Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Amazing Grace Hopper: life advice from a remarkable woman

One of the reasons I enjoy researching the lives of women in history is the sense of perspective I get on my own life and the problems I face. There are so many amazing women who've led fascinating lives, overcome tremendous obstacles, and made a positive and lasting impact on the world around them. Grace Hopper is certainly counted among them.

As the inventor the first computer compiler and one of the developers of COBOL, she's been a source of inspiration for folks working in computer science for decades. As one of the most prominent women founders of what is still largely a male field, she has become an important role model for women and girls striving to break down their own gender barriers, no matter what field they pursue.

I have long felt a kind of connection with her that goes back to my own childhood in a way I didn't quite understand until just recently. I heard the term COBOL quite a bit when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, but like other terms related to my dad's career it didn't mean much to me. I mean, how many kids in 1978 could explain what a "system analyst" did? All I knew was my dad "worked with computers" and brought home cool stuff for me to play with. (Continuous form computer paper with its green and white bars made fantastic drawing paper!) I didn't know what COBOL was exactly, just that it was what my dad did -- during the day, and many evenings and weekends during crunch time, and occasionally during panicked phone calls in the middle of the night.

Growing up, I had no idea COBOL was created by a woman who'd been programming computers longer than my dad had been alive. Which, looking back, seems kinda strange considering the fact I grew up in a house full of stories about women in history. When I asked my dad about her recently, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Rear Admiral Hopper is one of his personal heroes. I've had a couple of really interesting conversations with my dad about what he's heard about her over the many years he's been working with COBOL. He never had the opportunity to take a class with her but he sometimes met folks who did who always talked warmly of the experience. It seems her talents extended well beyond the ability to organize the systems involved with programming a computer to perform complex functions -- she was also an excellent teacher and mentor.

This amazing woman was a trail-blazer, and nearly 25 years after her death, she's still a role model whose life continues to serve as a positive influence for pretty much everyone. Her wisdom can help us find strength when we need it most, and encouragement to keep working. Throughout her life she received numerous awards and honors for her work, but this week she received a very special award in recognition of her contribution as a role model and source of inspiration: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Grace Hopper started life as a curious little girl, who went on to study Mathematics and Physics, leading her to first a teaching position, and then as a computer programmer working for the Navy during World War II. After the war, already in her 40s, she began the work she is celebrated for, spending the next 40-something years serving her country, working on creating the foundation of modern computer science, inventing the compiler, and creating and teaching one of the most widely used computer languages.

We may not be able to attend one of her lectures on COBOL and its importance for keeping businesses and governments operating smoothly, but here are some other important life lessons we can still learn from her.

1. Stay Curious
"No computer is ever going to ask a new, reasonable question. It takes trained people to do that."
Curiosity is key. Grace's success as an innovator programmer can easily be tied to her curiosity -- her natural way of looking at the things in front of her and trying to understand how it works, and then figure out how it can work better.

It's a child's job to learn about the world around her, but sometimes as they grow older many people lose the ability or desire to ask "why?" In a way, they become more like computers than they know. They simply go through the motions of life without stopping to think about other ways.

Grace's innate curiosity was evident at a very early age. And, fortunately for her, it was supported by her parents. When her mother discovered seven-year-old Grace had disassembled several clocks in an attempt to understand how they worked, she encouraged her curiosity, while also limiting her to one device in the interest of keeping some working timekeepers in the house.

2. Look Forward
"It is insufficient to plan on the past alone; the plan must be examined in the light of 'all possible future developments.'" 
Computer programming is really not too different from planning one's day, or sketching out one's career goals. You have to try to include enough information to be able to anticipate new developments, which means you need to anticipate all the possible outcomes.

Grace's father was ill and knew he wouldn't be able to provide a comfortable living for his children. He recognized Grace's natural talent and ambition and he encouraged her to pursue her own goals, making sure she had the education she needed to forge her own way in the world. With this in mind, she earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics from Vassar in 1928, and went on to get a master's and Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, finally graduating in 1934. She could not have known this would lead her to working for the Navy or helping to create a computer language that would become the foundation for most computer systems around the globe. She just knew she needed to be prepared for whatever path in life she followed.

3. Be Brave
"Probably the most dangerous phrase that anyone could use in the world today is that dreadful one: 'But we've always done it that way.'"  
Grace Hopper knew old solutions weren't going to fix new problems. Part of looking forward is knowing you will have to face challenges you might not have been able to anticipate, and the only way to move forward is to think up new solutions. Sometimes that means bucking the system -- something that can take an immense amount of determination and strength of character, two traits Grace Hopper had considerable amounts of.

Whether in her position with the Navy or for private industry, the one thing she encountered repeatedly was someone in a leadership role with an inability to see the wider implications of what she was working on. They were stuck in old thinking while she was dreaming of a future where computers were as ubiquitous as ... well... as they actually are now. Convincing these people for whom computers were the purview of physicists and mathematicians to create a common computer language that would allow non-mathematicians to be able to program computers may be her greatest achievement. And one she had to work hard to accomplish. If she'd been any less forthright or intrepid, who knows how things may have turned out?

4. Take Risks
"The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, 'Try it.' And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances."
Grace Hopper knew the best way to get innovative ideas was to foster creativity in herself and in her team. We can draw a direct line between her tinkering with alarm clocks to her tinkering with computers, and we can extend this line to her decision to give her students the opportunity to tinker on their own as well. She learned from her own life the value of being supported and given the freedom to explore her curiosity at an early age, and it's clear she gave others that same opportunity.

By supporting her team, and giving them a place where taking risks was they key to solving problems, she was able to create a supportive and collaborative working environment where new ideas were explored and each advancement was cause for celebration by the whole team.

5. You're Never Too Old
"I seem to do a lot of retiring,"
World War II began Grace Hopper was already in her mid-30s. She joined the Navy Reserves, serving as part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the program run by Mildred McAfee). She graduated from the top of her class at the Midshipmen's School at Smith College in 1944, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, working with Howard Aiken using the first computer to figure ordnance calculations. She was 37 years old and just beginning the most important part of her career.

After the war, she was nearly 40 years old. Told she was "too old," she was discharged from active duty, although she remained in the Naval Reserves and continued to work on their computers at Harvard. In 1949, she left Harvard to work in private industry, where she had many of her greatest computer programming breakthroughs -- proving computers could do more than simple arithmetic, and then later creating COBOL.

Nearly 20 years after they'd called her "too old," the Navy called her back. In 1967, at the age of 61 and less than one year after retiring from the Reserves, she was recalled to active duty with the Navy, serving as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group. It was in this position where she developed validation software for COBOL and its compiler, creating a standardized program for COBOL across all the Navy's application. Something that still exists in many forms today.

From 1967 until August 14, 1986, she was retired and recalled repeatedly. Seems she was an invaluable resource for the Navy, despite her increasing age. She received several special dispensations from Congress to allow her to remain in service long after the age of attrition for most officers, simply because she was necessary to their operations.

When she was finally forced to retire in 1986, she was 80 years old -- the Navy's oldest active duty commissioned officer. Too old! Pshaw!

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