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.

A New Direction For My Career

Bentley

As a result of our moving, I have taken a position of Senior Technical Writer with Bentley Systems, Inc. Specifically, I’ll be working with software in the structures group. In the past three years, Bentley has acquired several big names in structural engineering software: REI (STAAD), RAM International, and more recently TDV GmbH (RM). I think that a number of engineers were surprised to see this move by Bentley (at least I was), particularly given the perception that STAAD and RAM were major competitors. However, as I’ve learned a bit more about the company and what the direction of the structures group appears to be in, it has become clear that they have in place a remarkable suite of structural applications. What’s more, they are position themselves to provide software for virtually any structure type or size. Along the way of polishing the elements to build this toolbox, they are integrating all of them so they are better equipped to work in the future world of Building Information Modeling, which is the new hotness in the construction and engineering world.

So, let me back up a bit and explain how I got here.

Though I have to admit it felt at first like taking a long shot at the time, I sent out some resumes to some engineering software firms to gauge their interest in hiring a structural engineer to work remotely. I was pleased when two companies, including Bentley, were interested. I did my best to learn all I could about the positions and products of both (I have been a career user of the products now in Bentley’s line, though). After learning more about what they had in mind for both their software and this position, I realized that this was indeed the correct career path for me. To put another way, I believe that while both are excellent positions, I wanted the job I felt was not just a good fit for me but a great one.

It is a bit daunting to leave behind a career in design, but at this point it really feels like the natural background for the work I’ll be doing in the future, rather than a total career change. The knowledge in design and working in a consulting office will be indispensable as a technical writer as well as to serve as a liaison between engineering clients and software programmers; getting to talk to them about what they’d like our software to do and present to them how they can achieve that.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about being so apprehensive about total life changes. Well, when this job came together, something inside me clicked and everything just felt right. It’s not most people’s idea of a dream job to work mostly at home writing and talking about engineering software, but it kind of is mine. I’m genuinely excited about the work I’ll be doing as well as the company I’ll be doing it for; one that really seems to be providing a great set of applications and is moving the industry forward in terms of technology and how to benefit designers.

Also, for the first time in my life, being a nerd isn’t a social drawback; it’s a lifestyle and a marketable skill set.


Fame: Is It Any Wonder I Reject You First

Some of you are well aware of how much I use obsess over Newsvine (a news writing and link-blog site). Recently, one of the sites more prolific users, Mykola Bilokonsky, did e-mail interviews with a handful of other users. I was surprised that he asked me but I got a real kick out of answering his questions about Newsvine, science, work, and fatherhood. So, if you’re interested, please read the full thing here.

Excel Printing Hack

When using Microsoft Excel, you can print only the sheets you want by selecting their tabs at the bottom of the sheet (all at once) and hitting print. This way, if you just need the first three tabbed sheets of a 30 tab spreadsheet, you can do so without having to click each tab individually and then click print. Works on the Windows version of Excel. Anyone care to test it on the Mac version of Office and let me know?

Basement Stairs

The basement stairs project was this past weekend and it ended up being a complete success. Angela and I are both really happy in how they turned out. I don’t really want to write a play by play, but I thought I would at least write some about what we did and what all I learned.

Basement Stair - Circa 1938The New Stairs

Johnny and I had purchased all the lumber and planned out what we’d do the previous weekend, which helped save some time and energy for really getting down to the business of building. My biggest worry and the main reason I had put off doing this for so long (I’ve been talking about these stairs since the first day we moved in) was that I knew it would be very important to replace them in a single weekend. If I couldn’t finish before Monday morning, I’d end up going several days with no stairs (inside) down to the basement: where the laundry is. That would mess up the flow of things around the house and be otherwise pretty dangerous. So, doing all the planning and materials purchasing in advance made a big difference and I’m going to try and spread out my projects similarly in the future.

The Old Staircase (RIP)

Demo didn’t really take very long. I probably took longer to haul all this up at the end of day one.

We got started about 9:00 am on Saturday and surprisingly, demolition of the old staircase took less than 30 minutes. The entire thing was connected to the structure of the house by no more than four 10d nails. Two of which were nailed upwards into the framing from below such that weight on the stairs tends to just pull them right back out, which is exactly what had happened. So, in reality, for the past 68 years, two toe-nails have been keeping this whole assembly up. As an engineer, I can tell you that there’s really no mathematical reason for that to actually work. Dumb luck and some sort of wedging friction combined to prevent anyone from being seriously hurt for far longer than is really sensible.

Even though it stretches what the building code allows for, we used one of the existing stringers as a template to cut the three new ones by. This saved us loads of time and headaches. Those stringers weren’t perfect (and at 42.8°, really steep), but they were fairly regular and square. I drilled the corner at each tread-to-riser intersection to help cut down on over-cut. We just used a circular saw and a jig saw to cut the entire set of stringers and paid close attention to getting everything right. We ended up with all the framing members cut and ready to hang by around lunch-time.

