Dame Stephanie Shirley

Significance, Julian Champkin

Julian Champkin, Significance

I arrived in Britain in 1939, as a child refugee, on my own, aged five, on a Kindertransport from Austria. That bland statement is as still as important to me as anything else today. It made me feel that my life had been spared, so I should do something worthwhile with it. It made me able to cope with change. One learned to re-make one's life.

Looking back, I see how I have changed. I was once the pure mathematician aiming unrealistically to solve Fermat's last theorem. I still love pure maths, but luckily for me also I came across computers very early, in the mid-fifties; and overnight it was like falling in love. I was going to be a computer person. That has been the second motivation that has driven me.

I arrived stateless, penniless, not speaking a word of the language. I was very very lucky. The English foster-family who took me in brought me up as if I were their own. They gave me an education, in the days when one had to pay for secondary education. Even before grammar school I was lucky. The first school I went to in England was a convent, taught by nuns, in habits. They had very limited experience or knowledge of maths themselves, but they spotted that I had mathematical ability, and recommended that I should sit for a scholarship to grammar school. But even in grammar school girls in those days were really not encouraged to do science. I still remember having to break my school day and walk across the road to the boy's school for maths and science lessons. So I had to fight to get my maths education such as it was. I was a nasty little swot, loved competing against myself. I am an eternal student still.

I got my degree through evening classes, at a rather strange institution called Sir John Cass College, which taught science, navigation, and painting. In the daytime I worked. I was offered two job interviews. One was with G.E.C.; the other with the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill. I chose the Post Office. I chose it for all the safe reasons: it was the Civil Service, it had a pension scheme, it was a job for life - things that hardly exist now. It was also a hotbed of good science though I didn't know it at the time. And you went in through great stone portals carved with the words 'Research is the Door to Tomorrow.' I thought that was wonderful.

I became a glorified mathematical clerk, in a group of four graduates and four assistants. We operated great mechanical calculators the size and shape of old-fashioned Olivetti typewriters. We would pound at these things, working under instruction, at Post Office problems. One I remember was where the number of strands in a piece of string that had tied a parcel had to be analysed, to see if statistically it would match with a fragment found in a burglar's shed. I began to see the use of statistics in very practical things.

I took Part One of an RSS qualification. I am not sure what it was Part One of, because I never did get to take Part Two.

I suppose the most important projects I worked on were the first transatlantic telephone cable, and the first electronic telephone exchange at Highgate Woods. And there was ERNIE. There were two non-engineers on the team that worked on ERNIE: my boss, Etrich Thomson, and myself. Amazing people were on it, people who had been at Bletchley working on the Enigma code-breaking machines in the war. The head of the project was Tommy Flowers, who had made the Colossus computer there, the first electronic computer of them all. He is a man who has been hugely under-recognised, and a wonderful leader of staff as well.

ERNIE was rather different from modern random-number machines. The numbers were extracted by a device that sampled white noise generated by a neon gas discharge tube. To get a stream of random digits you had one of those devices and a second, backup, device in case the first went wrong or turned out to be non-random. We took the output from the first device, and subtracted from it the output of the second device, and that way the resulting number would have random digits even if one of the original numbers did not. That meant you needed two devices for each stream of random numbers, and we needed 16 such streams, so 32 gas-discharge devices.

But a young lab boy said 'You don't need 32. Why don't you use devices 1 and 2 to generate the first number stream, 2 and 3 to generate the second, 3 and 4 to generate the third and so on.' That way you only needed 16 devices, and the cost of the project was almost halved. It was brilliant; it was a lab technician who thought of it; and Flowers was a man who could generate those kind of ideas from everyone in the team, and listen to them, and use them, in addition to his own input. He got out of the team far more than the individuals in it. He was a very good man to work for.

Checking the randomness of ERNIE's numbers was one of my jobs. Statisticians in those days used to say things like 'there is no reason not to suppose' that the numbers are anything but random. With language like that, can you blame the public for distrusting us?

