GHC Reflections: Grace Hopper (Looking Back)

For this reflection I wanted to take a step back and look at the namesake of the Grace Hopper Celebration – Grace Hopper herself. Time and time again she was remembered and commemorated at the event, and rightly so.

Grace Hopper was a United States Navy Rear Admiral, and of course a computer scientist. In addition to her plethora of distinguishments from the United States for her service, she is most known for the creation of the first compiler. In this regard, Grace Hopper is one of the “mothers” of computing. Modern computing simply would not be possible without compilers. In addition to this, she advocated the idea of machine-independent programming, which led to the development of COBOL. She is also known for coining the term “bug” in computing.

It is easy to see why Grace Hopper would be a strong representation for a conference celebrating women in computing. A woman with such great success who helped found modern computing as we know it surely deserves such recognition. However, in my eyes she represents more than just success in the computing field. She was also a strong woman who refused to be shyed away from her aspirations in computing.

Thinking back to Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote, and the strong undertones throughout the entire conference, one key message rang clear: women are underrepresented, undernoticed, and undertrusted in the computing science field. Grace Hopper is a symbol of both this perpetuation and rising above it. No one believed that she had created a running compiler. Her passion for compilers and machine-indepedent programming led her to be believed crazy by some. Those in her field (mostly men) told her the computer was only good for arthimetic, nothing more. That she was wasting her time on silly pipe dreams.

Yet look where we are because of her.

And still, for the amazing amount she has contributed to our technology today, how much is she recognized as an important figure? Not to fall tangent into a “her-story” monologue, but truly, how much do we learn of Grace Hopper in a technology classroom? Men like Hoare and Djikestra are remembered fondly for their algorithms – none of which would even apply to computing had Hopper not developed the compiler. Even in a computer languages and compilers classroom, her name is scarce. The shame of prominent and competent women still remaining unseen in the public eye when it comes to technology seems even to apply to someone as strong and amazing as Hopper.

Regardless of this dysfunction, nothing can dismiss from Hopper her colored career and amazing achievements. And for the fortunate who recognize her achievement and, if I may be bold, general awesomeness, a world of inspiration and stories of potential as well as a network of committed, diverse technologists await. Though Hopper may not be recognized as strongly as she always should be, she is still remembered, still recognized, and still carries a strong legacy that we can learn from and grow in.

One thing that impresses me about Grace Hopper beyond her accolades, is some of the quotes that are attributed to her. She is known for such oft quoted phrases as “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things” and “It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission”. Again, when these quotes are said they are not often attributed back to Hopper, but a quick search will yield that indeed, she is the one who said them. As a quotes and poetry lover, while looking into Grace Hopper’s life I was amazed that such an accomplished computer scientists had such a way with words. Perhaps an inherent love of languages that helped her develop the compiler in the first place? Either way, I was impressed and excited.

Hopper’s fierce, tell-it-like-it-is attitude, eccentric and quirky manner, and overall, for lack of a more efficient word – epicness – add up to one wonderous firecracker of a woman warranting all the praise and celebration she has recieved over the years. Hopefully in time her and more woman like her will be recognized more highly for their amazing achievements and inspiring success stories – but for now I’ll hold her close to my heart as someone I feel that I can relate to, look up to, and allow to inspire me.

For more information about Grace Hopper, and about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, please visit: http://gracehopper.org/2013/

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.”” – Grace Hopper

GHC Reflections: Megan Smith Keynote

The second day of the Grace Hopper Celebration was kicked off by Megan Smith, vice-president of Google[x] at Google. For those unaware, Google[x] is a branch of Google devoted to more physical applications – Google Maps, Google Earth, and engineering for space innovations and methods of providing internet worldwide.

I was fascinated to find out about Google[x] – as searches for information on it yield rather sparse results. Granted, Google[x] is not in my specific field of interest – but hearing about seemingly “left-field” initiatives a company like Google is taking to expand themselves and make a difference was intriguing.

What stuck with me the most of Megan Smith’s keynote was her discussion on moonshots – which is what they see the Google[x] initiative as promoting. “Moonshots” are thinking beyond the purported limits of what can be done and aiming a little higher. One such statement was in the line of: “let’s throw away the thinking of how this product can change a million people’s lives – if we can make it change a billion people’s lives, well, then we’re talking”.

In this vein, moonshot seems to be an adage to the old inspirational saying (commonly plastered on grade school walls) stating “shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. The idea is that if you raise your bar higher, you will likely exceed your original expectation, even if you miss the new mark. I for one, welcome someone taking that phrase and coining it into a relevant term for innovative fields.