Base Connection Detail

Base connection detail

The next step was the bottom support assembly. I decided to use a fence-post base that had a threaded rod for height adjustment. This would provide a really solid base connection, something substantial to frame everything into, and most importantly, would allow us to raise the whole base up off the wet basement floor. Of course, this required drilling holes in the concrete floor slab to accept the anchor bolts. I bought a 3/4″ ∅ bit for just this purpose but we quickly discovered (actually about 15 arm-numbing minutes and 1/2″ later) that my hammer drill simply wasn’t powerful enough to drill that size hole 3″ into concrete. We went over to the hardware center to rent a real drill: a Hilti commercial hammer drill. The least amount of time they’ll rent one is four hours. We drilled the two holes in about three minutes. It actually took longer at the rental counter than it did to do the work. Money well spent, in my opinion. The "epoxy" I used was actually a Simpson acrylic adhesive specifically for this application. It is fast setting (less than 25 minutes at room temperature) and will likely survive a direct nuclear strike on the house.

Awaiting Treads and Risers

Framing complete

After getting all the framing work assembled, we called it a day. We spent a lot of time fitting everything up before final assembly and although that (along with two trips to pick-up and return the drill) burned up our afternoon, it paid off in having everything fit together well once we did start hammering nails.


Stair Tread

Rounded stair tread detail.

The next morning, we started to work on the treads and risers. Johnny had brought over his router and was able to add a nice rounded edge to all the tread nosing. That is the sort of stuff you’ll actually notice when you look at the stair and even though it probably added an hour or so total, it was time well spent. The final result is a really great looking set of stairs that we were able to walk up for a late lunch around two o’clock.


Handrail Attachment Detail

Handrail connection detail.

We visited our friend David’s house to borrow his miter saw to cut the ends of the handrail plumb. Again, just detailing for aesthetics, but the end result looks much nicer. We spent the remaining time put the handrail up. The first part of that was to build an assembly onto the steel column at the base of the stairs. We used a step bit to drill into the steel flanges to accept three lag-screws. This took a lot less time than I had figured on and the end result looks nice and is incredibly solid (oh yeah, be sure and use cutting oil or you’ll probably just end up welding the bit into the steel). The rest of the handrail surprised us by just how difficult it was to mount. Finding wall studs in a heavily plastered wall is nearly impossible, but we managed to only drill a couple of extra pilot holes. It was the oak handrail itself that was the biggest trouble. After two days of working with relatively soft Southern yellow pine, that oak was like trying to drive a screw into steel or concrete. Actually, worse since both of those went much faster! We did manage to get everything together just in time for when Angela arrived back home.

I finished up the light I installed in the stairwell and now I just need to do some final cleaning up. All in all, a great weekend project. I owe Johnny O. a great deal, as I couldn’t have done it without him. Here’s my idea for a credit card commercial, by the way:

  • Lumber and materials: $230
  • Hardware and tools: $65
  • Equipment rental: $42
  • Having a friend who actually wants to help build a staircase: priceless.

Challenger Incident at Twenty

Twenty years ago today, the U.S. space program suffered what was, at that time, it’s greatest tragedy to date. The Shuttle Challenger exploded in a both glorious and horrible shower of flames shortly after lift-off. Aboard were seven explorers, some military, some scientists or engineers, and one school teacher selected to take part in a remarkable program to bring space exploration closer to school children across the country. It was because of that last individual that so many of my generation were watching this, of all the shuttle launches at the time, so closely.

I remember my Mom telling my I had a phone call from my good friend Brian, who knew my love for all things space and science. After a short hello, he blurted out "the space shuttles blown up." I misunderstood him, thinking that he was telling me that they had simply gone up into space, as usual, just as we had grown to taking for granted. The modern miracle of man leaving his terrestrial home to explore the rest of everything. He quickly corrected me that no, it had exploded and no one knew why.

So many of today’s children get called generation 9/11. My generations first exposure to the fragile nature of man and that all of us; all of us, are fallible was the picture of the country’s greatest technological marvel bursting into a fireball.

The Space Shuttle program, as I grew up to learn, was riddled with problems and errors. It became, literally, a textbook example of engineers falling short of their duty to keep the public safe from harm no matter the political or economic cost. It is a painful memory for a boy who truly believed astronauts to be the best that humanity had to offer the universe. It was also painful as an adult to see just how little we had learned since then when Columbia broke apart over the Western U.S. upon re-entry.

I’ll always believe that space exploration is important to humanity. However, we must overcome so much of our flaws in order to pursue it.