- By Joe Barr-
She holds three degrees in computer science from MIT, one of the most
respected universities in the world. She is leading the development
effort of an Open Source mail server written in Java. She teaches
computer science at Mills College, a liberal arts school in Oakland, Calif. She also teaches computer literacy to young women outside the school in Oakland in a program called Tech Bridge. Who is this wunderkind? Her name is Ellen Spertus, and last week she added the title of "Sexiest Geek
Alive" to her list of accomplishments.
Naturally, given my dweeb nature, I was drawn to her like a moth to a
flame. I immediately contacted her and asked if she would consent to an
email interview. She graciously accepted. Given her academic
credentials, I was curious if she were doing research as well as teaching (she
teaches introduction to computer architecture, contemporary computer
architecture, and operating systems.) She replied, "Yes. I'm developing
software for online communities. See javamlm.mills.edu."
After visiting that site, I learned that just like most Open Source
projects, Javamlm was born of need. Anita Borg started a mailing list
called Systers in 1987, designed for technical women. Since then, the
unmoderated list has grown to over 2,000 subscribers. There was a real
need to provide a mailing list manager that allowed thread-based
subscription, so that the sheer volume of mail -- much of which would not
interest all subscribers -- would not drive them away. When it's finished,
Javamlm will do exactly that -- allow threads. When asked about how Javamlm would be
licensed, Spertus replied, "I haven't decided on a license. I know I
wouldn't release it as public domain (is that what you mean by freeware?)
because I want to retain control of how derived code is licensed."
Now to the interview itself.
Q: One of the news reports I read about you recently quoted students of
yours who basically said you were a wonderful teacher but a little
unusual in your teaching methods. What do you do in your classes that
makes them unusual?
A: My sense of humor is always evident. My lectures include jokes and
bizarre metaphors. I don't think that being funny reduces rigor.
Rather, it keeps students awake and interested. Also, I love to build
things with students, so I can often be found on the floor amid piles of
parts instead of in a dignified professorial position.
Q: IT still seems to have a glass ceiling, in spite of the occasional
exceptions like the CEO at HP. I've been programming since the early
'70s and while I've met a number of brilliant women in the field, the playing field is still
dominated by men. Is this going to change -- like the medical profession
has, for example -- or is a liking for math/science/programming just
more frequent for men?
A: Things have been changing -- for the worse. According to the latest
NSF data, the percentage of computer science degrees going to women has
gone down every year since 1985. I doubt that girls' inherent affinity for math/science went up from 1970 to the mid 1980s, then down again. It seems clear that there are
Q: What did you do at Microsoft Research, and for how long? Were you
there as an intern or as a regular employee?
A: I spent four summers as a Microsoft intern: once working on the C
compiler back-end (mostly switch code generation), twice on architecture-related projects in the proto-research group, then one summer on compiler
research. I then spend 1.5 years as an employee, intending to do my
thesis in compilers at Microsoft (while an MIT student). That didn't
work out, and I wrote my flame-detection software, then returned to
Q: What do you like most and least about Linux?
A: Like most: It doesn't crash. We have a Linux machine and a Windows
machine at home. The Linux machine needs rebooting less often than
Windows needs reinstalling. Immense difference.
Like least: The amount of time I have to spend to learn how to
configure a device or system service. Linuxconf is a step in the right
direction, but there's a long way to go.
Q: How long have you been using Linux?
A: I don't remember the amount of time, probably about four years ago. I
think my first distribution was Red Hat 5.0.
Q: How do you use Linux in the classroom?
A: I was responsible for having Linux installed (dual boot) on all of
the machines in our lab. In addition to covering technical material in
the OS course, I introduce social issues and cover The Cathedral and
the Bazaar, software patents, and anti-trust.
Q: Do you have a favorite Linux distribution? Application? Game?
Desktop environment? IDE?
A: I use Red Hat 7.1 with Gnome and Enlightenment, but it's just by
default. My favorite application is emacs. I don't play games within
Unix. That's one of the reasons I have a Windows box. (It's the only
reason I can think of to use Windows 98.)
Q: What do you think the future holds for Linux in particular and for
Open Source in general?
A: I really don't know, but it will be exciting to find out.
Q: Would you encourage your children to go into computer science?
A: Absolutely! I encourage college and younger students every day to
go into computing.
Q: Do you support Open Source on philosophical or practical grounds, do
you think it is simply the right thing to do, or that it simply
produces better software?
A: All of the above. In my case, the work is supported by a government
grant (National Science Foundation) and a non-profit organization
(Institute for Women and Technology), so I think Open-Sourcing the code is
Q: Have you received marriage proposals as a result of being chose the
A: Yes. Other facts that may be of interest to your readers: I'm very
pleased that my sister Andrea Spertus is romantically partnered with Ted
Lemon, an Open Source software developer (DHCP). I recently gave him a
book on picking out diamond engagement rings (hint hint). I'm friends
with RMS. He endorsed me for the contest. I included a clip of his
endorsement in my talent video (available at www.sexiestgeekalive.com).
When I was a board member of Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility, we awarded the Norbert Weiner Award to the Open Source community,
partly at my instigation.
I checked with RMS and asked if he would like to add a comment to this
story. He said that, "I think it was a mistake to give Ellen an award
for sexiness. She should get the award for Loveliest Geek Alive."