As a Pioneer in EDA, Dr. Mary Jane Irwin Pays it Forward

As a Pioneer in EDA, Dr. Mary Jane Irwin Pays it Forward

Dr. Mary Jane Irwin, Ph.D., 2019 recipient of the Philip Kaufman Award.

Tomorrow evening (Nov. 7, 2019), Dr. Mary Jane Irwin will take the stage at a dinner being held in her honor, as she becomes the first woman to ever receive the 2019 Phil Kaufman Award for Distinguished Contributions to Electronic System Design. The award is presented annually by the Electronic System Design Alliance (ESD Alliance) and the IEEE Council on Electronic Design Automation (CEDA) to an individual who has had a demonstrable impact on the field of electronic system design through technology innovations, education/mentoring, or business or industry leadership.

Dr. Irwin can easily check all those boxes, and then some. Not only has she participated in groundbreaking developments in computer science and specifically electronic design automation (EDA) for the semiconductor industry, she has committed herself to “paying it forward” paving the way for more women to forge careers in computer science. I spoke with Dr. Irwin about her journey, her thoughts on encouraging women in STEM, and what companies need to do if they want to draw more women into the field.

Becoming Dr. Mary Jane Irwin, Ph.D

Dr. Irwin’s official title is “Evan Pugh Professor and A. Robert Noll Chair Emeritus in Engineering in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University” (a mouthful, I know). Friends and colleagues call her “Janie.”

Janie grew up in Memphis, TN. The daughter of a university professor (dad) and an elementary school teacher (mom), she was destined at birth to become an educator. While her mother hoped she would follow in her footsteps, an internship in 7th-grade math sealed the deal against that. “All along I was a daddy’s girl, and wanted to be a university professor,” she admits. “Although I had no idea what they did.” What that was turned out to include a large research component, larger than teaching, and a professional service component.

Married as an undergrad, Janie limited her graduate school selection process by proximity to where her husband’s new job in Indiana was located. She only applied to the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana. “I made lucky choices,” she said. “That’s NOT how you’re supposed to do it.” The right way would have been to do a broad search based on programs offered.

The right way or not, Illinois turned out to be the best choice she could have made because her academic advisor turned out to be Jim Robertson, who was famous for his work developing SRT Division (he’s the “R” in SRT), used to resolve the Pentium Divider Bug. At this point in our conversation, Dr. Irwin assumed I understand programming language (I don’t) and went deep. Suffice it to say, doing research alongside Jim Robertson was a very big deal for two reasons: First, she developed a love of chip design working on ILLIAC II and ILLIAC III (again, not diving into details. If you want to know what these are, click on the links.) and second, because Robertson was 1/3 Cherokee, he knew what it was to be a minority in a majority community. Two of his three Ph.D. students to graduate were women. One of them was Janie.

While at Illinois working on chip design and building hardware that involved signal processing and systolic arrays, Dr. Irwin said she occasionally had to develop design tools, because they didn’t exist. This is ultimately what lead to her focus on EDA.

She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1977 and secured a tenure track position at Penn State, where she spent the remainder of her career. Those were the early days of CMOS architecture, and she received a grant to support building hardware using it. Her research included creating EDA tools than using them in computer architecture research, an approach that gave Dr. Irwin influence in both academia and industry. You can read more about that work in her biography here.

On Being a Women in EDA

As the second female Ph.D. in computer science to graduate from the University of Illinois, Dr. Irwin said it was a lonely place to be. There were no female faculty and only a few female Ph.D. students. At Penn State, it was “only marginally better” with one other woman on the faculty. While she had lots of male friends, Dr. Irwin felt the need to find a women’s community.

She found that opportunity by joining organizations like AnitaB.org, a digital community for women in computing started by Anita Borg and the Computing Research Association for Women (CRA-W),  which evolved to include underrepresented minorities as CRA-WP.  She has also participated in the Grace Murray Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – named for the female computer engineer who became the first woman Navy Admiral and contributed to the development of COBOL computer language.

This gave her the community she craved. She has watched these organizations grow and thrive as more women choose carrier paths in computer science. Over the years, she has made numerous female and minority male friends. “I am able to refresh and renew, reminding myself that there are great people working out there,” she says.

On Paying it Forward

Dr. Irwin has always been committed to supporting women in the EDA community. For example, in 1996, she co-founded the Workshop for Women in Design Automation, along with her close friend, Marie Pistilli. Pistilli, former organizer of the Design Automation Conference (DAC) also valued equality, diversity, and acceptance. The workshop is now known as now Women in Electronic Design. Irwin also served as DAC chair and served on the DAC committee for many years.

Now that she’s retired, Dr. Irwin devotes even more time on professional activities paying it forward to nominating more women in EDA for recognition awards, such as for the National Academy of Engineering, of which she is a member. Not ironically, in 2004 Dr. Irwin was the recipient of the Marie R. Pistilli Women in EDA, a prestigious annual honor that recognizes individuals who have visibly helped to advance women in electronic design. 

The Key to Hiring More Women

Dr. Irwin told me a story about a junior faculty member at Penn State who came to her with the folders of two Ph.D. applicants. He couldn’t decide who to support, because both applicants were equally qualified. Dr. Irwin flipped through the folders and then handed one back. “I’d hire this one,” she said. The candidate was a woman. The other was a man.

All things being equal, Irwin says she always hires women or minorities. To be clear, it’s not that she believes in quotas, she doesn’t hire them BECAUSE of gender or ethnicity. The qualifications must be there first. She says the university departments that have made inroads on hiring women faculty were successful because they recruited more women to interview from the outset.

She encourages tech companies to set their own goals to interview – not necessarily hire – a certain number of women. “If you don’t interview any women, you’re not going to hire any. You have to work harder to find them and recruit them because there aren’t many out there,” she said. “You don’t have to make requirements on diversity, you just have to increase the number you interview. Then you’ll find the great women that you want to have.”

Additionally, give potential candidates the chance to meet other women in the community. In academia, make sure they meet with women faculty and women graduate students with whom they can talk about support systems that exist, and keep it as technical as possible – such as research interests and areas of collaboration.

When it comes to seeking employment, she says there are advantages to being a woman. You get lots more visibility, and there are times when quotas work. “I was initially invited to be on the DAC executive community because I was a woman,” she says. “I stayed on the committee because I proved myself.”

Advice to Young Women Interested in STEM

Don’t wait until college to start exploring your options. If you have math skills, take as many math courses in high school as possible. “You don’t want to self-select out of STEM because you didn’t take calculus.” She says. “Take advantage of those opportunities.” In Singapore, for example, there is a large number of women pursuing STEM education because they all take physics, math, etc. in secondary school.

On Being the First Women Recipient of the Kaufman Award

So how does it feel to be the first woman to receive this award?

“I’m humbled. It still hasn’t sunk in. People will tell you that I’ve worked hard, but I’m pretty modest,” she said. “I’m sure there are many other women who are deserving, although not as many as we’d like. To be the first woman, there has to be a set of people who believe in you.” She’s talking about the selection committee. For every award win, there are 6-8 people who make sure you get due consideration.

“I look forward to seeing other deserving women and men get nominated, and will help where I can,” she says. “I’ll continue to pay it forward – what has been done for me – for the women who are coming along.”

I congratulate Dr. Irwin on this and all of her achievements throughout her life. It was an honor to spend time speaking to and learning from her. ~ FvT