Dame Stephanie Shirley and the World’s First All-Woman Software Company

by
Women in Science Leave a Comment

6 pounds.  That was the starting capital of Freelance Programmers when Stephanie Shirley founded it in 1962 with the mission of creating software by utilizing the neglected brainpower of England’s programming-savvy mothers.  It was a mad idea on so very many levels. At the time, independent software companies simply didn’t exist. Software was the stuff that came with the massive computer you ordered, not some task-specialized product you bought separately. How could there possibly be money in designing software?           

Even if you could make a company around designing software, why employ women, who, according to every social tradition, could only work until they had their first child? And even if you must have women, why commit your company to ideas like flexible at-home work possibilities, job sharing, task-oriented payment, and profit sharing, which either lived only on the experimental fringe of business practice or didn’t as yet exist at all? 

Surely, that way lay disaster. And yet, from 1962 to 1993, when Shirley effectively left the company, Freelance Programmers grew from a 6 pound home business to an IT titan valued at hundreds of millions of pounds, boasting a roster of clients that read like a Who’s Who of international business and technology concerns. More remarkable still, Shirley steered her company so successfully in the midst of overwhelming personal tragedy and worldwide economic recession that would have crumpled a spirit less driven to see her ideals through.

(click image to enlarge)

But then, tragedy had been her companion since youth. In 1939, when she was just five years old, her parents had sent her to England as part of the Kindertransport program whereby English families adopted German and Austrian Jewish children. It was an agonizing decision to make, sending one’s children away to live with strangers in order to avoid the vicious gnash of Nazi spite, but it ultimately meant that Vera Buchthal (as Stephanie Shirley was then called) and her older sister Renate escaped the Holocaust and even, in their way, throve under the care of their attentive foster parents and country, while death and starvation stalked their schoolmates en masse.

Both her parents survived the Second World War. Her mother made it to England soon after Shirley arrived but, having no skills and no money, she was in no position to resume care of her children and, when she was finally moderately on her feet, resolved to take only the elder child back to live with her, a decision that was a source of life-long hurt to Shirley who, even if she preferred the company of her foster parents to that of her mother, was still wounded at the thought that her mother didn’t desperately want her.

The example of her sister, who flourished in school, the desire to earn the love of the mother who only ever found fault with her, and the need to give something back to the community and country that had taken her in and given her shelter in the depths of war all instilled an ironclad will to succeed in young Shirley, a resolution that she must amount to something. Having lived when so many of her generation had died, she knew she must make something of that life. She had a flare for mathematics so pronounced that she was placed in an all-boys school to further her education, an environment of cat-calling and verbal abuse that she powered through with predictable determination. Her gifts were so evident that she found employment directly out of school. She decided not to attend college in order to start earning money more quickly so as to support her mother, and only went back to higher education later when she wanted to supplement her skill set with evening classes.  

It was the start of her quasi-monastic schedule of work and learning that left no time for mere pleasure pursuits and set the pace for her manic work schedule of the next four decades. Working for the post office at Dollis Hill during the day, she came into the orbit of a rising generation of technology enthusiasts who saw the potential of computers to remake the world. Then at night she took classes to firm up her mathematical and programming skills, making her in short order among the most educated and technologically up-to-date members of her department.

Having lived when so many of her generation had died, she knew she must make something of that life.

And yet, promotion came slowly, far more slowly than that offered to her male colleagues, and a move to CDL Ltd in 1959 to work directly in the computing field turned out little better. She was working harder, knew more, and had bigger ideas for the potential of software to change all manner of industries than any of her colleagues, but her notions went unheeded, her pay was unequal, and her rise through the ranks was just as glacial as before. By 1962, she had decided to leave her job in order to start up her own company, a move supported by her new husband, Derek Shirley, a research scientist at CDL.

Shirley realized several things that, put together, made for an idiosyncratic but unbeatable business model. (1) Nobody was designing specialty software that allowed companies to make the best use of their computing machines. (2) The only materials required for designing software were pencils and paper, meaning starting costs for an all software company were profoundly minimal.  (3) There existed in Britain at the time an army of mothers with skills in mathematics and programming whose abilities could be turned to a profit if only a company would bother to schedule work around their unique needs. 

