Brain Pickings

Dame Steve Shirley, the World’s First Freelance Programmer

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“Few things in life are as solid as they seem.”

When she was five years old, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, born Vera Buchthal, fled Nazi Germany as a child refugee, escaping certain death and plunging into a life that would show her a quieter yet oppressively persistent kind of discrimination and injustice. A girl with a strong passion for mathematics, she had to transfer to the boys’ school to get a proper education, where she first became aware of her gender’s second-class status — but she, a voracious reader, took refuge in the school library and devoured countless books spanning every imaginable field. As a young woman drawn to the computing industry, she saw that signing her name opened no doors, so she adopted the nickname Steve and began signing as “Steve Shirley.” Suddenly, doors swung open.

Steve Shirley went on to become the world’s first freelance programmer and founded the software company F.I. Group in 1962, one of the UK’s earliest startups. It was a revolutionary company, writing software only — an outrageous proposition at the time. It was managed and operated by highly skilled female engineers (“We hired men. If they were good enough.”), who worked from home — also unthinkable amidst the era’s gender biases and social norms. And yet they forged forward, forever changing the course of entrepreneurship and women in technology. When F.I. was eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, it earned hundred of millions of pounds. Today, she is bringing that same zest for change and betterment to her work in philanthropy.

This fantastic short film, produced by Google as part of a series highlighting women’s involvement in the early days of computing, tells Dame Steve Shirley’s remarkable and heartening story:

The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m very motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving… I had built a determination that I was not going to let other people define me, to break through, to build something new, to not be put off by the conventions of the day.

In her memoir, Let It Go (public library), Dame Steve further elaborates on this disposition, tracing how her childhood experience of being sent away into safety by her German parents and raised by kindly strangers in the UK shaped her outlook on life, work, and philanthropy:

I have known failure and heartbreak as well as success, but I have never quite lost sight of two life-defining ideas – both of which I can trace back to my arrival in England all those years ago as a terrified, weeping child refugee.

The first is the conviction that even in the blackest moments of despair there is hope, if one can find the courage to pursue it. Sometimes the worst is less overwhelmingly awful than we fear; sometimes the right attitude can create good even from life’s most terrible situations.

My second big idea is the matching conviction that, even though I ostensibly lost everything when my parents were forced to send me away, I was not just the victim of bigotry and cruelty. I was also the fortunate beneficiary of the unearned generosity of many people: the Jewish and Christian activists who set up the Kindertransport, the Quakers who kept the project going when it ran out of money, the ordinary people who chipped in with the various tedious administrative tasks that allowed the project to function, the Catholic nuns who helped to educate me, and the quiet, middle-aged, nominally Anglican couple who took me in.

Without my being fully aware of what was going on or why, a large number of good-natured strangers took it upon themselves to save my life. It took me some years to digest this fact and its implications. But, once I had, a simple resolution took root deep in my heart: I had to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.

I may not always have succeeded in this aim. But I have at least learnt lessons along the way: about how to make things happen, how to deal with setbacks and how to turn the most improbable dreams into realities.

She reflects on her separation from her birth parents:

Looking back today, from the other end of a life that has been exceptionally rich in nearly every sense, I can see that most of my subsequent achievements can be traced back to that unnatural separation. It marked the beginning of a narrative far more interesting than the one that had originally been scripted for me. But it also taught me, with the ending of my first life, a profound lesson: that few things in life are as solid as they seem; that tomorrow will not always resemble today; and that wholesale change, though often terrifying, is not necessarily synonymous with catastrophe.

Let It Go goes on to trace just how this extraordinary woman turned “improbable dreams into realities” — a story of bravery, determination, and triumphant ingenuity against even the most inauspicious of odds.

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