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Mary Jean Harrold

September 22, 2013

Mary Jean has passed away—she is already greatly missed


Mary Jean Harrold started like many of her generation, as a math major. She earned her BS and MA degrees in mathematics from Marshall University. Then she received her MS and PhD degrees in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh.

Today I will talk about Mary Jean. I talk with sadness because she passed away this week, but also with appreciation.

Mary Jean Harrold was a professor at Georgia Tech who was one of the leaders in the world in software engineering. Quoting Rich DeMillo:

“She was the face of software engineering at GT.”

See here for details on her group.

Jie Ren, a software engineer at Google, and Richard Taylor, director of the Institute for Software Research at the University of California, Irvine, published in Communications of the ACM a study that named Mary Jean the No. 1 software engineer in the world, as of 2007. Currently Microsoft’s ranking page lists her as third in the world: just behind Victor Basili and Ed Clarke. Just behind one Turing Award winner, Clarke, and ahead of others. Either way she was one of the best in the world.

She wrote well over two hundred papers in her career, but numbers alone are inadequate as a measure of her impact. She helped revolutionize software engineering, helped advance women in computing, and changed Computer Science in general. All this was for the better, and all with a smile and a kind heart.

Her advancing women is a pun, since she was the NSF Advance Professor.

Mary Jean worked with over a hundred co-authors, and was a unmatched mentor to her students and her colleagues. Here is a wordle of her publications:


It’s Just ABC

I had the honor of working with her on one project, which led me to be on one paper with her. I tell this story because I think it shows how kind she could be. The project is detailed on this page.

When I first got to Tech Mary Jean had started to work on a project that introduced a new type of testing. The details are not too important for this story. She had a name for the project, but was quite unhappy about it. I thought about it a little, and one day after a project meeting sent her this email:

I have an idea on what to call the project. There is alpha testing and beta testing, so let’s call this new approach delta testing.

Mary Jean sent back a quick response:

Great idea Dick. But its alpha, beta, gamma {\dots}

The project became the Gamma project. I liked her light way: she could have said, “the next Greek letter after beta is gamma you {\dots}” But she was a class act. Just corrected me and moved on with a smile.

Open Problems

What will we do about Mary Jean’s passing? How can we honor her? These are some of the questions that we at Tech and in the larger computing community have already begun to consider. It will be hard to properly honor her and her work, but we will try. The College Of Computing is starting by preparing a special website for her. You can also go to here to leave you thoughts for her family.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Rankin permalink
    September 22, 2013 6:06 pm

    Sorry for your loss. My sympathy.

    Richard Rankin 1717 Capital Avenue Madison, Wi 53705 (608) 513-4495

    A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    On 9/22/13 1:43 PM, “Gdels Lost Letter and P=NP”

  2. ludic7 permalink
    September 23, 2013 1:17 am

    since she is prolific in having co-authors, just like we have erdos number in math we should have Mary numbers in computer science… It remind us all to carry forward her legacy with generousity and kindness

  3. September 27, 2013 2:01 pm


    That would be a nice idea really.

    Rafee Kamouna.

  4. September 27, 2013 2:05 pm

    This post remembers me of the early tragic death of Mihai Patrascu. But here, even too much less comments.


    Rafee Kamouna.


  1. Mary Jean Harrold | Rocketboom

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