Software Engineering

This past week of February was National Engineers Week, and it’s always an excellent time to learn about different engineers today as well as those whose shoulders we stand on. I haven’t practiced engineering as a professional in over eight years, but I still work with engineers and structural engineering every day at Bentley Systems.

I wanted to post a bit on some of the history of software engineering and, in particular, just how much women have contributed and really created that discipline.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pictured with her table of algorithms created as an example code

Lovelace is widely recognized as having created the very first computer code language, when transcribing in her shorthand some mathematics to use on Charles Babbage’s difference engine. Stephen Wolfram did some research on Lovelace’s life and wrote a fascinating article on her life and work.

 

WWII Computers

Prior to the general adoption of digital computers, a “computer” was actually a human person who sat and did calculations all day. These were almost without exception women, many of whom had degrees in mathematics but were not able to continue on in the field due to their gender. During World War II, when the US Army was researching the first digital computer — the ENIAC, a group of these women who had been calculating munition trajectories were hired on to encode the same calculations into that computer. They wrote the computer code and the debugging for the first computer.

The excellent documentary “Top Secret Rosies1 contains many first-person interviews with these women and the men who fought in WWII, using their work everyday in the war.

Katherine Johnson

She was a computer when computers wore skirts.

And Katherine Johnson was just about the best. So good, in fact, that when digital computers were being used to calculate the mission trajectories for the first moon landing, John Glen insisted that they be checked by Johnson first2.

Makers.com has a wonderful set of video interviews about her career.

Last year, Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom —one of the two highest civilian honor this country bestows— in honor of her accomplishments as well as her being a role model for women and people of color.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was an early computer scientist who is probably best known for having discovered an actual bug (a moth) in a piece of computer equipment (a printer). However, it was her contribution of creating the first digital compiler for taking human-readable code and converting it to machine language that was truly a remarkable achievement.

As a I told my after school coding club kids last Fall, anytime you are debugging code so a computer can understand it, think about Admiral Hopper!

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to listings of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code (Courtesy Wikipedia)

While Katherine Johnson and others had calculated the trajectory for the Apollo mission, the spacecraft itself now had digital computers on board. Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer —a phrase coined by Anthony Oettinger and then put into wide use by Hamilton— for the Apollo craft’s operating system. Her foresight into operation priorities saved the day when a radar system malfunctioned but the guidance system architecture still landed the lunar module. She founded Hamilton Technologies in 1986.

Today

I can’t help but wonder that men haven’t simply co-opted the role of software engineer from women once it became clear that software was a worthwhile endeavor. However, there are many great women engineers practicing today, in both software and other engineering disciplines. I have the privilege of working with many at Bentley Systems. However, we’ve done a great disservice to young women in creating a culture that fails to encourage women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. STEM programs go a long way to help right this, but I think we also need to recognize that women have managed to create much of the modern world we know today, particularly in the field of software. And this in spite of the uphill climb many of these women faced in just finding work at all!

So in honor of engineers week, let’s be sure to let young women know that not only is their a future in STEM for them, but there is also an amazing past to be proud of!

Coding is for girls” by Anne McGraw

Further Reading

  1. At the time of this writing, it was on DVD only and not especially easy to find. I was able to rent it from Netflix and it may be for sale on Amazon. I highly encourage anyone interested in tech, history, or warfare to watch it. []
  2. Always check the computer kids! It’s only as good as the programmer. []

Octavia Butler’s Oankali

Amy Deng’s Oankali for an art exercise “Imagining the Oankali.” A Google image search for Oankali and Ooloi does’t turn up much other than a lot of rough fan art, but I liked this drawing a lot; as much because of its analytical approach as the representation itself.

For the second year now, I’ve read an Octavia Butler novel during the month of February. February, being black history month, seemed like a good time to read her work and pay respect to one of the greatest science fiction authors. However, it’s also a bit ridiculous to only relegate her work to one month a year and I plan to finish the Xenogenesis trilogy (aka, Lilith’s Brood) this year. I especially love science fiction with truly “alien” creatures and Butler’s Oankali are unique in every aspect.

But if you’re not familiar with Octavia Butler and her work —and I wasn’t for most of my life— take some time to learn more about her. She was by all indications a genuinely wonderful person who proved having diverse points of view are important to science fiction or any genre. I particularly enjoyed reading this interview from In Motion Magazine, which was likely one of her last as well as watching this interview with Charlie Rose for PBS. Science fiction and fantasy genres have always had an issue with a lack of diversity and it is extraordinary what she accomplished for women and people of color.

This final quote from an interview she did in Locus Magazine in 2000 makes me especially sad that she abandoned her final parable novel:

Parable of the Trickster – if that’s what the next one ends up being called – will be the Seattle novel, because I have removed myself to a place that is different from where I’ve spent most of my life. I remember saying to Vonda McIntyre, ‘Part of this move is research,’ and it is – it’s just that Seattle is where I’ve wanted to move since I visited there the first time in 1976. I really like the city, but it is not yet home. As they tell writers to do, I’ll take any small example of something and build it into a larger example. I’ve moved to Seattle; my characters have moved to Alpha Centauri, or whatever. (That was not literal.) But they suffer and learn about the situation there a little bit because of what I learn about from my move to Seattle. Writers use everything. If it doesn’t kill you, you probably wind up using it in your writing.

So if you’re inspired to learn more about African-American contributions during Black History month, then by all means start with Octavia Butler. Just be sure to not leave her there but continue enjoying her amazing writing anytime.

The Real Glass Menagerie

Angela and I were able to go see a local production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” Saturday night. The cast and production were excellent and the audience, ourselves included, were moved by Laura’s panic attack as Jim arrives and with Tom’s final address of the audience.:

Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow.

Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes…

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

I had recalled from high school that this play was largely autobiographical, but reading more about Williams’ life makes that scene all the more heartbreaking. One of Williams’ two sisters, Rose, was Tennessee’s (real name: Thomas) closest friend when growing up was the basis for the character of Laura, or “Blue Roses” as she is nicknamed in the play. Rose Williams was given a lobotomy —one with some apparently very bad effect on her personality— after he left home to pursue his career in writing. He later would move her to a closer facility and, upon his death, leave much of his wealth to provide for her.

“The Glass Menagerie” was a ground-breaking play in how it dealt with personality disorders, inter-family dynamics, and the cost of leaving home for one’s own sake. It’s no wonder it still has so much power knowing what Williams went through for the source.

Schneider on the FBI Demand on Apple

When Bruce Schneier weighs in on the security implications of government actions, we should all pay attention:

We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

This is the person that coined the phrase “security theater” and he isn’t in the habit of making up unlikely stories to scare us. He is, however, very good at understanding real risks to security for people, businesses, and countries.