MITRE Wisdom Oral History: Judy Clapp

August 31, 2016

Krista Ferrante: Hi, welcome to MITRE Wisdom. I’m Krista Ferrante, and today I’m here with Judy Clapp. Thanks for coming today, Judy.

Judy Clapp: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I got to think about a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in quite awhile.

Krista Ferrante: What was it like working at MIT on Whirlwind?

Judy Clapp: It was fun. Everybody I worked with was on their first job. We were very excited and pleased to be able to work at MIT. We were doing things that nobody else had ever done before, so it didn’t matter whether somebody had taken a course you hadn’t taken, because no one else knew how to do it either. What we did was, we learned together and we played together. We became a very close knit group of students and other people.

Krista Ferrante: Can you talk about your role in Whirlwind and on the Cape Cod System, and what later became the SAGE Program?

Judy Clapp: Well, primarily my role always had to do with software. First, we were writing things for very small programs because Cape Cod was an experiment. As things became larger and we had more people, the objective of what we did was to come up with ways for them to integrate all the software that they were writing, and to write it in a much better language. In those days, we had to write in the instructions that the computer understood, which were very primitive. We developed a set of tools for software people, tools that could be used for writing, for checking what they’d written, for integrating it with other people’s programs, and then making sure that this team of team’s products could work with each other. Instead of working on the actual applications, for a great deal of my time, I was working on the tools. It was called the Utility System.

Krista Ferrante: How did the Utility System work?

Judy Clapp: Nobody could use the computer without going through the system. We had a programming language, and they wrote in that language and over time we evolved or adopted languages that made it easier to find bugs, to find the errors in your software, and to make sure that people coordinated properly with each other, that they were using the same information they were passing from one program to another. This really became not only organizing the people around the system organization, but making the tools make sure that individual teams work could fit with each other.

Krista Ferrante: What did you like about working on programming?

Judy Clapp: One of the things is that I love to solve puzzles, and in many ways it was like that. You had to think logically about how are you going to make this computer that only does certain things in discrete little steps, accomplish what you want it to accomplish? But the other thing is that I can be impatient, and with software, unlike hardware, when you write the program you get feedback right away. You find out whether it worked, whether it didn’t work, and you can go back and fix it and start all over again. I tutor first and second graders in math, and there are kids who get it, and there are kids who don’t. When they don’t, it’s like I’ve got this computer with an obstinate computer program in it and I got to figure out where the bug is, why it won’t work. That wonderful moment when the child says, “I got it,” that’s the day you live for.

Krista Ferrante: What was the atmosphere like, working in Division Six, when you learned that there was going to be a new company?

Judy Clapp: For us, it made almost no difference. Physically, we had moved out of the campus at MIT. But our group moved as a whole, the same people were still part of the team. We were socially bound to each other too, we just continued where we left off. Of course, it grew to be a much larger organization, and there were many more administrative levels that we had to deal with, but they still kept giving us our academic privileges. For a long time at Lincoln, we could still be involved back at MIT, take courses, and use the privileges. For us, it was a relatively easy transfer. In a sense, I never thought of Lincoln as anything other than a lab, not a company. Your use of that phrase sort of surprises me. To us, it was just, oh, a new lab building, but we’re still MIT.

Krista Ferrante: What was it like to work at MITRE in the early years?

Judy Clapp: The technology was moving so fast, and there weren’t very many people you could find who had any prior experience. So the experience that those of us who came along from Lincoln brought with us, was a tremendous asset for us and for the company. There weren’t very many women, and one of the problems that arose because I think the higher management at MITRE were primarily engineers, was that they thought that software was women’s work. Someone actually wrote a paper saying, it’s women’s work because you have to be so neat and so orderly, and they don’t have to take five years of engineering, they just come here and we train them and they know how to do it. That led them to belittling the actual level at which women were hired. They were hired as associate staff, rather than full tech staff. This didn’t apply to people like me, who had come over. It took some doing, until one day they had to change everybody, all the women, to tech staff. But that attitude had carried over from MIT, I think. For me, it was much easier because my experience allowed me to be promoted and to move ahead. I think it may not have been quite so easy for some of the newer people.

Krista Ferrante: Do you have any favorite stories from your time working?

Judy Clapp: I went to a women’s college, Smith College, and I majored in math and physics. Three of us in the class majored in that. Then I came to what was then Radcliffe, not Harvard, but we were allowed to take Harvard classes. So I became interested in how you applied some of this technology, and computers were really just nothing but mechanical calculators in those days, that could run more reliably and faster. When I got my Master’s Degree, I went to the head of the department, and I said, “Now I’m ready for a job.” And he said, “Well, I can get you a job down in Philadelphia at a university.” I knew about the job, and I also didn’t want to move, so I said, “No.” He said, “Well, young lady, you come back again when the job is more important than where you live.” I got on the bus from Cambridge where I lived, and I went one bus straight to MIT, and I just dropped in. I have to say that it was luck, in a way. It was timing, they were so eager to have people who wanted to come, and nobody had even come with a year of work on whatever the computers were at that time. That’s how I got started, and I never ever again applied for another job because there was room to grow at MIT, and then Lincoln Lab, and then MITRE. The technology, meanwhile, was changing all the time, so the job never got stale. There was always something else to learn. People here would bully me. They would say, “You’re going to give a presentation,” and then they would come and ask me hard questions. It made me so angry that they didn’t think I could do it, that I did it. Part of being a woman, I suppose they thought this is great fun. She’ll never be able to answer that question. When I became pregnant, they told me that I couldn’t work because the insurance wouldn’t cover me and I was an insurance hazard. I said, “Okay.” In fact, they made me leave that very day, because I hadn’t told anybody and somebody who hadn’t seen me for a while came in and said, “Hey, guess what? Look who’s pregnant.” So home I went, and pretty soon I got a phone call and they said, “Wait a minute, what are we going to do about your project? We need it, and you’re not getting it done. We’ve decided that you may come back as a consultant, and that you may only work in the lobby so the insurance company won’t worry.” I and my group worked in the lobby at one of the buildings at Lincoln Lab, and we got our project done, and I got my project done and had a baby girl. The joy of it was that they paid me a consultant’s fee and I made more money than I did when I worked regular salary for MITRE.

