From Research Rags to Riches

By Wendy Hall

Wendy Hall

Professor Dame Wendy Hall
Where there is no vision, the people perish. Proverbs 29:18

I was not always passionate about computing. I started my academic career as a mathematician and really didn’t enjoy computing while I was doing my first degree. It was the 1970’s and computing in my University degree was all about using punched cards to write FORTRAN programmes. I gave it up as soon as I found out the course was non-examinable!

I loved mathematics and was persuaded by my tutors to stay on at Southampton to do a PhD in Pure Mathematics, a challenge I readily accepted. Another three years at University, what could be better? And then maybe a career in teaching beckoned. But things were not going to be that simple. When I graduated with my PhD, I was keen to teach in higher education but there were few lectureships in Pure Mathematics on offer. So I took a temporary job lecturing mathematics to engineers, followed by a permanent job as a lecturer at a college of higher education training the next generation of mathematics teachers. This was the early 1980’s. The first personal computers were just hitting the market, and the college had bought a Commodore PET. Because I was a mathematician they asked me to set-up a new computing course. I took the Commodore PET home for the summer vacation and taught myself BASIC. Over the next year, I became fascinated by how these new machines could be used in education. I did a part-time masters degree in computer science and took a new job back at the University of Southampton but this time in the Department of Computer Science, and the rest as they say is history.

Within a year or so of my move back to Southampton two things had happened. Firstly, I became very aware of the lack of women interested in computing because we had so few female undergraduate students on our computer science degree. Secondly, I started to experiment with the development of multimedia information systems. I could see the amazing possibilities that would open up when we could seamlessly interact with text, pictures, sound and video on computers and mobile devices. But in those days that was all still science fiction – the Web, digital video, broadband, wifi and mobile ‘phones were all still figments of our imagination. I was told very firmly in public by one of our senior professors that if I didn’t get back to working on traditional computer science there wouldn’t be any future for me either in the department, or in computer science generally. This didn’t do a lot for my confidence. Luckily the head of the department, Professor David Barron, saw things differently and supported me by using departmental funds to buy equipment such as videodisc players to help me with my work. This didn’t go down well with others in the department but he saw two things. Firstly, he got the vision of the future that was inspiring me, and secondly he saw an enthusiastic young member of staff with lots of potential. I will be forever grateful for his support.

I quickly moved on to being interested in hypermedia systems and spent a wonderful six months sabbatical at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor developing new ideas in this area. On my return to Southampton, I established myself as one of the few multimedia experts in the UK and began work on the Microcosm hypermedia system that was to lead to so many exciting career opportunities for myself and my team. The Web was beginning to emerge around this time and we were one of the first labs in the world to build this into our research. But it was still extremely difficult to get funding from the funding agencies for the work I was doing because it was considered too applied and not real computer science.

Nonetheless, in 1994, I was promoted to full professor – the first female professor of engineering at the University of Southampton and in 1996 I was awarded a 5-year EPSRC Senior Research Fellowship. At the time, these were like gold-dust in the UK as only three were awarded each year across all the engineering and physical science disciplines. During my fellowship, I built up my team at Southampton and became established as one of the top computer scientists in the UK. Honours and awards followed. In 2000 I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2002 I took up the position of Head of School at Southampton and became President of the British Computer Society in 2003-04. My international reputation was also growing. In 2006 I won the Anita Borg award for technical leadership and in 2008, I was elected as the first non-North American President of the ACM. And it didn’t stop there. In 2009, I became a Dame Commander of the British Empire and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Who knows what the future holds.

I am still very motivated to explore new ideas and to translate them into practical solutions for the commercial world. My new passion is Web Science – the study of the Web, it’s impact on society and how society shapes the Web – which is very interdisciplinary and yet again I’m out front pushing back the boundaries of what is possible. Our industry is one of the most exciting it is possible to work in – if I can make a difference by encouraging more women to realise this then I will feel I have achieved something.

The moral of my story is very simple. Don’t be afraid to accept new challenges and new ideas despite the pressure to conform.
Have the courage of your convictions, and seek the help of supportive colleagues and mentors to give you the confidence you need to fulfill your potential. Take on new challenges – big or small. Push the boundaries of your potential.

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