To check the randomness we had a stream of numbers spewing out on paper tape, and started analysing in simple ways: we counted how many times the digit 'One' appeared, and the digit 'Two', and so on. All our other tests were variants on that. We had one we called the Poker test. We took sets of four digits and categorised them into those with all four digits different, those with a pair and two singletons, those with two pairs, those with three of a kind and a singleton, and the groups where all four digits were the same - just as you categorise a poker hand. We wrote it up for the RSS journal. I got a little thrill from seeing my name in print at the bottom.

It was that time of post-war austerity. Premium Bonds were new, and exciting, and brought big publicity and the chance of riches. We had a lot of discussion as to whether it was ethical for those of us who worked on ERNIE to buy bonds. Ethics in science has been a lifelong concern of mine. In the end, we decided we could and should buy bonds, as a sign of confidence in our own work and that there was no possible way we could fiddle ERNIE to our advantage. But another of my jobs was investigating complaints from the public. There were claims that certain bond-numbers, or people in certain areas, came up too often. There were lots of winners from the South-East, for instance; for obvious reasons. Many people complained that bonds with the prefix E were getting more prizes than they ought. That was because the E prefix was given to five-pound bonds, which was one of the more popular denominations that was bought.

When ERNIE started up there were lots of public open days. We had this great big machine with a very large console, well-designed, so it looked impressive. Lights flashed, and when you switched it on it made quiet Dr Who sorts of noises. We were slightly amused that many of the visitors were more interested in the very modern spherical vacuum cleaner we had.

I was the only woman on the team. People were fascinated to see me there. It was a stage in women's emancipation where you tried to imitate men. I really would dress to be the female equivalent of a man: dark suit, pintuck blouse, a black band round my neck evocative of a tie. Science has been reasonable in opportunities for women, but only reasonable. Its image has not always been terribly sympathetic to the gender, but there are plenty of us who find satisfaction in the purity of science and engineering.

I started off earning £215 a year, even then a very low salary, and of course less than the men. You would make all the little economies, walk an extra bus-stop to save a stage of the fare. We got paid in cash, and it included a big crinkly white five-pound note which I tried so hard to keep and not to break into by the end of the month - but I never managed it.

But we were young and fit. And we did get a massive, highly-valued six whole weeks holiday a year! We had no money to go away. I spent mine working with a postgraduate student making myself useful at GEC, the other company I had interviewed for, learning about computers.

I met my husband at the Post Office Research Station. He was working on waveguides. The civil service at that time did have one strange hang-over rule for their female staff. They no longer forced you to resign if you married; but you were allowed to leave voluntarily and - the important bit - you could take your pension with you. That's what I did. I had a theory that it wasn't good for spouses to work together. My pension was a whopping £200, and on the strength of that we got married. My husband stayed with the post office until he retired.

I joined a fledgling computer firm which became ICL, and I couldn't believe that I was being paid so much to do something I enjoyed. I had a wonderful two years there, but I discovered the glass ceiling. It was an excellent company, but I felt unable to grow the kernels that were in me. So I chose to leave. From early on I was fighting for women in general, not just for my own development.

In 1962 I founded a company - no, not a company then, it was just an organisation, of women computer programmers working from home. Most of them were bringing up children. I called it freelance programmers, and my letterhead was a bit of a pun. I wrote the words without capitals because I didn't have any. It was literally six pounds, the dining-room table and myself. I had a supportive husband, and we could and did live on his salary. Freelance programmers became the FI Group, and eventually Xansa, and it has made me very wealthy but it didn't do that for a long long time. It was several years before I took even expenses out of it, twenty-five years before it paid a dividend.