Put together, these realizations set the foundation for Freelance Programmers, a company that would offer software and IT consultation to companies by gathering a flexible group of talented women who could work on projects from home and around the schedule of their parenting and household tasks. Shirley created a series of punch cards for each woman in her roster upon which was encoded her particular technical and non-technical skills so that, when a new job came in, she could efficiently and accurately find the exact configuration of her freelance talent to do the job. 

In theory, then, she had a business that could deliver tailored software and consulting with maximum efficiency in terms of cost and staff, and with rigorous procedures of project oversight that would become industry standards over the decades. But the orders weren’t coming in. The talent was there, the benefits were clear, but the customers weren’t beating down the door, and her husband had a theory as to why. He suggested, as an experiment, that she sign her query letters as “Steve Shirley” just to see what happened. 

And you know what happened. The orders started rolling in. People who wouldn’t gamble on a promising company represented by a woman were suddenly thoroughly willing to take the same risk on a company run by a man. Those first orders built up Freelance Programmers’ reputation for attention to the needs of clients, and for quality programming delivered at a more than reasonable price. The new orders allowed Shirley to expand her roster of talent, with hundreds of women scattered across England available to contribute their expertise to whatever new challenge arose.

As first the IT industry and then England at large began to take notice of Shirley’s novel model, the company grew with an inevitable momentum. Shirley worked packed days writing out project reports for clients, zipping this way and that across the country to drum up new business, and experimenting with ways to allow the workers to get paid based on the tasks they did, rather than the hours that they worked, in order to make her programmers’ hectic lives more flexible still. As a businesswoman, the Sixties were dense but deeply satisfying. Unfortunately, home life presented her with troubles so overwhelming that any satisfaction from work counted as nothing against their magnitude.

Her son Giles, born in 1963, was exhibiting violent and self-harming behaviors that, she was eventually informed, were the hallmarks of severe autism. He stopped communicating and descended into a private world of repetitive, destructive behaviors that culminated in acts of physical violence against himself and his parents ending in episodes of seizure. Schools at the time were not configured to handle children with such extreme behavioral and communicative issues, and the only other options available were sedation and institutionalization. Shirley’s memoirs speak elegantly of the profound distress of living with, and trying to do one’s best by, a child with severe autism during that era:

The depressing thing was that, no matter how hard we worked, things never got better.  We never had proper meals – just grabbed mouthfuls of food as the opportunity arose.  Every waking moment when we weren’t at work was devoted to clearing up after Giles or trying to forestall the disasters he seemed intent on causing.  We had bolts on all the windows and locks on all the cupboards (although most things we possessed were broken anyway).  We lived in a perpetual state of high alert.  And Giles just grew bigger, his rages stronger, his seizures more alarming.

I simply cannot understand, now, how we got through this period, which coincided with some of the most stressful business episodes of my career.  When I try to describe what it was like, I inevitably focus on particular examples and incidents; but my overwhelming memory is of a misery far more pervasive than that.  It was like living half my life in a different world, permanently soured with pain; or perhaps like living in a horror film.  Sometimes I thought I was going mad.  In retrospect, I probably was.

The stressful business episodes Shirley mentions revolved around the Recession of the early Seventies, which took a hefty toll on the nascent IT sector and in the middle of which one of Shirley’s trusted friends and most important staff members decided to leave Freelance Programmers to start her own, competing company, taking a chunk of Shirley’s workers with her. It felt like a deep betrayal falling at the nadir of her company’s fortunes and in the midst of the walking horrors that formed her home life. In 1975, she suffered a complete mental breakdown requiring hospitalization and months of recovery.

That breakdown forced a number of things to happen. Since she was in the hospital and Derek had to work, there was nothing to be done for Giles but, at last, to find an institution that could watch him. After years of trying to manage on their own, there was now no choice but to seek help. Parents of autistic children often feel this stage as a failure on their part, and Stephanie and Derek were no exceptions. After having fought so hard and so long against institutionalization and medication, which they believed to be the Easy Way out, they realized that their refusal to let others take up the burden of watching Giles was hurting everybody, Giles included. 

