“My designs were so simple people assumed I just had easy problems,” says Radia Perlman ’73, SM ’76, PhD ’88, a software designer, network engineer, and Internet pioneer. But in fact, the tough problems she solved helped create today’s Internet.
MIT prepared her for cutting through such complicated problems, she says. “I had a TA that I found very annoying. He gave zero credit for extra steps in a proof. That forced me to come up with clean solutions. All engineers could benefit from an annoying TA—it can help you in life to arrive at the clearest, simplest answers.”
Perlman’s simple, elegant solutions to networking problems have won her world acclaim. She developed the algorithm behind the spanning tree protocol that enabled Ethernet technology—once limited to a few hundred nodes confined in a single building—to create large networks of hundreds of thousands of nodes spread over a large area. She also invented fundamental components of network routing that have made networks connected via protocols, such as IP, far less fragile, more scalable, and easier to manage.
Perlman, who holds more than 100 patents, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science. She attended MIT at a time when few women did, but she always felt she fit in. What matters as much as diversity of gender, she says, is the diversity of thought she found at MIT. “A team with different skills, talents, and outlooks is most effective,” she says.
Perlman’s Internet Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech. Via Lia Kessling on YouTube.
As an undergrad, she worked part time at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s LOGO Lab, which developed the LOGO robotics language. There she developed TORTIS, a child-friendly version of LOGO used to teach children about computer programming. Perlman has worked at Digital Equipment Corporation and served as a fellow at Sun Microsystems and Intel Labs. Her many honors include being inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She also wrote Interconnections, a widely acclaimed textbook on networking, and coauthored a textbook titled Network Security.
Now a fellow at EMC, she lives in Redmond, Washington, with her partner, Charlie Kaufman, and is active in the MIT Alumni Club of Puget Sound. Her children are both MIT alumni: Dawn Perlner ’01 and Ray Perlner ’04. Perlman loves to cook and play the piano, and once, on a cruise to Siberia to view the solar eclipse, she performed stand-up comedy.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.