Making New Things Happen: Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley Challenged the Conventions of her Time

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley

At five, she endured a two and half-day journey from Germany to England during WWII and had to fight to be admitted to a boys' school to learn mathematics. The words “research is the door to opportunity” etched above the entryway to the school made an impression on her.

In the austerity of post-World War II Britain where jobs were few and opportunities for women to earn a wage even fewer, Dame Stephanie Shirley went to work for a computer programming company. It didn't last long, because she was getting blocked at every turn.

In 1962 Shirley set out to create the company she wished to work for — Freelance Programmers. It as a software company that worked on forward-looking technology. The company set it up was also futuristic in its approach to work —in the beginning it was just women who wanted to stay employed through child rearing, as no other option existed.

Many considered the company laughable. People told her she could not sell software at a time when it was being given away for free to sell hardware. They thought having only women working from home was also a non starter.

To hit the sweet spot between her scientific interest and the commercial drive of the market at the time, Shirley organized the firm to work on operational research projects:

which had the intellectual challenge that interested me and the commercial value that was valued by the clients: things like scheduling freight trains, time-tabling buses, stock control, lots and lots of stock control. And eventually the work came in.

We disguised the domestic and part-time nature of the staff by offering fixed prices, one of the very first to do so. And who would have guessed that the programming of the black box flight recorder of Supersonic Concord would have been done by a bunch of women working in their own homes.

All we used was a simple “trust the staff” approach and a simple telephone. We even used to ask job applicants, “Do you have access to a telephone?”

An early project was to develop software standards on management control protocols. And software was and still is a maddeningly hard-to-control activity, so that was enormously valuable. We used the standards ourselves, we were even paid to update them over the years, and eventually, they were adopted by NATO.

Our programmers —remember, only women, including gay and transgender— worked with pencil and paper to develop flowcharts defining each task to be done. And they then wrote code, usually machine code, sometimes binary code, which was then sent by mail to a data center to be punched onto paper tape or card and then re-punched, in order to verify it. All this, before it ever got near a computer. That was programming in the early 1960s.

Early employees were vested in the company. 70 of the staff, mostly women, became millionaires when it floated on the stock market in 1996. With the passing of equal opportunities legislation in Britain in 1975, which was meant to help women, it became illegal to have a company with only women. Freelance Programmers let men in.

The cultural barriers she faced are best exemplified in a story she tells:

When I started my company of women, the men said, “How interesting,” because it only works because it's small. And later, as it became sizable, they accepted, “Yes, it is sizable now, but of no strategic interest.” And later, when it was a company valued at over three billion dollars, and I'd made 70 of the staff into millionaires, they sort of said, “Well done, Steve!”

You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads,” she says. “They're flat on top for being patted patronizingly. And we have larger feet to stand away from the kitchen sink.

Her secrets to success: 1./ Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like; 2./ and choose your partner very, very carefully.Because the other day when I said, My husband's an angel, a woman complained — You're lucky, she said, mine's still alive.

Freelance Programmers became FI Group and then Xansa. Eventually valued at $3 billion, it was acquired by Steria in 2007. During the growth years, she often bid for contracts as “Steve” to compete in the male-dominated industry.

“The fact that I nearly died in the Holocaust made ma make sure that each day is worth living. That I was worth saving,” she says. “I had great determination that I wasn't going to let other people define me. That I was going to break through. To not be put off by the conventions of the day.”

Shirley retired in 1993, but she hasn't stopped pushing for progress ranking among the world's leading philanthropists. She has given most of her wealth in support of IT and the role of the internet in society, and autism, in honor of her late son.

There is no limit for better and we should just be going for it.

Watch the short video of a recent talk below.


Dame Stephanie Shirley's memoir Let it Go is the story of how so many strangers helped her escape the horrors of war, how she created and ran her business, and how she lived through her son's upbringing and death.


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