IBM Prevents Brain Drain With Mentoring Program

Oct 28, 2005 (01:10 PM EDT)

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Fran Allen loves her job even though she doesn't get paid.

She retired three years ago but still goes to IBM's research laboratory to help out and discuss the latest projects and problems.

Allen reports to work whenever she feels like it, thanks to a Research Emeritus Program at IBM. As Big Blue sells its consulting services to companies coping with a graying workforce, it is also marking 12 years of its mentoring program. Allen is held up by the company as an example of its success in taking steps to prevent brain drain or loss of institutional knowledge.

And it's no wonder.

The first woman to receive the highest technical honor of IBM Fellow, Allen grew up in a poor rural community in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Mountains. As a North Country farm girl in upstate New York, she saw three choices for life after high school. She could marry a farmer, become a nurse, or teach.

She chose to teach math and enrolled in Albany State Teacher's College, now the State University of New York at Albany. She went on to earn her Master's Degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, because that's where she could find the financial help she needed to study.

"Money was definitely an issue with me," she said during an interview Tuesday.

IBM lured her away from teaching through a "My Fair Ladies" recruiting campaign that placed brochures on campuses, offering jobs for women. Though she wasn't the first woman hired by the company, she signed on in 1957, expecting to earn enough to pay off loans and return to teaching.

Instead she found the thrill of facing and overcoming challenges and broke into computer science decades before information technology experts began contemplating an apparent lack of interest among women.

"It was always interesting," she said. "I really like challenges – trying something you're not sure you can do, learning something and looking forward to what can be done next. That's, more than anything else, what kept me at IBM."

Allen taught World Community Grid and the Proteome Folding Project possible.

She modeled weather forecasts that churn out predictions of tornado paths by mapping math formulas onto computer code. She said she transforms the way the scientists express problems by mapping it into computer codes.

IBM credits her for compiler work that culminated in algorithms and technologies that are the basis for the theory of program optimization today. It's her commitment to mentoring, however, that motivated the company to form an award in her name and name her as the first recipient of the Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award in 2000.

She has continued her commitment to mentoring and IBM Research since retiring in 2002 and maintains clear enthusiasm for it.

"It's a dream program, being able to go into the IBM research laboratory any time I want to, being able to interact with some of the most interesting and exciting people working on amazing projects, being able to sit down in the cafeteria and talk about fascinating projects," she said. "I end up feeling extremely refreshed every time I go."

She also enjoys the lack of expectations, the fact that she never receives assignments and the ability to choose what she does.

She describes her current work as "drawing threads of ideas" to discover the origins of the ideas IBM is working on now and how the execution of those ideas has progressed over the years. She is also continuing work on parallel systems and his hoping to get involved in upcoming research projects on the subject outside of IBM.

She said that in return for her participation, the program helps satisfy her curiosity about her field.

"I think for all of us, we've spent our whole career on some specific piece of science or technology," she said. "We still have an interest in where it's going, what the young people are doing in the field and what is the next thing. It's a way of keeping up with my area. One of the great things the program offers is access to everything one had access to before, with having to make any commitments."