We pioneered the home-working revolution. It is easy now, but in those days I had to put on the application form questions like 'Do you have access to a telephone?' I myself only had a shared party line, and I felt terribly sorry for the other party because I used it so much. Our programmers sent in their work by post, as manuscripts - the client would transfer it to punched tape. I dissembled about the domesticity. I had a young child, and the baby-sitter could only manage Tuesday afternoons, so Tuesday afternoons was when I scheduled meetings - without telling the people I was meeting why. For a long time we got hardly any work because firms we approached would not take seriously any business letter from a woman. It was my husband who suggested the answer to that one: I changed my signature on letters from Stephanie to Steve so clients didn't know my gender till they met me.

Many of the innovations that made us succeed were forced on us. We charged for software. That was new. Until then it had been given free as a package with the computer, but we were not making computers. I moved from paying for time taken to paying for work achieved. I had to, because I had no money to pay for anything till the job was done. But once you started thinking in terms of work done a lot of things followed. Such as trusting people - this at a time when most companies still demanded that their staff should clock on and clock off. We did the first job-share. We pioneered co-ownership, so staff share in the profit - and loss - of the firm.

The real market lay in data processing, working out ways to sort large files, but I thought that pretty boring. I found an intellectual compromise in Operational Research, which also dealt with large files with the added challenge of logistical problems; so we tackled problems like scheduling for British Railways, and routes and timings for Tate & Lyle sugar-lorries. Even now when I see a Tate & Lyle lorry lost somewhere in the countryside I think 'Oops! Something's gone wrong…' Timings of buses in Wallesley is another that I remember, which we did on London University's Atlas computer, which had about the power of a low-grade PC. I did have the sense to keep away from certain projects. We were asked to write a program that would identify fingerprints. This was in the 60s. I opted out of that one. It has taken 40 years for that sort of task to become manageable. But we were young, and everything that was difficult seemed therefore exciting.

I discovered that I liked the risks of entrepreneurship, and the freedom to make my mistakes, and - more important - learning to how to deal with misfortunes and errors and mistakes. I found the business world was fascinating, and used all my numeracy. I had something called Figure Sight. I could look at a whole mass of figures and without analysing them say 'There's something funny over there in that part.' I was usually right. It is an unpopular faculty that has faded with the years. I cannot do it any longer.

Slowly the organisation built up as an all-woman business. Minute Number One in the company's annals was 'to provide jobs for women with children.' Then we changed the word 'jobs' to 'careers.' Then we realised that many were looking after elderly relations or disabled partners and we changed 'children' to 'dependents.' And it stuck at that. Others laughed at us, but it worked. Hundreds of women signed up, because they wanted to work. Some signed up but found reasons not to take work when we offered it; it was the idea of having a job that they liked. But that was fine with us. It was a female-friendly company. For first 13 years it was entirely female, until 1975 when the Equal Opportunities Act came in and ironically made what we were so proud of illegal. So we began to employ men, (if they were good enough!) The company kept its feminine character until well into the 80s, and its holistic outlook, if I can call it that, even longer.

We were able to attract and keep quality staff before they became demonstrably very good. I was fishing in the pool of women who wished to work from home, and no-one else wanted that sort of person so I had the pick of them. And there was a goodly sprinkling of very high flyers leading us over the years. The company has now more than 5,000 full-time equivalent staff in the UK and in India. Xansa is in the FTSE 250. To show how fast or slowly things happen, I wrote the first paper about exporting software development work to India in 1978; it was 1998 before it actually happened. Xansa now has more staff in India than in the UK. In 1991 control passed to the staff - that was my best day. I retired from it two years later, honoured by the title of Life President, which means absolutely nothing. But I am very proud of having founded it and taken it into professional management. We took software from something that was airy-fairy - 'just got a few more bugs to sort out' - into something which is now accepted as an engineering discipline even if it doesn't involve oil and lathes and metal-bashing. My FREng is for software engineering. I have been p President of the British Computer Society, and helped steer the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists into becoming the 100th City livery company.

