Shirley You Can’t Be Serious? But she was. When Dame Stephanie Shirley set up her women-only computer programming business in the Sixties, people predicted only problems. Instead, it became an international success.In an inspiring extract from her new memoir Let It Go, she writes about starting up on her own
Shirley You Can’t Be Serious
But she was. When Dame Stephanie Shirley set up her women-only computer programming business in the Sixties, people predicted only problems. Instead, it became an international success.In an inspiring extract from her new memoir Let It Go, she writes about starting up on her own
I RESIGNED THE following morning. I gave three months’ notice — much more than I had to — partly out of a sense of duty but also from a certain nervousness about the future. The idea that had seemed so irresistible the night before seemed flimsier once my resignation had been accepted.
I had decided to start my own company, selling software. That’s an uncontroversial sentence, written nearly 50 years later. At the time, it sounded mad.
Drawbacks included the following. I had no capital to speak of. I had no experience of running a company. I had no employees, no office, no customers, and no reason to believe that there were any companies out there with any interest in buying my product. Nobody sold software in those days. In so far as it existed, it was given away free.
Only the most forward-thinking and well- resourced organisations invested at all in what would now be called information technology, and those that did so would generally have been outraged at the suggestion that, having forked out a hefty sum for a new computer, they should also be asked to pay for the code to make it do what it was supposed to do. They expected that to be thrown in for nothing, as the manual is for a new car.
Dame Stephanie Shirley checking the randomness of the ERNIE premium computer bond
But I knew, as everyone now knows, that the capabilities of a computer are defined not by its solid parts but by the code that runs it — in those days, huge reels of punched tape. If a company wanted to improve its efficiency by using a computer, what mattered wasn’t the hardware it bought but the programme — the software — that told it what to do.
I cannot honestly pretend that I foresaw how huge the software industry would eventually become. My motivation had more to do with the sheer pleasure of working with computers.
But I also had a gut feeling that there was a programming industry of some kind waiting to be born, and I liked the idea of being in at its birth. I knew that I was good at programming, and that there was only a relatively small pool of people in the UK who were.
At the very least, I thought, I ought to be able get enough freelance assignments of my own to be able to earn a living, from home, without having to be an underling in a male-dominated company. As an added attraction, such a way of working might well be compatible with raising children, which Derek and I hoped to be doing before too long.
The great thing, from my point of view, was that writing a computer programme required neither resources nor infrastructure. It was a very time-intensive business, in which the code had first to be written out as a sequence of logical commands — the difficult bit — before being converted into digital code that could be expressed as punched holes in a strip of tape. But all you needed, for the most part, was pencil, paper and a brain good enough to imagine how complex tasks could be reduced to a series of logical steps.
This meant that I could work from home without splashing out on equipment. It also meant that, if all went well, I could hire other programmers, on a freelance basis, for particular projects, and they could do the work from their homes. My new company’s name, Freelance Programmers, described exactly what I intended it to do.
Several of my colleagues, told of my plan, laughed openly; I presume that the rest laughed in private. Not only was the plan mad. There was also the awkward fact that I was a woman. Whoever heard of a woman running a company — unless it was a little tea- shop, or a cottage enterprise selling hats?
One or two added that, even disregarding my gender, I was surely too brittle in temperament to survive in the unforgiving business jungle.
Dame Stephanie Shirley came over from Austria on the Kindertransport
NONE THE LESS, I was determined to give it a try. There seemed to be so much potential: not necessarily for making money, but for translating the various challenges that organisations faced into problems that could be solved by a computer.
Logistics, planning, management, automation — anything and everything seemed capable of being made to run more smoothly with the help of a well-thought-out programme. Anything seemed possible.
I was 29 years old, and, while I could hardly have been less qualified for the task, I did have the crucial asset of unlimited enthusiasm. Marriage to Derek had given me a sense of stability and security that allowed me to take risks. I loved the field I worked in, and I felt a bright, joyful, optimistic passion for the business that I had imagined.
Making money scarcely featured in my list of motives. If all went well, I would earn a living; if the worst came to the worst, I had Derek’s salary to fall back on while I found another job. What I wanted was not wealth but a workplace where I was not hemmed in by prejudice or by other people’s preconceived notions of what I could and could not do — a place where, instead, I could exchange ideas freely with likeminded colleagues. And in 1962 that meant an entirely new kind of workplace.
Luckily, I was in a position to create one; in fact, my lack of assets gave me no alternative. I had £6 of capital, a dining-room table, a telephone (with a party line shared with a neighbour who, luckily, rarely used it), and one other mad idea: those who worked for me would all be women, employed on a freelance basis and working from home.
I’m not sure when this women-only principle first occurred to me. It hadn’t been part of my initial idea, and, in the early months, it was hardly relevant. I had imagined that the world would beat a path to my door — I was reasonably well-known by then in what was a pretty tiny industry. But it didn’t. And when I did eventually get a contract — from the new UK division of the US management consultants, Urwick Diebold — it provided enough work for just one person: me.
