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.