2020 Ada Lovelace Honoree Anne Lee “Pioneering Software Engineer” in telecommunications technology
Bell Labs Chief Technology Office Partner Anne Lee’s first experiences in the United States came soon after the age of three, when her family moved from Canada – where her paternal great great grandfather had immigrated to in the 1800s - into the middle of civil unrest unfolding on the streets of her new Chicago West Garfield Park neighborhood. In 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set off race riots across the country including where Anne and her family lived; sadly, this area of Chicago has not recovered to this day.
Several years later, the family would move to the Argyle neighborhood which was growing into an Asian-American community. “The area was originally planned to become a new Chicago Chinatown, but the end of the Vietnam War brought refugees to Argyle transforming it instead into a vibrant Chinese and Southeast Asian American enclave.” shares Anne.
As the daughter and eldest of two children to an older father who had run various storefronts (flower shop, café, restaurants) and a mother who worked as a seamstress in local garment factories, Anne had always dreamed about the prospect of becoming a scientist. This would eventually push her to become the first generation in her family to go onto study in college and make her way into the field of technology.
But first, Anne would take four busses – two each way - every day to attend a magnet high school in Chicago; one with a large campus and thousands of students requiring two years of shop classes as part of their curriculum. The once all-boys school would decide in 1971 to admit girls amidst protests by students who held a walkout chanting “We don’t want no broads.” Spurred on by the space race, it had evolved in the 1950’s to become a top, selective admissions science and engineering college prep school. The argument against allowing girls in was that girls would lower the prestige and quality of the school and would lower the school’s standards. This didn’t happen and instead, the school has maintained its top ranking with a 50/50 gender balanced student population.
“My father had a heart attack when I was 7 years old and his health declined over the next years, eventually passing away when I was 14,” says Anne. “After he passed, I needed to help my non-English speaking mother. That included stepping up to often diagnose and repair issues that arose in the aging 2-flat that my family owned. For instance, a couple of times, a window was struck by someone shooting a BB gun in our neighborhood. To repair the window, I would go to the hardware store, buy a pane of glass and use my shop skills from school to fix it. I wasn’t afraid to pick up a tool to help save my family money.”
Anne would later graduate near the top of her class and go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. “As I was making my way through college and working in various programming internships at tech companies, one of my mentors agreed with the observation that ‘The World is Moving to Software’”. This led me to follow up my engineering degree with a Master’s in Computer Science.”
“The time period in which I was studying computer science was when women were getting 37% of Computer Science degrees. This turned out to be the peak rate. More than two decades later, that number collapsed to 12% and it is slightly better now at 19% today. I was stunned to learn this a few years ago and thus began looking into the possible causes,” comments Anne.
“After all, Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer. And the term ‘computers’ used to be a profession and not a machine. As a profession, it was often filled by female mathematicians. For example, Betty Shannon – whose husband was Claude Shannon, the father of information theory – worked as a computer in the Bell Labs math department with many other women. When electronic computers were introduced, these female computers then became programmers. This transformation was depicted in the hit movie – Hidden Figures.”
“Emily Chang, author of the recent bestselling book, Brotopia, explained that in the early days of computer programming, software was perceived as not being as intellectually challenging as hardware design and therefore it was fine to let women do the job. But as the importance and prestige of software grew, the need to hire more programmers also grew and the desire to hire men instead grew. This was the impetus for a tech company in Silicon Valley to pay two psychologists to develop a profile for the ideal computer programmer. It was from this initiative that the computer geek stereotype was born. It is this very narrow view of who can be a good programmer that has “pushed” women away from computing professions.” shares Anne.
“Computers and Tech impact every aspect of every person’s life. I agree with Emily Chang that it is not possible that solely people who fit this very narrow profile are the only ones who can be good at this profession. Especially when the history of computing started with women and specifically one woman – Ada Lovelace. The stereotype of who can and should work in computing has changed several times over its history. Now is the time for another change to a more widely inclusive and positive image.”
Today, Anne works as a Chief Technology Office Partner in Bell Labs and was the recipient of the Bell Labs Fellow lifetime achievement award in 2005 for the pioneering work she has done in the development of IMS, the IP Multimedia Subsystem, which is transforming the legacy circuit-switched PSTN and PLMN into the multi-access, globally interoperable IP communications system being deployed today. 2019 was the 20th anniversary of IMS with over two billion devices deployed utilizing VoLTE, VoWiFi, fixed VoIP, and RCS services.
Today, she is engaged in advancing the area, knowledge and skills that Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) bring to the telecommunications landscape. Anne leads various internal and external conferences and workshops, trains and supports knowledge sharing on this subject, and leads teams focused on the use of AI in particular areas of a telecommunications system.
When asked about what she would tell young female students possibly looking at a technology career, Anne says “If you really want to contribute to making the world a better place, to help people, then go into tech. Tech impacts every aspect of a person’s life. If you get a degree in computer science or math, you can get a job in any industry that you have a passion for. Furthermore, I would advise also minoring in the humanities and ethics. Because of the power of tech innovations, they must be developed with care and a conscious awareness of the ethical impacts to humanity.“