Professor Jo Atlee named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women

Monday, October 30, 2023

Cheriton School of Computer Science Professor Jo Atlee has been named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, a recognition conferred for her foundational research in software engineering and her advocacy for women in computer science.

“Congratulations to Jo Atlee on receiving this important and well-deserved recognition from WXN,” said Raouf Boutaba, Professor and Director of the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “She has made many lasting contributions to software engineering that are recognized internationally by industry and academia. But even more importantly, she is a role model and inspiration, who works and advocates tirelessly for equity and inclusion across marginalized and underrepresented groups in computer science.”

Professor Atlee has been a faculty member at the University of Waterloo since 1992. “My time as a professor in Computer Science at Waterloo has been incredible,” she says. She especially appreciates that academia allows her to pursue multiple interests and kinds of work. “One of the unique aspects of being a professor is the ability to move in and out of roles over the course of your career. I’ve been able to focus on research and co-lead a nationwide research team; concentrate on teaching, curriculum development, and textbook writing; assume administrative roles; and repeatedly return to being a ‘plain old professor.’” 

Professor Jo Atlee by University of Waterloo sign

With respect to her research, Professor Atlee is best known for her work on software modelling and analysis for error detection. Of particular interest are what are known as feature interactions — design errors that arise when a large software system is decomposed into components or features that are developed by different teams working mostly independently of each other. Problems emerge when the teams try to combine the components into a coherent system, but the components interact with each other in surprising ways. Professor Atlee’s work in this area includes notations for modelling software components, operations for integrating components into a model of the system, and tools for automatically analyzing the models.

Professor Atlee was the founding Director of Waterloo’s Software Engineering program. Established in 2000, this early interdisciplinary program is run jointly by the Faculties of Mathematics and Engineering. Its founding required building consensus among the professors and administrators about the content of the program, admission requirements, the rules for progressing through the program — even the colour of the hoods at convocation.

Over her career, Professor Atlee has seen major social changes in her field — for better and for worse. “When I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s, around 35 percent of the students in Computer Science were women,” she recalls. “By the time I started teaching at Waterloo, less than a decade later, that number had dropped to about 10 percent.” 

As a young professor, she faced skepticism from many of her students, mostly men, who weren’t accustomed to a woman professor teaching systems-based computer science courses. When she became involved in efforts to support women in computer science, alumnae would reach out and share their experiences in the workplace. “They didn’t have networks, and they felt isolated,” she says. Many women would end up leaving the field after a series of bad experiences where they felt completely alone. 

The Women in Computer Science committee was founded in 2007, and Professor Atlee served as its inaugural Director from 2015 to 2018, and again since 2020. The purpose of WiCS she says, is to create spaces for professional development and mentoring of women students in computer science. Much of the emphasis is on encouraging women to establish their own personal networks of technical women. “Being able to vet your experiences with others, seek support, and share advice is so important,” she says. “Having a network is the key to having the resilience to deal with difficult situations.” 

Professor Atlee is also responsible for bringing a chapter of the Technovation program to Waterloo in 2018, a worldwide program where girls ages 8 to 18 learn about entrepreneurship and tech in tandem. It provides a wholistic introduction to computing that focuses on how technology can be used to improve the world, Professor Atlee says. “The girls join for the entrepreneurial experience, and through the program they learn to code a mobile app.

Inaugural group of Technovation participants at the University of Waterloo

The inaugural group of Technovation participants at the University of Waterloo in January 2018.

There is still a great deal of progress to be made, however. At Waterloo, Professor Atlee says, the representation of women in computer science is just above 25 percent — still lower than it was when she was a student in the 1980s. The numbers continue to improve, and she has faith that strong role models, mentoring, and community building will help to close the gap.

Professor Atlee’s own career is evidence of the power of that belief. While she has had many great mentors and coworkers for whom she is grateful, she says, first and foremost she owes her career path to her mother. “She insisted that I go into computing and made me take my first programming class. I fell in love with the discipline from there,” she recalls. “She knew what I could do.” 

More about Professor Atlee and her career

Professor Joanne Atlee, P.Eng, is a Professor and the Director of Women in Computer Science at the Cheriton School of Computer Science. She obtained her PhD in Computer Science from the University of Maryland in 1992.

Professor Atlee serves on the editorial boards of the top software-engineering journals and on numerous conference organizing and program committees, including as General Chair for the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering in Montréal in 2019. She is a member and former Vice Chair of the International Federation of Information Processing Working Group 2.9 on Software Requirements Engineering. Currently, she serves on the international ACM SIGSOFT Executive Committee and on the Board of Directors of CS-Can | Info-Can, the national organization for computer science.

In recognition of her research contributions and leadership in the software engineering research community, Professor Atlee was named an ACM Distinguished Scientist in 2016, was the recipient of the IEEE CS TCSE Distinguished Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Award in 2020, and the recipient of the ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Service Award in 2022. Most recently, she along with her colleague Krzysztof Czarnecki and their former students were awarded a ten-year most influential paper award at the 17th International Working Conference on Variability Modelling of Software-Intensive Systems.

Professor Atlee’s doctoral research was the first to analyze software requirements automatically. She has devised mathematical languages to model the behaviour of software and tools to automatically analyze the correctness of those models, and has demonstrated the feasibility of analyzing models of large, real-world software systems. She was a pioneering researcher in feature interactions who now has more than 30 years of experience in detecting and resolving feature interactions. Much of that work was in collaboration with industrial partners that include Nortel Networks, Mitel Networks, AT&T, and General Motors Canada. 

Professor Atlee has authored and coauthored more than 130 publications with an h-index of 25 on Google Scholar. She has given keynote presentations at several major international research conferences including the IEEE International Requirements Engineering Conference, the International Conference on Modularity, and the ACM SIGSOFT Joint European Software Engineering Conference and Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering. She has also twice served as a member of the Committee of Visitors that reviews the research granting processes and outcomes for the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Hardware and Software Foundations program.

With Shari Lawrence Pfleeger, she co-authored Software Engineering: Theory and Practice, a textbook now in its fourth edition. She was the founding Director of the Software Engineering program at Waterloo, where she led the development of the first Software Engineering program in Canada designed and delivered jointly by the Faculties of Mathematics and Engineering. She was a member of the ACM Education Council from 2007 to 2009, and served on the ACM/IEEE joint task force to develop the 2004 Computing Curricula guidelines for Software Engineering.

In addition to her work at Waterloo in promoting gender equity in STEM, nationally Professor Atlee serves on the DEI Task Force of CS-Can | Info-Can, where she leads efforts to collect statistics and assess nationally the status of women in university-level computer science programs. She also serves on the steering committee for the CAN-CWIC conference. Internationally, she serves on the ACM SIGSOFT Executive Committee as a Liaison for DEI and heads the sub-committee on codes of conduct for SIGSOFT conferences.

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