it because they’re fine companies. It is Google and Apple that are driving our future. Microsoft is trailing far behind. And then there are companies like Uber, which are determined to disrupt our culture in intentional ways. That’s where we have to look at what’s happening.
Why is it important to bring women and other minorities into the programming culture? One, of course, it’s right and it’s just. But if we don’t, we lose talent that way. When you drive away entire classes of people, you say, “Well, I don’t care what talent may be hiding in there. I don’t need that talent. They’re not going to be very good anyway.” That is really detrimental to the future.
“I encountered a great deal of hostility, covert and overt, over the years as I was working.”
But the deeper question is that the values of the people who create this technology place their values inside what they produce. The creators imbue these devices and the systems with their conscious and unconscious values. What we need is people to come in and question those values, shake it up, ask “who are the users? What is the service and who is it intended for? What is a society that will grow around this technology and how will that affect the larger culture and society at large?” These are very big questions as technology becomes so involved intimately in our lives, from intimacy to the economic and political world.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think the mindset of programmers from back in your day is similar to what we see with people who program now?
Ullman: In my experience, very often when there is a determined effort to bring women and minorities in, there is a fierce backlash that happens. We’re seeing that in the memo from Google. Why do we need affirmative action? Why do they need help?
I’ve been to conferences that were welcoming of women. At a Python conference, they had a wall in which people could put up yellow Post-it notes with their reactions. In no time at all, the messages were pornographic. The gaming world is very similar. The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in 2015 had one panel on women in gaming, and the organizers received death threats if they ran the panel. They did not run the panel. They put it online, but that is not the same thing as having it integrated into the culture, where people are actually sitting there and participating.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your book details a history of coding and the industry. You wrote about Y2K and the overwhelming concern of what was going to happen when we went from 1999 to 2000. What was going on with computer programmers at that time?
Ullman: You have to remember that up until that time, there had never been a computer that ran in a date that did not begin with 19. It wasn’t a bug. It was a completely rational thing to do. When space and memory were so limited, why repeat all those 19s? What I think was good about the Y2K experience was that it revealed that programmers and computers were not creating this ideal city on a hill. All that fear was generated by a small group of people who went around holding workshops and proclaiming that society and the economy would crash, we’d go back to the ’70s.
But what programmers did was just get in there and just go to work. Programmers are practical people. They sat down, rolled up their sleeves and looked to see, what do we have to do? In some cases, that was very difficult. Going back to old machine code written in the ’60s without any backup was really a chore. Some of the programmers I talked to said they never expected this code to keep living. They said, “We were shocked to see that there it was still out there in the world.”
“It is Google and Apple that are driving our future. Microsoft is trailing far behind.”
Danger was averted. We held a New Year’s Eve party and had the TV on mute and watched the year 2000 roll across the globe. Nothing happened. Nothing major. Now, there were small, local events that weren’t publicized, and I wish they had been. Because then the world would truly know this wasn’t a hoax, that we were vulnerable, and that all those nice programmers went to work and just kept everything running, which is the job of a programmer — keep it running.
Knowledge at Wharton: You do not use social media very much. Why not?
Ullman: I am on Facebook, but I don’t live on it. I’m sorry that so many of the interactions are through Facebook, which is kind of a controlling medium. The company changes its format, people get distressed at it [but then they] come back. What changed is that when you had to rely on your neighbors, the people physically close to you, you had to deal with them. Maybe you didn’t like them. Maybe you disagreed with them. But you all had to figure out how to tolerate each other. That’s what made a locale, a city, a town. That made a social formation and a civic life. Once you can say — “I don’t care about my neighbors. I don’t have to interact with them. I am happy in my own group of people with whom I disagree or like to disagree with” — that changes the whole idea of civic life.
Knowledge at Wharton: That probably contributes to events like the race-based violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Ullman: Hunkering down in your own little culture with people who agree with you did not begin now. In 1998, we began to have a process called disintermediation, which demeaned all the intermediaries, including journalists, even librarians, critics, brokers of all sorts. You don’t need these people. They’re out for themselves. You just go directly to our webpage, go directly to the internet. And that’s where you can exist.
If you take that point, and you imagine a big spool of thread, and you unwind it through 20-odd years, you come to where we are now. This has come to fruition or culmination. One of the editors I spoke with called it an ugly blossom, and I think that is a perfect explanation or description of where we are now. Whatever one thinks of our president, it is alarming that someone with so much power would go above the heads of his own advisers and change his mind and talk directly to what he imagines are the people.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s talk about society’s reliance on digital and technology. People are concerned about technology’s impact on jobs and what our business culture will be in the future.
Ullman: I regret to say I’m not a futurist. If things I’ve talked about years back have proven to be true, some of that I really regret. I’m sorry that things I looked at 15 years ago have turned out to be true. I look at things as they are now and identify where we are. I leave it to the people in the future to think about what they’re doing, to be skeptical and also joyful.
I can’t live without an iPhone. I think it’s a tremendous advance. There has been a great deal of automation already. The industrial sector has been hit very hard. Robots do a decent job of putting a car together. Whenever there’s repetitive work, robots are good at it. They don’t get tired. Of course, they break. We’ve already seen the displacement in the industrial world, and the tremendous social change and the dissatisfaction and anger that has engendered, perhaps leading to the results of the recent election. Yes, that will continue.
The only thing I hope for is that the general public will learn something about coding. I don’t mean becoming professional programmers but to demystify algorithms, to know that the code around them is written by people and can be changed by people. In other words, to become participants in the development of technology.
“I worry that there is automation affecting even the programming world.”
I’ll say there is one danger among several that we now have, something called machine learning in artificial intelligence. These are programs that write programs that write programs that write programs, to the extent that the original writers of the code may not know what is happening anymore. Sometimes there are disastrous results. In Life in Code, I try to look at where we are now and say, “Look everyone, be skeptical. Ask questions about all this.” That’s what I hope will go on in the future.
Knowledge at Wharton: We are seeing more interest in teaching coding in school. As you said, even if you don’t go into coding, it is important to have an understanding of it.
Ullman: I don’t believe knowledge of computing joins the canon of what students should learn. The humanities and history and science are the basis of what we need to learn as a society. Ironically, what’s happening in computing in the deepest levels, places like Google, they find they need some philosophers and English majors and people who have thought deeply about how people organized themselves in the past. Learning to code should be an adjunct to those branches of learning. I want people to just flood into those segregated coding rooms, as I think of them. I want them to bring new values and new thoughts if they can, as much as they can. Also, there is this side effect of job retraining in which people can enter the beginning levels. There are a lot of tools that make that easy, and those become entryways into working in the technology world.
I will say there’s another danger in that coding itself is becoming routinized for the easiest tasks. We have tools that write tools that create webpages, for instance. So, I worry that there is automation affecting even the programming world. I don’t have the answer to this except to send up an alert and hope that people will think deeply about this and organize society in ways that are not so dependent upon coding and programming and the sort of devices that are created inside of segregated worlds composed mainly of white and Asian men.