But the issue of gender kept recurring. For example: I needed my husband’s written permission before I could open a bank account. (Women weren’t allowed to work on the stock exchange then, either; or to drive a bus, or fly an aeroplane.) And the letters that I eventually started sending out to other companies touting for business received so little response — not even an acknowledgement, usually — that I began to wonder if the fact that I was a woman had something to do with that, too.
Almost immediately, therefore, I felt that I needed to succeed not just for my own benefit but in order to prove a point on behalf of women generally.
Then another, related issue came up. The Urwick Diebold project lasted about eight months. I got it via a former fellow employee of CDL, David Lush, who had joined Urwick Diebold some time earlier. He introduced me to a colleague, Kit Grindley, who was setting up a programming group in the company’s new computer consultancy division. The brief was to write software standards — in other words, management control protocols — for this group.
This wasn’t exactly the kind of work I had had in mind for my enterprise, but it would prove immensely valuable in the long run. Programming was (and is) a maddeningly hard-to-pin-down activity, whose practitioners are notorious for claiming airily that there are ‘just a couple more bugs to sort out’ while uncomprehending clients fret about missed deadlines.
The fact that Freelance Programmers could claim to be a source of objective, written standards would ultimately prove to be a major selling-point for us, and would help demonstrate to prospective clients that we were no mere fly-by-night operation.
But the crucial thing about that first project in the short term was that, halfway through it, I realised that I was pregnant. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. We had been planning to start a family, and my dreams for our future usually included four or five children in the background.
But the actual approach of a real birth date put things in a less forgiving light. Could I really cope? Could the business cope with such disruption so early on? And what would potential clients — who felt dubious enough about my being a woman — feel about doing business with a heavily pregnant woman? (‘How many people do you have working for you?’ my ex-boss asked me around this time. ‘One and a bit,’ I replied; but I didn’t tell him what I meant.)
I finished the Urwick Diebold job with just a few weeks to spare. I remember visiting them towards the end of it and having serious difficulty climbing the stairs to their second-floor office opposite Victoria station. I had earned £700 from it: much less than I would have earned in that time had I remained an employee. It occurred to me that I would need to do something about my pricing — just as soon as I had dealt with giving birth.
Giles was born on 9 May 1963, in Amersham cottage hospital. It was a traumatic, 24-hour labour: at one point a nurse complained that my screams were frightening the other patients. But Giles himself was the most beautiful, adorable baby you could imagine.
Dame Stephanie reading to her son, Giles, who suffered from severe autism
It was daunting being at home alone with him for the first time, and I remember crying a lot on my first days back from hospital. But we bonded quickly and I couldn’t possibly have imagined leaving him with someone else in order to go and work in an office. As I didn’t have an office, the issue didn’t arise. But what about my business? Would I let it fizzle out after just one job? Or would I find a way to keep it going?
BY THE END of 1963 I felt confident that the business could expand. In fact, I felt confident about everything. I remember looking at Giles, and thinking of him and Derek and our home and my exciting new company, and concluding that I must be the luckiest person in the world.
But feeling confident was one thing. The problem remained of how to develop the business. My letters failed to produce a response, until Derek suggested that maybe the problem lay not with the letters themselves but with the signature at the bottom of them. Given my experience with previous employers, it was not unreasonable to speculate that many potential customers, seeing the words ‘Stephanie Shirley’ at the bottom of a letter, would refuse to take its proposals seriously, simply because I was a woman.
Derek suggested testing this theory by signing a few letters ‘Steve Shirley’ instead. I did so, and people began to respond. I have been Steve ever since.
Around that time — on 31 January 1964, to be precise — my little enterprise got a mention in a feature in The Guardian about a strange and exotic modern phenomenon: women who worked in the then embryonic computer industry.
The article was headlined ‘Computer women’ and described how a growing number of women who had decent maths qualifications plus ‘patience and tenacity, and a common-sense sort of logic’ were finding employment opportunities as programmers. ‘Much of the work is tedious,’ she wrote, ‘requiring great attention to detail, and this is where women usually score.’
Dame Stephanie served on technical committees under Margaret Thatcher
I’m not sure what women who read the article would have made of this analysis, but one paragraph that clearly struck many of them mentioned a ‘Mrs Steve Shirley, of Chesham, Buckinghamshire’ who ‘has found that computer programming… is a job that can be done at home between feeding the baby and washing nappies. She is hoping to interest other retired programmers in joining her in working on a freelance basis.’
This unexpected piece of free publicity provoked a flurry of enquiries from would-be programmers, some of whom had worked in the industry at quite a high level before ‘retiring’ to have children. It really marked the beginning of what would become a ‘panel’ of highly qualified freelancers.
It also encouraged a certain amount of interest from prospective clients — as did a small advertisement I placed in The Times around this time, seeking two home-based programmers and describing the opening as a ‘wonderful chance, but hopeless for anti-feminists’.
