2019 Pioneer in Tech Award Recipient Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway began her computing career at IBM research after completing her graduate studies at Columbia, joining the IBM Advanced Computing Systems project just as it was forming in 1965. There, she invented a hardware subsystem called multiple-issue dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS) that greatly enhanced the processing power of the IBM computers of the time. Gradually, the implications of Conway’s invention became more widely understood, and its impact spread until it came to be used in the majority of PC chips.

However, Conway herself received no credit for this discovery for decades, because she was fired from her position at IBM when she underwent sex reassignment surgery and began living as the woman she had always understood herself to be. Fearing a repeat of her experience at IBM, she kept her past achievements quiet so that employers would not associate her with her previous name, and she started her career from scratch.

She soon distinguished herself as a programmer and was recruited to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973. There, in collaboration with Carver Mead, she created the VLSI systems that allowed the development of much more complex and powerful microprocessors. Their book, Introduction to VLSI Systems, became the basis for classes at more than 100 universities. Conway herself taught this approach at MIT, later going on to join the University of Michigan as Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Associate Dean of Engineering. She went on to make many more significant contributions that shaped the direction and capabilities of modern computing technology.

In the late 1990s, research by computing historians emerged that linked Conway to the DIS project. She decided that it was time for her to let her true self be known, and started a website that quickly grew into a huge repository of information, resources, and support for transgender people, as well as stories from her own life, all presented in her characteristically engaging and authentic narrative style. Now a University of Michigan Professor Emerita, she remains active as an advocate for transgender people, and has been honored for this work by President Obama.

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