I think the concept behind moonshots bears repeating, and while simple is often forgotten. If you’re going to create a system or technology that works on such massive scales, you’re going to have to start from the bottom up. Fixing a car so that it gets not 60mpg but 600, or even 6000 – that line of thinking requires we reconsider how the car itself works and recreate it. To some it seems like reinventing the wheel – why not just optimize what exists and save time? But “reinventing” the wheel in this complete strip-down style can yield a nonwheel – that is, something that can take the place of the wheel but isn’t, and removes many of the prior issues the wheel had. We like to think by marginally increasing the bar we will save time and money – but why not set entirely new bars that, while intensive, could put us far and away from the competition?

Overall Megan’s keynote reminded me to dig a little deeper, and not to settle for making something “better” but to shoot beyond for perfect and enjoy my landing (albeit a bit short) among the stars of outstanding when I succeed. I look forward to finding more opportunitites for moonshots in my life – and hope she inspired others to as well.

For information on the Google[x] open forum initiative, Solve for [x] which encourages moonshot thinking and collaboration, please visit https://www.solveforx.com

“Solving any problem is more important than being right” — Milton Glaser

GHC Reflections: Sheryl Sandberg Keynote

Last week I had the joy of visiting the Grace Hopper Celebration in Minneapolis, MN as a scholarship recipient. For those unaware, the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) is a conference celebrating women in computing through speakers, panels, research presentations, learning sessions, and of course – dancing. The conference was awe-inspiring – to see so many women in a field where women are extremely underrepresented coming together with a common interest and drive. I left the conference with new knowledge and new vigor, and would like to share some of my experiences.

The kickoff keynote Wednesday was by none other than Sheryl Sandberg: COO of Facebook. Anyone unfamiliar with Sheryl Sandberg can do a quick search to find how successful of a business woman she is. Bringing in a powerhouse woman like Sandberg to speak to thousands of young aspiring women in technology definitely kicked the conference off with a bang.

Sandberg discussed women’s under representation in business in general  – one of the topics she is most noted for speaking on – but tied it to technology rather elegantly as the two topics often intertwine. For me, hearing Sandberg speak was a whole new level of amazing; I have been quoting her points on the inverse popularity of women as they rise in power for quite some time now.

What was saddening is how what Sandberg said to all of us on Wednesday morning rang true throughout the entire conference: women in computing truly aren’t recognized as being as capable as their male counterparts. Almost every other keynote and session thereafter had some story come out that reflected the truth she expressed that morning.

It was also rather unsettling to see how even a woman as powerful as Sandberg and who advocates so strongly that any woman can be successful still deals with the conception of women in business and technology. She spoke of a panel she had been on where a man stated “not all women are like Sheryl – she’s competent” and another on the panel stated how having women in the workplace may tempt him. It’s a pity that we still deal with these notions in business but also the technology field – and yet they ring too true. Stories of female developers who weren’t allowed by their bosses to touch any code lest they “break it”, then upon finally doing the code completing it well were told they “must be one of the good ones” – these conceptions are true across the board of females in technology. The fact that even someone as successful as Sandberg who should be the case in point for the absurdness of such statements still having to deal with them proves how misconstrued our views of women in technology and business truly are.

There are many reasons for the gender gap and gender conceptions in technology fields (some of which I will discuss in reflections from other GHC panels and keynotes), but one thing is clear: it must be eliminated. Every developer approaches their project from a different mindset – why would we ever want to suggest that just because that mindset is female it is not valid?

Female developers have done amazing things – just look at the GHC namesake. Without a marvelously smart and driven woman like Grace Hopper, modern computing would not have been possible. Why is her achievement of the compiler shoved under the rug, much like Sandberg’s success?

Being a woman is considered this fault that must be overcome for success – but it is not a fault at all. It means our success may come in different forms, and with a different background than many of our current counterparts (read: male). Variety is the spice of life, and allowing women’s successes to be celebrated and revered could breed wondrous possibilities and diversity.

And maybe, just maybe – if young girls see women who succeeded being regarded highly for their skill and achievements rather than called “lucky” for overcoming their gender barrier…well, maybe those young girls will know just how possible it is for them to be successful in the future as well.

See Sheryl Sandberg’s Keynote Here:
http://mashable.com/2013/10/02/sheryl-sandberg-grace-hopper

Sheryl Sandberg’s acclaimed book, Lean In, has started a foundation to support women and drive their ambition.
Learn more about Lean In circles, the Lean In foundation, or order the book here: http://leanin.org/

“I want to tell any young girl out there who’s a geek, I was a really serious geek in high school. It works out. Study harder.” -Sheryl Sandberg