There had been a domestic background to all of this. Our son Giles was born in 1963. At the age of two and a half he began to lose skills. That was the frightening thing. At three and a half he was diagnosed with autism. Really our lives changed very much; that became the other dominant to our lives. You can cope with business ups and downs; when there is stress in your job and at home is when you break down. That is what happened to me. Giles and I both went into hospital. I came out after a month; he stayed in for eleven years. He became epileptic; puberty he couldn't cope with; he became violent. Life was pretty grim all round. At first he came home for weekends; then we couldn't manage even that and would just visit him. It would have remained like that, except that he began to lose his human rights. I had come to terms with his being in an asylum - in the true sense of 'asylum' as a safe place - but it was turning out not to be a safe place for him. By then we could afford paid help, and they and we could look after his needs. It took six years to de-institutionalise him. We bought a cottage in the country, where he lived with carers. That was pretty revolutionary back then; now living in the community has become a cliché. Giles died of an epileptic fit eight years ago. We had earlier realised that what we had set up for Giles could work for others, so had expanded. Today The Kingwood Trust supports 41 residents, with 20 more on the lists, some in supported living, some in the original residential homes. We are not Mencap, but we are something.

So I somehow turned into a philanthropist. I have concentrated on trying to spend wisely the money I made through computing. The wealth from Xansa hasn't gone on Welsh mountains or castles in Spain. I get as much pleasure giving away the money as ever I did making it. We have supported some 30 projects over the years, in IT and autism. When we select our projects we don't just choose more of what has been done. Pioneering projects can fail, but make a real difference if they succeed. Also I give in fairly large chunks, not spread thinly.

There is a school, Prior's Court in Berkshire, a beacon school for pupils with autism, in which I take some pride. I also put more than ten million into sponsoring the Oxford Internet Institute, which researches the social, economic, legal and ethical aspects of the internet. Some projects mix IT and autism. In 1999 I set up 'Autism99' the first web-based conference on disability, attended virtually by thousands of people, all kinds of experts, with peer-reviewed papers, chat-rooms, the lot.

Autism is a communication disorder. Some who have it don't verbalise, some cannot even communicate non-verbally. The statistics of autism are frightening. It costs the state £3 million on average to look after a person with autism over his or her lifetime. When Giles was young autism was considered a rare disorder; a figure of one in 20,000 was quoted at me. Now it is the largest subset of learning disabilities. 1 in 166 children are affected, a figure which seems worldwide. Why so many? Is it because the definition has changed - now it is described as a spectrum, one end of a 'Pervasive Development Disorder' - weasel words if ever there were any. Or is the reported increase because it is being better diagnosed? Or is it a true increase? That would be most worrying. We need those figures and metrics if we are to do anything. We need a proper ground for decision-making. Knowing that your statistics are sound is the basis of good management.

The public need sound statistics too. The MMR furore showed that. The MMR vaccination is given at around 2 and a half years, which is the age at which autism begins to be noticed; that is how parents began to blame it. The medics have looked at it pretty closely, but study after study has failed to determine any significant correlation. A similar thing happened with mercury poisoning, which at one time was thought to be a cause. There is a proven genetic factor to autism, which makes research into younger siblings important. They have an increased risk, of around 1 in 100 or 1 in 80. With some, all is well, but in either case you can watch exactly what is happening at 3 and 6 and 12 months, and spot things which you otherwise miss. After 30 major projects I have ended up, inevitably I suppose, helping to find the causes of autism. It is currently defined by behaviour, not biology. But advances in genetics will lead to finding out what autism actually is. Autism Speaks is an international project to identify the causes, originally by 2012. The date has slipped a bit, to 2014, but even that is short term enough to help some of today's children. It is estimated that it will cost megamillion dollars, way outside my capabilities, but that is feasible if donors co-operate in the way that researchers have to do. It is a huge target but it is achievable. So now I have turned into a fundraiser as well as a fund-disperser. For a long time I thought Xansa was my magnum opus; but there is always another mountain to climb.'

Endnote: Stephanie Shirley, past president of the British Computer Society, first Master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, retired from Xansa in 1993, was appointed DBE in 2000 and is currently a full-time philanthropist in the field of autism spectrum disorders.

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