The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Margaret Burnett Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

January 10, 2017


Margaret M. Burnett was born in 1949 in Springfield, Illinois, where she was also raised. A bright student with a talent for math, Burnett enrolled in college at Miami University of Ohio in 1967, attracted in part by the university's pioneering Computer Science program. Though she ultimately ended up majoring in Mathematics, Burnett's contacts with Computer Science as a minor at Miami provided her with an introduction to the discipline that she would ultimately pursue as a career.

Following the completion of her undergraduate work in 1970, Burnett moved to Cincinnati where she had accepted a job offer in software engineering at Procter & Gamble Ivorydale. Once arrived, Burnett learned that she was the first woman hired into management at the Ivorydale campus. She was twenty-one years old at the time.

After a year-and-a-half in Cincinnati, Burnett moved with her husband to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she found work in the fledgling technology sector and ultimately started a business of her own. Seven years later the Burnetts moved again, this time to Lawrence, Kansas, where Burnett's husband had been hired by the U.S. Geological Survey and where Margaret began her graduate studies at the University of Kansas. Upon completing her master's degree in Computer Science in 1981, Burnett returned to the private sector as a consultant. She re-enrolled at Kansas in 1987 and completed her Computer Science doctorate four years later, focusing her research on visual programming languages. During her years as a graduate student, Burnett also founded the Lawrence Women's Network, a regional resource for female professionals that exists to this day.

In 1993, following a fifteen-month stint as a faculty member at Michigan Technological University, Burnett accepted a job offer from Oregon State University, in the process becoming the second woman to be hired into the school's Computer Science department. Once arrived, Burnett initially worked to further her research on visual programming languages, an area of interest that gradually evolved to include investigations of software testing and debugging. A year after joining the OSU faculty, Burnett received a prestigious Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation.

In the early 2000s, Burnett began to take a more focused interest in gender equity as it concerns software design. With a student, she ultimately developed GenderMag - short for "gender inclusiveness magnifier" - a protocol that helps software engineers to evaluate the gender inclusivity of their programs. In addition to GenderMag, Burnett helped to co-found the discipline of end-user software engineering and has made important contributions to information foraging theory. In 2016, she became the sixth woman in OSU's history to be named a Distinguished Professor, the highest honor that the university bestows upon members of its faculty.