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

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