It’s Ada Lovelace day again. Today many hundreds (hopefully a couple of thousand) of bloggers are writing about women in technology to bring visibility to them. Last year I wrote about my wife who is a teacher and who I admire greatly. This year I decided to go old school and write about Grace Hopper. Sure a lot of people will be writing about her. There are a lot of people who admire her and she was a great pioneer in computer science. There is no question that she was an inspiration to me personally.
I met Grace Hopper for the first time while I was an undergraduate student at Taylor University. She came out to the school to give some talks to students and some advice to the computer science faculty. I was impressed from the start. Grace Hopper could tell a story in ways that helped you learn and remember what you learned. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp and an other impressive computer science pioneer, gave a talk the same year and while I remember being impressed with him I couldn’t tell you a thing he said. With Grace Hopper I can.
One analogy she used was horses. She said that for generations people breed larger and larger horses as the need for more pulling power grew. At some point though they just had to give in and hitch up more horses. That was the computers were going to have to go. (This was the early 1970s BTW and multiprocessors were little more than theory). We were going to have to find ways to spread work across multiple computers. And of course she was right and every time I heard people talk about multi-processors, load balancing and the like I thought back on her words years earlier.
Only later did I realize that it wasn’t enough to have good ideas but you had to also be able to communicate them. That communication was one of Grace Hopper’s gifts. But she was also a tough person to deal with in some cases.
At one company I worked for I ran into someone who was responsible for fielding requests from Grace Hopper’s organization at the Pentagon. She may have looked like someone’s little old grandma (the nickname her staff called her by) but she could be tough as nails and would not hesitate to throw the weight of the department of Defense into the fray when she wanted something from a vendor who needed her approval to sell to the government. She was relentless in working for standardization of the COBOL language at a time when that was the programming language for line of business applications. I've always been happy that the Navy named a real honest to goodness ship of war after Admiral Hopper. (USS Hopper (DDG-70)) Anything else would not have been fitting.
One last thing, Grace Hopper always said that if anyone who attended one of her lectures ever said they would do something “because we’ve always done it that way” she should would appear at their side to haunt them. I don’t say that myself but when someone else does one person comes to mind – always – Grace Murray Hopper. An American hero, a computer science hero and my personal hero.