Dr. Radia Perlman: One of the First Female Programmers and Inventor the Internet’s ProtocolsMarch 12, 2021
Dr. Radia Perlman’s introduction to programming came early. Born on December 18, 1951 in Portsmouth, Virginia to her father, an engineer, and her mother, a mathematician and computer programmer, Dr. Perlman was a gifted student in math and science1.
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,” said Dr. Perlman in an interview with The Atlantic. “I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts”2.
After excelling in primary and secondary school, Dr. Perlman attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned a BS and an MS degree in Mathematics in 1973 and 1976 respectively1. In between these two degrees, Dr. Perlman was hired as a part-time programmer at her alma mater’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory1. Here, Dr. Perlman adapted the educational programming language developed by her supervisor into a language called Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System, or TORTIS for short, which was aimed at children to help them learn programming3.
“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),” Dr. Perlman said The Atlantic interview. “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”2.
After working at MIT’s AI Lab, Dr. Perlman became a consulting engineer for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), an early computer-based company on par with IBM at the time that was exploring how computers could communicate and share files1, 4. It was here that Dr. Perlman created her first of many major contributions to the programming field by developing Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). STP is a protocol that allows computers in a network to communicate with each other across bridges and switches without creating redundancies or loops6. STP is integral to the internet because it creates designated pathways for computer to connect to a network and manages traffic so local area networks (LAN) are not overloaded which can cause slower access speeds or networks to crash and it STP also allowed the ethernet to scale out in a feasible manner1, 7.
While STF solved many preexisting problems, it still had weaknesses. To compensate for these, Dr. Perlman created TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL) which was adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) because it “corrected the STP’s flaws, improved its robustness and stability and allowed the efficient forwarding of Ethernet packets using the Intermediate System to Intermediate System (IS-IS) link-state for routing protocol instead of the spanning tree”8, 9. TRILL was standardized by the International Organization for Standardization and is still used by internet service providers1, 8, 9.
In addition to creating prolific protocols, Dr. Perlman shared her knowledge through her writings and educational endeavors. Dr. Perlman was an Affiliate Professors at the University of Washington, has led lectures at her alma mater and Harvard University, served as the keynote speaker at multiple national and global events organized by tech giants such as Microsoft and Google and has written books such as Interconnections which focused on layer 2 and layer 3 of networks8.
“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,” said Dr. Perlman of the book she also claimed changed her life because her solutions to the problems presented to her were so simple, people assumed the problems themselves were simple. “That changed people’s perception of me. I didn’t have to act condescending and scary when people learned the field from my book.”2
As an expert with years of experience learning, inventing, and working in a male dominated field, Dr. Perlman has experienced and noticed gender discrepancies within the world of programming including the incorrect preconceived notion from outsiders that being a woman is an advantage during the hiring process.
“Companies do spend money on sponsoring events for women’s groups, but actual hiring decisions are based on subjective feelings, and I think there is often an unconscious bias where the hiring manager doesn’t really see a “true engineer” if the candidate doesn’t fulfill some preconceived vision (for instance, a younger version of himself),” said Dr. Perlman who went on to say that diversity of all kinds is beneficial for work environments, but that the kind of diversity that matters most is diversity of thought2.
Because of her obvious programming knowledge and impressive problem-solving skills, Dr. Perlman was inducted into numerous “Halls of Fame” including the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016, received the Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award for Innovation in 2005, and was named the 2003 Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association Inventor of the Year, among many other honors and distinctions bestowed upon her1. Despite these awards and titles, her most well-known title be the “Mother of the Internet.” While this title may be impressive, it is not one that she readily accepts.
“The Internet was not invented by any individual…I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed,” Dr. Perlman recounted of her contributions to the world. ““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.2”
- The Famous People. Radia Perlman. Retrieved from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/radia-perlman-48491.php#:~:text=Radia%20Perlman%20was%20born%20on,a%20mathematician%20and%20computer%20programmer.
- Rosen, R. (2014, March 3). Radia Perlman: Don't Call Me the Mother of the Internet. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/radia-perlman-dont-call-me-the-mother-of-the-internet/284146/.
- GitHub. Tortoise. Retrieved from https://github.com/adityavkk/tortoise.
- Barron, B. (2020, December 30). The Tragic Tale of DEC. Retrieved from https://digital.com/digital-equipment-corporation/.
- Lemels On MIT. RADIA PERLMAN. Retrieved from https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/radia-perlman.
- Cisco. (2019, December 11). Understanding and Configuring Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) on Catalyst Switches. Retrieved from https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/support/docs/lan-switching/spanning-tree-protocol/5234-5.html.
- TechTarget. (2021). spanning tree protocol (STP). Retrieved from https://searchnetworking.techtarget.com/definition/spanning-tree-protocol#:~:text=Spanning%20tree%20protocol%20(STP)%20is,local%20area%20network%20(LAN).
- She Thought It. (2018). Radia Perlman. Retrieved from https://shethoughtit.ilcml.com/biography/radia-perlman/.
- Perlman, R. (2009, January). Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL): Problem and Applicability Statement. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238710316_Transparent_Interconnection_of_Lots_of_Links_TRILL_Problem_and_Applicability_Statement.