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. []

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