Book Review: Let It Go by Stephanie Shirley

A child refugee builds the first wholly female software company, putting feminism into practice, and goes on to become one of the most noted philanthropists in her country. It’s a story fit for Hollywood. Stephanie Shirley tells it with gusto, raw honesty, and compelling writing in her autobiography, Let It Go.

As a half-Jewish child during the beginning of World War 2, Shirley was saved from the horrors of Nazism by escaping on a train as a child refugee. In England she would build a new life, and build a software consulting company. Freelance Programmers (later F International) employed female programmers who were under-appreciated and discriminated against by the business world at the time. Many of these women worked from home part-time or while raising children in a world that wouldn’t allow them to work otherwise. They would work on large technical projects for some of the largest companies in Britain. Let It Go is a strong feminist treatise drawn from reality, not abstractions.

Shirley was a pioneer in many ways. Creating a software company in and of itself was still a new idea in 1962 when she got started. Creating a company of freelancers decades before “the gig economy” was an innovation. Employing almost all women in a technology company (although women were many of the first programmers) was unheard of. In Let It Go Shirley takes you through the early struggles of building Freelance Programmers. The reader receives a strong understanding of how the company operated, how it acquired clients, and the challenges that it faced as it grew from her cottage into a multi-million dollar enterprise. While Shirley covers the early period in the right level of detail, the company’s later growth is not as well recounted in the book.

Let It Go is also a deeply personal book. Shirley goes into detail about her relationships, her family life, and her struggles taking care of her child, Giles, who is affected by a severe form of autism. She weaves the personal stories well into the business narrative, making it a more “full picture” story than most business books. Her personal life affected her business and vice versa. That’s true of almost anybody, and to think otherwise is a folly. Yet many business memoirs almost completely exclude personal details.

One of the things I appreciate most about Let It Go is that Shirley held nothing back. Even embarrassing or difficult details were not left out. If she felt jealousy or betrayal over a colleague’s actions, she explained it. She covered her mental breakdown. She covered marriage difficulties. She covered her fraught relationship with her parents. It was real. It was raw. And it made for a more realistic, interesting, and insightful journey.

The latter half of the book deals primarily with three topics: Shirley’s transformation of her company into a partially employee-owned operation, her struggles to help her son with his condition, and her philanthropy. Shirley ended up being a leading figure in philanthropy in Britain, and in autism philanthropy in particular. She founded a school for children with autism, the country’s largest autism charity, and too many other philanthropic initiatives to mention here.

The theme of the book can be seen as “relinquishing control,” hence the title Let It Go. Shirley ultimately let go of her personal tragedies, her business, and many of her philanthropic ventures (to other managers). And she sees them as more successful as a result of it. It’s a powerful message that can only be fully understood by reading the book. If you have any interest in the early software consulting business, the evolution of autism care, women working in technology, or just want to read a great life story, Let It Go is worth your time.

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