Real Talk With Dr. Radia Perlman–A ‘Heretic’ Programmer’s Approach to Problem-Solving

Dr. Radia Perlman, known for her innovations in network engineering, sits down for a no-frills account of her storied career, while imparting advice for today's young women interested in STEM.

By Stephanie Walden

Dr. Radia Perlman does not fit neatly into the bucket of “network engineer.” She is not an early adopter (“I barely know how to use a smartphone,” she says), nor is she a “tinkerer.” She has an artsy side—she loves literature and plays the piano.

But defying people’s presumptions is part of Perlman’s MO. In fact, it’s a point of pride. “I like to design things for people like me—things that are mostly auto-configuring and very resilient,” she says. “I am not a gadget person.”

There are, of course, many things Radia is—for one, she’s world-renowned. She’s an MIT-educated engineer, a revered author, and her innovations like Spanning Tree Protocol played a fundamental role in the evolution of modern Ethernet networks.

Radia remains modest about these achievements. “I’m not good at being self-promoting or acting important,” she says. “Partly, I was lucky to wind up in exactly the right job at the right time in history: the dawn of computer networks. But also, the reason for the success of my designs is that they are very simple. I’m good at getting to the conceptual heart of a problem, knowing what parts contain the irrelevant details and reaching a solution that looks like any 12-year-old could have done it.”

Foundations in Empathy and Critical Thinking

Radia credits her parents, who were engineers themselves, at least partially for her sense of empathy and deep curiosity. She grew up in a household where the free exchange of ideas—even controversial ones—was encouraged. She laments that so many families today seem intent on “indoctrinating” their kids versus having conversations that nurture open-mindedness.

“In my family, conversation was about looking at different sides,” she says. “[My sister and I] were clear about what our parents believed, but they would also say, ‘I can understand the other point of view.'”

These critical thinking exercises shaped how Radia tackles problem-solving. “The kinds of things I [invent] are very simple, but extremely out of the box. My mind always seeks to look at things from different angles,” she says. “I think it’s the heretic in me that, when anybody says anything, I immediately start thinking, Well, let’s see, why would that be true? What are reasons on the other side?

Radia’s early career was just as nonlinear. She went to MIT and majored in math, both at undergraduate and graduate school, but dropped out having done all but the thesis. “My perception in graduate school at that time was that everyone else was there because they were smart, and I just got in because I studied really hard. I couldn’t imagine doing original research. To me, that work was done by another species. So, when I couldn’t recruit a thesis advisor, I dropped out.”

Ten years later, she went back. This unplanned delay turned out to be perfect timing. “If I had slogged through [grad school] the first time, I would have done some tiny, obscure, incremental thing. When I went back independently, I wrote my thesis on how to make networks work, even if some of the switches are malicious.” That was in 1988, but Radia says she still runs into university professors today who have their students read her thesis as one of their first assignments.

In Search of the Heart of the Problem

As an advocate of simplicity and straightforwardness, Radia detests hype and jargon.

“I care about the truth,” she says. “I care about communication. I can tell when people are using ill-defined buzzwords that aren’t really conveying crisp concepts.” She tries to be tactful, but feels it is her responsibility to correct misconceptions, such as that blockchain is a panacea for all that ails society, or that we’ll all eventually be using quantum laptops.

Radia’s ability to cut straight to the heart of the matter has always been key to her accomplishments. Recently, she authored a whitepaper that demystifies quantum computing. The meat of the paper, which Radia has elaborated upon in lectures and in the upcoming third edition of her book Network Security, distills complex concepts efficiently and concisely. It’s the same clear-cut, no-BS style that’s made her work famous.

She thinks humor can play a valuable role in providing clarity on dense topics. “I like to have fun with things,” she says. “I have two books, [Interconnections and Network Security]. And although they’re heavy, technical books, they’re also funny.”

Radia is also passionate about creating a corporate culture that encourages critical thinking and collaboration across disciplines. “People ought to feel safe to come together and ask questions. Senior people can be role models by being the first to admit they don’t know everything and asking questions. In fact, if anyone actually thinks they know everything, they’re dangerous and should retire.”

What Young Girls Can Learn From Radia’s Rebel Mentality

When Radia graduated from MIT, she was one of just 50 women in a class of about 1,000. Today’s metrics look a little different—recent graduate-level MIT enrollees include around 36 percent women—but there’s still a ways to go for true gender parity in the tech sector.

Radia thinks there are several factors that explain the gender gap. “Partly some people are reluctant to enter the field because they don’t realize there are plenty of opportunities to be artistic, help people and communicate with heart. And partly some people think they would not be good at it, because they don’t fit the stereotype of an engineer, namely someone that took things apart from a very young age. I never took anything apart, but I certainly enjoyed thinking about logic problems. It’s important that people who do not fit that stereotype realize how valuable they can be in the field, and it’s important that hiring managers don’t just look for candidates that remind them of a younger version of themselves.”

For young girls interested in pursuing STEM careers today, Radia thinks it’s paramount to dispel the “tinkering engineer” stereotype—and to embrace and celebrate whatever makes them unique.

“When somebody says, ‘Well, I’m not like that, so that must not be the field that I belong in,’ I want to explain that I’m not like that—and it’s one of the reasons why I’m successful,” she says.

“We need to somehow convince people that their differences can make them a star.”

Dr. Radia Perlman is an American computer programmer, network engineer, inventor and author. She is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Internet Hall of Fame, recipient of the first Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award for Innovation and many other awards. She is also a Dell Technologies Fellow, a distinction given to the most accomplished technology leaders in the company.

This article is part of the “Rebel Women” series that features female trailblazers in technology as they share the stories of their careers and advice for women interested in STEM.

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