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  • Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Professor Wendy Mackay

“Nobody knew how to use this little tiny computer in the corner”

Professor Wendy Mackay is a world-renowned researcher in human-computer interaction (HCI), helping to rethink technology to make it more suited to its users. From her early career in industry integrating video onto computers, to her latest contributions in academia looking closely at the partnership between humans and computers, Mackay has consistently been a pioneer in her field. In fact, Mackay’s methodology for incorporating users into the design process of technology, called participatory design, is taught across the world.

Whilst the ‘human’ side of things has always been a keen interest of Mackay’s, her connection to maths and computing had a more turbulent beginning. “I was actively discouraged from doing maths,” Mackay said. “In an honors geometry class we were learning about various proofs and the teacher had us just memorising them. I went in and I came up with my own proof that combined several different ones, and I was really excited. Then I showed it to the teacher and she said, ‘nope, we have to use what's in the book.’ It had this really deadening effect on me.”

Following her passion for people, Mackay studied experimental psychology at the University of California, San Diego. After taking a computer science class as part of her studies, Mackay thought she would never touch a computer again, but in graduate school her feelings changed. “Nobody knew how to use this little tiny computer in the corner, but it was really boring to do all the data calculations by hand, so I started writing programs that would allow me to do it. I discovered then that the way computer science was being taught was just absolutely not my thing, but when I used it as a tool to solve interesting problems, it was exciting in its own right.”

“They just didn't believe that a young woman could do this sort of stuff”

After her PhD supervisor disappeared, Mackay went from studying how monkeys learn, or rather don’t learn to speak, to creating software for the world’s first interactive video system at Digital Equipment Corpoation. “I took what I thought would be a short-term job and ended up creating this group from nothing. This group then built 35 different interactive courses to educate users on how to create computers that ‘taught you how to use them’, and how to use video as dynamic and interactive illustrations. I should say, at the time I really got yelled at by a senior vice president who said to me, who on earth would want to watch TV on a computer!”

But Mackay’s time in industry was far from easy. “My boss left and his boss brought me into his office and he said, ‘Well, I have two reservations about promoting you to take his spot: one is your age, and the other is your sex.’ I really wanted to say ‘I'm working on one of them,’ but I didn't, and I regret to this day that I did not. They just didn't believe that a young woman could do this sort of stuff. It was really, really pretty blatant [discrimination].”

Seeking a new challenge away from a product-driven environment, Mackay went back to university to complete her PhD, this time in computer science. “I basically started my career at about the time that HCI started and it was really a wonderful exciting time because I suddenly discovered a group of like-minded people who were interested in the same sets of issues that I was; doing all this cool technology to help people.”

“I realised that it matters that I'm on committees because of the reaction of people when I say something”

Over the next three decades, Mackay has continued to put human needs at the forefront of technology design. Her work has ranged from mixed reality (the fusing of real and virtual environments) to the use of paper flight strips by air traffic controllers. One of her latest projects is looking at the relationship between artists and technology. “We’re working with dancers, musicians, and graphic designers, to look not at how to make them creative, because they already are, but rather how to create technology that supports rather than blocks creativity. At a high-level view, the question is how do we empower users; how do we make users more able to use technology in useful ways rather than as the kind of passive recipients of it, which I think is all too common.”

Mackay’s senior position as a research director at Inria, the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, and the Université of Paris-Saclay, has meant that alongside her research she is also involved in multiple hiring, firing and organisation committees. “Both institutions require us to have equal numbers of men and women on some committees, or certain ratios, such as ‘at least one third’, but there aren't an equal number of senior women. My male colleagues have a far lower administrative load than I do because there aren't enough women in the system. It's important to have women's voices on these committees but I do less research than I otherwise would because I'm so actively involved in all these other things. I don't want to get rid of the rule. I just want there to be more women to help take it up.”

However, Mackay is using her presence in these groups to try and change that problem. “Our application period for a PhD is very early in the master's thesis process. So, what you find is that you get two candidates, one male, one female, who are extremely qualified, but the deadline for applying comes too soon. The guy says, ‘I'm not ready, but I'm going to apply anyway,’ and the woman says, ‘I'm not ready, I don't want to apply until I can absolutely guarantee that I'm ready.’ And so, we have this self-selection bias. I've gone in and argued that point with my male colleagues and they just look at me like I'm crazy. They think that you should know that you're good, and you should just apply. I haven't won that battle but I realised that it matters that I'm there [on the committees] because of the reaction of people when I say something and they say, ‘oh, I hadn't thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, it’s obvious to think of it that way.’”

“Have confidence that you can do it and then go do it, because you really can”

On a more individual basis, Mackay has mentored countless students, following a ‘challenge plus support’ approach. Even in industry, Mackay helped to advance the careers of many young women. “When I was at Digital Equipment Corporation, I had seven secretaries over a period of five years. And that sounds awful. But I had a deal with them. I said, look, what do you really want to do in your lives – there was one who wanted to write documentation, one wanted to go into finance, one wanted to do some graphical stuff. And I said, ‘I will help you do that, if you give me whatever period of time we have together to really help me do this kind of insane job that I've just taken on.’ And they did.”

“I say to my students that I never ever did the job that I was hired for, and they look at me in shock. But what it means is that I would get hired for something and then I would see something that I wanted to accomplish, and then I would go for that. Don't assume that if you fail that's bad. Pick yourself up and try again because nobody who's succeeded hasn't failed. They all do. Just have confidence that you can do it and then go do it, because you really can.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

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