Ullman's adoptive father's family included computer scientists and mathematicians who had a major impact on her decision to pursue software engineering, a field for which she did "not have native talent." Ullman earned a B.A. in English at Cornell University in the early 1970s. She began working professionally in 1978 as a programmer of EDI applications and graphical user interfaces that preceded Microsoft Windows.
She eventually began writing about her experiences as a programmer. From 1994 until 1996 she published articles in Harper's Magazine and in the collections Resisting the Virtual Life and Wired Women. In 1995 she wrote an essay titled Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life. She lives in San Francisco.
^Zeisler, Andi (30 April 1999). "Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents". Bitch (Bitch Publications) 1 (2): 50. ISSN1524-5314. "This excellent volume by Ellen Ullman--software engineer, owner of a consulting firm, and technology commentator for NPR's All Things Considered--is a memoir in the form of a series of anecdotal ruminations on how technology affects the social world."