After her recovery, life was still not easy for Stephanie Shirley. She was, as we’ll see, constitutionally incapable of settling for Easy even when it was an option. But the Giles situation was sorted, if unsatisfactorily, for the moment, and she had a company to pull back into profitability through force of will and smart management. She let people more talented with day-to-day issues take over for her the technical running of the company while she concentrated on forming connections and expanding the types of services offered. And she also began experimenting with profit-sharing at a time when such a notion was unheard of in the IT community, believing strongly that the people who worked for her should own part of the company they worked for. She began a long and arduous process of transferring her personal shares to the employees, essentially giving them stakes in the company either for free or at bargain rates. 

For eight decades Dame Stephanie Shirley has known every conceivable tragedy life has to throw at a human: And yet, what you see is not the product of defeat, but a person stuffed full of a desire to live, and to make living better for others.

Her company, started with 6 pounds and the ideal of giving women with dependents a flexible path to resume their careers, was now thriving, thriving so well that it increasingly seemed to her that she wasn’t strictly necessary to its growth anymore. Her model grew by leaps and bounds without her direct daily oversight, and the wealth represented by her shares in that company had made her one of England’s richest women. It was time to find a way to spend that money so that it would do some good.

After various experiments in philanthropy, Shirley decided to concentrate her efforts on an area she had become intimately familiar with: the diagnosis and treatment of autism. The institution she had placed Giles in during her breakdown was, of necessity, a drab and lifeless affair that, to curb the tendency of the children to destroy anything within reach, gave them an environment devoid of objects or color. It was one step removed from a prison but, at the time, it was the best one could hope for in terms of experienced care for severely autistic children. But then, on a trip to America Shirley stopped by the famous Boston Higashi School. There, through a program of vigorous exercise and group work, children who had been deemed impossible cases experienced fewer outbreaks of extreme behavior, and even exhibited signs of artistic and community engagement. 

Fired by the Higashi school’s success, she went on to found a school that combined its methods with the best techniques of the British education system to provide a rich and safe environment for autistic children, Prior’s Court. The school was a success but unfortunately Giles did not live to see it. He died at the age of 35, his last ten years a time of comfort and routine in a domestic setting that his parents spared no expense or effort in providing, and insights from which would be incorporated into Prior’s Court. 

Devastated by the loss of her child, Shirley redoubled her philanthropic efforts.  Now that there was nobody left to provide for in the instance of her death, she found deeper and more systemic ways to make her fortune change the world, culminating in the foundation of Autistica, an international collaboration of autism researchers that allowed for cross-collaboration between different fields of research to identify the genetic and physical causes of autism, and to discover means of treatment and early detection. She has poured millions into this effort to eradicate the source of so much, and such profound, familial pain in the world. But she begrudges none of it, citing Dale Carnegie’s dictum that, “The man who dies rich dies in disgrace,” and was spending as much time in her seventies and eighties working on properly funding autism research as she did in her twenties and thirties creating a software company on the principle of a flexible respect for the worker’s time and ideas. 

For eight decades now, Dame Stephanie Shirley (she was given the OBE in 1980 and the title of Dame Commander in 2000) has known every conceivable tragedy life has to throw at a human: the poverty of a refugee fleeing ethnic cleansing, the trials of raising a severely autistic son, several recessions, professional betrayal, the death of an only child, and the slow burn of watching one’s companies grow so big that they no longer need you. And yet, when you watch her speak, what you see is not the product of defeat, but a person stuffed full of a desire to live, and to make living better for others. She worked hard and achieved much, and so has boundless faith in the ability of humans to overcome the most awesome of their collective challenges. That is the faith, in people and their capacity for greatness and goodness, that moves the world. So let us be thankful to that husband and wife, Guy and Ruby Smith, who conquered fear and doubt and prejudice to welcome two refugee children into their home that day in 1939, who loved them and let them believe that, no matter their past, they could become anything they cared to be.


FURTHER READING:  Dame Shirley’s memoir, Let IT Go (2012) is a gorgeous and heart-clutching story, told with perfect frankness and honesty. Her descriptions of her agonies as a parent and as a businesswoman fighting to survive against forces external and internal are astounding, brutal, and true.

**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two.

Dale DeBakcsy About Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and artist of the Women In Science and Cartoon History of Humanism columns, and has, since 2007, co-written the webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy with Geoffrey Schaeffer. He is also a regular contributor to The Freethinker, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. He studied intellectual history at Stanford and UC Berkeley before becoming a teacher of mathematics and drawer of historical frippery.

NAVIGATE