Krista Ferrante: What advice do you have for women entering the field of computer science or electrical engineering?

Judy Clapp: I talked to a young man the other day who’s currently teaching at MIT, and he said, “We don’t have any women. Why would women want to do this?” And I’m thinking of the day when they said, “Only women would do this.” My advice is not to think of software engineering as an academic career, but to think about what kinds of applications might be useful, and what you might do to make those applications happen taking advantage of software. Come work at MITRE and find out that you need to know a lot more than just the software technology or the engineering technology. You need to know how it might be used, and you need to know how to make it safe and useful.

Krista Ferrante: What projects did you work on at MITRE?

Judy Clapp: In the beginning, I was working on programming and producing software. Then on various kinds of research, like artificial intelligence, for other ways to write software. Then as the systems grew, the problems that we had talked about, that I talked about earlier about needing the right tools, now became, how do we manage to build systems? What processes do we need in order to develop the kinds of systems MITRE was involved with, which weren’t just systems where you press the button and the system ran, but had people integrating all the different kinds of technology that went into making a usable system that was safe as well. On the research end, some of the foreign work which was a real pleasure for me because I did a lot of traveling to not only research conferences, but also Japanese. There was work, we had a site in Japan. I became a strong advocate for MITRE getting its own internal MITRE net, which just changed the whole way that we operated. I mean, people had been talking about it, but here was this tangible example, and here I was advocating and adding my voice to it, and so we got it. My secretary, who used to sit at the computer, was now the network manager. We could even evolve people to new jobs, as a result. I retired quite a while ago, and then for a short while, I came back here to work in the archives on digitizing the Whirlwind project, because I felt that so many interesting things could be learned from it, that we ought to make it available to people who were online doing research. And MIT took that over, and it hopefully gets used.

Krista Ferrante: It does.

Judy Clapp: Good.

Krista Ferrante: You’ve mentioned before that one of the most innovative aspects of the Whirlwind and SAGE projects was the need to create these reliable and fast systems. Now, we rely on fast computers for just about everything.

Krista Ferrante: I’m wondering, what was it like to witness this evolution, and do you have any concerns about our reliance on-

Judy Clapp: I sure do.

Krista Ferrante: Yeah?

Judy Clapp: Yes, I worry every time I use my electronic banking and everything else. I think one of the things that distinguishes software from other kinds of technology, is what I said earlier, that it’s something you can do easily and quickly. It requires no big capital investment anymore, because computers are relatively inexpensive. We certainly have seen examples of people getting into software, and we even have names for the hackers and everybody else. It’s impossible to write software that doesn’t have errors in it to begin with, or that can’t be corrupted. It just impossible. It’s a human effort that one person can’t overlook and know everything that’s going on. Systems have become so complex that there are people in different countries, different teams, all contributing. So yes, I worry. But there we are, we continue to function, and if you try not to have software and not to have systems, I think you wouldn’t function in the world.

Krista Ferrante: What are your hopes for the future of MITRE and the country?

Judy Clapp: Peace.

Krista Ferrante: Yeah.

Judy Clapp: I don’t know if MITRE can help us do that, but some of our jobs might. The other thing I thought about was something … We had a reunion of the Whirlwind system. It was like our 50th anniversary, or some momentous occasion. Susan Hockfield, who was then the President of MIT, said, this is the perfect project. She said, it had a challenging job that hadn’t been done. You solved the problem using innovation and experience, and balanced them in some way that helped, and the results were good for the country. What I would tell someone at MITRE now is very different after having talked to someone here about the kind of world that I lived in, where MITRE was probably the best place you could hope to work for, where you would have freedom to pursue interesting projects, and the chance to propose your own, if you wanted, and a certain amount of freedom. Now, there may be too many other places, with profit sharing, that might be a competition for MITRE. There has to continue to be something really special about the kind of work that we prioritize here, and what it accomplishes for everybody. I hope it’s still true at MITRE, but when I was here, teamwork was incredibly important. We never had individuals competing with each other, or teams competing in a way other than one that was constructive. We used to have a sign that said, none of us is as good as all of us. We didn’t even need to be reminded, it was just one of those things that, maybe because the technology was so new and we were all racing to understand it and apply it, that we never really got into that kind of competition versus teamwork.

Krista Ferrante: Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us today. I really appreciate it.

Judy Clapp: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.