As a young child, Conway suffered from gender dysmorphia that led to severe depression. This could have not been easy for her growing up. Conway had been married and she shared two children, during this time she wanted to transition. After her transition, she was denied access due to the legal constraints placed at the time.
Sometime in 1957-58, she attempted to transition however she was unable to due to the medical climate at the time. During this time she enrolled in MIT, earning high grades despite feeling hopeless from the result of not being able to transition this feeling caused her to unenroll from school. After a few years working as an electrician technician, she enrolled at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, earning B.S. and M.S.E.E. degrees. In 1964, she was recruited by IBM research in New York and soon after joined the architecture team designing an advanced supercomputer.
She worked alongside IBM researchers such as John Cocke, Fran Allen, and Brian Randell just to name a few on the Advanced Computing Systems (ACS) project. ACS invented multiple-issue out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling systems. As stated by the Computer History Museum “the ACS machines appear to have been the first superscalar design, a computer architectural paradigm widely exploited in modern high-performance microprocessors.” While working at IBM, Conway had hoped to be able to transition. However, they let her go after finding out her intentions to start the process to become her true self. IBM did not specify that they let her go due to her wanting to transition at the time, but they released an apology admitting to it in 2020.
It’s unfortunate that no matter how much of an asset you may be to your company, despite all of your accomplishments you can still just be a number. This however did not bring her down or stop her from continuing to excel in her career. In 1968, after her termination, she completed her transition and took on a new identity. She restarted her career in what she called “stealth-mode” as a contract programmer at Computer Applications, INC. This was not only a restart in her career but in her life as well.
Conway went on to work for multiple companies such as Memorex during 1969-1972, Xerox PARC in 1973, where she led “LSI System” under Bert Sutherland. During this time she founded the “multiproject wafers” (MPW), a new technology that made it possible to pack several circuit designs from multiple sources into a single while increasing productivity and decreasing cost. She co-authored Introduction to VLSI Systems, a cutting edge work that would soon become a standard textbook in chip design used in 120 universities by 1983. Conway set out as an associate professor at MIT, teaching a VLSI design course based on a draft of the Mead-Conway text.
Conway left Xerox to join DARPA in the early 1980s, DARPA is a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. She worked as a key architect in the Defense Department. Strategic Computing Initiative. She went on to become a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in 1985. She worked on the visual communication and control probing for the basic system, and hybridized internet/broadband-cable communications. In 1998, she retired from teaching and research, ending her career as a professor in Michigan.