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.