Remote work has long been common in the tech industry, even pre-coronavirus, but it had to start somewhere. After all, you couldn’t exactly squeeze an ENIAC in the spare bedroom. That’s why the story of Mary Allen Wilkes remains relevant today—even though she spent most of her career not in technology, but as a Boston-area attorney.
In 1959, Wilkes graduated from Wellesley College. She had been discouraged from pursuing her dream career in law because of a lack of opportunities for women. As she looked for a job, she recalled a remarkably prescient comment from her junior high geography teacher: “You should be a computer programmer!”
When Wilkes was in junior high in 1950, few people even knew what a computer programmer was. However, the logic and attention to detail required to program were a natural fit for Wilkes’ philosophy major mind. Upon graduation, her parents drove her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she inquired about programming jobs and was hired.
Starting her WFH journey
While at MIT, she began writing in an “assembly language” on the IBM 704, a punch card computer. In 1961, she was assigned to the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) project. The LINC is a strong contender for the title of “first personal computer,” as it had its own monitor, keyboard, and storage. It also was intended for use by individuals, in contrast to a giant timesharing computer—in other words, no punch cards needed.
So how did Wilkes end up with a LINC in her home? By being good at her job. She took a year off to travel Europe, and upon her return, the LINC project had moved to Washington University in St. Louis. But Wilkes didn’t want to move to St. Louis. Instead, she took a LINC home to her parents’ living room to finish her programming, becoming the first to WFH with a personal computer.
Despite her prowess for programming, Wilkes left the computer field and went to Harvard Law School, becoming an attorney after all.
Featured image: Matus Labanc / Shutterstock
Photo: Rex B. Wilkes / Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.