Dame Stephanie Shirley CH DBE FREng is a software pioneer and philanthropist.
“The programming of the black box flight recorder for supersonic Concorde was done by a team of 30 women working in their homes. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I was a computer boffin in the 1960s, a late pioneer of the industry and a successful business woman. I was the first woman President of the British Computer Society and first woman Master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. I’m also a philanthropist, working on numerous projects in virtual reality, robotics and the internet.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was a pure mathematician, unrealistically aiming to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem (a number theory), when a fellow student introduced me to a very early computer. I fell in love with logic design and software engineering.
Please describe your first job.
It was as a sort of junior mathematical clerk (but at the renowned Dollis Hill Research Station, so I learned a lot). We had five and a half day weeks and, aged 18, I earned £215 a year – I thought I was lucky!
During my eight years at that job, I worked on two of the first three transatlantic telephone cables; the first electronic telephone exchange at Highgate Woods; and on checking the randomness of the premium bond computer ERNIE. Randomness is unprovable, so the best one could do led to a statistician saying, 'There is no reason not to suppose that this is random'.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Engineering is exciting, creative and enormously rewarding: the relentless drive for innovation and the teamwork with scientists, designers and management. Working to strategic timescales, not this month or this quarter, but working on developments to reach the marketplace in years or decades. I’m passionate about making a difference and engineers certainly make a difference to society.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
The programming of the black box flight recorder for supersonic Concorde was done by a team of 30 women working in their homes. The software took a series of analogue readings from some 40 instruments, recording things such as height and acceleration, and organised them into what’s called a 'best protected black box'. There’s a separate box to safeguard the recording of the cockpit voices. I don’t think the boxes are, or were, actually black – the only one I ever saw was bright yellow!
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
When I started as an engineer, the Post Office gave me a little card authorising me to climb up telegraph poles – typically 10 metres tall. They advised me to always have that card on me. There aren’t as many telegraph poles as there used to be, but those remaining are all carefully recorded, categorised, checked and labelled as potential small cell sites for BT’s Openreach. I’m likely to be digitally involved with the database.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
The word 'engineer' comes from the same root as 'ingenious'. An engineer’s day brings fascinating problems, satisfying insights and occasional innovations. It is ever new and more complex. Engineering is never, ever boring. There has never been such a rate of change and the pace will never be as slow again.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
We should not accept that engineering’s image is one of masculinity, or that some disciplines are less or more feminine than others. Many countries in Eastern Europe, for example, have a high percentage of women in all the engineering sub-specialities.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication