Lucy Gilbert

Lucy Gilbert is a MIT graduate in Computer Science, have her own tech company, and joined GCC in 83 to create Atari games, however ended up working on a first text-editor for Atari.

“I’m learning how to knit so I can knit stuff for my grandchildren. Knitting is a lot like computer programming too.  You get this code, you gotta interpret it, and then you knit it out and you got something when you’re done that you can actually hold.”

Lucy Gilbert
Lucy Gilbert

Lucy Gilbert graduated from MIT with two degrees in Computer Science in 83 with a master thesis in distributed computing using the programming language Ada, and at the age of 23 she was recruited by General Computer as a software developer.

Lucy Gilbert grew up in Nashville, Tennessee – together with her twin sister, she was at the top of her class, and they both applied to MIT and got accepted. Lucy Gilbert’s uncle had suggested that when they arrive at MIT, they “should try computers.  See how you’ll like it!” so Lucy decided to take an introductory course in computers her freshman year, and she explains: “As it happened, I loved it.  I just found that I really loved being with computers—and I was good at it.  I was really good at it.” Lucy Gilbert remembers how studying at MIT took up all her time as she did not have much spare time, and how important it was for her to have her sister close by. This was especially important since the high school they had attended was not a top school, and they were a little bit behind when they entered college. They would purposely separate to different recitation classes so if they had trouble on the homework, they would catch different viewpoints: “We purposefully tried to maximize our learning. I mean, we were a little bit behind, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch up while you’re there. There’s only so much you can do—so you’re behind the first year or two, and then you learn the material and you’re done; you learn the materials then graduate and get a job. That’s what you do.” Both Lucy Gilbert’s grandmothers went to college, even at a time when it was rare that women had a degree or drove cars: “both my grandmothers graduated from college—just with a Bachelors. And they drove. Women didn’t drive, but they both drove.” Lucy Gilbert’s sister graduated early from MIT and got a summer job at Hewlett Packard, and afterwards, she went to work for HP. Lucy Gilbert explains: “We were very close.  We were like best friends.  So we didn’t really, we didn’t mind at all. My sister was my best friend. We are identical twins. We were like two peas in a pod.”

Lucy Gilbert wanted to work in computer graphics and was considering moving to California. After graduation she received two job offers – one in Boston and one in California. She accepted to work for General Computer where she was going to create games, and she exclaims: “Who would not choose to do games! Sounds cool, doesn’t it? I just liked computer graphics at the time because it was visual and it was colorful.  It was a 2-dimensional result.  It’s more colorful.  And that was one of the appeals for doing the games.

Literally, Lucy Gilbert worked for General Computers right out of college, finished on a Friday, started the next Monday. She remembers starting by learning the assembly language to program the 6502. She was also doing debugging on other game developers’ games, which was a useful  way to learn the code, the terminology, and the languages. Before she started to work on her own game, she learned that General Computer was thinking of moving beyond games and into other types of applications. In particular, they wanted to create a text editor to be used on a TV set. Lucy found this project interesting.  However, she was let go after a year and was hired at Autographix, another start-up which did primarily computer graphics presentations and pre-press.  There, Lucy worked on fonts. This company bought graphic fonts from well-known vendors of the time, and Lucy’ s job was to figure out how to render them to the screens. She explains: “That was my job: To take the equations of the fonts and render them so they looked perfectly in every size.  They had to look good small, they had to look good big.  And, y’know—depending on the font vender—they were written with—y’know some of them were Bezier curve definitions, some of them were bitmap, some were radius circle definitions.  It was my job to take whatever they had and render the fonts.”  Lucy Gilbert really enjoyed working at General Computer and Autographix; she did not experience competition, instead she experienced that her coworkers genuinely wanted to help her and she wanted to help others. It was a team atmosphere. 

She worked for General Computer until they had to downsize due to the drop in the computer gaming industry. “Today’s your last day.  Y’know, we had to make cuts and it’s not an impact on how you did for us.” I got a good recommendation and that was it. That was it. And I was 24 and I was devastated. Here I was with 2 degrees from MIT, laid off.

She went to work for Autographix, where she continued her work in graphics. Lucy Gilbert was a software engineer, who took pride in creating solid software. She remembers: “When I was working on a specific font which had to be in a certain way for a customer, and the customer would come up and say, “that ‘B’ this size, has a pixel off in this metric there.  You have to fix that. I’d be like,huh? I can’t see that. But I’ll fix it!” Lucy found it fun to explore how to do the basic equation and transformations could be tailored to support user’s interaction with fonts. Back then, users could not just pick a font and e.g. rotate the text; instead Lucy Gilbert did all the transformations for the customers. One example she remembers is working on the “Toys R Us” effect, and how she made it possible to take the ‘R’ and transform it around, turned it sideways, or flipped it.  She was programming all those equations and was enjoying it tremendously. Lucy enjoyed combining math and programming, and to design the tools from the bottom up in all details. She owned and was proud of her work.

She also created a presentation system where the user could use multiple screens for presentations. This work included writing a scrolling system for their custom hardware. This made it possible for the user to scroll up and down screens and across multiple screens. Lucy Gilbert explains: “They rasterized, at the time, at 2K and 4K—that was a big deal: to have 2K rasterization and 4K rasterizations for slide presentations. It was a lot of memory back then”.  When working on the presentation software, she also collaborated with the hardware engineer, because she as the software develop had to program all of the customized hardware.

When Lucy Gilbert had her first child in 1991, she began to work from home, only coming in one day a week, when she had her second child, she was laid off, again. Lucy Gilbert has six children all together, and at the time of the interview (2019) the oldest had just turned 28 and the youngest is 16 – and all the ones in between are 26, 24, 22, and 19. All Lucy Gilbert’s children are in STEM programs, the oldest son double majored in computer science and physics. Her next two daughters are both in Physics PhD programs, and her third daughter is about to start a Math PhD program. Her fourth daughter starts college next fall and wants to study neuroscience. Her youngest son is still in high school. Lucy Gilbert’s children all know that she has a technical background, and they have all seen her program. Lucy Gilbert returned to the tech business in 2008, where she created her own company designing web sites using PHP, HTML, CSS, Java, JavaScript, Python, or whatever is necessary for the job — and she is really good at it.