Electronic Design

Lynn Conway: A Trailblazer On Professional, Personal Levels

Conway (2003)

Lynn Conway is a computer scientist, electrical engineer, inventor, research manager, and engineering educator. Some may more accurately describe her as a pioneer in microelectronic chip design. Most of today's chip designers learned their craft from the textbook Introduction to VLSI Systems, co-authored by Lynn Conway and Prof. Carver Mead of Caltech. It foreshadowed today's still-evolving SoC design methodologies.

The book grew out of a collaboration with Mead that spanned the years 1975-1980. They inspired and led a team of colleagues and students at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Caltech in research to bridge the knowledge gap between digital system architecture and microelectronics. The research produced a "structured VLSI design methodology" that was easy to teach and learn from the viewpoint of digital system architects and designers.

A key to the new design methodology was Conway's invention of scalable, ratioed design rules that greatly simplified conceptualization of VLSI circuit layouts. Mead introduced Conway's new "lambda-based" design rules into the design of the OM-2 computer at Caltech. It became the classic system design example used throughout the Mead-Conway textbook. Conway also invented an internet-based infrastructure and protocols for efficient, rapid prototyping of many VLSI chip designs.

Conway's innovations at Xerox PARC in the 1970s simplified and demystified a once extremely complex process of silicon-chip design, laying the foundation for much of the modern-day silicon-chip design and design-tool revolution in the 1980s. Many chip designers did their first VLSI design projects using the government's MOSIS prototyping system based on Conway's work at PARC. High-tech companies and computing methods worldwide now are grounded in her work.

In the early 1980s, Conway was a key technical architect and leader for the Defense Department's Strategic Computing Initiative (SCI) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). SCI was a major research program in high-performance computing, autonomous systems technology, and intelligent weapons technology. Working under Dr. Robert Cooper, Director of DARPA and Assistant Secretary of Defense, Conway led the effort that produced the Strategic Computing Plan published in November 1983.

More recently, Conway has focused on visual communications and control probing for basic system and user-interface concepts as applicable to hybridized internet/broadband-cable communications. She has five U.S. patents for her visual communications inventions.

Another life
Until recently, many in her field didn't know another facet of Conway's life. They didn't know that in 1965, at IBM, she invented dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS), a powerful method for issuing multiple out-of-order instructions per machine cycle in supercomputers. By solving this fundamental computer architecture problem, she made possible the creation of the first true superscalar computer, the IBM ACS-1. Although that superscalar computer was eventually cancelled, her DIS invention survived and is now a classic hardware method for enhancing the performance of VLSI superscalar processors, such as those made by Compaq, HP, Intel, MIPS, and Sun.

But IBM fired her in 1968 after she notified them that she was undergoing a medically supervised transsexual transition. She had worked there as Robert, having been born and raised as a boy. "I had the brain-sex and gender identity of a girl. Back in the forties and fifties, there wasn't any knowledge about such things and I was forced to grow up as a boy. That was a terrible mistake."

As a male, she received her BS and MSEE degrees from Columbia University in 1962 and 1963. She began her career at IBM Research, Yorktown Heights, N.Y., in 1964.

Conway went overseas to complete her gender transition, losing her career and professional reputation, family, relatives, friends, and colleagues in the process. But in a few months, she returned with a new name and identity. "I had to abandon everything in my past life and start all over again, keeping my past a secret for many decades. That was very difficult," Conway remembers. She began at the bottom of the ladder, as a contract programmer with Computer Associates Inc. (CAI), just at the time when women were coming into programming. She soon moved over to Memorex Corp. and rapidly climbed her way back up the ladder as a digital systems designer and computer architect. In 1973, Conway joined PARC. There she gained international recognition for her pioneer work in VLSI chip design methods.

Today she is also doing pioneer work in supporting young people with gender identity dysphoria (GID) through her Web site, www.lynnconway.com, and others (see also Class Notes: 2002 Inductees). She is working to bridge another knowledge gap, the one about transgender people and their successes in life. "It helps them anticipate problems and understand they are not the only ones that face this," she says. She's also worked with businesses to educate and encourage them to include "gender identity" in their Equal Employment Opportunity statements. Today, companies like Apple, HP, IBM, and Intel are supportive, she says.

Recently, the National Academy of Engineering elected Conway to its membership—the highest professional recognition an engineer can receive. Conway is now professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

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