How Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley changed business

The computer programmer challenged sexual discrimination, employment law and social convention when she founded her own IT firm in the 1960s.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 06 Mar 2020

Why ‘Steve’?

When she founded her software programme business with £6 in 1962, Shirley found that if she signed business letters with her real name, Stephanie, people seldom responded, so she adopted the pseudonym Steve. 

The company Freelance Programmers (later F International, F.I. Group, and Xansa) flourished in the UK and India before it was sold in 2007 to French rival Steria for £456m. 

A trailblazer for IT and for women, Shirley retired at the age of 60 to devote more time to causes, including autism, from which her son Giles suffered acutely.

It took guts for a woman to start an IT business in 1962...

It did, but she had shown her resilience when she was five, adapting to a new life in the UK as a refugee from Nazi Germany in July 1939. 

Mathematics was not on the curriculum at her girls’ school in Oswestry, so she studied it at a local boys’ school. In the 1950s, working at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, she built computers from scratch, while getting an honours degree in maths at evening classes.

Her success owed a lot to her adaptability – her career at the company that became ICL stalled, inspiring her to found her own business.

Why was the company called Freelance Programmers?

Because she wanted to establish a software business that welcomed women back into the workforce after a career break. 

Out of the first 300 staff, 297 were women, at a time when a woman could not open a bank account without her husband’s permission. The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act made such a policy untenable but, by then, the company had its own unique culture. 

What were her greatest successes?

Being the only woman on the Post Office team that developed ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) to draw Premium Bond numbers in 1957. 

Programming Concorde’s black box – done entirely, she said, “by a bunch of women working in their own homes”. Unlike many founder-entrepreneurs, she also left the business of her own volition. After a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s, she began looking for a CEO she could hand over to, appointing Hilary Cropper in 1987.  

The secret to her success?

She says the two-and-a-half-day journey as a refugee from Vienna to Liverpool Street, to a “strange country with a strange language, strange people, strange parents, strange food,” taught her how to cope with change.

This piece was first published in the December 2019 print edition of Management Today.

Image credit: John Stillwell/AGP/Getty Images

 

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