Programming pioneer Fran Allen dies aged 88 after a career of immense contributions to compilers

First woman to win the Turing Award and be made an IBM Fellow

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Frances Allen, one of the leading computer scientists of her generation and a pioneer of women in tech, died last Tuesday, her 88th birthday.

Allen is best known for her work on compiler organisation and optimisation algorithms. Together with renowned computer scientist John Cocke, she published a series of landmark papers in the late '60s and '70s that helped to lay the groundwork for modern programming.

In recognition of her efforts, in 2006 Allen became the first woman to be awarded the AM Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize of computing.

After earning her masters degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1957, Allen took a job at IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. She planned to stay only until she paid off her college debt, but ended up staying at the company for 45 years.

Her first major project was on the National Security Agency’s Stretch-Harvest project, which aimed to build a supercomputer capable of analysing communications intercepted by American spies around the globe.

Allen managed the compiler-optimisation team for both projects and helped design and build Alpha, a high-level code-breaking language capable of creating alphabets beyond the system defined alphabets.

In 1962, she rejoined IBM, where she joined a research team alongside Cocke and helped build more efficient compilers for mainframe computers.

It was during this time that Allen wrote her seminal 1966 paper, “Program Optimization”, which laid the conceptual basis for systematic analysis and transformation of computer programmes. Her follow-up papers of 1970, “Control Flows Analysis” and "A Basis for Program Optimization" [PDF] established "intervals" as the context for efficient and effective data flow analysis and optimisation.

Her 1971 paper with Cocke, “A Catalog of Optimizing Transformations” [PDF] identified and discussed many of the transformations commonly used today.

In later years, the duo applied similar ideas to "parallel computer", which aimed to use groups of low-cost, high-performance microprocessors to share the processing of smaller tasks in parallel. This process would go on to become an everyday part of most computers.

In 1989, Allen became the first female IBM Fellow, a rare award bestowed on the company's leading engineers, scientists, and programmers. The award mistakenly referred to her as a man - "In recognition and appreciation of his outstanding technical contributions."

The award, including the mistake, remained on her office wall until she retired in 2002.

Allen died of Alzheimer's disease at a nursing home in Schenectady, New York. ®

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