It was hard, however, to translate these initial enquiries into firm orders. People got cold feet when they phoned and heard Giles crying in the background. I dealt with this by making a tape-recording of Barbara typing and playing it whenever the phone rang.
Expansion brought headaches of its own. The fact that other people were now writing software on my behalf made me worry about public liability. What if someone’s work went wrong?
It takes only the tiniest of errors in the coding to cause a software programme to work in a dramatically different way to the way intended. As the projects that came our way grew bigger — we were even in discussions with GEC about a system for a new aircraft — so the potential for making a catastrophically expensive mistake grew bigger too.
I made enquiries about professional indemnity insurance, and was quoted premiums that would have wiped the company out. It made more sense, I realised, to incorporate Freelance Programmers as a limited liability company. On 13 May 1964, therefore, I paid £15 for an ‘off-the-shelf’ company registration, and the business became Freelance Programmers Limited.
This was a huge step forward. Not only did it ease my worries about indemnity by limiting our liability, but it also felt, in an odd way, like officially laying a foundation stone. That ‘Limited’ somehow made the whole operation seem more solid, more credible, more real — both to our customers and to me.
Dame Stephanie Shirley in the dining room of Prior’s Court, the school she helped set up for autistic children
MINUTE NUMBER ONE in the company’s minute book stated that our purpose was ‘to provide jobs for women with children’. Later on, when we began to give more thought to the need for training and development, we changed this to ‘careers for women with children’.
Later still, when I realised that many of the women I was employing were caring for elderly relations or disabled partners, it was amended again to ‘careers for women with dependents’. But the main point never changed: this was a company that would offer opportunities to the kind of women whom traditional male- dominated companies considered unemployable.
I don’t think I had started out with such a clear-cut social purpose. I had merely imagined a workplace undisfigured by traditional male sexism. Yet a pro-woman policy made obvious sense.
Talented female mathematicians had been passing through the universities in increasing numbers ever since the War, and gaining good degrees. Many of them had worked for a while in Britain’s nascent IT industry, only to drop out — of the job and the job market — either on marrying or on having children.
And, since most companies were far too rigid and male-dominated to adapt their ways of working to suit such employees’ convenience, their skills and intellectual energy had been going to waste.
By committing my company to making use of this pool of untapped talent, I gained privileged access to some of the best programmers in the country. Not only were these women good: they were delighted to be working for me and determined to make the most of the opportunity.
Perhaps as a result, the company thrived. There were still plenty of potential clients who refused to take us seriously because we were women, but for others it was, if not a positive selling-point, at least a reason for not forgetting us. Our client-base grew slowly but surely. We got a job working for Tate & Lyle, helping to optimise the scheduling of the lorries that carried their sugar around the UK.
Our PERT project for Selection Trust led on to a series of other PERT projects, some of which were quite substantial. We were hired by Mars, the confectionery company, to improve the efficiency of their production processes. Their UK base was in Slough, which I used to visit by bus.
I remember agonising about the ethics of accepting the goody-bags full of chocolate bars that they always used to press upon me when I left. (This issue arose with Tate & Lyle too. Each of us who worked on the project was given a 6lb tin of their famous black treacle. I have only just finished mine.) And so it went on. Imperceptibly, and unintentionally, we were becoming much more than freelance programmers. We were becoming experts in logistics and operational research.
There was, however, a drawback. I still hadn’t the slightest idea how to run a business. As our workload expanded, this became a serious problem. We were being paid to do more and bigger projects, and each project was in itself profitable, yet we never seemed to have enough money in the bank.
Sensing that something was wrong, I decided to invest in some expert advice, and asked the consultants of Urwick Debold (by now a satisfied customer) if they could help. They sent out Kit Grindley, the manager who had liaised with me on the standards- writing project.
He came over for a morning — or more than a morning, as it turned out. He looked through what passed for my books and was simultaneously impressed and horrified. I was, he explained, on the point of having to close the business down: there simply wasn’t enough cash to pay the freelancers at the end of the month. This seemed mad to me: we had far more money coming in than going out. But the incoming money hadn’t come in yet, and wasn’t coming in quickly enough.
But Kit could also see that the business itself was fundamentally sound. The organisations that owed us money, or with whom we had signed contracts for future work, could in no way be described as credit risks. (Other early clients included Rolls-Royce and GEC.) There was clearly a market for what we did, and our long-term future looked astonishingly bright.
So he got out his chequebook and, there and then, wrote out a personal cheque for £500 to tide us through. It was an act of generosity that I have never forgotten, and also an example, which continues to inspire me, of the power of intelligent lending.
We paid him back rapidly, as I’m sure he never doubted we would; and that cottage industry that he saved went on to become a multinational giant. But without that timely loan, all of our potential and inherent strengths would have come to nothing.
Let It Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley is published by Andrews UK