How a Woman Named "Steve" Became One of Britain’s Most Celebrated IT Pioneers, Entrepreneurs, and Philanthropists
By Lori Cameron
Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dame Stephanie Shirley

In the realm of computing pioneers, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is one of the most celebrated, not only for building a $3 billion tech empire in 1960s England, but for doing it with an all-female, work-from-home staff of professionally qualified women who had left the work force after marrying and having children.

Having hit the glass ceiling herself many times, Shirley set out to establish her own software enterprise for women, built by women. She and her employees pioneered the idea of women going back into the work force after a career break, and promoted flexible work methods, job sharing, profit-sharing, and company co-ownership.

Born Vera Buchthal in 1933 in Dortmund, Germany, she fled Nazi Europe through the Kindertransport rescue effort orchestrated before the start of WWII.

She lived with foster parents in Sutton Coldfield, England, and attended Oswestry Girls’ High School. Unfortunately, her school did not teach mathematics, so she took classes at the local boys’ school.

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Later in life, she founded a work-from-home contract programming company in 1962 exclusively for women called “Freelance Programmers” that eventually employed over 8,500 people. The company grew rapidly and went public in 1996. Ultimately, her company was valued at $3 billion, making millionaires of 70 of her team members.

ERNIE at Dollis Hill
Stephanie Shirley checking random numbers on the computer’ ERNIE at Dollis Hill. (Photo credit: steveshirley.com)

Shirley’s company was responsible for programming the black box for the supersonic Concorde. She and her employees were also instrumental in helping develop software standards, management control protocols, and other standards that were eventually adopted by NATO.

But building a huge corporation in post-war Britain came with its own unique challenges. Marie Hicks, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, interviewed Shirley for a 2018 article on behalf of the Computer History Museum. She explored Shirley’s early life, influences, flair for math, business acumen, and ambition.

A shorter version of the interview, edited by Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum, appears in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. The original transcript with Hicks’ full interview may be accessed here.

Here are some of the more thought-provoking quotes from that interview: How she started a company for women, how she escaped the Nazis, how she got her first job, how she began her career, how she soldiered through discrimination, and how she donated a fortune to autism research while raising an autistic son.

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On starting a company just for women

Dame Stephanie Shirley and Queen Elizabeth
Dame Stephanie Shirley with Queen Elizabeth.

“My business was very special. It was a woman’s company in the computer industry; 297 of the first 300 staff were all women.

“It was really a female-friendly organization. It was set up as a crusade rather than to make money, and indeed it took a long time before it did make any money, and I was very proud eventually when it succeeded that I’d set up this special women’s company. Again, another first, I thought, because I have to justify my existence.”

On escaping the Nazis

“It is as strong today as it was 75 years ago, when, as a traumatized, weeping five-year-old, I was put on a train and sent to a strange country with strange languages, strange people, strange parents, strange food. It would’ve been disastrous, I think, had I not been with my older sister, a nine-year-old who was really not ready yet to care for a younger sibling,” Shirley said.

“But what that two-and-a-half-day transition between Vienna and the Liverpool Street Station in London did for me was it made me able to cope with change, and I think that’s relevant to my technical career.”

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On forging her career

“A lodger that my mother had knew somebody who knew somebody who worked at the Post Office Research Station, and I had a similar introduction to another corporation and had interviews at both.

“The first one, General Electric Company, was fine and so on, but they were not terribly interested in me, in my future, in my continuing training and education, and so although they offered me a job, I went with the Post Office because they clearly were interested in ongoing education.”

 

TED Talk: Stephanie Shirley answers the question: “Why do ambitious women have flat heads?”

On changing her name from “Stephanie” to “Steve”

photo5
Derek and Stephanie Shirley at their wedding. (Photo credit: steveshirley.com)

“I had already launched my own business when I began to become professional. Not just relying on introductions but actually going out and marketing and getting new business, and in a very naive way I was writing literally dozens of letters, introducing my company’s services, and getting absolutely no reply whatsoever.

“It was my dear husband of now 50 years who actually suggested, ‘Well, perhaps it’s the name.’ I was writing with this double feminine, Stephanie Shirley, Shirley being my marital name. He asked, ‘Why don’t you use the family nickname of Steve?’ so I wrote exactly the same letters as Steve Shirley, and I began to get some replies.”

Stephanie Shirley meets Margaret Thatcher
Dame Stephanie Shirley with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

On employing gays and lesbians

“When the company was small, we knew a lot about each other’s families. I knew which child had gotten measles. When it came to gay and lesbian people, we might’ve guessed. It probably wouldn’t have been something that we talked about. It wasn’t relevant to our mobility, which was something that we were always very interested in. It’s clear that we did attract many lesbian staff; we employed thousands of people over the years, of course.”

On how the private sector gave women more opportunities

“Nobody could say I couldn’t do this if the rule book said that I could. In my generation of women, there were many things you couldn’t do. One college that I attended part-time didn’t have washroom facilities for women.

Shirley with ERNIE
Shirley was one of two non-engineers who worked on ERNIE, a new breed of random-number machine. The head of the project was Tommy Flowers of “Colossus” fame. (Photo credit: steveshirley.com).

“My job actually would’ve entailed me going onto a cable laying ship [a deep-sea vessel designed to lay underwater cables for telecommunications or electric power transmission] and I couldn’t do that. Women just did not go on working ships. I couldn’t work on the stock exchange.

“I could write software for the London Stock Exchange, but I couldn’t actually work there myself. Couldn’t drive a bus, couldn’t fly an airplane. These were legislative things, and the public sector was very firm on things like that….”

Shirley’s life after retirement

Since retiring, Shirley has spent her time supporting various IT-related causes and, most recently, organizations researching and providing services to those with autism.

Her interest in autism has personal roots.

“I’ve moved to a certain extent away from computing and become really a manager, a businesswoman, and later with the need to care for my learning disabled, autistic son, into really a career, and then a philanthropist. That’s now what I do. I try to give money away in a wise way,” says Shirley.

On what she chose as her philanthropy

“Autism is a strange disorder. It’s known to be genetic, but we don’t really know very much about it. What we do know is that it’s difficult to deal with, and difficult for the people with autism.

shirley and giles
Stephanie Shirley and her only son, Giles. She became a philanthropist for autism because he was diagnosed with the condition. (Photo credit: steveshirley.com)

I’ve set up several charities in the autistic field and so my experience is through them.

“A child that is dashing about in all directions could today be wearing a Fitbit bracelet to see what’s going on there. They could well be monitored how they’re sleeping, when they’re sleeping and so on. They could be using fingerprints as access keys, because child protection is very important with these very, very vulnerable pupils. Many of them are using iPads to communicate.

“Back in 1982—I remember the year because it was the International Year of Disabled People—I was starting to talk about using computers as a communication aid, as distinct from process control or calculations, to help the blind to see, the deaf to hear. Communication is vitally important for people with autism, so there’s a whole host of things.”

Shirley’s short film in a Google series on the early days of computing

Produced by Google as part of a series of short films highlighting women’s involvement in the early days of computing, “Freelance Programmer: the story of Dame Stephanie Shirley” features Shirley’s inspirational story in her own words. The YouTube channel that features this and many other stories is computingheritage.