Lynn Conway's
Copyright @ 1999-2003, Lynn Conway.
All Rights Reserved

Photo of Lynn: Oct. 21, 2000

I began writing this journal in 1999 as an overview of my education and my research career, while struggling with the issue of "coming out" about my past to my colleagues in the research community. My personal life and medical history became intertwined throughout, because my personal journey had greatly impacted the unfolding of my research career. This journal has evolved since then, as a place to document my story as best I can right now. It isn't really an autobiography, but instead is a diary, notes and references from which a biography might be constructed someday. Much is still in outline form; later versions will fill in more details. [Version of 4-9-03.]
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
- Mary Oliver, 'The Summer Day'




Lynn Conway's career has spanned many areas of research, development and management in electrical engineering and computer science. She's worked in industry, government and academia. While her background is atypical for a researcher and an academic, she has contributed to a series of tremendously exciting, adventurous research and development projects.
After studying at M.I.T. and Columbia University, Lynn was recruited to join a special team at IBM Research that was undertaking the architecture of a powerful new supercomputer. As a member of the "IBM-ACS architecture team", Lynn helped create the first "superscalar" computer in the mid-60's.
Under the intellectual leadership of Herbert Schorr and John Cocke, members of that team, including Lynn, innovated a set of instruction-level parallelism (ILP) architectural principles that underlie much of modern computer architecture. Lynn herself invented "dynamic instruction scheduling", the classic technique for multiple-out-of-order instruction issuance widely applied in high-performance microprocessors today.
While at IBM, Lynn undertook what were then highly controversial medical treatments, in a sincere effort to solve a lifelong gender-identity condition. Although Lynn had made extremely fundamental contributions to computer architecture while at ACS, IBM fired her when senior executives learned of her transsexual medical condition.
After leaving IBM in 1968, Lynn solved her physical medical problem and successfully transitioned into a new life as a woman. Given the social stigmatization of "sex changes" years ago, Lynn started her career all over again from scratch, in a new identity. In "stealth mode" she worked her way up in a series of companies, starting as a contract programmer. She went on to work as a system programmer, digital designer and then as a computer architect, at Memorex Corporation.
Lynn was very fortunate to then be recruited by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973, when this soon-to-be-famous research center was in its early formative stages. While at PARC she innovated a system of modern VLSI design methods that propagated worldwide and have had great impact on the applications, power and economies in the cost of computers and digital systems. Lynn collaborated with Prof. Carver Mead of Caltech to document the methods in Introduction to VLSI Systems, the seminal textbook in this new field.
While at PARC, Lynn also innovated an internet-based infrastructure for rapid prototyping of VLSI chips. Later supported by DARPA and NSF, and operated by USC-ISI as the "MOSIS" system, this new type of infrastructure has supported the wide-ranging creative explorations of a whole generation of digital system and computer designers.
Lynn went on to lead the planning of the Department of Defense's Strategic Computing Initiative, a program that developed advanced computing and intelligent weapons technology during the 80's. She then moved on to serve as Associate Dean of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
While working at these many exciting places, Lynn has been fortunate to have known and teamed up with many wonderful and extremely talented people. In a unique twist of fate that is almost too amazing to be true, she worked at and made fundamental contributions at perhaps the two greatest computer research organizations that have ever existed, namely IBM-ACS and Xerox PARC. And because of her medical situation and her firing by IBM, she did this under two totally different identities, which almost no one had correlated until very recently.
In the past, students and others have often asked Lynn how she got involved in so many diverse, trailblazing projects. It's a good question. Most people build their careers step by step in an orderly way. However, some careers progress in very unexpected ways; this was especially true in Lynn's case, because of the turmoil and transitions in her personal life. Deep troubles and major disappointments somehow amazingly led her onto paths to great new opportunities. Arcane lessons from one project applied years later to solve important new problems. Luck, timing, getting noticed for doing something interesting, working hard, getting bored once successful, then finding new passions and pursuing new interests; all these factors played a role. Sometimes it almost seems as if the hand of fate was guiding her.
In the end, Lynn's life has been such an adventure for her, and taken so many unexpected twists and turns, that even she can't possibly explain it. This retrospective simply sketches how it unfolded.
 Lynn Conway
in her Datsun 240-Z

