Radia Perlman: An Unassuming Yet Bold Internet Pioneer

“I think that I shall never see, a graph more lovely than a tree,” said Radia Perlman in her poem about a solution to file sharing between computers called the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). Perlman famously invented STP, one of the building blocks of the internet. An American computer programmer whose work hugely influenced the way network security is taught, Perlman has more than one hundred patents to her name.

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Growing up in New Jersey, she was the best science and math student in her school. It was the arts, however, that truly drew her in, a fan of classical music who played both piano and the French horn and wrote her own compositions. It wasn’t until she signed up for a programming class in high school that Perlman began to seriously consider a career in computers.

“I was not a hands-on type person,” she’s said of her years prior to the experience. “It never occurred to me to take anything apart. I assumed I'd either get electrocuted or I'd break something.” As an undergraduate at MIT, Perlman developed a child-friendly version of the the educational robotics language LOGO entitled Toddler's Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System, or TORTIS, to help young children learn to program. She’d graduate with a B.S. in math, stay at MIT to earn her M.S. in math and ultimately get a Ph.D in computer science.

In 1984, while working as a consulting engineer at the Digital Equipment Corporation, she was tasked with developing a system for file sharing between computers and came up with STP, which enables networks to deliver data and avoid loops. STP changed the way the internet runs, many dubbing Perlman “the mother of the internet,” a title she disputes saying, “I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed.”

Perlman has continued her work on network design throughout her life, including writing and co-writing textbooks on the subject like “Interconnections” and “Network Security.” Among her many accolades and awards, she’s been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Internet Hall of Fame. Her advice to young coders during an interview with ITworld?

“Start out with finding the right problem to solve.”