Most of my colleagues lead comfortable lives and are well settled into their careers, relationships and home life. We needn't probe their personal lives to understand their career contributions. In my case my personal journey greatly impacted my work, and is a necessary background for understanding my professional career.
Although I was born and raised as a boy, all during my childhood years I felt like, and desperately wanted to be, a girl. During my teen years and college years I longed to grow up to become a woman, and I passionately wanted to have boyfriends as a woman. While growing up I experienced terrible trials because of my cross-gender identity, and yet I also knew incredible joy when accepted by others as a girl.
Gender is the most fundamental component of each person's selfhood, affecting and constraining everything one does in daily life. Without a proper gender, life itself is almost meaningless. I finally found top medical experts who helped me complete my gender transition. I became a woman by undergoing sex hormone therapy and male-to-female (MtF) sex reassignment surgery (SRS) way back in 1968. We each have only one life to live, and I knew in my heart that I would be vastly more comfortable, fulfilled and happier as a woman. [For information on transsexualism, see Lynn's TG/TS/IS Information pages.]
In important ways, I approached my personal gender explorations like yet another area of my work as an innovative research engineer - for here too I was pathbreaking, trying to find my way in a maze of complexity and dissonance, trying to use science and innovative experimentation to solve a very fundamental problem. The difference was that here I worked mostly in secret, without help from others, because my research topic was such an "unpopular disorder" in our society. I was also my own research subject, and failure would mean total personal disaster. It was a very lonely and often terribly frightening journey. Fortunately, I succeeded.
Back in 1968 when I changed my sex, we were still in the pioneering phase of gender transitions. Transsexualism was little understood then even by most members of the medical community, and society was far more rigid and judgmental then than now. Most people were aghast at the very thought of SRS and many considered a sex-change operation as a "transgression against nature". I worried a lot about how stigmatization might impact my future life.
Not wanting to call attention to myself and incur constant scrutiny, I decided to keep my transition a secret. I lived in what is called "stealth" mode, and for many years never talked about my past. However, the recent historical reconstruction of the IBM-ACS project revealed the facts of my life within my professional circles. I need to be open about it all now.
I see good reasons to be open about my story. I can now talk with colleagues about my studies at Columbia and my work at IBM, which were key factors in my intellectual development, and shaped much of my later, better-known work. Many of my contributions at Xerox PARC built upon my IBM work, and are simply not interpretable without knowing the earlier story.
Quietly coming out is also a matter of personal validation. After all, why should I hide something I'm not ashamed of? On reflection, I'm now very, very proud of my innovations and accomplishments in my research career, my gender explorations and my personal life.
The fact that I started a new career all over again, at the bottom of the ladder, after being fired by IBM and rejected by family and friends, and that I went on to happiness and success in a new life without people catching on to my past, may also give hope to others trapped in similar situations.
The wonderful long-term results achieved in many cases of gender transition go unnoticed by media, because most successful transsexual women "go stealth" after transition, and blend in with society. Knowledge of successful cases like mine might improve public understanding, and might make transition a less fearful, more hopeful time for younger pre-operative transsexuals and their families. Better understanding is important, because the condition is far more common than most people realize: It's likely that at least one in every 500 or so children has an intense, innate cross-gender identification, and many of these children will eventually undergo gender transition.
I've been fortunate. After my transition I became so happy and so full of life that it's no wonder I went on to career success. I've lived a truly wonderful life and feel good about sharing this story with you now. The future can change the past: What for me was once a rather grim struggle for survival now seems like an incredible, joyful miracle. This retrospective tells the story.







This retrospective is written in six parts. Parts I and II cover my childhood, education, early career and my gender transition in '68;
Parts III and IV spans the early years of my new life as a woman on thru the key years of my research career ('69-'83);
Part V covers my later career, when I focussed on "getting a life" and finding romance ('83-'99);
Part VI covers the period following my coming out in 1999 up to the present time.

This journal is dedicated to the memory of
Harry Benjamin, M.D.
- the great medical pioneer and compassionate mentor
who guided Lynn into her wonderful new life -
[photo of Dr. Benjamin taken by Lynn Conway in 1973]



i.   Preface
ii.  My Personal Background
iii. Dedication
iv. Contents
[go to PART I] , [go to PART II] , [go to PART III] , [go to PART IV] , [go to PART V] , [go to PART VI]
1. Early Childhood
The Nightmare Begins
2. Education
Public School Years
My Early Transition Attempt
What am I to do?
Columbia University
Loneliness, Companionship, Responsibility
Time to go to work
3. IBM Research & IBM-ACS
The ACS Project
Dynamic Instruction Scheduling
The Sweet Time - an Illusion of Normalcy
Evolving the ACS-1 Machine
Designing the ACS Design Process
Personal Failure and Angst
Help Appears Just In Time
Confronting Reality
4. Transition
Project Cancellation!
Suddenly, I'm Fired By IBM
Completing my TS transition
Looking for a new job
5. Starting All Over Again
Memorex Corporation
Restarting my Engineering Career and my social life
The Memorex 7100
The Memorex 30 Team
Having Fun
The 4004 Appears
Project Cancellation!
What Next?
6. Xerox PARC
The SIERRA Project
SIERRA Aftermath
Formation of the VLSI System Design Area at PARC
The idea of "designing design methods"
But then, what to do with "the methods"?
A death in the family
The idea of writing "the book"
Our secret weapons: the Alto, Ethernet, Laser Printers and Arpanet
The crash effort begins
7. M. I. T.
The '78 VLSI System Design Course
The Results
8. Back at PARC
Serious "push back" from the establishment begins
The idea of MPC79
Running MPC79: The Network Adventure
Then suddenly, success!
The DARPA VLSI Program
The VLSI Startups
MPC Technology Transfer to Start the MOSIS Service
Mead and Conway: collaborators and antagonists
Memories of ACS-1 remain alive
The Question of Love
Reflections on PARC
Formation of the Knowledge Systems Area at PARC
Explorations in Knowledge Programming and Collaboration Technology
Time to Move On?
The Strategic Computing Initiative
The SCI Team and the Planning Process
SCI Program Technology and Methods
Changing Habits
Professional Recognition
Reconnecting with Kelly and Tracy
Moving to Michigan
10. University of Michigan
The North Campus Expansion
Kelly and Tracy Visit
Getting a Life
Robotics and Tele-autonomous Systems
Visual Communications and Control
The Question of Adventure
It's Time to Reflect
11. A Footnote
12. A Reflection
Lynn Conway
Professor of EECS and
Associate Dean of Engineering,
University of Michigan
 Lynn and her grandniece Baylea
April 15, 2000
[Lynn's home page]